Courtney Barnett Invited Us Backstage At Madison Square Garden, This Is What Went Down

5 November 2015 | 11:51 am | Bryget Chrisfield

"It was Adalita and Gareth Liddiard and Jen Cloher so it was pretty nerve-racking."

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6pm: Text Hook, Courtney Barnett's TM, upon arrival at Madison Square Garden, where the local lass done good is supporting Blur tonight. After hovering around the workers entrance, 8 Penn Plaza, Hook appears with the necessary 'credentials' (a Blur VIP lanyard) to escort this scribe into the bowels of the arena. We legit walk past Graham Coxon and struggle to maintain composure. A dude in the elevator hopes (out loud) that Blur will include older material (specifically She's So High) in tonight's set. After rounding a few corners in these endless corridors, Hook ushers me into a small room and then heads off to fetch Barnett. About 20 seconds pass. Barnett enters the room with an elongated, "Hiiiii!" She sports a Poison City Records beanie and takes a seat on the plastic chair opposite. Hook reappears, motions toward the door and enquires, "Do you want me to close this?" We both answer together: "Sure".

"The chords in my song Pedestrian At Best are nearly exactly the same as Song 2 and I never noticed that until then."

So Barnett just soundchecked at Madison Square Garden, which is a far cry from pulling beers at Northcote Social Club. Did her band get a decent amount of time on stage? "Oh, not really, but we don't really take that long," she shares. "We normally just kinda get it done in ten minutes." The capacity of "The World's Most Famous Arena", as this venue's logo boasts, is 18,000-plus. On whether Barnett and co require in-ear monitors or any such paraphernalia, she ponders, "Nah. I dunno. It would be interesting to try it, but it's kind of expensive and just looks like a lot of hassle [laughs]. I'm sure once you get it right it's probably amazing, but we did tour with Something For Kate a couple of years ago and they had it and there was always, like, something wrong with it. And I kind of like having sound coming at me 'cause [with in-ear monitors] it sounds really, you know, separated."

Barnett seems super-relaxed and pauses after each question, often commencing responses with an "ummm" and laughing frequently. To provide a bit of perspective on Barnett's extraordinary career trajectory, we ask her to remember the first gig she ever played. "Um, well, first gig I did solo acoustic - when I started my music career - was at the Lark Distillery in Hobart, which is like a little whisky bar and it was an open mic thing," she reveals. "First gig we did as this band, oh! With a varying - like, Bones [Sloane] wasn't there it was another bass player, but it was at The Tote. Yeah. That was the first Courtney Barnett official EP launch." This I've Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris EP launch show was on 19 April, 2012. So was it a full house in the iconic, 200-capacity Melbourne venue? "Um, I don't think we completely sold it out, but it was close enough, yeah, haha."

When asked what the longest period of time would be that she's spent at home this year, Barnett considers, "Um, maybe just recently, like, just until we came here we kind of had maybe a month or a month and a half? And it was really nice just kinda hangin' out. It's been a pretty hectic year. I mean, it's hard 'cause it kind of ends up jumbling into one; I was away for three months the last trip, but I had positioned little holiday trips in between - you know, at like the one-month mark - 'cause otherwise I'd go a bit crazy." During this relatively long stint back home, Barnett explains, "I was like, 'Okay, I need to be at home and I need to write and I need to do this and that,' and all I'd do was procrastinate and not do it, you know? So sometimes it's better to be really busy - that's how I always work better anyway; when I'm under that pressure. And it's not like there's pressure to even do anything, it's just my own pressure to be like, 'Okay. Oh, god! Do something NEW'," she laughs.

It turns out CMJ 2014 was the first time Barnett performed overseas. "I guess it was pretty, like, you know, game-changing in that way," she allows. They played "so many shows" across the annual music marathon's five days and Barnett marvels, "They were all packed and that was pretty funny to just come over to the other side of the world and have, like, full crowds." CMJ showcases bands from all over the world so competition is fierce. "Yeah, it's funny how it works like that. I dunno, there's heaps of great bands, huh? I don't get it sometimes."

"There's so many nice people who play shit music, or shit people who play good music."

