Barns Courtney’s trajectory over the course of the year has continued to earn him plaudits in a mercurial fashion as his transatlantic upbringing can be heard clearly in his eclectic mix of US blues-rock, hip-hop and grunge with British indie melodic sensibilities. Equipped with a youthful, self-assuring and confident swagger, Barns’ hybrid of gospel-blues, Western music and distinct honey and sand delivery, brings the ascending singer-songwriter to the fore with imposing results… We talk to Barns Courtney about his sporadic artistic process, paying tribute to his late grandfather and creative control…
TSH: After all of the challenges that have come your way, how proud are you that your persistence has allowed for such lauded results in recent times?
Barns: I’m really grateful for everything that’s happened so far. However, if there’s one thing that being signed previously has taught me, it’s to keep my head down and focus on the task at hand. I’ve still got a long way to go.
TSH: Do you feel your creative process consists of a methodical or organic approach, or is it sporadic?
Barns: For me, the creative process is very sporadic. I’ll feel inspired when I see an old movie that reminds me of being a kid or when I’m knocked down hard and feel determined to carry on, or even when a melody just pops into my head out of nowhere.
TSH: In the lead up to your latest ‘Hands’ EP, how would you sum up the songwriting expressions you were drawn to?
Barns: I wanted to create something simple you could jam to with a few friends and a shitty drum kit. So that’s what ‘Hands’ is. No bells and whistles, no production, just dirty guitar, vocals and a thumping beat.
TSH: As you formed the track entitled ‘Hands’, what do you feel was key in giving the track its distinct identity?
Barns: I wanted to keep it as basic as possible. I deliberately left a few unintentional key jangles and background noise in there but other than that it may as well be a basement jam.
TSH: Moreover, what sort of motivations do you draw on to pen a track like ‘Goodbye John Smith’?
Barns: ‘Goodbye John Smith’ is about my late grandfather. When he passed away, I felt so lost and powerless. It felt strange that such a powerful influence in my life could just disappear one day and the world could continue as normal. He was the first man to surf the beaches of Yorkshire back in the 1960s. So there are a lot of references to that – “paddle deep into the night, till you leave the scent of the shore behind.” … The song is all about his passing from this world to the next. We scattered his ashes at sea so I always imagined he’d be out there on his surf board.
TSH: How pleasing was it to hear the top job Zibra did with their remix of ‘Glitter & Gold’?
Barns: The mastermind and creative force behind Zibra, Sam Bartle is somewhat of a mad genius. He lives in a decommissioned old folk’s home and his room is full to the brim with dated technology from what he calls “the golden era”. This is a time when electronic companies made their products in such a way that you could open them up and mess with their inner workings. He’s got enormous stacks of home made synths and harmonising Gameboy machines on top of all manner of crazy inventions. It’s really no surprise to me that he smashed the remix.
TSH: What are the benefits of the approach of a lot of clean acoustic with the bass whacked up?
Barns:I’ve always loved that ‘Street Fighting Man’ sound of a really dirty acoustic guitar. I tend to start the recording process with acoustic guitar because that’s what I tend to write the songs on. Starting with that helps to guide the rest of the process and maintain the song’s integrity.
TSH: What sort of emotions do you feel capturing moments in time with your songwriting?
Barns: Most of this album has been about the drive to succeed in the face of a shit storm of knockbacks. They’re reminders to myself.
TSH: Do you often save music that doesn’t fit and intend to use it for future projects?
Barns: I write in bits and pieces. 90% of my phone’s memory is taken up with voice notes. Often times, I’ll have totally random lyrics and tunes – 3am mumblings, disco songs about sparkly nipples that float up and reveal themselves in a writing session over a totally different context. Sometimes fragments of tunes I’d forgotten about from 5-6 years ago will worm their way into one of my songs.
TSH: Being a big fan of Kanye’s classics ‘Black Skinhead’ and ‘Power’ – what is it about these tacks in particular that resonate with you?
Barns: There’s something about blues soaked vocal hooks that open ‘Black Skinhead’, fused with the tribal breaths, and overdriven drums that immediately grabbed me. It sounded like a primitive call to arms. These were punk and blues hooks, mashed together with Hip Hop in a way I’d never heard before. Similarly, ‘Power’ features the same primordial chants and beats, effortlessly intertwined with classic rock influences. But there was more here for me than the soundscapes alone. These tracks are dripping with a ferocious, determined confidence that can only be found in the depths of adversity… Also, I was struggling living on £5 a day. Scraping by on rent, looked down upon by my friends and family as the failed musician who never grew up. Even my girlfriend at the time asked me how long I would keep this up before I got a real job. But in a way, I was winning. I was a beggar prince. I’d perfected the art of living on a shoe string. This music embodied the altered state of reality that I had created for myself at rock bottom.
TSH: How did you feel upon hearing Harvey Weinstein had played Bradley Cooper your song for ‘Burnt’?
Barns: In all honesty, I felt very little. The process of pouring my heart and soul into and album, touring on and off for three years and waiting for an imminent release that never came was exhausting. To be dropped from my label and have my album permanently shelved after all that was very numbing. When I signed my record deal with Virgin following the film, my managers said they’d never seen me so quiet. I felt so battered by the whole ordeal, after so many false starts and prolonged failures that subconsciously I’d become quite mistrustful. Even the red carpet felt like a hazy dream. I definitely wasn’t really present. It’s only now, a year down the line that things are starting to sink in.
TSH: Speaking of ‘Burnt’, did you take your grandmother to the London premiere?
Barns: I did! My grandfather died just before I was dropped by Island. He was always such a huge inspiration to me. It’s hard to put into words just how funny and enlightening he was. I wanted to take my grandmother to London like he used to. And I wanted to do it in the most extravagant way possible. She took a lock of his hair down the red carpet.
TSH: Were there memorable moment’s working at Currys and PC World?
Barns: The floor manager was an enterprising gentleman, especially with the older ladies. On a particularly hard sell, he would produce a small mirror from his pocket and in a thick Nigerian accent say, “Oh madam! How beautiful you are!”
TSH: What does it mean to have full creative control over your own music?
Barns: It feels incredible! This is the first time I’ve ever been able to put all my ideas across without band politics or label interference. I can explore ridiculous concepts, venture outside my genre, and chop and change songs without having to argue my point to anyone. I do miss the camaraderie of playing with my best friends. Also, co-writing and compromise can often lead you to interesting and unexpected territory. I still write with my old bandmates from time to time, but it’s great not to be manacled to one formula.
TSH: What were the highlights of your recent Canadian tour?
Barns: Montreal is an incredible city to play! I’ve never seen a crowd so intensely into music. People often don’t realise how much power a crowd has to make a gig great. Ultimately, as a performer, you can put everything you’ve got into a show, but if the crowd isn’t there to hear new music and have a good time, it’s very difficult to create an atmosphere.
TSH: How do you like to unwind and keep the mindset fresh?
Barns: Admittedly it’s been hard. I work 7 days a week and I absolutely love it but often get back to the hotel exhausted and fall asleep. I had a day off in Seattle with my family. That was literally the most refreshing and energising thing I’ve done this year. I played video games with my brothers, went to the gym (and threw up almost immediately) with my mom and step dad. It’s funny how normal family stuff can really connect you with who you are and why you’re doing what you’re doing.
TSH: Finally, please leave us with words of wisdom that you find valuable?
Barns: I love the Bowie quote about writing… “If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth, and when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting.” Generally, never underestimate the benefits of failure. It’s a vital ingredient to success.
Read the original interview here.