Hit singer-songwriter and Happy fav since before she was on Fallon, Courtney Barnett has a quick chat to Josh Pyke about the hard hitting, relevant topics in modern music: Indie labels, streaming services and which hand you use to hold a fork when you’re eating pudding.
Illustration by the handsome and rather homely bunch at IYBI.
Josh Pyke: I had one of those “pull the car over and listen to the full song and then look you up on the internets” moments when I first heard Avant Gardener… It’s a real corker! Are you into Pavement at all? Because I kinda hear a bit of Malkmus in your guitar playing.
Courtney Barnett: I just discovered Stephen Malkmus last year (bit late I know) Jen [Cloher] ‘s a fan so she went to see him at the Corner and came home with the album. I got obsessed with it then I went and got a few Pavement records and kept being obsessed. The guitar is out of control, I’ve probably started to imitate it a bit like everything I do. But no the more whacky guitar on the Avant Gardener recording is Dan Luscombe, we’ve played together a bunch over the last year and he’s really influenced my guitar playing a lot, he’s the best.
JP: You looked totally calm performing on Jimmy Fallon, were you actually quite nervous? I’m often seconds away from panic during TV appearances. Also, whenever I meet comedians, I always can’t help but try to be funny too, and I know that I’m not that funny. Your lyrics would imply that you have a good sense of humour… were you tempted to get all Larry David on him?
CB: I was so calm which is weird for me because I’m normally a nervous person. The conclusion I’ve come to is that it was such a surreal situation that I didn’t really believe it was happening, so I was eerily OK. I was half expecting to walk onstage and have Jimmy Fallon announce “And here’s Courtney Barnett with her song… Just kidding! Roll credits guys!”
JP: Tell me about Milk! Records. I think it’s awesome that you started your own label to facilitate your own release, but it appears there are quite a few artists on the roster now? Was it always the plan to be a label mogul? Are you pretty involved day to day with the other acts or have you handed over the reins so you can focus on your own stuff again?
CB: Ha no, It’s not my intention to be a mogul. The concept was that if you like one artist, you might like one of the others. It’s pretty simple. It’s more of an art project than a traditional record label, I’m always doing something Milk! related, but the reins are mostly controlled by Jen Cloher at the moment, she’s got more of a business brain than me. When it comes to Milk! we’re all pretty like-minded and on the same wave length with the same vision.
JP: Your interactive zine is very cool. Did you do those drawings? They are reminiscent of Daniel Johnston’s stuff. I had the chance to see him play in the US once, it was half tragic and half amazing.
CB: I haven’t listened to much Daniel Johnston. People always tell me to, but I’m waiting til the time is right. It’s half tragic because I constantly feel musically un-informed but it’s half amazing because I’ll discover it one day and lose my mind. Yeah I did all the drawings, I do most of my artwork. I guess I developed this particular style for the same reason lots of other people develop the same style. All I could afford was white A4 printer paper and some black pens. I went to art school and loved it. I’m a huge Reg Mombassa fan, when he was touring with Mental as Anything he always drew landscapes out the window. So i started doing it too. When I study particular artists and all their work, I’m always drawn (ha!) to the initial sketches they do instead of the actual final pieces. I like seeing the idea and the process. I love Brett Whiteley, even just his ink sketches are so beautiful.
JP: I love touring, I feel really lucky to be able to do it as an actual job. I also spend a lot of time in my studio at home, and love that process of exploring and recording. You are obviously touring heaps, and have undoubtedly pressed record on several music software programs, at various points. Do you have a preference, or is one a means to an end to continue the other? Discuss.
CB: Touring vs Studio. It’s all still relatively new to me. Touring; you’re in foreign places but you are familiar with your songs (hopefully). Whereas the studio, you’re in familiar surroundings, but you’re on a spiralling adventure of your own expectations and ideas. Either way I’m learning new things and pushing myself until I have an emotional breakdown and then i come out of it a slightly better albeit challenged person.
JP: I noticed you’re left handed, are there things you do right handed? Like, when you play squash is your right hand your squash hand? Were you ever discouraged from being left handed? I think one of my sons may be left handed, though it’s too early to tell – any advice for him should he in fact turn out to be left handed? Do you have a special guitar? Or just string a normal one up side down? Does that even work? Sorry to harp on about the left handed thing.
CB: My Mum was left-handed and in school they whacked her over the knuckles with a ruler until she learned how to write right-handed. That’s messed up. They thought that left-handedness was a sign of the devil. Jimi [Hendrix]’s Dad bought him a guitar but would get shitty when he played left-handed because he didn’t want his son to be the devil. So in front of his dad he’d practice on the right-handed guitar properly, but when he was in his room by himself he’d turn it upside down and play it left-handed. And he turned out pretty good.
