The United States Of Courtney Barnett
Pushed hard by Pitchfork and other overseas press, Courtney Barnett arrived at New York’s CMJ Music Marathon to eager sell-out audiences. ADAM CURLEY was there to document it.
The notice taped to the warehouse utility door appears to mock the broad security guard lumped on a stool to the door’s left-hand side.
“We are so sold out it’s not funny,” the notice reads, followed at the bottom of the A4 page by a frowny face drawn in pen. But the message is sincere, as knows anyone who has attempted throughout the day to have their name added to the guest list of the party happening inside. A young woman in a black leather miniskirt approaches the door and the guard juts his arm out to block her. “You have a ticket?” he asks. She doesn’t, and soon she has her phone to her ear on the street corner, opposite a construction site for yet another slab of apartments on the northwest Brooklyn bank of the East River, speaking in pleading tones to the mid-October night.
Behind the door, past a second guard and three event staff with lists of names at the ready, Eleanor Friedberger of the New York rock duo The Fiery Furnaces is strumming elegiac songs on a stage at the back of a wide, brick-walled room. It’s just gone 8:30 – early for a Brooklyn party – but a crowd of 300 or so has already filled the venue. The crowd is here to watch a showcase hosted by Pitchfork as part of New York City’s annual music-industry conference, the CMJ Music Marathon. Friedberger is the first of seven to the stage, however, and many in attendance are preoccupied by their own conversations and by the $3 cans of Budweiser served in Dr Martens-branded coolers by flustered girls at a makeshift bar.
Many – but not all.
In the middle of the crowd, standing by the sound desk and dwarfed by those around her, is Melbourne songwriter Courtney Barnett. Next to Barnett is her manager, Nick O’Byrne, and the pair are giving Friedberger undivided attention. In 20 minutes, Barnett will herself be taking the stage with her band, playing ostensibly the most important gig of her life thus far.
Over the past four days of CMJ, which in 2013 claims 1,300 registered artists playing 1,700 shows across multiple venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn, Barnett has played seven showcases and recorded a handful of sets for radio. Only one day of the conference and one more show remain; the Pitchfork party, an unofficial CMJ event but a who’s-who of acts trumpeted by local and international media through the week, is the big one.
“The timing for Barnett’s live debut to US media and industry couldn’t be better.”
In August, Pitchfork gave Barnett a major introduction to US music audiences by featuring her single, the too-giddy-to-be-slacker-rock song ‘Avant Gardener’, in its Best New Tracks list. The website – considered by many to be the single most influential music publication in America – followed with a feature on Barnett in its Rising column a fortnight prior to CMJ, and many more blogs followed suit. The week of CMJ, Pitchfork awarded Barnett’s US release, a conglomeration of her first two EPs titled The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, a score of 7.8 out of 10.
The timing for Barnett’s live debut to US media and industry (she’s signed to House Anxiety Records in the UK but is without a US record deal) couldn’t be better. A music journalist who hasn’t been able to scratch his way onto the Pitchfork party guest list has messaged me: “You’re gonna see every 2013 buzz band in one night.” With the last-minute help of O’Byrne, I’m attending as the plus-one of Stuart Meyer, head of A&R at iconic Seattle record label Sub Pop.
Barnett nurses a beer, nods to O’Byrne when he leans down to comment over Friedberger’s music. Barnett’s drummer appears and gets a hug and a pat. Then her eyes are back on Friedberger. She holds her beer with two hands, squints ever so slightly under her woolly brown fringe, and keeps watch of the stage.
On the first morning of the conference, at 10am on a clear Tuesday, Barnett enacts a similar display of casual attentiveness inside a sixth-floor radio studio on the Lower East Side. It’s Barnett’s first CMJ engagement, a recording for BreakThru Radio, a digital station dedicated to playing independent artists. She sits in the studio’s cluttered live room as a woman in a Bowie T-shirt and a dishevelled young guy wield cameras in front of her. I sit in the control room, on a couch behind the engineer’s desk, with Barnett’s New York-based publicist, a brassy Australian named Grace Jones. In the elevator, Jones has told Barnett: “It’s not a live recording so, if for whatever reason you need to stop and start again, they can edit it.” But Barnett doesn’t stop, nor does she speak much during the setup and recording, other than to ask for a glass of water. After each song, the station’s director of video production, an older man with an eye on the clock, slides open the door to the live room to say, “OK, sounds great.”
“Cool,” Barnett says.
“Wanna move onto the next one?”
“What’s it called?”
“OK, ‘History Eraser’, take one.”
“She’s certain the highlight will be seeing squirrels for the first time.”
