Songwriters Are Poets, Too: Courtney Barnett

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By Maddie Farr ’18

This post is part of a series on talented songwriters.

Courtney Barnett is the kind of songwriter and performer who could pass you by if you’re not listening right. Her songs ask for nothing from the listener, but instead unravel on their own terms, detailing ordinary, even mundane situations and anxious inner-musings. But once the listener attunes his/her ear to Barnett’s specific frequency, her charm and talent–as well as her irresistible Australian accent–become instantly addictive.

Courtney Barnett’s songs sound like conversations among great friends, like pages from a well-used notebook, or like lonesome afternoons with nothing but your own mind to keep you company. She has a particular gift for telling engaging stories about everyday situations, filled with relatable details and anecdotes that bring her world to life. As she sings on the track “Avant Gardener” off her first album The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas: “I much prefer the mundane.” This song, written in a rambling and anecdotal manner, details a boring Monday that becomes a hospital visit when Barnett has an allergic reaction while attempting to garden. Her unassuming lyrics on this song, as well as others such as the track “Depreston” off her most recent Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, hide profound and often existential worries and revelations. Through small stories and sweet details, Barnett is often communicating something huge: the fear of being still, of wasting one’s life, or the worries that come from growing older. There is a deep intimacy to the honesty and attention to detail in Barnett’s songs.

Barnett's most recent album.

Barnett’s most recent album, for which she did all the artwork.

Courtney Barnett’s songwriting process is also unique and inspiring. She, like many of us who aspire to be writers, keeps constant journals filled with thoughts big and small. From these journals, Barnett pieces together the lyrics for her songs. In other words, she combines the candid, impulsive, and ordinary nature of a journal with the meticulous process of distilling a hundred pages into one. This process feels naturally connected to the down-to-earth, do-what-is-necessary nature of Barnett’s career. In an interview with the Guardian, as a response to the question of why she recorded her first two EPs, Barnett replied, “Because, I dunno, I had nothing else to do. I was miserable.” This, to me, is incredibly important. Courtney Barnett’s work has never been anything but doing what makes her happy, writing songs and journal entries to make something worthwhile of the mundane or upsetting. The idea of getting through the miserable by writing about the ordinary, by recording one’s thoughts as a means of simply surviving life–and then using all of that to create art–that is the reason why I find Courtney Barnett an inspiring songwriter, performer, and human being.

Here is a selection of my favorite songs by Courtney Barnett, along with the lyrics that stand out to me:

  1. “Avant Gardener” – This song is a perfect showcase for Barnett’s storytelling abilities, and a funny twist on a traumatic experience.

The paramedic thinks I’m clever cos I play guitar
I think she’s clever cos she stops people dying
Anaphylactic and super hypocondriactic
Should’ve stayed in bed today
I much prefer the mundane.
I take a hit from
An asthma puffer
I do it wrong
I was never good at smoking bongs.
I’m not that good at breathing in.

2. “History Eraser” – Barnett wakes up and recalls a dream that puts all other dreams to shame.

I found an ezra pound and made a bet that if I found a cigarette I’d drop it all and marry you.
Just then a song comes on: “you can’t always get what you want” – The Rolling Stones, oh woe is we, the irony!
The stones became the moss and once all inhibitions lost, the hipsters made a mission to the farm.
We drove by tractor there, the yellow straw replaced our hair, we laced the dairy river with the cream of sweet vermouth.

3. “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” – A sweet and relatable song about missing one’s significant other. Barnett perfectly joins ordinary sentiments, like I’m hungry or I’m tired, with the feeling that underlies them all, “I’m thinking of you too.”

I lay awake at three, staring at the ceiling
It’s a kind of off-white, maybe it’s a cream
There’s oily residue seeping from the kitchen
It’s art-deco necromantic chic, all the dinner plates are kitsch with
Irish Wolf Hounds, French baguettes wrapped loose around their necks
I think I’m hungry, I’m thinking of you too.

4. “Pedestrian at Best” – This song is a great example of Barnett’s clever and satisfying wordplay, as well as being a wonderfully angry riff on celebrity, friendship, and art.

My internal monologue is saturated analog
It’s scratched and drifting, I’ve become attached to the idea
It’s all a shifting dream, bittersweet philosophy
I’ve got no idea how I even got here
I’m resentful, I’m having an existential time crisis
Want bliss, daylight savings won’t fix this mess
Under-worked and over-sexed, I must express my disinterest
The rats are back inside my head, what would Freud have said?

5. “Depreston” – A sweet and quietly melancholy song about house-hunting in the Australian suburbs.

Then I see the handrail in the shower, a collection of those canisters for coffee tea and flour
And a photo of a young man in a van in Vietnam
And I can’t think of floorboards anymore, whether the front room faces south or north
And I wonder what she bought it for

Check out Courtney Barnett’s music at her self-run label, Milk! Records.

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