Written by James Barry
Barns Courtney is magnetic. He’s charming, intelligent, and undeniably talented. He can keep a crowd’s attention for a whole story, changing his voice to match different characters. He can make people cry with a song. He’s a natural performer. And he can give his whole attention to another’s story, and open his whole heart to another’s song. He’s the kind of personality people want to follow.
He’s played on some of the biggest stages in the world, opening for acts like The Who, Ed Sheeran, and Blur. He has seen the undeniable, awe-inspiring communal force of music, and he has witnessed firsthand the eerie similarities between cult and fandom.
Courtney has seen the fine line running between musician and messiah. He has observed the dangerous obsession of new age zealots, the brainwashing force of idolatry. It has moved him to seek guidance from shamans, to dive inside the acid pool of his past, to reflect on fame and the gravity of ego, and it has inspired him to craft an entire world around his forthcoming record.
While Courtney delivers a supercharged version of his signature, swaggering blend of pop and indie rock, a compelling narrative unfolds: A cult leader shepherds his flock of followers into a life of hedonism, into a never-ending chase of new sensations in a dystopia where oil companies are ancient ruling kingdoms. Inspired by his unique experiences, Courtney has blended his musical gifts with his knack for storytelling to take his work in a thrilling new direction.
Ahead of his show at the Stone Pony this Friday, I was able to chat with Courtney at a stop on his North American tour. We talked about the past few years of his life, about his forthcoming record, and about his relationships with music and fame. We dove into mimicry in music, the quest for authenticity, and Mick Jagger’s potential as a cult leader. And Courtney told some captivating stories about a spontaneous ayahuasca ritual in Los Angeles and the legendary wit of Oscar Wilde. Enjoy.
What’s the best new experience you’ve had in 2023?
I really had to learn a lot about producing my own records this year. I did a lot of production work on my own record with an engineer. So, it was good to learn that I can do it, that I’m capable. I produced most of my single, “Supernatural.” That was quite liberating, but it was very stressful.
I’ve done so many interesting things this year, I’m trying to remember. What the Hell have I done? What have I done with my life?
Was there any clear reason you got into production for the first time this year?
I think I was pushed by necessity. I usually make all of my records with this artist called LOOK MUM NO COMPUTER, who I’ve known since I was a teenager, but he is an incredible YouTube inventor of instruments. He makes these amazing organs out of 50 Furbies wired up together. So, he was just like, Bro, I don’t want to make music anymore. I just want to do this. We’ll still get together to write a song, but he doesn’t want to do a whole album.
How did producing the record change your relationship to the songs?
I took a fuck ton of Adderall, like so much Adderall. If anything, it was an anthropological experiment of the human condition. I gained a lot of empathy and understanding for people of different mindsets. When I used to meet people who were very to the point and not conversational, and not very charming, I used to sort of judge them. But after actually feeling like that myself on Adderall, I understand it’s not a deliberate slight, it’s an actual difference in brain chemistry. I didn’t want to talk to anybody. People would be like, How are you? How was your day? And in my head I was like, Shut the fuck up. Let’s do the work. I didn’t want to do anything other than exactly what was on the docket. But how did it change my relationship to the music? I already had a lot of respect for producers, but I gained even more respect for them.
I’ve also decided…Sometimes when I’m in the studio with LOOK MUM NO COMPUTER, we’ll make pieces of music just for the fun of making music. But I’ve decided I want the songs going in to be so undeniable on their own, whether they’re lyrically compelling or they’re melodically interesting. Before I even start on that shit, I want it to be so, so solid in itself.
So working in production has changed your process a bit?
I think so, but I really subscribe to that Rick Rubin idea that the process is ever-changing. The door to the land of inspiration is always moving. In my anecdotal experience, the moment you think you’ve found something that works is usually the moment it’s about to change. Creating for me is about consistently finding the present and finding a sense of openness and humility and understanding, and reminding yourself it does not come from you, it comes from somewhere else. You are lucky to be a conduit for it to channel through. And you would do well as a writer to try to strengthen the receptive abilities of your antenna, as opposed to thinking you’re the shit and you’re all that. I’m very agnostic, I don’t have any sort of specific beliefs, but in my time on this planet I’ve been humbled on an enormous number of occasions—in terms of my perceived understanding of the universe and the way it works. Time and time again, I’ve been completely shaken to the core of my belief system by numerous things. So, I’m just like, I don’t know fuckin’ know. Whatever works for the moment.
