Orange Unsigned, the gain and loss of a major record deal, homelessness, viral success, another record deal and now about to release his debut album; get to know Barns Courtney…
There isn’t a musician in existence who hasn’t experienced both highs and lows of the music industry, but it’s fair to say that Barns Courtney has had both at quite extreme levels. Having just flown over to the UK from LA where he filmed the video for his recent track ‘Kicks’, we spoke to Barns Courtney to get the lowdown on his vastly interesting and hectic life over the past ten years as he determinedly paved his way through the music industry.
This week he has kicked off his UK tour in the run-up to the release of his debut album The Attractions of Youth, which included a performance with #GiveAHome, a massive string of events put on by Sofar Sounds and Amnesty International, on the 20th in aid of the Refuge Crisis. Seeing 1000 musicians playing 300 shows across people’s homes and offices around the world in over 200 cities. “It helps when we all work together, we work better as a global community rather than as individuals, which is the same with this refuge crisis,” Barns explains.
Barns is no stranger himself to the benefits of people working together, having spent some time sofa surfing from place to place, “I can remember getting a phone call and having to move all my stuff out of the house and being stood with these three suitcases, phoning everyone on my contacts list for a sofa to stay on,” he reveals, adding “being dropped from the label was a low point, that lead to some very dark times.”
Formerly of the band Dive Bella Dive, a band which was signed to Island Records, but then were dropped before they had the opportunity to release the album that they’d been working so hard on, Dive Bella Dive came to an unfortunate end, with the members not being able to afford to rent the band house anymore and with contractual agreements meaning that they couldn’t release any of the material that they’d recorded for the album. This lead to Barns’ aforementioned period of sofa surfing, a time that has massively inspired and influenced the music for his upcoming debut LP.
“I was so poor myself and down and out for the writing process of this record that I started to feel that I was living the life, like a beggar prince, like I’d cracked the code to living for free” Barns explains.
“I was living off 5 pounds a day and having a lot of fun doing it”
What many may not realise, however, is that the rise and fall of Dive Bella Dive wasn’t even the beginning for Barns, as he first appeared on Channel 4’s ‘Orange Unsigned’ as part of the band, Sleepercell. “It was a really challenging time, we were only like 17/18 at the time, they were my high school friends,” Barns reveals, “I wish I was still friends with them, I think the judges singled me out and tried to make the band all about me.” Something his bandmate Kyle did not appreciate: “He wanted to sing more, but I was only singing, I didn’t play guitar or anything so it was kind of awkward” Courtney explains, pausing for a moment, before reflecting back: “Looking back now as a 26-year-old man I can see that was a lot for someone that age to have to hear that ‘no, this isn’t about you, it’s more about this other guy’”.
Now, Barns Courtney is quickly gaining success in his own right as a solo artist, ‘Glitter and Gold’ and ‘Fire’ gained rapid success virally, despite little to no planned promotion, “it was a bit of a weird process” he explains, regarding ‘Glitter and Gold’, “it just kind of got taken out of my hands and the next thing I knew it was on these American radio shows.”
‘Fire’ was then featured on Bradley Cooper’s film ‘Burnt’, leading to it reaching number one on the Spotify Viral chart, “but really” Barns explains, “the first single that we’ve actually planned out with promotion will be Gold Dandelion, so it’ll be interesting to see how that goes down, we were caught off guard by the other stuff.”
Now has his second record deal under his belt – this time with Virgin/Capitol – but despite this, Barns doesn’t think that major record labels are changing with the times as much as they could do. “Look at people like Chance The Rapper who built an infrastructure around himself. A lot of parts of record deals that cost money – like distribution – don’t exist anymore, people don’t make CDs like they used to” Barns comments.
“I think major record labels are going to have to change quite dramatically to keep up with the times, else it’s going to be a much more management based structure.”
Speaking of the decline of CDs leads Barns onto vinyl, “It makes sense that vinyl has had a resurgence. If you’re going to go out and buy a physical product then you’re not doing that for convenience, when you can stream something immediately to your phone, you’re buying a physical product for the novelty.”
The Attractions of Youth, his upcoming LP, will not only be released on vinyl, but Barns actually dropped two tracks (‘Dopamine’ and ‘Sinners’) off the album, so that the album would fit together as an entire piece of music.
In terms of the remaining tracks, Barns turned to his 14-year-old brother for a helping hand. “He’s a wonder child who would rather be listening to Marshmello and has never heard of Elton John” Barns laughs. “I just wanted an objective opinion from someone who wasn’t even necessarily into the genre who could look at the songs with face value.” It turns out it was quite an easy task for Barns’ brother, apparently rather bluntly telling Barns which songs sounded too similar and should, therefore, be dropped… he also chose the order of tracks, too!
“This record, so much of it was recorded on the road. I really enjoyed that manic process and I really wanted to give my listeners that feeling of being on the road with me so I recorded a lot of people that I met along the way particularly homeless people,” Barns tells us, speaking of a guy he met in Montreal who spoke to him in French for two minutes, which is now to be a ‘hidden’ track on the album.
“It’s an album about struggle, drive, and passion… losing my record deal and being very poor was a massive catalyst, but in retrospect, it could have been the best things that ever happened to me.”
Now, fresh from mega sets at Reading and Leeds festival, which saw Barns pull in hefty crowds at a very early time of day, Barns is set to complete a string of dates, before Attractions of Youth is released next Friday.