Avant Gardener's World (ha!)
“How do I do that? I’ve never used Skype.” Courtney Barnett is struggling with the camera on her laptop. I can hear her but unfortunately I can’t see anything other than a static avatar of her smiling face and checked shirt. I’m tired and hungover and so I concede that video might not be the best idea anyway. Plus, I admit, I’d rather not be subjected to the backdrop of the sunny Melbourne evening she describes as the rain teems down in London. Besides, given that the self-portrait she puts forward on Slacker mea culpa ‘Are You Looking After Yourself?’ isn’t exactly one that embraces technology (“My TV, it stopped working when we got here / It’s been four years”), I choose to see the fact that we’re having this conversation at all as somewhat of a triumph.
Though I can’t see her face, Courtney seems to speak with a perpetual crease at the corner of her lips. It’s no exaggeration to say that I can, quite audibly, hear her smile as she chats about her new life as a rising star. “I got back from overseas like three days ago and I’ve just been catching up on work. After this I’m going to a party. I’ve got a friend sitting out in my garden. It’s my birthday tomorrow. So I’m just ready to – you know – have some fun.”
Having dismissed the idea of a record deal early on, Barnett took things into her own hands by creating Milk! Records. “I didn’t really think about it, to be honest, when I started it. I had no idea of the music industry and I just assumed that getting a record deal, in inverted commas, was quite a far-out concept, so I didn’t even consider it.” By distilling the notion down to its simplest form, it became clear that she could take on a lot of the work herself. “I was like, ‘Well, what is a record label?’ A record label is just a middle man to get your music to people.” Not only that, but she feels that if the music is reaching the people who care the most then her job is a successful one. “I was playing a shitload of gigs at the time and I prefer my music to go to people who are nice and enjoy the music, who come to the shows and tell me that they’re interested and they want to buy the CDs. I’d prefer for those people to buy the records than a hundred other random people who probably don’t give a shit. I was kind of going for quality over quantity and I figured I could just do that myself. It just kind of grew from there. I thought, ‘I can just do this. I can do my own artwork and post CDs out to people.’”
While she admittedly stumbled into the business, the 25-year-old isn’t content with releasing only her own music through the imprint. “We’ve got a few other bands at the moment and I reckon we’re gonna branch out and get a distribution deal or something. Which is something that I never even knew about before. We’re gonna keep the same general idea in progress.” She’s pretty confident in her roster and one of Barnett’s lyrics goes, “My friends play in bands / they are better than everything on radio.” I have to ask: are they? “Yeah, I reckon! I’ve got heaps of friends who play music and they’re great. It’s a very broad statement, but there’s lots of shit on the radio and there’s lots of bands who get famous because they have a lot of money. There’s also a lot of really great bands on the radio so whatever. But it’s a bit of a tongue in cheek comment saying that my friends make cool music as well.”