Interview with Barns Courtney: Productive Procrastination & Enjoyable Distraction

Barns Courtney discusses his dynamic new album ‘404,’ first love, what it takes to be an artist, and much more in our dynamic interview!

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Barns Courtney’s full name, Barnaby George Courtney, was inspired by Barnaby the bear, a blue-eyed claymation character who stole his Mother’s heart one clandestine sick day home from school (he’s seen the journal entry to prove it.) Just like his clay counterpart, Courtney has the ability to bend and twist himself in order to amuse and entertain his friends and adoring fans. Musically he can do it all from punk to rock to Post Britpop and on and on. Also similar to clay Barnaby, Barns Courtney always returns to his original form before the day is through. He’s the type that can don masks, accents, and costumes but not for keeps. He will let an experience educate him but at the end of the day, he will always return to, as he refers to himself, “Good ol’ Barnsy.”

404 – Barns Courtney

His ability to absorb, imitate and connect was an important skill that helped Courtney throughout his bi-continental upbringing. While he spent the first 4 years of his life in England, Seattle is where he spent the majority of his younger youth before returning to the UK for high school.

Courtney recounts his childhood through memories of a Ritalin induced haze and struggles with dry educational experiences. In neither the US nor the UK was Courtney lucky enough to attend a school that encouraged his creativity which, strangely enough, encouraged his creativity.

In “School,” a song written and performed by one of Courtney’s early indie rock bands called, Dive Bella Dive, he croons over a pop-punk soundscape.

If School has taught me anything
It would be surely I can’t sing
I cannot be the way I am with all these walls around me.
So now I’m burning all these books
and taking back the time they took
I’ll never see another place like that again.

And he didn’t. It wasn’t necessary.

After a few years of earning his stripes in the music world, toughing it out through record deals gone wrong and bands that didn’t quite work, Courtney ventured out on a solo career, releasing his first album, The Attractions of Youth, in 2017 – an album, according to Courtney, that had to be written or it would have killed him. “It was that dramatic” he assured me.

Barns Courtney © 2019

This past month, Courtney released his sophomore album 404, a title that stands for the software error notification that alerts us when the computer and server are failing to connect. Essentially, it’s where the sidewalk (or rabbit hole) ends. While Courtney himself is the very picture of connectivity, his album alerts us to a connection error.

Having a conversation with Barns Courtney is a lot like interfacing with a hyper hyperlinked website. Every topic discussed can and will be explored. Every idea pondered will be fleshed out. Interviewing Barns Courtney is equal parts productive procrastinating and enjoyable distraction, which is why, as his guitarist nicknamed him, “the master distractor.” Topics covered in our pre-interview banter include:

  • How to best remove pomegranate seeds (they’re called arils, Mr. Courtney…not pomegrains.)
  • What it’s like to party with Annie Lenox and Lana Del Ray in the Hollywood Hills
  • How to write children’s songs about smoking, in Hebrew
  • Can an artist truly be an artist unless they have ADHD? We decided, no.

This was a conversation waiting to happen, and Atwood Magazine had the pleasure of sitting down with Barns Courtney and making it a reality!

Listen: ‘404’ – Barns Courtney

A CONVERSATION WITH BARNS COURTNEY

Atwood Magazine: Who’s your favorite jazz musician?

Barns Courtney: Fats Waller. Love, love, love Fats Waller. Amazing character. When he was younger he was so good he would just play and play and play. When he was 11 he snuck out of the house wearing pajamas to play at the local jazz club.  His lyrics are hilariously inappropriate for the modern age… (Courtney breaks into song) “All that meat and nooo potatoes” just wouldn’t work today.

What kind of headphones do you wear inside or outside the ear?

Barns Courtney: Outside for sure…yeah. You get higher fidelity.

I always felt like the inside the ear ones were more intimate...

Barns Courtney:[Laughs] I suppose! [Laughs]

Listen: “99” – Barns Courtney

So many times an artist’s first album is the closest to their heart. How was your experience writing your sophomore release?

