Courtney Barnett • Artist of the Week
Debbie Downers and Elevator Operators: The Rock n’ Roll World
Courtney Barnett is a name to know. The 26 year-old Australian singer-songwriter from Melbourne exploded onto the scene with her performance at CMJ Music Marathon in New York in the fall of 2013. I just happened to be at that show. As the small audience at Glasslands in Brooklyn watched this unknown singer/guitarist from Australia shred it up as an opener for Yuck, it became clear that the future of rock was transpiring before our eyes.
Mitchell: Didn’t know that. Very kewl. Was that when you got a press pass?
Stephanie: Yes, that was a sneaky move on my part.
Mitchell: We should keep this in the article. Very sneaky indeed.
Barnett’s witty lyrics and grungy style have heralded widespread critical acclaim. Rolling Stone called her one of the best songwriters of our generation. Her sound is saturated with 90s grunge nostalgia, yet presented in a way that is refreshing and new. Barnett is quirky, self-aware and even a bit shy, but when she has a guitar in her hand, she transforms into an unabashed rock goddess. Check out her performances on KEXP or any other live video. Her stage presence is pure rock and roll.
Barnett’s 2013 release Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas made a splash with the hip indie crowds of Brooklyn and LA and received a considerable amount of college radio play. Tracks like “Avant Gardener” and “History Eraser” showcase her uncanny ability to transform the banal routine of everyday life into a surreal world of characters and storylines. Barnett’s acerbic, straight-forward lyrics are reminiscent of songwriting greats like Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. And there is a raw power to her music radiating from her left-handed guitar much like– dare I say it– Kurt Cobain. In all, there is a “relatability” to her music that I haven’t quite felt before.
Her most recent release, 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit, takes her music to the next level, relying on Barnett’s newfound confidence as a musician to delve into more mature themes.
“Elevator Operator” is a perfect example of this. The song is actually about a friend of hers who likes to take the elevator at work to the top floor of the building and stand on the ledge of the roof for fun. She documents one particular encounter when an elderly woman thinks the guy is about to jump. The woman says, “Don’t jump little boy / Don’t jump off that roof / You’ve got your whole life ahead of you / you’re still in your youth. The guy responds, “I’m not suicidal, just idlying insignificantly.”
“Overworked and under-sexed, I must express my disinterest” is one of my favorite lines in “Pedestrian at Best,” the second track on Sometimes. I recall hearing this tune for the first time on NPR’s All Songs Considered. Bob Boilen kicked off the episode with it and I was instantly hooked. The guitar sounds are huge and distorted, and the loud/soft dynamics recalls something out of an early Pixies tune. At the same time, the lyrics are playful and quintessential Barnett in that they’re self-deprecating, funny and wise all at once.
Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you / Tell me I’m exceptional and I promise to exploit you / Give me all your money and I’ll make some origami honey!”
“Erroneous, harmonious, I’m hardly sanctimonious / dirty clothes I suppose we all outgrow ourselves / I’m a fake I’m a phony I’m awake I’m alone I’m homely I’m a Scorpio”
Stephanie: The only thing I can’t relate to there is that I’m actually a Pisces, not a Scorpio.
Mitchell: I like to think of myself as a sanctimonious guy. That’s usually something I say on a first date.
Stephanie: That’s a sacrosanct statement for a first date.
“An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” is one of my favorites from Sometimes and not necessarily because it’s one of the best songs from the album, but because I so intimately relate to it. I’ve been to many “art-deco necromantic chic, all the dinner plates are kitsch” apartments in Brooklyn. Sleeplessness pervades any New York life and Barnett gets it right with her explanation of “staring at the wall / Counting the cracks backward in my best French.”
“Depreston” is simply marvelous. A delicate tune about saving money on latte’s and moving to the suburbs. Textbook Barnett.
“Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party” is a song I wish I had heard in college. It would have been fun to repeat the mantra “I wanna go out, but I wanna stay home” on those weekday nights when I spent all evening slugging growlers of Drop-In, deciding whether or not I wanted to watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report or get drunk and skip my classes the next morning. Clearly, a difficult decision.
There’s a party-kid sensibility to all of Barnett’s tunes, but often it functions as merely an excuse for her to rock-out while contemplating the difficulty of insignificant problems, the loneliness of significant others and the petty reality that we all seem to live in. In “Dead Fox” from Sometimes she begins the song complaining about her roommate’s insistence that they buy only organic vegetables: “Never having too much money, I get the cheap stuff at the supermarket / But they’re pumped up with the shit.” The chorus bellows: “If you can’t see me, I can’t see you.” A truism if I’ve ever heard one.