Interview: Barns Courtney

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The incomparable Barns Courtney played Antone’s Nightclub in Austin, Texas, on May 16th. A rising star in the rock/blues world, Courtney’s music has appeared recently in various commercials, as well as in the Bradley Cooper film Burnt. He’s currently on his North American tour, in support of his recent The Dull Drums EP. I was lucky enough to sit down with Barns before his Austin show – check out our interview, and his latest EP, below.

You’ve taken off over the past year or so – a lot of interviews, a lot of touring. I know that your first experiences with the music industry were kind of rough; how do you think those more negative experiences (like getting dropped from your label early on) have impacted how you’ve approached music since then?

That impacted everything. The entirety of the EP that I’ve got out is completely fueled by the emotions that were driving me as a result of those struggles. I find that hitting rock bottom, which is definitely where I was – having no job, being really depressed and not having enough money to leave the house, trying to live off of £5 a week – it was very, very useful. I had so much inspiration, so many songs to put out there. People underestimate the power of failure. It’s a very powerful motivator, extremely vital, in my opinion, in making a success of yourself. Failure and success go hand in hand. Now, ironically, when things in my life are a lot easier, when I get to tour every single day and I’m on the road with my best friends, it’s a lot more difficult to get a constant flow of work. A lot of the best songwriters, like Bruce Springsteen, for instance – that guy, he’s running from terrible depression, and I believe that that’s a huge motivator in his life, and a huge point from which he draws in his music.

I saw you in DC when you were opening for Tom Odell in the fall. It seems like you’ve just been on the road ever since – I know you’ve opened for a lot of different groups, like The Who and Fitz & the Tantrums. How do you keep from burning out?

I love being on the road. This is the whole reason that I do this. I love it so much, to connect with the fans and perform, so mentally, I don’t feel burnt out, even though the hotels are shitty. I’ve had bedbugs and cigarette holes in my bedsheets and just the nastiest shit. The only thing that I really struggle with is my voice. I find it very difficult to keep that together. I’ve written a record that really goes from the bottom to the top of my range, so it’s very difficult. I think if I just never went out, if I just lived a life where I didn’t drink or anything, just went straight back to the hotel after every show, then I’d be fine, but that’s tricky sometimes. There are some very enticing situations that prompt me to go out into the world.

Jack White has said that if he wasn’t an incredible musician, he’d be an incredible upholsterer. What would you be doing if you weren’t making music?

I’d really love to act. I’d love to try that. It’s not really the sort of opposite, down-to-earth upholstery kind of job. I’ve always wanted to give that a go. I just love to perform, in any capacity. There’s something kind of meditative and cathartic about it, so drama has always been something I’ve been very attracted to. It’s the same with playing on stage – when I’m having a good night, a good show, I feel like I’m embodying a character.

You’ve opened for a lot of different bands. Is that a different experience from touring by yourself?

Opening for bands is possibly one of the best things you can do as a touring musician to earn your stripes and get some chops, because it’s hard. People don’t care about you, they’re not there to see you, they don’t have to listen to your set, you’re just there as filler, and it’s amazing because you have to push yourself so hard just to get people to pay attention. It’s easy to get a little bit lazy when you’re the headliner. I like opening a lot, and I’d definitely do it again.

What was the wildest show you played as an opening act? Your most memorable experience?

I think the most memorable was supporting The Who, to be honest, just because they’re such a mind-bogglingly influential and enormously talented, storied band. I couldn’t really wrap my head around it. Pete Townshend even came up to me and said he was a fan of the EP. I was so bowled over by the whole thing. It wasn’t until I woke up the next day that I was like, “Oh my god, I just supported The Who and met Pete Townshend.” And he was such a nice guy, too. They still put on such a great show.

The “Dull Drums” EP – that’s a play on the word “doldrums”? Is that referencing your earlier struggles in the industry?

Absolutely. The majority of my music career has been a lot of very frustrating and debilitating periods of time where I’m just waiting around to make some music, trying to get something off the ground and feeling like I’m stagnating, and nothing’s happening. I spent three years touring a record that never even came out. We wrote five more albums in the house because we didn’t have jobs. It was amazing for the first year, because I just wrote songs and played video games, but then two years go by and it’s like, “What is my life? I’m not doing anything.” To go through all of that and at the end, to just be dropped – now it’s like, I have to get a shitty job with no qualifications and sell cigarettes, hand out flyers, figure out how I’m going to afford to rent a place. All my friends had graduated university, and that was hard. All the songs on The Dull Drums EP, barring “Hands,” are about that time period.

I noticed that “Hands,” when it was released as a single, was a different mix from the track that’s now on your EP. How was that decision made?

I’ve had a lot of backlash from the new mix. I recorded it as I wrote it, and just did basic stomps and claps for the percussion, and there were no real drums on it. But I always imagined a band playing it. And then there was this mad rush, because “Fire” was put into that film, and suddenly we needed more songs, and that half-finished tune just got put out. So I never really felt like I got the chance to properly record it.

So the version on the EP is what you envisioned for the track.

Yeah, although there is something to be said for capturing a song in the moment. I think, had I had the opportunity to do it with a band right when I wrote it, I probably would have captured more of the original tune. But I do really love the new version – I think there’s inevitably going to be backlash because people are used to the old one. There were too many “woo-hoos” in the first one. I just put those in as a placeholder, and now there’s a solo, and some harmonica. So I really like it.

Your story seems really relatable for people who are struggling to pursue their dreams. Do you have advice for people trying to break into the industry?

Absolutely. It’s an extremely competitive field. Your parents, friends, family – hopefully, people who love you – will tell you to be careful, to have a Plan B, because life has taught them that’s a sensible thing to do and they want you to succeed. But in a competitive industry, like this, it is doubly vital that you put everything you’ve got into what you want to be. How can you possibly compete with this huge pool of aspiring musicians when you’re not just hammering your craft every single day? Plan B can only serve to distract from Plan A. In any profession, I think that’s true. If you want to be a doctor, you do not spend time studying law in case the whole medical thing doesn’t work out. You have to be brave, and it’s hard, especially since we live on this imaginary ladder of success where your monetary gain is seen by society as your level of success and happiness. You have to be really committed and steadfast, and prepared to fail again and again, because failure is an integral part of success.

I love this quote. It’s one of those ancient, bullshit ones that you read on tapestries: “The master has failed more times than the apprentice has even tried.” And it’s so true. Look at Will Smith, who says that his work ethic is “sickening.” So don’t get bogged down by the idea of natural talent, because natural talent is bullshit. There are people who may have a head start, but what it always comes down to is hard work, and just hours and hours of beating on your craft. Literally anybody can be a rock star. The really sad thing is, not everybody realizes that they can do whatever the fuck they want.

Stream The Dull Drums EP below, and be sure to catch Barns Courtney as he wraps up his North American tour!

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Sarah Mathys

Sarah Mathys

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Sarah is a junior Anthropology major from Austin, Texas, and the Editor in Chief of The Rotation. She has a deep love for overpriced tea, Jack White, and live music. Catch her live on South By Northern Virginia with DJ Marshall every Monday night from 8-10 EST.

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