Barns Courtney: “I sometimes
people tell you that your music saved their life, if actually, when you feel powerless, perhaps it’s easier to put your power somewhere else.”
Alice Gee | 20/11/2022
It’s 10am in Seattle, and Barns Courtney has arisen from a short 3-hour slumber following his penultimate night on tour. Back in the city where he grew up, Barns feels at home as he lays down, phone in his hand with the murmuring of friends in the background. I apologise for the early rise, hoping he’s got one last adrenaline rush running through him from the night before. As he tells me about his decision to stay in Seattle following the end of his tour, I wonder if he’s looking forward to decompressing. “Absolutely not,” he exclaims. “I’ve been on tour for about two months. I love sailing on the concrete waves of oblivion with a room full of my best friends and booze. It’s wonderful. I can’t wait to be back on stage.”
Having just returned from 23 packed-out dates over North America, I can only imagine the anticipation Barns felt in the lead-up, having been grounded for two due to COVID-19. Being stationed on ‘The Good Ship’ (their rather rusty tour bus), it seems the band was kept on their toes, literally, as they were forced to disembark the bus in the middle of the night after discovering that exhaust fumes were leaking into the cabin. “I don’t actually think it should have been on the road. Upon boarding, we quickly discovered fumes were leaking into the cabin. So as time went on, it made it easier to sleep in some respects, but in others, there was a fear of impending death.” It seems an existential quandary presented itself every night, to say the least. “It was leaking fumes into the cabin, so tremendously by the time we got to Nebraska, we found ourselves all stood outside at four in the morning, wrapped in blankets in the middle of the road because it became impossible to breathe. But these are the moments that make tours Great.” Although unsure about the risk of impending doom, the tour sounded like a dream, with Barns telling me he’s missed every moment. “It was so good to be back to the camaraderie. I missed that innate nomadic tribal sense of wandering from town to town with your people” Moving from town to town, Barns explains, “There’s something so liberating about really getting stuck into the microcosm of a town and seeing it through the eyes of the locals before watching it all slowly fade out into the distance, disappearing as you move on to the next.” It sounds intoxicating moving city to city, “I don’t want to see the world through a million green rooms. I want to squeeze every last drop out of every town I play to.”
As he finished his Out With The Old Tour with a sold-out show back where it all began in Seattle, Barns puts the electric atmosphere down to 1. A sell-out show, and 2. his desire to create the best rock and roll extravaganza. Having a favourite seems cruel to ask, but Omaha, Nebraska, has caught his attention in terms of a performance that’s stuck in his mind. As he takes a moment to reminisce, I can’t help but bring up the praise he’s received for his live shows. “I adore the live performance aspect. You can listen to music at home, so why would anyone pay for tickets if the show doesn’t transcend and transmute into a different experience. I do everything I can to try and make the shows as visceral as possible and to transport people into a different state of being if I can. It’s a full experience that people pay for. It’s a magic show. We come here to lose our inhibitions and to be catapulted outside ourselves into a shared experience. An all singing all dancing, our hearts beating hallelujah.” With masses of fans waiting after each show to meet Barns, there’s no question that it feels like a sort of accolade. “It’s my favourite thing to do: meet people after the shows. You don’t really understand a city or a town until you speak to the locals. I’m always taken aback by the kinds of people I meet and the stories I hear.” You often hear about the power music can have on fans, with most who get the opportunity to express it telling stories of how it’s helped them through a difficult time, something Barns is all too familiar with. “I sometimes wonder when people tell you that your music saved their life, if actually, when you feel powerless, perhaps it’s easier to put your power somewhere else. Maybe music can be a tool, a catalyst, to help you realise the power needed to pull yourself out of your trials and tribulations and out of your turmoil.” I ask what’s important to him when thinking of those he’s helped with his music? “I always try to make people who say such things feel empowered and remind them that whatever they face, they’re not alone. I’m happy to be their soundtrack.”
As Barns touches on the importance he sees in the meet and greets, never knowing who you’re going to meet and how much their story will mean to you, he tells me the story of a fan whose meet and greet was extremely special to him. “There was one woman I met after a show who used her Make A Wish Foundation wish to get tickets to see me. I was so flabbergasted. I told her I would have put you on the guest list.” He laughs. “You should have gone to see the Rolling Stones.” But what a compliment I exclaim, that your music truly means that much to your fans. “Every night I go out and speak to people after I’ve come offstage, I’m always amazed at their interactions.” It may not always be possible, as he explains the toll touring has on his voice, but the importance he places on sharing his journey with the fans is incredibly apparent.
