“My dad was a big Frank Sinatra fan so growing up we’d listen to a lot of Frank and some of the other standards like Cole Porter, Gerschwin, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong…” offers Ali Barter by way of a crash course into the disparate world of the familial soundsystem that shaped her formative years. “My mum was big into The Beach Boys, Patsy Kline and Fleetwood Mac so we’d always have music on.”
Sitting in a pub in the northern suburbs of Melbourne, a city she’s called home for two decades, she details how despite early domestic exposure to music throughout her upbringing (including an eight-year stint in the Australian Girls Choir which she eventually sacked off in favour of the standard teenage staples of smoking and drinking), it was only later it became something she thought she could do as a career. “It was only when I was in my early twenties that I thought it was something I’d like to get involved in myself and it was because I was sick of working in cafés and I couldn’t find a uni degree that I wanted to stick at,” she explains. “I figured that I liked music so maybe it was worth giving that a shot.” The early passing of her father around the same time, Barter’s first exposure to mortality, only strengthened her resolve.
Her creative journey saw her develop first through open mic nights and then through a series of EPs. Tracing her songwriting lineage she describes a period of the latter as one where “at some point I thought I should be more creative and I should use more complex metaphors and it should be darker and moodier.” Listening to the songs that form 2014’s Community, there’s an undercurrent of widescreen nocturnal drama running throughout, a world apart from from the sharp bursts that have come to characterise the earlier offerings of recently released debut album A Suitable Girl. It’s a record that draws from personal experience to create a soundtrack to a romantic drama, and draws from a Barter wanting to write a pop-punk album. “When I was writing it I was listening to a lot of Weezer and I’ve always loved people like Katy Perry and Britney Spears. I just wanted to write in a pop style and for it to be immediate and ‘wham-bam-thank you ma’am’. Big choruses, big fun beats and short, sharp songs.” It also marks an about-turn in her songwriting practices, with Barter summarising her style as “closer to the ones I wrote when I first started, and in the middle. My work when I first started – as it is now – was built from a place of wearing my heart on my sleeve with simple chords and lyrical honesty.”
For Barter, the misconception that pop music is in some way an inferior medium compared to other genres and is all-too-often labelled as disposable and throwaway is a point of frustration. “This whole hierarchy of art crap…there’s a reason why millions of people buy Justin Bieber records. It’s because it connects. The lyrics are very simple and really relatable and melodies that are catchy as fuck. It’s easy to understand why it resonates. A lot of people say it’s easy to write a pop song. How many of those people have actually written a number one pop song?”
“A lot of people say it’s easy to write a pop song. How many of those people have actually written a number one pop song?”
The resonance she talks about in mainstream pop shone through brightly in recent single, ‘Girlie Bits’. A song that placed firmly in the middle of that Australian musical institution, the Triple J Hot 100, it blazes like a lost Runaways gem that sees Barter address the daily battle against condescension and gender stereotypes through sharp couplets such as “Give us a smile princess, it’s better for business/None of this angriness, show us your girlie bits” before pointedly asking “What’s a woman meant to look like?” Speaking with AAA Backstage last year, she summed up the song’s message as being “about the cage of what we expect of women: girlie guitar parts, girlie singing, hair; this idea of ‘femininity’ and how to fit within it. But women are not some gentle, watered down version of men. We do it our own way.”
Seeing it picked up by media channels back home and held up as a feminist anthem has come as a surprise to her on both counts, though on the latter count Barter, choosing her words carefully, adds that she wrote it “because I was frustrated and ashamed and angry and generally confused about my own femininity and my place in the world.” She continues: “But I think that that song could just have easily been written by a man. I write music to be understood and I didn’t want to write and out and out feminist statement, I wanted to write a song that people could relate to and that people could hear and go ‘I feel like that too’. It’s not only women who are misunderstood; we all get angry and frustrated when we’re misunderstood and we all start to question things. I’m glad that other people enjoy it and I’m glad that men enjoy it too because I wanted it to be inclusive. I don’t subscribe to that exclusive idea of blaming and shaming. I want it to be for everyone.”
While she admits that the song became picked up as a kind of feminist anthem, she reiterates that her songs come from a more personal place: “I’ll say in a song what I’m too scared to say out loud and what I’m scared to have a conversation about. I’m not doing it for any other reason than that.” But with the early cuts off the album offering an underlying message, does she see herself as a messenger who makes music, or a musician with a message? “I guess I’m a musician with a message,” she says unequivocally, “but it’s my message and that we all have these fucked up feelings and it’s OK to feel jealous or angry or afraid. When I heard Liz Phair as a teenager I felt understood and I hope that’s what my music does to other people.”
Barter offering a message hasn’t just been restricted to her music. Last year she shot to prominence in her homeland for a fiercely erudite piece on female erasure in music history which stemmed from a her being enrolled in a 20th century music class where, out of twenty-four artists covered, just one was female. In a cruel irony that piece in turn stemmed from a similarly-themed Facebook post which, having discussed how female musicians have been forgotten and silenced, saw Barter in front of her lecturer and school staff and pressured to take the post down.
But if a greater appreciation of women in music history needs a serious overhaul, Barter thinks the current situation has improved with “many [more] women in the Triple J Hottest 100 compared to years gone by. There’s so much more awareness about it now – it used to be where women could either be a rock chick or a pop princess. They can still be, those things still exist, but now we’ve got people who work in a folk style or with beats or people like Camp Cope being quite grungey. We have women who combine so many different aspects of their femininity to their music in an incredible way and it’s great to see. It’s not perfect by any means but it’s certainly better than it was.”
Not one to stand still, Barter has ambitions overseas. “I love playing in Australia but I definitely would like to go playing overseas at somepoint too, [but] the timing has to be right for that kind of stuff. If there’s interest, I’d love to go,” she says. “I think everyone wants to go overseas because Australia’s quite a small market and it’s very difficult to break through over here. I think deep down everyone has big ambitions and the internet has made it so easy for people to know who you are without leaving the country.”
Whether those plans come to fruition or not, more immediately Barter has a brace of domestic touring and festival commitments to focus on, in support of debut album A Suitable Girl, a collection of heart-on-your-sleeve pop punk, wrapped up in explorations of personal growth. “I don’t want to say ‘coming of age’ because I’m probably too old to be coming of age,” she admits. “Maybe coming of age in your late 20s…”
Photos: Hannah Markoff / Tay Kaka