The Australian singer-songwriter on collaborating with Kurt Vile on a new album, her mixed feelings about Instagram and why her love life is integral to her work.
Courtney Barnett is an Australian singer-songwriter based in Melbourne.
She is known for her critically acclaimed releases The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas(2013) and debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit(2015).
Over in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Kurt Vile is the former lead guitarist of the War on Drugs; he has released six solo albums including Smoke Ring for My Halo (2011).
Together they have collaborated on the album Lotta Sea Lice, out now on Matador/Marathon Artists/Milk!.
How did you and Kurt meet?
We kept bumping into each other on tours and festivals, and we became friends over music and movies and TV and just making stupid jokes – we both have a similar sense of humour.
How did the project come about?
He emailed me one day out of the blue and said he had a song in mind he thought would work as a duet, or with my voice.
So the next time he was in Australia we booked a studio and just started from there, with one song, then another song. We definitely didn’t have a clear idea at the start.
We just trusted our guts, and whatever felt like the best option for the song was what normally won out. It wasn’t too ego-heavy.
What are the differences in the way you approach music?
I think it’s quite similar – we both have some of the same little writing paranoias. But I have noticed since knowing him that he keeps on creating stuff constantly, and that’s where we differ.
I tend to stand back and wait until something seems perfect, which is never, so it takes me a lot longer to get things done. But every time I text him he’s either on tour or in the studio, which I find really inspiring.
It seems like the third presence is [Barnett’s partner] Jen Cloher: she’s the support act on tour and there’s a cover of one of her songs. What’s her influence on the album?
A lot. She’s just a huge constant influence. We’ve been together for six years or so, so I think everything I do is influenced by Jen. We run the Milk! record label together in Melbourne, and I play guitar in Jen’s band, so we’re touring next year for her new album.
You’ve said that you and Jen fell in love to the Kurt Vile album Smoke Ring for My Halo. Why do you think music is so good at capturing particular times in our lives?
It’s such a strong force. We forget sometimes that music really shapes so many memories because we get used to it being there – music’s everywhere, like in the supermarket – so you just kind of ignore it.
But the nostalgic side of it is that it gets implanted in those memories, no matter how good or bad the music is [laughs]. If it relates to an important part of your life, it’s always going to affect you in whatever way that moment did. That’s pretty cool.
Do you get people telling you about what your music reminds them of in their lives?
Yeah, and I love hearing those stories because it affects everyone so differently. Every now and then a couple will be, like: “We got together to your music” or “We met at your show”. Or some people say they were going through a really hard time when they happened to come across the music and it helped them through stuff. It’s nice to be reminded of how powerful music can be, especially when you have moments of thinking, what’s the point of writing it?
On the tour in America you’ll be donating $1 from every ticket to the American Civil Liberties Union. Why is their work important to you?
It’s always important, but especially in the last year, everything just gets worse and worse. It’s easy to feel helpless and hopeless and completely lost in this weird, fucked-up world.
It’s hard, because it feels like most people who listen to my music will probably be of a like-minded persuasion, so am I just preaching to that choir? But I know I constantly need encouragement from people I admire, so it’s nice to know there’s a whole lot of people fighting for the right thing.
On the album you talk about the challenges of keeping intercontinental friendships going. What are your tips?
[Laughs] Erm, I don’t feel like I’m very good at it most of the time – all you can do is stay in touch as best you can. I stopped using Facebook years ago, but I just email everyone, send photos.
The social media world is weird because you kind of feel you have nothing left to say – it’s like, “Didn’t you see my post? Don’t you know I’ve been on holiday?” I’ve had weird moments when you catch up with someone and you sit down to tell each other your stories, but you already know everything because you’ve seen it on Instagram. But then it’s nice to see what your friends are doing.
Continental Breakfast has the most wholesome rock video ever. Are you at a time in your life when you’re embracing domesticity?
We were trying to capture the idea of not being on tour, and being around family and friends who are basically family. I like a balance – I’ve always been a bit of a homebody, but I also love travelling.
In the artwork you play off the fact that you and Kurt seem to have quite similar fashion styles – do you share tips on haircare and clothes?
Ha, not at all. We decided on the black and white, yin and yang thing, but we didn’t overthink it too much – I think we’re both pretty casual.