It would be possible to mistake Barnett’s nature for shyness or introversion. When CMJ is over, sitting on the grass in Central Park, the 25-year-old will say of the week that’s been: “I’m very quiet and I like to stay at home, so it’s been extra insane for me.” But there’s a calm to Barnett, a sense she feels there’s nothing much worth creating a fuss over. The inner-north Melbourne pubs she cut her teeth playing are populated by bands that expect to spend much of their musical lives lugging gear between venues, playing to a smattering of mates, packing up and drinking the menial amount of beer they’ve been allowed as a rider. When I meet Barnett and Jones in a café before the radio set, Barnett tells me this is her second overseas trip, following a holiday to New Zealand, and she’s certain the highlight will be seeing squirrels for the first time. She adds that, after New York, she’ll spend a few days playing shows in London and Paris.
Jones is happier to make a big deal of Barnett’s US incursion. Five minutes into our meeting, she tells a story. During a video shoot for the famed French blog La Blogotheque in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park the previous day, a strolling woman stopped and yelled, “Courtney? Courtney Barnett? Oh my God, I can’t wait to see you this week!” Jones widens her eyes. “A full-blooded American,” she says. “A real American. Lou Reed doesn’t even get recognised in New York.” When she tells me the story again, later in the week, she goes on to say that the only other client she’s seen cause such a reaction in fans in Canadian dance-pop songwriter Grimes.
The recording for BreakThru is the first time Jones has heard Barnett play live. It was Nick O’Byrne, Barnett’s Melbourne-based manager, who introduced Jones to Barnett’s recordings. “I listened to 10 seconds of one song and I was like, ‘I have to do this,’” she says on the couch. “Like, my life depended on it.” Barnett, Jones says, is in a good position for her CMJ run. Unlike the larger Texas conference South By Southwest, which has attracted criticism in recent years for becoming a vehicle for big-name comebacks and bands with major deals already in their pockets, there is business to be done at the Music Marathon. (On the Wednesday of the conference, the company behind CMJ also makes the news when it’s hit with a $1 million lawsuit as a result of a failed business merger, though talk of the suit is scarce amongst delegates.)
Nick O’Byrne is due to meet Barnett and her band at a rehearsal studio later in the day. He’s in meetings, leaving Jones to ferry Barnett to press interviews, and has promised to introduce Barnett to her new American booking agent. Before that, the band has work to do. At 2pm Barnett has her first rehearsal with her touring rhythm section, made up of her regular drummer Dave Mudie and his bandmate from Melbourne’s Royston Vasie, bassist Brad Hardingham. Barnett was to play all her CMJ shows solo, but with her run of showcases expanded just prior to the conference and Royston Vasie also in New York for CMJ, the motivation and opportunity arose to put together a band.
Hardingham hasn’t played any of Barnett’s songs and has heard many only once or twice; the recordings he was given disappeared along with his phone somewhere on the West Coast during a road trip earlier in the month. Mudie has been given the task of adding backup vocals, a duty routinely undertaken by Barnett’s regular bassist, ‘Bones’ Sloane. Even Barnett’s role has altered somewhat, with a Big Muff distortion pedal added to her arsenal: a red-and-white Harmony Rocket (chosen over her newer Fender Telecaster because it has “a more interesting sound” for the radio recordings) and a Fender amp borrowed for the week from “Paul Dempsey’s mate” who lives in New York.
Barnett has arrived last to the rehearsal studio, around the corner from BreakThru Radio, with a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon under her arm. “I thought it would be a bit of a celebration seeing you guys,” she says to Mudie and Hardingham, setting down her guitar case, which is still wrapped in tape labelled FRAGILE from her flights. “My back is already sore from lugging my shit around,” she adds.
“Yeah, well, you’ve got something on every 10 minutes,” Mudie says.
Barnett hands the beers around. “But I just bought a six-pack for eight dollars.” She scribbles down the seven-song set list she’ll use for most of her shows, beginning with 2012 single ‘Lance Jr’ and ending with ‘Avant Gardener’, and says to Hardingham, “Tell me if you need any reminders.” They play the set through, Hardingham keeping up much of the time. Barnett and Mudie, a gentle guy in a flat cap with a smile often on his face, grin at each other when the harmonies kick in on each song.
“Good harms,” Barnett praises Mudie after ‘Canned Tomatoes (Whole)’, a psych-pop number with a rockabilly beat.
“Except for that second verse,” he says. “I don’t know it at all.”
He makes Barnett recite the lyrics. She sings and strums along. “Ah,” she says, “just make the words up.”
