When Kurt Met Courtney

KURT Vile thinks he and Courtney Barnett met in 2013 at one of his shows in Melbourne. The story’s right, but the details are wrong. Courtney Barnett sets the story straight. The pair met in 2014 – early 2014 – at Shadow Electric, the now defunct schoolhouse-turned-cinema-turned-venue that used to host a lot of ramshackle summer rock shows a few years ago.

The show wasn’t originally on the tour schedule. Vile, in town to play Laneway Festival, had sold out two shows at the Corner Hotel with his band, The Violators, and so a final show was added with the unassuming upstart Courtney Barnett as support.

Even if a third Violators show hadn’t been added, the pair would have undoubtedly met at some point – the world of witty, winding indie rock is small enough that a Kurt-Courtney bill would have been inevitable – but the timing of Courtney and Kurt’s initial meeting feels significant.

In summer 2014 Courtney was still fresh from reissuing her two first EPs – I’ve Got A Friend Named Emily Ferris and How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose – as an album-length double EP. Things were happening – she was playing increasingly bigger shows and receiving increasingly more significant press. Forgive the crass phrasing, but in early 2014 Courtney was buzzy.

Kurt, on the other hand, had proven himself as a staple of American indie-rock by 2014. Since the breakthrough he made with 2011’s Smoke Ring For My Halo – his fourth album, but a major introduction for many listeners – Kurt had been refining his already meticulous sound, and adding to his already significant fanbase. By the time 2013’s Walkin’ On A Pretty Daze was released, he was a cult hero.

Seeing Courtney open for Kurt in 2014, it might have felt as though Courtney could also become a prolific and hard-working rock staple. Three-and-a-half years later, you can see that’s not quite what’s happened.

While Kurt is still a cult hero, Courtney’s star has risen out of the realms of indie-rock fandom and onto the fringes of broader culture. If social media is to be taken as an accurate measure of popularity, Courtney is certainly more popular than Kurt.

So now, three years on from that Melbourne show, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile are together again, this time not with the lopsided dynamic of their first meeting, but as equals.

Over the past couple years they’ve been writing and recording Lotta Sea Lice, a nine-song album featuring duets, covers, and new songs they’ve written for each other. It’s a concept that could come across too cutesy (She & Him for the jangle set), or cynical (an easy earner between albums), but it’s neither of those things.

Instead it’s a body of work that feels significant in the canons of both artists but doesn’t take itself too seriously; a collection that doesn’t sacrifice obsessive craft – the thing that connects these two as musicians, above all else – for goofiness. It’s rock’n’roll’s Watch The Throne – two visionaries at the top of their game getting together not because they have anything to prove, but just because they can.

THE pair play off each other well on record, so it’s a disappointment they’re conducting press separately. When I speak to Kurt he’s in his basement in Philadelphia, a work-in-progress music room. He himself isn’t great with the whole DIY-renovation thing (“I got a brother for that”) but he’s good with music equipment. On the phone he talks slowly and conversationally; he says what he needs to say, with no fuss or embellishment.

Courtney is the same. She speaks quickly, but with long pauses; she thinks hard about what she’s going to say before saying it. Or it comes across that way. She’s in Berlin when I call, at the beginning of a European tour with her partner Jen Cloher, for whom she plays guitar.

Speaking to Courtney and Kurt about the same events is fun. It’s fascinating to hear them fill in details about their interactions and recording in order to provide a bigger picture. After chatting to them, some details remain fuzzy, but it’s clear they’re a well-made match.

As many first meetings go, the pair’s first interaction was awkward, in a friendly way.

Kurt: She was shy. Her band was really nice. It was Dave [Mudie, drums], and Bones [Sloane, bass], and the guitar player from The Drones [Dan Luscombe]. I really liked her, I thought she was really cool. We just casually talked, but not much. Then she gave me her album. She definitely made an impression – she’s got a certain thing about her. She makes an impression, just standing there.

Courtney: We’re both pretty awkward. We’re both a bit socially strange, so I remember it being probably a little bit awkward. I was a pretty big fan. I still am, but I was then, and I remember I really wanted to introduce him to my girlfriend Jen because we both loved his music. It was just this ‘kinda weird-ish fan moment, which was ‘kinda funny looking back on it. It was a very awkward meeting.

The first [Kurt Vile] album I heard was Smoke Ring For My Halo, and I just remember thinking that I hadn’t heard anything quite like it. Sonically it’s such a beautiful sounding record, everything sounds so lush and thick, and just all these acoustic guitars, you just can’t quite tell what’s happening. For some reason it really stood out to me around the time. I was having a bit of a low point when I first heard it, and it just really got right into my body. On top of that, I just found his lyrics funny. Like, funny, but in a ‘kinda dry, slightly darkish way sometimes, and I liked that. I liked the juxtaposition of the two moods, because I guess that’s ‘kinda how I was feeling.

