Courtney Barnett: You Must Be Having So Much Fun. Everything’s Amazing.
Courtney Barnett can sum up her current world view in a single breath: “hopefulessness.” Like many of her best zingers, it’s a sharp, quick-witted descriptor that’s both biting and playful, pairing well with the updated slacker-rock riffs that have always helped Barnett’s slice-of-life observations roll off the tongue so easily. She even used her new, soon-to-be hashtagable word as the title of the first song on her sophomore release, Tell Me How You Really Feel—a deep meditation on confusion and communication in the modern age, masked as an infectious set of simple rock songs.
“Whether it was an altercation with someone, a relationship or a bigger political issue, I noticed that a lot of the problems that kept coming up went back to communication,” the 30-year- old Australian singer/guitarist says of the moody track. “It wasn’t something I was purposefully writing about; it was just what was on my mind, and I was trying to understand it all.”
Early on, she considered closing the new LP with “Hopefulessness” but, eventually, she decided to switch things around so that the record creeps in on a darker note and comes around to a brighter horizon by the time she reaches the album’s wistful, yet new-dawn finale, “Sunday Roast.” That’s not to say that Barnett considers “Hopefulessness” to be a totally sad song either, but it does dive right into her anger with these complicated, emotional times while wading into some righteous shoegaze fuzz. At one point, she even paraphrases Nelson Mandela.
“It’s that struggle between feeling hopeful, or wanting to feel hopeful, and feeling hopeless,” she admits with a flash of her small but warm smile. “It could be any time, really, but the last few years have been so full of these things.”
At the moment, though, Barnett has good reason to embrace the hopeful part of the her new emotive mash-up.
It’s a mid-May afternoon near the end of a relentlessly dreary, never-ending winter, and Barnett is hunched over and passively rocking back and forth on a barstool at a restaurant in New York’s hip Bowery Hotel. Earlier in the day, she officially released Tell Me How You Really Feel, after blasting through her upbeat and at times grungy single “Nameless, Faceless” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon the night before. Tina Fey also sat on the couch during the program.
Barnett and her band went for dinner and drinks after their talk-show taping, so she’s feeling a bit “dopey” today. Dressed in her uniform—a denim shirt and black jeans— and sporting a purple baseball cap with a koala on it, she looks rock star enough for a preppy woman sipping her glass of wine to not-so-subtly inch closer to eavesdrop as Barnett digs into her three-year lag between solo releases. But she doesn’t scream famous enough for the bartender to stop his casual conversation with another customer from seeping into the interview. Nearby, New York University is in the middle of its commencement ceremonies and there’s a palpable air of celebration in the area; the streets are filled with students sporting purple caps and gowns.
Barnett has a few of her own celebrations on tap, too, including an interactive art- happening at a Downtown New York space later in the day and an intimate album-release show at a venue she’s long outgrown, Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, the next night.
“We put an invite out to a couple of visual artists—gave them the brief on Tell Me How You Really Feel and gave them some film—and they created these really diverse and interesting little collections of photos, and I love it,” she says of that evening’s presentation, while fidgeting with a magazine laying on the bar. “It’s been so cool seeing people’s interpretations and stories because it’s obviously so broad. And there are these red telephones you pick up and you can hear someone talking to you. When we launched the album, we had a little box on my website and people could say how they really felt so we recorded a bunch of them [and] a couple of people read them out loud. They’re beautiful and really varied. Some are funny and some are silly, and some of them are vulnerable and sad.”
Ever since Barnett burst out of the Australian alt-psych underground with “Avant Gardener”—a bouncy, autobiographical account of an asthma attack and ambulance ride where she admits, “I was never good at smoking bongs/ I’m not that good at breathing in”—she’s built a career out of making small, personal stories feel like big moments, with enough matter-of-fact observational humor to earn comparisons to an episode of Seinfeld.