Hardingham is in his own head as Barnett and Mudie deliberate. He’s quietly shifting his fingers over his bass, working out the parts with a look of concentration. When they run through the set a second time, he’s playing more smoothly. “It’s just ’cause there’s so many chords compared to the others,” Barnett says of the song ‘Out of the Woodwork’ when Hardingham stumbles on his parts. She’s chastising her songwriting rather than pointing out his mistake, but she ensures they play the song again. ‘History Eraser’ requires a beat-long break at its climax and, to remind Hardingham, Barnett suggests she raise the neck of her guitar when it’s approaching.
Mudie is counting on his fingers behind his drum kit. “I think it’s 12 bars before the break,” he says.
Barnett laughs. “Dave, we’re not counting bars!”
Whether it’s the calibre of their impending shows or a desire to do Barnett proud, Barnett needs say few words to inspire perfectionism in Hardingham and Mudie. Perhaps, too, she’s content to get the set ready enough and leave room for happy accidents. With her new pedal, her own parts are full and loose, more rough ’n’ ready than her first approaches to playing with a four- and five-piece backing band in 2012. In the beginning, she says, she was trying to hide behind other players; when she realised she needed to suck it up and push her vocals and storytelling lyrics to the front, she stripped her band to two.
Now, in the rehearsal room, there’s easy expression to her playing and singing that was more acutely revealed at the morning’s radio set. Through the control room speakers, Barnett’s voice cracked and cooed at just the right time. Every vocal line conveyed a subtle range of emotion that belied the sight of Barnett, through the control room window, barely moving her mouth. At midnight, she’ll turn that around with Mudie and Hardingham, playing a rollicking, bluesy set to a full room at Piano’s, a Ludlow Street bar hosting CMJ shows day and night.
“Are you ready for the busiest week of your life?”
Near the end of the second rehearsal set, O’Byrne shows up and pulls a spare drum stool into the corner of the room. He opens a MacBook on his knees and taps away, replying to emails, pausing to make occasional suggestions to the band as they play. “You could do a harmony on that part, too,” he says to Mudie during a verse of ‘Out of the Woodwork’. “And, Brad, you’re not singing?”
Hardingham shakes his head. “You don’t want to hear me sing.”
O’Byrne laughs. “Courtney said that – ‘Brad will never sing.’” He turns to Barnett. “Are you going to do the chorus as well?” She is, and he goes back to his emails.
On the footpath in front of the studio, with the band’s gear packed up, an all-American man with a close shave and deep dimples joins the group. It’s Marshall Betts, Barnett’s booking agent. Betts works for The Windish Agency, a company that books tours across the US for a list of acts numbering in the hundreds. The Windish roster includes acts as varied as Girl Talk, Warpaint and Placebo. Betts aimed to arrive in time to watch some of the rehearsal but has been caught in traffic on the drive from Brooklyn. “It’s a bummer,” he says. “I came so far.” He suggests a beer at a nearby Irish pub. On the way, he chats to Mudie and Hardingham, suggesting they send his office some Royston Vasie recordings.
Betts squeezes into a booth next to Barnett. The pub has been decorated in anticipation of Halloween; fake cobwebs stretch from the already kitsch Celtic ornamentation on the windows to a television playing baseball. “Are you ready for the busiest week of your life?” he asks.
“Ha, yeah,” Barnett nods. “I am.”
Betts and Barnett make small talk about Barnett’s impressions of New York as O’Byrne, Mudie and Hardingham chat about the city amongst themselves. The shoptalk, when it comes, is brief but pointed. Betts says he wants to get Barnett back to the States early in 2014 and again for the summer festivals. He’s had good responses when pitching her act to festival promoters. “I’ve been thinking about tours to get you on, too – The War on Drugs, Kurt Vile … And if there’s anyone you want to play with, let me know.”
Barnett takes it in. “I really like Kurt Vile.”
Betts purses his lips. “Well, he might have done everything he can do for the year, but if there’s a tour we’ll definitely keep you in mind.” The tricky part, he says, is making return visits financially viable. The US federal government requires promoters to keep a substantial amount of band income as ‘withholding tax’, which can then be reclaimed at the end of the tax year. It makes covering costs difficult, Betts says.
O’Byrne picks up the thread. “Who’s the master of getting around withholding tax? Is it the guy from The Dandy Warhols?” he asks, referring to Brent DeBoer, leader of Melbourne band Immigrant Union, in which Barnett plays guitar.
“It’s Dave,” Barnett quips.
“Oh, great, Dave,” O’Byrne says, looking to Mudie.
Barnett rolls her eyes. “I don’t really even know what withholding tax is.”