You get a sense that Barnett feels as if there are a lot of talented artists out there, queuing for their turn to shine. And enlisting bands she believes in for her own support slots is one way Barnett feels she can give back - "not to say that I think I have like any influence over what people think," she's quick to add, "but I kind of always try to take - like we're taking Big Scary on tour when we go to the UK, which is also because I like playing with bands that I admire and it's a nice complement; a good line-up is a great, you know? It makes a great night for everyone - the bands and the audience - so, I dunno, I think it's important." Barnett agrees it certainly helps if you get along with the people you're touring with, before concluding, "'cause there's so many factors: there's so many nice people who play shit music, or shit people who play good music. You've gotta find the nice balance of decent people and decent music."

Pretty much while Barnett, and her CB3 bandmates, Sloane and drummer Dave Mudie, were warming up Blur's LA stage at the Hollywood Bowl, the 10th annual Carlton Dry Independent Music Awards were being announced back in North Melbourne's Meat Market building. Barnett cleaned up in absentia, taking out every category she was nominated in: Best Independent Single (Depreston), Best Independent Album (Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit), Best Independent Artist (for the second year running) and also Best Independent Label for her Milk! Records. When asked how she feels about being away during awards season, Barnett ruminates, "I mean, I think those things are fun, but I'm so glad to not be there at the same time because I get so nervous. Like, I've been at them before - when I was nominated for one or two things - and just sittin' there going [laughs], 'Please don't win, please don't win'. And I never write speeches or anything, I just assume I won't [win]... But of course you wanna win, kind of, but then, yeah! Sittin' there and I just feel so sick in the stomach and then they announce someone else and I'm like, 'OOoooh [exhales] thank god,' you know? So while it's nice to be acknowledged in that way, then again, at the same time, it's nothing to be so - I'm just really bad at public speaking, I dunno why. And then people are like, 'Well you play music and get up on the stage and...' It is really different."

So does Barnett dread onstage banter? "Um, I have moments. I think it always depends on where you're at, in your headspace, and the energy of the crowd and all that. Yeah, sometimes I don't say anything, sometimes I talk a lot. Maybe it depends on how much I've drunk as well," she adds with a chuckle. Tonight Barnett's drink of choice appears to be white wine (in a plastic cup).

Reflecting back on their Hollywood Bowl show two nights prior, Barnett contemplates, "Um, it was cool. We've got short sets for these shows so we just smashed through all of our songs, really. I think I said 'hi' and that's about it. There was a couple of people there; it was pretty cool. I mean, people are there to see Blur so anyone who's there to see us is a bonus."

Struggling to recall how or when she found out she would be supporting Blur in the States, Barnett confesses, "I don't remember... Stuff always comes in at weird times and it's like that, you know, kind of like, 'When it rains it pours,' kind of attitude of: sometimes I'm sitting there, like, thinking it's the end of the world, and nothing's going my way, and then I read these emails and it's like, you know, 'Blur, Madison Square Garden,' and, 'Something else good,' I dunno [laughs] and it kind of jolts you back. But then you have those days where, like, everything goes wrong [pauses]. Yeah. I guess that's just life, isn't it?"

"The first song I would've heard was Song 2 on a triple j Hottest 100 CD, 'cause me and my brother bought all them when we were kids."

On how she initially discovered Blur, Barnett tells, "Um, well the first song I would've heard was Song 2 on a triple j Hottest 100 CD, 'cause me and my brother bought all them when we were kids. So, yeah! I would've been, like, young. I actually just figured out when we got off stage that the chords, haha - I dunno if I should tell you this, but the chords in my song Pedestrian At Best are nearly exactly the same as Song 2 and I never noticed that until then. I don't know, we were listening to something the other day and someone was saying it was basically exactly the same as another song, but sometimes you just don't know - or it's, like, lingering in the far deep of your subconscious - and it's like, 'Oh, whoops!' I thought I was ripping that off Dive by Nirvana," she chuckles. Well considering Blur originally wrote Song 2 as a piss-take, poking fun at the '90s Stateside grunge movement, that kinda makes sense. Previously unaware of this piece of Blur trivia, Barnett laughs, "Riiiiight! How ironic."

