Barns Courtney Digs Into the Nostalgia and Impulse of New Album ‘404’
There’s an eternal collective sentiment that we recognize immediately because it stood the test of time, and instinctively strikes a chord. In 2015, Barns Courtney’s single, “Glitter and Gold,” was just this, a blues tune inspired by an artist’s struggle and dreams, presenting an age-old gospel in a fresh voice that made such an impact and became a worldwide hit. Prior to this, Courtney had been dropped by his label, but wasn’t letting it deter him, instead setting out in search of the eponymous object in all its glory, with no qualms. It was an ambition that registered widely because it came in a voice that resonated.
Courtney’s debut album “The Attractions of Youth” made an instant impact, validating all the starving artist’s dreams teased in “Glitter and Gold.” One single after another, Courtney proved a knack for songwriting that trims the fat, goes straight to the heart, and leaves a tune to hum days later. Songs like “Golden Dandelions” and “Fire” were embraced readily, making their way into various films, video games, and ultimately life in general. With a history of shuttling between America and England, Courtney draws from sounds in the various trajectories of rock ‘n’ roll’s multitudinous forms, meshing them into creations that strike as unpretentiously spontaneous, and reveal a range of stylistic influences, tempered and spread out in a way that makes for plenty novelty and excitement, along with the guaranteed catchiness that Barnes has made himself known for.
The goal has been met, but the passion still exists, and has found its way into a fresh sound and album. If you continue to follow the usual avenues, you might be hit with a jarring “404,” the error message that ‘90s kids will remember from when a website was no longer functional. Suddenly, at a dead end, you have to backtrack, which broadly leads to nostalgia, romanticization of youth, uncertainty about the future, and all the works. Having shot to success in 2017, Courtney has found himself in entirely different circumstances, and written a fitting new album, “404.” Created largely on impulse, in quick, sporadic sessions, but with emotions that had built over plenty of luxurious times, the new album finds Courtney going by whims, to results that are often strikingly different from the songs of his debut record.
Courtney spoke with Entertainment Voice to shed light on the process and mentality that made their way into “404,” and the stories that inspired the songs.
Your songs have made their way into various films, TV series, video games, and ad campaigns. What do you think is the special universal aspect that you’ve managed to tap into?
I was extremely depressed when I wrote the first album. I had been struggling for years with zero success. All of my friends were killing it with their careers, like the Struts had been dropped same as me and were making it big in America, and I saw my life folding in front of me. I was working shitty temp jobs selling cigarettes in nightclubs and handing out free samples of Lipton ice tea in a muscle suit, and that whole first album were all fight songs — raging, screaming, denial of circumstance songs, in which I am trying to lift my way up out of hell one inch at a time. I lost five pounds a day, eating ten Sardines for three meals, to try and stay healthy on the budget that I had. It was dark. And I think the reason that the songs were picked up so heavily on sports channels, video games, is because they embody the fighting spirit that I felt as someone that was striving to reach my career goals, that also exists in a sports arena when someone is trying to score a touchdown, or in a video game where you’re trying to defeat the enemy. It was a very truthful record, you know. I was in a lot of pain and I was very determined, and despite the fact that I recorded a lot of the songs in my friend’s bedroom on one microphone the truthfulness of what I felt comes across.
I was fighting against my life quickly degenerating into nothing. All my dreams fell apart. I had nothing but success from my first band at 14 to battle of the bands, being on TV, getting picked up by a manager, going to Los Angeles and recording my record, signing a deal, and then, bam, I was dropped. There was just suddenly nothing. And unlike a college degree, where even if you don’t have a job, there’s a piece of paper that says you’re worth something to society, it’s not like this with a record deal, people don’t view you in that way. Everybody’s like, “When are you going to grow up and get a job?”
A recurrent theme in your new album, “404,” is emptiness, encapsulated in your single “Hollow,” with a video of you hospitalized with a screen reading “Error 404.” Why did you end up focusing on this subject, and was there anything particular about the number 404?
I really subscribed to the David Bowie philosophy in which he talks about how geographically, your place on the planet affects the music that you write. I spent the entire of my demo budget on a chateau in wine country. My crowning accomplishments were nearly getting drowned in the sea with my photographer, and crashing a golf cart into a fountain. And doing a bunch of mushrooms, hiking a mountain and getting covered in ticks.
