Resembling a sledgehammer striking ice, Barns Courtney’s energy erupts as soon as he arrives, fragmenting tranquillity into a thousand razor-sharp shards. The musician, who’s been touring non-stop for the past four years, is well-versed in having a kickass time wherever he is. Disbelieving in letting life pass by, Barns turns every day into the last day on Earth - and you know you’re in for an adventure.
With lyrics resonating with emotions locked away in the confines of ribcages, heavy drum beats, and enchanting guitar riffs, Barns hits an unknown nerve situated somewhere between fantasy, nostalgia, and a battle cry. His second album 404, which releases 6th September, is a truthful telling of where he is now. Featuring 10 new tracks, including the single You and I, Barns traverses through conflicted emotions, daydreams, and a reminiscent look at the lost past. 404 supplies his signature rock rhythms swirled in with softer sounds and his deep vocals. Fuelled by the same intense desire for life as his previous album Attractions of Youth, Barns reflects on his transition into a happier time with 404.
A timid greyhound named Mouse nips at and chases a branch Barns has scavenged from the woodland as the British Summer banishes clouds for an omnipresent view of the tomfoolery below. Photographer Vic Lentaigne shoots Barns and Mouse until the greyhound tires and Barns is left solo in the shot. Sunlight glimmers and glints off the murky green pond, luring onlookers to take a dip, as Nathan Henry styles the singer under the midday heat. Dazzling white light bounces off the ripples echoing across the water Barns disturbs, as he skilfully destroys groomer Fabio Vivan’s work at the end of the shoot. Bidding farewell to the ring of swaying trees encircling us, we climb into a taxi bound for Camden as Barns slides on his circular sapphire shades and we dive into a conversation regarding happiness, sadness, music, and feeling alive, interspersed with his outrageous humour.
Who is Barns Courtney?
Barns Courtney is an amalgamation of ethereal chocolatey goodness and cosmic wonderment wrapped up in a leather jacket and covered in sweat. Does that work? I don’t usually talk about myself in the third person!
You’ve had a bit of a bumpy ride with music, how did you get to where you are now?
A lot of naivety and poor life choices! I played in a lot of bands, starting from when I was 14, and then signed my first record deal when I was 19. The guy that I was recording the record with was written into the contract and he never delivered the mixes to the record label, so I waited three years for music that never came, and then got dropped by Island Records. I spent three years selling cigarettes in nightclubs and handing out free samples of Lipton Ice Tea whilst in a suit and Crocs and eventually got picked up by Virgin. It’s been an adventure full of trials and tribulations. Even signing to Virgin was a little rocky because my A&R left a week after I signed. But it’s been fun. I’ve been playing lots of gigs, so no complaints.
How has your journey affected your confidence?
Oh God - I just sob a lot under the sink into my hands! I feel good about it though. Sometimes I mix it up with a little bit of autoerotic asphyxiation - but I’m careful about that, I don’t want to do a Hutchence.
When I lost my first deal, it destroyed me - it hit me like a ton of bricks because my whole life had been an upwards trajectory from Battle Of The Bands to being on TV with my band to signing my first management to signing my first record label deal and to moving to a house. My first house was a band house paid for by the label. Everything was paid for and then suddenly bam: No money, no qualifications, no nothing. It’s not like getting a degree where everyone’s like, "Oh yeah, you worked really hard and he achieved that". Everyone’s like, "Dude, what are you doing with your life? When are you going to grow up and stop trying to be a musician?". But rock bottom and really failing hard is tremendous fuel that you can transmute into positive energy towards success. The entirety of the first album is all rallying songs, reminding myself to keep going - like defiant marching tunes to try and avoid that crushing sense of failure that was going to beat me. I certainly wouldn’t have written the record without it. Now my life is ridiculous. I hang out and make music and make sounds at people’s faces with my face and play with dogs in parks while I’m being photographed in my underpants.
When do you feel most alive?
When I’m really plugged in and connected to an audience with that bizarre intangible feeling you get of being connected to something greater than yourself on stage. Just on the road with my band, laughing my ass off, smoking a joint in the back of a van. I think it creeps up on you, doesn’t it? I love that John Lennon quote: “Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans”. You feel most alive when you’re not paying attention. It sneaks up on you.
What makes you happy?
Music. My friends. Family. My guitar. I have a whole list of things that make me happy; I wrote it down. Right, things that make me happy: being in nature, birdsong, my friends, my mum, being on tour, laughing, reading a good book, meditating, yoga, bike rides, watching good gigs. I add to it all the time. I think it’s a good idea to deliberately put your focus in good places. The mind is a powerful thing. You can build up tremendous momentum one way or another. Let me see here, what else have I got? Meeting random people on nights out, interesting podcasts, learning about cool stuff. That’s all I got.
