MILWAUKEE - August 14, 2017 - You will be hard pressed to find a young performer who has a greater sense of pure rock ‘n roll passion than London, England’s Barns Courtney. Courtney has been on a roll this summer in his North American tour, drawing rave reviews from critics for his insanely energetic and entertaining shows. To say that Courtney leaves it all on the stage is an understatement, as the young singer/songwriter recently suffered an accident the last time he was in town during Summerfest, fracturing his foot from diving off the stage at the Miller Lite Oasis this past June. While this sort of injury would sideline many a talented performer, Courtney took it all in stride, continuing the tour. Most recently, he played a stellar set at Lollapalooza in a hospital gown on a gurney with the help of “nurse” Kimberly, assisting with pressing some pedals and bringing him crutches which he quickly threw away. No injury was going to stop the rock ‘n roll that Barns Courtney brings to his audience each and every night.
Courtney’s music blends together a mix of soaring vocal melodies, girty guitar and driving grooves to form his own unique rock flavor. The 26 year old songwriter has gained notoriety for a series of contagiously infectious rock tunes on his recent EP, The Dull Drums. Courtney is planning on releasing his first full length record, The Attractions of Youth due out at the end of September.
Rock the Green had a chance to catch up with Barns Courtney recently to talk about music, his upcoming performance at Rock the Green and sustainability.
Rock the Green: This has been quite an amazing year for you as an artist… you’ve had great success with The Dull Drums EP and many hits from that, you have a full length record due out in at the end of September, and you’ve had a chance to play extensively in North America. Your music has drawn comparison from everyone from Ed Sheeran to the Black Keys to the Head and the Heart to Mumford and Sons. For listeners not familiar with Barns Courtney, how would you describe your sound?
Barns Courtney: I think the sound is pretty eclectic throughout the album. I think people will be surprised at how different the songs are. I try not to limit myself too much when I’m writing. I try to let whatever nebulous thoughts floating around in my head come out and hope for the best. The music is certainly rooted in rock and blues music, but I have 70’s guitar and references in the band and some stuff that would sound like Prince if he didn't have a nice studio.
Rock the Green: When it comes to songwriting, where do you get your inspiration from?
When I lost my first record deal with Island I was woefully unprepared for the real world. I felt like I had the rug pulled out from under me. Suddenly after making music for the past three years and playing video games I had to get a real job. I ended up working selling cigarettes in a little polyester wool suit with a tray in front of me like a piece of WWII eye-candy. I didn’t want to get a full time job because I liked to hang out in the studio and just try to convince producers to work on my stuff for free. I was living off of 5 Pounds a day. It was quite depressing. The Dull Drums EP came from that period when I was trying to get back to the music industry and prove myself. It’s been very weird and surreal to see how things have gone this past year, but it’s been a long haul. I’ve been doing this for about 10 years now.
Rock The Green: So, how do you keep going? You just talked about having to get a job and being in somewhat of a dark place when you wrote The Dull Drums. You’re getting big gigs now but it hasn’t always been that way
Barns Courtney: If it were anything else I would have quit by now. When music is really in you, you can’t really escape it. Music to me is such a catharsis as well… It’s how I come to terms with things and deal with hardships. I think my first ever gig, besides school concerts, was a time around 16 years old when my dad flew me out to Berlin to visit a friend of his who played in a band and he was kind enough to give me a support gig. I played to five very unimpressed German guys. It’s been a long and remarkable road since then.
Rock the Green: When you work on a song, are you a lyrics-first guy, or music first, or a combination of both?
Barns Courtney: I’m very syllabic person. I usually get a strong feeling about something and I feel there is an ethereal nebulous concept floating around. I work on the feeling I want to express and try to make it all fit. Most of the time when I write good songs it kind of all comes to me immediately.
Rock the Green: You certainly have developed a reputation for putting everything you can into your performance. We are using Summerfest and Lolla as examples of that - broken foot and all! Your videos on YouTube capture probably a sliver of what it’s like to see you live. What do you like most about performing in front of an audience?
