Eccentric, wordy and spontaneous, confessional and sometimes inappropriate, charming and self-effacing, singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett seems the sort of artist who wouldn’t be up for a mainstream music award such as the Grammys’ Best New Artist.
Whether it’s a mark of the Grammys’ growing erudition or that Barnett’s genius is undeniable, the reluctant star was shortlisted for the award alongside the more mainstream James Bay, Meghan Trainor, Sam Hunt and Tori Kelly.
In Barnett’s world, the everyday details of life are just code for bigger concerns like a fear of dying, corporate greed and the damage we’ve done to the environment
There was something about the Australian native’s impressive debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (released March 20, 2015), that resonated not just with the Grammy voters but the listening public at large.
She’s one of the best storytellers since Jonathan Richman pushed out his “Roadrunner” down Route 128 “faster miles an hour.” Her keen, quirky observations, delivered in a flat, thick Australian accent, touched a chord in this post-Nirvana world, where seeming not to try signifies true authenticity and a soft-loud guitar is key when trying to blot out pain.
In her world, the everyday details of life — shopping for organic vegetables, figuring out where to stop for gas, looking for a house and finding out the last resident had died there, and most spectacularly her own asthma attack while gardening (during which she sings: “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ‘cause I play guitar. I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying”) — are just code for bigger concerns like a fear of dying, corporate greed and the damage we’ve done to the environment.
I don’t know quite who I am, but man, I am trying
The New York Post called Barnett “the next Bob Dylan,” while U.K.’s Independent said she is “the voice of a generation.” Songs such as “Small Poppies” show why, finding the musician in the grips of an existential crisis.
“I don’t know quite who I am, but man, I am trying,” she laments, recalling that angst-ridden quest for meaning of the ‘60s.
“I like Dylan, but I am not down with comparing that much. I am more of a Lou Reed girl than a Bob Dylan girl. I understand why people say that because I use lots of words, but lots of people do that.”
Barnett has said she didn’t grow up around music, but instead got her music education by borrowing tapes of Jimi Hendrix and Metallica. Her father, a stage manager, taught her Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” on guitar, and by the age of 10 she was writing songs.
She didn’t really have any immediate plans to become a musician; instead her heart was set on becoming a professional tennis player, competing in weekend tournaments until she was 16. After high school, she went to art school in Tasmania (she continues to design all her record sleeves and T-shirts), but dropped out after two years.
She spent the next few years in Melbourne, playing guitar in various bands (cover versions, garage rock, country) while working in a bar.
Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you
“I didn’t really sing until I was 19, just because it was so scary,” she says. “It’s such a personal kinda thing. When I finally found my own way of singing, I became a lot more comfortable and I didn’t have to worry so much about what I was doing. I could let it fall out.”
In fact, seven years later, she’s still getting used to it. Until two years ago she’d never traveled outside Australia, and she still finds it a little daunting to have an audience.
“It was very unexpected. I got used to not getting too excited, so when all these things started happening, I wasn’t ready for it. It was kinda strange.”
She was feeling uneasy and overwhelmed by “all the weird attention” she was getting at first, which inspired Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’s “Pedestrian at Best,” with the typically self-deprecating line “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.”
But perhaps the sentiments of that song are Barnett’s greatest strength. Like Bruce Springsteen and Conor Oberst before her, she is just like her fans, and in fact, almost a mirror for them, sharing the same uncertain future, shaky finances (Barnett only quit her job at Northcote Social a little over a year ago) and reluctance to embrace full adulthood.
At 27, a member of what is often referred to as the generation with the longest prolonged adolescence, Barnett writes songs that are largely autobiographical, but by threading her own overweening anxiety into them she’s made them relatable, anthemic even, for this not lost but temporarily misplaced generation.