Barns Courtney: It was a difficult album to make because I had relied so heavily on writing from a place of extreme depression. I have never had to draw inspiration from anywhere else. I had relied so heavily on pulling from a place of depression. After the first album, my life just became a revolving door of good times, gigs, and hanging on the road with my best friends. So, when all that was done, it was definitely a learning curve trying to find another source of inspiration. Because the songs on the first album were a catharsis. They had to come out otherwise… It was either I write those songs or I’m gonna die. It was that dramatic. Whereas with 404, I really had to search around for the subject matter

In a conversation with B-Sides on Air in San Fransisco you mentioned that 404 was 'about the strange ritual of growing up. The bizarre formalization of having fun - we make things dull.' While the theme of nostalgia is clearly represented in '99,' does this explanation represent the theme of the entire album?

Barns Courtney: Let me think, it’s kind of different aspects of the ideas of nostalgia and losing touch with your authentic self. “You and I” is not strictly about that subject though. I wrote that song about my mom and a story she told me about her first love. But I thought it fit nicely with the theme just because it’s a story about my mom recounting how she met her first love. I thought it matched the nostalgic vibe of the record.

Regarding the video for 'You and I,' was that based on the story that your mom told you about her first love?

Barns Courtney: Yeah loosely. I mean I didn’t want to end up with a video that was about this tried and tested trope of a boy meets girl story. I was worried it was going to be really dry. But when I saw Pablo Maestro’s work as a director, I was absolutely in love. I called him up and told him I was such a big fan of his work that if he would do this video with me, he could have complete free reign to do whatever he wanted because I think he’s amazing.

I gave him a little bit of the story. But not the whole thing and he pretty much followed that to the letter. I wonder how different it would’ve been if I told him the whole tale.

Now I want to know this story!

Barns Courtney: My Mom told me the story about this guy, her first love, she met in England back in the 80s. And he was super into music and would make her mixtapes and it was pretty much a John Hughes movie where they would walk along the promenade, singing together and going to gigs. He was really poor, he worked at a potato farm and his dad would follow the potato truck at the end of the day and wait for bags to “appear” so he could pick them up and have something for his family to eat for dinner that night. So my Mom went to university hundreds of miles away from where they grew up. On the other side of the country.

So this guy, without any money in his pocket, hitchhiked across hundreds of miles. Sometimes just walking, putting one foot in front of the other to find my mom. Finally, he got to the University campus. Eventually, after hours of searching (no cell phones back then), he ran into a friend of hers and it turned out that my mom had met someone else and he was heartbroken. So the whole of that song is that story from his perspective.

Listen: “You and I” – Barns Courtney

That’s crushing. Now I’m mad at your mom.

Barns Courtney: Well, funnily enough, they ended up re-connecting over Facebook and getting back together recently. This guy is now a self-made millionaire, they’re dating right now.

That’s the best thing I’ve heard all day. Your Mom is forgiven. Ok, 404... I love the song 'Babylon.' Even the cadence of the lyrics feels so good to sing. 'What planet are you on? What constellation? You're floating like a ghost, out into the unknown. What planet are you on? Cosmic phenomenon, stars by the millions. Oh holy, golden sun, to the gates of Babylon.' How does 'Babylon' fit in with 404’s nostalgic theme?

Barns Courtney: It was supposed to be this metaphor for being lost in space. Being estranged from yourself.

I love 'Babylon,' have I said that already?

Barns Courtney: I’m really glad that you liked it! Putting out a second album is really fucking terrifying. For the first album, I made the songs I had to make. This one is so different.  It meanders all over the place stylistically. But you can’t think of all that stuff when you’re an artist.

You know, It was a very steep learning curve, this record. I felt like all the tools I was used to working with, and relying on: this tremendous well of intense burning passion in my gut that was pushing this song out …had changed. And then to be happy… I’ve never had to write in that state before. So I almost had to learn how to write songs again. So I think that’s probably why it was such an exploratory record.

