“Hey!” comes a greeting so purposeful and ruthlessly efficient that if it weren’t accompanied by a Cheshire cat grin – peeking from beneath an ever-present fringe – and an extended hand it would feel more like an order to stop than a welcome. It’s swiftly followed by the ubiquitous Antipodean greeting of ‘How’re ya going?”
Thankfully Courtney Barnett is the model of easy-going bonhomie, despite having a few hiccups in the lead-up to the opening night of her UK tour, the first in a good couple of years. In fact, the biggest issue at hand appears to be whatever causes her to gently grimace as she sits down to talk, an injury she attributes to an overzealous tour of the local moors with latest live band member and former local, Katie Harkin. She sheepishly smiles and surmises “maybe I went up too many steps!”.
The excursion came during some downtime – that rarest of commodities in Barnett-land – following her appearance at the BBC Biggest Weekend in Belfast, an event notable for the reciprocal cameo spots shared between her and her ensemble and The Breeders. Having compared notes on our shared love of Beck’s incendiary set and our differing travel experiences home (she and the gang had a seamless overnight ferry crossing shortly after Beck’s set; the following day a batch of bad weather almost left me stranded in Dublin indefinitely) we recount the sudden blustery climes that appeared exclusively during the Breeders’ performance, Barnett recounting her experience waiting in the wings stageside by replicating some comical Spaniel-esque hair flapping.
But once questioning begins in earnest, there’s a slight gear-change in her demeanour; her initial effervescence gives way to a voice that has a quieter, more contemplative tone and her chattiness turns to a careful conciseness unless she’s absolutely sure of her answer. It’s almost like watching her songwriting process playing in fast-forward, as if she’s trying to make sense of the cognitive supernovas going off in her head and condensing them into a something cohesive.
In fairness, she’s had a lot to think about, having just released a record that even by her own standards was built on a narrative of stark personal honesty and which contained public confessions of her own anxieties and uncertainties (a record which, shortly after we spoke, garnered Barnett her first UK top-10). It comes on the back of an intense three years following the breakout success of ‘Avant Gardener’ that rarely had her home for any great length of time and saw everywhere from being a US talk show circuit staple and a feature of Barack Obama’s workout playlist, to an SNL season finale appearance. It was a set of circumstances which saw her frequently labelled as some sort of overnight success despite her countless years of treading the boards in her Melbourne hometown, but even as that narrative still occasionally surfaces it’s something she happily shrugs off. “It makes sense and I get that to some people it’s probably seemed like I’ve just popped up out of nowhere,” she says even-handedly “it’s no big deal, I don’t think about it too much!”
You suspect there were times when some of circles she found herself in were in direct contrast to her own straightforward nature, despite her often doing things her own way. You need only look at the 2016 Grammys, where she and wife Jen Cloher confounded the gossip pages by arriving at the 2016 Grammys dressed with characteristic pragmatic smartness rather than wanton ostentatiousness (you wonder what those same gossip pages would have made of Barnett and her entourage going for pre-drinks at Hooter’s or swerving all the glitzy after parties to go bowling). It would be easy to theorise that this experience to some degree or other, shaped Tell Me How You Really Feel, but Barnett herself views it as just another part of a far bigger picture. She reasons “everything influences what I do and how I create things and what I write. I draw from all of that stuff, but I don’t know specifically where it comes from. It’s been a matter of staying open to everything that happens and not focusing on one big thing.”
“The warehouse meant I could bang my head against the wall with no-one listening.”
With all of these distractions and a heavy touring schedule it would have been easy for Barnett to have a record underpinned by on-the-road writing, an affliction that has railroaded many a promising songwriter towards an underwhelming second album. Barnett, though, found an unconventional workaround. Up until early last year, she and Cloher ran their label, Milk! Records, from their home in Melbourne’s Northern suburbs, getting a motley crew of helpers coming round on selected afternoons each week to sort out mail orders – sick of floor-to-ceiling merchandise, they eventually elected to rent a warehouse space. The new space has developed not only into a bespoke base for their mail order operations – a testament to the label’s growth, now partly run bylabel signee, bedroom pop maestro Anika Ostendorf of Hachiku – but also into a writing, rehearsal and event space. Indeed, it was here that Barnett hosted a listening/farewell party to selected friends and supporters before heading Stateside recently, playing the album live in full.
While she concedes that the time she’d booked at local studio Bakehouse helped she suspects the warehouse was probably the slightly better of the two environments in some regards. “I had that idea of renting a space that you’d booked and paid for,” she says “because you have to go so you don’t feel as though you’re wasting your money and there’s no room for procrastination – or if you do then you feel really guilty about it.” She continues by adding that “it was really good to have that separation – it was a destination and a retreat, it was somewhere I could be loud. Bakehouse is a rehearsal space so there are people practicing next door that you think might be able to hear you,” she explains, delivering the latter point by miming someone, hand cupped over their ear, listening through the wall “ then you become self-conscious about whether to try this new thing you were thinking of doing. The warehouse meant I could bang my head against the wall with no-one listening.”
