Food & Culture

Courtney Barnett: how I eat

The Melbourne musician on pizza delivery, her addiction to two-minute noodles and making Obama’s playlist.

By Lee Tran Lam
Photo: Mia Mala McDonald
What kind of food do you eat when you're on the road?
Yesterday, I ate a burrito from a 24-hour burrito restaurant. I eat mostly vegetarian. I love vegetables and often there are no vegetables or salads. I'd be happy with a big plate of broccoli, but I find myself eating hot chips a lot as a substitute. It takes a bit of extra effort to eat well and find out where the good places are. A lot of the time, I don't like to eat before I play, because I get too nervous, so I find myself not having dinner until one or two o'clock in the morning when we finish playing. Obviously, by then, everything is closed and the only option is a Domino's.
You used to deliver pizzas. What was that like?
I really liked it. It was fun. I'd get to drive around in my car and listen to the radio. I probably drove back to the shop a bit slower than I needed to. On my first night, I became lost – this was before iPhones, and I didn't have a road map. There was one place I went to that was like a scene from a horror movie with a flickering fluoro light and blood on the staircase. I was young, and by myself, so I was really scared. But otherwise, it was great – people give you tips.
You started playing music at age 10. How did you first get your hands on a guitar?
It was tricky. I kept asking for one, but they're expensive, and I had to borrow them off family, friends or neighbours. I had a next-door neighbour who had a guitar and he'd sometimes let me borrow it for a day or two. A family friend gave me a long-term loan of a half-broken guitar and I learnt on that. After I proved to my parents that it wasn't just a phase that I was going through, we combined a couple of Christmas and birthday presents over the years and I got one.
Photo: Pooneh Ghana
Your first gigs were open-mic nights in Hobart. What helped with your nerves in those early appearances?
I've always been a nervous performer. I get better the more I do it, and overcoming that challenge is quite satisfying. I did my first open-mic night in front of friends, but sometimes that can be more nerve-racking than playing to strangers. I just kept on persevering.
Prior to your first American tour, you'd never left Australia. What's it like now to travel the world playing sell-out shows?
It's great. I consider myself incredibly lucky to be able to travel. In the last few years, I've been to so many places that I never thought I would go to. You know after school, when people would do gap years and goackpacking? I didn't do that. I already had a job and went to university. Travelling seemed like such a far-off thing.
What was it like discovering you'd made President Obama's summer playlist?
It just popped up in my social media feed – just a news article about it. I think he's incredible so it's very flattering. And I would love to believe that it was him that put the playlist together. If he does listen to my music, I'm incredibly honoured.
Is food something you think about a lot?
I have a lot of songs about food. It's just there in our lives, and in a way, our days revolve around it. It's one of those topics that's always on people's minds.
You started the award-winning Milk! Records label with help from your grandmother. Did you have a strong musical relationship with her?
A little bit. My grandmother was more into jazz and she enjoys a lot of classical music, so we'd talk about that.
Photo: Ian Laidlaw
You run the label with your long-term partner, musician Jen Cloher. Years before your relationship, though, when you were in high school, you saw her play at Falls Festival and yelled out "will you marry me?"
I did do that. I was a fan and I was excited. She's incredible and has now taken over as label manager. She's super busy, writing her own songs. She's an inspiring person.
Now you're an award-winning musician with international hit records. What kept you going when success seemed far
away?

I didn't think there was another option. Music is what I like doing. I wasn't really thinking about "success" success. I wanted people to hear the songs I was singing. But every day is another step in some direction. So I just kept moving forward.
You once wrote a song called "Three Packs a Day" about your addiction to two-minute noodles. How's your relationship with instant ramen these days?
It's like a special treat, which I have every now and then.
SHAREPIN
  • Author: Lee Tran Lam