“I’m not manically depressed anymore,” Barns Courtney says, sitting in a musty, deserted, former convent on the south coast of England, hardly the place to express one’s happiness. He’s contrasting his ebullient, playful new music with the sound of his first album, a surprise hit after his song Fire was featured in the Hollywood movie Burnt. “On the first album I was naturally drawn to the blues, because it complements those emotions. But on this record the subject matter is entirely different. There’s none of that earnest striving in the face of adversity. It’s much happier, though there’s also a tinge of sadness about the feeling of growing up and losing touch with something I can’t quite get my hands around, something intangible and nebulous.”
Courtney’s is a riches to rags to riches story. When he was still a teenager his band Dive Bella Dive were signed to Island, to be produced by RedOne – they were dropped after three years, no album seeing the light of day. For three years he plugged away, supporting himself any way he could, before Fire was noticed, and led to an unexpected second act. It was followed by Glitter and Gold, both becoming huge successes in sync – music used in film, TV and advertising – and making him a Shazam sensation. “I didn’t even know what syncs were, despite having already signed a major recording contract previously,” he says, and laughs. “But it has exposed my music to so many more people than the radio has, which is kinda funny.”
His challenge now is turn the fans of the songs into fans of the wider body of music. “People are definitely fans of the music, but bridging that gap is an immense challenge,” he says.
The wilderness years might have been the making of Barns Courtney: they provided him with the realisation that he wasn’t willing to give up music, and the determination to do anything to get back to it. And when he says anything, he means anything. Among the jobs he took to support himself was answering an advertisement for a roleplay actor – which proved to be crawling around on the floor for the amusement of an older man. He hoots with laughter. “I did at least 10 sessions of these weird sex games. But the guy was a perfect gentlemen – I was clothed at all times, and it was a phenomenal hourly rate – £50 an hour!” Worse was working in Currys, and worst of all was a job that reminded him of what he thought he had lost.
“The very lowest was selling cigarettes at festivals from these sweaty little tin boxes and watching all of the other acts come on and perform, and thinking: ‘This is what I’m supposed to do,’” he says. “I’d played to thousands of people at festivals and done massive gigs and lived the life, and suddenly it had all been snuffed out. As difficult as it is to sign a record deal, as soon as that goes away, you might as well have been high in the bushes for the last 10 years.”
Fire changed everything in 2015: a simple song that created buzz as soon as people heard it. Though it took time for them to hear it – he’d written it four years earlier. The whole experience of being feted, then rejected, then taken up again has fed into his new music: because of his loss of awe for the notion of being a rock star. “This is an industry of firsts, and the excitement comes from experiencing things for the first time,” he says. He wants this new collection of songs to link back to that childlike excitement, unselfconscious and uninhibited.
“I don’t understand why we shouldn’t continue to be in awe of things.” he says. “It’s as if we as adults have consciously decided to make things more formal and less interesting. Why is it that when we decide to go bike rides as fully grown adults, we can’t ride around in circles laughing? Why do we have to put on lycra outfits and cycle for a certain length of time? I hate the idea that life should become less interesting the older you get and relationships should become more and more sparse the older you get. It’s terrifying to me, and paralysing. I suppose it’s a huge reason why I love to play gigs and festivals – it’s like the last semblance of that world I once knew that I can drag into the adult world.”
You hear that most clearly on 1999, a firework of a song that harks back to Courtney’s childhood and tries to recapture it. “That’s the first song where I’ve ever been able to inject my true personality. I was typecast on the first record, and put into a box: this brooding, pensive, troubled character that I’m really not. I was born in England and grew up in suburban Seattle playing video games and watching Pokémon. I love to make people laugh and put on stupid voices and be goofy. 1999 has got genuine sadness, but it’s got playfulness, and it references the nerdy parts of my personality where I’m in Seattle in the late 90s with my friends in front of a TV screen playing Nintendo 64. It’s got the silly playfulness where I reel off a list of dated games consoles at the end. That sense of poking fun at yourself: ‘Sega’s my Ferrari.’ The universal goal is that to be successful is to have shiny status symbols, so there are people who’ve grown up and got the house and the Ferrari, but here I am clutching my old Sega Megadrive.”
New tracks such as ‘You & I’ and ‘Babylon’ breath a wealth of exciting new life and energy into Barns’ already expansive new sound. While ‘Good Thing’ harks back to his blues rock roots that have built the very foundations of his tremendous success to date, there is also the stunning ‘London Girls’ to be unleashed – a pure punk rock anthem in the making, drooling and snarling with attitude.
To capture the mood he wanted, Courtney has largely stayed away from big studios and big producers (though Arctic Monkeys/1975 producer Mike Crossey has worked on several tracks). Instead, it’s mainly been him and his former Dive Bella Dive bandmate Sam Bartle – recording in the old garage Bartle uses as a lab for his inventions, and in that old deserted convent he’s also living in, sometimes with Bartle staying there, too. “It’s exactly like The Shining,” he says. “This place is so creepy. Oftentimes in the middle of the night I’ll get a text from Sam: ‘Is that you running around the corridors?’ No. I’m in bed. I thought that was you. There are doorways to nowhere, there are hallways to nowhere. If you take a wrong turn you can be confronted with a sheer drop to the basement. It’s a scary place.”
He and Bartle don’t share the same tastes, but they have the same attitude: if it works, do it. “There’s something about the playful way he writes and the way his brain is wired that I find inspiring, and a huge catalyst for my writing process. He’s not afraid to explore ridiculous ideas, so I feel like I’m in a safe environment. At the end of 1999, there’s a monotone rap about various old videogame consoles that in any band would have been vetoed immediately, but because it’s Sam he was fully behind it. Often he’ll just laugh at how ridiculous our ideas are. I’m quite an ADHD character in the studio and he’s very much the seasoned working professional and the combination just works. I’m able to be the kite and dance around and flail about whereas he just sits there and focuses on what we need to do.”
Barns Courtney never gave up. Now – even in a huge, spooky, deserted convent – his laugh rings out like a man who senses he’s got the world at his feet. And he’s got the music to justify the laughter.
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