The off-kilter harmony of Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile have collaborated on a duo album and a tour that brings them to the Orpheum Saturday.

By Jeremy D. Goodwin Globe Correspondent 

The musical matchup of Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett is one of those pairings that comes out of nowhere but then makes perfect sense.

Vile was a cofounder of War on Drugs, but he left that group as it was breaking to focus on his solo stuff, which puts his acoustic and electric guitar, and sometimes sleepy-sounding vocals, at the forefront of his sometimes elliptical songs. Barnett is the Australian songwriter whose debut album two years ago was an invigorating wonder of basic-but-propulsive rock, narrated by conversational vocals that prove a marvel of slice-of-life observation. Each has a taste for wordplay that’s funny for its own sake — see her song “Avant Gardener” or his “Peeping Tomboy.”


The latter (re-recorded with lead vocals by Barnett and christened “Peepin’ Tom”) is one of the quiet triumphs of “Lotta Sea Lice,” the duo album that was the subject of a surprise announcement in June and the motivation for a tour that hits the Orpheum Theatre on Saturday. Notably, it’s the first album-length project from Barnett since her debut.

The record also includes a Barnett original in a Vile-led performance (“Outta the Woodwork”), covers of songs by Belly (“Untogether”) and Barnett’s partner, Jen Cloher (“Fear Is Like a Forest”), and a handful of new compositions written for the project. “Lotta Sea Lice” feels easygoing, open, and occasionally self-aware of the collaboration itself. (“I cherish my intercontinental friendships/ We talk it over continental breakfast/ In a hotel in east bumble-wherever,” they sing in “Continental Breakfast,” credited to Vile.) The album is a real grower, destined for many a Sunday-morning airing.

The two, who say they are fans of each other’s work, had only bumped into each other a few times when Vile wrote a song for them to collaborate on. Their plans grew from a 7-inch to an EP to, finally, the complete album. The bulk of it was recorded in two Melbourne studio visits 15 months apart.

Barnett and Vile are doing all their press interviews for the tour in tandem. When they speak to the Globe, it’s through speakerphone in the green room of the Royal Oak Music Theatre outside Detroit. Their rapport is obvious, and they frequently crack each other up; some responses to questions from the Globe seem like they’re more for each other.

Q. Why are you doing all your interviews together?


Vile: We have to do them together.

Barnett: It’s in the contract.

Vile: Those are the rules.

Q. Well you make the rules, right?

Vile: Yeah.

Q. Given that you’re both solo artists, what’s it like playing in more of a band dynamic?


Vile: I love feeding off of Courtney and having someone to sing with. I love her songs just on their own so I love backing her up and playing guitar. It’s getting pretty epic, I would say. It’s a supergroup. You gotta share the stage when you’re in a supergroup.

Q. Is it inevitably a self-conscious experience to cover a song by an artist you admire, with that artist right there in the room with you?

Vile: I was probably a little self-conscious, but yeah. Also I just needed her there [for the recording of “Outta the Woodwork”], I just wanted to get the Courtney vibe with it.

Barnett: I recorded my cover of Kurt’s song when he wasn’t there, so I guess it was a little different, but yeah, there’s always a little bit of that. Everyone interprets songs differently, so I’m always a little worried that I totally misinterpreted someone’s song. We did a cover of “Fear Is Like a Forest,” Jen’s song, and . . .

Vile: Were you scared of that?

Barnett: Yeah. I showed it to her when I got home and she was like “Oh, that’s . . . good.” And when I sent “Peepin’ Tom” to Kurt — you just never know what someone’s going to think.

Vile: And I’m really slow on e-mail. Also digital music in general. If somebody sends me a link, I don’t even usually download the link. So I waited and listened to it in the perfect setting and I loved it. And she was like, “Oh, good,” because apparently I was a long time.

Q. It seems like you were both happy with the results overall.

Barnett: The whole album was such a great writing experience for me and just music-making-in-general experience. But the two songs “On Script” and “Let It Go,” I ended up being really proud of them. It took me to a dark place writing them and then they came out the other end, and it’s a satisfying feeling to go through that.

Q. Courtney, you’ve said that when this project came along you were having trouble working on your next batch of songs?

Barnett: Yeah, I always say that. I’m always struggling with songs, every day.

Vile: She was burned out because she had pages and pages and pages of songs.

Barnett: It’s like 99 percent finished.

Vile: It’s 99 percent unfinished. [Both laugh] I’m not teasing you, I’m teasing Courtney.

Barnett: He’s teasing me.

Courtney Barnett

& Kurt Vile

At the Orpheum Theatre, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $26-$46,

Jeremy D Goodwin can be reached at jeremy@jeremyd

Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.