So, having written absolutely nothing in the chateau, I went back to England with no budget, I met up with my long-term collaborator Sam Bartle, and we set about the task of trying to record this record in his bedroom. We got terrible noise complaints, so we ended up in his childhood home, at his parents’ house, the middle of nowhere, January, dark, raining sideways, in this place that I hadn’t written in since I was a teenager when we first started working together. And it was bizarre. I felt like I had crawled back into the womb. Living with this his parents, and I’m well into my twenties? Are you serious?
So, I really believe that that shaped the subject matter of the album. It’s very much about nostalgia, about losing touch with your authentic self as you age. We look for memories, and we dig around to recreate emotions at times in our lives from the past, but despite our searching, ultimately nothing is there, because the moment has been and gone, and that’s why I chose the name “404.” Being a kid in the ‘90s, when a computer is looking for a website, and it’s no longer there, it’s a 404 error. I thought it was a nice metaphor. And I liked the idea, because when I was young the internet was just becoming a thing.
You spent your younger years between the UK and the US. Which side of the pond do you think contributed more to your overall sound and aesthetic?
They really both did, really. A song like “London Girls” is really influenced by the British indie scene that was going on when I was a teenager. But then you have the first record, which is clearly very influenced by Americana, so I’ve got a mixture of both.
“London Girls” has a very spirited falsetto chorus and an overall feel of almost a sensory overload, in a way that’s very thrilling, but perhaps a little jokey. How did this come to be, and what are you saying about London girls?
It was about a specific lady, my extra girlfriend. She was quintessentially that scrappy, Cockney personality. I say, “London girls all fight the same,” but the more you delve into the lyrics, the more it is specifically about one person. I suppose sometimes when you’re in an argument, you’ll be like, “You London girls all fight the same.” It opens with a generalization. But she was nuts. All of the stuff in the lyrics actually happened. She’d turn up at the door with her face made up from the night before, and dragging her fur coat around. I remember once I came back from a gig, and the hallway was covered with splinters of wood, and I came around the corner, and I found the headstock of one of my guitars, and she was just sitting there on her knees, putting on her makeup and lipstick in the mirror, really slow like. I was like, “Are you okay?” She said nothing. I went into the toilet, and all my clothes were in the toilet, covered in piss and bleach. She was crazy (Laughs). We’re still really good friends though.
A lot of your songs make an immediate impact because of how you juxtapose rugged and free-flowing songs with instantaneous pop choruses. Is this something you intend to do, or does it just turn out that way?
I try not to be too analytical about my songwriting process. I try to just let things flow naturally. I think if I was analytical, I would have written a record very similar to the first one, but I made a conscious effort, with my writing partner, to make it clear that I didn’t want to be writing songs for the sake of it — that anything we wrote, it had to be fun, it had to feel natural and truthful and real, and just be a genuine expression, and I think that’s why the album came out so differently to the first one. I’m just not in that place emotionally anymore. I’m not that struggling artist, sofa surfing with no money.
Your song “99” has the lyrics “We’re going to live just live like it’s 1990… it’s 1999 tonight.” Was the “1990” part just a truncation before you got to the “1999” part of the sentence, as singers often do with anticipatory lyrics, or were you equally celebrating boh the beginning and end of the decade?
It was nice to encapsulate the whole decade because I was born in 1990. It was a nice way of summing up that early stage in your life. Often times, when I write songs, they kind of just come out, you don’t really realize what they’re about until you’re finished. With my first record, I had no idea what it was about, and then I realized it was inspired by this poem called “Death Be Not Proud“ by John Donne. Same with “99.” They just come out, and after the fact, I look back. The best tunes, I find, are the ones that you just let flow freely out of your subconscious.
Where does your song “The Kids Are Alright” fall on the irony-to-sincerity spectrum? Feel free to elaborate.
Again, it was one of those songs that just popped into my head. I was in the laundry room, late for a writing session, just grabbing my stuff out, and the whole chorus just popped in there. I was really trying to get across, again, the innocence of childhood, the feeling of being at ease, coasting through life, and trying to juxtapose it with the terror and existential doubt of transitioning into adulthood. So I begin with “You’re skipping school / Hiding from your mom, you ain’t no fool,” and by the end of the song, the lyrics evolve into “That skeleton inside your head.” I was really trying to give people that feeling of nostalgia, when you look back and you have your regrets, and you wonder if these people remember you. Maybe stars from your past come back to haunt you.
