Courtney Barnett: Everything Is Suddenly Fixed, Until It’s Not

Mike Greenhaus on January 20, 2022
Courtney Barnett: Everything Is Suddenly Fixed, Until It’s Not

Courtney Barnett was already in a dark place before the world turned upside down.

“I was feeling depressed, and a close friend was trying to shake me out of that,” the Melbourne-based singer/ guitarist says, as she thinks back on the slump she found herself in during the latter part of 2019. “I was encouraged to make a list of things to look forward to, in order to help me see the great things that exist among us. Even if we think that everything is horrible, there are still lots of beautiful and wonderful things in the world. It was just a nice reminder not to lose sight of that gratitude.”

That sage advice is now the basis of “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To,” a standout track off Barnett’s third solo LP, Things Take Time, Take Time, which is slated for release on Nov. 12 via a partnership between the Mom + Pop, Marathon Artists and Milk! labels. The song—similar to the other nine cuts that comprise the record—is a deeply personal story that, like all of Barnett’s best works, manages to use vivid imagery and lyrics rooted in specific instances to tackle some bigger, more universal themes. It’s also a particular intimate moment on her most intimate record yet—stripped of both the full-band sound and live psych-punk swagger that drove her previous full-length statements.

“It’s not about discounting the worries or the fears or the things that might make you sad—it’s about accepting them,” Barnett says of “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To.” “It’s about being able to look at all these positive things on the same level, not letting one outbalance the other. That balance is really important in order to stay realistic. And I think that people can really project whatever they want onto that song because it already has two meanings.”

As the 33-year-old musician traces the genesis of Things Take Time, Take Time, she is calling from Joshua Tree, Calif., where she is hunkering down until her next tour kicks off. Though Barnett had already arrived in the United States when it hit, Southeast Australia has just been rattled by a 5.9 magnitude earthquake, the latest of a series of blows her homeland has faced during the past two years.

Barnett admits that she has long struggled with depression and anxiety; her breakout single “Avant Gardener,” after all, centered around an allergy-induced panic attack. At the tail end of 2019, she was wrapping up a particularly stressful year-plus album cycle behind 2018’s standout Tell Me How You Really Feel while still dealing with the fallout from her split with her longtime partner, musician Jen Cloher, and her country’s increasingly conservative political bent. The Australian wildfires also had a profound effect on her. And, like many who deal with depression, the outlook felt grim.

“It’s the constant process of dealing with this feeling,” she admits. “It’s not so much like saying, ‘It goes away’ or ‘Everything is suddenly fixed.’ It’s just about looking at things in a different way and retraining the brain so that you don’t fall into the same patterns and have the same thoughts and all that kind of stuff.”

While still touring behind Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett began working on what would become her third effort, but she really started ramping things up in late 2019 and 2020. In the midst of all that reflection, she also released her first proper live effort, MTV Unplugged (Live in Melbourne), a guest-filled reassessment of her catalog that contained one new original and a few unexpected covers; it also reflected the heaviness she was feeling. She embarked on a U.S. solo tour just as the novel coronavirus started to rear its head, before returning home for what turned out to be an uncharacteristically long stay. She rented a friend’s house, initially just to quarantine, but ended up using the space as her residence as she worked on her latest material every day.

“I stayed in the flat that I was living in and just worked on music,” she says. “Melbourne was in lockdown for a lot of the year, so it was really quiet.”

Living truly on her own for the first time, Barnett says that she did a lot of cooking and went for regular walks with her best friend while navigating an all-too-familiar mix of show postponements and cancellations. But, besides that, she spent most of her time working on music or just thinking. And, though it was hard for her to notice any exact changes, she started to see even her most personal material in a new light given the global crisis.

“I can’t help but write about my surroundings and my environment and what I’m soaking in from the world around me so I’m sure there was a bit of a shift,” she says. “A lot of it is so small— small moments and interactions. But I think with the backdrop of the last year, it paints a different picture.”


Ever since she first broke out in the U.S. with a 2013 double EP that collected a series of previously released recordings, Barnett’s twin signatures have been her wry wordplay and her ability to break down big-picture themes through the lens of small, personal details.

“It takes me a while to wade in and find a way to understand whatever it is I’m trying to process or to talk about or to communicate,” she says. “It’s always a slow process for me. But it’s a rewarding pay off—sometimes focusing on the smaller things helps make the bigger picture clearer.”