”Court has one of the best views on the world I’ve ever seen,” her wide-smiling, shaggy-haired bassist Andrew “Bones” Sloane says. “She’ll often point something out to me knowing that I’m the only one around who would get what she’s showing. But she has that connection with anyone that ends up around her.”
“Sometimes it’s nice just to be lighthearted, but sometimes it’s definitely a defense,” Barnett says with a small smirk. “It’s OK as long as you are aware if it.”
Barnett’s early EPs and full- length debut, 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, were visceral, episodic tales mostly focused on her friends and youthful adventures. On Tell Me How You Really Feel, she turns her keen eye inward, digging into her own hopes, dreams, fears and relationships. Oftentimes, she tested her new material out on Jen Cloher, her romantic partner and sometimes creative collaborator, first.
“We have a bit of a rule that we need to be brutally honest because people are so concerned with hurting your feelings that, sometimes, it’s hard to get an honest answer,” Barnett says before trailing off. “It’s hard because you don’t wanna put too much [stock] into what someone else thinks, but we really trust each other’s opinions. So we try to be pretty honest with each other.”
From her second album’s evocative title to her songs’ honest lyrics, Barnett’s change in tone was immediately noticeable. “Life on the road doesn’t give you much personal space, so you tend to think a lot more about where your life is— what you’re doing, how you got there, that sorta stuff,” Bones adds. “When we were getting all the songs down before hitting the studio, I noticed the more personal approach and felt that this record might be a little bit darker than the previous one. She’s been through a lot these past couple of years—gotta get it off your chest somehow.”
Though she’s far from a singer on a soapbox—as an out, liberal female musician who has unwittingly turned into a feminist icon—Barnett can’t help but be saddened by the current state of world and the political headlines that dominate her feed. As a shy, somewhat-neurotic, creative individual who blatantly titled a tune on her new album “Crippling Self- Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence,” she’s also had to deal with the pressures of catapulting from a punky, DIY guitarist to an ambassador of wry, Aussie indie-cool. The whole communication thing, even in a solid relationship with someone like Cloher, is still something she’s actively working on, too.
“It’s about just being open,” Barnett says of her new album and process. “And I figured out that a lot of it is just about vulnerability—being open to being vulnerable, communicating in that way.”
Photo by Dean Budnick
Barnett was born in Sydney in 1987, and grew up in the city’s northern coastal suburbs, before attending St. Michael’s Collegiate School. Her family wasn’t particularly into music—“dad seemed to like a lot of jazz and blues, and mom liked mostly classical, but I think the only contemporary thing they had was an ABBA record,” she says—yet she quickly fell under the spell of ‘90s gods like Nirvana and No Doubt. At the tender of age of 10, she started learning how to play guitar and dabbling in songwriting.
“I was always trying to start bands with people in school and, when I was 18, I started performing my own songs in bars and joined a couple of bands,” she says, echoing the line she seems to have always walked between bedroom recording artist and basement jam-session pal. “I was doing my solo stuff on the side still. I kind of made a band and then I didn’t record my first EP until I was about 23.”
Upon moving to Melbourne, she fell in with a group of area musicians and started playing in Immigrant Union, a psychedelic-folk and country outfit that boasted Brent DeBoer of The Dandy Warhols. “I filled in, playing Brent’s parts on guitar a couple of times, and then he had to go on tour and, when he came back, they were like, ‘You should play slide guitar with us,’” she says nonchalantly.
It was through Immigrant Union that she locked in with her now-steady rhythm section of Bones and drummer Dave Mudie, who were affectionately referred to as The Courtney Barnetts early on. “She was quietly playing slide guitar, and I shared some chips with her and we chatted about music,” Mudie reflects. “She is pretty cheeky.” (The trio’s work with Immigrant Union can be heard on their second studio release, 2014’s Anyway.)
Meanwhile, Barnett started showcasing her material with Mudie and a few other musicians; when an early bassist moved away after she record her first EP, Bones stepped in to provide the low-end, but not before her former bandmate expanded her mind by introducing her to a group he often covered, the Grateful Dead.
