Courtney Barnett and a personal tale of musical redemption when all seemed lost for Getintothis’ Rick Leach.
Courtney Barnett didn’t save my life, not really.
I wasn’t struggling to swim in an overflowing creek deep in the Australian bush, drowning not waving, and up she popped out of nowhere, dragging my limp and lifeless body to shore whereupon I gasped my eternal thanks.
She didn’t pull me out of a burning car wreck on the M62 or rescue me, Deadpool-style from a bunch of crazed muggers intent on robbing me blind and/or kicking the living shit out of me.
There was none of that – although it might have made for an interesting tale.
No, it was something a lot more prosaic, but for a music fan, something pretty close. Courtney Barnett singlehandedly restored my faith in and love for music.
It’ll probably be better if I start at the beginning and way back in May 2014.
Way back then, in the mists of time and way before I started writing for Getintothis (a simpler time, for sure). I’d reached a turning point as far as music was concerned. Maybe not so much a turning point but more of a cul-de-sac. And it wasn’t just me.
I’d been talking with friends for the past eighteen months or so who were into music and we were all saying and feeling that there wasn’t really much new or much worth recommending.
We all toyed with the idea of different artists, of newly raved-about albums and tracks and of new bands that seemed to be mentioned whenever cutting edge or fresh seemed to be in the air, but nothing seemed to hit the mark.
We all were kind of reduced to listening to The Ramones first album again and again and gradually coming to the same conclusions that we were all getting too old and/or popular music had run its course. There didn’t seem to be anything new under the sun.
The only options were going down the most obscure route possible and finding stuff that no-one had heard before or getting into genres of music that we’d all previously discounted. I even dipped a toe into opera. There was a horrible and creeping realisation that we’d probably never get excited about any new music ever again.
It was something that was probably always going to happen, but too difficult to contemplate. Without being too over-dramatic (a bit dramatic but,) it brought visions of our own mortality into sharp relief. This was it; no more phones calls or texts saying, ‘Have you heard of …’ or ‘You just have to listen to this album, it’s fantastic!’ No more CDs, mixtapes or memory sticks with new music on and no waiting to see if what you personally thought was good was actually rubbish. We’d all end up buying Classic Rock magazine and turning into the musical equivalent of Caravan Clubbers.
This wasn’t the usual a-bit-bored-of- music thing; the phases that we all go through every now and again. I’d gone from a world of full colour to one comprised of nothing but different shades of of grey.
I really thought that this was it. Me and music had our time in the sun. It was time to part after nearly over forty years of Top of the Pops, Radio 1, Sounds, NME, Melody Maker, glam, prog, metal, punk, post-punk, soul, funk, jazz, electronica, avant-garde noise- the whole works.
It was quite odd because deep down I was always hoping there’d be something around the corner. Maybe that thing was Glastonbury because I did have a ticket to go that year and had been holding on since the previous October, yet my interest in music had been waning inexorably since then.
However, one Friday morning in May, a bit out of the blue, the line-up for 2014 was announced.
I was pottering around the house, doing a bit of ironing (a very rock ‘n’ roll thing) and the news popped up that the line-up was out. I nearly dropped the iron on my foot and stuck the internet on to see who was going to be playing and who we were going to be watching that year.
Emily Eavis had done a bit of defensive interview, a Q & A really, which was posted up on the Glastonbury website. In it she mentioned specifically the lack of clear and obvious headliners and mentioned something along the lines about ‘it not all being about the headline acts’.
Of course she was totally right, so right that it barely warrants a mention.
What struck my attention was that she talked about the ‘exciting artists that (she) was looking forward to seeing that were playing on the smaller stages … such as Courtney Barnett’.
Now, I’d seen the name on the line-up, but it hadn’t clicked with me at all. For some reason, I’d thought that “Courtney Barnett” was some sort of dreadful, derivative, white-dreadlocked, British soul-jazz chancer and I’d just skipped over the name. I had them marked down as a lesser sort of Newton Faulkner, if that is at all possible.
Why then, I mused as I poured myself a coffee, is Emily Eavis raving about them so much? And then, in some sort of road to Damascus moment, the penny dropped. A dim light bulb went off over my head.