Born in Sydney—and raised on a diet of American and Australian alternative music—Barnett first found her footing on Melbourne’s psych-country circuit with Immigrant Union, playing alongside Brent DeBoer of The Dandy Warhols. After stepping out as a solo act, she released some early recordings on her own Milk! Records, before crossing over in the U.S. Thanks to her folksy delivery, indie[1]slacker vibe and groovy guitar heroics, Barnett quickly found a place on the jamband-weaned festival circuit, while her rich lyrics—which sometimes bordered on Seinfeld-esque observational comedy— attracted a more literary minded set of record collectors. Her proper 2015 debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit and, especially, Tell Me How You Really Feel both leaned into her more electrified rock-and-roll tendencies while a 2016 collaborative set with Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice, highlighted her natural kinship with Philadelphia’s DIY post-jam scene.

Before her 2020 schedule largely got nixed, Barnett had just wrapped up her first extended U.S. solo jaunt, where she spliced covers by Hank Williams, Gillian Welch and The Lemonheads into her sets at lauded spaces like Levon Helm’s Barn. By her own account, it had been a whirlwind few years, personally and professionally, and she was looking forward to carefully considering her next steps. And, in a strange way, having some of her deadlines and commitments erased may have actually helped Barnett dig into her subject matter.

“Obviously, the timelines and everything kept changing, and there was a real sense of the unknown,” she says. “I didn’t really have many expectations for recording this album and, in a way, it was freeing for me to write and record it that way. I didn’t quite believe that it would be released or be toured because of the state of the world. And, at one point, it just felt like so much was unknown—that maybe the music industry would collapse on itself along with everything else. But all of that allowed me to just write without thinking about how this might eventually exist in the world.”

In fact, in a circuitous way, Barnett believes that the pandemic’s limitations may have actually helped her artistically, too.

“I quite enjoy working within those parameters,” she says. “When there’s too many options—just like with songwriting—I become more indecisive.”

While still unable to enter a proper studio, Barnett asked Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa, who worked on her Vile project, to help her produce what eventually became Things Take Time, Take Time. They traded ideas back and forth, swapping music recommendations and, in Barnett’s words, “talking and philosophizing about songwriting.” Then, in late 2020, they finally got the green light to start recording.

“The main artist that we discussed was Arthur Russell, and ‘The Letter’ was a song that kept coming back as a reference point,” Mozgawa says. “He was always in the back of our minds—the blending of this soulful, folk-leaning music with drum machines.”

Barnett seemed to enjoy their approach. “A lot of times, I just write with an acoustic guitar and a drum machine,” she says. “After an inspiring visit to Wilco’s Loft many years ago, I got back to Melbourne and scoured eBay for drum machines. I bought one that I liked the look of. And then I bought another one— and then another one.”

Around the release of Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett regularly worked out of the Milk! Records warehouse— which was walkable from her home—and she envisioned the space becoming her rehearsal/recording clubhouse, though, she says, “it never quite got to where I wanted it to be rehearsal-wise or studio[1]wise.”

She adds: “It was very basic. I thought we had very grand plans for it, but they were never quite reached. But it was a great space to write. Luckily, I’m pretty portable and I can do it anywhere.”

From late 2020 to early 2021, Barnett and Mozgawa ended up laying down the new material at Sydney’s Golden Retriever Studios and at home in Melbourne. The low-key sessions fit the vibe of material they were working with; Barnett has described the songs as capturing a feeling of renewal, in the face of darkness. While a far cry from an acoustic album or a set of polished demos, the home-spun feel serves the songs.

“It was just the two of us,” Barnett says. “We went in loosely with the intention of doing a bunch of the tracking there and then taking it elsewhere to add other musicians or to continue moving around. But, once we got started, it just felt really good.”

A few friends did end up lending their services: Cameroonian-American musician Vagabond, who Barnett recently recorded a Sharon Van Etten cover with as part of an anniversary tribute to the revered indie star, sings on one song, and Welsh musician Cate Le Bon plays bass on another. But, while her longtime rhythm section of Bones Sloane and Dave Mudie do sing on a tune, Barnett decided not to use her live band—an audible presence on her previous albums—this time around, leaving the album’s core duo to record the lion’s share of the material themselves.

