“The master has failed more times than the apprentice has even tried.” It’s an old proverb Barns Courtney brings up during the end of our interview that unsurprisingly resonates on a personal level. Why? Because it captures the essence of Courtney’s remarkable up-and-downs during the seven years it took for his first album to come out.
Courtney, born in England but raised in Seattle before moving back to London at 15, signed with Island Records fresh out of high school. The band was Dive Bella Dive, an indie-punk outfit who were “like the Killers, but not as good,” according to Courtney. Their record deal was sketchy, their management deal even worse, and though they wrote five albums’ worth of material, their album never saw the light of day. Three years later they were dropped. And broke.
“Suddenly I woke up from this crazy ride at the age of 22 with zero qualifications and no work experience. I had nowhere to go,” Courtney recalls. His constant upward trajectory in music had crashed down to reality. He decided to drop the band thing and pursue a singer-songwriter route by himself, living off of odd (sometimes creepy) jobs and five pounds a day, eating cheap sardines out of a can and sleeping on sofas.
He began writing the songs that would eventually become The Attractions of Youth, his official debut album released on September 29, in that period. “They came out of the despondency of endless days spent dodging mundane questions of job center officials,” Courtney describes. “They are a ticking, screaming, raging denial of circumstance. Basically, me shouting, ‘This isn’t my life! It can’t be. Surely, I haven’t seen the end yet. There’s more fight in me than this, isn’t there? I’ve got to make music for a living somehow.’
Lucky for him (and us), Courtney eventually secured a new contract with Virgin EMI. And though he almost got dropped again, the second time around stuck. Now a bit wiser but no less rock ‘n’ roll at nearly 27, he is ready for his close-up in the sun, and Barns Courtney’s fascinating story continues. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How does it feel to have your first official full-length record out now? I imagine it’s got to feel especially good considering your earlier band, Dive Bella Dive, never got to release their album five years ago.
It’s great, man. I’m grateful that I got to this stage. I’ve been in bands since I was 14 years old and it’s been a long time coming. It’s been a long, long road to putting out my first record. But at the same time, it’s quite a vulnerable feeling. It’s almost like your extended diaries are being put out into the universe for everyone to see. I’m happy that it’s here.
You had an eventful summer, breaking your foot at Summerfest in Milwaukee, and then playing some shows in a gurney and hospital gown. How were those shows?
Those shows in a leg cast were some of my favorite shows of this whole project. When you’re in a cast, you can play on the suspense of possibly seriously injuring yourself to a great extent. It’s this amazing thing when you look out at the audience and can see everyone terrified you’re going to fall off the stage or break your other foot. You can really use it to your advantage. I had a lot of fun stumbling around the stage in a hospital gown. My friend Kimberly pretended to be a nurse to look worried and upset for the duration of the shows. It was great.
You were born in England, moved to Seattle when you were four and grew up here in the States, before moving back there in your teens. What was that like to be able to experience both of those sides of the world?
It was strange. When I lived in Seattle, I went to a pretty good school, and then moving to England I went from one of the best schools in the Seattle area to one of the worst schools in England. It was a real culture shock. Suddenly I went from having monthly reviews with my teachers and parents to teachers just happy I wasn’t trying to burn the gym down. So I could get out of class pretty easily and go off and play guitar. That’s essentially when I started my first band. We had the opportunity to spend most of our time rehearsing and playing instead of worrying about our grades.
Do you feel like you were able to get two different musical educations?
Yeah, I’d certainly say so. When I was growing up, my step dad in Seattle would listen to a lot of oldies radio, like Smokey Robinson and that kind of stuff. Then my mom would listen to Paul Simon and different people like that. Moving to England and being part of the British indie movement as a teenager had a real effect on me.
I’ve always felt like my musical identity meanders around all those elements. But I try not to get too analytical about it. I try to write whatever’s inside me at any given point and think about how it all fits together later.
After your first band didn’t work out and you were dropped, you switched to pursuing the singer-songwriter route, which initially was quite a struggle. You were couch surfing, eating sardines and living out of a car. What was the turning point that got you back on track and to where you are now?
It’s pretty hilariously newsworthy [laughs]. I’m hesitant to talk about it, but my first big break was when Harvey Weinstein decided to put my song [“Fire”] in one of his films. I was working in this computer store at the time. My manager called me up, all excited. I was this 19-year-old kid who had met him outside the Emmy Awards some years ago. He was like, “Oh my god, you’re not going to believe this. They’re going to put your song in this new Harvey Weinstein film Burnt, starring Bradley Cooper.”
The film actually bombed, but this radio DJ from KNDD in Seattle happened to hear it on an advertisement on TV and started playing the hell out of it. From there, it spread across the rest of the U.S. alternative scene by itself. And this was a week after I had put the song out. It was a real quick turnaround.
With everything that has come out about Harvey Weinstein, does that change how you look back at that time now?
No. I’m grateful for the fact my song was able to come out through any medium. Really, that whole experience was more about Jon Manley [from KNDD] championing the track early on than it was about anything else. And Sirius XM as well. They were pretty cool. It was just crazy.