When told this scribe's favourite Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit track is Aqua Profonda!, Barnett sounds surprised: "Really!? Cool. Um, that's kind of one of the slightly older songs that I never got around to finishing and I finished it for the album." Lyrics flow over into the next phrase ("They fall over, yeah"), which calls to mind tumble turns also mentioned within the song's lyrics ("Yeah, totally. Yeah, that's a good point"). It doesn't sound like Barnett did this deliberately. "Nah, not really," she observes. "It kinda came together pretty quickly. It was just putting it all together. It's funny, like, that's the one song I was considering not putting on the album 'cause it just felt really different; it was kind of a bit more light-hearted or silly - not that, like, you know, the rest of it is totally deep and dark, but it just felt like it stuck out a tiny bit. But then I love it now that it's on there."

We discuss the importance of songs having individual identities so that the album tracks don't just run from one into the next. "We did that Patti Smith thing the other week," Barnett points out, referring to the Melbourne Festival Australian exclusive shows celebrating the 40th anniversary of Smith's album Horses. So how was it? "It was cool. It was so scary." She admits "quite a lot" of work went into these shows before adding, "I get really nervous". "And, like, if I get nervous onstage I just go blank - I've done that before - and especially singing someone else's song; you wanna like pay respect to the song, you know? So [exhales], yeah! And then, I dunno: it was, like, doing Patti Smith songs, being in that huge venue [Melbourne Town Hall], having that totally awesome band and then the three other performers being, like, really - good. I was like the little kid tag-along at the party; that's what it felt like," she laughs. "It was Adalita and Gareth Liddiard and Jen Cloher so it was pretty nerve-racking.

"I did Redondo Beach, which is the second song and it's that kind of reggae song, you know? And that, for me, on that album sticks out - it's so funny, but it's perfect 'cause the rest of it's just all got like a kind of certain sound and this weird reggae song amongst these punk-rock, jazz freeform songs. But, I dunno, it still works."

She describes her relationship with her CB3 bandmates as "a cross between brothers and marriage" and then Hook slowly opens the door. "Did you get a meal ticket?" he enquires. "Can I have it? 'Cause it's 7.30. Do you want fish or veggie?" Barnett replies: "Ah, fish and veggie and everything. Thanks."

Our discussion returns to music and how musicians can communicate in a non-verbal way. Barnett shares, "I always think, especially just when you hear those stories about bands that kind of have their issues and, like, sometimes they hate each other or whatever but they keep - and when it's not like a money thing, but they just love playing together, which, like, that's a weird dynamic." Some would say Blur are a perfect example of this, but this isn't something Barnett's aware of: "Right, yeah, I dunno about that."

Considering Barnett spends so much time on the road these days, does she ever feel pressured to write new material? "Um, I'm kind of okay," she reassures. "I take a lot of notes and just write a lot of shit when I'm touring." Barnett says she's "always doing something" and we wonder whether she carries a Moleskin around. "I used to get those books and then I just started buying these cheap exercise books from the chemist. I'd always spend, like, 30 bucks on one of those books and then I'd be really precious about writing in it; I'd be like, 'Okay, I've gotta put the date up the top and write really perfectly, and I was too scared to make mistakes, and that would make me really precious. And now I just buy these one-dollar-fifty notebooks and it's just [demonstrates messy writing] bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bah-bah and most of what I write is shit so it's like, well, page-page-page then there's a tiny bit, circle it."

It's gotta be nearing showtime so we seek out Barnett's bandmates to take a couple of happy snaps. "Let's see if they're in there 'cause it would be nice to have them [in the shots]," Barnett remarks. They are both in the dressing room across the hallway. Sloane offers a beer from their rider, we all talk some shit and the atmosphere is buzzing given it's now minutes until they take the Madison Square Garden stage. While we wait for the elevator, Blur's gatekeeper checks lanyards and Barnett explains they are this evening's support band. The trio then burst into a spontaneous rendition of Elvis Presley's Return To Sender by way of demonstration. After a good luck hug, this scribe hands over the precious Blur VIP lanyard and CB3 bound out of sight for a quick ciggie.   

Inside Madison Square Garden, the house lights dim. The rambunctious harmonica intro of Dumb Things by Paul Kelly & The Coloured Girls, Barnett's intro tape, sounds. Patriotic pride increases tenfold. Barnett and co absolutely kill it and this is seriously one of the most receptive audiences we've ever witnessed for a support band at an arena show. New York are particularly boisterous during Small Poppies.

"I love going to shows as a punter to see someone and then being blown away [by the support]. It's the best feeling," Barnett extolled during our pre-show interview. And the cheers following her band's set suggest she's made this feeling a reality for those assembled inside Madison Square Garden.