The thing I like most about performing in front of a live audience is the amazing unspoken connection you get with people. You don’t connect like that very often with strangers. It is an incredible, wonderful moment. People don’t realize how important a show is. The crowd is 50% of what makes a great gig. It’s visceral… you can almost feel like you can reach out and touch it. It’s an incredible swirling fantamaglorious motion that is so charged with electricity and excitement. Concert-goers are everything. I am just a figurehead through which the energy of the crowd has the opportunity to grow. I am really just a product of the people who come and see the shows. I don’t take my fans’ involvement lightly.
Rock the Green: After injuring your foot during Summerfest, many performers would have probably put shows on hold. I believe the doctor’s orders have been to put things on hold as well. You instead have trooped on in a cast and at Lollapalooza in a gurney. How has this had any impact or changed your performance in any way?
It’s actually made the stage performance even more enjoyable if you can imagine that. With every adversity comes a seed of equal or greater benefit. So, after I broke my foot I had to think, how can I work with this to make my show amazing. I thought, I’m already in a cast, so there is kind of a medical vibe there. Then I thought about this time I saw Kurt Cobain (of Nirvana) come out in a wheelchair and hospital gown and how struck I was with that. It worked so well with that fragile mindset that sometimes people associate with musicianship. So then I thought, let’s make this a great opportunity to do something different- unlike anything else. So I thought about the idea of getting a hospital gurney and a friend of mine to push me around dressed as a nurse. It kind of became like a piece of theater. It is a great opportunity to give the fans something that they’ve never seen before.
Rock the Green: When are you due to have the cast off? Will you be bringing your gurney to Rock the Green on Saturday September 9th?
Barns Courtney: My foot injury is pretty bad… I might have to have surgery. It might have to do with the fact that I was throwing myself on the stage repeatedly. I want to bring the gurney and nurse to as many places as I can, so it might come to Rock the Green. Being in a cast helps make the show more exciting. There is almost more suspense.
Rock the Green: Shifting gears, one of the things that makes Rock the Green a totally unique festival is the focus on sustainability and creating a near-zero waste festival. What’s your philosophy on sustainability?
Barns Courtney: I think that we are slowly destroying ourselves- and that’s speeding up exponentially at the moment. The way we live as a society is not at all sustainable. We’ve been destroying our Earth pretty much since the industrial revolution. So it will be interesting to see if there is a massive shift in the way that we live our lives in almost every facet. What I enjoy seeing now is that capitalism seems to have made ground with green energy, and there are more innovative technologies being developed with renewable energy in mind. I certainly think it is worth continuing to strive to live cleaner lives.
Rock the Green: Growing up in both the US and England, is there anything that folks are doing on the other side of the pond when it comes to environmental advocacy that might be important for us to think about here in the States?
Barns Courtney: The Netherlands are very good at this. They process recycling so well that they are paid by other countries to take their recycling in. It is pretty neat to see. There are a lot of opportunities out there to develop innovative ways to be more eco-minded citizens and do things with more of an environmental conscientiousness in mind.
Rock the Green: As a performer, are there any ways that you try to “go green” when you are on road or on tour?
Barns Courtney: It is very difficult when you’re in a band. The nice thing is that you always carpool- you’re always in a van together. They haven’t really invented a way to travel on the road and have food that doesn’t contain so much packaging. I don’t know really if it is about using things less, but rather finding out ways to make packaging and other things like that more eco-friendly. We’re in a rut of using technologies and plastics that have been around since the 50’s. There are ways to do it… I was watching Bill Nye just the other day and he was talking about the importance of wind farms and solar panels. That’s a great example of harvesting renewable energy. I think that we need to think creatively and look for solutions like these to help. As technology strides in this area have increased by leaps and bounds, we, as a society still remain very tied to the oil industry and will need to get away from that, but I think we will. I’m very hopeful.
Be sure to catch Barns Courtney, an energetic, eco-friendly performer bring his incredible show to Rock the Green on Saturday, September 9th.