My record label, after I got signed, didn’t really know who I was. Especially when you’re a new artist on a big label, you kind of get swallowed up by the other big names. It was news to them that my tune was being played on the radio. It galvanized them. When I signed, my A&R left pretty quickly, and 20 of his 22 acts got dropped as a result. The only reason I was saved was because of this airplay that I had. I owe a lot to that radio station.
Photo by Erick Doxey
I’ve read some of your stories about that time in between record deals and it sounds gnarly. What kept you going? Was there a point where you thought that might be it?
Oh, yeah. When I lost my first deal, I was woefully unprepared for the real world. I had struggled for three years to make that record. I was on tour. My life had been a continuous upward trajectory in music since I started my first band at 14, from playing school concerts, to battle of the bands and local gigs, to televised battle of the bands, to signing with management and a record label.
Then suddenly I woke up from this crazy ride at the age of 22 with zero qualifications and no work experience. I had nowhere to go. It was either back to my mom’s house in Seattle, where there’s not much of an opportunity, or get a normal job and quit. It was a really terrifying experience. The story is crazy.
I moved into this multimillion-pound apartment where this girl I had just met was living. It was owned by this rich Dubai businessman. I couldn’t believe my luck that I was staying in this place. But every now and again, we’d get a call from this guy. “I’m at the airport. I’m coming to the flat.” I’d have to run around the apartment, collect all my stuff in this crazy whirlwind, grab everything and shove it in a suitcase, and then get out of there.
I’d be on the night bus at two in the morning, calling everybody in my contact list, like, “Hey, can I stay on your sofa?” Sometimes I’d go and sleep in my girlfriend’s car and then get woken up by her mom at 7 a.m. the next day saying, “You gotta get out of here. You can’t sleep in here. You’ve got to go.” It was pretty bizarre.
Where does the title The Attractions of Youth fit into all that?
The theme of the album is this desperation to reconnect with the naïve passions of your youth. It’s all about struggling to succeed in the face of adversity and keeping your dreams alive that you had when you were young—dreams that seemed very attainable at a young age.
I really credit my naïveté as a young boy and my total ignorance of the goal I was attempting to surmount to how far I came before I grew up and realized how difficult it actually was. It’s funny what you can do and accomplish with the right attitude when you focus on the right things.
Since some of the record was written as stuff was falling apart, some more recently, what ties the album together for you?
I began writing this record right around the time I got dropped from my record deal, and I finished the last song around the time when I got signed. So thematically, it’s very similar. You hear my perspective on that journey from different points, from the intense passion and desperation of being at rock bottom in “Fire” and “Glitter & Gold,” to the wistful hopefulness to reconnect with the kid inside me on “Little Boy,” right up to the triumph that I’m going to make music in any capacity, whether they like it or not, in “Kicks.”
It’s all centered around the same idea, and then it reconciles with “The Attractions of Youth,” the title track and last song on the album. At that point I realized that no matter what happens, I have everything I need right here. It’s more about the relationships and the people you meet along the way that are more important ultimately than what you want.
The single you have out right now, “Golden Dandelions,” has been getting a lot of traction in the States. How does that play into the story?
That’s a good point, actually. That is one on the record that isn’t connected to my journey. That was inspired by a John Donne poem, who was a medieval poet. He wrote this poem in which he explores death and it centers around that theme. I started to imagine, well, what if death wasn’t this scary, skeletal being? What if death was like a lover who came to your window at night and lets you out over the cityscapes? And all the lights and sounds of the towns below melded into this phantasm gloria as you lay down in a field of golden dandelions for your final sleep.
I’ve always liked referencing poetry and things I’m reading in my songs. Another one off the record that isn’t connected to the journey is “Goodbye John Smith,” which is about my late grandfather. I took a lot of inspiration from the book The Old Man and the Sea for that one, because my grandfather was a sailor and a surfer. There were a lot of interesting parallels to be drawn.
Earlier this year the Packers contacted you about reworking “Glitter & Gold” for their theme song to be used this season, which you reformatted into “Green & Gold.” The Packers are my team, so I thought that was really cool how they’ve been able to use that for a lot of their marketing. What was your takeaway from that experience?
At first, I was very skeptical. I don’t like to write about things that I’m not personally involved in or passionate about. And I didn’t know anything about football. I didn’t have a team that I supported or anything. Then I went down to the field and looked at this huge, empty stadium. I saw the Hall of Fame where these guys sat out in the freezing cold, covered in snow, back in the ‘60s. All these aged, graying photographs. I heard about how the team is owned by its fans, and all the struggles and trials and tribulations they went through in their early days.
I realized, in essence, there are a lot of parallels between the subject matter of “Glitter & Gold” and the journey and idea behind this team. To play professionally, whether it’s on the field or on a stage, requires a huge amount of fire and passion in your gut. Ultimately, that’s why that song has been used so much on sports channels like ESPN and was first flagged by the Packers. So it was quite a nice experience.