Nonetheless, her self-doubting ways persisted. It’s an affliction which permeated the making of Sometimes I Sit And Think… and when we met in 2015 during that album cycle she admitted “I was second guessing myself about it right until the very last day of recording. I felt that there was no cohesion or theme, and nothing really held it together and that it was all over the place – both subject-wise and musically.” She’s similarly candid about her struggles this time around, conceding that it’s something which she’ll likely have to learn to manage rather than try to eradicate altogether. “I think it’s just a constant thing. I’ve tried to really examine it and study it, where it comes from and what it means…I think I’ve gotten better at it but it’s human nature to always worry a little bit about what people think about you and I can’t get rid of that”.
There’ll be those who’ll assume that that self-imposed pressure was made worse by her recent success and the knowledge that she now had an expanded fanbase. But she’s quick to dismiss that, describing the “success thing”- as she puts it, with a certain endearing flippancy – as something which “neither helped or hindered me in that regard. It was just another thing that was there. I think it’s always going to be my own internal stuff until I learn to get over it, which I don’t think I will. I’ll just learn to understand it.” It could be, I suggest gently, almost beneficial in terms of the artistic process if harnessed properly, in that it means you avoid the dangers of complacency and constantly strive to improve. “Everything is there for a reason,” she says philosophically “and it keeps you in check somehow, and it just makes me work harder to refine things and make sure they’re better than I think they are. In a way it’s kind of…” her voice trails off and her gaze heads floorwards as she searches for the right word, her head snapping upright sporting a triumphant grin as she finishes with an emphatic “…helpful!”
She’s made no secret that the making of Tell Me How You Really Feel has proved a struggle at times, at one point abandoning a set of songs that erred more towards the realms of state-of-the-world anthems than the personal reflections which eventually surfaced. Respite came in the shape of two welcome distractions in the form of Lotta Sea Lice, her collaboration with Kurt Vile, and Jen Cloher’s self-titled masterpiece from last year, on which she played a supporting role on guitar. The former had the undoubted charm of an album which felt like a celebration of friendship and its many forms, be it comparing notes on listening habits and creative processes (‘Over Everything’), goofing around (‘Blue Cheese’) or showing each other favourite songs (the multiple covers). Given Lotta Sea Lice’s easy going nature, it’s little wonder Barnett looks back on it favourably, describing the project as one that was “quite short, basic and one where we had a lot of fun”. Turning to Cloher’s record, she talks about her role in a tone that suggests that helping someone dear to her make the record they wanted, as opposed to shouldering the creative load on her own records, was a welcome break. “It’s just a different state of mind, I think, and playing guitar was me kind of being of service to her “ she says matter-of-factly “it was about finding what she wanted to hear and trying to replicate sounds that she wanted to feature on the album.” She goes on to breezily summarise simultaneously working on her own record while collaborating with Vile and Cloher by adding “I think they were great and different, it all adds towards the next project. I was writing all the time during that period – before, during and after all of those things – and it’s all part of the same pot, I think.”
“Everything is there for a reason”
With the help of the exact same crack squad that delivered Sometimes I Sit And Think… (“I didn’t really overthink it,” she says of the decision to once again augment core members Bones Sloane and Dave Mudie with fourth studio musician Dan Luscombe, having Luscombe and Burke Reid on production duties. “I just like them. They’re great, and really talented – I feel safe and I can rely on them all”). The ensuing record was one built on carefully-constructed confessionals and raw honesty. The album’s opening third sees Barnett in a position of near-vulnerability, with each song featuring a self-addressed message of reassurance. “You know it’s okay, to have a bad day” she sings on ‘Hopefulessness’, adding “Pull yourself together and just calm down” on ‘City Looks Pretty ‘ and “You don’t have to pretend you’re not scared” on ‘Charity’. The candour and personal intimacy that runs through the entire album seems at odds with the current school of songwriting which favours political commentary. Arguably it’s her wife Jen Cloher who seems to have done the best job of reconciling the two in recent times, with last year’s self-titled album deftly commenting on marriage equality and namechecking right-wing politician Pauline Hanson, alongside detailing bedside cabinet contents and breakfast rituals.
The fact that she’s gone against the grain somewhat in the current musical climate isn’t lost on Barnett, who admits “I was definitely like everyone else and was dwelling on those things a lot,” adding as a bit of rhetorical pondering “as a privileged person, what do you do to use your position to do something?” It was something she admits she dabbled with during her writing endeavours, but declares “everything I wrote from that position didn’t sound right. The way I eventually wrote felt more honest, which might sound metaphorical in the lyrics but it makes sense to me.” For many musicians, the second album has all too often proved to be a vehicle to complain about the demands and dissatisfactions of life on the road or in the public eye – it’s a relief that it’s a path that Barnett has swerved. She laughs at the notion when it’s mentioned before adding, with a mix of mischievousness and incredulity “How boring would that have been?!” Does the way the record has connected both with critics and fans validate her decision to open herself up to some degree? Her voice becomes a distant whisper as if overawed at the question or the idea in general “I’m not sure….I’m not sure.”