Kurt: [Courtney’s music] isn’t put on. It’s just organic, unique to her personality, ‘sorta relatable in a way. You know how certain voices, like Lou Reed or David Byrne or something, they have this relatable tone of voice? I think Courtney has that, but she also has a great voice. Her subject matter and lyrics are pretty well thought out and clever. I think a lot of people today, in popular music, they’re not writing a song on their couch per se, with all their lyrics together. It’s more like a lot of messing with sound in the studio. Lyrics come later. I think she’s just approachable. She’s awesome.

It was Kurt who first approached Courtney about Lotta Sea Lice.

Courtney: Kurt emailed me one day and said, “I’ve got this song I think would work for both of us to sing,” and then we ‘kinda took it from there. [After recording that] I was like, well, we’ve got this time left in the studio, why don’t we do this song of mine, and we kept adding onto it because we kept having fun and we liked how our guitars and voices sounded together. It just grew by itself.

The prospect of making a whole album with someone is so huge. I think if we’d planned it that way it would have turned out so different. I think the unintentional, off-the-cuff way that it happened produced a much realer, nicer final product. I think if we had gone in planning to make this whole album, then everyone would have approached it differently. I just think the spontaneity would have been lost, and the kind of random emotional backing would have been skewed.

Kurt: Our extended friendship was … first it was corresponding, to make music together, because I just wanted to do a song with her or something. I thought she’d be into it because I knew she was a fan, but still, I had to wait and see. But she did, and so we just talked about just doing a split 7”. I knew the record would be good, but I just love the record. It’s just so real and just a little bit of everything. Not too forced or anything.

THE record sounds like it was a blast to make. It’s a blast to listen to. For the most part, the songs are aesthetically more in line with Kurt’s solo music than Courtney’s; these songs feel lived in and roomy rather than hermetically sealed, like Courtney’s records.

When Courtney does take the lead, it’s a gut-punch; in the two years since releasing her debut, she’s begun to fill in her quirky sketches with light and shade. Her lyrics are still neurotic as ever, but she seethes and swaggers like a rock star now.

The first time the pair really got a chance to develop their friendship was during the recording process.

Kurt: We ‘kinda bonded over making the album. I would say we bonded on the road. We recorded a little, that’s how we made friends. One Australian summer we did some recording while I was touring, and we were buds then. But I feel like we would see each other on the road and we became closer friends … Everything happened pretty fast, but it’s a pretty unique way to become good friends.

Courtney: One of the first things he said to me was that one of his daughters was dancing around the house singing my songs, or something. I instantly saw this other side to him. I met his kids the first time he came to the studio, and I think just seeing a different side of people ‘kinda helps. [We bonded over] a lot of music and movies and TV references and stuff.

We just kept throwing around random quotes and stuff in the studio. There was a lot of weird American stuff that he was talking about that I didn’t know, and he’d try to explain it to me. I think that’s half the fun as well. The wall of not knowing.

I remember one time we were at this festival in Ireland, and we were hanging out. We set up these microphones to try and record one of the songs for the album, which we ended up redoing. I remember having a thought – you know that recognition when you realise that you’re friends with someone? You’ve ‘kinda been hanging out with them or doing something but then all of a sudden it’s comfortable. That first friend-date feel is out the window and you don’t have to be on your guard. I just realised I felt really comfortable and safe with him. I thought that was a really nice feeling.

Kurt: When [we finished recording] I missed her. It happened real quick and exciting and then it was like, “Wow.”

The creation of Lotta Sea Lice happened at a time when Courtney was having trouble with the follow up to her debut.

Kurt: [Courtney] was having some writer’s block, or thinking she did – I still suspect that she had a lot of great stuff, but she was too close to it. Maybe she really didn’t have songs or something. But anyway, it just forced us both to get together and see what happened.

Courtney: I’ve ‘kinda been working on [my second album] for a while, and getting a bit trapped inside of it, inside the idea and that kind of world. I do my own writing, so it’s just so closed off from everything. I think that this project was so loose. The planning of it was so loose. We just planned to do one song and we didn’t really know what we were ‘gonna do with it, maybe nothing.

As time went on we ‘kinda just kept adding songs and coming up with covers and just having a lot of fun being in the studio making music with people, and sharing these nice moments. I think it helped take those weird anxieties I had away, and to get over it, to ‘kinda move on and just realise that it’s such a fun, beautiful privilege to be able to make music in the first place.

