Interview by Liz Watts | Photos by Emma Watts
Cain’s Ballroom // Tulsa, OK // 10.11.2018
Barns Courtney is an absolute character (watch his Instagram Story on any given day) and a poet with his words. He also has a pretty killer rags to riches…to rags and back to riches story.
Barns was born in England, lived his younger years in Seattle, then moved as a teenager back to England to pursue music. Right out of high school, his band was signed to Island Records and for the next few years, they worked on new music. Just before the album was released, they were dropped from the label. He got temp jobs, lived off of barely anything, and knew he needed to find a way out of that lifestyle. After years of struggling as a solo artist, Barns got a call from a producer who wanted to use one of his tracks in a film. Just as quickly as things took turn for worse, this one call completely turned around his future.
There is so much charisma and light beaming from Barns, and his stage presence is captivating to say the least. We’re happy to share a lil’ glimpse into the world of Barns Courtney so read below for a chat about (almost) dying, the formalization of fun, and what kind of energy and motivation you can find at rock bottom.
How’s tour been so far?
It’s been a struggle… I almost died in Los Angeles!
Wait, for real?
Yes! And for the least rock n’ roll reason ever. I went to get some allergies treated and I had a huge allergic reaction to the pill that this lady gave me. We were driving down the highway in Los Angeles and my throat just starts closing off and I’m *grossly accurate choking noises* reaching into my bag and pull out this pen and jab it in my thigh. And the crazy thing is I almost didn’t even have an Epipen! Just as I was about to leave, the doctor gave it to me as a formality. So yeah, I jabbed it in my leg and called her and like three Epipens later and a bunch of drugs and being in the hospital, I’m getting better. It tore up my throat so I’m kinda playing catch-up on this tour.
Well we’re glad you’re not dead! I can just picture the headline, “Rock Star Dies From…”
Do you feel like that lil’ mishap happened for a reason?
I feel like 27 is the age where musicians are supposed to die…
Just the good ones! But back to the whole “do things happening for a reason?” question, do you believe that? I know the ups and downs of your career have been insane- but even while you were in the lowest of lows career-wise, did you have that mindset of “this is only happening because it will make me stronger?”
I mean, I was really down. I would try and convince myself as much as possible- no matter how dire and desperate it seemed- that this was all like part of this amazing story of my grand success. But you kind of feel like a loser simultaneously because you’re like “Am I just diluted?” But after a couple of years I did fall into that beggar-prince kind of feeling where I was like “Now I’m like Aladin, I’m gonna steal a piece of bread and share it with my monkey!” Just gotta get a pet monkey...like Justin Bieber. I learned how to live off very little money and I felt like I was winning a game- it became a game trying to figure out how to survive. I didn’t want to get a normal job, that’s the thing. I felt like getting a normal job was admitting that I had been defeated. So, I would only take temp jobs.
And this was all in England?
Yeah! I was born there and then lived in Seattle until my teens when I moved to Ipswich. Then moved to London when I was 19, signed my first record deal and have been there since.
Do you think being from England helped shape and influence you as a musician? Being from a place where so many amazing bands and artists are from?
I think it influenced me massively in my love for British indie music. I’m actually very happy to be on tour with The Wombats right now, I’m a huge fan of their music.
Who else do you like?
Blur, The Arctic Monkeys..
We just saw them last night!
You know what annoys me about those guys? [Alex Turner] has taken on this persona and…
*Barns starts talking in a slightly over-exaggerated Tranquility Based Hotel and Casino-esq accent*
…“I’m a smooth guy” and he’s just applied this new personality to their old songs.
*insert small excerpt from “I Bet That You Look Good On The Dance Floor” in the accent mentioned above*
Agreed, I would’ve loved to see them in like… 2007.
Yeah! I love that whole era of British-Indie music… I love the Yeah Yeahs, even like Sleigh Bells and stuff. It didn't really affect me with the first record, but this record definitely has a touch of that. Which you’ll see in the first two tracks of tonight’s set!
Are they the two singles you’ve already released?
No, everything after the first two I have released, though.
Speaking of what you have released, let’s talk about “99!” Is there a certain reason you picked that year? Or did it just sound best when singing?”
I mean, I’m old! I don’t think people realize how old I am… I was so sexy when I first came out on tour...I was lookin’ a some pictures and had the sauciest face of all the faces I’ve ever had and now I’m all weathered and beaten.
Like a nice leather jacket!
Exactly...only except being nice and sexy looking I’m just decrepit. I mean, I’m 27, I’ve reached the apex of what it is to be a star… Anyway, I was 9 in 1999-
Were you in love?
Uhhh...yes. I think. I mean, “99” is about the strange, needless, formalization of fun that we apply to ourselves as we age. It’s about the bizarre ritual of adulthood and how all of these things that we used to blindly enjoy when we were young, like riding your bike when you just ride around and are free and have fun...but now it’s all regimented. Now to ride our bike you have to like buy the lycra suit and have the watch and see how many miles you’re gonna go and you meet up and ride a certain planned out route and it’s dumb. It’s a song about nostalgia and losing touch with the genuine you that still lives inside. I think it’s a subject matter that comes up a lot in this record. To all the disaffected adults that never lived the adventurous lives of the characters in their storybooks, I’m sayin’ “Come on, it’s fine, let’s go back to living like it’s 1999.” But a lot of my fans were born that year so I don’t know what they’re thinking.
What is your relationship with your fans?