The closest the album gets to touching on the life of a musician comes in the 1-2 punch of ‘City Looks Pretty’ and ‘Charity’. The former’s opening lines of “The city looks pretty when you’ve been indoors/for 23 days…” could be construed as a swipe at touring monotony were it not written during Barnett’s sharehouse days of her early 20s. Album closer ‘Sunday Roast’ similarly comes, at least in part, from her past but she’s quick to dissuade people of the notion that she purposefully returned to a pre-fame time in her life, explaining “I always go back to old songs and they were just ready…it’s just something I do”. Meanwhile, Charity’s chorus of “You must be having so much fun/Everything’s amazing” could be viewed as a sarcasm-laced on comment on people’s misconception of a rock star life versus the reality and her way of saying that it features bad days like any other profession. In truth, both are arguably extensions of first album tracks ‘Pedestrian At Best’ and ‘Small Poppies’- a battle of expectations and actualities whether, self-imposed or from external sources. “I think it’s so universal and it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do,” she says when pressed on the matter “every person I’ve ever encountered goes through those things. It’s mostly about me but it incorporates other people too, there are dual stories at play.”
Listening to the album in full feels like a three-part depiction of the human condition. The first third – up until ‘Need A Little Time’, where Barnett longs for solitude and an opportunity to regroup – is the frank admissions of someone battling uncertainty. The middle third is the sound of someone finding their feet and kicking out against the world (the act’s end ‘Self-Doubt And A General Lack Of Confidence’, despite its title, bounces along with the buoyancy of someone at ease with the fact that “I don’t know, I don’t know anything”). While the record’s closing passage gives the sense of the author finding a sense of contentment at last. “Yeah, I mean now you mention it…” she reflects when it’s put to her, going on to explain how “me and Jen did the tracklisting while driving across America and it was based more on sonic rather than narrative factors. That seemed the best kind of musical flow and everything. Maybe it was some sort of subconscious thing.” Does the fact that it works seems to flow so well lyrically despite being ordered musically suggest a perfect melding of words and music? “Yeah maybe, I guess so much emotion goes into the sound and into how it’s played…”
Though it shouldn’t be surprising given her breakout moment came on the back of a witty retelling of gardening misadventures, it’s always striking how Barnett’s songs – homely anecdotes and frank admissions that frequently feel like being let into a close friend’s innermost thoughts – translate onto big stages and via wider audiences. 2016’s large show at Somerset House and her recent BBC Biggest Weekender appearance confirmed their ability to transcend stage and audience sizes in the same way they’ve long transcended demographic boundaries. The shows on her latest tour – some barely a week after the album’s release – amply demonstrate that the new material can effortlessly do likewise. While her work suits large spaces to the point of feeling almost designed for that exact purpose, nothing could be further from the truth. “I’ve never really written songs for a specific stage or a setting” she says “ and I’ve never really thought about it in terms of ‘I have to write a stadium song’ or something. I play in so many different places, and I think the song just has to be really good – you should be able to play a rock song acoustically and still hold some sort of interest.” But has she herself been surprised at the way they’ve carried over? “It was an interesting surprise, I guess – you see songs in a different way and in a different light when they’re taken outside yourself. Even if you write in your bedroom, the first stage you play on will allow you to see a different side to the song. In a festival you again see it in a different point of view, but even for me it’s different because if someone I know is standing side of stage I’ll see it through their eyes or through some other kind of filter.”
With our time drawing a close Barnett’s jovial side comes to the fore as she expresses an almost motherly concern as to whether I’ll be watching openers Loose Tooth, the three-piece signed to her label about to make their UK debut that evening. It was reminiscent of a comment Darren Hanlon made while supporting her 2015 US tour to the effect that she was some sort of ambassador to Australian music. She smirks, almost in disbelief, at the reminder. “I don’t think so. It’s nice, though,” she says, before adding with a certain understatement ”…but I don’t know. It’s a big job.” As we get up, we both simultaneously notice a curved wall jutting into room with tiny, smoked windows. Soon we’re standing shoulder to shoulder at adjacent panes, trying to see what’s on the other side. “It’s kinda creepy!” she beams.
“A lot of the record was me studying my own behaviours and the patterns of behaviours I fall into, so I would hope people can listen to it, do the same and see how they could change or be more aware of what they’re doing.”
It’s a fitting end to our time spent discussing a record which at times offers a window into some of some previously unknown corners of Barnett’s psyche, an album which she herself describes as one which she “probably needed to make. I didn’t know what I was trying to make, but I like how it turned out.” You sometimes get the sense, reading some of her prior interviews, that it’s a record she’s still getting her head around herself. It’s a notion that she goes some way to confirming, describing how “even though it feels really direct, I think it’s so open to many different interpretations. Even I’m not 100% sold on what each line means – they all have so many different meanings, both the songs themselves and a lot of the lines within them, and it’s just so not black and white, which I like. I get something different out of it when I sing it each night and I get to feel different things.”
“A lot of the record was me studying my own behaviours and the patterns of behaviours I fall into, so I would hope people can listen to it, do the same and see how they could change or be more aware of what they’re doing.” Watching the record being played in full a couple of hours later and being sung back but a few days after release, you get the sense that she might just get her wish.
Listen: Tell Me How You Really Feel