Barns Courtney on Finding Inspiration in the Solitude of Quarantine for ‘Hard to Be Alone’
These days of lockdown can trigger any number of reactions from artists. There are those who turn inward, those who turn outward, and those who end up in a category all their own, creating something wholly original out of their current circumstances. In this latter group is Barns Courtney, who has always paved his own path, and gets more creative as circumstances demand. Courney’s single “Glitter and Gold,” off his debut album “The Attractions of Youth,” made him a worldwide sensation, with a song that captured a starving artist’s desire and fleshed it out into results that would manifest with one hit single after another. Courtney’s last album, “404,” was a product of experiencing success, with songs built from channeling a rush to fame. Now, his new EP, “Hard to Be Alone,” takes inspiration from the current anxieties, turning the introspection that comes with solitude and uncertainty into a fruitful musical output that shows a vulnerability different from previous albums. “Hard to Be Alone,” is a record that translates his experiences into poignant yet catchy tunes that strike instantaneously, and come with a wealth of meaning. Courtney spoke with Entertainment Voice about the lyrics and sonics that make for the EP’s fresh sound and direction.
“Hard to Be Alone,” is overall a fairly stripped down set of songs that finds you tapping into a certain organic rawness. What led you to take this sonic direction, and who are some artists that you took inspiration from?
It’s certainly more of an introspective, chill, roughly recorded record than my previous works because I did it all at home in lockdown. To be honest, this whole process really took me back to my roots. I found that in stark contrast to life on the road, I was really confronted with a lot of my demons that suddenly poked their heads out to take a look around, and it deeply affected the way I write, and really took everything back to the origins of what this project was, which is very stripped back.
You sold all of your belongings five years ago, and committed fully to a life as a musician on the road. When the world suddenly got locked down, how did you react, after havig made such a commitment? And how did the experience make its way into your music?
It forced me to confront things that had been suppressed by the intense, constant excitement of life on the road. The slowness, the sudden change of pace enabled me to sit down with my music in a way that I hadn’t been able to do since my first album. I usually hardly have any time to write. For once, all of these melodies have been bouncing around my head. Instead of feeling like I need to hurry up and deliver the album before the next tour starts, I felt much more relaxed and enabled to do a project like this, to just release something that was very honest, and very stripped back, and recorded at home.
“Hard to Be Alone” was one take, and then I dropped in for a lyric change, but the guitar and vocal was all done at once, and we only added some little voices at the end. I wanted it to feel a little bit rough. I wanted it to feel dusty and homemade because I wanted it to reflect the times we’re in.
The title track begins with the line “I can see the city written in your face.” As a cosmopolitan artist who shuttles between the US and the UK, and lived briefly in a chateau in the south of France, how exactly does a city write itself on a face?
I was hanging out with this girl that looks a bit like an Andy Warhol runaway, this delicate, dangerous woman, smoking cigarettes with a blowtorch, deliriously spouting love poems. She just looked like the quintessential image of London. She embodied that English femme fetale look. If London would have a face, it would be her.
I can see the city of London written in her face. I can see all the experiences of London life written in her face. She’s beautiful, but she’s heroin chic. She’s one of those girls who’s gorgeous, and at the same time, disheveled — effortless beauty, from a life of hedonism.
Later in that song, you sing, “Oh, what a crowded place to live alone.” Did the social distancing of COVID-19 make its way into your songwriting process?
Absolutely. It’s very much a record where events and emotions and demons that I hadn’t had time to process suddenly were there, in front of me, demanding to be reconciled, and I found catharsis in these songs. I always thought it funny to move to such a big city, somewhere so bustling and full of life, and then live by yourself. That’s something that I could never do. I love people. I’m an extrovert. It’s kind of strange and sad, and beautiful, in a way.
The girl in the song lives in London, but funnily enough, that one line is about someone else. I met my elementary school friend, who I hadn’t seen in years, and she’d grown up and moved to Chicago, and I just thought it was funny that someone from my distant past had become a grownup, and shed all of the the conventions of everything we always knew, to live in such a crowded city, so far from home, by herself. We had a mandatory school choir when we were young, and I just remember her as this young choir girl, so sweet and innocent, so far than the hedonistic grownup that I met in the middle of Chicago, somewhat sad in a way. Where did her innocence go? Where did the people that we used to be disappear to? What have we done to arrive at this point. And the speed at which our lives are changing. I suppose seeing someone I knew in elementary school, as an adult, made me painfully aware of my more mortality.
