Someone like Courtney Barnett shouldn’t really be achieving so much. A scruffy slacker who writes lo-fi, charmingly scuffed songs about gardening, feeding the ducks and, um, masturbating to go to sleep, at 26 she finds herself at the centre of Melbourne’s coolest music scene with her own record label and a fast-rising international profile.
She’s making a name for herself as a mistress of the mundane, turning everyday banalities into captivating indie rock. “I’m very truthful. I don’t have anything else to sing about,” she says. “I have a normal life, I don’t do anything crazy. Right now I’m working on a few songs that are stories about someone else, and they don’t come as naturally to me. Maybe I’m really self-centred.”
I find her on Skype in her front room in Melbourne, messing with her already thoroughly messed hair and taking a breath before a February tour that will call in places as far afield as London, Paris, Chicago and San Francisco. Then she’ll support Billy Bragg around Australia including a show at Sydney Opera House which, for a girl raised an hour outside the city, is an extremely big deal.
The world is starting to turn an ear in her direction because of one song in particular, Avant Gardener, that actually does depict a sensational real-life event. Just over a year ago she attempted a bit of light weeding, worried that her unkempt yard might make her neighbours think her place was a meth lab. In 40-degree heat she found herself unable to breathe and ended up in an ambulance. “It was brought on by heat, a slight allergic reaction to a weed, and then anxiety — kind of a panic attack,” she says. Asked if panic attacks are common for her, she replies, “Uh, yeah, since I was about 20.”
It doesn’t sound pleasant on paper, but the song is a comedy of embarrassment, Barnett’s woozy guitar and deadpan voice conveying none of the anxiety that she must have felt at the time. Instead she takes a dig at herself for being unable to do something so simple as breathe in and out. In the ambulance, she’s chatting, not expiring. “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar. I think she’s clever ’cause she stops people dying,” she sings.
“I think I find it kind of funny to present it in that way. I guess it’s a form of sarcasm,” she tells me. It’s a brilliant tune, too, as are the other 11 songs on her first release, A Sea of Split Peas — not a debut album but two EPs smooshed together for the benefit of her worldwide fanbase. While gardening disasters are as exciting as the subject matter gets, elsewhere she still fascinates with the tiny details of ordinary life. They’re lifted from a journal that she’s kept since she was much younger, having read that her childhood idol Kurt Cobain kept one.
There’s a worried phone call from her mum in Are You Looking After Yourself? (“Have you got some money saved up for those rainy days?… Are you eating? You sound so thin”) and on Lance Jr she can be found fiddling with herself — “It just helps me get to sleep and it’s cheaper than Temazepam.”
“I would never wish that I’d written things a different way,” she says, having admitted that she didn’t expect quite so many people to be listening to such personal material. “Anyway, the more people talk about it the more it concretes the point that it’s not such an awkward taboo word to say.”
She could be a musical version of Lena Dunham on the hit TV show Girls, unglamorous and unashamed of her uncool moments, presenting a young woman’s life as it is really lived. “The similarities make sense, I guess,” she says, although she prefers Curb Your Enthusiasm. “Those shows are so realistic, sometimes it’s so embarrassing. You feel so awkward watching.”
She disapproves of the self-editing that goes on with people’s Facebook and Twitter profiles, in order that everyone might depict themselves as 24-hour stars of the party. “We all want to show the fun things we’re doing and the cool bands we’re seeing. That’s a bit messed up I think.”
On her song David, a ringer for David Bowie’s The Jean Genie, she’s feeling down, unsure whether she wants to spend any more time with a boy or his friends. On the fantastic, hard-rocking History Eraser, she’s accosted by a train ticket inspector and feeds some ducks.
But despite all this low-profile material, she’s become a high-achieving hipster. Since she was 18 she’s worked behind the bar of the Northcote Social Club, which describes itself as “Melbourne’s favourite music venue” — hit Manchester band The 1975 played there this week — but she’s been going in less and less as the demands of touring have taken over.
She did two out of three years at art school in Hobart, Tasmania, where her parents (a former ballerina and a graphic designer) live, and now draws all the artwork and T-shirts for her own material and the other bands she releases on her own label, Milk! Records. On their website you can buy a tea towel with the title “A brief study of Australian fauna by Courtney Barnett”.
So she’s a DIY success story, first through necessity and now because she simply likes being hands on. “I still do pretty much everything apart from the boring stuff like getting CDs into shops. I don’t know how to do that,” she says. House Anxiety, a London indie label puts out her material over here, but at home she does it for herself. Melbourne’s a good place to be — everyone’s in a band, it seems.
The first of the two EPs was recorded at a friend’s house, the second in a proper studio, but she doesn’t rule out home recording again. “The environment of a home set-up is really nice. Everything’s difficult though because you have to borrow gear and really rely on favours.”
Don’t rule out these scuzzy guitar jams getting more of a shine when she comes to record her debut album proper in April, however. I sense a strong seam of ambition beneath that shaggy haircut. “I just get bored really quickly and want to push myself to the next level,” she says. If she’s not careful, that journal will soon be full of observations about private jets and awards ceremonies, and where’s the lyrical material in that?