“We met in a little skate bar called the Blue Tile Lounge on Smith St. in Fitzroy,” Bones says nostalgically. “CB was working at this bar along with my brother, who had told me to come down and meet her because she was the coolest. So I went down and met her and she was the coolest. When Court dropped that first EP, my mind was blown. I listened to it on repeat for months. Early on, there were more members in the band and then it ended up as CB3 for a bit. We really found our footing in those early tours as a three-piece.”
CB3 started gaining some local traction, thanks to her early EPs, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris and How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose, which she released on her own Milk! Records, but she didn’t truly cross over to the U.S. until she compiled and released the mini-albums as the package that might as well have been her full-length debut, The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas, in late 2013. (A true grassroots effort, Barnett started Milk! with some money she got from her grandma.)
Serving as something of a primer, the tracks, and especially the single “Avant Gardener,” helped Barnett sign with Mom + Pop records and fueled a 2014 North American club tour that seeded her current ravenous fanbase. She roared back with Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit the following year. The album, which Barnett recorded at breakneck speed with her band, cemented her sound—a teen-spirit-inducing bolt of ‘90s guitar rock and Pavement-like lyrical swagger that was still loose and groovy enough to feel in line with the post-jam festival scene. Barnett appeared on major TV programs like SNL and Ellen, and even scored a prestigious Best New Artist Grammy nod.
“Coming from Australia, when you get here and there’s people at a venue to see you, it’s just like, ‘Where did you come from? How do you know about me?’ It’s amazing,” she says, sounding a bit aloof without coming off as pretentious.
Instead of immediately capitalizing on her success with a quick follow-up EP, Barnett busied herself with a variety of side-projects while she got her creative juices flowing. Most publically, she released the conversational, collaborative album Lotta Sea Lice with Philadelphia indie-folk guitarist Kurt Vile. Both musicians brought a stack of new songs to the sessions and rounded out the set with covers by Cloher and Tanya Donelly of Belly and The Breeders.
“We just became friends through touring and a couple of mutual friends,” Barnett says of Lotta Sea Lice’s genesis. “We planned to record a song when he was passing through Melbourne, just to make it easier to hang out. So we booked a studio and we were like, ‘Well, we got the studio, why don’t we do another one?’ We both wrote songs with the intention of doing them together because we were so distant. It was more of a collaboration in the studio.”
Barnett also used her time off to work with Cloher; she appears on 2017’s self-titled album and, earlier this year, returned to clubs in the U.S. to showcase the new songs as part of her wife’s backing band. The couple first met about six years ago through the Melbourne music scene. She was a fan of Cloher, who was then the more established musician. However, Barnett’s career started to blossom a few months after they got together.
“The first time I saw Courtney play was in the front bar of the Tote in Collingwood, Melbourne,” Cloher says. “It’s a classic, sticky-carpet, graffiti-in-the-toilet sort of pub that is well loved by local musicians. I’d known Court for a few years but this show made a real impression on me. For someone who seemed very quiet and shy in normal life, there was a confidence and ease onstage. I remember thinking how melodic and catchy her songs were. She had this natural ability to write these effortless melodies that stayed with you for days. At the moment, I’m humming her new album all the time. It drives you crazy how they all get in there.”
It was a hard time for Cloher, who had been slogging it out in clubs for years, but she’s recently scored a fair amount of buzz of her own. “I like to be open and honest in all of my relationships,” Cloher adds. “If you can’t express what’s going on with your partner or closest friends, then life is too lonely. I’m honest in my own music because I love that quality in other people’s art. We’re all using art to examine life, and my own perspective is the only one I can speak to with any authority on.”
Last fall, Cloher opened for Vile and Barnett’s run, marking the 44-year-old Australian musician’s first major U.S. outing (the same management and PR companies look after both women’s careers). Barnett and Cloher also both oversee Milk! Records, which Barnett says is a five-minute drive from her house in a space that is used “half for the label and half for music making.” On most days, Barnett will walk the 30-minutes to work and listen to the music she recorded the night before.
