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Barns Courtney Won’t Be Slowed by Record Labels

Getting dropped from a label deal was devastating at the time, but "it's the best thing that could have happened."

By Brian Ives

Barns Courtney is a singer/songwriter who is just starting to break into the pop mainstream after years of work, thanks to two new songs, “Glitter and Gold” and “Fire.”

The former song is about Courtney’s experience of being dropped by a record label, after working on an album for years.

“‘Glitter and Gold’ is similar to a lot of the rest of the record. It’s just kind of about striving to be successful. After I lost my first deal I was woefully unprepared for the real world. I had no qualifications whatsoever. And I got a job in this computer store directly across from the five star hotel that I used to stay in with my old management.”

“So I’d come out on my lunch break and look at this huge monolith to all of my past failings, and I’d hear my manager’s new band on the radio, literally, while eating my sandwich, and thinking, ‘This sandwich actually equates to about an hour of my time.'”

“And I wasn’t sure if I’d ever make music again. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I had no contacts or anything, and I had no way to make new music. So, I think it’s just about trying to hold on to that passion that you have in your youth and realizing that you’re trying to follow in the footsteps of people who have done all these great things. Yeah, and just like defiance of the situation that you’re in.”

While the experience of being dropped was, of course, a difficult one, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

“Yeah, absolutely,” he agrees. “It was impossible to tell at the time, but in retrospect, that’s the best thing that could’ve possibly happened. That gave me something real and honest to write about, and I think the experience made me even hungrier to make music for a living. I think losing the first deal was one of the hardest things I’ve had to deal with, ’cause I was so used to having everything dealt with [for me], and just making music every day. Came straight out of high school into a record deal.”

“And that was my experience of the real world. ‘Okay, so I just sit on the piano, and I just write these songs and people just let me do my thing and play Xbox. And then it’s like, ‘Bam!’ I have to go out and get a job; I can’t afford to pay rent living on like 5 pounds a day. It was a really intense, quick change.

But after that painful experience, did he hesitate to stick with it? “I didn’t want to start up again, to be honest. It was just so tough; I put my heart and soul into this record and spent three years touring it, three months in the studio. But I think — and a lot of musicians would probably say the same — when it’s really ingrained within you and within who you are, it’s both a blessing and a curse. I really don’t feel I can be happy doing anything else. So despite the fact that I was back to square one after years and years and putting everything into this record, I just couldn’t help but try and start it up again.

“Fire” was inspired by the same experience. “I was so just bitter and jaded and just downtrodden by the whole experience of losing my deal, and the record didn’t even come out. How could it not even come out, when I put everything into it? [The label] Didn’t even give it a shot.”

“I could hardly imagine what life would be like without being able to make music. And I could feel as the years went by like that passion that you have and that’s so natural to you when you’re a kid, it was just kind of draining into nothingness and just being pulled out of me, like some tide was going out, and I wasn’t sure it was gonna come back.”

“Fire,” is another new song that reflects on his experience.

“‘Fire,’ I wrote as an appeal to myself to remember why I got into music and what it was all about and to hold on to whatever that spark was. It’s quite defiant as well, like this cannot be how it ends, it cannot be my situation.”

Happily, things have changed for Courtney, and he’s starting to draw crowds to his shows, and he’s working on a new album.

“It’s just bizarre, ’cause I’ve been doing this for like a decade now. I started my first band when I was like 15 and just played so many shows where nobody’s there. We played to like three guys and their dog. And it’s so weird, that’s like half my life I’ve spent sort of being at shows where no one’s there and nobody cares. So it almost doesn’t feel real now that things are happening.”

Although he points out that playing to small crowds can be more nerve-wracking than large ones: “The funny thing that people don’t realize is that a show to three people is way, way harder than a show to like a thousand, or ten thousand. Because there’s like a secret psychology that goes on at a big show, and people are like, ‘Well, I’m watching him, and 10,000 other people are watching him, so he must be good. I’m gonna clap. He told me to sing along, I’m gonna sing along.’ If you can make three people dance at a show in like a hundred capacity venue, then you are an incredible performer.”

He laughs when recalling one unexpected large crowd he recently played to. “I played a festival in Holland, and somebody thought that it was going to be a secret Courtney Barnett set, so I had a full house of people. It was great.”

This fall, Courtney will first be touring with Tom Odell and then Fitz and the Tantrums, but presumably will draw crowds based on his own name.  Check out tour dates over at Eventful.

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