All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Courtney Barnett

I was such a big reader. Did it give you a new way of seeing the world? As a kid I was pretty sprawled out. What poetry were you reading in school? Folktales? This is a public library in a suburb outside Sydney? I read a lot. Now I can’t remember what I was into. But I loved the idea of writing, more than being a musician. I definitely started writing more poetry than songs. And melody and rhythm comes with it and ties it all together. A lot about the gaze, and the frame. And a bit naughty — very clever in the way the stories were about the children against the adults; I didn’t really figure that out till a bit later, but it got you on their side. When I was really young I read all the Paul Jennings and Roald Dahl books — all those kinds of books. My guess is that some people write songs because they like melodies, and others because they like words, putting phrases together. Jen loves her, too. Do you think the books and language you were engaging with went into that in a direct way? You know how you had stories with scenes, some levels of metaphor or whatever. At a certain point, I got a bit lazy. COURTNEY BARNETT: When I was a kid, I went to the library every day after school, because I had to wait to get picked up by my mom; she worked in the middle of the city and she’d come home late. And I love making up words, making up your own meanings for things. I’d read two of them, extend them, extend them. What interested you about Roald Dahl? I would just get obsessed with weird things — I’d get obsessed with the World Wars or something and pore over all these war books. And I remember being amazed at how many layers of meaning you could get into one sentence: I think that’s what interested me. A lot of the art history amazed me. I loved discovering all of that stuff. I think I’m so sporadic with my reading. Then I probably started reading music bios. APRIL 27, 2018

THE AUSTRALIAN singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett has, in record time, become one of the best respected figures in indie rock, adopting a style reminiscent of Liz Phair and other ’90s figures and updating it for the 21st century. I loved the audiobook, and loved her reading it to me. Records, a label she and Cloher run in Melbourne, Australia. How did it add up for you when you were starting out? I think it’s that very tasteful connection to nature. 
One thing I see in your songwriting is wordplay: I think the first song of yours I ever heard was “Avant Gardener.” Do you tend to like writers who are playful with language? You were a kid in the ’90s. She spoke by phone from the warehouse of Milk! But I’m always trying to cram a million meanings into everything. I can’t quite imagine that hitting you, but who knows? If you were an American kid, you’d have read a lot of Judy Blume — did that stuff come into the reading of Australian girls. And that ended up turning into lyrics, I guess. That’s something I’ve always carried with me. John Lennon, Bryan Ferry. I’ve always been drawn to it. And I was probably a big rhymer. I don’t think I did. I read every book I could find on Nirvana or Kurt Cobain, and Jimi Hendrix and classic rock bible books, like the history of rock and roll and Chuck Berry. History? Did you have a favorite writer on art, a favorite period? Which I did find really interesting, but I didn’t read many novels then. And how-to books. Surrealism. I think the simplicity of it. ¤
SCOTT TIMBERG: So how important was reading to you as a kid, and what sorts of stuff interested you? Each story was this weird kind of … It was never normal, and I think it was exciting for that reason — it was a little bit supernatural and strange. Her verbal wit, deadpan delivery, and odd song structures were on clear display in buzzed-about singles like “Avant Gardener,” and she reached a broader audience with her and Kurt Vile’s duo LP Lotta Sea Lice and its alt-radio hit “Over Everything.” She’s also played on the albums and tours of her girlfriend, Jen Cloher. Yeah, I do. But I actually liked going there and hanging out. I don’t know how to explain it, but I really connected with it. What kind of music was interesting to you? My brother got onto that stuff — he read Dune. Especially when it makes you stop, step back, and think. When I started playing guitar, at 10 or 12, I was definitely interested in the marriage of the two things. I read a lot of fiction. No … I remember the girls in my school with — was it The Baby-Sitters Club? But poetry … I liked the mystery of it. Yeah, I remember sinking into the poetry section of the library. Right now I’m sort of obsessing over Maya Angelou — someone I never knew about as a kid, so it’s kind of a revelation. Mackellar’s “I love a sunburnt country,” Banjo Paterson — all that sort of stuff. Yeah, it definitely did. Did you ever get into science fiction and fantasy as a teenager? The history of the blues, that sort of stuff. I think we came to the point where I could have gotten the bus home by myself, or whatever. Definitely Australian poets, classic Australiana like Dorothea Mackellar, classic bush poetry. You must have started writing songs as a teenager. It really took you away to another little world. But I was always interested in the words, and saying something meaningful was the purpose. In my late teens I went to art school, so the reading I was doing was art history and art theory. A lot of the ideas in Roxy Music came from Richard Hamilton, with whom Ferry studied, and Pop Art. And a bit cheeky. I’d always get out way more books than I could read, and they’d end up on a pile at home. Punk was in the distance, the Beatles many decades behind. Which I would have never considered unless it had come up in class. You could hide all these layers of meaning in it. It seemed like I wouldn’t like it. I never read that. Yeah — but I actually really liked it. I suppose there are all kinds of writing tools that, if you overuse them, can get cheesy. I also love Mary Oliver’s poetry. Did you respond to poetry enough to pursue it yourself, find things you really liked? I got the audiobook because I was on tour. He wrote short stories, mostly — something quirky and strange would always happen. And it was very visual. Do you have a favorite writer to whom you go back a lot? They’re quite close, they can bleed into each other. At some point, nobody was telling you what to read, your mom wasn’t dropping you off at the library. But I liked the simplicity of poetry, or saying a lot with less; I found that challenging and fun. So many rock musicians went to art school. I don’t know precisely how. It opened my brain up to different ideas, combining the visual and the narrative — flexing the descriptive muscle, seeing how far you could take it. I didn’t end up becoming an artist but it ended up opening my eyes to all this other stuff, this whole other stuff, and fed into my writing and my songwriting. When we did creative writing exercises and writing big, long stories, I liked that. Were these rhyming, free? What did you like about writing poetry as a kid? A way to keep you off the streets? When I got into music I’d just go to the music section and read up on music history. That’s kind of a cleaned-up, white-bread sorta thing. Jennings is Australian, not as well known here. They were quick to read, but exciting stories. British stuff? I remember doing a whole study of the frame once, which I found kind of amazing — especially what goes on outside the frame. What kind of stuff were you reading — fiction? Where did you go next? Barnett plays the Pico Union Project on May 10, and her next LP, Tell Me How You Really Feel, comes out on May 18. Do you have a sense of how art criticism shaped your songwriting? I don’t think I ever got too deep into it. Yeah, exactly — they seemed to have a good selection. What did you respond to in his books? ¤
Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class. I listened to a bunch of interviews, and then I went and read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. I liked books like The Day of the Triffids and To Kill a Mockingbird; that’s not science fiction. And kind of unexpected. When I started studying surrealism and — I can never say it correctly, Automatism — I started learning about automatic writing and stream-of-consciousness writing. And I loved playing guitar, but when I started writing words … At some point we started learning poetry in school, and Shakespeare, that’s a different level from novels.