Thao and The Get Down Stay Down plays Wonder Ballroom on March 25. Read our interview with Thao Nguyen about her personal and daring new album.
Australia is typically (well, stereotypically) known for kangaroos, surfing and boomerangs, but one may be surprised by the vast musical talent that the continent regularly exports, and the phenomenal Courtney Barnett is no exception. While U.S. radio may grace your speakers with a regular run of tracks “Avant Gardner” and “History Eraser,” Courtney is anything but a stereotype.
Back in 2010, Barnett’s first garage grunge project titled Rapid Transit released a self-titled cassette album, and if that sounds like the makings of a Portlander, it was just the beginning of a string of DIY and personal-explorations/creations to come. In 2011 Courtney made another Portland connection, befriending Brent DeBoer of The Dandy Warhols and launching psych country band Immigrant Union. (DeBoer would later play drums on Barnett’s first EP.)
Keeping the do-whatever-feels-right mentality alive, Barnett created indie label Milk! Records and released her own EP I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris, which received warm reviews. While continuing to work a bar in Hobart, AUS and arranging additional releases on her label, Courtney cobbled together her next EP, How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose. While Got A Friend had shake, Carve A Carrot was an earthquake both locally and abroad. Her latest release was the combination of the two EPs released in May of 2013, but she’s been sitting on a full-length recorded in April of this year, due out early 2015.
In the meantime, Courtney and bandmates Bones Sloane (bass), Dave Mudie (drums) and Dan Luscombe (lead guitar) have been touring with ferocity. Anyone who caught one of the band’s two amazing sets at Pickathon this year made a point to see them again at the Wonder Ballroom on November 1 co-headling with Sam Fermin. Judging by the crowd response and small migration after her set, it was obvious that people were most interested in one act: The gritty, honest energy shots delivered by the empyreal lyric doctor Courtney Barnett.
Though last month’s appearance was Courntey’s first ever visit to Portland, she felt a natural level of comfort here. When your interests are creating conversation through artistic outlets like illustration, photography and writing, I suppose it’s hard not to feel at home in Portland. ELEVEN elaborated on these sentimental feelings over a drink with Courtney in the sub-level of the venue, prior to her wonderful showing.
ELEVEN: Courtney, earlier this year you played one of my all-time-favorite festivals. Did you enjoy your experience at Pickathon?
Courtney Barnett: I thought it was an amazing festival. Every festival is kind of different [either] city or forest-y or on a farm and Pickathon was just a very memorable place. It was good vibes. The setting and the mood that the setting seemed to create. Everyone was in a really positive and friendly mood. The atmosphere was good. It makes a huge difference [compared to] a total rock and roll thing where everyone is taking lots of drugs and trying to bash each other up and shit. No one likes that kind of atmosphere.
11: What are some of your other favorite festivals to play?
CB: We’ve kind of only done festivals [for the first time] this year. Coachella was amazing because it’s in the middle of a desert and it was just beautiful out there. We got to stay in Joshua Tree, away from the festival. It was very cool. It was one of the first festivals we’d ever done. It was really huge and I think it made it extra special because of where we stayed. We really got to spend some time away from all the people and just kind of look out across the nothingness, climb a couple of mountains and looked over the hills.
11: Looking back a couple years, when did the transition occur in your mind that being a musician could be a full time professional gig?
CB: Well, technically it would be from February of this year. We started to do a lot more touring and international touring and I had to quit my bar job because I was going to be away. Up until then I considered myself a musician but it’s a different kind of career, a lot of the arts, obviously, because you have to balance it somewhere else to get more living money to be able to keep creating art and doing what you like to do. At the moment, that’s where I’m at. *laughs* It’s fun.
11: Do you feel like it’s your calling?
CB: *laughs* Maybe for now. It is what it is, maybe in five years I’ll be working another job.
11: What are some of your other hobbies if music ends up not being your forever-career?
CB: Well, I’ve always made music. I do a lot of visual artwork, illustration, photography kind of stuff. That’s my main stuff. I just write a lot. I write a lot of songs, poetry, short story type stuff. Doing stuff. Making things. *laughs*
11: And now you’re putting out albums, with 2013’s A Sea of Split Peas, right?
CB: We put out the double EP. We recorded another album which we’re going to release early next year.
11: Has it been easy to integrate new songs into the mix with how much you’re writing?
CB: I’m kind of always writing, but I’ve started writing [more] new stuff anyway. This album has taken ages to get out because we’ve been touring so much so it’s been hard to do all the planning shit that goes around the album release. We recorded in April… so it’s been a while. But yeah, I’m already thinking about the next album *laughs* … and the one after that!
11: Do you have a lot in the vault for those or is it a process?
CB: It’s ongoing. I definitely don’t have any songs…*thinks* I’ve got a couple of little songs that have been floating around that haven’t made it on to any albums, just because they don’t seem to fit somewhere correctly, but most things are brand new. The album that is about to come out, I pretty much wrote [within] the last year while I was touring.
11: Now that you’ve been getting more and more attention, what are the biggest challenges in transitioning into the world of (maybe borderline) celebritydom? Or has it all been fun and games?
CB: I find it all a bit weird. When someone seems to think that I’m any more special than anyone else, that’s a kind of weird concept that I don’t know how to deal with, really. I find it hard to be away from home a little bit, because I’ve never really travelled [so much] away from friends and girlfriend and family and normal stuff. That’s the biggest thing, but [at the same time] it’s kind of nice, people connecting with your music and talking to you and all that stuff. Not too many creepy people.
11: Ha, let’s keep it that way. With a style based in singer/songwriter folk rock and influences like Nirvana and Hendrix, which can be more pure or basic, where does technology meet your music? How much of a part does it play in what you do?
CB: It doesn’t play a part in the creative side for me, [I just] write and play on whatever I have around, but for the other side of it, the sharing [on] the internet… I remember when I was in primary school and got shown the internet when it started or whatever, and to look at how I’ve released my music and kind of did it myself because I just saw that… I’m not saying that it’s so easy, but the possibility is there to reach so many people. It’s kind of crazy, it’s kind of weird. Facebook and stuff like that, it’s kind of creepy that someone can put up a video and then within five minutes, a billion jillion, however many people share it…
11: And there’s so much noise to sort through, too.
CB: It’s completely overwhelming. I don’t even know how people discover new music. I’m still listening to John Lennon songs that I’ve never heard before. I don’t even know how people are up with the new hip fucking bands, I can’t keep up with that stuff.
11: Even though it’s tough, are there any that you’ve found that you’re digging on right now?
CB: There’s a couple Australian bands I like. Total Control, is this kind of punk [band], I think they are on their second album, and this band Dick Diver that I like. *laughs* Again, I always hear stuff and people show me stuff and I’ve got a slow memory.
11: What is the question you least like getting asked?
CB: I don’t think there’s any particular question, it’s just the way they are asked that can be frustrating. The “music or the lyrics first?” question can be frustrating but only because I think I don’t know how to answer it probably.
11: It’s an evolution, too though, right?
CB: Yeah. They both happen at the same time but they come together at a different time so it’s a confusing back-to-front scenario. *laughs* Yeah.
11: Are we going to get you back to Portland in 2015?
CB: I hope so. I sure hope so. It’s funny because I’ve got so many friends who I’ve met in Melbourne who used to live here or have lived here and moreso than anywhere in the world, everyone just goes on and on about it, so it’s nice to finally come here and see what it’s like. »
– Richard Lime