Courtney Barnett - The Under the Radar Cover Story

Humble but Hungry

May 16, 2018 Issue #63 - Courtney Barnett Photography by Taj O'Halloran (for Under the Radar) Bookmark and Share


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Courtney Barnett's second full-length release starts in a dark place. Opening with the groan of a guitar being tuned, a soft gasp, and the growl of feedback, "Hopefulessness" is the sound of tension searching for a place to escape. "You know what they say, no one is born to hate," Barnett sings over ominously askew guitar lines. "We learn it somewhere along the way." Before the song is over it will turn personal, and Barnett's moody lattice work guitar leads will disintegrate into peals of howling distortion and "empty bottle blues" will be rhymed with "sleepin' different rooms." Just like that, Tell Me How You Really Feel establishes a tonea seriousness, a sense of dangerthat does not appear on any of her other recordings. "No one is born to hate" is not offered as a comforting truth. It sounds more like a warning.

"I looked it up, and I guess it's kind of a paraphrase of a Nelson Mandela quote," she says on a Los Angeles afternoon in early January. "But a lot of it is kind of a reflection of the climate of the last year or two years. The idea that no one is born to hate, you learn it as you grow up from family or your surroundings. Racism, sexismthey don't come naturally. They come from some kind of fear, which I guess I don't understand. I guess that is the anger and sadness of it."

If you've followed Barnett's music to this point, you know this sort of sweeping, universal statement is not exactly common in her body of work. Over the course of two EPs, one critically-lauded full-length (2015's Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit) and one unexpectedly excellent collaborative album with Kurt Vile (2017's Lotta Sea Lice), Barnett has established herself as a songwriter with a rare eye for plainspoken detail and slice-of-life vignettes. There has been anger and sadness in her work"I think you're a joke, but I don't find you very funny" still stings three years laterbut it was always delivered with a grin and only after she'd already offered a self-deprecating aside. A study in balance, her work can be self-effacing without being self-pitying, clever without being precious, profound without being ponderous. These were not songs constructed out of bold strokes as much as small insights and sharp wordplay. This time, the personal and the universal are woven together on Tell Me How You Really Feel.

"It kind of slides between the two," she admits. "Because I started a lot of songs focusing on other people or other people's behavior or ideas, they weren't about me. But then they do become about me, because it's always my own projection and perception and judgment. I discover each time I look back or listen back to the songs if I reference 'you' or 'they' sometimes that's me, and sometimes when I say 'me,' it's them," she laughs. "And sometimes it's both. That was a really interesting thing for me to play with and recognize, because a lot of [the songwriting] is about those general human behaviors and psychology, the weird inner workings of how we operate."

Barnett's examination of those "weird inner workings" has been the defining element of her songwriting, and they remain on Tell Me How You Really Feel even though the focus has shifted, both thematically and musically. Gone are songs like "Avant Gardener," where an asthma attack while gardening became a playfully rendered metaphor for contemporary existential angst. The conclusions now are at once more literal, more personal, and often more conflicted. On "Nameless Faceless" Barnett lashes out at toxic masculinity and the cyberbullies it enables. "You sit alone at home in the darkness with all the pent up rage that you harness," she sings over jangly guitar chords. "I'm real sorry about whatever happened to you." On "Charity" she appears to offer inner monologues that vacillate between self-affirming ("Everyone else is just as terrified as you") and self-mocking ("You must be having so much fun/Everything's amazing"). Even the ebullient power-pop of "Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self-Confidence" contains the deflating line "I never feel as stupid as when I'm around you."

Despite her openness in discussing the depression and self-doubt that have increasingly turned up as themes in her writing, Barnett only seems to show that side of herself in her art. In conversation, she is anything but dour. If she is at all phased by her successher appearance as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, her Australian gold record, her Grammy nomination for "Best New Artist"it's hard to tell. Today she is jetlagged and sniffly, fighting hay fever a few days before starting a tour playing guitar for Jen Cloher, her longtime partner. Few songwriters, let alone ones who are such singular artists in their own right, would sign up for a cross-country jaunt to spend afternoons setting up guitar pedals and playing leads on songs she didn't write. But Courtney Barnett is not most songwriters. "I like touring with Jen," she says somewhat sheepishly, "because I don't have to do any of the press stuff or any of that."

While Barnett doesn't exactly crave the spotlight, she obviously isn't that uncomfortable in it. This is the first interview she has done for her new record, she says, and she is still working out exactly what she wants to say about it. In her own way, Barnett is a difficult artist to interview. Though she's disarmingly polite and engaging in conversation, she's also unfailingly humble, seemingly uninterested in self-promotion and even less in self-mythology. She answers nearly every question with a tentative "Yeah..." followed by an "I don't know" before puzzling over what her actual answer is. Ask her about the meanings of her songs, and she will show genuine interest in your interpretation while skillfully avoiding offering any of her own. I suggest that Tell Me How You Really Feel represents a change in her songwriting, shifting from the droll and observational to something more personal and conversational. She isn't convinced.

