FIRE, GLITTER, GOLD, AND FAILURE: BARNS COURTNEY ON THE ATTRACTIONS OF YOUTH
“Unless the sun inside you is burning your gut, don’t do it”. That’s a Charles Bukowski quote. It’s also the answer Barns Courtney gave me when I asked him to summarize his new album, The Attractions of Youth, in one short phrase. When you listen to the record, you’ll most likely concur. Each track spills over to the next pool of symbolism, sparking visions of gold, earth, and fire, then more fire backed by acoustic riffs, fitting for a storyteller who is dealing with the impact of failure and loss but is still hell-bent on redemption.
Courtney’s story starts on a sharp upward incline. Joining a band at 14 years old, getting a record deal, and moving to Los Angeles to record an album. Then, the ground fell out, and for the first time in his life, he had to deal with failure. He worked part-time jobs and even spent a stretch of time living in his car but, he pushed through. That story of showing up despite failure and years and years of keeping strong and carrying on is the narrative arch of his debut.
My first impression of Courtney was that he seemed like an amalgamation of pirate and poet. Pirate, because of his devil-may-care style (though, he was donning a vintage varsity jacket he found on Melrose Avenue instead of the usual marauder garb) combined with his songs featuring drifters he’d run into while traveling the world and the fact that he’s been hopping around stage on one foot (he broke the other in three places while diving into a crowd during a recent music festival set). Poet, because of his uncanny ability to weave words, not only on stage and in song but apparently during interviews (see: loomed over me like an asterial tide).
I caught up with Courtney right before the release of his debut album to discuss towing the terrifying line between success and failure, the poignancy of stories that only come from hardship, and, of course, the attractions and afflictions of youth.
Your debut album The Attractions of Youth is almost out. Are you excited, nervous, both?
I’m really excited. You know I’ve never had an album out before. I was signed to Island Records and then got dropped before the album was released so, yeah it’s a little terrifying but I’m excited to have it all out there.
Do you find it more terrifying because you’ve had the experience of recording an album without anything coming from it?
Yeah, absolutely. The whole thing looms over me and pulls at my heartstrings like an asterial tide. But it’s important as an artist to get your music out there continuously.
I know you were in the UK, then you moved to Seattle, then back to the UK. Do you think the place you’re at when you’re creating music has an impact on the final sound?
Absolutely. When I was recording in London I met this homeless guy outside of a supermarket and he had this incredible voice and he started telling me how to record my album never having heard my music before because he saw I had a guitar on my back. So, I got my phone out and recorded it and now he’s sampled on the record.
Is that the track, ‘Hobo Outside Tesco, London”?
Yeah. He’s got his own section where I’ve put some beats around his voice. He sang me a little song. Or, in Montreal for instance, the outro of the album is a made with a homeless guy who sang to me in French for ten minutes in Montreal.
How are you attracting all these homeless people that want to sing to you?
I think that’s the nice thing about life. Everyone has a lot to offer if you actually take the time to speak with them properly. I think that’s why I attract so many homeless people because I like to talk to everybody regardless of where they’re from, and nine times out of ten they don’t even stab you with a needle full of bleach, they’re just really nice.
Wait. Did someone stab someone with a needle full of bleach?
That was like one time (laughter), I feel fine, to be honest, and I retained much of vision. But yeah, it definitely has an impact. And I’ll hear certain songs as well that really inspire me. For instance, hanging around with my dad reminded me of when he played me the band Avalanches when I was just five years old in his car so I really wanted to make a track like “Frontier Psychiatrist” by this 90s band. I made this track called “Hellfire” basically on the basis of that song.
I had an interesting chat with the guitarist from the Sex Pistols and he was saying most of the music you make is invariably influenced by what you were listening to when you were 10 to 12 and you never really get away from that. When I was that age my mom was listening to a lot of Coldplay, and a lot of Paul Simon. But you can hear it in my music as much as I try to get away from it. I’m a massive fan of Coldplay, even though it’s not that cool. Even my single right now “Golden Dandelions” has got this hook in it that’s like (sings) Ooo-oooh which is such a Coldplay move. So I put it in there and realize what I’ve done then try to make it sound different. But ultimately you can’t escape from your past your brain is such a sponge when you’re a kid.
A lot of your music to me sounds like folk or soul music sonically and in the storytelling, where does that come from?
The storytelling is from just being down and out and depressed after having lost my record deal. My life had been a constant upward trajectory since I was in my first band at 14. School concerts, we were winning battle of the bands, then televised battle of the bands on tv, then we got a manager, we got signed, then we went to LA and recorded the record, and then suddenly it all came crashing down around me and I woke up at the age of 23 with no qualifications. All of my friends were graduating University and I’m just handing out flyers for a living, giving out samples of Lipton’s Ice Tea in a muscle suit and orange crocs. So it was really shocking and debilitating and just shook me right to the middle of my core. It was very hard to deal with so I think a lot of this music was this defiant, fuck this, I’m not going to let my life turn into this kind of thing. I guess the reason I found the blues so attractive was because that music was born out of hardship and out of dealing in the face of adversity. Now, obviously I have a lot of other things floating around in the background as well, so I don’t think it turned out to be out and out blues but that definitely was a very compelling scene to get into at that time.
When you were writing songs like “Fire” and “Glitter and Gold” that were coming from a place of feeling defeated when was the moment you knew those songs were going to take off?