Courtney Barnett wasn’t British, nor was she/he (even that point was unclear to me) some sort of naff poetry soul jazzer; she (I remembered now!), was a hotly tipped Australian singer. Where had I heard of her? What bells were ringing faintly in my coffee addled memory?
I looked at the dog. ‘Oscar,’ I said, ‘What do you know about Courtney Barnett?’ He wagged his tail enthusiastically. I took this as a good sign. ‘Well, I’ve no idea. What do you think?’ He barked excitedly.
Either he had become a very astute music critic or he thought he was getting something to eat. He was that happy that I couldn’t disappoint him, so I buckled and he ended up with a treat. That was all he needed. His interest in Courtney Barnett had rapidly waned with the mere promise of a gravy bone. I tried asking him again, but he was preoccupied.
It seems more than daft at this moment to admit this, but back in May 2014 I was becoming so estranged from music after a lifetime of nothing but it, that I really hadn’t a clue what was going on. I’d not been to a gig for ages and couldn’t be arsed with it all.
Yet Emily Eavis had singled her out as someone to look out for. I don’t normally think that the artists she raves about are the same ones I like – Muse being a perfect example, and I’d bet she personally didn’t like The Fall very much, and I don’t suppose it matters at all – but something told me that I should give this Courtney Barnett lass a bit of chance.
I had a brief look on Wikipedia, just to gain an idea, but again, Wikipedia being fairly neutral, I was kind of at a loss. I was then down to YouTube and played what Wikipedia had told me was her big hit single from 2013, Avant Gardener.
I clicked on the track and sat there open-mouthed.
How the fuck had I missed this? How the actual fuck? 2013? What had I been doing? Was I that disconnected from things? This was beyond brilliant. This is what I had been waiting for. And more.
But at that moment, a mere thirty seconds or so into Avant Gardener, I had both a eureka moment and a massive sense of relief.
It was superb and simply just a brilliant song.
The words; dry, wry, self-effacing and full of humour, were like a breath of fresh air. The music was classically good. Classically good in the same way you could describe Mahler’s 1st Symphony. The two things together were a perfect fit that seemed just so right. It was hearing something that worked so well. I’ve listened to enough music (too much music, my wife would say say), over the past 40-odd years to know what works and this worked so fine.
Instinctively I knew this was something special. I felt like Jon Landau, writing about Springsteen; “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen”. Well, I’d just heard Courtney Barnett, and I felt the same. My faith in music had been restored and I wasn’t facing the rest of my life listening to the same old stuff – good as it is – over and over again.
Now I understood that there was a faint chance that Avant Gardener would be a sort of a one-off and the other songs she had recorded would pale somewhat in comparison, so it was with a slight sense of trepidation that I listened to some more.
But I wasn’t disappointed at all. Far from it. I caught up with her first two six track Australian releases were compiled for international release as The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. It truly is a magnificent thing and although it is simply a couple of EP’s stuck together, it’s was good as any record, any album I’d ever heard. I was bowled over. Slack-jawed and open-mouthed.
The ironic thing-the very ironic thing to be honest- was that the night before she’d played Sound City 2014 and by all accounts, including our one on Getintothis– she’d given a stellar performance at The Zanzibar. If only I’d been bothered to keep going to gigs and persevered with music then I could have been there less than 12 hours earlier! Ah well, a lesson learned. Seize the day etc.
I spend the next few weeks listening to The Double EP over and over again, marvelling at it and not getting bored one iota. The only person who got royally bored was my son who was going to Glastonbury with me and got fed up with me going on and on about it.
He’d fallen asleep by the Park Stage at Glastonbury on a blazing hot day while we waited for Courtney Barnett to make an appearance. I shook him awake as she walked onto the stage.
‘Here’s Courtney Barnett,’ I said. ‘Wake up!’
‘It’s Courtney Barnett. On stage now! Get up.”
‘She had better be worth it,’ he muttered as he grumpily got to his feet. I didn’t say anything, but the thought crossed my mind as well. Maybe those dozen tracks on the EP were all she could come up with; maybe in a live setting she’d be a bit of let-down. A Phantom Menace Syndrome.
