There’s confidence. And then there’s the swaggering self-assurance displayed by raspy-throated British blues rocker Barns Courtney on his recent single “Fire,” a swampy, Gospel-steeped stomper with reflective verses like “My mother told me son let it be / Sold my soul to the calling / Sold my soul to that sweet melody / Now I’m gone, now I’m gone, now I’m gone” and a chorus so gargantuan it actually caught the ear of Harvey Weinstein; the Miramax mogul thought it would fit nicely onto the soundtrack for Burnt, a film he was producing with Bradley Cooper about a chef on the comeback trail, and Cooper—after one listen to the rollicking track—agreed wholeheartedly. But there was a time not so long ago when the singer was shivering like a cornered chihuahua, unclear on his sound, his songwriting abilities, and whether he had a future in contemporary music at all.
Courtney’s tale is strange and serpentine. Sort of a rags-to-riches, then-right-back-to-Top-Ramen-rags-again tale. Fresh out of high school, he had been signed to Island Records, but after three years under sketchy contract, even sketchier management—and having composed roughly five albums’ worth of material—his more alternative-leaning debut disc had yet to be released. Then his deal fell through, the label held on to the masters and he wound up couch surfing at friends’ houses, occasionally sleeping in his girlfriend’s car and punching the 9-5 clock at a London computer software store. “And I was amazing at it, I’ll have you know, for the first week,” he chuckles, having maintained a disarmingly droll wit throughout the ordeal. “I was all starry-eyed and excited to start my new job. And then it slowly dawned on me that I might never make music, ever again.”
To add insult to injury, the kid was working directly across the street from the swank hotel where he was once wined and dined by competing record company executives who promised him the world. “So I’d look up every day at this enormous monolith to all of my past failings, eat my little sandwich and listen to my old manager’s new band on the radio. And I’d just think, ‘My God.’ There’s nothing wrong with having an honest job, but it was such a shock to go from one extreme—where I was following my dream and doing nothing but music every day—to the other, where I seemed to have no prospects whatsoever.”
Courtney’s worst moment ever? The night he slept in his gal’s automobile—since she wasn’t allowed guests at her flat when her landlord was on the prowl—and her mother yanked his blanket off of him at dawn and told him to take a hike since said landlord was coming. “It was really bad, because I had to work at the computer store that day, so I had to wander the streets for three hours before I could go to work,” he recalls. “So I went and sat in that hotel that I used to stay in and just waited there. Where I used to wait to meet those labels. But worse things have happened to other people, I’m sure. I don’t want to make my whole life sound like a sob story.”
But things happen for a reason. Courtney firmly believes that his travails have shaped him into the clear-headed, firmly-rooted, aesthetically-serious artist that he I today. He shudders to imagine that unissued Island effort ever seeing the light of day. It wasn’t terrible, per se. “It was like The Killers, but not as good—I think that’s a pretty accurate representation,” he snickers. He had signed away his creative-control rights, and the producers were pushing for more and more synthesizers, while he was fighting them for more guitars. “So it was a constant battle, that record, but I spent three months in LA putting my heart and soul into it, nonetheless, and doing my utmost to get it as close to my vision as possible,” adds this Horatio Alger, who actually resided in Seattle from age three to 14, and still speaks with the American accent he acquired there. “So it was quite hard not being able to even release it, and just having these people tell you that everything you worked so hard for was not going to happen. Then we went with another manager, and that guy turned out to be a crook, so we had no money. The whole thing was a very gradual, slow, painful death.”
The experience shook him to his foundation. He took any employment he could to keep going, anything that would allow him to continue recording demos when he could find friendly and willing producers. He hawked smokes from a shoulder-strapped serving tray at a nightclub, like the glamorous cigarette girls of yesteryear. “And because there were all these strict laws about cigarettes, you’re not actually allowed to say what you’re selling,” he sighs. “So I had to kind of dance around and look expectantly at my crotch until somebody would look down and go, ‘Oh! Are you selling cigarettes?’ And it was funny, because last month I played one of the clubs where I used to sell cigarettes, and it was a really weird feeling. The last time I was there, I had that tray around my neck.” He also found work as a film extra, and ended up with a cameo in The Lady in the Van. “For exactly four seconds, you just glimpse me painting lines on the side of the road,” the 25-year-old notes, proudly.
Gradually, Courtney regained his balance. Inspired by a combination of Kanye West, Jack White and The Black Keys, he hit upon the gravelly, vintage-R&B approach of “Fire.” He took it to one producer, who told him he needed a better chorus. The next producer urged him to compose more memorable verses. He ended up with two diametrically-opposed versions of the same song, until one day—in a grueling 10-hour self-produced session at a local coffeehouse—he mashed his MP3s together to create the Sam Cooke-forlorn final version of the cut. Then other similarly vintage songs started to flow, like “Hands” and “Glitter and Gold.” He’s currently finished tracking what will become his long-awaited official debut, out on Capitol this fall.
How did “Fire” pop up on Weinstein’s radar? Courtney—whose first name is actually Barnaby, named for a Claymation bear his mother adored as a child; he abridged it to avoid any confusion when he heard of another UK performer also called Barnaby—thanks a social-butterfly music-biz pal of his, who loved his café-cut demo so much he played it for every insider he could. And he never gave up on it. “So I was working at the computer store one day, and he called up and said, ‘You’re never going to believe this, but Harvey Weinstein has heard your song, and he’s going to put it in his new film with Bradley Cooper!’ And I’d had a lot of close calls, and things weren’t really working out, and I’d even had people from big management companies coming through the store, and I’d hand them my demos and never hear anything back. So I, uh, was not expecting anything like that to come off.”
Next thing Courtney knew, he was attending the MOMA-held New York premiere for Burnt, then walking the red carpet for the movie’s gala London opening. To which he invited his grandmother and his mother, who swooned when she met Cooper. “The English premiere was just pandemonium,” he says. “It was like when you’re watching a film and the screen goes black, and all you can see are flashing lights—that’s literally what happened to me. It was very disorienting, and I just looked around like a timid little shrew.” His benefactor Weinstein was at the event, as well, and their conversation made the rising star’s night. “Harvey is a lovely man, and he said to me,’When I first heard your music, I thought you would be a 70-year-old black man!’ And I was like, ‘Whoa! Thanks!’ I mean, hey—nothing wrong with a compliment like that, right?”