"It's hard for me to tell, because it always seems like I'm working through things," she says. "This album definitely felt a lot more like working through a problem through the lyrics or through the flow of a song. It felt like encouraging myself or others, because some of the songs are about friends or close people, and it felt like I was writing a self-help book a little bit. It feels like a self-help album."

Recorded in July 2017, in the same Melbourne studio and with the same personnel who worked on her previous album, Tell Me How You Really Feel sounds like the weary confession of an artist who has traveled the world, collected all the accolades an artist can carry, and returned home tired and estranged from herself and others in the process. "City Looks Pretty" appears to be written from the perspective of someone coming back to her hometown with newfound fame, finding that "your friends treat you like a stranger, and the strangers treat you like their best friend." On the surface, "Need a Little Time" seems to be at least partly about an artist getting used to the fact that her listeners assume they know her while demanding increasingly more vulnerability ("open up your insides show us/your inner most lecherous"). Like so many albums made in the aftermath of a life-changing breakthrough release, this one sounds like the work of someone coming to terms with the upheaval caused by success.

"I feel like lots of people will probably make that connection, because that's the kind of image that you or they see," she says, gently disagreeing with that interpretation. "But, of course, everything I do inspires ideas in songs. That's definitely a big part of it, but that's not all of it. But I'd be lying if I shrugged it off like it is nothing. All of the touring and stuff that I've done in the last couple of years, which have been pretty full on, I really love learning new things. I just always try and keep an open mind, and learning to be aware of when things do upset you or when you get defensive it normally means something. So, yeah, I think it's all a learning experience that adds into future songs, but that's like anything. It's like catching the tram and witnessing other people."

In that moment, Barnett is struck by a thought. I mention that while the album starts with what is arguably the bleakest song in her catalog, it ends with one of the most uplifting, with the reassuring affirmations of "Sunday Roast." This mirrors the journey of her writing process, she says, as she battled self-doubt and writer's block for much of the two-year period. Knowing that she had an audience anticipating her next album, she struggled to craft songs that were worthy of her listeners' expectations, not to mention ones that would adequately respond to the politically-charged moment.

She filled notebooks full of notes, then lost them and had to start over. She tried to write on a typewriter, finding that her mind had to work more slowly to fit the rhythm of the 20th century technology. An admitted procrastinator, she booked a rehearsal room at a studio, loaded in her guitars and keyboards, and forced herself to work eight-hour days. Most importantly, for the first time she wrote songs on piano. Little by little, the songs started to come, and they didn't sound quite like anything she had ever done before.

"It's such an angry and sad album, but [I'm] working through that feeling to something else, if that makes sense," she concludes. "I'm still figuring out what the album is all about, but I guess I know deep down somewhere. [It's about] the anger and sadness that is in that song ['Hopefulessness'] and working towards finding some kind of hope."

 

SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN


When Barnett found herself struggling to create new material for her sophomore release, it made sense she would bring back  several tunes that had survived in her memory since her earliest days as a songwriter. The aforementioned "Sunday Roast" had its roots in her high school years, just as the riff from "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch" originated in her early 20s. "Help Your Self" was begun when Barnett was a teenager trying to figure out multitrack recording, laying down the funky guitar parts, then singing the bass line and beatboxing the percussion. "City Looks Pretty" started when Barnett was a depressed 22-year-old in Melbourne, playing in bands at night while struggling to get out of bed during the day. What sounds like the story of an artist returning home to find everything has changed is actually a conversation between 30-year-old Courtney and her earlier counterpart, their two stories merging.

Growing up in Sydney's Northern Beaches, Barnett was not an obvious candidate for future rock stardom. Though her parents were artistsher mother being a former ballerina and her father a graphic designershe grew up in a home with no musical instruments aside from her older brother's guitar. Having talked her parents into buying her a guitar of her own when she was 10 years old, she began writing songs as soon as she could string together a couple chords.

"I had a really great guitar teacher," she recalls, "and he was like, 'Okay, every song has three chords in it. These are the chords, and you can basically play every song that has ever been written using these three chords.' And I was like, 'Wow! What a crazy concept. Surely that can't be the truth.' And then he showed me all of these pop songs and classic rock songs that were more or less the combination of three chords and 12-bar blues things and old Elvis songs, and it was kind of mind-blowing, because it was this first official look behind the magic of music. Once I'd figured out how to play the chords and get my little baby fingers around that, it was exciting. I would make up little stupid songs."

