Courtney Barnett Is a Lot Like You
The songwriter takes us inside the pain and self-discovery that fueled making her second album 'Tell Me How You Really Feel.'
“Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack Of Self Confidence”, a song on Courtney Barnett’s sophomore album Tell Me How You Really Feel, features an unusual call-and-response as its hook. “Tell me how you really feel!” yells a chorus, to which Barnett responds, on a loop, “I don’t know, I don’t know anything.” On paper, or in the voice of another musician, this exchange might recall a fight between friends or partners. But it’s Courtney Barnett; this conversation is internal.
That refrain of “tell me how you really feel” stems, in part at least, from Barnett’s continued attempts to get better at being honest with herself when writing. “I think there’s always a part of my brain that’s never completely honest with myself,” she tells me. “There’s always these self-defence mechanisms that automatically go up and you sometimes don’t even notice.”
If a lack of honesty is Barnett’s problem, it doesn’t come through in the music. Since the international release of her breakout single “Avant Gardener” in 2013, Barnett’s knotty, radically candid songs have taken her to increasingly huge places: wide critical acclaim, gargantuan festivals, television performances, and, somewhat astonishingly, a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist. She lost to Meghan Trainor, but still: these are all achievements that, for a DIY musician from Australia, are incomprehensibly huge. Barnett is hardly an overnight sensation (“I played everywhere in Hobart and everywhere in Melbourne, all the open mics and shitty Tuesday night slots”) but her rise to considerable indie-rock fame has been exponential.
It’s mid-March, and Barnett sits across from me in a back room of the Coburg, Melbourne warehouse of Milk! Records, the label she runs with her partner, singer-songwriter Jen Cloher. The warehouse isn’t huge, but it’s big enough: behind me, there’s a room full of records by Cloher and Barnett as well as Jade Imagine, Hachiku, Fraser A. Gorman, and many more; behind Barnett, there’s a small nook for band rehearsal that's been decorated with Persian rugs and fairy lights. A few weeks after our interview, Barnett and band will use that space as a stage, playing an intimate album preview show for friends of the label before heading to the Northern Hemisphere to begin a three-month tour in support of Tell Me How You Really Feel.
Although Barnett is doing better than ever career-wise, a deep-seated malaise still courses through Tell Me How You Really Feel, manifesting in a brutal lyrical honesty that verges on the masochistic. Take, for example, “Charity”, Tell Me How You Really Feel’s best (and most heart-wrenchingly self critical) track. “So subservient, I make myself sick,” Barnett sings on the chorus, spitting out the hard ‘k’ like it’s bile. It’s the kind of raw self-criticism that’s probably felt, at some point, by nearly everyone, but hardly spoken about. Hearing her sing it out loud is thrilling.
“I feel like I cower to decisions, and have always been very apologetic and eager to neutralise,” Barnett says of that line in “Charity”. It’s a quality she didn’t even realise she possessed until reading Melbourne-based critic Brodie Lancaster’s memoir, No Way! Okay, Fine. “I was like, ‘I do that! Fuck, why do I do that?’ It’s so strange being so unaware of something and then all of a sudden realising what it is.”
When offering up an insight into her personality like this, Barnett’s tone rarely changes; throughout our conversation, her voice remains steady and assured, save for the occasional laugh or groan. For someone that seems awfully serious in her press shots––often peering into the lens or into the distance as if deep in thought––and who is often painted as being shy or soft-spoken, Barnett is a comfortingly warm presence. When she greets me, clad in a uniform-esque outfit of a black t-shirt, black jeans and Blundstones, it’s with an eye-crinkling grin; when she does crack a joke or laugh through our conversation, it’s always knowingly, conspiratorially, punctuated by a quiet “y’know?”
The kind of self-discovery and self-therapy that led to “Charity” is central to Tell Me How You Really Feel. The record’s themes, according to Barnett, are communication and connection. She’s always been aware of her neuroses (any number of old lyrics could attest to that) but this record is different; rather than channel her moods into wry anecdotes about public pools and bumper stickers, Tell Me How You Really Feel finds Barnett looking directly in the mirror, free of framing devices or metaphor. “There’s a lot of psychological studying,” she says, before realising that, well, a lot of her music has involved the psychological studying of others. She clarifies: “Me trying to do an amateur psychological study of myself.”
