A few years before Courtney Barnett was known to the wider world, during a period of life where she was, by her own estimation, “kind of unemployed and a bit depressed”, she bought a record on a whim and a recommendation. It was Kurt Vile’s Smoke Ring For My Halo, his breakthrough fourth album from 2011. She took a particular shine to the track Peepin’ Tomboy, an odd folk song with dense clusters of fingerpicked guitar.
“I didn’t even know who he was,” she says. “And it was beautiful – it’s still one of the most beautiful-sounding records that I’ve ever heard. There’s something about that album in particular that has a real magic to it, and I’ve followed him ever since. Apart from the sonic level of that album, I really loved his phrasing and lyrics. I felt really akin to it.”
A couple of years later, when Vile was touring Australia pushing the follow-up album Wakin On A Pretty Daze, Barnett found herself supporting Vile at a show in Melbourne, at Abbotsford Convent. Later at a barbecue, the pair briefly connected, and Barnett slipped him a copy of A Sea Of Split Peas, which compiled her first two EPs, including her own breakthrough hit Avant Gardener. Vile particularly fell under the spell of the opening track, Out Of The Woodwork.
“I’m a fan of all her music, but I’m a sucker especially for the pretty, kind of floaty melodic ones, and then I started listening to her new record [Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Think],” he says. “I feel like a lot of music today doesn’t have the classic songwriter thing, you know. Depreston – that’s a classic song.”
It’s interesting that Vile connected with a song that, on the surface, is full of local suburban references, but he speaks of Barnett’s easily relatable voice and deadpan delivery. “The lyrics are good no matter what they’re about,” he says. “And the melody is really classic – it’s just the right amount of melancholy, but still poppy, you know.”
It’s also easy to see why the two songwriters sensed an affinity: the casually drawled vocals, multi-layered storytelling, and a mutual love of Neil Young, both in singer-songwriter mode and the slacker-grunge sounds Young’s band Crazy Horse helped spawn at the turn of the 1990s. Over what Vile calls “a perfect storm” of two Australian summers, the friendship spawned a full-length collaboration and a cryptically named album, Lotta Sea Lice.
The pair had slowly become closer, bumping into each other on the festival circuit and through mutual Melbourne friends when Vile was in Australia. “You kind of forge these strange friendships with people that you don’t know all that well, but you hang out and kind of have a special love for, and then you don’t see them again for a year until you bump into them in Scotland or something,” Barnett says.
Vile says he was smitten by Barnett’s songwriting to the point of obsession, and eventually he emailed Barnett saying he had written a song, Over Everything, with her in mind to pair with him on a duet. On his next Australian tour, a couple of days in the studio were booked. Jim White and Mick Turner from the Dirty Three were brought in, and Barnett came up with another song, Let It Go. The pair also recorded a cover of a golden oldie, Blueberry Hill.
It could easily have ended there. Vile says the original plan was to do an EP, and with his time in Australia up, the pair went their separate ways. But the idea wouldn’t die. Barnett and Vile kept in correspondence, and more and more song ideas were slowly stockpiled. By this time, Barnett’s international profile had exploded, and time had to be carved out for a second recording session.
Even then, there was no real plan; just two songwriters lost in the joy of their own craft. Beforehand, emails with demos attached flew back and forth between the pair, and lyrics were cut up and spliced amid the flow of conversation. “The next time I came back, we went from two and a half songs to 10 songs, if you count Blueberry Hill, which isn’t on the record,” Vile says.
“We were having so much fun, and then we realised we had enough for an album,” Barnett says. The results transcend the recording’s rather ad-hoc approach. It’s everything you might expect from an album between the pair: nine spaced-out folk-rock songs, played loosely, but with real clarity and purpose. Two more covers – Barnett singing Peepin’ Tomboy; Vile tackling Out Of The Woodwork – rounded things off.
Barnett had recorded Peepin’ Tomboy solo, and sent it to Vile finished. “That was the first song that I really connected with back when I bought that album,” Barnett says. “I was going through a dark time … You know how music is – half of what you fall in love with is the memory of it, or the feeling that surrounds it when you listen to it, and that’s what’s always stuck with me.”
For Out Of The Woodwork, Vile says he needed extra backing. Stella Mozgawa from Warpaint was brought in to play drums, but what he really wanted was Barnett’s voice: “There’s a chorus in there which every man, woman and child sings on in her version, so I wanted at least get her to sing along on the chorus,” he says. “I kind of needed Courtney as a muse for my version of her song to really feel it.”
It’s rare, but some of the best music can be born this way. “We just kept adding to the pile without any real end-goal, which was kind of nice,” Barnett says. Vile agrees: “I never thought that it would be a full-length album, but it came together that way, which was kind of beautiful. Nothing was forced, but it was very musical.” Lotta Sea Lice is one of this year’s happiest musical accidents.
First published in Spectrum (The Sydney Morning Herald/The Age), 6 October 2017