Scratching the surface

Courtney Barnett’s Here and There tour makes its final stop in Denver, featuring Arooj Aftab and others


People often describe Arooj Aftab’s music as mystical or meditative, both terms the singer, composer and producer resists. She finds it all a bit reductive to describe the entire sonic world she’s created. Sung mostly in Urdu—the language of her native Pakistan—Aftab’s third release, 2021’s Vulture Prince, is a feat of musical prowess, an amalgamation of styles she picked up from the Hindustani arts culture, studying at Berklee College of Music and through the diverse music scene of her adopted home of Brooklyn.

“You hear classical nylon guitar playing in there and you hear kind of like pop energy in there, but then it’s also all rooted around root jazz theory. And then there’s kind of like an American folk situation happening, but then it’s also got like some shadowy version of where I’m from and it all comes together really sweetly,” she says. “It’s like there’s a dance going on between all the instruments.”

Although one track is based on the poetry of Sufi mystic Rumi, the rest express the joy-filled sadness of nostalgic, intoxicating love, aspects of life that bind us together, regardless of culture or origin. It is “a real sharing of spaces and heritage,” she says, a soundscape that oozes with meaning, even if the majority of her audience doesn’t understand what is being sung. 

Urdu “is a really romantic minimalist language that has really nice vowels and consonants,” she says. “And the poetry has a lot of potential for expressing complex, layered, multifaceted stories and emotions with fewer words, with analogy … it’s got a lot of depth without having to be super direct and on the nose, which is something that I really love.”

More of her work may be in English in the future, but for now Aftab works to compose each song independent of understanding the lyrics. 

“I really enjoy it when language isn’t distracting or it is seamlessly flowing with the music soundscape,” she says. “I really like to build a world with the music.” 

Aftab comes to Denver Labor Day weekend as part of Courtney Barnett’s Here and There Festival, a 15-stop tour featuring a unique lineup in each city. 

“It was an exciting concept to be able to pick a bunch of cool artists that I admired and put together a lineup that was exciting and interesting and full of a semi-like-minded world, audience and artists,” Barnett, the indie rock maven from Australia, says. 

The festival is a product of revisiting a list of pipe dreams with her manager in 2020, as Barnett sat through several iterations of strict quarantine by herself in Melbourne. Eventually, she put out an open invitation to a long list of artists Barnett loves, and then it all came down to logistics, who was free when, where and for how many shows, depending on everyone’s touring schedules. 

“There’s a nice community feeling backstage, seeing some old friends and meeting new people, meeting new artists,” Barnett says. “It opens up a whole new world of possibilities. And I think that that’s encouraging as a musician because a lot of the time—I can’t speak for everyone, but myself—I feel like I don’t fit in or I don’t belong or I’m comparing myself to others or whatever, and it’s nice when you meet your people and you realize that you are all doing the same thing.”

By the time we talk, the festival has already had six shows or so, and Barnett is beginning to settle into her role as curator. The jitters and emotions of the first few shows are behind her, comforted by the community she sees both in the audience and backstage. 

“On the first day it felt like I was throwing a birthday party and I traditionally never have birthday parties because they’re stressful,” she says. “You’re always wondering if people are gonna come and if they’re gonna have fun and being the host is not my natural position. But it’s where I found myself for these festivals.”

The festival, in many ways, is a culmination of the last 10 years of Barnett’s career, part of her evolution as an artist. Through her quintessential indie-rock sound, each album in Barnett’s repertoire experiments with differing ways to express ideas, giving listeners a point-in-time look at life, rather than an overall life philosophy. 

“With each year that passes and each year of life experience and music consumption and everything that goes on, it all adds to the music that gets made because it’s a document of all that stuff,” she says. 

The festival comes on the heels of the North American release of an intimate documentary following Barnett on tour after the release of her second LP, 2018’s Tell Me How You Really Feel. The film, Anonymous Club, has been described as “a reflection on the intersection between celebrity and creativity,” as Barnett narrates the film shot on 16mm, giving the viewer the sense they are watching Barnett’s home movies and visual diary. 

“It was definitely a confronting experience,” Barnett says of not only making the film, but sharing it with audiences. “It’s like having that mirror up at yourself and an opportunity to really deeply self-reflect, to see the parts of myself that are embarrassing or annoying or dramatic or ridiculous or whatever it is that makes me cringe, and the parts of yourself that you don’t want people to see. And some of them are just there—it’s a forced, intense reflection.”

If that wasn’t enough, Barnett’s music label, Milk! Records, also just released a limited edition charity compilation, Here and There: B-Sides, Live Tracks + Demos, on Aug. 19. With tracks from Sleater-Kinney, Julia Jacklin, Faye Webster, The Beths, Caroline Rose, Bedouine and Hana Vu, along with Barnett, all profits benefit the National Network of Abortion Funds and Advocates For Youth. This support is in addition to partnering with The Ally Coalition (TAC) to bring site-specific programs and support organizations serving LGBTQ Youth at each Here and There show. 

“We all need a bit of hope, and community is really important,” Barnett says. “I think connecting people in those moments—even just people going to tables where the local organizations can set up and talk to people, and even if people just go up and meet someone new or volunteer— that stuff has changed my life. Just meeting new people and opening my mind and my circle to other people and feeling like part of a bigger community, I think that that’s really rewarding.”

For the Denver festival stop, Barnett and Aftab are joined by singer-songwriter Bedouine, and Japanese Breakfast, the experimental pop outfit led by Korean-American musician, director and author Michelle Zauner. Bedouine’s tranquil folk music captures the nomadic wanderlust of the Syrian-born, L.A.-based artist, and is reminiscent of folk legends Joni Mitchell and Nick Drake. Pitchfork says Zauner “has mastered the craft of veiling melancholy in full, celebratory shimmer” with her latest release Jubilee. Japanese Breakfast’s third album landed two Grammy nominations this year, competing against Aftab in the best new artist category (both lost to pop sensation and former Disney Channel star Olivia Rodrigo). Aftab did, however, win Best Global Performance categories for the track “Mohabbat” off of Vulture Prince.  

There’s so much happening in each song that it took Aftab years to put the record out. During that time, she allowed herself space to workshop songs live, to experience the magic of everything falling into place during a performance. And sometimes she hadn’t yet met the collaborator who would eventually pull a song together, even though she’s known others for years. It all culminates in the creation of a sound she’d been searching for, one that existed in her head but that she had never heard expressed. 

“I think I’ve just begun to scratch the surface of what this genre can actually even really sound like,” Aftab says, acknowledging that she won’t be afforded the same luxury of time to produce her next album. “But the time was well spent to actually build this thing. And now I have that blueprint for myself, it’s not completely unknown. I know what I have to do and how I need to elevate it.” 


ON THE BILL: Here and There: a touring festival curated by Courtney Barnett, with Japanese Breakfast, Arooj Aftab, and Bedouine. 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 3, Mission Ballroom, 4242 Wynkoop St., Denver. Tickets are $55-$124.95. 

Previous articleA hub of innovative education
Next articleAstrology 9/1/22