On some songs, as on “Charity”, this study comes through as critique; in many others, it manifests in the form of affirmation, as on “Mind Your Self”. An upbeat track about Barnett’s practise of Qigong, a form of guided breathing and relaxation, the song finds Barnett repeating short phrases like mantras. “You got a lot on your mind,” she tells herself, “You know that half the time/ It’s only half as true/ Don’t let it swallow you”. These affirmations are peppered throughout the rest of the album, too, quiet words of encouragement like “Keep on keeping on, you’re not alone”, or “You seem to have the weight of the world upon your bony shoulders, well hold on”, or “Your vulnerability is stronger than it seems”. They wouldn’t work on a t-shirt, but they’re empowering all the same, a voice in the back of your head telling you to keep pushing forward.
“I always try really hard to fake the optimism until it becomes real.” —Courtney Barnett
The push/pull between the malaise of some songs and the positivity of others, Barnett says, directly reflects her constant internal monologue. “I always try really hard to fake the optimism until it becomes real,” she tells me. “I realised in the process of making this album that I’m not a pessimist, and I’m not so full of anger. I came out of it feeling quite strangely positive. Even though it sounds like a really negative album, it’s kinda more about being grateful and recognising the good things.”
The need for these affirmations is also an attempt to quell the part of her brain that’s constantly catastrophizing. “My natural assumption on my more negative days is that everyone hates me. I think my friends hate me. It's hard for me to probably think about it honestly, because I think it all the time.” she says candidly, less as an admission and more as if it’s a statement of fact. “Before I release a song, I feel physically sick knowing that it’ll go online the next morning. I guess it’s just human fear of it failing, or people thinking it was terrible. I’m not immune to that at all.”
The butterflies, while inevitable, aren’t necessary. Tell Me How You Really Feel is a beautifully constructed record, the work of an artist at the top of her game. Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Barnett’s first album, was critically acclaimed, sure, but it bore the marks of growing pains. More narrative-based tracks like “Elevator Operator” and “Aqua Profunda”, while fun throwbacks to the writing on Barnett’s early EPs, couldn’t keep up with more emotionally bloodthirsty songs like “Pedestrian At Best” and “Depreston”, artfully constructed tunes that zeroed in on raw emotion using the same specificity with which Barnett once used to paint entire story arcs. Tell Me How You Really Feel eschews narrative-based ditties entirely, instead operating entirely in this second, more emotionally resonant mode. From the record’s swaying, uncertain introduction right through to the finale, a warm, rough-hewn platonic love song called “Sunday Roast”, Barnett’s sophomore record feels like an altogether more fully realised portrait of herself. The album’s content neatly mirrors its cover art: a close-up self portrait, Barnett looking you straight in the eye.
Musically, the record feels more true-to-life too: a few years of touring Sometimes I Sit and Think turned Barnett and her band, made up of drummer Dave Mudie and bassist Bones Sloane, who are joined in-studio by The Drones’ Dan Luscombe (a group sometimes billed in the early days, jokingly, as ‘Courtney Barnett and the Courtney Barnetts’) into a raucous, muscular unit. Once described ad nauseum as “ramshackle”, Tell Me How You Really Feel shows off the group’s joint dexterity, and flaunts an aptitude for sweaty solos and tense codas. It would be hard to describe the players on this record, so tightly woven after five-odd years playing together, as “ramshackle” anymore.
Like many painfully good, painfully introspective records, the actual path towards Tell Me How You Really Feel’s creation wasn’t particularly smooth. After finishing touring for Sometimes I Sit and Think, Barnett began to write a new record, but found it hard to collect her ideas properly. While she had no shortage of bits and pieces for songs (“I had a manila folder full of A4 pages and I would stick them onto the wall like A Beautiful Mind”) what was forming wasn’t quite right, an experience she likens to “tunnel vision”. Keenly aware of her voice and reach, initial attempts at writing songs that spoke to the current political climate proved to be misguided. “When I was starting to write the songs, they were more politically direct, but they were so tacky,” she says. “I think I realised I don’t quite know how to express the feelings I have, and it felt very preachy and full of ego and self-righteousness.”
Part of Barnett’s process for getting over this creative tunnel vision involved pursuing creative work that was collaborative, as opposed to the oftentimes lonely process of writing a solo album. So, over the course of her writing period for Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett recorded two albums that weren’t entirely her own: Jen Cloher’s self-titled record, on which she played guitar, and Lotta Sea Lice, a collaborative record with her longtime idol Kurt Vile. While both records were lauded upon release, they were low-impact projects for Barnett on a personal level, which was exactly what she needed. “It was just good for my brain to flex muscles in different areas and be a bit distracted,” she says. After a period of self-imposed isolation during which she tried to force ideas to materialise, working on new music with Vile and Cloher helped Barnett remember that “going out and doing things” was exactly what she needed in order to gain inspiration.
