Despite the evidence presented on her first two EPs, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris and How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose, Australian singer-guitarist Courtney Barnett figures that her view of the world is nowhere near as wonderfully odd as it might seem.
“I dunno—I’m pretty normal,” the Melbourne-based solo artist says with a wry laugh, reached on her cellphone in a tour van just outside of London, England. “I read a lot as a kid, and I listened to a lot of music, but I didn’t really grow up with pop music—Mom and Dad listened to a lot of classical and jazz, so I wasn’t listening to the Beatles. I read a lot, and I drew. We lived slightly out of town, and even though I wasn’t a loner-loner, I liked spending time by myself, as I do now, being in my own little world.”
The songs coming out of that world have established Barnett as a whip-smart artist seemingly headed for great things. Take, for example, “Avant Gardener”, where, over opiate-shimmer guitars, she chronicles a day that starts with her pulling weeds, and ends up with a trip to the hospital. You could argue forever as to what line in the gold-standard song is the greatest, top contenders being: a) “The yard is full of hard rubbish it’s a mess and/I guess the neighbours must think we run a meth lab”; b) “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cos I play guitar/I think she’s clever ’cos she stops people dying”; and c) “I take a hit from/an asthma puffer/I do it wrong/I was never good at smoking bongs.”
Equally great are the “Lance Jr.” lyrics “I masturbated to the songs you wrote/Resuscitated all of my hopes/It felt wrong but it didn’t take too long,” and the “Scotty Says” observation “In my pocket is a bottle of blue/Drink it when I’m feeling misconstrued/Don’t like the taste but I like the overview.”
And it doesn’t hurt that Barnett often sings-speaks such lines with a bemused detachment that’s part modern-day slacker, part dazed-and-confused drawl.
More than just a clever wordsmith, Barnett also seems able to master whatever musical genre she tackles. The EPs (which were reissued on a full-length titled The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas) have her sounding equally at home with Pavement-brand college rock (“Avant Gardener”), Exile on Main Street–style Americana (“David”), and rambling garage-grimed jams that would go great on a mix tape with “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (“History Eraser”). Along the way, Barnett makes a good case that she’s as great a guitarist as she is a lyricist, the 26-year-old unleashing some truly epic six-string violence on “Canned Tomatoes”.
“One of my favourite things is people who aren’t afraid to step outside of their own little boundaries,” she says. “I mean, I love Bowie, and even though Bowie isn’t the greatest example of that, I love that he definitely jumped around when you look at his whole collection of stuff.”
Thanks to some well-deserved Internet buzz, there have been big changes in the singer’s life over the past couple of years. When she wrote the songs on her first two EPs, she was slinging drinks in a bar, constantly making notes that would later germinate into songs. These days, Barnett marvels that she’s being paid to see the world, having already done shows around the globe.
A proper full-length arrives later this year. Expect something even more accomplished than I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris and How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose—not to mention out-there in the most clever of ways.
“The new album goes from a pop song to a heavy song to a jammy Crazy Horse song—it’s kind of all over the place, because that’s representative of how my everyday head is,” Barnett says. “I guess the album is also representative of the last year or so. The music and the lyrics kind of follow the roller coaster that I’ve been on.”
Courtney Barnett plays Fortune Sound Club on Friday (July 4).