Courtney Barnett & Kurt Vile: Continental Drifts

Melbourne’s Courtney Barnett and Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile team for a gem of a record

Philadelphia’s Kurt Vile admits he’s a fanboy—he loves bands, musicians, albums, songs. But what he can do that most of us can’t is translate his fandom into participation. He ended up on the recent album from Tuareg band Tinariwen by sending word that he’d love to join them when they were recording in Joshua Tree. (“That was extra fanboy, reaching out to make that happen,” he says.) And he wrote a song that he hoped he could sing with Courtney Barnett after becoming obsessed with “Depreston,” from 2016’s Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit. (That album title wouldn’t be out of place in Vile’s Zen-like lyrics.)

“Courtney? Sure, I’m a fanboy,” says Vile, although the two were just acquaintances when he wrote “Over Everything” with her in mind. That song, which Vile calls “a romantic, more slacker version in a different genre of a country-duet sort of thing,” led eventually to Lotta Sea Lice (Matador), the collaboration between the two acclaimed singer/songwriter/guitarists.

Lotta Sea Lice is, in a fashion, the history of a friendship. The pair met in 2014 when Barnett opened for Vile in her native Melbourne. Barnett was a fan going back to Vile’s 2011 album Smoke Rings For My Halo. “Peeping Tom” was her gateway, and she covers it in a stirring solo version on Lotta Sea Lice. “It was one of the first songs that I really connected with years ago when I discovered Kurt through that album,” she says. “That song really stood out; I just listened to it on repeat. It’s always been a special song. I thought it would be a cool idea to do a version of each other’s songs, and that was the first one that came to mind.”

When they first met in Melbourne, Barnett gave Vile a copy of her then-new The Double EP: A Sea Of Split Peas. The song that caught his ear was “Out Of The Woodwork,” and he covers it on Lotta Sea Lice with Barnett’s help.

Vile was hesitant to present “Over Everything” to Barnett because he had written the song for her unsolicited. Barnett remembers that when he first played it for her, “We didn’t know each other that well yet, so it was a little bit strange and nerve-wracking. He played it for me, half looking down, and I think he was still working on some lyrics and arrangements and stuff. I could tell that I really liked it already. I’ve always loved Kurt’s songs because sometimes they really grow on you, but they take awhile—that song kept getting stuck in my head, but it doesn’t really have a traditional chorus or a refrain or anything. It doesn’t seem like it should be a catchy song, but it really is. I find that a bit mesmerizing that he can do that all the time, write these long, kind of jammy songs that seem to be a bit free-form, but then they have these really intricate little melodies to perk you up.”

Inspired in part by country duets such as George Jones & Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton & Porter Wagoner, “Over Everything” finds the two singing back and forth to one another, trading verses about songwriting and hearing loss. (The hilarious video has the two lip-syncing each other’s parts from their opposing sides of the globe.) They also trade guitar lines, increasingly so as the song extends into a coda. It reveals their common ground in conversational, clever lyrical details (Barnett sounds so natural singing Vile’s lines that you might think she wrote her verses) and in vivid, loping guitar playing (it’s often hard to tell who’s playing which lines).

The original idea was to record a shared single, but the two had so much fun that they kept recording, piecemeal, in various places over the course of 14 months, until they ended up with an album. During the sessions, Vile drafted old friends (Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa and Rob Laakso of his band the Violators) and new ones he’d made while touring Australia: the Dirty Three’s Jim White and Mick Turner, and the Bad Seeds’ Mick Harvey. “Firstly, I’m like a superfan,” Vile says of the latter three. “It’s definitely an honor to play with a slightly earlier generation. I strive to be in a similar vein: raw, artful, all those weird types, like Nick Cave and the Dirty Three. They’re kind of epic, but they’re also pretty raw.”

Barnett and Vile deliberately kept the recording quick, with few overdubs, which isn’t the way the two usually work on their own. “It’s always a constant struggle, to get to a place like Neil Young or certain country records where it’s all done in a couple takes and it’s all there,” says Vile. “That’s one style of music that I really admire and want to get back to, kind of real and organic.”

“I think it was a good lesson,” says Barnett. “I’m a real over-thinker and kind of a perfectionist. We didn’t really have much time; we were just trying something and just doing it and making it and moving on. Not in a not-caring way, but in a not-caring-so-much way about everything that could be wrong. A big part of it was trusting in the music and what’s written, and (also) trusting your instincts a little bit.”

In addition to the two covers of each other, the tracklist includes five new songs, three from Vile and two from Barnett, inspired by their conversations and emails; plus two other covers: “Untogether” by Belly, which Vile remembered loving as a young teenager (but which Barnett didn’t know), and “Fear Is Like A Forest” from Barnett’s partner Jen Cloher, who’ll be the opener when Barnett and Vile tour with the band they’re calling the Sea Lice.

“We were acquaintances and mutual admirers, but I’d say we’re great friends now,” says Vile. “Making the record was so fun, but then hearing it back and realizing how good the album is, is the ultimate for me. I’m pretty paranoid in general, or even afraid to listen to the music, but once you hear how good it really is, the returns are great.”

—Steve Klinge