Interview: Barns Courtney Talks Music, Fashion Sense and Keeping the Excitement Going

Barns Courtney - All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

Barns Courtney Interview
November 15, 2023
The Roxy Theater

Interview by JULIE ANN SHAW

WEST HOLLYWOOD – Photographer and rock journalist Julie Ann Shaw had a backstage interview with Barns Courtney who put on a rockin’ show at The Roxy.

JAS: I need to start out by asking the two most important questions any respectable journalist could ask a famous person: Who are you wearing? And who are you dating?

Barns: (laughs) Who am I wearing? Most of the stuff I’m wearing is from vintage shops. These [points to his pants] are from a vintage shop in Poland. That myy friend Monica bought them and I traded her a shiny Charizard for them. And uh, this [his jacket] is from a vintage shop in Montreal. Um, these boots are Alessandro Casini. Not very well known, but my friend collaborates with him. So…This shirt is Asos. And this scarf is a company called Rockins. It’s just a husband and wife who have an online shop they sell on.

JAS: Like Etsy?

Barns: No. Just a company called Rockins.

JAS: Well, it’s very nice.

Barns: Thank you.

JAS: I kind of wanna touch it. (Barns holds out the end of his scarf so I could touch it. It was so soft!) Oh, I like that.

Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

Barns: And I’m not dating anybody. It’s kind of hard to date when you’re on the road all the time.

JAS: Okay, that’s fair. I just had to get those out of the way because it’s Hollywood and you gotta ask those questions.

Barns: I never get asked those questions. They made me feel fancy.

JAS: Well, you’re not a girl. BUt every woman gets asked those questions.

Barns: It’s quite refreshing to get asked those questions. You know, for a “Barns.”

JAS: Especially when your outfits, your aesthetic, is just so in your face in the best way possible, I’m surprised no ones asks you that more often.

Barns: It’s toned down a lot from the last tour. I really had fun on the last tour like getting deep into this “cult leader” character. But uh, you know, he had bleached white hair. It was too much to keep up.

JAS: Yeah, I noticed that and I was like “am I a crazy person?” Am I remembering things differently? But no, apparently I am not.

Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

Barns: Yeah, it was very difficult to keep up, you know? It made my hair like straw.

JAS: Yeah, I did the bleach thing in high school. So I could do pink and blue and purple and all of that. With dark hair you have to bleach it first. It just killed my scalp so I was just like “FINE! I’ll stick with my stupid natural hair color.” But yeah, speaking of your aestheitc, it’s very 70’s. And I love it. And I was just wondering if it’s just authentically YOU? Or if it’s purposefully done for your awesome outgoing persona? Or is it an homage to the 70’s cartoon bear you were named after?

Barns: Yeah, he wasn’t particularly dressed in anything. I think that guy was just nude.

JAS: Well, I’m sure there are a lot of ladies out there who would not mind that homage.

Barns: Haha. Maybe. I’m not going back to prison.

JAS: Some men. You know, I’m not here to judge.

Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

Barns: So, I think definitely I’ve always loved the late 60’s-70’s fashion. Like, ALWAYS. I remember like seeing Austin Powers for the first time and being like so beguiled by like all the, the parody of it. I thought it was incredible. And I love that era for music, too. Like, glam rock is very close to my heart. Um, for some reason that particular era of fashion has always struck a chord with me. Even when I was in my first bands, you know? It wasn’t like  the Arctic Monkeys or contemporary artists like Franz Ferdinand that I was looking up to in terms of their performance and their fashion sense. It was Steven Tyler, it was Jagger. There’s something about that entire world and everything it touches, from the fashion to the performances, to the musical stylings, the attitudes.

JAS: I actually had a conversation outside with one of the fans who was so dedicated, she was here since 2 p.m.

Barns: Oh, man.

JAS: Yeah, she is a lovely woman. She is here with her daughters. She fell in love with you because her daughters love you. We were having a conversation and she was telling me that she just loves how much you remind her of Mick Jagger. So, at least your fans are picking up on…

Barns: Yeah, I think we all try to copy our heroes. And, if we’re lucky, then we fail, but we fail forward and stumble across something that’s somewhat of our own. Mick Jagger, he was learning to move, he was on tour with James Brown, and would like rip off a lot of his moves and adapted it to his own thing.

Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

JAS: Isn’t that all art.

Barns: Yeah, yeah of course.

JAS: If you’re gonna steal, steal and make it better. I mean, there really isn’t a whole lot you can do as an independent person anymore. It’s pretty much just “I see what you’re doing. I like it. I would like to do that, too.” As long as you’re not trying to pass it off as just something you invented. Like, there’s really nothing wrong with that.

Barns: I think that’s the tradition of art, in general. It’s just kind of like building blocks off of what came before. Rearranging things, you know? It’s the art of telling the same story a million different ways.

JAS: Yes, I love your wild floofy hair.

Barns: Ha. Thanks.

Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

JAS: I hope you are having better time on this trip in LA than the time when you almost died from ::checks notes:: grass.

Barns: Yeaaah. Oh my god. That was so traumatic.

JAS: But you haven’t almost died:

Barns: I don’t think so.

JAS: That’s good. You’ve been in here [the venue] most of the time, right?

Barns: We arrived on the tour bus around 1pm. The previous bus DID almost kill us. It kept leaking an inordinate amount of exhaust fumes into the main cabin. And it would periodically drop to below freezing temperatures. And I got really, really sick. So I have been fighting to get my voice back the entire trip. And then it would randomly rain a shower of sparks from the plug sockets. I mean, it was like a death trap. The brakes would randomly just faile. I mean it was horrendous. Thank god we got off that bus. But we were on that bus for most of the tour.

Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

JAS: Well, I am so glad you’re safe and your band members are safe. That’s just crazy. Well, I was just hoping you wouldn’t have another near death experience. It seems like LA is try to get you.

Barns: Adventure, by nature, has to have some element of danger.

JAS: Yes, yes it does. I appreciate that very much. Um, so, in one interview I read it said that once you make music, it belongs to the fans, it’s not yours anymore. Is there any specific ong, or songs, that you kept just a little bit for yourself in some way?

Barns: I don’t know. I mean, I don’t really feel as though I lose the songs, I just mean that the meaning of the song immediately becomes personal to everyone who listens to it. Especially if they like it, you know?

JAS: So no secret little gems that no matter how many times it’s interpreted, you just…?

Barns: Well, they’ll always have meanings for me because my experience is my own. But I think the moment you release a song it doesn’t matter what you wrote it about people will draw their own, you hope, their own experiences from it. Have their own ideas what it’s about, you know? There are songs that I’ve written specifically about my grandfather, and people have connected it to people that they have lost in their lives specifically. I really like that. A lot of people listen to my songs as motivation to workout in the gym and do sports, thinks I never do.

Barns Courtney - All photos JULIE ANN SHAW
Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

JAS: It’s funny you say that because I was at the dentist yesterday getting things fixed and back up from my bought of depression, and I was just binging your albums the entire time so I didn’t have to listen to the drill and it’s very calming, in a way, even though your music is very upbeat most of the time.

Barns: Music’s amazing, you know? It’s an amazing ability to heal the realms of the psyche. The ability to physically bring people back from all kinds of neurological conditions. They were playing music to geriatrics in old folks homes who haven’t spoken for years and were kind of vegetables and mentally checked out for the longest time. And they would find music that they would listen to when they were young and they would play and suddenly these people would come to life. They’d say “oh my god, this reminds me of dancing with my girl at the club” back in whatever year and it’s amazing. And we’re still, I think, figuring out all the practical applications for music. It’s endless.

JAS: Yeah, I don’t think we’ll ever figure out all of them.

Barns: Of course, yeah.

JAS: And you’ve spoken about overcoming demons and your own depression and how music lifted you out of that. Especially when you were slinging iced tea after being callously betrayed by a producer. What kept you going? Like, not giving up and just saying “well, it didn’t work out now, why would it work out in the future?”