These were the days when the Barnett family didn't even own a CD player, and Courtney relied on her neighbor for her early music education. "We had this combination of three mixtapes that had stuff that he put on there, like Nirvana and [Red Hot] Chili Peppers and No Doubt and Jimi Hendrix, Green Day," she remembers. As she grew older, she discovered Triple J radio and their yearly round-up compilation CDs. It didn't take long for her to search for likeminded artists.

"Even when I was in primary school, I would make bands," she says. "No one else seemed that interested in it, but I would force people into it. I remember I had this band with some guys in my class. I'm pretty sure we did covers, but it's so long ago now that it's hard to remember, but I seem to remember doing funny weird originals. Through high school, I'd make high school bands and we'd do covers of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and stuff, and then when I was in 18 I played in this other cover band, just guitar. I didn't sing in front of anyone."

Though her voice is instantly identifiable, a highly expressive if not particularly virtuosic instrument, she has always had a love-hate relationship with it. Listen to Tell Me How You Really Feel, and you hear a vocalist who exudes an easy-going confidence, something that is communicated ever more clearly as she writes songs that require her to push her voice into new registers. But teenaged Courtney had no such confidence.

"It was an open mic kind of situation, acoustic, and yeah I'd roped a whole lot of friends into coming to support," she recalls. "I just remember being so nervous and terrified of singing in front of people. I think it was more...not the songs that I was embarrassed about, but it was more the act of actually singing. I remember I got one singing lesson when I was maybe 16, and I just cried. I sung a bit and I just started crying. It's weird. I don't know why. Singing is such a vulnerable thing."

And so Barnett decided to develop her craft while bartending and playing guitar in other people's bands, first in Melbourne garage rockers Rapid Transit and then in psych-country unit Immigrant Union, the band where she would meet two of her future bandmates, bassist Andrew "Bones" Sloane and drummer Dave Mudie. Having dropped out of the University of Tasmania after one semester, she was ready to play full-time. Even if she wasn't yet confident in her singing, she was already a charismatic performer. "I remember watching her playing guitar with Immigrant UnionBrent De Boer's bandand thinking how she had this calm, assured energy," recalls Cloher. "A stillness that drew your eye to what she was doing. Courtney doesn't have to try."

But try Courtney did, pouring her imagination into 2012's I've Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris and 2013's How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose, her first two EPs (eventually collected as The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas). "Avant Gardener" became a blog hit and a viral video that has been viewed nearly six million times since. She wasn't yet a finished product, but she had a singular perspective, a pronounced sense of humor, and a shruggy, rambling innocence that was instantly endearing. Still, in those early days, Barnett didn't know if anyone would care.

"I think you just hope for the best," she says. "I was playing so many shows for so long in a couple of different bands, and I guess the goal is always to play a better show and get paid and not have to pay money to do a show, because that's what you end up doing sometimes. Just to try to get in a better situation. But I don't think I had any grand goals. I just wanted to connect with people."

She didn't have to wait long. Though it only happened a few times at first, those occasions when someone would approach Barnett after a show to explain how her music had resonated with them or gotten them through difficult times had a profound effect on her. What came next was a blurthe acclaimed debut full-length, the four ARIA awards, the main stage at Glastonbury, the late-night TV appearancesbut none of that really mattered much.

"I think it's good, but I've always tried not to take it too much to heart," she admits. "I like that so many people have connected with what I'm saying, and on that emotional level that's really incredible. And I guess in a way that's essentially what acclaim is. But I think the shiny side of it, I'm not so interested in; I like the emotional side of it. That's the thing-you write these vulnerable songs and you think that you're the only one going through whatever it is, whatever emotion you're going on about. And when people connect with it, it means they're going through the same thing and you're not alone. You're not alone and they're not alone," she says with a laugh. "And all of a sudden it's a nice feeling."

 

GOT A LOT TO PROVE


Aside from a line in "Nameless Faceless" about men being scared of women laughing at them and women being afraid of men murdering thema reference borrowed from Margaret Atwoodthere are few moments of levity on Tell Me How You Really Feel. The rest of the track, though cloaked in swaying power-pop verses and crunching power chord choruses, is more biting social commentary than playful deadpan. That alone makes it quite a departure from Barnett's previous work, as many of her most memorable lines were essentially punchlines, wryly crafted and dryly delivered. The punchline this time, to the extent that there is one, is that Barnett keeps her keys splayed between her fingers to fight off potential assailants. Barnett simply wasn't in a joking mood.