I think I do everything left-handed except I hold a cricket bat to the right side of my body. But I thought that was left-handed because my left hand is on the bottom? I don’t know. Also don’t you think it’s weird how everyone holds their knife and forks? That weirds me out. I hold my fork in my left hand because when I’m scooping my peas or whatever that’s my dominant hand. But right-handed people hold their fork in their left hand but then if they’re scooping pudding or something they switch the fork to their right hand. That doesn’t make sense.
JP: Lastly, I think it’s really awesome to see an a) Australian b) Independent c) Female d) Non-Mainstream-Quirk-Pop artist e) Person who obviously has their head screwed on straight, doing so well, and working so hard…so good onya!
But my question is what do you think of online streaming services?
I ask, because you might have a clearer perspective on the issue, since you are an indie artist, who presumably owns her masters, owns her label, and so must have the low down on whether streaming is a viable model for the ever increasing number of indie artists out there.
It’s a big issue I know, so feel free to answer in point form!
CB: Points A to E, thank you.
I believe in buying music so that particular artist can eat, live and make more music, so sometimes I don’t think $30 for a record is enough. How did that become a standard price? With streaming, I just don’t know. Dave [Mudie, Courtney’s drummer] has a ‘streaming service’ on his phone so we are streaming in the van right now. The only music I have on my phone is Big Scary and Paul Kelly which I bought from iTunes because I can’t be without them. All my music is on vinyl at home, fat lot of good they are doing me right now.
I know a mega huge amount of people who stream as a taste-test and then go to the show and buy the record and the t-shirt. Swings and roundabouts. Somewhere along the way, people (not all people, mind) have just become accustomed to believing that music isn’t worth much. Maybe that’s because so many people are so willing to give it away for free, which makes other music seem expensive in comparison.
I like the idea that Wu-Tang had for their new album, only one copy is made and it travels around to museums and people go there to listen to it (i think that was the gist) “To challenge the idea of value of music in today’s music industry” they said “While we fully embrace the advancements in music technology, we feel it has contributed to the devaluation of music as an art form.” People call that a publicity stunt? Others call it art – which brings us back to the inexhaustible art school discussion. What is art?
That is the end of the interview, but Josh’s publicist gave us a little blurb to use for our signature “What makes you Happy?” question:
“Having things locked down” makes me happy….this means different things at different times, but today it means, being bunkered down in my back yard recording studio tinkering with audio gear and playing guitar, knowing I can open the door and see my kids playing in the yard at anytime I want….Balance makes me happy.
Apparently four dot ellipsis make Josh happy too.
Also, here’s a little reminder for all of you who may have forgotten who Josh Pyke was:
Courtney Barnett’s Double EP A Sea of Split Peas is out now via Milk! / Remote Control Records. Josh Pyke is touring throughout June and July on the Lone Wolf regional solo tour – click through on the dates below for more info.
FRI 06 JUN | Montrose Town Centre Montrose SOLD OUT
SAT 07 JUN | The Memo Healesville
FRI 13 JUN | Fannie Bay Gaol Darwin SOLD OUT
SAT 14 JUN | Divers Tavern Broome
FRI 20 JUN | Empire Church Theatre Toowoomba
SAT 21 JUN | Majestic Theatre Pomona
SUN 22 JUN | Byron Theatre Byron Bay
WED 25 JUN | Jetty Memorial Theatre Coffs Harbour
THU 26 JUN | Pier One @ Panthers Port Macquarie
FRI 27 JUN | Manning Ent Centre Taree
SAT 28 JUN | Cessnock Pac Cessnock
FRI 04 JUL | Milton Theatre, Milton
SAT 05 JUL | Milton Theatre Milton
SUN 13 JUL | Brisbane, Lyric Theatre QPAC **
TUE 15 JUL | Melbourne, Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall **
WED 16 JUL | Melbourne, Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall **
THU 17 JUL | Melbourne, Arts Centre Melbourne, Hamer Hall **
FRI 18 JUL | Sydney, Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall **
SAT 19 JUL | Sydney, Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall **
SUN 20 JUL | Sydney, Sydney Opera House, Concert Hall **
TUE 22 JUL | Canberra Theatre Canberra, NSW **
WED 23 JUL | WIN Entertainment Centre Wollongong NSW **
FRI 25 JUL | Adelaide, Festival Theatre **
SAT 26 JUL | Perth, Riverside Theatre **
** As part of The White Album Tour with members of The Living End, You Am I and Grinspoon.
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