It’s an openness to any process, at any given time. So, perhaps one day, at one point in my life, it might be Adderall. I am extremely reticent to go back to that, because it is a terrible, terrible drug. It’s speed that you’re taking. I really felt like it irrevocably changed my brain chemistry. But it worked for me at the time. And I don’t know if “Supernatural” would have come out the way it did without it. I was able to hold enormous amounts of information in my head at once, and as we tried to work pieces out, I could keep a hold of the tether, of the golden thread to where we were going. But that doesn’t mean it’s the only process. I’ve had times where I’ve heard music in dreams. I’ve had times where I’ve written something while doing the laundry or I’ve sat down and really focused. The commonality is the muse comes to you when she decides to come. And her language is different every time.
Are you regularly listening to new music to expand your pool of inspiration?
I used to do that a lot more, and it was really helpful. And not even so much as the ideas necessarily—although that was a part of it. I think what really helped was the excitement of hearing something refreshing and thinking Wow! That’s so cool. And it makes you want to get on your guitar and try it out. There’s this band Glass Beams I’ve been listening to recently. They’re a sort of slightly more Indian take on Tame Impala, but it’s all instrumental. And that’s really cool. I’ve been enjoying that. And then there’s certain film music that really intrigues me. There’s a Japanese anime, I think it’s called Wolf Children. There’s a composition on there where the vocals are the quietest thing in the mix, and everything else is in the forefront, like a piano and a string section. And it gives this profound effect of nostalgia. It sounds like you’re straining to find a memory in the back of your head.
I read an interview where you said your first record was supposed to sound like a Kanye record, but it ended up sounding nothing like him.
(Laughing) It was supposed to be like a Kanye/Jack White record.
It made me think of an interview with the poet Dean Young, where he said, “I just try to copy as faithfully as possible, and the truth of the matter is I’m terrible at copying.”
That resonates deeply. That’s exactly what it is.
I’ve been really enjoying reading more poetry in my moments of clarity and self-discipline, when I can wrench myself away from the plastic pantomime of social media.
Young saw originality in poetry as analogous to originality in human beings as species, where it only arises from evolutionary mistakes—genetic mutations, mistakes which prove to be lasting adaptations.
I think so. Evolution can also be spontaneous; they’ve found in recent studies. They’re also studying genetic memory, which is really interesting. They’ve found that a mouse in a maze can take about a week to find a piece of cheese in the middle. And then its offspring will immediately know where to go. So that’s a fascinating part of our evolutionary story as well. And apparently, different emotions, felt with regularity during your lifetime, can activate different genes as well and pass on. They noticed Holocaust survivors had a marked uptick in depression in their offspring.
I think music may be embedded in the genetic memory, because humans respond to it without needing to learn it.
It must be, right? I’d be interested to see if sad music sounds sad across cultures—cultures perhaps that aren’t plugged into the main feed of Western society, tribal people with little contact with the outside world. I wonder if a sad song would sound sad to them.
They say something similar to that is true of color. Different colors have different associations and moods across different cultures.
I can see that. I like the idea, not that I know, but I like the idea that music might be universal for the human race. But it might not be.
I read that Oscar Wilde is an inspiration of yours.
I was wondering what they put in that press junk they sent out. I saw one and it looked very pretentious. There’s certainly no obvious semblance of Oscar Wilde’s works in my music.
I was thinking there might be. In your album, 404, there’s a longing for permanent youth running underneath the theme of nostalgia. It makes me think of Dorian Gray.
The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of my favorite books of all time. It certainly inspired the backstory of this forthcoming album. But I want the album to be digestible subjectively without having to know the full story. So, songs like my single, “Young in America,” there’s a lot that is clear just on the face of it. But the character I created for this record is very much inspired by Lord Henry’s creation of Dorian Gray. It’s a hedonistic obsession with new sensations. And it’s an exploration of myself as well. I have a career where you can really go down the rabbit hole of pleasure without any immediate consequences. And it takes you to very dark places, when you just do whatever the lizard brain says at any time. I think it was Epictetus who said something like, Pleasure becomes pain very quickly when you indulge in it.
The sensations are polar. Pain and pleasure are opposite ends of the same spectrum.
I really got that message when I did ayahuasca. I don’t know if anything I received during the experience has any basis in reality—I was on drugs, after all. But it did really try to drive this point home to me: that pleasure and pain are literally the same thing, which I struggled to comprehend with my tiny human brain.
Some people’s brains actually confuse the two sensations.
It’s interesting, isn’t it?
Tell me more about the ayahuasca trip.
