Barnaby George “Barns” Courtney is an English born singer songwriter by way of Seattle who by the age of 26 has experience more heartbreak in the music industry than some do over their entire careers. As a teenager, he formed the band SleeperCell which competed on the popular UK show Orange Unsigned Act. He later formed the popular indie punk band Dive Bella Dive, quickly garnering attention in the UK which lead to a record deal with Island Records. After 3 years of essentially getting nowhere, that deal came crashing down as the band was dropped without releasing a single album. Barns would go on to sleep on friends’ couches and even worked at a PC store directly across the street from Island Record’s London headquarters. Using that heartache as motivation, Barns continued to pursue his musical career, this time as a solo artist and before landing a near miracle second chance deal with Virgin Records. Ahead of his first full length album he also recently released an EP titled The Dull Drums, which includes hit single “Fire” and “Glitter & Gold”, both of which refer to his early setbacks within the music industry. He’s also making numerous appearances at festivals and headlining gigs across the US this summer and into the fall. I got the chance to talk about some of that heartache and pain, his favorite festivals and where the future lies.
Kyle Taylor (MEB): How happy are you to be playing music again, given your tumultuous period after splitting from your first record deal?
Barns Courtney: What a ridiculous vocation to be able to do, to do able to live your dream and just do what you love every day.
MEB: Your latest single, “Fire”, is about that messy split and you being back to square one, correct? Courtney: Absolutely
MEB: How awesome is it to perform that song live in front of paying fans?
Courtney: It’s f**king crazy. When I wrote that song, I wrote the first verse about the struggle. And then, I wrote then second verse, imaging in my bedroom, what it would be like to finally quiet all of the voices and doubts, playing in front of thousands of people. I wrote a line in there,
“Oh, a thousand faces staring at me
Thousand times I’ve fallen
Thousand voices dead at my feet”
And then I’m actually looking at a thousand people and thinking, oh my god, I can’t believe I pulled this off.
MEB: Did you honestly believe you’d get another chance, after getting dropped the first time? That doesn’t always come back around for young artists like yourself?
Courtney: I was so desperately unhappy about not making music. That was the real driving force. I was just so medically, hopelessly depressed, not being able to do this every day. But for the life of me, I couldn’t stop trying. Even when all my friends graduated university. Even when other people were trying to tie me down. My girlfriend was trying to find me other work, trying to get me to quit. I couldn’t stop. Even now, if I lost it another deal, for the third time, I couldn’t help myself but to keep going.
MEB: Did you ever take a moment to think about what you would do outside of music?
Courtney: I love to perform, so it was either music or acting, just being honest. I couldn’t be anything else. I would spend the rest of my life working shitty jobs just to facilitate becoming one or the other.
MEB: Kudos my man. That’s such a tough thing to do.
Courtney: It’s just a disposition, you know? I don’t even feel like it’s anything too grave. There’s just something inside me that won’t let up. I just can’t stop doing it, otherwise I get so down, so depressed.
MEB: I will go ahead and say that getting dropped by your last record label was a blessing in disguise. Would you agree that your music is better today, because of this?
Courtney: That experience gave me something real, some to tell a story about. Before that I was just this kid writing about nothing, and I’m so grateful for that time. People underestimate the power of failure. There’s a lot of energy, resolve, strength, and fire when you hit the lowest point, and I found that there. People connect to real emotions. If you can accurately portray truth, people appreciate that. So, I’m very lucky in a lot of ways that I got dropped.
MEB: Was there an “aha” moment when you realized you were back, that you were going to be able to make music for people again?
Courtney: I was just so hopelessly depressed when I lost that first deal. I spent 3 years in this band, waiting for our album to get dropped. They didn’t even release the record. That was so disheartening. It was just gone in a day. Everything I had. My whole life had been this progression, from battle of the bans, to TV shows, to getting signed by a record label. It was the first time in my life I experienced real, crippling failure. All of a sudden I was homeless. I had no money. I had no qualifications. So when I hit that point you’re talking about, that aha moment… I mean, I was in the record label with a pen in my hand, a bottle of champagne signing this record deal. This second time around I was more depressed than that whole journey. I couldn’t speak to anyone. It was so visceral. We went out to a big dinner with management and I just couldn’t.
MEB: Just to be clear, this was the second time around, based off your experiences with the first record deal?
Courtney: Yes. I couldn’t speak to anybody because I was so in shock, and so terrified that it would all just fall apart around me, that I’d have to go through with that again. It took me a solid year to get to a position where I could just relax, a place where I could say, okay, I think I can do this for a living and its not going to get taken away from me.
MEB: Well I appreciate you continuing to fight, because I love the music you’ve been making recently. I actually just found out about you last year when you were touring with Fitz and the Tantrums. How was that experience?
Courtney: I didn’t know them at all. That tour was put together through my agent. But they (Fitz and the Tantrums) go so far out of their way to be friendly. They come into the dressing room and start dancing. They just burst in at random moments. The made sure that I had their phone numbers and such. Just above and beyond typical professionalism. It makes a real difference, because I’ve done tours where the headlining act doesn’t even speak to you and its awkward. I have a lot of genuine love for those people. They’re very warm hearted and good souls.
MEB: You’ve been doing a lot of festivals this summer, as well as a few headlining gigs here and there. Do you have a preference?
Courtney: They’re apples and oranges. They’re very different performances. I love festivals particularly. At headlining gigs, everybody knows your music. Now you can build the set much higher, but the sense of satisfaction isn’t always there. When you have to work to win over a crowd, it’s an amazing feeling. You go out there, and it’s just dead pan faces. Then you can see a couple of people start to get into it. And then there’s that moment in the set where it just comes together. I did it.
MEB: What’s your favorite festival?
Courtney: So far, Hangout Festival has been unequivocally, hands down, my favorite festival I’ve been to in my entire life. The artist area is insane. Swimming pools. I watched Phoenix in a swimming pool, surrounded by naked girls. Fireworks going off. I’m dancing my ass off.
MEB: What a blast! Alright, so last question. Where are you going to be 5 years from now?
Courtney: If anything, I just want to be in a place where I can discipline myself to the extent that my idols do. Mick Jagger he works out and runs for like an hour a day. He does yoga. I want to be in a place where I feel like I’m putting the work in that the greats put in. It’s my belief that anybody can do whatever they want. It’s just how successful they become at it. If you want to be as big as the Rolling Stones, you can get it, you just have to work your ass off. So it’s my hope that in 5 years, I’ve learned that level of self discipline, because right now, I’m playing a lot of video games.
MEB: Do you workout or run, or anything like that?
Courtney: No! I don’t do any of that, at all. It sucks because I’ll be on stage and wanna do shit, but I’ll be so out of breath.