And just to get over the weird stress that I’d put on myself about whatever it was, like that these songs I’m writing have to be perfect, or whatever, my stupid idea of perfection. I think it was nice to break out of that stupid idea.

As soon as we started hanging out and getting to know each other properly, we ‘kinda realised that we’re quite similar musically and just ‘kinda general ideas and the way we view the world. We had this brother-sister goofy relationship that seems to work. We’ve both just got the same weird bits. I think we’re just very similar people, and that seemed to work somehow.

I don’t know if it’s a musical thing or a personality thing, but we just seemed to bounce off each other. There didn’t really feel to be too much weird ego or anything floating around, which I think probably helped the situation. Kurt’s such an open, supportive person. It can be so vulnerable in the studio, or even songwriting, trying to come up with ideas and being left open, so I think it really helps having that openness.

Kurt: We both do our own thing, but it’s sort of traditional, in a country music kind of way, a songwriter kind of way. But it’s modern in the delivery. Modern subject matter.

It somehow complements, having a girl. I think part of the reason bands like Fleetwood Mac are so huge has to do with the fact that it’s not just one singer constantly. I like having a female opposite with a sweet voice. Neither of us are too trained or anything, it’s laid-back and natural.

But that said, she’s got great vocal chops. I feel like being able to have a girl sing a line after I sing is way more – and Courtney in particular – it’s more well rounded, or something.

Courtney: it was really fun being in the studio with him, just watching the process and remembering that every kind of writer goes through those insecurities and anxieties. Everyone ‘kinda has those moments. He was just really inspiring and supportive to be around, and we’d just loosely play these acoustic, half-written songs to each other, and I remember he played ‘Over Everything’, the first song that we did, and I thought it was a cool song, and we did it, and then it hit me a couple of days later how catchy it is.

But it doesn’t really have a chorus, or even a majorly strong melody or hook or anything. For some reason he writes these hooks that ‘kinda grow on you. I didn’t realise it until, like, weeks or months later that they’ve got this weird catchiness, but not in the classic, boring, straight-ahead way.

Setting New Standards

There’s no obvious single in the style of ‘Pretty Pimpin’ or ‘Pedestrian At Best’, but that’s fine; Lotta Sea Lice is great because it feels like it was created quickly and freely, without any concern for album sales or cycles.

The room to breathe suits both musicians well – it allows them to try out new styles and record oddball songs that might not have seen the light of day otherwise, like the duet ‘Continental Breakfast’, or ‘Blue Cheese’, a song that Kurt wrote in high school and updated for this record.

Any of the songs could easily slip onto either artist’s solo album, which is to say they’re all of a very high quality. The best track is ‘Fear Is Like A Forest’, a powerhouse cover of a Jen Cloher song led by Courtney.

It’s not a slight on Courtney or Kurt that the album’s covers, of which there are four – including two Courtney and two Kurt solo songs covered by the other – are generally the most thrilling tracks on the record.

The many covers feel like a nod to when duet albums featuring country and western or jazz standards were more common. These songs are new rock’n’roll standards, indie-rock jams that feel built to last.

Courtney and Kurt each brought a cover to the table – Kurt brought ‘Untogether’ by ’90s rock act Belly, while Courtney brought Jen Cloher’s ‘Fear Is Like A Forest’.

Kurt: I just heard that [Belly] reunited and I didn’t even know that, I thought it was ‘gonna be more obscure than that. I had that tape when it came out when I was a kid, and it’s obscure enough – it’s not even, like, a hit – but that song in particular, I would always go back to it. I get nostalgic about it.

In the ’50s people would just cover songs and people would have different “hits” with them back then. This is just the same deal. It’s such a great and pretty song and I knew nobody was ‘gonna cover it any time soon, so the idea to have Courtney sing it and me ‘kinda back her up … I just thought the song was so pretty.

It turned out even prettier than I ever thought, but it’s just a classically good song with quirky lyrics and stuff. Plus it had nostalgia for me, so for me it was a guaranteed rewarding [song] as long as it sounded half good. But it turned out even better. Courtney loves it. In a way, it’s the prettiest song on the record.

Courtney: I always loved ‘Fear Is Like A Forest’. I’ve played it with Jen in her band, and even now. She’s one of my favourite songwriters, and that song stands out to me. It always has. It just sounds like a classic song, and the original recording, on her second album Hidden Hands, is cool, but when we play it live it transforms into this other thing.

It sounds like this Neil Young Crazy Horse song. I just wanted to try to give it a second life. I was ‘gonna get Kurt to sing it, I thought that would sound cool, but for whatever reason I played it to Stella [Mozgawa, drums] and Kurt in the studio and we jammed it a couple of times and recorded it and then it was done. It’s just such a good song. I think it’s such a great song, so I wanted people to hear it.

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