…ready to take on the world, make you laugh and make you sweat. Barns Courtney has an almost religious devotion to enjoying life and having a good time, and he thinks you should enjoy yourself too. Barns Courtney would rather turn up at awards ceremonies on a giraffe than in a stretch limo. Barns Courtney says he’s amazing at bullshitting, but can’t stop himself telling the truth. Barns Courtney has a folder on his phone containing photos of his lyrics tattooed on fans. Barns Courtney describes his new album as a psychotropic 90s rabbit hole. Barns Courtney would like to tell you about the book he’s reading. Barns Courtney is the sort of rockstar they don’t make any more, and the sort of popstar the world needs right now. Barns Courtney knows he looks better with shorter hair, but he’d be lost without something to shake around on stage. Barns Courtney has had enough of vacuous archetypes.
The title of Barns’ new album will no doubt be familiar to anyone who’s ever searched for something online and found themselves face to face with nothing. But 404 is an album that explores feelings of loss and bereftness inspired by life’s habit of throwing up its own error pages, with Barns exploring absence, frustration, and the never-ending search for something that seemed like it would always be there until one day, suddenly, it wasn’t: his childhood.
“It’s very much about searching for memories and states of being that don’t exist any more,” Barns says. “It’s painful knowing that something has gone, whether it’s a good time, a good feeling, a pleasant section of existence, or something physical. I’m always wondering: if you were to go back and find places you knew as a child, what would they look like?” Reflecting his thoughts about being a child growing up in the digital age, one image he has is of all his old games consoles, covered in vines and dust. “Still there, but also not there.”
There was a time not so long ago — well, a lifetime ago to Barns Courtney, but not so long ago to the rest of us — when a 16-year-old kid who’d spent his teens ricocheting between Seattle and Ipswich thought he was about to be the biggest star in the world. He and some mates got a deal with the biggest of all the big labels, then spent three years working with one of the planet’s hottest producers. What could go wrong? Well, plenty. Barns reckons the band got dropped because the producer wouldn’t send finished mixes to the label. They would have been dropped anyway. Wrong time, wrong place, wrong band. Wrong wrong wrong.
The funny thing, and it’s not really that funny, but it’s not not funny, is that when that band went tits up Barns got a job in PC World. Nothing wrong with PC World, it’s a fine establishment. But this branch was just up the road from the label who’d dropped him. Also bang opposite the hotel where his old manager lived. So Barns would stand outside eating his meal deal lunch wondering exactly how and why it had all come to this, and every day he’d see the people from his former label, or his old manager pulling up in a Rolls Royce. “That building was a monolith to my past failings,” he says now. The whole thing was either self-flagellatory or an example of pop Stockholm syndrome, or both. Maybe neither. Either way, pretty bleak. “My entire life since I was 14 had been an upward trajectory,” is how Barns remembers it. “Then suddenly at the age of 22 I’m dropped, I’m totally, woefully unprepared for the real world. No qualifications. I didn’t bother learning to drive, because I thought I’d be driven everywhere. Thank God I didn’t have any success — I would have been a complete cunt.”
All of which formed the basis of Barns’ 2017 debut album The Attractions Of Youth, a blistering shot of blues-driven rock that got this singular pop performer’s foot back in the door. Songs like Glitter & Gold (which charted on four different Billboard charts) and Fire became viral smashes, prompting a swell of support on both sides of the Atlantic that saw Barns performing on Conan O’Brien and opening for everyone from The Who, to Blur, to Ed Sheeran. “The first record was entirely a product of three years of absolutely no success after being dropped,” he says today. “It was about my struggle to get back into making music and finding that spark of genuine love and creativity that I’d once taken for granted as a permanent fixture of who I was.”
