This week’s ALT 104.5 New Music Discovery Of The Week is “Supernatural” by Barns Courtney
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Frenetic, electrifying, and viciously creative, Barns Courtney possesses an unbridled passion that’s increasingly rare in the modern music landscape. On his forthcoming third album, the UK-born, Seattle-bred singer/songwriter offers up a body of work informed by his far-ranging obsessions (the writings of Oscar Wilde, ritualistic iconography and ancient mythology, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, to name a few), all crystallized in an elaborate narrative centered a post-apocalyptic cult leader. Expanding on the extraordinary dynamism that prompted Rolling Stone to praise him as a “stomping, swaggering rock & roll balancing act teetering between blinding light and total darkness,” the album ultimately marks the start of Courtney’s most captivating era yet.
Made with producers like six-time Grammy Award-winner David Greenbaum (Beck, Gorillaz, Cage the Elephant), Courtney’s latest effort emerged in a series of free-flowing sessions at legendary studios like Sunset Sound, Henson Recording Studios, and United Recording. “I’ve never had more fun in the studio than we did at United,” he notes. “We erected a tiki bar in the hallway and there was a revolving door of musicians and drifters coming in and out, plus an immense amount of mushroom chocolates. It’s not rock & roll if you don’t enjoy a bit of frivolity.” While each song spotlights the commanding vocal presence he’s brought to past hits like “Fire” (a Top 5 Triple A radio smash) and shown onstage at such illustrious gigs as opening for The Who at Wembley Stadium, the album unfolds in a high-wattage sound ranging from glam to punk to gloriously scrappy garage-rock. And as Courtney reveals, creating such an ambitious project helped to undo the disillusionment that followed a prolonged period of relentless touring.
“After five years of doing what I absolutely love, I felt extremely tired and burnt-out,” Courtney recalls. “Making this album allowed me to corral the things I care about, like climate change and our dying planet, and explore them in a way that felt just as invigorating as when I started my first band 15 years ago. Unwittingly, the album also partly became an exploration of my own hedonism. As someone who’s followed those hedonistic impulses with little immediate consequence, I’ve gained an insight into how pleasure can very quickly become pain and end up dominating your life, which is an experience I was able to exhibit by inhabiting the role of the cult leader.”
Although Courtney created an entire backstory for his cult-leader protagonist (a futuristic allegory involving the Seven Sisters oil companies and climate-change-induced desertification of large swaths of the planet), the album encompasses an explosive and emotionally raw selection of songs that hit with a visceral impact. On “Supernatural,” for instance, he presents a glammed-up meditation on the strange rush of desire, adorning the wildly anthemic track with growling vocal work and combustible guitar riffs (“It’s a song partly about my ex-girlfriend and our times together in London, and the way we dance in and out of each other’s lives,” he points out). Largely rooted in the doomed love story of the cult leader and his concubine Ophelia, the album also delivers such sensually charged and cinematic tracks as “Golden” (a darkly hypnotic piece built on fuzzed-out beats and moody guitar tones) and “Heartbreak Hallelujah” (a shadowy and sprawling number touched with a thrillingly noirish intensity). Meanwhile, on “Young in America,” Courtney brings his vividly detailed storytelling to one of the album’s most personal tracks: an exhilarating yet deeply poignant epic inspired by a childhood friend. “It’s a song that encapsulates our whole relationship, going back to me playing shitty venues in Ipswich in my teen years and him being stuck in a small town in the mountains with a population of 200,” says Courtney. “It’s meant to be a hopeful jaunt about striving and moving forward, and dreaming of becoming something bigger than what you already are.”
For Courtney—a near-lifelong musician who started writing songs at age six and later spent time living in his car as he struggled to kickstart his career—the push for transformation and transcendence lies at the heart of all his work. “Music first came to me in the darkest depths of my life, as a way to find catharsis and exorcize my demons,” he says. “The main thing it offers me now, especially with the live show, is the ability to connect with other humans in a way that’s completely unbound by societal norms. If you do it right, you can lift people up, you can help them to release their inhibitions, you can make them feel like they’ve been transported to a whole different world. The chance to do that for other people will always be the real pull for me.”
The chance to do that for other people will always be the real pull for me.”