What makes you sad?
I have a list of that as well. It’s an interesting thing because whenever I feel sad, I look at the list and nine times out of ten, I’m doing something on that list. If it’s not on the list, I’ll add it to the list to avoid it.
Why do you keep these lists?
To steer myself in the right direction. A lot of people look at their emotional state as something they have no control over. You have complete control over how you feel. You can’t allow yourself to go on autopilot. You have to deliberately build momentum to what you want every single day. The first thing I do every morning is run through a list of everything I’m grateful for because your subconscious is most absorbent first thing in the morning and last thing before you go to sleep at night. I find that if I do that every day, after a week or so, it’s very powerful. It trains your brain to reassess how it looks at the world. It’s all about how you filter things and where you put your focus. So, if I write a list of things that make me sad, I know what to avoid. It doesn’t feel like an arbitrary feeling that’s placed upon me by the world. I feel like, ‘oh I’m sad because I stayed inside all day looking on Instagram instead of going out and seeing my friends’. Social media makes me really sad; I don’t like scrolling through endless shit - I like to meet real people. Also staying inside all day, not exercising, and obsessing over the progress of things in my life - that kind of stuff makes me sad.
How do you think our generation can find happiness amongst the noise?
It’s about choosing to deliberately put your focus on other things. Developing deliberate habits that are beneficial and nourishing for you as an individual. The problem with social media is that it trains us to have a very short attention span where we’re in a reactive state of mind instead of a proactive state of mind. It trains you to look outside of yourself for stimulus instead of building things around yourself that are beneficial to you as an individual. It trains us to compare ourselves to other people constantly, instead of being in the present and enjoying yourself. If you want to find happiness in amongst all the noise, tune into the channel that you like. It’s like the radio - there’s a whole lot of shit on the radio but you don’t listen to it all at once, you choose your station. Tune into happiness!
In this generation, there’s an increasing number of young people struggling with mental health. Everyone deals with different experiences, but what advice would you give others for overcoming difficult times?
It’s very important to look at what’s going on in your own head and try and be proactive about taking steps to fix yourself. The difficult thing is that depression and anxiety are very low energy states, so when you’ve got yourself in that hole, it can take a tremendous amount of willpower to even begin to get yourself out. Momentum is very important. Take little, tiny steps. You start by making a list of things that make you happy and things that make you sad, for instance. Everyone’s so tremendously different, you can’t give one set of rules that will apply to everyone. A lot of people say 'I’ve tried everything' but when you really boil it down, they’ve tried one thing, maybe two, and at a stretch, three. If you really decide 'I’m going to devote an hour every day to lifting myself up out of whatever I’m in', you’d be amazed at how quickly you can find your route out. If you can afford it, therapy is an incredible thing. Speaking to someone who’s impartial, who knows the correct questions to ask that enable you to find your own way out of the woods is very powerful. To summarise all that, understand that you are powerful and have the ability to escape from whatever situation you find yourself in mentally. You just need to take the first little baby steps and start to move yourself gradually in the right direction.
Why do you make music?
It makes me happy and it’s cathartic. It’s a natural drive for me. I feel happy when I sit down and play a guitar and sing. I feel happy when I go out and perform for people. I like the idea that my job is to try and make people happy and to go out on stage and provide people with an escape from whatever it is they might be going through - an escape from their lives. We used to dance around fires and shout at the moon, but Shamanism doesn’t exist anymore. Frontmen are the new Shamans. I enjoy that role - that illusion that everyone buys into that I’m a space alien or a deity. All of it is me holding up a mirror to the audience reflecting the energy of an entire room back at them. We all know that secretly, but it’s more fun to pretend that’s not the case.
How would you describe your sound and how it has evolved?
I was very depressed on that first record. Incredibly so. I never intended to write a blues-influenced album, but I think depression and blues music goes hand in hand. So, when I stumbled into it, it was a natural feeling. When I went into the second record, my main writing partner, who I’ve been in bands with since I was 18, was trying to push everything in the direction of the first record, but it didn’t feel true to what I was going through. I felt as though if I tried to make the songs again, they would be lies and they wouldn’t be genuine. They wouldn’t have the gravitas of the first record, so I said to him, ‘let’s write music for the hell of it and have fun and not think about genre or how it relates to the first album and then when we have the collection of songs, we’ll deal with it and figure out where to go from there’. The new record definitely reflects the mental state where I’m at; it’s much happier. I subscribed to that Bowie idea about the place that you’re in influences your songwriting. I wrote that album in the bedroom that I used to write with my friend in when we were teenagers because I blew all the demo money on a chateau in Carmel and didn’t write anything for a month. He had a bunch of studios set up leftover at his house, so we moved back in with his parents. I think that had a large influence over the nostalgic themes of a lot of the records - about the ideas of losing your childhood sense of innocence and awe and your natural state of being. As you age, there are ideas of attempting to get in touch with memories and feelings that don’t exist anymore.
