Wandering around the Warner Bros. studios, gawking at all the Harry Potter memorabilia, Barns Courtney is on top of the world. With a Conan O’Brian appearance slated to air that night, a debut album on the way, and two viral hit singles, you would be hard pressed to believe that the English-born youth was working at a computer store and selling cigarettes at clubs not long ago just to put food on the table for himself. That all changed just last year, when his song “Glitter and Gold” became a hit by rocketing to Number One on the Spotify UK Viral Chart, and not long after his fist U.S. single, the smoldering bluesy tune “Fire,” found itself being used in a film and multiple commercials. Since then he’s opened for the likes of The Who, Blur and Elle King, and while his rise to prominence is miraculous, his learning to play guitar on the fly was even more so.
It’s been a real baptism through fire, because before this project I didn’t play guitar, apart from in my bedroom, one chord at a time, to write songs,” shares Courtney. “It wasn’t something I could do on a stage or even play a full song through. But the first thing I was put out on was the Elle King tour, and I had to sort of fumble my way through that.
But the beginnings of Courtney’s woes and successes are rooted in his relocation from Seattle (where he moved to at the age of four) back to Ipswich when he was around fourteen. The move coincided with a gift from his aunt, a guitar, and his mad dash pursuit towards a sustainable life as a musician began. In those early days, Courtney found himself at a veritable crossroads of influences, from the unpolished DIY garage and Americana of bands like Nirvana, to the wit and bravado of English acts, his tastes ran deep and eventually emerged in his first demo tapes.
What I’ve noticed when I look back at my music, is that some of that DIY of grunge bands like Nirvana have definitely seeped in,” explains Courtney. In terms of the “British-ness,” I just love English lyrics. I love the way the Arctic Monkeys reference so much English poetry and Sheffield singers.
But for Courtney, a singer-songwriter who struggled just to survive before his big break, unconventionality has become even more second-nature than his marriage of his stylistic eclectics. As a one-man show, he creates a lot of his own percussion, banging on things like file cabinets in his hallway to create a “messy, ad hoc” feel. He prefers to do his recordings in one take, using demo tracks, and has even admitted to fiddling with hip-hop flavored beats and playing them over sound percussion. A fan of Kanye West for his ability to take R&B oldies into the modern era, Courtney has promised that his debut lives in that soulful, guitar-driven realm of blues, but his experimental tendencies are so blatantly obvious, it’s doubtful he’ll stay there very long.
While his approach to music has changed little since he first picked up the guitar, the subject matter has matured and grown drastically from his rougher days. Immediately after graduating high school, Courtney signed a recording contract that fell apart, and soon after found himself out in the world, unqualified for a career, with nothing but a dream that he was suffocating under the weight of–so he poured it all into his music.
When I was struggling my entire record was about the drive to succeed and defiance towards my situation. I was trying to make something of myself and reconcile all the amazing talented people who’d come before me, and wondering if I could ever break into that world. So now that I’m flying all over the place, from LA to Dallas, I’m playing all these shows and I don’t have to worry about where my next meal is going to come from.
But with fame and success, as with any good Cinderella story, come a whole slew of new problems and anxieties. Matching the success of “Glitter and Gold” and “Fire” is not lost on Courtney, but if he could write a hit while sleeping in the car, he can do it in the studio.
I try to just make music that I love and not think too much about how successful it’s going to be later,” shares Courtney. I never thought the tracks that I wrote were ever going to be as big as they turned out to be, but they came from a very passionate and honest place, and I think that resonates with people. So if I can just continue to do that, to continue to find things that mean a lot to me that I have a reason to write about, then I think we’ll be alright.
Live, Courtney tries to channel his gratitude, humbleness, and passion to his audience in the best ways he knows how, but as a lone, still-breaking-out acoustic guitarist on a stage, he isn’t naive to the difficulties of his position. With a laugh, he explains that he only plays acoustic because it’s so cheap, but that he wants (you can hear the delirious need in his voice), really wants a band–why? So his music can be “hot and sweaty, and full of bodily fluids.” But until then, he tries to flesh it out, not with a backing band or more instruments, but with a bit of English bravado and personality, and in his personal experience, L.A. crowds have been the nicest so far.
I beat the guitar up a lot, I sweat a lot, I try to involve the audience as much as possible and have a real dialogue going on. I think when it’s acoustic it gives you more of an opportunity to do that. You can talk to individual people–and it’s a little bit more appropriate and interesting when it’s one guy with a guitar, rather than a whole band. But LA crowds are much friendlier than London crowds, and much cooler and reserved than Glasgow crowds. They won’t throw bottles of piss and spit at you, but they will leave and turn around to ignore you if you’re no good.
Barns Courtney makes his return to the historic Troubadour on September 8, with his much anticipated debut on the way. He will also embark on a tour with Tom Odell as direct support. You can catch them both at The Belasco in Los Angeles on October 25.