Barns: I suppose I have a growth mindset, you know? I don’t look at outcomes as a roll of the dice, I look at them as a test of one’s mettle and self-discipline. I don’t look at these things as like “do I have what it takes?” It’s more “can I discipline myself in my attitudes, and my work ethic consistently enough and long enough to make it happen?” Because I believe wholeheartedly that everyone has the ability to connect to that place where greatness lives in whatever area of their lives. And so with that mindset, it wasn’t a question of “what are the odds?” It was a question of “can I do it?” AndI get bored very easily. Ive never enjoyed school, or the workplace, or authoritarianism. You know, the draconian rules that exist in corporations…

Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

…I find that world to be very, very debilitatingly dull. And so, I couldn’t exist anywhere else. Some people, and I have respect for people who feel this way, are very content to live and work in the towns they live in, doing 9 to 5 and seeing families on weekends and holidays. For whatever reason, I couldn’t live like that. It was miserable for me. To work a normal job, it was absolutely miserable. Even this, that I’m doing now, at this level, is somewhat miserable for me, because I have an incredibly high threshold for excitement. And if I plateau for too long it’s just dull. I need to be doing something fantastical at all times otherwise I feel like I’m wasting my life. But I think, getting back to your question, when I was depressed, I was just determined that it wasn’t going to be my life and I had a crack of the whip. I thought I had come too far at that point. Also, I think my mother instilled a beautiful sense of self-belief in me from a young age. She really like made me believe that it was just an intrinsic part of me to be a performer. And I think that stayed with me for a long time, you know? That beautiful naivete.

Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

JAS: Well, I am grateful for that.

Barns: Well, I’m grateful for the depression as well, you know? I’m really grateful for it. It produced, in my opinion, my best work in my entire career. My most authentic, real work that connected me to the world the most deeply. And I would say for you, with your struggles, your trials and tribulations, that these things, they’re gifts. They are hard but they’re gifts. You can wield them. They can bare tremendous fruit.

JAS: Like getting me into a room with Barns Courtney for an interview.

Barns: And hopefully many more. More famous individuals.

JAS: Oh I hope so because this is very terrifying for me but this is me doing everything I can to not plateau. It terrifies me to talk to people so naturally, the next step is to do a thing where I have to talk to people.

Barns: Fear is a wonderful compass to show you the next direction to go, you know?

Barns Courtney - All photos JULIE ANN SHAW
Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

JAS: Yes! Because if you’re not afraid, then what are you doing?

Barns: Often life puts the best things on the other side of fear. Human beings are happiest when we’re growing. When we face our struggles and we overcome them and we grow and we get to the “next”, we love that. It’s our story. We see it again and again in our media and video games. Yeah, so, well done.

JAS: Thank you! Hindsight being 20/20, do you ever feel like the producer who did screw you over actually did you a favor? Because waiting and taking more time and using your depression to make more music so that it came out not so early in your life, and not so easy? Not that it was easy.

Barns: It’s so hard to say. I was on the same management as the boyband, The Vamps, so it probably would have been a similar career to theirs if it were successful. It’s hard to say, those guys have been enormously like financially successful. I can’t afford my rent and they’ve all got houses, play to stadiums full of people. My plan was when I was very young to finish music by the age of 25 and then go into acting. So I definitely fell as though my life, as many people’s do, gone on a different path. I can’t put music down until I feel like I have released an album that I’m proud of.

Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

JAS: Well, I, for one, would love to see you acting in some things. Yeah, you’ve just released a few singles. “Golden” and “Young in America.” “Young in America” has very quickly become one of my top three favorite songs.

Barns: I appreciate that.

JAS: It’s so beautiful. And then you had “Supernatural” back in 2022. And I feel like a crazy person because of this, I can’t find any information on an album coming out.

