Interview Feature by Steven Ward
Wandering around the Warner Bros. studios, gawking at all the Harry Potter memorabilia, Barns Courtney is on top of the world. With a Conan O’Brian appearance slated to air that night, a debut album on the way, and two viral hit singles, you would be hard pressed to believe that the English-born youth was working at a computer store and selling cigarettes at clubs not long ago just to put food on the table for himself. That all changed just last year, when his song “Glitter and Gold” became a hit by rocketing to Number One on the Spotify UK Viral Chart, and not long after his fist U.S. single, the smoldering bluesy tune “Fire,” found itself being used in a film and multiple commercials. Since then he’s opened for the likes of The Who, Blur and Elle King, and while his rise to prominence is miraculous, his learning to play guitar on the fly was even more so.
But the beginnings of Courtney’s woes and successes are rooted in his relocation from Seattle (where he moved to at the age of four) back to Ipswich when he was around fourteen. The move coincided with a gift from his aunt, a guitar, and his mad dash pursuit towards a sustainable life as a musician began. In those early days, Courtney found himself at a veritable crossroads of influences, from the unpolished DIY garage and Americana of bands like Nirvana, to the wit and bravado of English acts, his tastes ran deep and eventually emerged in his first demo tapes.
But for Courtney, a singer-songwriter who struggled just to survive before his big break, unconventionality has become even more second-nature than his marriage of his stylistic eclectics. As a one-man show, he creates a lot of his own percussion, banging on things like file cabinets in his hallway to create a “messy, ad hoc” feel. He prefers to do his recordings in one take, using demo tracks, and has even admitted to fiddling with hip-hop flavored beats and playing them over sound percussion. A fan of Kanye West for his ability to take R&B oldies into the modern era, Courtney has promised that his debut lives in that soulful, guitar-driven realm of blues, but his experimental tendencies are so blatantly obvious, it’s doubtful he’ll stay there very long.
While his approach to music has changed little since he first picked up the guitar, the subject matter has matured and grown drastically from his rougher days. Immediately after graduating high school, Courtney signed a recording contract that fell apart, and soon after found himself out in the world, unqualified for a career, with nothing but a dream that he was suffocating under the weight of–so he poured it all into his music.
But with fame and success, as with any good Cinderella story, come a whole slew of new problems and anxieties. Matching the success of “Glitter and Gold” and “Fire” is not lost on Courtney, but if he could write a hit while sleeping in the car, he can do it in the studio.
Live, Courtney tries to channel his gratitude, humbleness, and passion to his audience in the best ways he knows how, but as a lone, still-breaking-out acoustic guitarist on a stage, he isn’t naive to the difficulties of his position. With a laugh, he explains that he only plays acoustic because it’s so cheap, but that he wants (you can hear the delirious need in his voice), really wants a band–why? So his music can be “hot and sweaty, and full of bodily fluids.” But until then, he tries to flesh it out, not with a backing band or more instruments, but with a bit of English bravado and personality, and in his personal experience, L.A. crowds have been the nicest so far.
Barns Courtney makes his return to the historic Troubadour on September 8, with his much anticipated debut on the way. Purchase your tickets here. He will also embark on a tour with Tom Odell as direct support. You can catch them both at The Belasco in Los Angeles on October 25. Get your tickets here.