Courtney Barnett is one of Australia’s most popular, and critically-lauded, musical exports.
Her unpretentious songwriting is the sound of a sharehouse in suburban Australiana; emotional complexity distilled into pearls of lyrical simplicity, with ambling guitar lines and disarmingly frank storytelling.
Her two albums and two EPs have earned her a Grammy nomination, a Brit Award nomination, six ARIAs and an APRA award. Barack Obama is a fan, and she has been featured as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live as well as countless late-night talk shows and international festivals.
But 15 years ago, she was just a teenager living in Hobart, going to gigs and experimenting with developing her own sound.
“Me and my parents moved from Sydney to Hobart when I was 15 or 16, so I finished school and university in Tasmania – I studied Fine Arts at UTAS,” she said.
“Then I moved to Melbourne when I was 21.”
Barnett is an artist that is forever linked to Melbourne in the popular imagination. The sound of the city’s fringes drips into her music, particularly in her first album – you can practically see her sipping on a beer, sunk into a dilapidated couch in a sunny Preston backyard, while writing Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.
Her latest, and second full-length, offering, Tell Me How You Really Feel, seems to peek into a darker side of the city. “I want to walk through the park in the dark (men are scared that women will laugh at them, women are scared that men will kill them)” she sings repeatedly on Nameless, Faceless. It’s a line that, without explicitly saying so, conjures memories of the high-profile murders of Jill Meagher, Masa Vukotic and Eurydice Dixon.
But despite her famed Melbourne-ness, it was in Tasmania that the scrappy guitarist started to become the Courtney Barnett that would become a rockstar.
“It was great, [that age] is such a formative time in our lives,” she said.
“I turned 18, I went to my first shows and started doing my own, I did my first open mic night of my first original songs.
“I remember going to Magic Dirt, that was one of my first big shows, and then Holly Throsby, Darren Hanlon - Sarah Blasko, that was another big one.
“Lots happened ... I moved out of home into my first sharehouse.”
The music she was workshopping back then was pretty different to the restrained indie-grunge that would become the characteristic Barnett sound.
But she said she finds a certain enjoyment in diving back into the lyrics scrawled in her teenage journals; and in revisiting her first tentative attempts to write her own guitar parts.
“[My songwriting] has definitely grown, I was playing a lot more acoustic guitar and it was a lot more, kind of folk-y,” she said.
“But I can see, when I look back, where it was going.
“I think it’s nice to - sometimes I might feel so cringe-y about it and get all embarrassed and think it’s terrible - but then other days I think it’s really important to look back at that stuff.
“I have old journals from when I was younger, and you read it back and it’s kind of horrifying,” she laughed.
“But it’s nice to see how you grow, and how you change and how you learn.”
And you never know when one of those snippets of her past will find it’s way into her work.
“There’s always a handful of things that creep back,” she said.
“Sunday Roast on the new album, that kind of goes back to when I was living in Sydney. I was like 13 when I wrote that guitar part … some parts just linger.
“And I’ve got a terrible memory, so many things come and go, but I think a part will come back for some sort of reason. When the time is right, it appears.”
Her billing on Mona Foma’s lineup in January is her first at the festival – perhaps surprisingly, since festival director Brian Ritchie is a friend and fan.
But she’s “always followed it from afar,” and said she was looking forward to checking out the smorgasbord of artists and genres on offer.
“I want to discover things,” she said.
“I want to learn about new bands and new artists and new music - I have a real thirst for that.
“I know I’ll be there for two days, so I’ll definitely get to watch some stuff. I remember when I first saw [the line-up] there was so much I wanted to see.”
As a former Tasmanian, she said she was “stoked” to see the effect Mona, and Mona Foma, was having on the artistic reputation of the state.
“I think it’s so amazing,” she said.
“We always went to Falls when we were teenagers, but there were a couple of times I flew over to Melbourne for Big Day Out.
“It would be great if more festivals could get [to Tasmania], but it’s expensive to get bands over there, so that’s the biggest thing.
“So I think it’s great that things like [Mona Foma] happen, and that they have the money and time and that they care enough to make it happen.
“I think it’s curated so well, it’s such an interesting festival. There’s so many festivals around at the moment - not to say that they’re not all interesting - but there’s just something about it, there’s a wider variety of artists, and it seems really well thought-of, well-considered.
“It’ll be really great to soak it all in and watch other performances and hopefully meet some people.”
The festival will come during a period of recharging for Barnett.
Tell Me How You Really Feel came out in May, and when we speak the 31-year-old is in the middle of her first week back home in Melbourne since the album dropped.
I think [Mona Foma] is curated so well, it’s such an interesting festival. There’s so many festivals around at the moment, but there’s just something about it - it seems really well-considered.Courtney Barnett
She’s certainly not bored or unproductive – when in Melbourne, she said she throws herself into her label, Milk! Records, which supports 13 visual and music artists including Barnett and her partner of seven years, fellow musician Jen Cloher.
But she’s been enjoying the opportunity to decompress.
“It’s good to catch up with friends and family and sleep and read books I haven’t read and that kind of thing.
“I like doing stuff and keeping busy, but I’ve also been eating lots of food, lying around, watching movies and TV shows.
“But I’m excited to come to Mona Foma.”
- Courtney Barnett will perform as part of Mona Foma on Sunday, January 20, from 7 – 8pm. Tickets through mofo.net.au.
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