Generally speaking, tall poppy syndrome is an outbreak of criticism directed at one of our own (i.e. an Aussie) for becoming more than moderately successful. With this in mind, Courtney Barnett is currently a prime candidate for such a mean-spirited attack. The Melbourne-based singer- songwriter’s debut LP Sometimes I Sit and Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit came out in late March, whereupon it debuted at number four in the ARIA charts, as well entering the UK and US charts at 16 and 20 respectively.
Yet, in spite of Barnett’s unheralded success, the predictable wave of tall poppy syndrome hasn’t transpired. When scrutinising this exemption, there are a few key factors that can’t be ignored. Namely, not only does Barnett’s songwriting relate playful observations of day- to-day experiences, but she also seems entirely lacking in pretensions. “I don’t like the idea of trying to make people like the music you are trying to sell,” Barnett says. “I prefer people to discover the music and want to buy it to support the artist and then want to share it with their friends. Maybe that’s a bit pie in the sky, but that’s how music should be. You shouldn’t buy a record because every newspaper is telling you to buy it. You should buy it if someone shows it to you and you like it.”
Of course, anyone can feign surprise in the face of growing fame, but in Barnett’s case, this modesty appears to be a self-evident truth. For supporting evidence, the most telling indicator of Barnett’s commercial disregard is her idiosyncratic songwriting. While it’s unnecessary to declare her an outright original, it seems patently clear the record wasn’t tailored to meet the expectations of her growing stature. Courtney Barnett doesn’t approach her music with utter nonchalance. Take for instance her debut LP’s fourth track, Small Poppies. The seven-minute slow burner starts by questioning the point of the tall poppy impulse. In the opening chorus, Barnett guardedly sings “I don’t know quite who I am, but man I am trying/ I’ll make mistakes until I get it right.”
However, as the song progresses, the lyrics shift from a two-way conversation into an internal mantra. By the final chorus, Barnett sounds empowered as she now screams those same lyrics. This development from uncertainty into decisive self-confidence mirrors the record’s creative process: “To be honest I kind of freaked out when I did look at it as an album,” Barnett says. “I thought ‘these songs aren’t going to fit together very well, I don’t know what I’m doing,’ which is how I live most of my life – not knowing what the hell I’m doing. But I just kept writing and it became clear that they’re not the same but they still fit together because they’re of the same kind of mentality.”
When Barnett created Milk! Records, she simply wanted something to stamp on the back of her debut EP, 2012’s I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris. The label remains a homespun operation,
and it’s fair to assume the majority of releases that surrounded her LP on the charts had considerably larger promotional budgets. Rather than a strategic marketing plan, Barnett’s rise to international renown has been assisted by glowing critical feedback from the likes of Pitchfork, Spin, NME and The Guardian.
However, the songwriter’s influential admirers can’t take all the credit. In fact, for the most part, her journey has been conducted on foot. Over the last 18 months, Barnett and her band – featuring bass player Bones Sloane, drummer Dave Mudie and guitarist/ producer Dan Luscombe of The Drones – have conducted multiple tours of the US, UK and Europe. With each return visit, larger and more rapt audiences have greeted them.
“I’m just grateful that people are connecting with my music and coming to shows,” Barnett says.
“I don’t know where they’ve come from or where they’ve heard the music, but it’s nice that they’re there. How ever they found out about it, they’ve obviously connected in some way.”
Barnett and co. are currently running through the entirely sold-out Australian leg of their global album tour. The band’s appearances on the Laneway Festival earlier this year proved how adept they’ve become at commanding a mass audience. But it certainly hasn’t gone to her head.
“Big festivals are really surreal to play and you feel like a bit of an imposter,” she says, “but it’s fun. It’s fun to dick around with the boys and act like an idiot in our own little space, but it’s funny being back stage and walking past some famous person and we just look at each other and giggle, because we’re there as well. It’s this really funny moment of being like ‘Wow, we’re back stage with all these famous people,’ and it’s because we’re playing as well. It’s still funny and I don’t think it’s something I’ll get used to.”