I was pretty bowled over by what exactly it was that I was getting involved in. It was a humbling experience, to stand there and realize the weight of the situation. I didn’t have to change many of the lyrics because they all kind of fit seamlessly. Whenever I do something, it’s 110 percent. So the Packers are my team now. That’s who I support. It’s been cool to get into something for the first time that I wasn’t into as a kid. Get into this whole world of NFL football.
Seattle and Green Bay have had a fairly intense rivalry over the last few years, so it’s nice to get a Seattle person over to the Green Bay side.
Yeah [laughs]. I spent all my time as a kid playing in bands. I never did the whole sports thing or was involved in that scene. But as an artist, as a musician, it’s always a lot of fun to go outside of your comfort zone and explore new mediums.
In addition to “Glitter & Gold,” you have other songs like “Fire” and “Champion” with that sing-along, arena-rock quality to them. Was that on your mind when you were working on some of those?
It’s funny you mention that—it’s never been something I’ve thought about. I always just made the tunes that were inside me and tried to excise whatever demons were hanging around. The reason they evoke so much of that feeling is probably because they came out of the despondency of endless days spent dodging mundane questions of job center officials. They are a ticking, screaming, raging denial of circumstance. Basically, me shouting, This isn’t my life! It can’t be. Surely, I haven’t seen the end yet. There’s more fight in me than this, isn’t there? I’ve got to make music for a living somehow.
For instance, lyrics like “Lord gimme that fire,” which sounds like a pretty throwaway line in the face of things, was actually a prayer to reconnect with the unbridled ambition of my youth. The “lonely shadows, ghosts and devils” are all about the bitter resentment of my circumstance that I couldn’t shake off. That’s basically a lot of the album, desperately trying to connect with the naïve passions of childhood after they have long since been extinguished.
One other fun thing you did earlier this year is a small cameo in the Charli XCX video for “Boys,” alongside a bunch of other esteemed gentlemen. How did that come about?
I was rehearsing 20 minutes down the street from where she was filming that video. A friend of mine said, “Charli is looking for boys to be in her video. Why don’t you go down and see what’s going on?” So I went down and they dressed me up as a sexy cowboy [laughs], with barely any clothes on, a pink hat and some boots. I remember when Charli came into the dressing room. She took one look at me, paused and went, “Nooo.” And that was that [laughs].
I ended up changing back into my regular clothes. I had no idea I was going to be doing this, so I hadn’t washed my hair. I was all greasy. I was wearing stuff for practice, she had me blow a bubble, and that was that. My 0.35 seconds of fame.
And your head is all the way at the bottom of the frame.
It’s funny, isn’t it? I’m really happy she used it. It’s great. It was a very interesting shot to use. But hey, any chance to be in there with all those sexy boys, how can I turn my nose up at that?
“The theme of the album is this desperation to reconnect with the naïve passions of your youth. It’s all about struggling to succeed in the face of adversity and keeping your dreams alive.”
A last song I wanted to bring up is “Hobo Rocket,” which is a little bit of a stylistic outlier on the record. You namedrop Beck on that song, and it does have a big ‘90s Beck feel to it. How did that one take shape?
It was an early one on the record. I was doing odd jobs before I signed or had management to try and make some money on the side without committing to a 9 to 5, so I could hang around the studio in Shoreditch and try to convince producers to work with me at the coffee stand when they came out to grab a drink.
I was doing this job for Guitar Hero where I was lip-synching to metal bands for this video game. One of the extras in the audience was this producer. We made friends and watched this Rolling Stones documentary at his house and got baked. We made this track out of what was lying around. That became “Hobo Rocket.”
I really wanted to tell the story of what I was going through at the time. I was pretty poor. I was living off five pounds a day. But it was getting to the point where I didn’t feel bitter about it anymore. I kind of felt like I was winning at some grand video game, like I had found the cheat code to live an awesome life as a pauper, basically. Like you said, I used to buy these sardines for 50p a can, a loaf of bread and some kale, and that’s what I ate for three meals a day. I could still go out and have fun and make music. That’s the theme of that tune.
Stylistically, I’m not sure why it came out so different from the rest of the record. I considered making an album that was exclusively tracks like “Fire” and “Glitter & Gold,” but I thought it was a bad idea to try and be too analytical about my creativity. So I released them all on a record in hopes there would be some common element, due to the fact that I wrote and recorded them all myself and glued them together.
You had a quote I came across that I thought would be a good place to end on. You said you think that people underestimate the power of failure. Is that the main lesson you’ve taken away from these last couple years?
Absolutely. There’s a huge amount of energy in failure. I don’t think you can really be your best self until you’ve hit rock bottom, and then you really find out what you’re made of. You find this passion that you’ve never seen before in your entire life. It gave me something to write about, something real to relay to people. It’s so important.
I love this old quote: “The master has failed more times than the apprentice has even tried.” The failure is synonymous with success. It’s like what Dave Grohl says: You just got to go out and suck, and keep sucking, until eventually you get kind of good and start doing all right. It’s fear of failure that confines people. There’s a huge lesson to take away from resolving your fear and making sure it drives you, using it as a compass to know where you need to go next.