Is Courtney Barnett the Most Exciting New Songwriter in Rock?

Courtney BarnettEXPAND
Courtney Barnett
Photo by Artemis Thomas-Hansard

Courtney Barnett
Dilettante
March 13, 2015

Where did Courtney Barnett come from? The simple answer to that question is Melbourne, Australia. But for many, Barnett, who has been deemed "the best lyricist in rock today," she seemed to emerge from some charmingly witty, Seinfeldian singer-songwriter machine. 

In October 2013, with an accent-tinged, narcoleptic drawl that percolated through her debut release, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, Barnett awoke millions who were lost in a sea of bearded white guys crooning about the mountains and the woods and whatnot for the last 10 years. With the EP's impossibly clever single "Avant Gardener," she quickly became one of the most-watched artists of the last two years; her forthcoming LP, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (out March 24), is one of the most-highly anticipated releases of the year.

As much as everyone has fallen for her quirky charisma, Barnett does have one major critic: herself.  She warns on the album's first single, "Pedestrian at Best," "Put me on a pedestal and I'll only disappoint you" — though judging from the set Barnett performed last Friday at downtown L.A. art space Dilettante, playing her new album in its entirety, disappointment will be the last thing on listeners' minds.

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As her lyrics, which focus on the humorous idiosyncrasies of daily life, suggest, Barnett is a woman of delicacy and attention to detail, which shone through the carefully curated event. Walking into the airy, warehouse-aesthetic studio, guests were greeted by a gallery of Barnett's drawings: quaint illustrations of chairs with captions like "Strange Wooden Chair that Nobody Sits In" and "Dining Chair (Before Upholstery)," as well as the work that is now the forthcoming album's cover. The pieces emphasized Barnett's ability to turn the unremarkable intriguing with her comically curious eye.

Though there was no doubt that the invite-only show was an industry event, that fact fell to the wayside as a plain-white tee'd Barnett made her way through the crowd, greeting people as if they were friends or family (which, given the surplus of Australian accents in the room, could have very well been the case). A free buffet of vegetarian goodies and free drinks added to the sense that all of us were mingling in someone's living room, though floating through the crowd and bumping into Moby and Tegan & Sara in a three-minute span was a quick reminder that Barnett is actually a pretty big deal.

Some of Courtney Barnett's drawingsEXPAND
Some of Courtney Barnett's drawings
Photo by Artemis Thomas-Hansard

After a Dylan-esque opening featuring Barnett's friend Fraser A. Gorman in a guitar and harmonica neck holder, Barnett took the stage to play the new album in full. Opener "Elevator Operator," the first track from Sometimes I Sit and Think, served as a quick reminder of how she's made herself one of the most beloved lyricists in indie rock. She then delved into one of the most immediately recognizable songs of 2015 so far: "Pedestrian at Best," one of the rougher, tougher tracks from an album that, as it unfolded on stage, showed itself to be mostly mellow, introspective, and (especially since it was impossible to catch every word she sang) instrumentally enchanting.

As Barnett went deeper into the unreleased work — a poignant masterpiece of hard-to-target feelings — tracks like "Boxing Day Blues" were disarming; the sole track she played without her backing band, bridged by bellowing guitar and barely held up by Barnett's soft, shy vocals. "An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY)" gave insight into the hectic realm of rock-stardom she has found herself in, as it told the story of her first trip far from home to play the CMJ Music Marathon in New York, and longing for her partner, fellow Australian songwriter Jen Cloher, who was many timezones away. "Depreston" took an exhausted house-hunt and transformed it into an uncomfortable reminder of death and abandonment, as Barnett discovers an old woman's handrail in the shower and a fading photo of a young man in Vietnam in what she calls "a deceased estate." She desperately justifies moving her search from the city to suburbia, noting that being far from coffee shops saves her "23 dollars a week."

Other standout tracks from the evening were "Debbie Downer" and "Kim's Caravan," a song that creeps into the less-than-mundane corners of Barnett's mind: "Satellites on the ceiling/I can see Jesus and she’s smiling at me." The song's closing line, "All I wanna say is,” leaves listeners hanging. After observing so much that many of us fail to even notice, what exactly is it that Barnett wants to say? Luckily, we having a feeling that when she's ready to tell us, she'll have no trouble finding the right words. 

Set list:
Elevator Operator
Pedestrian at Best
An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in NY)
Small Poppies
Depreston
Aqua Profunda!
Dead Fox
Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party
Debbie Downer
Kim’s Caravan
Boxing Day Blues


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