For most, the unremarkable possessions that cover the rooms we pass through everyday feel mundane and lifeless. Although for someone like Barns Courtney, all that we come into contact with is a potential instrument, lined and scored with hidden notes that are just waiting to be uncovered and played…loud. With a wild mix of blues streaked rock and plaintive pop gems, the UK born, Seattle raised, London based songwriter’s first LP, The Attractions Of Youth, might as well be the sonic equivalent of a panoramic lens. But as Courtney explained, that big, vivid sound was sometimes achieved through the most unlikely of means. “I wanted to make something that was very authentic and raw,” he says over a phone line from Los Angeles. “So we sort of messed around with whatever was available to us.” Telling the story of how “Glitter & Gold” and “Hellfire” had been recorded in what was once a decommissioned old folks home turned living space of his friend, Sam Bartle, he described how the songs were made out of the very items that surrounded them. “We made the bass drums out of an old filing cabinet in the hallway,” he remembers. “And there was no bass guitar so we made the bass out of a piano in the rec room and percussive elements from scissor snips and film cans and drum sticks on a tile floor.” In the end, the process of fitting each piece together like a puzzle had heaped an explosive energy, character and detail upon the music that could not have been achieved otherwise. “There was something really magical about that space that I can’t put my finger on,” he now says about the building that has since been torn down, a palpable sense of awe in his voice that such a setting would deliver the pure sound that he had envisioned.
But as much as the image of Courtney drumming his fingers along the back of a guitar for percussion conjures up reel to reel footage of the days when a band like The Beatles made the studio a creative playground where anything goes, the musician admits that the adventurous way in which the songs came together wasn’t so much a stylistic choice as it was a necessity. “A lot of this record was written over the course of my struggle,” he says, referring to the trying time he experienced in the aftermath of being dropped by Island Records before any of his material could even be released. In the five years or so that have passed since that period of disappointment and the uninspiring day jobs that followed, his music caught the ear of another label and an ever growing fanbase who might not immediately recognize the songwriter’s own story in the lyrical depictions of determination, survival and uncertainty. Yet those themes loom large, creating a thread that stretches across his debut. “Throughout the album, it’s a lot to do with the struggle to reconnect with my childhood passion of performing and singing and striving to succeed in the face of adversity,” he reflects. All of which has made the runaway success of a track like “Glitter & Gold” -now frequently heard in television commercials and in the stands at national league football games- somewhat of a shock to it’s creator. “It sounds huge,” he says, still astonished that a song made for no money had been captured so perfectly that a later attempt to recut it after signing with Capitol Records was abandoned. “It just sounded so sterile,” Courtney recalls of that flat, colorless version that couldn’t repeat the magnetism of the first. “And this guy Sam, he’s a mad genius,” he says of Bartle when describing their use of homespun equipment and how future sessions for the album would happen anywhere and everywhere they found themselves. “His room is like a museum of outdated 80s and 90s technology, full of homemade synthesizers and things that he’s made out of junk that he’s found around where he lived. They’re all like analogue -old school- where you plug one jack into a socket to change the sound up. So we cut the record together in his bedroom and then touring was so intense that we made a lot of it on the road, you know a couple of things backstage in Atlanta or maybe like rent out a studio around midnight after we pack up from a gig and write some vocals down. It was really done in bits and pieces.”
Enhanced by a production that flickers with complexity and imagination, The Attractions Of Youth unfolds at an exhilarating pace that often gives it the feel of a raucous live show. And while he spoke about some tracks being influenced by the sound of Kanye West’s “Black Skinhead” and the feedback heavy, chanting vocals of The Clash, there is a vulnerability he applies to songs like “Goodbye John Smith” that is as strongly felt as any spark. It’s that push and pull that reveals itself to be the album’s fire and ice, culminating with the wistful album closer for which the collection is named. Put together by Courtney in all of five minutes, he spoke about taking inspiration for “The Attractions Of Youth” from nothing but the mood that greeted him when he arrived at the home of producer Martin “Youth” Glover for a planned writing session. “I went into his house and its this amazing property in Farnsworth in London, just full of Indian trinkets from all his travels and pieces of art just lining the walls, enormous doorways that he’s had shipped over from the East -I mean it’s incredible- and as soon as I walked through the door he handed me an enormous spliff and said, ‘Smoke dope?’” he says with a laugh. “Pretty much, that was the vibe from the get go.” Soaking up the energy that filled the room he shared with Glover and one of the famed producer’s lifelong friends, Courtney was floored by the incredible atmosphere that was all around him. “It’s one of those moments where you have that realization, you know, everything is alright and everything that I’ll ever need is right here in the present, the rest is just a game,” he says before recounting how he worked out the song on an old, broken harmonium that was lying around.
“It’s all in his house, his recording studio,” he remembers. “We start walking up and every floor and every bedroom, he’s got a different music project going on. So we pick up this famous flute player from one and this famous guitar player from another and you know, five or six of us end up in his attic -which is this beautiful open space with huge slanting windows that look out over the garden and the trees- and we had this big jam with all these guys. And they all leave and go back to their respective projects and then I started recording the tune. And all the drums on that record are literally just me just drumming my fingernails on the back of an acoustic guitar and that same broken harmonium is the one that we used. We used the first take. His phone rings at the end and you can hear him -if you turn up your record really loudly- saying, ‘Oh fucking hell, I think that’s enough, don’t you?’”
And though the track fell into place fast, Courtney admits that putting the spirit of that day and the peace of mind that swept over him into so few words was not without its difficulties. “I never quite felt like I nailed it, but I feel like the overall feeling -the emotion of the song- portrays what I was trying to get across.” Feeling simultaneously forward thinking and nostalgic, it’s a poignant curtain close to a debut record that was years in the making, articulating all of the heart, soul and clarity it took to transcend an ever-changing landscape.
Article: Caitlin Phillips
Cover Image: Paige Sarah Wilson