Courtney Barnett's clever songwriting sets Grammy nominee apart
In this Jan. 22, 2016 photo, Australian singer Courtney Barnett poses in Melbourne, Australia. (AP/Andrew Brownbill)
David Bauder, The Associated Press
Published Monday, January 25, 2016 1:59PM EST
NEW YORK -- Even with rock 'n' roll on the outskirts of popular music today, you can still pass by thousands of garages pulsing with the sharp, guitar-based sound favoured by Courtney Barnett and her band.
What sets Barnett apart, and earned the 28-year-old Australian a Grammy nomination for best new artist, is her distinctive songwriting. Her compositions are packed with details, with inventive twists that turn stories like a respiratory attack or search for a suburban home into compelling listening.
The song "Avant Gardener" introduced her to an American audience two years ago, the tale of an ambulance visit unfolding with poignant and amusing asides. "The paramedic thinks I'm clever 'cause I play guitar," she sings. "I think she's clever 'cause she stops people dying."
With her debut album, "Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit," that was among the most highly-regarded of 2015, Barnett proved she wasn't a fluke.
The singer, who lives in the Melbourne area, said she was influenced by the storytelling ability of fellow Australian Paul Kelly and the quirky sensibility of American Jonathan Richman.
"I've messed around with a lot of different styles of songwriting," she said by phone. "I just found when I pulled it apart and slowed it down and just focused on the small details, it was a lot more therapeutic for me and made more sense."
Kelly, one of Australia's most respected singer-songwriters, said Barnett has mapped out her own territory.
"Like all great songwriters she creates a world," Kelly said in an email interview. "It's a familiar world but also completely idiosyncratic. She demonstrates the voraciousness of genius. Anything and everything can be devoured and spat out in a song. I wish I'd written 'Nobody Really Cares If You Don't Go to the Party."'
Barnett is capable of Elvis Costello-like wordplay, like this couplet from "Pedestrian at Best": "I must confess, I've made a mess of what should be a small success. But I digress, at least I've tried my very best, I guess." She's rarely that showy, however. Her observations often seem offhand, disguising the amount of work that went into them.
Details bring the story in "Elevator Operator" alive, about a friend who went to a building's roof to take in the view when a businesswoman mistook him for a potential jumper. "A tortoise shell necklace between her breasts, she looks him up and down with a Botox frown," Barnett sings. "Depreston" conveys complex emotions, when the narrator imagines the life of a potential home's previous occupant.
Barnett said she didn't grow up around much music, but was influenced by tapes of guitar-based acts like Nirvana, Metallica and Jimi Hendrix that were given to her and her brother.
She learned of her best new artist nomination at the end of a long flight home, when her drummer checked his phone and exclaimed, "Oh, my God. You're nominated for a Grammy."
"It's a hugeness of recognition," she said. "It's great. Ten-year-old me didn't think I'd be growing up to be nominated for a Grammy."
She's taking some down time back home to write songs. She runs a small record label and also plays in a duo with her girlfriend Jen Cloher. Barnett earned a nomination for international female solo artist at the Feb. 24 BRIT Awards against Bjork, Lana Del Rey, Ariana Grande and Meghan Trainor. On the Grammys, which will take place in Los Angeles on Feb. 15, she'll compete for best new artist with James Bay, Sam Hunt, Tori Kelly and Trainor.
"I think we're going to come over and drink some champagne, or whatever it is you do at the Grammys," Barnett said.