Australi-cana: A Night with Courtney Barnett

By: Samantha Holle

“The paramedic thinks I’m clever ‘cause I play guitar; I think she’s clever ‘cause she stops people dying,” Courtney Barnett reminisces in her most well-known song, “Avant Gardener” (which was also named Pitchfork’s Best New Track). She and her band (creatively called The Courtney Barnetts) are busy mesmerizing the audience of mostly men in the Bowery Ballroom on this hot pre-summer Tuesday night, and they not only seem to be having fun, but don’t look like they’re stressed or nervous at all. It’s this combination of ease, wit, and comfort that have made this writer a fan of Barnett and her music over the last few weeks.

Courtney Barnett, 26, of Melbourne, Australia, has quite the unique sound. She doesn’t have a wide vocal range (or if she does, she’s keeping it a secret from all of us), nor are her guitar parts particularly complicated. Neither of these are deterrents to her character: Barnett’s music is pleasant and often seem as if you’re just having a conversation with a friend. Her Dylan-esque singspeak rattles off stories of masturbation, gardening, wild nights, and the desire to make it in the music world. The simplicity of the lyrics and vocals are in accord with the instruments, making Barnett a sensory delight. For example, at this particular concert, Barnett and her band play “Are You Looking After Yourself?” — a song that is a conversation between a worried realist (Family member? Friend? Neighbor? We never really find out) and a struggling musician. The album version of the song includes a longer, jam-like outro. Live, however, this may not have worked. Instead, Barnett and her band members fill the spaces between verses with discordant, grungy guitar grinds. These crunchy chords work here, considering this song may very well be Barnett’s middle finger to people who doubted her ability to survive as a musician. The instrumentals reflect the feelings of chaos, insecurity, and rebellion that the lyrics present.

The crowd ate up Barnett and her band, as well as the 8-bit style animation on the backdrop behind them. The entire concert breathed effortlessness. Barnett’s stage banter was even casual, further enforcing the conversational atmosphere. When the lights came up, Barnett looked out into the audience and marveled, “You’re all so well dressed! Good to know. Well, if any of you don’t like your shirts, we have some for sale.” She pauses for a moment and laughs to herself. “Ugh! I didn’t even plan that! I used to work in sales.” We all laugh in agreement, and for a moment the image of Courtney Barnett selling a pair of slacks dances through everyone’s minds.

Barnett leaves the stage and comes back once more for an encore sans band. She stands alone on stage under one light, and explains that the final song she’s going to play is a new one off of her next album (“It’s a song about a thing, it’s got two chords”–even her set-up for a song is simple and leaves you wanting to know more), and takes place in Preston, a neighborhood in Melbourne. She goes into a melody about house-hunting in places away from the coffee house-populated streets and looking at a ramshackle house in a less-than-stellar neighborhood. Suddenly, Barnett sings that there are handrails in the shower and a picture of a Vietnam vet in the living room. The audience hushes as this revelation is met — this house-hunting adventure has just left casual and fun and has taken a dramatic turn into bleak and sad. As if to point out that she’s now got our attention, Barnett laments that “I can’t think of floor boards anymore,/whether the front room faces south or north” and suggests to the audience that “if you’ve got a spare half a million, you could knock it down and start rebuilding.” Her lyrics are real, funny, and heartbreaking — sometimes all within one song.

The lights come back up, Barnett leaves the stage, and the audience files out into the humidity. Barnett may not be big in America yet, but like her gut-punch lyrics in her encore “Depreston”, she’ll sneak up on you when you least expect it. You can listen to Barnett’s performance of “Depreston” on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concerts here:

Courtney Barnett – Tiny Desk Concert on NPR


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