After 3 years of his life were lost because of a record deal gone south, Barns Courtney turned what felt like failure into his successful album The Attractions of Youth and it is just the beginning.
In a graveyard of archetypes, Barns Courtney stands tall and proud. He rattles off stories of fans breaking in backstage, beautiful women with dark tendencies and your standard, wild, rock n’ roll parties. He knows that his existence intertwines with the cliché’s left behind by decades of legends. It isn’t something he wears on his shoulder. He didn’t walk to the stage because he felt he partied so well, he deserved it. Rather, Courtney proves that archetypes exist for a reason; they speak to humanity and reality and so does he.
“By nature, a lot of musicians are self-destructive and drawn to those kind of behaviors or people or relationships, I think that’s true for a number of reasons but the main one is emotional pain and struggle are hugely inspirational. A lot of the greatest, most legendary musicians, were terribly depressed and in pain.” For Courtney, it’s no different. “I wouldn’t have been able to write the album that I wrote without the depression and debilitating sadness that went along with spending my whole life building something only to have it taken away from me,” Courtney laments.
The English born, Seattle bred musician spent years building an album with his band only to be dropped by the label before release. However, Courtney’s work ethic would not let him stay down, even when his path became twisted with hopelessness. Forever struck down by double edged swords, even now that he’s found himself accruing the attention he deserves, Courtney admits he feels lost between personality and persona. “When you’re on stage and you’re playing this exaggerated caricature of yourself and you’re plugged into this alien world that you draw inspiration from…you become this enormous, bizarre character for the people in the audience, when do you turn it off?”
Sometimes, it can feel like there isn’t even an off switch. “It’s hard to draw a clear distinction because all of these masks are a part of your personality. Technically, it’s all you.” Even so, when one portion of personality is magnetized a hundred times more than any other, it still feels like a cage. “Sometimes I wish I had an outlet for the other parts of my personality.”
While this issue plagues many a musician, it does feel especially pertinent with Courtney. In between stories of debauchery, Courtney references philosophers, discusses the importance of climate change awareness and the influence of poets like John Donne. Yet, when discussing who he feels he is as a person, he chooses words like ‘goofy.’ He ruminates on stories of his childhood self and playing characters. “I always loved performing in one sense of the word or another. I loved to make the people in my classroom laugh.”
When it comes to personality, he is a renaissance man. Constantly curious, an activist’s mind and a scholar’s thirst for hunger mixed with everyone’s favorite class clown and the boy down the street who would do anything for family. And while his album comes from the sincerest and genuine place, it is easy to see why one of life’s chameleons can feel trapped within the walls of a singular, simplified version of a personality, that quite honestly, is bursting at the seams.
The claustrophobic tendencies increase exponentially as more and more of pop culture becomes branded for social media. Courtney finds himself doing his best to avoid reducing his life by cutting it down to an Instagram post taken out of context. Not to mention the fact that taking time to constantly stimulate his fans means he loses time being stimulated by his own life. So why, when the industry is doing everything it can to embrace social media platforms and branding, would an old soul with the fervor for life of a high schooler drunk for the first time want to get involved?
When thinking about how his love affair with performing began, Courtney pauses. “I don’t know if there was a defining moment…it was always a part of me. I think it was just a relief when I saw it was okay to pursue this.”
“I was watching the world through a very restricted eye of this academic school that I’d gone to. I just didn’t understand that actually, you could do more or less, what you want in life as long as you’re passionate and work hard.” It didn’t hurt, of course, that his mom showed nothing but support; some of his early career credits include frequent performances on a stage made of mats and an audience filled with his mom’s yoga patrons.
To make things clear, Courtney isn’t one to be underestimated. He loves to perform and always wanted to be on stage, but music isn’t a means to an end. Courtney is exactly where he should be. While sometimes, that means people only see the cliché, Courtney couldn’t care less. “I was put into this box because the songs that I write fit there. I didn’t set out to be a credible artist. I just made the music I felt compelled to make and people decided this is where it belongs. If I felt compelled to do pop music or have ghost writers and perform, I’d do that. The moment that my music taste ceases being credible so do I. I’m never going to change my process to fit into a certain hole or category.”
Luckily, it seems like he’ll never need to. The singer-songwriter once had to replace Pete Doherty last minute, much to the chagrin of the audience. While the crowd made it clear they wanted Pete, Courtney made it clear he didn’t care. In a moment where even greats would be justified in faltering, Courtney proclaimed: “Pete’s not here and I got the microphone and I’m louder than you.”
He won the crowd over in a moment not unlike a movie. But the secret to Courtney is that he doesn’t need a microphone. He doesn’t even need to be louder than you. With an intense ability for introspection and a willingness to bare his soul, Courtney will draw attention regardless. One thing you can always be sure about is that he’ll never stop aspiring. The end of 2016 saw the 27-year-old make his first notch on the charts with his hit Fire but 2017 saw him skyrocket. There was his unlikely welcome into the Green Bay Packers family with his track Green and Gold, a version of his popular song Glitter and Gold. Millions of streams were rolling, airwaves were rotating his singles and his tour across North America was a sold-out hit. At times, he not only left his heart on the stage, but also his clothes. His trajectory is finally on path, after years of working his ass off, but even now, Courtney doesn’t seem concerned with awards or celebrity. In the case of the latter, it seems he’d rather avoid it. Courtney’s focus, as it seems to have always been, is to continue working his ass off. His attitude and natural sense of passion-fueled recklessness solidifies him as a powerful contender in the alt-rock scene. The raw and potent use of emotional expression proves he is a force to be reckoned with. But, “at heart, I’m a really goofy character.”
“I love to just mess around and make people laugh. A lot of my songs start as funny songs and then I change the lyrics later. Trying to master self-discipline seems to be the apparent next step for me,” he says. “I’m trying to put more time into studying my instruments and working on my stage craft while exercising, researching and getting more involved.”
Courtney is set for several more headlining gigs in the coming year, and who knows, maybe he’ll finally bring back his stand-up in between songs. Whatever his next step proves to be, odds are, he’ll excel at it.
Photography: Storm Santos
Writer: Malorie McCall
Groomer: Mariah Nicole