by Sebastian Mackay
Nothing breeds a stark contrast like listening to Killswitch Engage’s Jesse Leach scream down your headphones while writing about Australian songstress Courtney Barnett. But, the singer-songwriter’s stripped down and intimate material are as much a statement as the heaviest of metal. Her music sits firmly on its own spectrum as quiet, modest (not unlike Barnett herself) and at times charmingly acoustic.
Barnett also isn’t one to shy away from a challenge and it’s the challenge that’s so important as songwriter. “I like to challenge myself in my songwriting,” she says. “Set myself little tasks to try and accomplish.”
They range from writing a song with only one chord to writing songs from the perspective of a fallen tree in a forest. Or, songs without a chorus, which brings to mind Dylan’s “Ballad Of Hollis Brown”, and it’s almost needless to say that Barnett is creating greatness one chord at a time. It’s important to Barnett to keep learning and growing as an artist.
The effect of Barnett’s art is as important to her as the art itself. She says she wants her music to be known for making “people realize that everyone is getting through the world in their own way and to be nice to each other.”
It’s one of the few things that separates her from other musicians – she’s not only in it for herself. The others, and she put it much better than I could, are these; “The guitarists – I’m left-handed and don’t use a pick. The singers – I’m not a very good singer. The world – My middle name is Melba, I don’t think it’s very common.”
I checked, regarding her middle name, and it isn’t common. But, it does come from Melbourne, Australia – Barnett’s home city. She is also one of few people to release a double EP. The EP came more from wanting to release it on vinyl than a conceptual decision. And Melbourne, more specifically, the singer – songwriter’s bedroom, is where it all began. She has a backing band but says being known by her name and not a collective is far from an indulgence in vanity.
“The first EP I wrote [and] recorded in my room as an experiment.” She wrote, played and arranged all the parts. A band didn’t become part of it until she started playing live. “I taught my friends the parts and they made up some extra stuff and that was it. I said ‘should we make a band name?’ and they said ‘you wrote the songs’.”
Through a few line-up changes the name has remained and while they come up with band names often, she says so far there hasn’t been one all of the members like.
Barnett, and her band, are playing at Union Transfer on Feb 20.