In Essential Albums, our favourite artists dig up a handful of records that they consider “Essential” by any definition they choose. This week, Australian singer/songwriter Courtney Barnett chooses five records that have shaped her as a person but that she also considers totally timeless.
Courtney Barnett's debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit has been called "a verbal diary." That's the kind of description that's often affixed, in a gendered way, to so-called "confessional" female singer/songwriters, but it means something else when it's attached to Barnett. Her music dramatizes the process of sitting in your bed at the end of the day, thinking back and trying to make sense of it all. It's peppered with specific references to the minutiae of her life and experiences, but reflected through her pun-addled intellect. She looks inward, then sings outwards.
She may be writing from her own life, telling stories about asthma attacks and elevator operators and real estate visits, but the experiences are universal: the balance of responsibility and apathy, social pressure, existential crises and bank account woes. When you get down to it, the specificity of her music doesn't distance her from the listener; in a lot of ways it's what makes her so gosh darn relatable.
Speaking from her laundry in Melbourne, Courtney Barnett walked a similar line with her Essential Albums picks. She chose to talk about five albums that have personal meaning to her, often attached to a specific experience (relaxing in the bath after a tour, learning to play the guitar, rebelling against her parents' music and then realizing she was wrong all along), but that she also calls "totally timeless." It's the music that shaped her as a person and as a songwriter, but it's also just great music. It doesn't matter who you are.
Neil Young, Live at Massey Hall 1971 (2007)
Courtney Barnett: I got this one on vinyl last year, I forget who sent it to me. Somehow I only found out about [Neil Young] a couple of years ago. A friend gave me Harvest and told me I had to listen to it. For some reason, he'd not always been in my life. And when I heard this album, I kind of just died a little bit. It's just so beautiful and haunting. I don't know why, but I always just go back to it. Sit in front of the stereo, stare at it, and just listen to it.
I don't think people knew these songs were about to be hits, and he'd play them and then they'd give this tiny little clap. I don't know how close it was [to Harvest], but a little while later they were like huge hit songs.
It's always kind of a vulnerable thing to play songs for the first time and see how they fall, how people react to them. Like, we were playing "Pedestrian" on the last tour and "Sleepless in New York" before [Sometimes I Sit...] came out. We hadn't played these songs at all, we pretty much recorded the album and only spent two weeks as a band together learning the songs, so playing them live for the first time they sound kind of shit. People make mistakes and no one knows what's happening, and I guess that's kind of the beauty of it as well.
Then it's also funny playing a song for the first time and there's that person in the front row lip syncing a long, and they've never heard it before. There's no way they can know the words. It's pretty funny.
You Am I, Hourly, Daily (1996)
Do you know this album? It's a good one. It's kind of a bit of an Australian classic, and it's just kind of one of those albums that's pretty inspirational. I think I'd only heard one song of theirs as a kid, and in my twenties kind of rediscovered them. I don't know, I just really connected with it. It's like a coming of age album and quite landscapey.
I probably didn't even listen to this album until I was twenty something. I'd only ever heard this song "Heavy Heart," which was on this compilation album when I was a kid, and I always thought (well, I still do) it's one of the best songs ever written. Tim Rogers, the singer, I just think he's a great writer.
Chart Attack: You're an Australian act who's found success in North America. Was it a surprise when your music started getting notice away from your home country?
Yeah, it was a huge surprise. I'd been playing around Melbourne in the music scene for ages. Within the music scene I had lots of friends, so people knew me in that way, but there wasn't like anything massive. Leaving Austrailia and going to the other side of the world was a pretty huge journey. You never think that out of all the bands in the world that you're going to be listened to more than someone else.
You use a lot of Australian references and you sing with an accent, but there's a universal quality to your music that people seem to connect with all over the world. What do you think that is?
It's ideas and emotions that people connect with more than anything. People can connect with love songs, and they can connect with "I want to go out, but I want to stay home" or working and not wanting to work and not having any money, and all that kind of boring shit that lots of people kind of go through in one way or another. Learning to understand your place in the world and growing up, it's just one of those universal things.
Even a song like "Depreston," it doesn't seem to matter that you're singing about a specific suburb of Melbourne.
Yeah, you know, it's meant to be interpreted that way. It can be kind of appropriated to any place, any city. It's all the same experience or idea, just the location that's specific.
Keith Jarrett, The Köln Concert (1975)
This is another guy that I kind of discovered in the last couple of years. It's really just a guy playing the piano. I think it's improvisation. I think it's just really beautiful. When I was recording my album, I'd actually come home late at night and lie in the bath with candles around me and shit and listen to this. It's really calming.
I think the first time, my parents actually listened to him when I was a kid, and I would was like "ah whatever, that sounds lame," because, you know, it's not cool to like the music your parents like when you're a kid - until you grow up and realize it's pretty good.
What were your parents listening to when you were young?
Dad loved jazz music, so we would listen to Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis and he had Billie Holiday records and he loved drumming so he had Buddy Rich and all that stuff. Mum liked classical music, so we had all that stuff too.
I don't think many people would see those as the biggest reference points for your music. Do you consider them an influence?
In kind of a hidden way, yeah. I think it comes out in different ways. It's not genre specific, obviously, but it always creeps in in kind of the mood, or in ideas. But even in something like "Small Poppies," it's got some weird jazzy shit deep within it. It's got that kind of freefall sway.
Patti Smith, Horses (1975)
I love that kind of rawness that album has. It feels not aggressive, but it's physical. I think it's one of the things that jumps at you right away. It's so much about power and conviction. The way she sings, she's never kind of scared to be vulnerable or open. She's very powerful with her voice. I've always thought that she's such a powerful performer.
She's going to be at Glastonbury, which I am too, and I'm very excited about that. It's probably something on my bucket list. I figured I'd never see her live, and now I will.
I kind of only have a couple of people I really admire that much, and actually I met them last year. I met Stephen Malkmus, and Jeff Tweedy. And I was stoked. Malkmus was really nice. We just had a beer. See, that's the thing when you meet your idols, you realize there's no reason to build people up because you just talk to them about normal things.
The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Are you Experienced?, (1967)
One of my first albums actually, so I've always just had it, carried it around with me everywhere I've moved. Actually, I think it was recorded in the same studio as Horses. Learning guitar when I was a kid I thought it was pretty cool, even then I couldn't play his songs because he was too good. And he was left handed so I think I had some sort of connection in my brain, that I would be able to play the guitar like him. But I don't know, just like a lot of the feeling on that album is so good.
I learned "Purple Haze" when I was a kid. It was one of the first, like, geek songs that I learned. And I never got any further for some reason. It's not the easiest. And "Manic Depression" was always one of my favourite songs. Growing up I felt like I could relate to it in some how, in some way. It made me just feel... something, I don't know what.
And I think because my line-up has changed so much over the years of me playing, I'd come back to this band and look, they're a fucking power three piece. And it's pretty cool I reckon to make that much awesome music from three instruments. Or three people, anyway.