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For Courtney Barnett, the truth and creativity pay off

Courtney Barnett’s signature song, “Avant Gardener,” recalls the time she went into anaphylactic shock while working in her garden in Australia.
Courtney Barnett’s signature song, “Avant Gardener,” recalls the time she went into anaphylactic shock while working in her garden in Australia.

Courtney Barnett is a songwriter in the midst of a breakout.

The 26-year-old Australian performs at the Riot Room on Tuesday, but she’s been playing theaters, concert halls and festivals such as Coachella. And she’s appeared on programs such as National Public Radio’s “World Cafe.” All thanks to music that is at once as unique as it is personal and familiar.

Her signature song is a gust of bright and woozy, midtempo psychedelic pop called “Avant Gardener” that recalls the time Courtney Barnett went into anaphylactic shock in her native Australia.

The song begins with Barnett getting out of bed on a sweltering Monday, struggling to get motivated and wondering, “What exciting things will happen today?”

She decides to garden because her yard makes her neighbors think “we run a meth lab.” But something goes awry.

“All of a sudden, I’m having trouble breathing in,” she sings over the bed of guitars, keyboards and other ornate embroidery. And: “I’m breathing, but I’m wheezing / Feel like I’m emphysem-in’ / My throat feels like a funnel / Filled with weet bix and kerosene.”

After an ambulance is called, she ends up getting a shot of adrenaline to the heart — “I feel like Uma Thurman,” she sings, referencing a notorious scene from the film “Pulp Fiction.” At the hospital, she gets an “asthma puffer” but “I do it wrong / I was never good at smoking bongs” and laments: “Should have stayed in bed today / I much prefer the mundane.”

Barnett grew up around Sydney, Australia, and moved in her teens to Hobart, the largest city on the island of Tasmania. She now lives in Melbourne.

Her music history goes back to 2010, when she started playing in local bands. She also spent time in Immigrant Union, a psychedelic rock band founded by Brent DeBoer of the Dandy Warhols.

In 2012, she started Milk! Records. That year she released the first of two EPs: “I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris.” The following year she released the second: “How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose,” which is where “Avant Gardener” made its first appearance.

About that time, the buzz she’d created in Australia had spread overseas. She combined the two in “Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas,” which was released internationally in May 2013. That year, she performed at the CMJ Music Marathon in New York, where she received positive reviews.

There are some Velvet Underground moments on “Split Peas.” Or listen to her cover of the Lemonheads’ “Bein’ Around,” in which she lays her sing-song deadpan voice over a stream of skeletal guitar jangle.

But in her lyrics, which are observational, personal and imaginative, you can hear the cleverness of Eminem, someone she listened to growing up. (She’s also a fan of Nirvana and the Go-Betweens.)

The song “Are You Looking After Yourself?” re-creates a weekly phone conversation with her mother, who is concerned about her daughter’s health, money and other issues. “Are you eating well? You sound so thin.”

It closes with Barnett conceding sarcastically: “I don’t know what I was thinking / I should get a job / I don’t know what I was drinking / I should get a dog / Should get married, have some babies, watch the evening news.”

And in “Don’t Apply Compression Gently,” a shiv of a post-breakup song, she lands a few kidney punches.

“I noticed you stopped talking to me; now you’re talking to me all the time / Do you know you’re no good at listening, but you’re really good at saying everything on your mind?” Then: “Look over your shoulder when I talk to you / Where’s the more important person in this room?”

Musically, she draws from several genres, including garage rock, post-punk, ’90s indie rock, alt-country. More than the Velvet Underground, bands and performers such as Throwing Muses, Liz Phair and the latter-day Sleater-Kinney come to mind after repeated listenings. There are moments of ’60s girl-pop and California pop too, dropped into an incongruous, mix of swirling guitars and percussion that jells into a flavor of its own.

Barnett has said she has another album in the can, ready to release next year, to be released on the indie label Mom + Pop. She has been playing some of the new material amid the older songs, some of which are more than two years old. You can hear them all Tuesday night, when she headlines at the Riot Room.

It may not be the last time she plays a room that size around here, but as swiftly as her star is rising, it could be.

To reach Timothy Finn, call 816-234-4781 or send email to Follow the Back to Rockville blog on Twitter: @kcstarrockville.


Courtney Barnett performs Tuesday night at the Riot Room, 4048 Broadway. Mikhael Paskalev opens. Show time is 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20.