I think one of the greatest benefits of failing so hard is that it gave me something real to write about. It gave me genuine honest subject matter that I hadn’t really been able to experience before. So I was aware that the tracks were very honest but I’d always written like that. I didn’t expect them to be as successful as they were I just knew that I couldn’t quit until something gave and I got to make music again. But I’d been working for three years from the first deal to the second with zero success and always almost getting it and some manager almost signing me or like almost getting a song in that show “Nashville” just like random little bits and blobs, and finally with “Fire” everyone just came out of the woodwork but it felt surreal. I remember being at the record label signing my deal and I had never been so quiet in my life, my managers couldn’t believe it. I was worried that it was just all going to be pulled out from under me again, or that everyone would jump out of the cupboards and sort of mockingly say “you’re not really going to get signed, get back to the computer store you dick!”
So do you feel like you would’ve been able to make this album if it weren’t for what happened?
Definitely not, this album is very much inspired by that, especially the first half. I’ve changed the track listing around now. My little brother, he’s 14, he doesn’t even like the kind of music I make. I got him to choose the order of the tracks on the record. Just because I thought it would be good for somebody who is completely out of it to have a hand in the record. Certainly with the Dull Drums EP it’s all about that. I love that Charles Bukowski poem, “if there isn’t a sun burning a hole in your gut, don’t do it” and that’s definitely something that I felt.
We talked a little bit about the storytelling in the album, are there certain writers or songwriters who you look up and think do that well?
I think Charles Brokowsky is fantastic in his brutal honesty. I love the poet Dylan Thomas and the way he invents words, like ‘snouting, velvet dingles.’ He talks about moles being in their snouting velvet dingles, like what does that mean? And then you think moles have little snouts and they’re velvety things and dingles means woods. So he’s basically conjuring the images of little moles like sort of snouting around in the woods all soft and safe in their little burrows, but he had to invent the word snouting to do that. I’ve referenced his work a couple of times in the record. Then, in terms of songwriters I love people like Bruce Springsteen or Nirvana, I love how simplistic and truthful their lyrics are and how they can make a whole chorus out of the word “yeah.” Paul Simon, I think his lyrics are really interesting. There’s a lot.
I know you were living in your car at a certain point while you were trying to get another break. Have you had the chance now to enjoy any of the perks of your success?
Oh definitely, yeah. It’s really funny because I’ve always loved making music and playing gigs and I’ve never really had any of the perks. I kind of felt they were clichés that didn’t really exist unless you were a massive star. For instance, I never had girls as a result of my bands, probably because my bands sucked (laughter). So it’s really funny now playing a gig and having five or six hangers-on trying to get into my pants. It’s a weird bizarre experience because I’m not used to it at all. I’ve always had to go out and actually talk to girls, I’ve never had them come to me specifically for the music, so it’s very strange and alien. To be honest, the biggest perk is just being able to tour everyday, it’s what I live for, I love it so much.
So would you rather be on the road than in the studio?
Absolutely. I’m super ADD, I can’t concentrate. I literally got distracted by a butterfly the last time I was in the studio. Not figuratively, literally. A butterfly came and I had to leave and go and chase it down the road. I get sleepy, I can’t stay awake. So, there’s just nothing better than being on the road every day with your best friends, even if it is in a shitty splitter van. It’s like that comedian that talks about his sets, like if this shit goes wrong, it’s not even the biggest part of my day- it’s like an hour.
Speaking of touring, what songs do you feel people get most excited about when they hear them live?
I haven’t released everything yet but of the ones I’ve played so far “Glitter and Gold” seems to get a massive reaction which I wasn’t expecting. We didn’t even release that as a single so it’s weird that people are so into it and formulaically when I listen to it as a songwriter with my pop ears on, it never felt like the one that was really going to connect. But, it does – which is really nice for me because I wrote that song in a decommissioned old folks home in North London.
The band split up and I moved in with my girlfriend at the time and that’s a whole other story in itself, this crazy multi-million pound flat that was being paid for by a wealthy oil baron in Dubai who was never there. My friend Sam decided to sell polaroids to Japanese tourist and live in a decommissioned old folks home in North London that was falling apart. So, I used to go over to his house in this tiny little office and we’d make records in his bedroom and he would hold the microphone towards me while I’d experiment making beats with different things around the room. We’d layer a filing cabinet out in the hallway or make bass with an old piano in the rec room and there would be old film canisters we could hit stuff against. So, it’s just weird to see that people are so into it and see the song in commercials and movies and just think I made that for no money whatsoever.
Do you feel like it’s an important part of the song process to write for yourself before thinking about how other people are going to react?
I think it’s everything in my opinion. Bowie always used to say that, he used to say don’t play to the gallery. He knew that from experience because he did that for a while in the 80s and the music sucked really hard, and he knew it. But people don’t want you to play to them, they want to hear something that’s real and honest because unless it is, your music is immediately transparent and how can people connect to something that doesn’t come from a real place?
Are there any songs you don’t currently have in your live set that you’re excited to play for fans after the release?
There’s one called “Goodbye John Smith” because I got too many slow songs in the set. There’s one that’s not going to be on the album that I play called “Hearts Be Alone” that I didn’t have time to record, and then there’s “Dopamine” and “Sinners” that I didn’t put on the record because I played it for my little brother and he’s like ‘dude you already have two songs on the record just like this.’ He listens to Marshmellow, he doesn’t give a shit about my music.
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Barns Courtney’s debut album, The Attractions of Youth, is set for release this Friday, September 29th!