"I hadn't really noticed that until another person mentioned it to me the other day," Barnett admits. "It wasn't really intentional, but I don't think I've ever really intentionally tried to be funny or something. I think it has always been up to the slightly sarcastic, ironic turn on a serious thing maybe. I guess sometimes it has been a self-defense mechanism for talking about something that's emotional or vulnerable; I think I used it in the past as a tool a bit. But I definitely didn't intentionally avoid it [this time]. I'd like to go back and listen to the new songs now and try to find the funny parts. Maybe I was just in such a serious frame of mind I had no room for it or something."

When asked if this lack of humor indicates that she now feels confident enough to say what she means without cloaking it in comedy, she isn't sure. She does, however, acknowledge that these new songs are different largely in their production and arrangements. Her usual mandate"Make it sound more shit"was pushed to the side, and she worked with producer/engineer Burke Reid to create a textural palette that was "warm and natural and real." In an era where pop reigns supreme and clean, sterile production is expected, Tell Me How You Really Feel is a classic rock record, rough around the edges and raw in its performances. Though the set-up remains the sameguitar, bass, drums, keyboardsthe production is louder and punchier, the hooks are more immediate, and the arrangements are more layered. Much of this, Barnett says, is due to her writing many of the songs on piano.

"I don't really greatly know how to play piano, but I've taught myself the basics and I can plunk along," she says. "But it just brought out this whole other world of ideas when I was sitting there, where I'd normally strum on a guitar. In the past I've done that and looped it. That's why some [older] songs are a bit rambly and not as melodic, and I definitely found another level of melody on some of these new songs. Even 'Need a Little Time' with that high falsetto chorus-y bit, that was me going, 'I wonder what would happen if I challenge myself to sing in a place where I never [did]?' I mean, sometimes I do if I'm doing harmonies in another band, but I don't often sing there by myself, which is kind of scary but also a fun songwriting challenge."

When I suggest the album seems to belong to no particular erathat it sounds like a messy Neil Young album from the '70s, a straightforward Tom Petty record from the '80s, and a sardonic Pavement record from the '90s all mixed into oneshe seems pleased with the comparison. When I mention that the range of material on the albumfrom the pedal steel country rock of "Walkin' on Eggshells" to the glistening power-pop of "Charity" to the careening garage riff of "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch"represents a significant refinement of her craft, she finally agrees.

"I've always had such simple song structures," she says. "Only a handful of chords and not too many parts. Verse-chorus-bridge and maybe a solo or something but nothing too crazy. But I'd definitely push myself. Something like 'Nameless Faceless' was three songs mashed togetherthree songs I was working on that weren't really getting anywhere. That happened a lot, I think, sacrificing one thing for something else."

Listen closely to "Nameless Faceless" and you might notice the backing vocals of Kim Deal of The Breeders and Pixies fame, both bands Barnett says played a significant role in her musical development. Having met Deal while doing an interview for The Talkhouse, the two developed an immediate rapport, with Barnett making a stop in Dayton, Ohio, to record vocals on The Breeders' All Nerve record. As she was leaving, Deal made an offer: "Let me know if I can ever repay the favor."

"So when it got to the time, I was like, 'Ah, shit. This could actually do with some of those Deal harmonies,'" Barnett says of "Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence," a track that features backing harmonies from both Kim and Kelley Deal. Tellingly, the line that the duo sings is the one that became the title of the album. Though Barnett seems to be so stoic in conversation as to preclude being in awe of anyone, when she talks about the Deal sisters, her tone changes to something approaching reverence. "I grew up with Nirvana, and I would read interviews of Kurt [Cobain] talking about the Pixies and whatever that bass line is that everyone says [Nirvana] stole from a Pixies song," she says. "I read him talking about how cool Kim Deal is. It was one of those journeys."

It's only a brief moment but a telling one. To understand what motivates Barnett as an artist, one must see her as a listener, first and foremost. It's not that she lacks confidence in her skills as a songwriter; it's that she remembers what it's like to be a fan, unraveling the lineage of her favorite artists. She remembers being the listener who feels a genuine connection to a songwriter who is, in reality, a stranger. That she now is the stranger that people feel that connection to can be both a humbling and overwhelming notion. Ask her about carrying the expectations for her listeners, and she stiffens. There's a part of her that still isn't sure why people are so moved by her music.

"I don't know, and when I think about it too much, it probably sends me to a weird place," she says. "When I think about where I connect with other songwriters that I like, it's just that sense of not being alone and knowing that someone else is feelings the same things. I guess it's that. I think that's part of my problem-the fear of not being good enough. Songwriting is so strange to me, because it feels like everything has been said, and what can you say that is different or meaningful that hasn't been said?" she says. "But I keep trying. I keep trying to write a better song and figure it out."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Spring 2018 Issue (March/April/May 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.

www.courtneybarnett.com.au

     

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