Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile’s Joint Album is A Catalogue Of Shared Jokes

“It’s nice when it happens naturally”

by Eve Barlow

“I love you, Court,” says Kurt Vile, onstage headlining the Desert Daze festival in Joshua Tree, California. The Philadelphian singer-songwriter is teeing up the crowd before playing a song called "Over Everything," which is the reason he and “Court” (aka Courtney Barnett) are even here. He wrote it with the Australian troubadour in mind, thinking it would be neat if she sang on it. She thought that idea was pretty neat too. So they made it happen. The story of their joint album, Lotta Sea Lice, is very like this—haphazard, spurned by mutual affection, pretty much effortless. It was released earlier this month. The pair has never celebrated an album release with another person before. “It's way less pressure,” says Vile. “It's just… nice.”

Desert Daze was also the first time Barnett headlined a festival. As a performer who has a predisposition for nerves, she seems at her absolute chillest in advance of the show, backstage in their joint dressing room. “Can we swap 'Dead Fox' for 'Avant Gardener'?” she asks Vile, prepping the setlist while kicking back on the carpet. Vile doesn't communicate with Barnett in words, just funny sounds. Their friendship seems to have graduated beyond spoken English, like all best friendships do. When they stand up and turn to leave the room, they're almost indistinguishable from behind. They wear matching plaid shirts and denim jeans, topped with shaggy long curls.

This is the third show the duo has played together so far, beginning their joint tour journey in San Francisco, opening for Lucinda Williams which was “pretty cool,” according to Barnett. As well as playing songs from the brand-new collaborative LP, they're also running through a repertoire of each other's deep cuts and singles. “Just the hits!” laughs Vile. “Only the hits,” parrots Barnett. They look at each other, goofily.

The record came about almost like a pen pal exchange. “I think we met through friends, Kurt's got Melbourne friends,” offers Barnett, vaguely recalling where this fromance (friend-romance, anybody?) began. It was at a show, and it wasn't instantaneous. “She was shy,” says Vile. “And so was I... in a different way. But I thought she was cool.” Barnett gave Vile a copy of her album (2015's Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit). She was already a massive fan of his 2011 masterpiece Smoke Ring For My Halo. She bought it one day when going into her local record store in Perth with a broken heart. The salesperson sang its praises and she took it home and wound up falling in love to her now-wife Jen Cloher (also a songwriter, whose track "Fear Is Like A Forest" is one of the songs the pair cover on this LP) to its meandering slacker lullabies.

“I remember I wrote Courtney a message saying something like, 'I feel like we're friends even though we don't know each other,'” Vile says. “And then I didn't hear from her for about a week!”

Barnett looks at him apologetically, and Vile continues, “I thought, I shouldn't have said that! It's cheesy.” 

Even today, the pair clam up when asked to comment on what they love so much about each other's songwriting. “She's just… got a pretty voice and stuff,” laughs Vile. “She's real. You know?”

While the email exchange was slow, it was also steady, and eventually when Vile had a string of dates out in Australia last year, they holed up in a studio for a few days and “smashed” the songs out with the help of a stellar cast of players, including Warpaint's drummer Stella Mozgawa and Jim White and Mick Turner of The Dirty Three. None of the tracks are written together; Barnett contributes two originals in "Let It Go" and "On Script," whereas Vile wrote three including the two singles ("Over Everything" and "Continental Breakfast"). Beyond the Cloher cover, they reimagine their favorites of each other's songs; Barnett taking a stab at Vile's "Peepin' Tom," and Vile redoing Barnett's "Outta the Woodwork." It ends in "Untogether," their version of Tanya Donnelly's song with her '90s band Belly. Vile's the fan there, but he turned Barnett onto her too. There's been a lot of passing recommendations back and forth.

While the exercise has been a passion project that's motivated entirely by joy, it also came with nervous energy, pushing them both to experience what it's like to showcase work to someone outside of their own solo artist space. “Once I'm in the studio, there's a moment when my head's gonna explode because I have to deliver a song and show it to someone else,” recalls Vile. “I can never loud and proud sing a song to somebody for the first time.” The effect on each other's writing was positive, though. “We picked bits of conversations we had and turned them into lyrics,” says Barnett. “I was writing at home thinking, Would Kurt like this?

For Barnett, in particular, the project was a welcome procrastination, letting some pressure out the valve while she also had to think about what her second album was going to look like after a mind-blowing run around the world on her debut. She claims it was an accident that a lot of the songs contain commentary on what it's like to actually write songs. “It was liberating in its own strange little way,” says Barnett, “to not have any goal or whatever.” Touring, too, has been freeing. Despite roping in an enviable cast of players including Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag on drums (Mozgawa is on the road with Warpaint, opening for Depeche Mode at the moment), there seems to be zero anxiety around the performance. 

“It's been a bit kind of school campy,” says Barnett. “The first day of rehearsals, Janet was like, 'I'm nervous.' I was like, 'So am I'! We've all toured in however many bands but you come together to do all-new songs, and it keeps you on your toes. I'm always on the edge of making mistakes.” Vile nods. “Soundchecks are real scary. Today's was the first one that didn't send me up the fucking tree. But everyone's been a positive force, and everyone's funny.”

Funny is right. Really Lotta Sea Lice boils down to humor. It's a catalogue of shared jokes and laughter. The album title itself stems from a jibe with Mozgawa that's too long to explain. Honestly, it's a "you had to be there" moment. For Barnett, it's been a lifesaver finding another kindred spirit, and one who often rolls through Australia. The Australian music market scored an anomaly with her. As Cloher explained a few months ago, Barnett was the first breakout star in forever who was taken seriously for her songwriting and not objectified for her womanhood. That's isolating. Vile had experienced the kind of success she could seek solace in. “I don't often find friends that I really connect with,” she says. “After we first were in the studio, I found a point where I was really comfortable around Kurt. It's nice when it happens naturally. It's not fake weird forced shit.”

Before they go to prepare for their headline slot, I wonder, as fans of each other's music, what they'd like to see from their respective forthcoming solo albums. “Courtney can't really expect anything from me,” says Vile. “What do you want, Court?” “I would like to see Kurt sitting at a piano,” she says. “Yeah, I don't do that,” he replies. Barnett disputes this. “I have videos of you playing the organ! You know what I'd love to see? Kurt Vile solo acoustic guitar and vocals. That's fucking beautiful.” Vile sighs. “For you Courtney, okay.”