I was meeting with a cartoonist to draw this cult leader character I created for the new album, and he bailed on the meeting. And I was sad, in all my fineries, at the Crossroads Café in LA. And my friend Danny called me up and said, We are going to do ayahuasca right now. And I just so happened to have been vegan and meditating everyday for the two weeks prior, so it just felt like the right moment to go. So I walk up to this yurt in a full white leather outfit with sunglasses on, looking like the shining beacon of capitalism—resplendent in my draperies and my ego as I walked through this camp of hippies. It was probably one of the most uncomfortable and profoundly beneficial experiences I’ve had in my entire life.
You’re supposed to ask a question when you go in, and I asked, How can I be more authentic? And it really, really took me for a ride. You feel like you’re speaking to an actual entity. But it feels as though the truths are too enormous, they’re beyond your cognitive capacity. So it’s as if your brain is dipped in an ocean of information, and then you come out the other end, your brain is lifted from the water, and what tiny, microscopic droplets sift through the cracks are what you get to keep. But in the moment, you understand it all, not being able to articulate it even to yourself. But you have a sense of it.
This question of authenticity, it took me through all of the major traumas in my life. And then it told me, You will never be hurt like this again, because you have erected this wall here. And it showed me this metal wall chained to my chakras at various points. No one will ever hurt you like that again, but, by the same token, you will never be able to connect to anyone with your true self, because walls work two ways. And then it showed me an image of my arms outstretched as far as they would go, holding my heart in my hands, reaching with all my might. And it said, This is how you must live your life, if you want to live authentically and connect authentically: fully in the knowledge that someone can take advantage of this openness, this vulnerability. As you may receive these lashes across your heart, you also open yourself up to receive and to give tremendous love. And that’s when it explained how pain and pleasure were the same thing, which I could not explain to you now with my limited human intellect.
Were the songs that came after this experience totally different from the ones that came before it? Did it radically change your writing? Or change you as a person?
I wished I had focused more on my career, perhaps (laughs). It was a profound change. It was bizarre. I took a day to recover in Palm Springs, and then I got a taxi back to LA because I had a studio session. And I sat behind the most stereotypical example of traditional masculinity I’ve ever met in my life. This enormous, towering, hairy gentleman, covered in chains and a massive beard and muscular arms. And I was exhausted, I didn’t want to talk to him, so I sat behind him. It felt viscerally and palpably as though my heart had been so opened that there was a field of energy around me that connected to him.
And, suddenly, out of nowhere, with zero small talk, he began telling me some of the most personal details of his life that he hadn’t thought about for 25 years—about he and his father going to Turkish prison, being tortured, his regrets for not staying there even though his mother told him to flee, how his father died in prison, how his mother still calls him every week and sings the lullabies she used to sing to him when he was young. And we were bawling together, out of nowhere. Out of nothing! As if we had known each other for decades and we were going out for a night of heavy drinking in a secluded section of the bar. It was bizarre. And the man said to me on the other end of it, I don’t know why I decided to speak to you about these things. I’ve never spoken to anyone about these things. And that continued for a while. It was beautiful to be connected to the world in such a way. I would openly weep at things I suppose we’ve been conditioned not to, to the point where we don’t even feel them anymore. I remember a woman playing me a song she had written, and I wept. It was so beautiful! I would fall in love much more easily with beautiful souls. And I would cry when we had lovely conversations. And as lame as that is, and as much as people in our society look down upon you for that kind of behavior, it was a wonderful way to live a life. It felt like someone had turned on the color. But old habits die hard, and I slipped back into my learned way of existing on this planet. Now I’m emotionally welled up again, like a real man.
That willingness to weep openly, that sounds like authenticity. So it seems you did gain what you were seeking from the trip, but it faded away with time.
I personally, and I imagine a lot of the human race, have been so conditioned not to weep, that I didn’t even feel that kind of emotion from a beautiful song. I’d feel something, but it wasn’t even close to that. It wasn’t even like I was holding back tears prior. So deeply were they chained inside of me, I wouldn’t even have the thought to hold them back.
If that’s the case, then what led you to ask the ayahuasca how to be more authentic?
First of all, I admire and enjoy people who are totally, unapologetically, and unashamedly themselves. People who are plugged into reality, and very present. Secondly, as a performer, a lot of what I do is not fake, but it is a performance. And sometimes, when you do that for a long time, you can get lost in the character you create. Currently I feel like none of us really have personalities. We’re just kind of these charm bracelets of characteristics we picked up subconsciously or otherwise to serve our egos, which are important because they’re our avatars for this plane of reality. But I do feel as though we are this nebulous, blank, vanilla consciousness wandering about, without any of this. I felt like I got a little bit lost in the character I built, that I’ve been playing over the years. And as somebody who has ADD as well, I often feel like I’m not engaging people properly because my eyes are always darting around, and I’ve got a million thoughts in my head. I feel so much happier when I’m really plugged in to somebody. We all are, probably, when you can put the walls down and be free. We’re attracted to traits we want to see in ourselves. And when you see an Aurora, or a Miley Cyrus or a Cardi B, people who appear to be weird and wonderful without any reservations, it’s extremely attractive. Not sensually, you understand. In a wholesome, lovely way.