“Meeting You” finds you with a cool composure in your voice, building up to a falsetto chorus that might be the most exuberant part of the EP. How do you manage to turn the experience of missing someone into something so gleeful?
I felt very conflicted about the way that that song turned out. The lyrics are very sad, and I was trying to juxtapose sad lyrics with a jaunty tune, into something that would be poignant, but there was a large part of me that was drawn to making that song more melancholy. I actually made twelve different versions of it (laughs) before I decided to go with the more stripped-back version possible. It’s very difficult. There are no rules in recording songs. It’s hard to know when to stop, and I certainly feel like I could have messed around with that song for another two years. I didn’t know how long lockdown was going to be, andit was that living in limbo that really took pressure off, and simultaneously pushed me into releasing a four-track EP, as opposed to a whole album, which I naturally would have gravitated towards.
On “Home,” you take a stab at the “Oh oh” chorus that has become ubiquitous recently, as well as a general, powerful, beaming vocal that drives it home. What type of mood and mentality were you trying to convey?
It’s actually a song that I wrote when I was nineteen, and I just left my parents’ house for the first time, and moved in with my first band in London, when I was tied to Island Records, and it had been sitting around, bouncing around my head for a long time, but I never released it, and I didn’t put it on my first album because it was very similar to “Little Boy,” but I always wanted to relay that feeling, the hopeful terror of leaving your parents’ house for the first time.
“Home” has lyrics that elegantly capture the ultimate uncertainty of life, with lines like “I’m holding on to providence to come and put me right… But I have no idea.” Expand on the questions and answers involved in such deliberations.
It’s a song I’ve completely forgotten about since I was nineteen. It’s the one track on the album that was more or less finished in my head before I laid it down. I suppose it’s the parallels between the feeling of that song and the feeling of lockdown that sends it back rushing into my conscious mind again. At the time when I wrote home, I just moved out. I think I’d been dropped for about three years, struggling to find my next deal. I’m holding out for providence to come and set me right. I was still hopeful that I could do something, and I swear that I’ve got the end of it in my sight. I’m sure I can write songs that can deliver me out of this moment, but really, I had no idea. I had no idea whether I’d get another shot at being a musician.
And then, I was just sitting around the house at lockdown, and I was like “Oh my god,” this song just popped into my head, and I thought that’s exactly how I feel now, about this COVID situation. That’s exactly how I feel, about when this will all end, when we’ll go back to normal.
The final song, “Dopamine,” has some echoes of Lana del Rey’s “Video Games,” which makes sense, as you covered her “Blue Jeans.” Was she an influence on this song too? If so, what is it about her that comes to seep into your music?
I certainly wouldn’t be surprised. I’m a huge fan of Lana del Rey, and it’s funny in the writing process. When you write, and it flows, it often feels like you’re not writing it, So I’m sure certain melodies have probably just been stuck in my brain. Lana del Rey songs probably found their way into “Dopamine.”
Her lyricism is overwhelmingly poignant and well-constructed. Her ability to capture nostalgia and adrenaline, snapshot of dejection, wrapped in Americana, and I admire that, hugely.
What would you say is the overall theme, both lyrically and musically, to the new EP, and is it indicative of your future direction, as of now?
Thematically, the EP is entirely about isolation. In fact, if it weren’t so on the nose, and we weren’t in a period of literal social isolation, I would have called it “The Isolation EP.” I actually said to my manager that that’s what I wanted to call it, initially, and then, I sat and thought about it, and I decided that’s just a little bit cheesy. D record.
For a long time, I’ve wanted to write a real rock ‘n’ roll record — Dandy Warhols, Ty Segall, riffy, chord-based record. I find it incredibly difficult, as someone who learned how to play guitar, and played on bass for the first time with a guitar five years ago, to get those kinds of records to come to fruition, because I don’t have a band.
Ultimately, there must come a point of surrender, with any artist, where you give yourself up, and allow what comes out to come out, without overanalyzing. So I don’t know what the next album will sound like, but I hope it’s good (laughs).
“Hard to Be Alone” is available July 10 on Apple Music.