Courtney Barnett Tells Us How She Really Feels About Music Awards

Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett Photo by Mia Mala McDonald, courtesy of Grandstand Media

Courtney Barnett might never get played off the stage while dissing a music award a la Drake, but she may not necessarily disagree with the sentiment the hip-hop superstar was expressing when his Grammy acceptance speech was cut short last weekend.

Right from the start, Barnett’s musical output has been critically-acclaimed and honor-worthy. The indie rocker visits Houston next week for the first time (we think – more on that later) to perform songs from her latest album, Tell Me How You Really Feel. The record was released last summer and drew wide praise. When we caught up with Barnett by phone ahead of her stop at White Oak Music Hall, the album had just been shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize.

“It’s an honor really. That’s kind of one of our biggest prizes in Australia,” says Barnett, who hails from the country. “I always forget what the equivalent is in other places but obviously to have recognition is really important I think, and it’s always a mix of amazing artists, so to be up against other albums that are favorite albums of the year, yeah, it’s great.”

It’s great, she noted, but also a bit weird.

“It’s a funny thing, I think. It’s a strange kind of world where we have awards for things like that, but you know I try not to be totally cynical about it because I do think it’s nice to be recognized and I know why those things exist. I respect them and I respect the people that took the time and effort into making those things happen but, you know, at the end of the day it’s nice for people to celebrate music and art.”

We discussed this matter further and learned Barnett doesn’t have a special space designated for the music trophies or honors she’s earned to date, including the 2015 Australian Music Prize for Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, her smash debut album. She said there was a time and place for that sort of thing, but it passed years ago.

“When I was a lot younger in school I kind of got a few awards, definitely some sporting awards when I was younger. I remember when I was young it meant a lot to me. Maybe it’s the story you’re kind of told of how success is ranked, which I don’t so much believe anymore,” she admitted.

“If you kick more goals than the other person, well, you kicked more goals. And that’s just the facts. In music and art, you can’t really make a better album than someone else, because it’s subjective and it’s someone’s opinion. It’s a weird thing to be able to judge.”

Nevertheless, plenty of listeners have judged Barnett’s work and deemed it remarkable. Whether they've focused on hits like “Avant Gardener” or “An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)” from the debut LP, or, the new album, with highlights like the bone-rattling self-declaration “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” or the Exile in Guyville refugee “Nameless, Faceless,” or, the work she did with Kurt Vile on 2017’s Lotta Sea Lice – it’s mostly been cherished by music critics and fans.

Ask listeners and they’ll tell you the key to Barnett’s success is her songwriting. The compositions are structured like musical concrete poems where the melodies act as the framework for astute and insightful lyrics. Somewhat surprisingly, Barnett said she doesn’t begin building every new song from a reliable blueprint.

“I definitely don’t have a solid process, I mix it up a lot because a lot of songwriting, well, for me anyway, is just chance and luck. I never feel like I exactly know what I’m doing, so sometimes it just kind of all falls together. Sometimes it falls apart. But, I think that that is part of the process.”

As good as the recorded songs are, hearing them live adds another layer to them for fans. As near as we can tell, we mention, it’s the first time Houston fans will get this experience. She searched her memory too and couldn't come up with a Houston date in her past.

“I’m pretty sure that I have not and hopefully I haven’t because that would be rude if I had forgotten,” she worried, and we assured her no true fan would begrudge her if she had. “I’ve done Austin and I’ve done Dallas and Fort Worth, even. But I’m pretty sure this is the first time (in Houston) and that’s the reason we’re coming, because I do always do Austin.”

She said the Houston audience can look forward to the same show she’d feel comfortable playing in Austin, Melbourne or anywhere else on the globe, a globe that seems to be unanimously praising everything Courtney Barnett does.

“I generally kind of treat every audience the same and I assume that some people know me and some people don’t, that some have seen the show and some haven’t, and some people have been dragged along by their good friend and don’t want to be there but maybe I can change their mind. I think every audience has that different mix of everyone. I’m really happy to just kind of share the songs.”

Courtney Barnett, February 18 at White Oak Music Hall, 2915 N. Main. Sunflower Bean opens the show. Doors at 7 p.m., $30.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.