It was just a little over ten minutes later when I watched what was possibly one of the greatest gigs that I’ve ever seen. There was no spectacular light show, no lasers, no mass-audience sing-a-long, no lighters in the air, no crowd surfing, but it didn’t need that. This is the point, the exact point, when it struck me that I had seen the equivalent of Dylan at Newport in 65. No-one was running around with an axe and trying to cut the power to the stage but for me, it was definitive proof that Courtney Barnett was truly special. I felt like punching the air in delight.
The humour, intelligence, wit, wordplay and melody that was evident on record shone through even more strongly that afternoon. Just as one song finished and I thought that she couldn’t possibly top it, then she did.
It wasn’t one of those gigs that was structured like a carefully crafted mix-tape where you start it off with a bang, let it drop slightly and build it back to the end. No, this was all at random, every track just shuffled together, but it didn’t matter one jot because they were all so good. I looked round to Thomas and he gave me a massive thumbs-up sign. He had a big grin on his face, as did many of the crowd. I think it dawned on everyone that we witnessed something quite remarkable that afternoon.
A special moment.
And since then Courtney Barnett has given me lots of special moments and continually restored my faith in music.
A great debut album, one of my now favourite records of all time, up there with, oh I don’t know, The Fall’s Dragnet or Coltrane’s A Love Supreme or Prince’s Sign of the Times or…whatever…it’s up there. Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit is way up there.
What else? What other things can I rave about?
Ah well- how about a Good Friday, a very good Friday in 2015 when I trooped down the M62 to to see her play Manchester’s Gorilla.
As a measure of how much she’d reinvigorated my love for music, not only was I going to a gig but making an effort by travelling 35 miles or so down the road on a Bank Holiday. A sea-change for someone who couldn’t be bothered nipping into town 12 months earlier.
I hoped that it would be good. I hoped that it would be even half as good as her Glastonbury set had been.
There’s always a risk that when seeing anyone play live that you may end up disappointed, that things don’t exactly live up to expectations and you may end up feeling a bit let down. Or in extreme cases, leaving the gig half way through. I haven’t done this many times, but I do remember a disastrous Killing Joke show in the mid 80’s when not just myself, but droves of others were heading for the exit three songs into their set.
It was therefore with this in mind that I got into the car early evening and headed off in the typical Bank Holiday rain to Manchester. Although I had said to Mrs L that the gig ‘would be fantastic’ and I was sure that it would be, there was a slight nagging doubt in the back of my mind that sometimes things don’t always go exactly to plan. It happens. People have off days, things don’t work out.
Maybe Courtney Barnett would be knackered having played so many gigs, maybe she wouldn’t feel like giving it too much on a Bank Holiday. Maybe a rainy miserable Manchester would be too much.
It’s enough to make the most optimistic person a tad grumpy at the best of times. Maybe with it being Easter and with Courtney and the band not being used to our “Northern” diet, they would have over done the sausage rolls, pies and hot cross buns and would simply feel like a good sit down instead of giving it loads on stage. You never know. There’s a myriad of things that could go wrong, I thought as I turned onto to the motorway with the new Courtney Barnett album playing away, but if I didn’t try, then I’d never know.
Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit had come out about two weeks earlier. I must have listened to it at least once every day. You know when you get a new record that you’ve been looking forward to for ages? You play it a lot for the first few days until you reach a point when you half-think that it’s ok, but maybe not as good as you first thought? You stick it on the shelf with all your other records, meaning to listen to it again at some undefined point in future? Probably later on in the year when you’re reminded you’ve actually got it when it appears in albums-of-the-year lists?
Well, occasionally, very occasionally, that doesn’t happen. Sometimes you really can’t get enough of it. One week, two weeks, three weeks a month or more goes past and you’re still playing it constantly, almost to the exclusion of everything else. You try to play something else but you keep getting drawn back to that record? That’s how it was turning out with that Courtney Barnett album. I couldn’t stop listening to it! I was staggered about how good it was. If this was her debut then what else was to come in the future?
This was another reason not to miss the gig and to see some of the songs played live. The timing worked perfectly. Although it was Good Friday and I might have expected the motorways to be busy, most people were heading north or south and not west to east. I managed to get from Liverpool to Manchester in just over 40 minutes and switched the engine off as the last note of the album finished. An auspicious sign.
