Mixing witty, often hilarious, occasionally even heartbreaking observations with devastating self-assessment, Courtney Barnett’s debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, cements her standing as one of the most distinctive and compelling voices in indie rock. These songs reveal not only an assured songwriter and guitar player, but also an artist who in just a few years has already proved highly influential.
Fuelled by the nimble crunch of her guitar and the loose groove of the rhythm section, Courtney Barnett’s songs are wild and shaggy and wordy, her lyrics plainspoken and delivered like she’s making them up on the spot. The music is rooted in the slack jangle of the late 1980s and the early 1990s, which has prompted the adjective “slacker” from journalists and critics around the world. That word is fitting for tunes that sound like they only just roused themselves out of bed. As a description of Barnett’s work ethic and musical influence, however, “slacker” is all wrong.
Even just a few years into a solo career, she has already proved herself an idiosyncratic and boundary-smashing artist and a passionate advocate for the arts who is changing the face of indie rock in her native Australia and around the world. After leaving art-school in Hobart, Tasmania, Barnett moved to Melbourne and became a mainstay of the local scene. She paid her dues and honed her chops in short-lived garage outfits before playing lead guitar in the twang-psych band Immigrant Union (which featured Bob Harrow and the Dandy Warhols’ Brent DeBoer).
When she went solo, Barnett launched her own label, which she dubbed Milk! Records, to release her own material as well as music by some of Melbourne’s finest singers and songwriters. With the 2013 release of The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas (which combined her first two self-released EPs), she embarked on an almost never-ending tour that took her to North America and Europe, barely stopping long enough to record her first true album.
Her songs may not sound tightly coiled, but they are carefully and exactingly structured. Her lyrics may ramble, but each word is carefully chosen. She is, however, no perfectionist. In fact, she may be an imperfectionist: Barnett strives to fine-tune her songs as much as possible, but she knows that their flaws—a missed note here, a flubbed line there—can make the music sound more human, more relatable, more sympathetic. “My songs follow me as a normal human with normal emotions,” she explains, “so there are great highs and great lows. They span everything in my life.”
Barnett and her band—which includes Dan Luscombe on guitar and the surprisingly nimble rhythm section of Bones Sloane on bass and Dave Mudie on drums—recorded the album at Head Gap Studio in Melbourne during the fall of 2014. “We’d start midday and work until quite early in the morning,” she says. “Of course, half the time is sitting around waiting for the engineer to get a mic into place or something like that.” The band used the downtime to take these songs apart and put them back together again. Nothing was taken on faith; every note and every word was parsed.
“We didn’t just go in and bang it out. We mucked around with it. There was the panic of not having the songs prepared, but I think that energy works for the album. And we were drinking a lot of coffee.” (The process was documented by photographer Tajette O’Halloran, whose images are included in the liner notes.)
Barnett took drastic measures to make sure every song came out as perfectly imperfect as possible. When “Pedestrian At Best” wasn’t working out in the studio, she took the backing tracks home with her and listened to them over and over and over, trying to get the right words to come out of her mouth. “I had some words on paper and a half-assed melody that I hated,” she recalls. “I rapped over it until I found something I was happy with. It’s an embarrassing process, though, and the first time I sang that song was when I recorded it. I had to make everyone leave the room, because I felt really vulnerable.”
No nerves are evident in the final take, which includes some of Barnett’s most incisively indecisive lyrics, crammed with internal rhymes, inside jokes, and stinging self-deprecation. “I must confess I’ve made a mess of what should be a small success, but I digress. At least I tried my very best… I guess.”
Writing these songs can be a drawn-out and nerve-wracking process, especially when she finds herself recording a song that she hasn’t written yet, but it pays off beautifully on Sometimes I Sit and Think. It’s a beguiling collection of songs that reveals her as an ambitious songwriter with an ear for clever turns of phrase and an eye for story-song details that are literate without being pretentious. Barnett even did the artwork and hand lettering for the liner notes, showcasing a whimsical style similar to indie comics or the sketches of Eric Chase Anderson (who does most of the sketches for his brother Wes’ films).
Now that these songs are on record, she will not stop tweaking and perfecting them. The more she lives with them—the more she plays them out, the more fans react to them—the more alive they sound to her, often disclosing new meanings and direr implications. “They keep revealing themselves,” she says. “They change from touring and recording. They morph and change form and can end up sounding completely different. I hope it’s like that forever.”