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The Musical Influence Behind Courtney Barnett’s Guitar Style

by Madonna

While Courtney Barnett’s candid and unfiltered songwriting often takes the spotlight, her unique brand of indie rock is significantly shaped by her guitar work. From the haunting twangs in ‘Kim’s Caravan’ to the gentle strums in ‘An Illustration of Loneliness (Sleepless in New York)’, Barnett’s guitar playing is far from static; it adapts to the emotional nuances of each song.

This dynamic approach to the guitar owes much to the influence of another Australian musician, Rowland S. Howard, a member of The Birthday Party. Barnett’s introduction to Howard’s distinct style left an indelible mark on her own playing. In an interview with Pitchfork, she reminisced, “I think when I started listening to Nick Cave and then started researching all the other bands [in that circle], I really loved the song ‘Shivers’ that The Birthday Party did.” Barnett’s appreciation for Howard’s work even led her to cover ‘Shivers’ in 2015.

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It was the revelation that Howard had written ‘Shivers’ that deepened Barnett’s admiration for him, particularly a song he penned called ‘Exit Everything’. In this epic and eerie track, Howard’s haunting lyrics, “This is a warning, a gun to the head thing, this is a sign, a don’t get out of bed thing,” intertwine with instinctive guitar tones, veering more into the realm of dark post-punk. Although different from Barnett’s style, ‘Exit Everything’ undeniably served as a wellspring of inspiration.

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Enthralled by ‘Shivers’ and ‘Exit Everything’, Barnett embarked on a quest to explore more of Howard’s catalog. “And then I bought Pop Crimes and then I bought Teenage Snuff Film, so really I just picked a song,” she recounted. “‘Exit Everything’ is a great song,” Barnett continued, “But I really love everything, I love those two records. It’s just got an amazing bass groove, it’s kind of entrancing.”

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Immersed in ‘Exit Everything’ and the broader musical world surrounding Rowland S. Howard, Barnett unearthed a new guitar-playing style that would significantly influence her own. She was particularly drawn to Howard’s ability to channel the song’s “energy” rather than obsessing over perfection in vocals or guitar notes. According to Barnett, their approach was “more about harnessing the essence of the song or the room or whatever. I think it was pretty important for me, for that kind of stuff.”

This transformation is palpable in Barnett’s musical output, especially in her live performances. Handling her guitar with a natural ease, the beauty of her live shows arises from their ephemeral, unscripted quality. She doesn’t fixate on flawless execution but instead allows herself to be immersed in her songs, inviting the audience to share in her genuine emotional journey. It’s the perfect complement to her poetic and unvarnished storytelling.

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