Oscar Wilde was certainly one of those authentic, unashamed individuals.
That’s one of my favorite people from history, Oscar Wilde. He almost had cinematic superpowers in his abilities to articulate, in his witticisms, just an incredible individual. He was so intelligent, when he was doing his interview to get into Oxford, they wanted to test his Latin abilities, so he was reading the Bible and translating directly into English from the Latin text. And they said (Courtney gets into character), That’s enough, Mr. Wilde. And he kept on reading. Mr. Wilde, that’s enough! He keeps on reading. Mr. Wilde, will you stop?!
And he goes, Oh please let me continue, I’m dying to know how it ends. There are so many great stories. He was famously homosexual, and I myself am not, but I’m very enamored by anyone who can do their own thing in the face of adversity. They sent an entire rugby team to go beat him up—to beat the gayness out of him. But he was an enormous man, towered above everyone around him. And he stood at the top of the stairs in his home, and as the rugby players were charging up the stairs, he picked the first one up and threw him at the others, knocking them all down like bowling pins. And he stood there with his hand on his hips and said (Courtney gets into character again), Well I think that’s quite enough of that game, don’t you boys? Now, if you’d like to accompany me to the drawing room, I shall make you anchovy toast with butter and read you stories. And he was such a charismatic individual, this group of thugs sat crisscross apple applesauce on his rug and listened to him tell stories.
Can you tell me more about this cult leader character you’ve created?
I was thinking about the interesting number of parallels between cults and band culture. They’re almost one and the same, minus a few key points. There’s usually a dress code. There’s usually a specific rhetoric and manifesto. People come to concerts to be liberated, to find some truth or escapism, similar to cults. The leaders, the band, are idolized. There’s often specific insignias and iconography. And I thought that was an interesting subject matter to play with. I thought to myself, I suppose I am myself attempting to be a cult leader, minus the Kool-Aid. So I thought, why don’t I write a little story about a cult leader? And build an album around that.
I was quite bored of Barns Courtney at the time. I talk about myself a lot, in interviews, in meet and greets. And I’m grateful people still like my music, but sometimes I feel like starting all over again. So this was my way of injecting a bit of excitement back into the project. I was inspired by Tolkien’s Silmarillion. He compiled an enormous amount of information about every part of the world he was building, so when he wrote the books, all of the choices he made would feel like they were coming from a real place, like they had a foot in reality somewhere. And I liked that. It’s been extremely helpful in designing my merchandise. The crossed fingers and the pentagram, because the cult leader feels he’s been imbued with the Devil’s own luck. And the idea to put cobras on the merch, because oil companies have become deified. Their mascots wield their sigils in battle. A vague memory of their power still exists, although exactly what that power was no one knows. And the oil company the cult leader stumbles across is Cobra Industries, so I have a vaguely oil company looking snake on everything. And it made the songwriting more exciting as well. Ultimately, every writer is writing about himself, so a lot of the songs end up being very personal anyway. But it was a nice angle to approach something that had grown a little tired.
There is a kind of unimaginable charisma these cult leaders possess. It may even go beyond the charisma of the biggest artists. I’m amazed by what these leaders are able to convince other people to do.
The great artists among us, and of history, I think possess the same charisma. I think, had they wanted to, people like David Bowie and Mick Jagger and Freddie Mercury could have created cults quite successfully around themselves. There’s a whole host of musicians and singers who abuse their celebrity for very dark means. Think about the singer from Lost Prophets and all the horrible child abuse he was able to carry out. When you achieve a certain degree of fame, there are people out there who will literally do anything for you, regardless of how disgraceful and abhorrent those requests are. People get caught up in the fervor of the myth you’ve created around yourself.
I’m definitely an international Z-list celebrity. So I don’t have droves of these people, but there are people who think all kinds of crazy things about me that I try to dissuade them from. There are people who think I’m an angel that’s healing them. There are people who literally bow to me. And I don’t encourage this type of behavior, I actively try to discourage it. But there are some nutty people out there. Somebody asked me as a meet and greet yesterday if I could see into the future, and how I dealt with it. Of course, for each one of those people, there are 50 beautiful, genuine people. But the more strongly you experience super-fandom, the more likely something is wrong, whether it’s a void you’re trying to fill or it’s a wayward part of your brain that’s lying to you about the significance of a pop singer.