Gorilla was crammed and packed to the gills. I guessed that the place had been booked ages before the buzz about Courtney Barnett and the new album had kicked in. That accounted for the amazingly low ticket price as well. Ten pounds! When was the last time you ever paid a tenner for a gig? Other dates on the tour had been bumped up to a larger venue, but I supposed that trying to find somewhere else bigger to play on a Friday night in Manchester and on a Bank Holiday weekend at that would have been too difficult.
Now here comes the thing.
Before the second support act, Spring King, came on at eight o’clock, I nipped outside to the smoking area, which was in reality was a small area underneath a railway arch at the back of the venue, fenced off with a tall corrugated iron fence. I stood under the dripping arch with a few other desperate souls (for all you non-smokers out there, I know it doesn’t sound especially enticing) and had a quick smoke. To my surprise, while I was standing there, wondering to myself if the support band was going to be any cop, Courtney Barnett and the band trooped out through the door to join us in our anti-social pastime.
Was I going to act really cool and ignore them or just half-nod in a sign of studied recognition, you know, just kind of let on, but no more? Was I fuck! I’d been going on so, so much about her being the “most exciting act that I’d heard for years” and “the heir to 60’s electric-era Dylan” that I couldn’t really let the chance to say pass me by. On that basis imagine how I’d feel in years to come telling people that I once stood next to Courtney Barnett and her band and never said a word because I was being “too cool”. Bollocks to that.
It is a bit odd though. What exactly do you say to someone who’s artistic work you admire without coming across as a bit of dickhead? Do you revert to the typical English thing and talk about the weather? Well, I didn’t, but as it was raining, I came pretty close.
I didn’t want to disturb their ciggie break too much, so I went over and mumbled something about thanking them for all the great music. (When I related this bit to my son later that night, he stuck his fingers in his ears, said that he didn’t want to hear any more and called me a “cringe-wanker”. A fair point, if a little rough.)
To their credit, Courtney Barnett and the band were very nice. She complemented me on the AC/DC hoodie I was wearing (I’d forgotten the Australian connection when I’d put it on that evening) and mentioned I’d seen them at Glastonbury, loved the new album and was persuading everyone I knew to get it. We all shook hands in a very un-rock and roll manner and they said they hoped I’d enjoy the show.
I should have done what others have do and got a photo on my phone but as I’m generally crap with such things, I’d have probably ended up with a shot of the back of my hand. So my brush with fame (of sorts). Something I’d probably never do again, with any other artist, even if I had the chance, but I’m glad I did. Courtney Barnett and the band seemed like very pleasant and humble people, not acting like “stars” at all. I think that even if she becomes massively commercially successful then she’d probably stay just like that. Sometimes people are just genuinely nice.
As I walked back inside, it struck me as strange that I was going to watch a band who probably were of the same age as my kids.
Maybe I was really getting to old for it all and I’d been listening to music for too long. Maybe it was time to give it all up and take up a hobby that was more suited to my age. Get an allotment or a shed or something. On the other hand, I was going to be seeing someone who I’d termed the “future of rock and roll.” Of course I wasn’t going to get a fucking shed!
I managed to get a spec right next to the very low stage, at the side rather than the front. This meant that although I wouldn’t be facing the stage, I would still have a pretty good view and have the added advantage of being able to lean against the barrier without getting crushed. Such things are important. Especially when you reach a certain age and the only essential thing you need at a gig is a packet of Werthers Originals.
Courtney Barnett and her band bounded on stage at spot on 9.00 p.m. (very professional) and launched into the first track of the (then) new album, Elevator Operator. The place was heaving by now and this was just the thing to get everyone- and I mean everyone- grinning along. 700-odd smiles and 1400- odd feet tapping. A room full of joyful happiness on a rainy Friday night in Manchester.
Possibly because I was so close to the stage, being only a foot or so away from where Courtney Barnett was, that I watched the whole gig from a perspective I’ve never really seen at any other show.
She was sort of stationed with her back to where I and a few others were standing – and in fact at one point was gracious enough to apologise for being rude and turning her back to us. (Bet you don’t get that from Kanye West or Mick Jagger.) What I did notice all the way through the gig were those interactions between the band, those smiles, winks and cues that you don’t always see when you’re either too far away or in the thick of it in the middle of the audience.
