England-born blues rocker, Barns Courtney, has one of those rags-to-riches/Cinderella stories. But imagine if Cinderella was about to become royalty – standing at the castle – then all of a sudden, everyone was like, “Oh, just kidding. You can go back home now.” That’s more like Barns Courtney’s story.
At the age of four, his family packed up and moved to Seattle, Washington, where Barns spent most of his youth and 15-years-old, he made the decision to move back to England to pursue music. Straight out of high school, his band, Dive Bella Dive, was signed to Island Records. For the following three years, the band worked on an album but before it was released, the label dropped them without any rights to their music.
After years of struggling as a solo artist, sleeping in cars and eating toast topped with kale and sardines, Barns got a call from a producer of the film, Burnt. They wanted to use “Fire” from his latest EP, The Dull Drums, in a scene of the movie.
Barns’ bluesy rock sound is spiced up with the big-footed stomp of Mumford & Sons, the punk rock energy of the Sex Pistols, and a good dose of indie-rock edge and gospel. The 26-year-old has a raspy-throated voice that is way beyond his years. I got a chance to chat with Barns on the phone and I can honestly say, I haven’t laughed so much during an interview. And we knew he could sing but who knew he had so many interesting stories?
MANDI DUDEK: Where are you right now?
BARNS COURTNEY: I’m actually in my friend’s bedroom right now. He lives in an abandoned school across from Mile End station in London. He’s kind of like a mad genius who collects old bits and pieces of old 80s and 90s technology and makes it into synthesizers and random, different inventions. He’s making an organ out of some garbage.
MD: That’s really rad.
BC: We’ve made a lot of the record together.
MD: Are you working on your debut album now?
BC: We made “Glitter&Gold” together and “Hell Fire.” So, we recorded those in… it was an abandoned retirement home back then but it got knocked down.
MD: Is that where you’re living now? In London?
BC: Yeah, I’ve been on the road so much. I’ve been on tour almost solidly for over a year. Which is great – I love it. It’s just a waste of money to rent a place. When I come back, I’ll sofa surf a little bit or stay in my manager’s house. Or stay at my friends’ houses. I’m used to it, that’s how it started!
MD: So let me get it straight – Born in England, but you spent most of your life in Seattle then moved back to England when you were 15?
MD: How do you think the years spent in Seattle shaped your style of music? Because those are such prime years to develop interests when growing up.
BC: I think it had a lot to do with shaping my style of music. That’s where I developed the core of who I am. I loved Nirvana. I listen to them, on repeat, for a year. So when I moved back to England, that was my solitary link back to everything I did in the states. That was a really cool band for me. I think the main thing I picked up in my own music in that vibe was just the sheer rawness of everything and some of the recording – how intensely honest and rough they are.
MD: What else did you listen to growing up besides Nirvana? Because I read somewhere that you’re a Kanye fan but your music has so many different influences from blues to hip-hop to grunge.
BC: Well, whenever I started my first band, we wanted to be Metallica. [laughs] And that was one of the first songs I covered at lunch time in the music room – Metallica covers. I loved the White Stripes – they were a huge influence. The Black Keys. I listen to a lot of different stuff. I listen to it to death until I hate it. I can’t listen to Kanye anymore. So now, I listen to a lot of FIDLAR. Garage/post-grunge type of stuff. But I listen to a lot of The Clash these days and Temples.
MD: What do you think the biggest adjustment is going from being on a stage with a band to being a solo artist? And how did you adjust to the chaos of it all?
BC: That was really tricky. I’m used to just singing and I learned the guitar really basically so I could write but I never had to play in time. So, I signed my deal and within a week, I was on the road and had no idea what I was doing but – it was great! I learned a lot in a short amount of time. I think the record is meant to be played as a band and it always was. And that’s how it always was. And that’s how I’m going to play this next tour. But it’s just such a huge cost to get an English band, get them visas, fly them out, get them hotels and all that jazz. Especially seeing as my deal is based out of the UK – it’s just way too much money for an emerging artist. So I have to adapt and learn how to take my work solo. Even now, I’m taking my band on the road but I’m going to have to go back to Seattle to visit my mom and sleep in the cupboard under the stairs for a couple of months. And try to find some local kids who are willing to take nothing and just go on the road and play.
MD: How do you even go about finding local musicians? Craigslist? [laughs]
BC:[laughs] That’s a really good question actually. I really need to get on that. I think I did post about on my Facebook but maybe my fan base on there is mainly my fans. Craigslist? Maybe I’ll try Craigslist.
MD: Yeah, I’d definitely save that as a last resort because you can’t always trust Craigslist. Hopefully, word-of-mouth works.
BC: It’s not ideal. I used to try to find odd jobs to get money so I could eat and make music. One of the jobs I had was a Craigslist ad and it said “Looking for a young, improvisational actor.” So I applied – and I was the only one who applied – so I got the job right away. I used to meet this morbidly obese man at a children’s library in London every week. He would have me play these improvisational games and in this game, we’d do things like “servant and master,” where he got to be the “master” and I had to crawl on my hands and knees.
MD: [laughs] Are you joking right now!?
BC: I’m not even exaggerating at all! This actually happened! And I would crawl on my hands and knees and he would say things like, “Servant! Bring me some toast!” and I’d act out bringing him some toast then crawl over to him on my hands and knees. I did this for about a month for £50 cash a week.
