song stories#1 Courtney Barnett 'Avant Gardener'

Every day, stuff happens.

Yet it’s the imagination and keen observation of artists that turns the mundane into something else, and that can become the rich material of songs.

I had the great experience of being one of the curators working on the Nick Cave exhibition at the Arts Centre, Melbourne, and also working on his collection also housed at the Arts Centre. It was while I was getting a close look at his lyrics, notebooks and diaries that I became fascinated with the songwriting process. What inspires a songwriter; how they develop a song; how the musical element becomes woven with the lyrics - I found all these aspects intriguing. 

Courtney Barnett band at the Harley, Sheffield. Photograph: David Sillitoe

Courtney Barnett band at the Harley, Sheffield. Photograph: David Sillitoe

When I first heard Melbourne singer-songwriter and guitarist Courtney Barnett’s song ‘Avant Gardener’ I was mesmerised by the deadpan, droll quality of her voice and how it heightened the starkly honest tale of an anxiety attack that ended up with a visit to the hospital. And this song had me in stitches! Its wry humour comes as much from how Barnett sings it, as the way she’s spun this story with wit, irony and edgy yet banal details.

On songwriting, Barnett says, “The one thing that captivates me in a song is the honesty of a songwriter. It could be about walking to the shop, but if it's said with that person's perspective then it can make it interesting.”

Courtney Barnett Band @ The Toff Avant - Gardener All footage by Steve Martin - Light&Shadow 

As to her own songwriting process, she comments: "Nearly everything I've written so far is pretty autobiographical. It's just me trying to deal with the things that happen in my life. And I'm comfortable with that, it feels pretty natural. I do it mainly to process my own thoughts. And I guess I also want to encourage people to think slightly differently about things too. To not be pessimistic and nasty to other humans. Only in a subtle way though. I don't want to shout it at them."