Barnett grew up in northern Sydney before moving with her parents to Hobart, where she completed two years of a fine-arts degree. In her second year of uni she began playing solo; she’d picked up a guitar at the age of 10, inspired by her older brother’s love of Nirvana, and took lessons throughout high school, mucking about in covers bands. She connects an increased interest in songwriting to giving up her university study, and also to her move to Melbourne when she turned 20. In Melbourne Barnett played open-mic nights; any gig she could book. “I played all of them,” she says. “All the little songwriter-y gigs on a Tuesday night … Jesus. So many shit gigs with no one there.” Slowly, a friendly network was built, and Barnett joined Immigrant Union as well as the band of rock songwriter Jen Cloher.
“I was just so scared.”
Barnett first met O’Byrne in 2010, when she signed on to a mentoring program run by The Push, a Victorian non-profit organisation that sets out to educate young people about the music industry. O’Byrne, who as well as running his artist management company Look Out Kid is the general manager of the Australian Independent Record Labels Association (AIR), was one of the mentors. It would be a year before O’Byrne emailed Barnett and suggested she take him on as manager. At the time, Barnett was gigging frequently but making no ground. Still, she says, the decision to partner with O’Byrne was a difficult one to make as it meant she had to take her music more seriously. Despite having played her own songs for years, she was yet to release a single recording.
“I was just so scared,” she says about her mindset at the time, mentioning also a period of depression prior to meeting O’Byrne. “It’s scary to set things in stone, so I was putting off [recording] and trying to wait for the perfect opportunities and the perfect things to arrive. And Nick’s a bit more … I’m a real over-thinker and a real perfectionist and I dwell on things and it takes me so long to get everything done and I can’t make decisions. And he’s the opposite. He’s like, ‘OK, let’s set a deadline and work towards it.’”
O’Byrne, a scruffy 29-year-old with a bearded baby face and a hearty guffaw, is perhaps most aptly described as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. His appearance and open manner are disarming; he could be a stand-in for the actor Seth Rogan, or at the least another sympathetic softy from a Judd Apatow film. He’s a music fan: after we’ve said our goodbyes, he’ll email me a link to a piece of music writing he’s mentioned in passing as a favourite. But he’s also the general manager of one of Australia’s largest music industry bodies and a significant part of the reason the pieces have come together for Barnett this week. In July, the Australasian Music Industry Directory published its AMID Power 50, a list of the 50 most powerful players in the regional industry. O’Byrne ranked number 17.
At one CMJ event, a pair of American publishers approach O’Byrne and express interest in Barnett’s label, Milk! Records, through which she’s released her two EPs in Australia as well as a number of releases from likeminded Melbourne acts, including Royston Vasie and Cloher. O’Byrne chats and laughs with the women, tells them he has their contact details, and raises his eyebrows to me once they’ve gone. “Not a chance,” he says.
Barnett’s songs, O’Byrne says, made him pay attention to lyrics for the first time. Usually, when hearing a new band, arrangement and melody are what he instinctively notices foremost. But Barnett’s stories drew him in, a point taken up by many in the media who’ve championed her EPs. Certainly, Barnett’s ability to craft a story can be used as a strong defence against detractors, those who say they just don’t get why Barnett is causing a stir. During the week, I’m told by one Australian musician that Barnett is “bland” and her music is “Bob Dylan pastiche,” and by another that her songs are “too cutesy,” referencing her single ‘Avant Gardener’ and its talk of vegetable patches and asthma puffers. A close read of that song, however, shows it to use a simple story – a girl who gardens to pass a mundane morning and has an asthma attack, leading to an embarrassing scene with a paramedic – as a metaphor for the humour and hopelessness of everyday anxiety. It’s there in the final refrain: “I’m not that good at breathing in,” Barnett sings.
The song ‘Lance Jr’, the opening track from her debut 2012 EP I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris, is essentially a character study, the song’s narrator both disappointed by, and demanding of, a childhood rock idol. For every folksy lyric, there’s a frank and fearless counter. Few other female singer-songwriters are opening their singles with lines such as ‘Lance Jr’s introductory “I masturbated to the songs you wrote.” Barnett’s language is colloquial and accessible. Musically, her songs are malleable and apt to change depending on the live setting. With her band, she treads the line between four-on-the-floor Aussie rock ’n’ roll, a genre proven in the American market, and troubadour psych-outs made recently popular by Kurt Vile and Ty Segall. Solo, her guitar playing can take on a country bent, inviting an extra dose of empathy. From a critical perspective, her songwriting stands up to vigorous testing, even if it isn’t rushing at boundaries. From a marketing standpoint, Barnett is a potential goldmine, able to cross into a number of lucrative markets.
“The only thing Barnett appears to be hiding is the occasional hangover from a youthful lack of self-confidence.”
