“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” Australian rocker Courtney Barnett declares with a playful sneer in “Pedestrian at Best,” a track from her debut album that heralds the arrival of a new “it-kid” in popular music — even as Barnett instinctively hedges her bets against such next-big-thing expectations.
When Barnett made her first visit to Austin last fall for shows at the Belmont and Fun Fun Fun Fest, she’d released only two EPs but was already getting lots of press, with outlets ranging from The Guardian to Huffington Post to The New York Times touting her as “slacker rock” in headlines. It’s not necessarily an accurate tag for an artist in her mid-20s who’s worked relentlessly to get her music out into the world.
Take, for example, her appearances at South by Southwest a few months ago. In a three-day visit, she was omnipresent, playing NPR’s major official showcase at Stubb’s, day parties for print and online media outlets such as Spin and Pitchfork, an event sponsored by social networking platform Tumblr and more. SXSW attendees responded in kind to her whirlwind of activity, awarding her the event’s prestigious Grulke Prize for Developing Non-U.S. Act.
Those are pretty significant props for a supposed slacker. “It’s been pretty hectic,” Barnett agrees about her schedule lately, speaking by phone as she prepared to return to Austin for a live streamed taping of “Austin City Limits” on Thursday followed by a sold-out show Friday at the Mohawk.
“One of my friends said to me the other day that I’m the busiest lazy person they know, and it’s kind of true,” she said. “I’m kind of lazy in the head, but there’s been a lot happening in the last year and a half, so I’m always working on something. I don’t really lay dormant for too long.”
A week after her SXSW onslaught, Barnett’s first album, the unassumingly titled “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit,” was released via Mom + Pop Music to widespread acclaim and a strong chart debut, hitting No. 20 on the Billboard 200. It’s an auspicious achievement for an artist who initially self-released two EPs because “I just didn’t have enough money to make an album,” she says. “I wanted to release something at the start, but I only had a small amount of time to do it, because I was working in a bar then.”
After stints with Melbourne indie bands Rapid Transit and Immigrant Union, Barnett put out her first EP, “I’ve Got a Friend in Emily Ferris,” in 2012 on her own Milk! Records imprint and quickly followed it with a second EP, “How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose.” Mom + Pop, a tastemaking New York indie with major distribution, gave the EPs wider release in 2013 via the repackaged twofer set “A Sea of Split Peas.”
Though she’s getting a lot of high-profile festival opportunities now — she played Coachella last year, and this summer’s docket includes stops at Bonnaroo, the Newport Folk Festival and Sweden’s Way Out West — Barnett lately has preferred to keep her performances pared down to a raw trio, with drummer Dave Mudie and bassist/backing vocalist Bones Sloane.
“I love doing the three-piece right now,” she says, “although when I started out, one of the first formations was five people. Different players bring different things to the songs. I don’t think there’s, like, a set way. I like having the flexibility to have anyone on board with me; I can just decide what’s good for an album or tour or whatever.”
That preference for flexibility extends to the songs themselves. Barnett sought out conditions that favored spontaneity when she recorded “Sometimes I Sit and Think,” and she seeks a similar spark of immediacy onstage as well — even if it means her songs evolve from the recorded versions.
“They can always listen to the record,” she says of fans who might expect more strict readings. “When I go listen to music, I respect the artists and the musical journey that they’re on. You don’t want to play songs the same way forever. You grow as a musician and your voice grows, and you add different things in, depending on where you are. That’s the beauty of it … I think music should have that fluidity and be able to change.”
Courtney Barnett in Austin
Thursday: 8 p.m. taping of “Austin City Limits” at ACL Live, 310 Willie Nelson Blvd.; acl-live.com. All tickets have been distributed; the performance will stream live on the AustinCityLimitsTV YouTube channel.
Friday: With Chastity Belt and Darren Hanlon. 8 p.m. doors at the Mohawk (outdoor stage), 912 Red River St. Technically sold out; mohawkaustin.com