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Courtney Barnett: Sending out ‘Empathy Signals’

The acclaimed Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett recently completed her first U.S. solo tour. NewsHour Weekend’s Tom Casciato caught up with Barnett at her stop at the historic Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, NY. They discussed not only her music, but also her coining of words, how she struggles to write with compassion, and the bush fires that devastated Australia earlier this year.

Watch Our Story In the Player Above. Below read: “The ‘Next Bob Dylan’ Is Actually the First Courtney Barnett”

John Prine’s death earlier this month was devastating to the sizable community that judges heartfelt, literary songwriting among the higher arts, and considers practioners of this craft who sing their own songs as the prophets we need at any given moment. Among the outpourings of appreciation for Prine were two that stood out, both from his peers (and as a songwriter, he had few peers): a deeply felt tribute essay by Elvis Costello and a simple tweet from Bruce Springsteen that read in part: “John and I were ‘New Dylans’ together in the early 70s and he was never anything but the loveliest guy in the world.”

To be a “new Bob Dylan” – sometimes referred to as the “next Bob Dylan” – has been a thing since, well, the first Bob Dylan. Time after time, especially in the late 1960s and then the ’70s, some emerging artist would capture the critics’ imagination with a combination of smart lyrics and a way with a tune, and bingo, the overworked moniker was attached. The Awl was good enough to catalogue the new and next Dylans some years ago, and the list includes both artists who went on to stardom – Springsteen, Prine, Patti Smith – and a number who, though perfectly sturdy in their craft, like Steve Forbert, didn’t.

You can’t blame Bob Dylan for any of this. He can’t help but hover over the entire genre. After all, as singer/songwriter Warren Zevon once said of him, “He invented my job.” And to call inventive songwriters like those mentioned above by any name other than their own seems just, well, lazy. It was time to put the whole “new Dylan” thing out of its misery a long time ago.

Which brings me to the first time I heard Courtney Barnett, about five years ago. I was driving with my son on the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut when he said, “You gotta hear this,” and blasted “Pedestrian At Best” over the car speakers. Out came a voice that half-sang, half-hollered:

Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you
Tell me I’m exceptional, I promise to exploit you
Give me all your money, and I’ll make some origami honey
I think you’re a joke, but I don’t find you very funny

I was struck by the singer’s ambivalence about the adoration that fame brings, the rough treatment she gave those who would dare praise her, the rhymes that could be nonsense but seemed somehow infused with a deeper meaning the writer may or may not have intended. “Oh man,” I said, “she sounds like the new Bob Dyl–”

Just plain lazy.

Turns out Salon had beaten me to the punch anyway, in a March 2015 story written just days after the release of her first full length album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, calling it “pretty clearly already one of the year’s best albums.”

Give that one a try while you’re sheltering in, or maybe head instead for her most recent studio album, 2018’s Tell Me How You Really Feel. There you’ll find the relationship-weariness of “Need A Little Time,” the gentle offer of comradeship and acceptance in “Sunday Roast,” the anger of perhaps the record’s most extraordinary track, “Nameless Faceless” – extraordinary because the singer’s ire at the everyday threat of male violence that women live with comes swaddled in compassion for just the kind of man who poses the threat. That’s a trick only the most adept can pull off in a 3-minute pop song,

Each song comes wrapped in a package that seems even more tuneful than the one before. And yes, you may hear some strains of Dylan in her work, but of course when you listen to Dylan, you hear strains of Woody Guthrie and Chuck Berry. Even true originals have to come from somewhere.

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