So, as the new year dawns, it is time once again for my Next One Up music feature. Alternative Addiction turned out their list of 14 artists to watch this year, and there were a lot of contenders, including last year’s winner, Lostboycrow, who made the list for a second straight year. LBC has been releasing songs steadily in 2015, with “Say You Want Me” and “Senses,” his collaboration with fellow LA-based band Cheat Codes, among my favorites. He’s starting 2016 off with a bang too, releasing his debut EP in three days. In the interest of variety, however, I decided to pick another winner for 2016’s award. This year’s field was deep, and the competition fierce, but I decided on… Barns Courtney.
Based out of London, Barns Courtney hews more to the traditional singer/songwriter model, but his vocals lend an indie streak to his music. He’s able to stretch the timbre of his voice in different ways, which shows off his versatility as a singer and lends different moods and effects to his songs. As far as I can tell, he has released three official singles, so let’s break them down:
“Glitter and Gold”
This is probably my favorite of the songs he’s released so far. Courtney’s vocals take center stage, accompanied by a strong rhythmic backbone that makes the song catchy and radio-friendly, which portends mainstream success. The guitar and piano are used in interesting ways, with the piano playing a sequence of notes in the lower register in an almost percussive fashion to complement the backbeat. The guitar plays a similar role, not really part of the melody but supporting his voice. Incidentally, his most accessible song music-wise is his least accessible lyrically; I’m not really sure what he’s referring to with his words, but they’re still enjoyable to listen to.
“Goodbye John Smith”
This song more or less flips the script from “Glitter and Gold.” The lyrics are much more accessible, where the main character speaks of being afraid of losing someone or something as they “leave the shore behind” for the “great white peaks of new islands,” presumably a metaphor for a big change in someone’s life. That probably also explains the reference to Colonial explorer John Smith in the title. I’m not a huge fan of the timbre he chooses to inflect his voice with in this song, but it grew on me a little more by the end. That to me is the less accessible part of the song, but I think it could still play well on radio.
This was Barns Courtney’s first flirtation with mainstream relevance, as “Fire” was included on the soundtrack for the film Burnt. Starring Bradley Cooper, the film tells of an elite Paris chef who imploded under the weight of drug use and a manic drive for perfection. Three years later, he returns and embarks on a quest of redemption to earn his third Michelin star. The song’s lyrics in many ways echo the plot of the film, speaking of “lonely ghosts” and “voices telling me I’ve fallen.” In each chorus, the music engulfs Courtney’s vocals, creating the mental image of being consumed by flame. This one isn’t as radio-friendly, but it is still very well-crafted for the soundtrack and further shows off Courtney’s versatility. I will be very interested to see what additional directions he takes his music, as he has proven that he is open to experimentation and strives to avoid falling into a predictable rut.