When singer-songwriter Barns Courtney signed his record deal with Capitol Music Group, he was the most quiet he’d ever been in his life, struck with shock at the circumstances he had faced. The England-born rocker had already been in one band that had been dropped by a previous label, and after years of working on music since, a new chance to share his music was before him. Now, with a brand new debut EP, The Dull Drums, and an upcoming North American tour, Courtney is breaking through with rock, country and Americana audiences.
His song “Fire” became a top five hit on triple-A radio, while “Glitter and Gold” has netted more than 8.5 million streams worldwide and was used in various promotions, including for Miller Lite, Showtime and the film The Founder. His work has a swagger and a dedication to rhythm, while his lyrics and melodies capture pop sensibilities to make his work catchy and memorable.
Courtney’s style is as sharp as his wit. He pays homage to classic rock while forging ahead with a blended sound that brings together American and British rock, blues, gospel and the sounds of the road that he travels on tour.
mxdwn: When you look at the work you made for this EP, how do you describe your sound? What are some of the styles and influences you wanted to include in this work?
Barns Courtney: For tracks like “Glitter and Gold,” I really wanted to recreate “Venus in Furs” by The Velvet Underground. I made a demo on my computer and then my friend was living in an abandoned old folks’ home at the time. He paid 300 pounds a month to live there cheaply in a place that was falling apart. We made sounds out of whatever was lying around, like an old file cabinet in the hallway. From that, out of necessity, came a sound that I never really expected to create. That was a sound I carried forward for the rest of the record. I still think there’s a certain magic between the two of us and the way that we work together that isn’t present anywhere else.
mxdwn: Making that must have felt super organic, like you knew you were doing something original.
BC: I think at the time I was as just trying to keep my head above water. It felt like it represented what I wanted to say.
mxdwn: Are they any artists or other folks you’ve worked with along the way who’ve been really influential in helping you get to this point?
BC: Yeah, absolutely. Carl Barât from The Libertines, which is a band I a grew up listening to. We’ve become friends. He comes in every now and then to the studio. On the EP, he plays on “Hands,” and it’s amazing to watch. There aren’t many genuine rockstars and I don’t really get starstruck. But when I saw him play in this little recording booth, with no vibe, no special lights or anything, he played like he was playing for ten thousand people. He just goes all out, thrashing around all over the place. There’s just a certain vibe to it that you can only get from someone who really has a genuine feel for the music they’re playing.
mxdwn: That must be awesome, to know you’re in the studio with someone you grew up listening to. What a surreal, amazing thing.
BC: It’s incredibly humbling. He’s ludicrously well-read. He’ll make obscure references to literary figures in casual conversation — working with him is an eye-opening experience.
mxdwn: You have a big tour coming up this year, but it seems like you’ve been on tour a lot in your career so far. Anything you’ve found particularly memorable or challenging as far as being on the road?
BC: I signed my deal and about a week later I had to go out on tour. I love to be on the road, but I was having to record my record from city to city So I took my friend Sam along who I started the record with in his bedroom before I had management. We would go around and record backstage, or go out for the day, so I have pieces from very different places. But I think the vibe is good, if you get the vibe right, it doesn’t matter if it sounds rough around the edges. It sounds quite endearing. What I really love about recording on the road is I’ve been recording people that I meet on the way. It’s quite autobiographical in a sense.
I met a homeless person outside a show in Montreal who sang to me for 10 minutes in French and I brought home the recording. And he happened to be in the exact same key as a song I have called “The Attractions of Youth.” I took his vocal and put it right in there, and now he’s on the album.
mxdwn: You had the chance to play on the same stage as The Who at Wembley. What was that like?!
BC: Oh that was amazing. Pete Townsend is such a nice guy. I was shaking like a leaf backstage before I went on. I was so nervous. I had my acoustic guitar and 10,000 people who had no idea who I am. This lady came up behind me, and said, “you’re gonna be alright,” and she gave me a tap on the butt cheeks, so I went out and played my show and came back off and, sure enough, it was Pete Townsend’s wife I was talking to.