So… What planet are you on and what constellation?

Barns Courtney: I actually won an award in high school that was created especially for me. Everyone else is winning best attendance, most academic student. I won the “I am not aware of what planet I am on” award. And it was presented to me In front of the entire school.

Barns Courtney © 2019

How did you accept the award?

Barns Courtney: Graciously, while I was thinking of the migratory patterns of the eastern sparrows.

Do you believe in ghosts?

Barns Courtney: I believe in ghosts, a thousand percent. Is there such a thing as a thousand percent?

In that case, what about the creative energy of special people? Do you have a muse or more than one muse?

Barns Courtney: I definitely feel sometimes when I’m in certain company I feel more inspired. I never put too much stock in the idea of a muse: It’s difficult for me because I travel so much. I’m in a different city every day so it’s hard for me, to have enough time to consistently spend time in people’s company. Certainly that of a muse. There definitely have been occasions where I’ve been sat with someone and felt like their presence has opened up certain channels.

My take on 404, if I may, lyrically it’s as if you were taking on different personalities and telling stories through their unique perspectives. Am I close?

Barns Courtney: I think that’s correct. When I write songs I am inspired by the different personalities in my mind. Like for “London Girls” I felt like I was in a band in northern England.

Are you really named after a claymation bear named Barnaby?

Barns Courtney: My mom showed me a diary entry from the day she stayed homesick and it said didn’t go to school today, I stayed home and watch Barnaby the bear.

In the lyrics of 'Hollow,' you say, ‘You could burn up like kinder flay. Could plug up to razor blades or you could just throw me away because I'm hollow?’ What is kinder flay?

Barns Courtney: It was supposed to be kindred flame but we accidentally left in the gibberish demo vocals.  It’s the one lyric that all my fans get right… Everyone wants to know what it means.

Listen: “Hollow” – Barns Courtney

We should make Barns Courtney “kinder flay” t-shirts?

Barns Courtney: Lets!

What’s your favorite song to play?

Barns Courtney: “The Fun Never Ends” because I get to dance around and run about the stage without a guitar. In my mind, I wanted to write a whole album of songs like the fun never ends-ish sort of tracks. I wanted to write an entire record that pushed the genre in one way or another. But you can’t control your inspiration. I feel like you have to just let the music out from inside and, hopefully, it’s good. Who am I to argue with the muse? I just put out what comes out.

I noticed that the songs on 404, even if they are lyrically melancholic have an upbeat quality. Is that what your muse intended for you to put out?

Barns Courtney: I was attempting to create that feeling, that bittersweetness of nostalgia. That childlike innocence, that pure joy you feel when you’re young and then transition into the bitter realization that you’re growing old and that’s gone. And you will never return to those emotions and experiences again.

I think when you’re a child everything is so new so exciting experiences fall in your lap. I think as an adult it’s your responsibility to venture outside of the nest and seek new experiences for yourself.

Barns Courtney © 2019

Well I’m really glad that we had a chance to talk and I hope that the rest of your tour goes really awesome and that you have a lot of adventures and enjoy every minute?

Barns Courtney: You are so sweet! Thank you so much for this interview and for asking me all those left-field questions!

You know, I am very sweet, that’s true. You’re welcome. Now go buy yourself a pomegranate!

Barns Courtney: Will do!

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Ilana Kalish was a jazz fed baby, pop-synched child, emo-soaked teenager and indie-rocked coed. Between working at the friendly corner record store, singing in a garage (sometimes with a band) and sitting under trees while writing short fiction, Ilana also got her degrees in modern dance and creative writing from the University of MD in College Park. All of these adventures eventually resulted in www.skiptothis.com where she shares her adventures down the rabbit hole of the musiverse. A self-proclaimed neologista, Ilana is always dancing with words to music, usually while drinking coffee and smirking. As a writer for Atwood Magazine, Ilana hopes to make you smile and nod happily with her whimsy and impeccable (smirk) taste in music.