Courtney Barnett is a name audiences will recognise for her songwriting more than her practice as a creative. Beloved since the release of 2013’s The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas and her debut record Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit in 2015, the Australian musician’s own illustrations have sat on covers, lightly illustrated in black and white with use of an impactful spot colour or two. The use of her work on these covers always gives audiences a glimpse into another side of Courtney, masterful at using a pen to illustrate as well as write.
However, “I’ve never considered myself an illustrator or anything,” says Courtney, bashfully, on the phone from her home in Melbourne. “I’ve just always kind of done it for fun.” Despite her reluctance to call herself an illustrator, Courtney’s life is pinpointed with creative influences that have continued long into the success of her music career.
It began at a young age as her dad was a graphic designer, “so I grew up seeing his stuff, just little bits he’d done, books on the shelves,” she remembers. Courtney began to take an interest in visual culture but in a way that just felt natural, sitting on the periphery slightly, often going to galleries; “I always just found it enjoyable, just visual art in general.” When the time came to apply to university she enrolled at Tasmanian School of Art, “I was never any good at it,” she modestly says straight away, and a traditional creative career fell by the wayside as her career as a musician picked up.
Yet when it came to putting out her first records, Courtney found the best option was to create the artwork herself. It wasn’t a self-righteous move either, but simply because “I didn’t really know anyone to do artwork and it was expensive to get people to do it,” she laughs. “So, I just did my own stuff.”
Courtney continued to draw too but not really on a regular basis, admitting she’s likely to “leave things until the last minute until I need something done, and then I furiously work at it”. Her illustrations stuck despite not being a purposeful process and seeing the way audiences react and enjoy it is evidently a thrill to the musician still, particularly when discussing the 3D replicas of Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit’s cover that was made, “I think it’s pretty wild to see,” she tells us.
After two records featuring illustrations, this year’s Tell Me How You Really Feel offered a break in creative output as Courtney switched to photography, but she’s still in the driving seat. “I just hadn’t been drawing that much,” she begins to explain of this decision. “I went through a whole bunch of ideas and they just didn’t seem good enough, or portray what I wanted to portray I think,” she says, between laughing at her own process.
While recording, however, Courtney was working on a project taking “a photo every day, kind of like a self-portrait series while writing”. At first, the polaroid images didn’t come to mind, before they “jumped out as a much stronger image and made more sense to what the songs were about… I mean, I didn’t think I was going to use them but I ended up finding them and realising that it was the perfect representation.” Although she still admits breaking the pattern of hand-drawn albums “was a bit of bummer”.
Outside of record sleeves, Courtney has also leant heavily on animation as a way to represent her singles through videos. At first, she often picked friends to animate songs, before being recommended creative after creative. Animation for Courtney appears to be ideal to represent a song’s themes to a viewer. “I mean it’s such a different energy,” she says. Take, for instance, her video for Nameless Faceless by Lucy Dyson: “I was really struggling with it because of its subject matter,” she says. “I wanted it to be strong and serious, but everything came across too earnest and self-righteous.” Animation, and in particular Lucy’s moving image collage skills, allowed Courtney to present an important topic to her, “but not do it kind of any disservice by making a shitty video”.
Courtney’s creativity, and love of illustration, in particular, continues on tour too. Around the release of her joint album with Kurt Vile titled Lotta Sea Lice, Courtney got in touch with a bunch of her favourite illustrators to create one-off posters for a couple of tour dates. Utilising the work of mostly local artists, she wanted to give fans something special, “something great from the show that’s just great to have in that moment” she says. The results were 50 editions for shows and it’s a habit she’s continued on other tours around the globe. The posters, in many ways, do the same job as Courtney’s illustrations did on those first album covers, allowing her fans to share the imagery she loves and still have that personable Courtney touch that’s grown her audience to start with.
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