Few people can say they’ve spent an afternoon in the desert playing guitar while balancing a portable speaker in the back of their jacket collar. But for blues-rocker Barns Courtney, that’s just another day at the office. “We put the camera in the back of the SUV, then I got my tour manager and I said ‘Can you drive about 3 miles an hour and give me my speaker?’ And I put my speaker in the back of my jacket, like wedged it behind my head and I said ‘I’m going to walk behind the car, and I’m just going to lip sync the lyrics, and this is how we’re going to shoot the video.’ And that’s what we did!”
This particular music video for his 2016 single “Fire”, took some wild turns from conception to production – including directors that scribbled a last minute idea in a hotel room – that paralleled his journey to rockstar status quite closely. “It was a shocking experience to suddenly have nothing, and to wake up as a 23 year old man with no qualifications, and all of my peers having graduated from college, going into a proper career. And I was stacking shelves, or handing out flyers or handing out samples of iced tea in a fake muscle suit and orange crocs,” he recalls about his early years in between labels. Those years are the core influence for his debut album, due out later this year. “This record has been very, very motivated and inspired by the drive to succeed and the idea that I couldn’t let my life degenerate into something other than a musical career”.
But stripping the music down to its bare bones, there’s not much to it. Classic rock and blues influences create the platform that Courtney builds his entire repertoire on – with the occasional ode to Kanye West, because why not. Looking up to fellow artists like The Black Keys and The White Stripes makes for a dynamic product from Courtney himself. His 2015 single “Fire” takes all of those experiences and influences and turns them into a gritty rock track that earned itself a spot in the Bradley Cooper movie “Burnt”. “For tracks like “Fire”, in particular, I was really trying to emulate the Kanye West “Black Skinhead” kind of sound, and if you listen you can hear the direct influence from the percussion, brass, the big tribal drums,” he told Beyond The Stage when we sat down to chat with him at the end of 2016. And those “big tribal drums” weren’t a short-lived experiment by any means. Shortly after speaking with Courtney, he released an EP titled “The Dull Drums”, compiled of songs that reflect all of his core influences, but still leaving room for new material in his upcoming album – including candid conversation bites.
“The album was done a lot on the road since everything has been such a whirlwind,” he tells BTS before starting to joke about the slight creepiness of having record label executives sit in on all of his interviews. But then he backtracks for just a moment. “I secretly record people and put them on my album. So there’s a couple of different people that you’ll hear in between songs and going into songs,” which only adds to the experiential nature of the album. “I want the listener to really feel like they’re there with me along for the journey. I want them to understand how the album was crafted and to feel like they’re a part of it”. And with the conversation pieces he’s recorded, there is truly a raw, authentic element that the listener is part of.
But this is far from where the Barns Courtney story has begun, and even farther from where it will go. In his younger days, Courtney’s biggest dreams circled around playing a Switchfoot cover set in front of his high school crowd, which hasn’t changed much since gaining recognition. “I opened for Switchfoot the other night in Chicago,” he tells BTS, the joy in his voice becoming audible through the phone speaker and his many hours of jet lag. “I used to walk to school or skateboard and I would listen to their tracks and I would imagine playing them at the school assembly, and that was like the coolest thing that my young teenage mind could imagine at the time”. And when Courtney had the chance to tell Switchfoot of their influence in person, he took away more than just a memorable story to tell. “I think most of all it’s important to make sure you’re nice to people – that’s such a Disney-twinged lesson to take away, but it does make a difference…they were the nicest people that I’ve ever met”.
Read the rest of the Barns Courtney feature in our August 2017 issue here.
Purchase a print copy of the issue here.
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