Which brings us to 2019 and a body of work that finds this reflexive, meticulous pop storyteller delivering a minutely crafted album with big tunes, flashes of humour and no shortage of ambition. Kickstarted by 2018’s sparky, Atari-referencing single 99, it’s an album that delves back beyond the arrested development of Barns’ early−20s and into the teens he spent in Seattle and then Ipswich. In the former city: his mother, who’d moved there for work, and her arsehole husband, who sent Barns to a posh school full of entitled brats where teachers explained to pupils that poor people simply don’t work as hard as rich people. In the latter: Barns’ dad, and one of the worst schools in what’s been billed as one of the most culturally deprived areas of England, slap bang in the middle of a council estate, where Barns could bunk off math class and play guitar in the hallway because the teachers were more concerned about the kids trying to burn down the gym.
“The record’s partly about the bizarre modern formalisation of fun, and the strange ritual that we all go through from childhood into adulthood,” is how Barns describes one aspect of the music. Woven through it is what he admits is “an unhealthy obsession with my own past, likely due to some unresolved childhood trauma. There’s a lot of stuff I can’t access because it’s repressed and I carry it around, locked away. A lot of it’s manifested itself in a nostalgia for a childhood that I didn’t feel was fully fulfilled.” And layered on top of that all, because there really is quite a lot going on in this album, is Barns’ experience of being out of town — and taking time out of real life — then coming back down to earth with a bump. “You go off and live this fantastical existence, play these shows and have fun, and you come back and you expect everyone to be the same as they were when you left,” he notes. “But they’ve all grown up. It’s like Peter Pan coming back from Neverland.”
Babylon, written shortly after Barns returned from having accidentally spent most of this album’s recording budget on an extended stay in a Carmel chateau, came to life in somewhat tense circumstances. “I’d spent all the money, didn’t have any songs to show for it, and had nowhere to stay,” Barns remembers. He offered collaborator Sam Battle’s parents £300 and moved into their Peterborough home, sleeping on Sam’s bedroom floor. It was where the pair had first made music together many years earlier, a full-circle moment Barns remembers being “bleak and depressing”. It rained for what seemed like weeks. “I felt dejected and awful, there was nothing going on at all, my mental state was not good,” Barns acknowledges. “I felt myself degenerating into insanity in that tiny room. I spent one memorable day in the foetal position under a chair while Sam muttered in the corner. It was taking us to the edges of our own sanity, but that’s where I wrote Babylon: a song about feelings of losing myself and being set adrift.”
Boy Like Me, about being virtually invisible to the opposite sex, finds Barns revisiting a song he began writing several years ago while on tour around Nashville; Hollow, originally inspired by Sam’s desolation at having to sell a prized synth in order to put food on his table, eventually twisted into a song about loss, love and hollowness in someone’s absence. The album finishes with Cannonball, a song about “walking through a waking dream when everything is teetering; floating through life but weighed down by everything you’re carrying”. In common with many of the songs on 404 the vocals, largely improvised, were recorded in one take in the middle of the night. Unusually, a lot of what you’ll hear on 404 captures the very first moment Barns ever expressed some of his deepest thoughts.
All in all, Barns says 404 is “a commentary on my own journey from awe struck naivety to the dark realisation of adulthood”. The big picture, he adds, is “a weird alternative Narnia or Neverland, where all the tropes of your childhood have melted. From Pokémon to Nintendo 64 the core of my being is there: an unorthodox maelstrom of memories condensed down into this bizarre undulating world”. It makes sense that the album sounds like it does. “To start with I wanted to make a punk record or a Rolling Stones album, but what came out was the synth heavy sound of 404,” he says. “To do anything else wouldn’t have worked. It’s a strange amalgamation of influences based on everywhere I’ve been and some places I haven’t.”
Despite the new album forcing Barns to confront difficult points of his life, it strikes an overwhelmingly optimistic note. “This record’s actually a lot happier than the last one,” he smiles. “With the first album I was suffocating, I could hardly talk to anybody, I felt terrified and bitter and downtrodden — I’m still aware that I carry a lot, but a lot of great music comes from pain, and when you’re in pain you can’t help but be your most authentic self in your music.”
Which is handy because, as Barns adds, “the moment I stop being truthful is the moment my career fucks up”. Which also means, one supposes, that with a record this truthful, Barns Courtney’s career must be on the verge of reaching new heights. That 16-year-old who thought he was going to be the biggest star in the world might have actually been on to something.