There are few things more wonderful then discovering something new. Those that are I can count on one hand.
One of my most recent discoveries was that of musician Barns Courtney. (How I discovered him is odd and weird and only acceptable due to the vagaries of searching on YouTube.) His name could not be more quintessentially English. It evokes images of the rolling hills of the Surrey countryside, bespectacled men in badly fitting tweed tinkering in woodsheds at the back of suburban lawns. And yet, like his name, the man is just as misleading.
Born in England, he spent the majority of his formative years in the United States, where he developed a wonderfully, cool, smoky accent that reminds one of the misty hills of Washington State. Clad in head to toe black, he evokes the fashion of East London Shoreditch (and he can do a pretty decent imitation accent – for a particularly amusing anecdote, ask him what a fish party is). And his songs evoke the melancholy and desperation reminiscent of Nirvana, and so prevalent in blues of the Deep South, but have that wonderfully difficult to describe, dry English wit to them.
In short, the man and his music are oxymoronic. On paper, you would expect one thing, and yet reality gives you something much better.
Perhaps his most well-known song is Fire. It was recently used in the film Burnt, starring Bradley Cooper. Courtney recounts a story where he found himself, having just lost his first record deal, depressed, and by his own admission “crying in the shower with his clothes on”, when his manager called to inform him that Bradley Cooper and Harvey Weinstein had personally recommended his music to be used in the film. The song went on to be used in the trailer and closing credits of the film – which two other British icons, Gordon Ramsey and Marcus Wareing, consulted on, though presumably not at the same time given their long-running animosity.
It’s apt that the song should be chosen to be used in a film about high-stakes cooking, and not just because of its name. The song, just like the film, rouses you. The lyrics, just like how well-cooked food can be, are wicked, enticing, and seductive, and his voice just makes it downright sexy. Its beat is harsh and forces you to stomp your feet whilst a catchy, bluesy tune dances overhead. It’s the sort of music you’d play in your parent’s garage – no bells and whistles, no production to clean things up; just a dirty guitar, vocals, and a thumping beat.
But he doesn’t just do foot stompers. His second single Goodbye John Smith is a poignant piano ballad which exposes his deep baritone vocals, akin to that of Nick Cave and Tom Waits. The tune is tender and the lyrics emotional, far surpassing what one might expect from his youthful years. Listening to it you feel the full weight of his eclectic heritage.
Like all the best things, Courtney manages to mix the old and the new to produce something fantastic; a little modern here, a little vintage there. Like when you were first introduced to a Bloody Mary, it sounds wrong, but it tastes amazing.
Classics are adaptable and ageless, and like the Jaguar E-Type, Chet Baker, Triumph motorcycles, Swiss Army knives, Zippo lighters, Ray-Ban sunglasses, Levi’s 501s, Jack Purcell tennis shoes, Cabernet Sauvignon and even No. 2 HB pencils, Barns Courtney is cool. Will he be hot? Probably (I wager two years before he starts filling arenas – he’s already supported Ed Sheeran, The Libertines and Blur at the closing night of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix). Will he become a classic? That remains to be seen, but if what I saw in that dingy London underground bar is anything to go by, I bloody well hope so. And if he isn’t, I’ll eat my hat; not that I have one, but if I did, it would be a classic.