I suppose what I was trying to get across, really, is the simplistic, carefree way in which children live their lives has some weight to it, and we lose that as we age. We worry about young generations not taking life seriously enough, but in fact, as adults, we might take it too seriously. Like “The kids are alright.” Leave them alone. (Laughs)
You recorded the latest album largely in single vocal takes, and there is a spontaneity and rawness that makes its way into the recording. How essential to the process was this, and why did you choose to take this route?
It’s not the entire album that’s improvised, just some of the songs. “Cannonball,” for instance, that entire vocal was improvised, and that’s the vocal that I used. All the verse. The chorus was originally “I’m a saucy mix, I’m a saucy mix.” (Laughs) But the verse we kept exactly. Nine times out of ten the lyrics I get are just fucking weird. “Fire” was originally “I’m jizzing out diamonds.”
On this new record though, I happened to get some lyrics that I really like. On “Boy Like Me,” the verses for that are first take improvisations. And the chorus lines came to me in my bedroom, but they were the first lines that came to me. I didn’t change them.
“Babylon” is an outlier on the album, particularly decadent and theatrical, and placed perhaps strategically near the end. How does this song factor into the album as a whole, and what does it mean to you?
It certainly is an outlier. It’s a product of the ethos of what went into the album process. I would just write. I had a very space of time, after fucking around in the “chateau” for months, and it all came it once, over the course of this month, so it just popped out. It is decadence. It’s not subtle at all. (Laughs)
How would you most naturally describe the evolution in your sound?
It’ll be interesting to see how my fans react. The first record was blues — blues and folk. I would just say that I try to be very honest, and allow the music that’s inside of me to come out, as truthfully as possible, and I’m so grateful to my fans that supported that first record, but I need them to know that if I attempted to write “Glitter and Gold” again, it would not come across as genuine, because those emotions have gone. My life is completely different, now that I’m a touring musician, so this record is representative of where I’m at.
“404” is full of songs that sound mobilizing, anthemic, and ultimately exhilarating, but without being frothy or forcibly cheery, often on the darker side. How would you briefly sum up the sentiment of the album overall?
It’s that bittersweet feeling of looking back on childhood memories, and then that creeping understanding that you’ll never feel that way again. I feel lost sometimes in the adult world, as if I’ll never be as awestruck or enthusiastic about anything as I was when I was new to the planet. (Laughs) I’m glad that the dark side of the lyrics is reflected. Again, I wanted to juxtapose that happy, mobilizing feeling of childhood, and that enthusiasm of being young, with the darker understanding of the lyrics — that those days are over, and we’re all ghosts of our former selves.
The new album really builds to an epic climax with “Cannonball.” You end, singing, “I’m hopeless / I’m lost,” but in the most sonorous, harmonious manner. What did you mean with this gesture?
Just as I juxtaposed the happy music with the dark lyrics, I wanted to take the beginning of that record, which starts off so sugar sweet, and ended off with something that’s completely morose, again to emphasize that feeling of the gates of youth closing behind you — that sinking feeling of “I’m an adult now.” (Laughs) You think, as a young kid, that you’re going to know everything as a grown up, with those steps that they put in front of you – high school and university. You think you can have this thing — whatever that thing is — and then you realize it’s all a lie. I really felt every bar of that song.
The vocal track is recorded atrociously, and it has clicks, but it was so important to me to keep that because it was so raw, and off the dome. I couldn’t see how I could ever replicate it. If you take some of Hendrix’s records, like “Foxy Lady” for example, I friend of mine got ahold of the raw files, and if you listen to each one, there’s tons of people talking in the background, coughing, one instrument bleeding into another, and these things you cannot pick up on, if you try, if you listen to the record as a whole, only by track. And when it all comes together, you get this warm vibe that you wouldn’t get if it were cookie-cutter recorded.
You’ve already sold out a few cities on your upcoming tour. Considering that your music manages to sound both intimate and grandiose at different times, how would you best describe the live experience to fans?
It’s raucous, sweaty. I like getting in the audience with my fans, talk to them. It’s a visceral experience. I want people to leave the show different from how they came in, and I really try my best to make the show as dynamic and exciting as possible. It’s a challenge to me because I’ve got two records, and I want to play the songs that people come to hear, but I also want to play a set that doesn’t drag. There might be songs that sound great on their own, but when you put three of that ilk together, the set loses its dynamic momentum, so I’ve been grappling with it, making sure I play the songs that fans want to hear, but also dealing with an overall exciting experience.