You seem to be quite high energy. How do you think that helps you?
You need to be high energy for any ambitious endeavours in your life. It’s really important. The bigger the goal, the more energy you need. Extraordinary goals require extraordinary efforts. I feel like anybody who’s achieved anything of note has extremely high energy. It could be the inverse of itself - it could express itself in incredible sadness like Kurt Cobain who was really fucked up but there’s still a lot of energy in being really fucked up. He transmuted it impeccably into his body of work which was arguably one of the greatest movements in music in the 21st century.
What is it you love about performing at festivals?
One of my favourite things, when I’m performing, is when the crowd doesn’t give a fuck and I see them with their arms crossed, leaning on the barrier waiting for the headliner. Then, it gets to that moment in the show where you can see - you can tell by the expressions on their faces from the stage - it’s very obvious when you’ve flipped them and you’ve got them. It’s very satisfying. Everybody likes a challenge. You don’t play a game to immediately get all the points and go home. It’s the struggle. I really enjoy it. Every performance is a different conversation with the audience, which is why I love this job so much: it’s always different. I’ve had some really good times at festivals. I did Lollapalooza in Chicago and I broke my foot jumping off the stage. Everyone was like. "Oh, you should make a throne like Dave Grohl", but nobody knows who I am out there, so I don’t think they would have had the patience to watch me sit still on a stage for an hour. I was trying to think of ways I could turn that adversity into a strength. I remember watching Kurt Cobain on YouTube coming out for Nirvana at Glastonbury in a hospital gown and a wheelchair and I thought that’s a cool look. I really liked the showmanship of it. I got a hospital gown and a hospital gurney, and I went on Bumble and I matched with this girl and I was like ‘hey, not being weird but do you want to dress up as a nurse and push me around on a stage in a bed?’.
Did she do it?
She did it! That’s how we played the festival. She pushed me around in this bed, and I played in this thing. It was so much fun because you could really build the drama of the performance with the expectation of the crowd that you might fall over. When I didn’t have to play the guitar, I made this huge song and dance about getting out of bed. I remember the scene in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Gene Wilder is with a cane and he’s sort of stumbling forward and then falls over and does a front roll and jumps out. I loved that, so I took inspiration from that and I got the nurse to help me out of the bed on crutches. I approached the microphone at the front really meagrely and weakly and then as the chorus kicked in, I threw my crutches aside and jumped around on one foot. You could see everyone thinking: "Holy shit, he’s going to fall off the stage and break his other foot!". It was such a tremendous device that I could use to work the audience. It was so much fun. I think my favourite performance of that whole tour was Schubas. It’s like a little 500 capacity venue in Chicago and it was sold out. It was my headline gig, on one foot! That was really fun. My agent said he didn’t want me to play Reading that year because I wasn’t going to be on a big enough stage, but I don’t give a fuck, I just want to play. I headlined my own stage instead - by which I mean I cut a hole out of a cardboard box and wrote “Barns Courtney” on it, which is really great because you can bring the stage to the people! They can’t get away because I can just follow them! The best thing about that gig was my fans who had no idea I’d be at the festival, walking by on their way to another stage like, "Wait a minute, is that Barns Courtney? Playing in a box? By himself?".
How do you feel when you’re performing to an audience?
If I’m doing it right, it’s a very meditative experience. My mind is completely blank, and I feel connected to something bigger than me. Like I’m channelling something down - like a puppet on a string almost. It’s a very elating experience. It’s very powerful, and spiritual, and moving. Sometimes I’ll throw myself down in the middle of a song and literally feel like I’m one of those Born-Again Christians that’s having a fit on the stage, and not in control of my own body. But it’s difficult, it’s not always like that. Sometimes I’m really, really tired, and I’m exhausted and I don’t feel good about myself. Sometimes I don’t want to go out there in front of all those people, but you have to force yourself on the stage and try and pull whatever it is you can out of the depths of your being because these people have driven for miles to come and see you and this is their one night to go and do something different and dance and be free and I don’t want to let them down. Most of the time it’s not like that.
You’ve recently released a new single You And I. What was the thought process and emotions behind that song?