MD: How did you keep going back? And how are you still alive?
BC: [laughs] Well, I think his plan was to move the operation to go back to his house. At which point, I politely declined and never saw him again.
MD: Good call.
BC: But that was a lot of money to me back then. £50. That was a whole week’s worth – possibly more.
MD: So you’ve opened up for massive acts already like The Who, Fitz & The Tantrums and Ed Sheeran. Can you tell me how you got hooked up with those gigs?
BC: Actually, Ed [Sheeran] is from a town called Framingham, right outside of Ipswich, where I lived from 15 till about 19. He used to play gigs in this tiny little pub called The Steamboat Tavern, which is the first venue that ever gave my band a shot. We used to play there all the time. Like, so often that people would complain. People would say, “Oh, not them again!” [laughs] I used to see Ed down there all the time. He was always a huge phenomenal talent. So, we’ve known each other for years. In fact, when I signed my first deal with Island Records, I brought my band here in Ipswich. I introduced them to Ed Sheeran and the bass player immediately went up to him and bit him on the shoulder and drew blood. And Ed started screaming “Ah! Oh my god!” and pulled away. Really embarrassing. I didn’t see him again for about two years until we were backstage at a festival in Wales and at this point Ed was starting to pick up some traction in the UK and he was getting to be kind of a big deal. And I said “Hey Ed! How’s it goin’? I haven’t seen you in ages!” And again, out of nowhere, the bass player turns and bites him on the shoulder again.
MD: What! Is that his thing or something? Is that how he does a handshake? [laughs]
BC: [laughs] He’s never done that to anyone else and to this day, I have no idea why it happened. And then, somebody played Ed a video of me performing “Fire” on acoustic guitar and he recognized me and said, “Oh, that Barney from Ipswich” so his people called me up and offered me a support spot. They actually offered me three dates but I could only do one because I had to go look at the film Burnt that my song “Fire” was in and try to decide where it was going to go in the movie. It was really crazy. In such a short amount of time from eating sardines three times a day to save money to flying out to Los Angeles to check out this film.
MD: That is absolutely insane. How did you stay grounded and level-minded at that time? Or did you?
BC: Well, I was already pretty messed up from the whole thing. I signed my first deal straight out of high school and I totally thought I was one of those kids that was right all along. I was going to beat the system, get out there, and do my own thing. But about three years later, after slaving over a record and nothing happening, I was dropped with no qualifications and absolutely unprepared for the real world. I went from handing out fliers in front of studios to working part-time in computer stores. I think it really had a strong effect on me because I’d ever been at a point in my life where I wasn’t moving towards something. I was always doing “Battle Of The Bands” and then the next year, I was doing televised TV shows and the year after that, I was talking to band managers and getting signed. And suddenly, everything just dropped off a cliff and I had nothing going for me. All my friends were graduating from university and some of them were even starting families. I was doing absolutely nothing and none of the stuff that I worked at – for so long and so hard – mattered at all.
It wasn’t like when you work at a job for three years and you can put that on your resume. It just meant zero. So I struggled for three years trying to get somebody, anybody, to record my music. And all I had were these demos but I couldn’t afford any recording software – and wouldn’t know how to work it anyway – and it was just incredibly depressing. It just got really dark and I couldn’t even leave the house at one point. I would try to live off £5 a day. But that time was hugely inspirational and I think integral to writing this record now. If I hadn’t had that time, I don’t think I would’ve made the record I have now. So, back to your question. At the time I signed this deal – the new one – and all that stuff happened with Ed and the movie, I was still so messed up from everything that had happened that it just felt surreal. I was still depressed and terrified that it’d be pulled out from under me at any moment. So, I just worked my ass off and prayed that it wasn’t going to get fucked up again.
MD: Where did you come up with the name The Dull Drums for your EP?
BC: It’s a play on the phrase “the doldrums.” A state or period of stagnation or depression. The song’s on the EP, particularly “Fire”, “Glitter&Gold”, and “Little Boy” were written during the 3 years I spent trying to get back into the music industry having been dropped by Island Records. I suppose the idea was that I took that state of depression and made it into music. Ie, The Dull Drums.
MD: Would you say your creative process pretty sporadic or methodical?
BC: I’d say it’s pretty sporadic. Lines and melodies pop into my head at random. I must have thousands of bits and pieces of songs on my phone. Sometimes a verse or a chorus will bounce around my head for years before I finish it.
MD: When can we expect to hear your debut album?
BC: The album is done! I know that much. I’m in talks with my team about when we’ll release it. I’d say likely in the next couple of months.
MD: What is your advice for aspiring artists like yourself?
BC: I think for aspiring artists I would say it’s important to know that failure is an integral part of success. If you want to do something, then you will fail. Again and again and again. And that’s vital to growing and learning how to become what you want to be. I love the proverb, “The master has failed more times than the apprentice has even tried.” I think that’s so true to life. I think you should put all your eggs in one basket. If you want to be great at anything, whether it’s a musician, movie star, plumber, IT technician, why would you ever have a plan B? Why would you ever divert some of your time into something else you don’t want to do? Put all your effort in and decide what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it. At some point, something has to give. You roll the dice enough times and you’re going to get a 6.