“It was a little bit of everything, and circumstance was the big one,” Barnett says. “Dave and Bones both live up in the country. We did do one session with them, which was a precursor to the album, just to track a few new songs. So they did work on some of this stuff. But it was hard. I love them. I love playing music with them. They’re so amazing. And they’re still super close friends so it did feel a little bit strange. But it was just the way that it worked out, and it was also really fun to do something different with Stella and to collaborate with different people. I’ve been really lucky in that way.”

“By virtue of not having an awesome, well-rehearsed band in the studio, we were forced to record two things at a time, which slowed down the process in many ways,” Mozgawa says. “You’re not searching for a great full-band take. You’re choosing the individual layers one by one. Both approaches have their pros and cons.”


On Dec. 17, 2020, Barnett staged a pay-per-view event, From Where I’m Standing: Live from the Royal Exhibition Building, in Melbourne, during which she debuted “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To,” “Here’s the Thing” and “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight.” Her well[1]curated set also included choice takes on Arthur Russell’s “I Never Get Lonesome” and Silver Jews’ “We Could Be Looking for the Same Thing,” as well as a few “greatest hits.” This past summer, she was able to pull off some live dates around New Zealand and Australia, and, barring any COVID-related setbacks, she is slated to kick off an extended North American tour in late November that will stretch into February. (It includes her headlining debut at Radio City Music Hall.)

Sloane and Mudie, who have been Barnett’s running buddies since the early days, will back her on the road and Mozgawa has also signed on to play keys and percussion on some dates. And Barnett plans to continue sorting through her own songs in front of her audiences. The press materials surrounding Things Take Time, Take Time describe the project as the beginning of “Courtney Barnett 2.0” and, though she shakes off that tag with a nervous laugh, Barnett does now see some beauty in being able to look back on her life through her music—almost like revisiting her old diary entries.

“There’s actually been some nice shifts in the world,” she admits. “I guess an album is just a document of a time and a feeling. Obviously, I see my journey as a human in these songs. And all my music is part of the same big catalog. It’s always going to grow and change, so each album is a different version of yourself in some way. The best thing for musicians and artists is to be constantly changing and constantly learning new things. I look back on my life through the album cycle I was in, or the album I was writing, because it’s a document of that time. It’s like a little folder full of the love interests and the friends and the places and the jobs and the houses I’ve had—a little portfolio. It’s like my life is split up into these records.”

The uncharacteristic circumstances that have defined the past 18 months also informed Barnett’s work, lyrically. Despite being quarantined, as part of her goal to stop this sense of loneliness from enveloping her, the musician made a point to connect with her loved ones by whatever means possible—even if that meant a simple Zoom interaction. Writing much of the material on her own, on an acoustic, also gave the final product an extra, organic, earthy quality.

“I don’t fully understand an album until years later,” she says. “And I don’t normally have big intentions as I’m writing. I just try to trust the process and trust the writing to reveal itself. But my subconscious is always gonna reveal whatever it wants to reveal. When I got the masters back and listened to the album really deeply, I tried to listen to it as a stranger might listen to it. And I noticed all these recurring themes and recurring words. And there were things that I wasn’t really aware of—it just paints a picture of where I was physically and where I was in my head.”

Thankfully, one thing that hasn’t changed is her ability to consistently deliver some choice lyrics. On opening number “Rae Street,” which describes how her neighbors lit candles for local front-line workers during the COVID crisis, she offers: “Light a candle for the sufferin’/ Send my best wishes with the wind/ All our candles, hopes and prayers/ Though well-meanin’, they don’t mean a thing/ Unless we see some change/ I might change my sheets today.” Likewise, the couple’s spat “Before You Gotta Go” includes the clever lines: “Don’t you know I’m not your enemy/ Maybe let’s cut out caffeine/ Tomorrow’s too late to reminisce/ Call me when you get this.”

“Write A List of Things to Look Forward To,” one of the earliest ideas that made the record, has also grown into something of a COVID-survival anthem. “It’s funny because that song has really taken on extra meaning during COVID, even though it was written well before that,” Barnett adds. “That’s a beautiful thing—music can be so adaptable and so fluid. People are going to hear this stuff and interpret it depending on their life and their situation. If they’re in love, then they’re going to hear all these songs as love songs. And, if they’ve just had a breakup, they’re going to hear them as breakup songs. I feel like that always happens. We adapt things to our own needs a little bit. And I love that I can put out an album and it just becomes its own existence. People can make it their own.”