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Shy as a fox 

The awkward ascent of Courtney Barnett

Ask Australian artist Courtney Barnett how she got into the business of tracking music — like her wonderfully quirky Stateside debut, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas — and she instinctively balks. She's still not sure.

"I made the whole first EP in my room and recorded everything myself, but I didn't really know what the point was," she sighs. "But then I said to myself, 'Well, let's re-record it and then release it.' I dunno why. I guess I just wanted to do something with my life — I was a bit bored of doing nothing."

Following her performance at the 2013 CMJ conference, the 25-year-old singer-songwriter was chosen by Rolling Stone as one of its "ten best discoveries." Meanwhile, back home, she divides her time between tending bar and running an Australian record label, Milk! Records, complete with an exclamation mark ("like Wham!" she snickers).

From her pint-pouring position behind the counter at the Northcote Social Club, Barnett has signed fellow Melbourne artists Jen Cloher, Royston Vasie, and Fraser A. Gorman. "And again, I don't even know why I did that," she says. "I just thought 'Why the hell not? It's easy enough!' Everyone's got the Internet, so you can just do everything yourself.

"People are like 'Wow!' — they think it's really amazing," she adds. "But so many bands have started their own label, like The Saints, The Go-Betweens, heaps of cool Australian artists."

Barnett is equally nonchalant about the way she documents minute details of her everyday existence in "History Eraser," "Canned Tomatoes (Whole)," and "Avant Gardener," which details an actual panic attack she experienced while pulling weeds in her backyard. "I'm not that good at breathing in," she sings in a disconcerting melodic deadpan.

The Nancy Sinatra-timbred singer also pressed some limited-edition vinyl recordings in the Czech Republic and sold them through her Bandcamp page. "I'm really passionate about physical records, and I just assume that other people like vinyl as much as I do," she says. "And it's just such a pity, because at the moment, I'm sold out of nearly all my physical stock."

Meanwhile, Barnett continues bartending, which she's been doing since the age of 18. So is she constantly besieged at the bar by young outfits hoping to land a deal? Barnett laughs.

"You'd think so, right? But no, no one cares," she says. "And I like that. It freaks me out if people do come in and say that they saw me somewhere — I'm not a very spotlight-y person. I'm a bit shy and awkward, and whenever I'm at dinner parties and people want to know what I've been doing, I just change the subject. I don't like talking about myself."

Why, then, did this recluse ever step onstage in the first place? "I dunno," she once more replies. "And a lot of my songs are pretty boring — literally walking around the street, seeing stuff happen, and putting that in a song. Even when I released the stuff, I thought 'Well, no one's gonna give a shit about what I say.'

"But then people come up to me and say, 'It made me feel good to know that another person has anxiety attacks; I realized I wasn't the only one.' That is a pretty nice feeling."

scene@csindy.com

  • The awkward ascent of Courtney Barnett

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