I fucking LOVE my fans...so much. Honestly, so much. I’m very aware that this ridiculous lifestyle that I live and this ludicrous adventure that I get to have is made possible by the fans entirely. And the whole reason I make music because I love that moment onstage of connection with an audience...there’s something so magical about it. The fact that it’s literally my job to attempt to bring joy to as many people as possible. And that’s the real reason I do it, to lift people up. And if you get it right, you can flip the crowd out of the usual head space they inhabit in their daily lives and elevate them into this strange, musical, danceable place that you’ve created in your bedroom with your guitar- it’s just a wonderful, magical, thing. You can’t compare it to anything else.
You talk about connecting with an audience - did you ever think about acting? Slam poetry?
I think I will do it one day…acting AND slam poetry. But, my first school was too poor for a drama department, and my first friends I made in high school were all music kids and there was no drama. Sometimes I think about what it would’ve been like if I went the the other path but, ya know, I still have time left. I think I will pursue both.
Yeah! The rest of your 27th year…
Right!? Until I die...in a horrendous vomiting accident.
How do you wanna go out? We’re gettin’ deep here!
Uhm...spectacularly! I wanna be fired out of an enormous canon and then the climax of my peak into the air, I want an enormous set of dragon wings to spring forth from my jacket and I wanna glide across the sea like a majestic eagle and-
Well when are ya gonna die?
Just wait, and then, then the timer goes to zero and I explode into this giant technicolor rainbow of sparkles. And I’m consumed by…
By the sea? People? You’ll be right over Lollapalooza or something.
Yes, exactly. And if my relatives fail and I am unable to do that in my old age...actually, no, that’s how I’ll go out. Then my remnants can be put in a special pot and grown into a tree. You can do that now.
I thought you were gonna say “put in a petri dish to grow a new me.”
ORRR, I would like to be taxidermy-ed and hunched over with a cane...in a university in a glass box and freak kids out.
That’d be cool too, what would be on your name plate? What do you want to be known for?
“Barnes Courtney...Groomer of poodles, tickler of men, forgiver of children, tamer of wild beasts”
Love it. Let’s get back to your family! And England… What’s that all like? What shaped you?
My dad is a teacher and my mom is a real estate agent. Momma Barnsy is very theatrical- she loves doing silly voices and joking and she’s full of love and laughs and rainbows and joy!
Do you think that’s where you’ve got a lot of your charisma and bold personality?
Yeah, and my grandfather was like that as well. My great-grandfather on my mom’s side and my grandfather on my dad’s side were singers during the war and so I think, ya know, they were very theatrical. My mom did a little singing, although never professionally, and my dad can play a mean rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl” on the guitar.
Did your mom ever want to pursue anything like that as a career?
Yeah, my mom wanted to sing or act or model...and she was scouted by a big agency in the UK but she was kinda freaked out about it and didn’t go for it.
Do you think she put some of her desire for those things into you? How did she support you growing up?
I think she just gave me an enormous sense of confidence and support from a very young age. We’re the same person, almost, like we could’ve been friends for several lives over. We have the exact same sense of humor and when you get us together, we’re just like singing and dancing, and driving my brothers crazy. My brother Zach is like this huge, statue-esq, viking of a man with a ginger beard. He tries taking me to the gym and I’m like “oh, I can’t go, I lost my sneakers!” And he’s like “Bro, I know you were going to do this so I brought you some sneakers and some shorts.” And we go to the gym and he’s like “Stop singing! You’re embarrassing me!”
Have you ever gotten embarrassed of wanting to pursue music or be a rock star?
I don’t think embarrassed...I just knew it needed to happen. I never said I was better than anyone else. I’m a great believer in potential and knowing that if you apply yourself and visualize and really have a good attitude then you can convince yourself you can do something. Then you go and do it. It doesn’t matter where you’re from- not saying that someone born in the slums of India wouldn’t have a hard time doing it, but if you get the cards your given in life and play them as best you can to your advantage, then there’s always a way to win. And also, it’s the law of probability! If you keep rolling the dice, eventually you’re going to win. Obviously there’s like, little kids on Youtube with this insane natural talent, but I didn’t have that. And you don’t need it. So I guess that’s why I was never embarrassed- because I wasn’t trying to be better than anyone. I just saw something that I felt was right for me and that I needed to do and I decided I was gonna go for it.
Did you keep that mindset when you were dropped from your label and jumping from job to job?
I was very bitter and kind of stuck in the past- I mean I have been for years since signing my next deal. It’s taken me a long time to let go and focus on the present. Learning new skills, writing new songs...but there’s a lot of energy at rock bottom. Failure is a powerful motivator. All your friends have graduated university and have careers and wives and kids and you’re just there. Signing a record deal and getting dropped isn’t like a college degree where you get this piece of paper that says “My life from A to B was worth something” and “here’s a proof that I can do things in the world.” If you sign a deal- which is incredibly hard to do- and then get dropped, it’s like you may as well never have even picked up a guitar as far as the rest of the world is concerned. And you’re just out there like “Ya ya I was In a band” and *funny English accent* “Oh my son is in a band, he plays at the pub just down the road!” Like, no you don’t understand! I was doin’ something, I could’ve been somebody!
Were you mad at yourself or your band mates or the label for getting dropped?
Just kinda angry at the circumstances and I felt incredible driven and passionate. The whole records is like kicking and screaming and denial of circumstances. “This isn’t how my life should turn out, I’ve got to get to the next level.” The songs were almost these incantations I had written for myself, so every time I sang them I was getting into my own head and furthering that drive to keep going no matter what. It was less willpower and it was more of me being so depressed doing anything other than music I couldn’t handle anything but that.
Do you think your comeback would’ve made such a bang if you hadn’t had gone through all of that?
I don’t think so. It was the best thing to happen to me in retrospect.