And then there’s Barnett, who follows the footsteps of rock and pop stars who could easily be drawn as cartoon characters. She’s physically small enough to be easily comprehended by the eye and immediately recognisable by her fashionable mop of hair, black jeans and Chelsea boots. After seeing her play live, Grace Jones suggests Barnett is relatable to audiences because she’s the same onstage and off – she sings and performs the way she speaks and acts. In a sector of music that ultimately rewards authenticity, the only thing Barnett appears to be hiding with her quiet demeanour is the occasional hangover from a youthful lack of self-confidence.
People do approach Barnett. Three hours before her Pitchfork set, on Friday afternoon, Barnett plays a solo show in the upstairs bar of Piano’s as part of a showcase hosted by the radio promotion company The Planetary Group. The stage is a section of the barroom floor and the crowd is gathered so tightly around Barnett that she remarks between songs to one man at the front, “I feel like we should shake hands and introduce ourselves.” Three songs in, another man walks to a poster for the showcase adhered to the wall directly behind Barnett and tugs at its corner. It’s stuck on good and he retreats to his place in the crowd. Thirty seconds later he again breaches the stage area to take a photo of the poster with his phone. O’Byrne and Jones, also in the crowd, shoot each other amused looks. O’Byrne mouths, “Did you see that?”
A queue of four or five waits to chat to Barnett after the set. A girl shows Barnett Polaroid photos she’s taken of the show. A man in bike shorts buys Barnett’s last remaining tour T-shirt and stays to talk. The man who photographed the poster reappears. He’s managed to remove it from the wall and asks Barnett to sign it. Barnett takes her time with each of them, answering questions and expressing surprise if anyone name-checks a song from The Double EP. Finally, Marshall Betts walks over. He smiles at Barnett and kisses his fingers, as if to say, “Mwah!”
By the time Barnett is setting up for the Pitchfork show, Betts and Jones have joined O’Byrne inside the warehouse. As has Jamie Hodgson, the founder and head of UK label House Anxiety Records, which has released The Double EP in tandem with the larger independent label and management company Marathon Artists. Hodgson is a former music journalist (there’s a YouTube clip of him trading comical blows with Lily Allen backstage at the 2010 NME Awards) and is charged with discovering The Big Pink, whose debut single was House Anxiety’s first release. He’s fresh off a flight from London and stands alone with an overnight suitcase by his side, looking on as Barnett converses with Eleanor Friedberger on the stage. He’s never seen Barnett play live, either. O’Byrne guffaws out of Hodgson’s earshot, “He’s probably shitting himself.”
The crowd moves in when Barnett launches into ‘Lance Jr’. Many conversations stop. The sound engineer busily adjusts faders and knobs on his desk – Barnett has instructed him to “just yell at me” if her amp is too loud, but now she’s in the song, eyes closed as she sings. When Barnett breaks into the song’s freewheeling guitar outro, the engineer runs to the back of the stage and retracts a projection screen that has been showing a silent Dr Martens commercial between acts. Barnett doesn’t appear to notice. Hardingham and Mudie look more self-conscious, watching Barnett closely as she plays. Hardingham is wearing a New York Rangers T-shirt and, before ‘Out of the Woodwork’, Barnett announces into the microphone with a smile, “Looks like you’ve got a new shirt. Looks like you might have got it on your trip to New York. This is Brad on bass.” Hardingham gives a bashful wave.
Hodgson is also smiling in the crowd, nodding along to the songs. Standing a metre from him are O’Byrne and Jones, yelling and applauding proudly at each song’s conclusion, and next to them, Stuart Meyer, the A&R manager of Sub Pop.
“The only thing Barnett appears to be hiding is the occasional hangover from a youthful lack of self-confidence.”
“This is our last song,” Barnett announces, causing a cameraman at the foot of the stage to arch his back for a closer shot. Pitchfork will stream a documentary of the showcase in November, allowing the site’s many thousands of monthly visitors from across the world to discover a favourite new band via their bedrooms and lounge rooms. On Sunday, precisely a week before Lou Reed’s death, The New York Times will praise Barnett’s live show for working up “the scrappy momentum of the Velvet Underground.” In a month, just as Betts has suggested, Barnett will announce her first tour proper of the US to take place in February, taking in Chicago, Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York, LA and San Francisco.
Right now, Barnett is just a musician on a stage in a warehouse, bent over her guitar, leading her band in the storming finale of ‘Avant Gardener’. Soon enough she’ll be packing up and making her way into the crowd, where her entourage, quietly trading remarks and texting on phones, will be waiting to greet her. The manager, the publicist, the booking agent, the label owner, the A&R head and the journalist.