I figured that the sound would be heavier and thrashier than the but what surprised me was so precise all the playing was.
I guess that it’s easy to thrash away at a song, to flail away at it and it all can become a bit loose and unfocused. There was none of this here though. Courtney Barnett really let rip with her guitar, giving it some serious welly and hammering it as if it was something that needed to be tamed. It was like a fight between her and the Fender and as I watched it, I wasn’t sure who was going to come out on top. This is when the penny dropped for me (again). I was really seeing something very special indeed; something that I’d never seen at any gig at all. It’s hard to define it exactly.
Although it was, on the face of it, a rock gig with a three-piece band, (something I’ve seen hundreds of times before), there was something more, something undefinable and slightly intangible. I watched Courtney Barnett wrestle with that guitar. There were no histrionics, no clichéd rock guitar poses; I watched her face and she seemed for a few minutes totally oblivious to everything else. There was no-one in the room except for her and that song. It was a tight focus I’ve never seen anywhere else, a concentration that was all-consuming.
But before we knew it she was back in the room again with a grin for everyone and if you’ve never been to Preston, Lancashire, then you’d smile at the sheer absurdity of a few hundred people in Manchester singing along to a song about a suburb in Australia called Preston.
I did when everyone crooned along to Depreston. I haven’t the best singing voice by any stretch of the imagination and am only known to break into a tuneless crooning of You’ll Never Walk Alone when surrounded by thousands of others at the match.
But on this occasion, I let my guard down and joined in. Despite my voice, it was a magnificent moment and showed a genuine commonality between the “artist” and the “audience”; there were no barriers. This was true punk rock. Courtney Barnett seemed touched by it all as well and thanked everyone for a special moment. Who’d have thought it; a song about Preston bringing people together?
She was always going to play Avant Gardener. A sign of a great song is that despite listening to it a lot you don’t become bored with it in the slightest and remains as fresh the first time you hear it.
Even now it still brings a lump to my throat and a tear to my eye when she sings about the paramedic being ‘clever because she stops people dyin’’. It’s that Abide With Me Cup Final moment for me and even in the middle of a packed club, I found myself blinking unashamedly. That’s what music can and should do.
Seeing Courtney Barnett play Glastonbury twice in 2015; once at the Pyramid Stage and once at the tiny Williams Green tent mid-afternoon where, it should be said, she was a bit “tired and emotional.” A great gig and one to be remembered in part because at one moment she stumbled backwards, tripped over a monitor at the back of the stage and fell completely over, legs waving in the air like an upturned beetle. It was quite undignified yet in many ways it made me appreciate her even more, because something like that wasn’t going to put her off her stride. Someone backstage leapt up, pulled her to her feet and she carried on regardless as if it was nothing, grabbing the microphone and belting her way perfectly through the song. These Australians are made from pretty strong stuff.
An amazing album with Kurt Vile in 2017, one that made Getintothis’ (and many others) Albums of the Year lists.
An ability with words that transcends mere ‘pop music’, a dry and ready wit, a self-awareness that is at times frightening for one so young. A humour and a darkness that can co-exist in the same song and the in the same sentence of one song.
A promise of more to come. A lot more to come.
A new album due out this May, which is, I can assure you, both surprising and comforting and as astounding as her debut.
So much more.
And this is the (final) thing.
I do realise that this feature is a lot longer and a whole lot more personal than many others we publish. There’s not much critical or considered thinking in here nor is it a long-form overview of a career. There’s a risk that it might come across simply as an extended fan club letter. It possibly is. I’m not sure- it’s not for me to make that judgement
Maybe I should apologise for this. And yet…
We will all have that moment somewhere along the line, when music doesn’t seem that important or relevant or necessary. I truly believe that is inevitable.
For me, Courtney Barnett restored my faith in music when I thought it was all over. And for that I am grateful. Honestly.
For you, it could be Courtney Barnett or well…who knows? Anybody else. It doesn’t matter. Because there will be something just around the corner, some new music which stops you dead in your tracks and…how on earth did I miss THIS!
- Courtney Barnett’s Tell Me How You Really Feel is released May 18 by Marathon Artists/Milk! Records and will be reviewed in the next Getintothis Album Club.