In the end, instead of trying to write explicitly political songs, she decided to zero in on why the world was in such turmoil. “I started focusing on the thoughts that end up driving hatred and fear, where it comes from and how it ends up being racism or homophobia or whatever it is,” she tells me. “It was all I was seeing and all I could see was the pain from it, everywhere, in people.”
Sad and angry about the state of the world, Barnett ended up making music that spoke not to the specifics of the political climate, but to the emotional and mental impact it was having on her loved ones. “I feel like I was writing songs for friends or people who I knew were kinda going through things,” she explains. “I kept seeing people struggling and feeling really hopeless, and it was this weird balance of like, what good is it to be hopeless? How can you do anything to make a situation better? How can I take that energy and turn it somehow positive?”
Those questions are addressed in Tell Me How You Really Feel’s opener, “Hopefulessness”, its tongue-twisting title a reflection of Barnett’s ideological bind. In the song’s first verse, Barnett answers her own questions swiftly and gracefully with a quote pulled from the late Carrie Fisher: “Take your broken heart, and turn it into art.” Which, through the course of the record, is exactly what she does.
“I started focusing on the thoughts that end up driving hatred and fear, where it comes from and how it ends up being racism or homophobia or whatever it is. It was all I was seeing and all I could see was the pain from it, everywhere, in people.” —Courtney Barnett
The songs that did end up having a vaguely political bent, like lead single “Nameless, Faceless”, which builds itself around the Margaret Atwood quote “Men are scared that women will laugh at them, women are scared that men will kill them”, weren’t fully intended that way. “That song wasn’t really a “fuck you” or anything,” she says. “People have described it as 'trying to start a beef with trolls' or whatever, but it’s not that. It just touched on things that I had always dealt with and friends had always dealt with and talked about.”
Accordingly, “Nameless, Faceless” is one of many songs on Tell Me How You Really Feel that feels like something Barnett needed to make; there are a handful of ‘angry’ songs on this record, tracks so aggressively cathartic that they feel like exorcisms. “Lacking self-confidence feels like such an intense, crippling feeling, and then it feels kind of nice to just kind of say it out loud and then sing it,” Barnett explains. “It always feels really good to sing a slightly angry song and just get it out of your fucking body, get that feeling out, and it feels quite.. I don't know the words, but it feels good.”
And the catharsis of performing an angry song to a crowd of tens of thousands, while a relatively new experience for Barnett, is one she’s taken to wholeheartedly. Once agonisingly shy––she recalls, with a wry smile, her refusal to meet Cloher's friends in the early stages of their relationship––being forced into the limelight over the past few years opened Barnett up to the thrill of performing. “I came out of the last few years realising that I had a lot more courage in me than I ever thought I did. I was always like ‘Oh, I’m so shy,’ and I'd get really weird when I had to meet people,” she says. “When I started touring a lot more and touring overseas, I was forced into this situation where I had to learn how to do it. I think it’s quite strangely liberating to sing all of these things to lots of people, feels a bit unreal.”
Even so, Barnett anticipates that the first few months around Tell Me How You Really Feel will be a struggle. “I think this whole album release and tour will be a huge challenge, honestly, and already talking about it with heaps of people has been challenging and quite intense,” she confides. “Trying to understand it and figure out how I’m feeling or what I’m talking about as I go, mostly with strangers, is a really weird situation.” That's just the promo; the tour itself is a different beast entirely. After the grueling run for Sometimes I Sit and Think, Barnett realised that the realities of touring overseas weren’t as simple as she initially thought. A month touring would turn into two months, which would turn into three months, simply because the band figured that it wasn’t worth the extra costs to fly all the way back to Australia. “We all figured out the opposite, eventually,” says Barnett. “It’s not like touring is the most important thing in the world.”
But those are concerns for the future; right now, all Barnett’s worrying about is the album. “I feel really proud of it, so hopefully the initial sickness will go away,” she says. “I guess that’s the other thing: you realise, eventually, that it’s just another drop in the fucking pond. You think everyone is focussing on you and thinking about you, but they’re actually not, so it’s like, who cares?” She smiles at me. “Just do the best you can.”
Courtney Barnett's Tell Me How You Really Feel is out May 18 through Milk! Records/Marathon Artists/Mom + Pop.
Shaad D'Souza is Noisey's Australian Editor. Follow him on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey AU.