“Everything is what makes it fun. It’s just a revolving door of endless good times. But it really is the band and the crew that make it what it is. It’s the people that make the tour such a wonderful adventure. Most of the touring are not actually playing the show. It’s riding the bus. It’s wandering through gas station gift shops at four in the morning. It’s grabbing a slice of pizza before going into the radio station. It’s all these little moments, and they’re beautiful. I’ve never met a single artist who doesn’t love touring, and I think the ones who aren’t so sure when you get to the bottom of it, it’s always because they don’t have people they love around them.” As the tour bus pulls up In his hometown, I tell him there’s nowhere quite like home. “It’s a bizarre experience because worlds collide and universes mix that maybe shouldn’t necessarily unless in your head. People you haven’t seen since you were in school, parents or family friends, all somehow swimming around in the same reality, it can be weird but truly wonderful.”
Having spent COVID writing and being creative at every turn, Barns saw an influx of positive feedback following the release of new tracks like ‘Supernatural’. I love the video, I tell him. It seems you got to explore another part of yourself creatively. “Thanks, It’s my directorial debut.” He declares, “Thank God for Elektra Records. It’s the first time I’ve ever felt like people trust me creatively.” Having fought tooth and nail over the course of three record deals, Barns tells me, “I’ve worked hard to be taken seriously in what I do and to be given a chance.”
The creativity that has led him to write and even direct his very music video, he puts down to having his own superpower, ADHD. “People view these disorders as disabilities and burdens when neurodivergence is an incredible tool. It’s a superpower if you know how to wield it. As someone who has been diagnosed with ADHD from a very, very young age, I was taught that this was something to be ashamed of, hidden, and medicated. It took me decades to realise that this was my superpower.”
As he tells me stories about phenomenal, award-winning musicians who can only write when experiencing extreme emotions, it’s abundant how for some, it can be a tremendous tool when needing to dig into the human experience. “The ability on stage, to be able to take in the room as a whole and be aware of every single person in the audience, to feel them all like a pulse, is tremendous. I can’t focus on a math problem sitting alone at my desk, but I can do other things others can’t.” It’s interesting, I tell him, with schools focusing so heavily on fitting everyone into one box. “The modern American schooling system, which was predominantly created by Rockefeller, echoes that today. He was quoted saying, ‘I don’t want a nation of thinkers. I want a nation of workers. We see it in how children sit in rows and workstations. We are social animals. The best of us in business collaborate with one another. The road to success is paved with failure. We know this, yet there’s this cognitive dissonance in the schooling system that teaches the opposite. So when it comes to neurodivergence, it’s exacerbated tenfold.” But to Barns, he sees neurodivergence as a gift. “It can be utilised to such an incredible degree. If only we realise what they are, we can wield them into something incredible. Living with ADD, I have the ability to come up with hundreds and hundreds of different ideas in the studio simultaneously and cherry-pick the best ones. I may need a helping hand to get them down, but that helps alongside bursts of inspiration.” The idea of a superpower Barns echoes his gratitude for parts of his experience with depression.
“I’m very grateful for my depression, in a way. I didn’t have anything of substance to write about before I fell into the darkest point in my life.” It seems to be a tremendous catalyst of creativity for Barns. “There’s a lot of energy potential at rock bottom. For me going lower meant my chaotic potential was unlimited. I could go anywhere. The ability to transmute these intense feelings into something positive is a wonderful trick to master. I wonder if that’s why we have such a common tragic death rate for musicians at such a young age. I wonder if the 27 club is because of the people who were depressed, you know, like, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse; I wonder if they were very, very good at transforming their intense emotions into beautiful art, but it was exacerbated by the fame, which made it unbearable for them. Part of it is something I’m so grateful for. It gave me a career. So that certainly made the first record something that felt very authentic to me.”
Having signed his first record deal at 19, Barns felt slow progression for the first few years, eventually parting ways with the deal due to botched politics. Three years later, Barns found himself with five albums worth of work thanks to the inspiration that spread like wildfire.
“That first album, I mean, songs like ‘Glitter & Gold,’ were actually recorded terribly. I had no money and no management. I’d been dropped for three years, and I was selling cigarettes at nightclubs in Hoxton, doing odd jobs to make money. I didn’t want to get a nine-to-five and give up on the dream. So I used to go to my bandmate’s flat. He lived in a decommissioned old folks home in Tottenham, one of those government schemes. I would go over and make tracks. We recorded the whole thing on an SM Seven microphone, and all of the drums were made from banging old filing cabinets, drum sticks on hard tile floors, scissor snips, and out-of-tune bass notes on an old piano. So the recording was awful, but somehow I feel the authenticity shines through. I think that’s the beautiful thing about music. If you mean it enough, you can get many things wrong, and people still hear you.”
As we come full circle, talking again about touring, Barns explains as much as he loves touring, now is the time to utilise his creativity to write.
What’s next are the words that roll off my tongue, “Today, I’m flying to Vermont,” all in aid of recording a new album. “Hopefully, it’ll come out, maybe April/ May. I’m really looking forward to writing new material.” As he thanked me for not asking what his favourite Icecream is, I teased him with the offer of conversation on the subject. I thank him for getting up so early with such little sleep to speak with me, and hopng the next time I see him will be on his next tour with a brand new album to hand.
Writer - Alice Gee
Photography - Haris Nuken