I first discovered the UK based artist Barns Courtney by searching the term “Battle Music” on Spotify’s Discover. Since that time, his music narrates more of my life than I would care to admit.
I listen to “Champion” when I want to push myself to go a little bit faster on my morning run. I turn on “Fire” when I want to pump myself up for a night out that I am not feeling particularly excited about. “Glitter and Gold” will probably be my chosen anthem when I decide to dress up in head-to-toe black leather and star in my own superhero movie.
Barns Courtney makes epic, inspiring, energizing… well, battle music. And that probably comes from the time in his life when he had to go into a battle himself, against his own demons, and the seemingly insurmountable forces that seemed to pile one after another in front of him on his journey to reach his goals in the music industry.
He doesn’t sound bitter when he talks about these trials though. Through it all, Barns Courtney seems to have kept a good humor about some of these pretty ridiculous circumstances, and that comes across in his music. Every song on his previous record, “The Attractions of Youth,” seems created with the sole purpose of lifting and firing up whoever happens to be listening to it at the time. Each track is entirely successful in doing so.
And that’s probably because, at one time, it was this very music that had to lift up and inspire Barns Courtney himself.
Much of your music seems to be about overcoming adversity and fighting against a force determined to tear you down. Can you tell us about a moment where you yourself had to overcome something that seemed impossible at the time? How did that moment inspire you?
The entirety of my young life was spent playing in bands and winning Battle of the Bands, and playing on TV shows and signing a management deal and signing my first record deal so by the time that I was 22 and I got dropped from my label because the producer in my contract didn’t deliver the mixes, I was completely distraught because I had never known failure on that level before. My life had been a continuous upward trajectory and then that had all come crashing down at once around me. While all my friends were graduating college and getting jobs, I was this loser kid who had absolutely nothing. One of my family members said to me on a vacation, like oh wow you were so positive about your music before, and now you’re so down about it, what happened? Because they didn’t realize what a big deal singing a record label is, so I was like saying to them, “No you don’t understand! I could have been somebody!” It took me three years to sign my next deal, three years where I had no idea whether I would be able to break back into the music industry again.
I remember I was selling cigarettes in nightclubs, I was giving out free samples of Lipton’s iced tea in Crocs, all these different odd jobs, trying to avoid a 9-5 so that I could jump back into the studio at any time. It was terrifying. I got very depressed in that time, but I also felt very defiant against my circumstances, so I wrote that album as a reminder to myself to keep going and not to give up.
Your music is often used in form and TV shows that focus on a battle between good and evil, between dark and light. Did the dark place that you were in at the time of writing this album influence the direction it took?
Out of the depths of depression and hitting rock bottom was the kicking and screaming and denial of circumstance, just this narrative of no and fuck this and this isn’t how my life is going to turn out. This can’t be the way things go, I’m not going to give up on my dream, I can’t live like this. That was all-consuming, I couldn’t write about anything else. I had never been attracted to Blues music before and it certainly tinged my first record hugely. Because Blues is pretty synonymous with depression music and the human struggle.
There are definitely a lot of dark themes to your songs but in the end, they seem to ring as very hopeful. Is it hard for you to hang on to that hope when things seem to be getting dark? What do you do to maintain that hope?
I never set out to make music like that. I’ve always loved The White Stripes and The Black Keys and bands that have been influenced by that world but it just kind of came out of me. I think it’s important for musicians to be able to make music without analyzing what you’re doing, so you can just create and think about how it fits together after the fact. At that time I didn’t have much choice other than to do that because I wasn’t really writing for anyone else but myself, there as no management or record deal or producers. It was just me living on 5 pounds a day, sitting in my bedroom with my acoustic guitar in an attempt exorcise some of the demons I’d picked up from that monumental failure.
How much of your personal life is reflected in these albums? Do you get inspired more from outside sources or from internal thoughts and feelings?
I was terrified when it came to writing my second record because rock bottom and extreme failure are very powerful motivators, there is a lot of energy to be found when you hit the absolute lowest point. So when things started to get better and I spent all my time touring, and I have a great life and I get to go out and meet people in different cities across the world or I hang out with my best friend, there was a real trepidation that I wouldn’t have anything genuine and soulful to write about. I rented a winery out in Carmelo, like a chateau and I went with the band in the hopes that we could jam and get something out and I stayed up there a month , but Doris Day, who now lives up the hill from that chateau complained about the noise so we couldn’t actually do anything there.
It was impossible to make any noise so we had to create in this box while there is beautiful weather outside and I just really felt totally uninspired so that was a disaster. My A&R from island records came out and there was no music. He wasn’t mad about it because he got this free trip to Carmelo and we were able to just gave a really nice dinner.
Then I came back to England and the record label was ready to drop me because they weren’t convinced that I could deliver. And I had only scraped through that first record deal by the skin of my teeth. I went to my friend Sam’s house who I was in a band with the first time around and there were noise complaints again. The people living next door were freaking out and we couldn’t make any music there, we ended up going to his old bedroom in the middle of nowhere, in his parent’s house where his bedroom is all soundproof and it was raining sideways, dark every day, so depressing, absolutely nothing to do. And that is when all the creativity sparked and things just were able to start flowing.
It was a bizarre time, it was really weird because I went from like the lap of luxury, Carmel, personal chef, free wine delivered to the door every day, to like, “Oh my God, I have regressed into the womb, living in my friend’s parent’s house where we used to play together at 18, and it is raining and dark and disgusting, what is my life?”
What themes can we expect from your next album? Can we expect anything totally different? Very different. I was in a very different place for this album than the first one and I really subscribe to David Bowie’s ideals about the area that you are in influencing your music, he was a great believer in a location having a strong pull on your creativity. And I think being in that bedroom where I used to hang out when I was a kid, it really pushed the record into the theme of growing up, the trials and tribulations of becoming an adult, searching for memories and feelings that don’t exist anymore, that bittersweet nostalgia that arises when you have a fond memory and then simultaneously realize you might never feel that way again as an adult.