Barns: I’ve had a lot of difficulties with this album. I’ve had a lot of difficulties with record labels since my very first signing. I signed to the 300, which is a label, and they got sold to Warner Bros., and so everyone on my team was replaced and then all those people were fired and replaced. It just really put a spanner in the works. The album’s been done for a long time. But as a result of all those trials and tribulations it’s come out so very convoluted, it’s a very sisyphean venture trying to get that finished. And I’m just waiting now, basically, for all the red tape to clear and for my old deal to fall to the wayside and sign this new one with Avenue A which is an imprint on Virgin so I can actually get the thing out. I’m desperate to move on. The album’s been done for like two years, and I’m waiting to get into the next one.

Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

JAS: Well, that’s horrible. I am angry on your behalf. Well, let’s get some people, your fans, write them some letters and phone calls, and tell them to get their crap together. We want that album! I just have a few more questions. So, I’m curious, because I can picture you doing this, when you first heard your songs come out on shows like Lucifer, that made me excited, did you have like this big “That Thing You Do” moment?

Barns: I think I was just full of terror. I had been promised the world from my first album. I was a teenager. Everyone told me I was going to be a huge star and I believed everything they said and losing that deal hit me like a ton of bricks. It was very, very difficult. And you know, my dad and step-mom wouldn’t let me move back home. My only option as a safety net was moving back with my mom in Seattle, which I didn’t want to do because I equated that to giving up. It was a hard three years, watching my friends, like The Struts, on an upward trajectory and The Vamps continued theirs. I had a feeling like I had lost it and I would never be able to get back into making music professionally again. So, I think I was quite neurotic when I first started hearing my music in things. I would do crazy things like screenshot my Spotify plays, in case something went wrong and everything reset to zero. So when I heard things on the radio, or on TV shows, it didn’t really feel exciting because I was so terryfied that it was all going to be taken away from me again.

Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

JAS: I had that exact feeling when I got into college. It felt like any minute they were going to tell me I was a mistake and make me leave.

Barns: That’s a really, really, like you have to take extreme measures to limit those mindsets because they’re limiting beliefs. I feel like happiness and a positive attitude is like a garden. You have to go and tend the weeds everyday. Otherwise, when it gets really overgrown, the process of fixing it is gargantuan. If you’re going back to the garden everyday and just clipping one little shrub at a time, you know? So, I try to make it a discipline every morning to meditate on what I’m grateful for and to really visualize what it is I want and where I am going. I imagine myself having already achieved it. It’s like I’m constantly bludgeoning that negative mindset over the head again and again and again with images of what it is that I do want, you know? Making the predominate narrative in my subconscience a positive, can do mindset.

JAS: I love that. I have been working on that, myself. Yeah, and this is the last show of your tour. Are you going to take some time off to be just a human or are you going to just dive face first back into some kind of work?

Barns: I feel anxious to get back into writing music. I can’t afford rent right now, though.

JAS: Been there!

Barns Courtney - All photos JULIE ANN SHAW
Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

Barns: Yeah. I just want really delve into what my new writing process now that I’m not depressed any more in the same way. I think I want to try and really experiment, just shut everything off in my life. No Netflix, no video games, and just allow myself to sit in a boredom, in a vacuum, and just whatever arrives come into my conscience.

JAS: Oh, I love that. Yes.

Barns: Maybe get into music production a little bit so I can experiment by myself without spending huge amounts of label money. Just sit in a room and figure out sounds that I want to play with.

JAS: Yeah, that’s how the best stuff is created. By accident or a mistake. I love the idea of just experimenting with new sounds. I love that fact that your music isn’t just one genre, one note, if you will. It goes up and down and up and down. We never know what we’re gonna get from Barns Courtney.

Barns Courtney – All photos JULIE ANN SHAW

Barns: I would like to condense  that sporadic behavior into individual albums. As opposed to albums where it’s like the music is all over the place. And I would rather have one album, a whole album of “Supernaturals” or a whole album of “Young in Americas” or a whole album of “Glitter & Golds.” And give people the ability to sink into one landscape, one record at a time.

JAS:Yeah, I get that. Like one emotion as a theme per album.

Barns: Yeah, I’m trying to be more prolific, so when it comes to putting the albums together I have more choices and I can say “I’m gonna save this pop song for this pop album.”

JAS: I think that is fantastic.