Given that wildfires continue to rage in Australia, it was extremely difficult for Aussie singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett to leave her native country for the tour that brings her to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium
on Tuesday, Jan. 28, for a sold-out show.
“My immediate family and friends are safe, but it’s a terrifying time,” she says via phone shortly before leaving the country to come to the States for a winter tour. “I feel strange about leaving; it’s just a really scary time.”
Given that Barnett absorbed a good amount of American alternative rock while growing up, it makes sense that she’d connect with an audience outside of the Land Down Under.
“I didn’t grow up with anyone showing me local Australian music,” she says. “I discovered that on my own later on as time went on. American music was my main influence growing up. I grew up with Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana and a lot of slightly mainstream but alternative stuff. I didn’t have anyone showing me rare hidden underground gems or anything like that. I didn’t know about punk music. It took me a while to discover all of that. With the internet, it became easier later on.”
She says she learned to play guitarist simply because “it looked so fun.”
Originally, she started writing and recording songs on her own. She’d eventually team up with a couple of Australian bands and then officially launched her solo career in 2015 with Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit
She says she was "amazed" by the positive reaction it received.
"It was overwhelming, and it's lovely when people connect with your music," she says.
With 2018’s Tell Me How You Really Feel
, Barnett says she didn’t necessarily try to do anything drastically different than she had with her debut album.
“I always try to let it happen pretty naturally,” she says. “I’m sure there were some sonic ideas that I tried to make different. I’m always trying to be better and push myself to another space singing-wise or lyric-wise.”
Kim and Kelley Deal of Breeders fame contribute to the album, forging that connection between Barnett and the underground American rock from the ‘90s. Barnett sings on the Breeders’ last album, and she asked the Deal sisters to return the favor. The lurching "Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence," a song driven by distorted guitars, features vocals from Kim Deal.
“I just met them a few years ago on a podcast where me and Kim Deal and I interviewed each other,” she says of the Deal sisters. “We had a really good chat. We swapped emails and stayed in touch. When I was in town, they were making their last album, and I dropped in to see them in the studio. I sang a little bit. A year later, when I was making my record, I got them to sing on one of my songs. We’re like pen pals now. We just check in regularly from a distance.”
When we tell Barnett that the herky jerk “Help Your Self” has a Pavement-like vibe, she takes it as a compliment.
“I love that band,” she says. “I didn’t really grow up with them. I think I listened to [Pavement singer-guitarist] Stephen Malkmus’ solo albums before I knew who Pavement were. I thought he was amazing and then discovered Pavement. It was a bit of a backwards discovery. I’m a bit naïve there. But what an amazing naïve discovery.”
Though Barnett recently played unplugged for MTVAustralia, she still had her bandmates accompany her for that performance. The current trek across the States will find her playing without any accompaniment.
“This is just me,” she says. “It’s just guitar and voice. It’s really simple and stripped back. Part of that is terrifying, but there’s something really amazing hearing songs in that way. That’s how they were written. There’s something really honest about it. You can’t hide anywhere, and you can’t dress it up with anything.”
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