Abu Dhabi Grand Prix opener Barns Courtney can celebrate success after the tough times
Earlier this year, Barns Courtney was homeless, sleeping rough or couch-surfing his way across London. Now, everything has changed. The 25-year-old singer-songwriter scored a UK radio hit with Glitter and Gold, and another of his tunes, Fire, was featured on the closing credits and trailer for the new Bradley Cooper movie, Burnt.
Courtney’s sudden ascent has been fuelled by support slots for Ed Sheeran – an old friend – and The Libertines, after he was spotted gigging by frontman Carl Barat.
On Sunday, Courtney clocks another remarkable milestone, warming up for Blur at the closing night of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
“It’s crazy, like a total whirlwind,” says Courtney. “It’s mind-blowing how fast things are going – it’s all happened in a couple of months.”
This manic activity comes after half a decade of glacial progress. Born in the UK but raised in the United States, Courtney returned to England in his early teens. After years of “crappy bands playing in crappy pubs”, he formed rock group Dive Bella Dive with friends. They were signed “straight from school” to Island Records and bankrolled to record an album. Sadly, it never saw the light of day.
“Our record got shelved, and we got dropped,” says Courtney. “For it to all then just fall apart was devastating – it took me years to get over it.”
When that crushing blow came, in early 2013, the young musician had no Plan B.
“Suddenly I found myself out on the street,” he says. “I didn’t have any money to pay for anything, no qualifications.
“For two years I was homeless, sofa-surfing, living in my girlfriend’s car, working part-time in a computer store, selling cigarettes on the side.”
The experience drove Courtney to write an album’s worth of material “about the struggle to succeed”, including the rousing indie-folk battle cry Glitter and Gold, sung in his distinctive transatlantic growl.
“I’m really grateful for that time,” he says, “because it gave me a lot of good subject matter for my music.”
A ray of light appeared when Courtney was asked to warm-up for Ed Sheeran’s autumn tour. But it was a potentially bittersweet reunion.
“I grew up with Ed Sheeran in Ipswich,” he says. “We used to gig at this tiny little pub called The Steamboat Tavern.
“I was just amazed at how humble he was. He hadn’t changed at all, he didn’t try to offer me advice or talk down to me – he was exactly the same. We just picked off where we left off.”
Having waited so long – and worked so hard– for overdue exposure, Courtney’s feet remain firmly rooted on the ground.
“World domination would be a bonus, I’m just really happy and grateful to be making music for a living again,” he says. “If I’m lucky enough for people around the world to listen to it, then that’s amazing – but right now, this is pretty good.”