Two days into the unrelenting hustle that is an artist’s schedule at South By South West, the exertion is beginning to take its toll on Barns Courtney, as his overworked vocal cords threaten to surrender. Great timing too: tonight he’s due to play his biggest show at Austin’s iconic Stubb’s venue. Some extreme preventative measures are required. “I think I might shave my body until it’s hairless,” he proposes, “and perform some kind of ritual to the divine gods of music endeavors.”
This good humoured tenacity is typical of Courtney; his persistent and determined nature saved him from the depths of despair following a failed record deal aged 19 (his band, Dive Bella, were dropped by Island prior to releasing their debut album), prevailing to ditch his day job at Currys PC World and finally return, emboldened and going solo.
“It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through in my life,” he says of being dropped. “Like, putting my heart and soul into our record, fighting for creative control over the years, and then for it never to even come out… We didn’t even have a shot. I mean, I was really, really bitter about it and jaded and just so depressed for a long time, and then I went to this little festival in Suffolk called Folk East, and I just saw how much amazing talent was out there and how many people were just killing it and getting no recognition. Something about that just instilled something inside me and I kinda realised, ‘Oh fuck, I’ve been a total asshole for the last three years.”
Through near destitution, the aspiring troubadour’s fighting spirit kept him afloat, while the view from rock bottom supplied a defiant stimulation to the songs he began to write. “I’ve got fire in my soul,” he rails in the bluesy thump of ‘Glitter And Gold’, a song that serves as a constant reminder, he says, “to try and keep that sun going that was burning in my gut from when I was a kid.” Born in Ipswich, Barns grew up in Seattle, where he moved aged four.
Returning back to his homeland 10 years later, any displacement was eased by the comfort of music, a handy distraction from his ailing education (“I was terrible at school; I’m hugely ADHD so I couldn’t focus on anything,” he notes.) Befitting his dual nationality, it was in the US that Barns enjoyed his first real taste of success, when Bradley Cooper and movie mogul Harvey Weinstein personally chose his gospel-infused song ‘Fire’ to appear in their 2015 chef flick, Burnt.
“We never planned to go to American radio – or English radio – at this stage,” he says, still clearly in disbelief. “It was all supposed to be gigs and maybe an EP on Soundcloud and iTunes, but that film just perpetuated everything to such an incredible degree. I just found out the other day that ‘Fire’ is the number one most added song on AAA radio. It’s just like, ‘What?!’
Although this foray into Hollywood was an unexpected propulsion, Barns had been far from idle in his pursuit, previously embarking on support slots with Blur (on closing night of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix), Ed Sheeran (whom he knew from the Ipswich gig circuit – “That guy was incredible from the first time I saw him,” he says), and The Libertines, after forging a friendship with Carl Barât following a series of writing sessions together. “The first time I met him, we decided that we were gonna write together, and we just went for a walk around the British Museum for like three hours,” Barns laughs. “I‘ve done a couple of writing sessions, and it’s quite alien to me as a songwriter who just tends to write when I want to, when I’ve got something to say, to kinda go in and try to pull something out of mid-air. So it was nice to hang out with Carl and have him be like, ‘Fuck it, shall we just go and look at the mummies for a bit?’”
One product of this union, a song called ‘Sinners’, was inspired by vice and hedonism – surprisingly, not something found in abundance while on the road with The Libs. “I was kinda thinking it was gonna be this crazy drug-fueled hell ride through the streets of England, but actually we just kinda stayed up all night playing guitar and singing,” Barns admits. “I’d go to bed and Gary, the drummer, would be knocking on my bunk like, ‘Barns! Barns! Get up, we’re watching Footloose!’”
With sketches for his debut album firmly in mind (“I think I’m gonna go for something quite lo-fi, a little bit rough around the edges,” he says, citing The Strokes’ ‘Is This It’ as sonic inspiration) and a busy summer of international festivals ahead, Barns remains steadfast in his motivation, unthreatened by something as trivial as a sore throat. Is it all just too good to be true?
“Sometimes I have a little existential crisis where I wonder if it’s all a dream and I’m gonna wake up on an operating table or something,” he shudders. “Or everyone at the label is gonna pop out of a cupboard and be like, ‘Ha! I can’t believe you fell for that! Get back to your job at Currys!’”