My mum phoned me, and she said, "So I’ve started seeing this guy…’. I was like, ‘okay… right… here we go…’. She said, "He’s written me a song", and I was like, ‘oh that’s nice, send it to me’. She goes, "Well, it doesn’t have any music". I’m like, ‘well, it’s not a song if it doesn’t have any music’. It was a poem that he’d written about dark matter! She said, "I want you to put the music to it and make it a song". I read it, and it was the creepiest thing I’ve ever read! He’s from northern England and it was like: “Babe, you’re dark matter, I can’t see yours, and I can’t smell yours, but I want to, and science hasn’t discovered you yet, but when it does, it’s going to be amazing”. I said to my mum, ‘he wants to smell you? That’s really creepy’. I tried to write a song about it, and I couldn’t do it. It was too shit. I was like, ‘who is this guy?’. I started asking her about it and she said, "We met when we were teenagers in northern England in a little town called Saltburn, and your grandma didn’t like him. She wanted me to marry a rich man, and he was very poor". His family used to drive behind the potato truck he worked on, and he’d throw sacks of potatoes out for his dad to pull up and grab and that would be their dinner. But he was rock and roll, and he introduced my mum to The Doors. He made her all these mixtapes and The Crystal Ship by The Doors was the first Doors song my mum ever heard; she fell in love with the band. When she went to university, she wanted to get as far away from home as possible, so she went from northern England to Plymouth uni. This guy, without any money in his pockets, hitchhiked across hundreds of miles - different cars all the way to university to go and find my mum. Well, he got there and turns out, my mum had met somebody else! I thought that was a really good story, and that’s what I ended up writing the song about. “Mixtapes wearing down, Crystal ships are sailing out, Now the doors are opening for you” - it’s all a reference to the mixtapes he made my mum with The Doors on them and how she was leaving for university.
You also have an album 404 coming out soon, on the 6th
September. What should we expect?
It’s very different sonically. I didn’t work a lot with synthesisers, if at all on the first record. Maybe a little bit of sub. It definitely explores new territory sonically. I hope my fans dig it. I’m really grateful to the people that supported my music to get me as far as I’ve come. I want them to know that the reason that the first album did what it did, is because I was being honest, and I wasn’t trying to be something that I’m not. I was just expressing how I felt at the time, and that’s what this new record is. It sounds different because I’m in a different place in my life, emotionally and in terms of what I’m doing.
Can you tell me about the album art for 404 and You And I?
I’m a kid of the digital age; my whole childhood took place in the 90s, at the birth of internet technology. It’s about nostalgia and searching for memories and feelings and experiences that don’t exist anymore. I thought 404, like a “404 Error” when your computer’s searching for websites or files that aren’t there but used to exist, was an apt title. It felt like something that was right for the subject matter. There’s a lot of video game references and I felt that the artwork reflected all that. It’s like being under attack by the emotions of your past by your inability to reconnect with times that you miss, hence the computer and TV heads all bearing down on me, around my childhood bed.
So, you lived in a deserted convent. Can you tell me about that?
I did, yeah. It’s one of those guardian schemes. They have a bunch of buildings that aren’t fit for humans to live in, but they don’t know what to do with, so they rent them out really cheap while they figure out what to do with them. Whilst I was working on my record, my buddy Sam and I lived in this convent. It was really creepy - super Shining vibes. Lots of doorways that led to sheer drops into basements with no stairs. It was just the two of us and it was massive. It was a hotel before it was a convent - a hotel in the 40s and a convent in the 50s I think. The whole of the living area, dining area, and kitchen reeked of mould. There was an old pool in one of the main dining areas that they covered over with a cover and placed chairs on top of it. It was an interesting place to be! There was a big old piano left in there, so we used to jam on the piano and sit in there late at night coming up with ideas. It was perfect. It’s where we brainstormed all the ideas for the “99” video, in a convent in Margate.
What’s the plan for the rest of this year?
Just a shit ton of gigs. I would love to teach myself how to produce because I get frustrated having to condense all of my inspiration into one little window of time in between gigs and tours. It would be really nice to be able to create on the road, in my own time. And also, not have to try and articulate every idea I have to be able to put together little demos and bring them in and explain to people ‘this is what I want to do’. I haven’t reached what I feel like is my full ability yet with my music because of my inability to actually create it with my own two hands. I’m such a perfectionist and I love to try every single avenue, and I don’t think people have the patience for that.
What is the dream?
I just want to have a kickass time. I want to laugh and joke with my friends and my family. I want to see the world and meet everybody and see everything I can see. Just continue to play the game in the music industry for as long as possible. When you play, you play to win. I want to see how big I can make this project - how far I can take it. But really, it’s the relationships you make along the way, and the expressions on your friends' faces when you hit little milestones that are the fun part. It’s all the bits in between. I love being on the road and playing gigs with my best friends. What did I do today? I hung out in the park and met some people that were really nice and had a laugh and took my trousers off and walked into a lake. These are all great experiences and adventures. Yesterday, I went water-skiing on a lake in Geneva and played a festival. All I want is for that to continue. I want to continue growing as much as possible and adventuring - living like a character out of a storybook.