“I put on headphones and listen to the demos,” she says. “I wrote a lot of my album that way, walking back and forth.”
Barnett can’t pinpoint the exact moment she started working on her new release, but she’s been crafting the songs at least since her last album cycle. She stops short of landing on any specific creative hurdle, but does admit that she always “has a bit of writer’s block,” and working with Vile and her wife helped spur the album along.
“That’s part of the journey of it anyhow—it’s the constant blocking and unblocking,” Barnett says. “That experience with [Kurt] gave me something else to focus on. That’s all it is sometimes, just stepping away from it. I don’t really have a solid goal, or process, I was just kind of writing and kept on writing. I love what I do—keeping it open to different things popping up. If a Jen show pops up, then I do that. Otherwise, I was kind of writing or working at Milk! Records in Melbourne, but they were quite separate things.”
Whether consciously or not, a bit of Vile’s hazy, wooly vibe did creep into the yearning “Need a Little Time” and the breezy, ode-to-honesty “Walkin’ on Eggshells.” (The latter selection contains the album’s most cosmic solo and some cool boogie-woogie piano.) She shows off her Seattle music side on the aforementioned look at gender studies “Nameless, Faceless” and truly kicks out the jams on the punk-trash assault “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” spinning the verse “I get most self-defensive/ When I know I’m wrong/ Think we all can agree/ I try my best to be patient/ But I can’t only put up with so much shit.”
Some songs on the record are from the depths of Barnett’s archives. “I started writing ‘Sunday Roast’ when I was 13,” she said. “I wrote the main guitar part and just always remembered it. I’ve tried to put words to it before, but always failed. So it’s really nice to see that song’s growth, and I added the outro part as almost like a chorus. I started ‘Help Your Self’ [a narrative, loping look at serenity] when I was 15. I always find it interesting, and revealing, to look back at songs and just see how they’ve changed. I’ll figure out what they mean [and], as time goes on, they become clearer. I really like that part of the process as they develop. When I perform them for different people, you can almost see how they’re hearing it, and it becomes a different song.”
Years ago, Barnett faced backlash for covering Kanye, but she hasn’t lost her quirky edge. Now, in between verses of “City Looks Pretty” that talk about ignored cell-phone calls and the shifting lines between strangers and friends, she sings that “the city takes pity on your injured soul/ and heavenly prose ain’t enough good to fill that hole.”
Once she had about 70 percent of her new cuts written, Barnett booked a studio near her house and recruited the same crew that fleshed out her previous record. “I just work better with a deadline sometimes,” she says, easing into her grin. “Once I know that I’m nearly there, then I can push myself a little extra bit further. It was a really nice process—getting back together and making another album a couple of years later in a different studio. It was a similar vibe. We worked really long hours and late nights, but it was good.”
Cloher adds, “Nearly all of the guitar on the album—especially the hooks and solos—are Courtney’s. These songs have less of a specific narrative; they’re not tied to an event.”
Earlier in her career, Barnett slimmed her quartet down to a trio since it was a more economical way to tour internationally, but The Drones’ Dan Luscombe, an alum of her outfit, has played guitar on both her albums. Katie Harkin also signed on as part of Barnett’s live band, adding keyboards, guitar and some estrogen to the project. In addition, two musicians who helped patent Barnett’s sound a generation ago, identical twins Kim and Kelley Deal of The Breeders, offered cameos.
“I was passing through when they were in the studio making their new album [All Nerve],” Barnett says. “We dropped in to see them and they needed some vocals on a song, so we jumped in and sung this thing. Me and Kim have stayed in touch for a while, and I thought that she was perfect for the chorus line of ‘Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self- Confidence.’ Having them record with me is just this other level of encouragement and this strange connection of two different times, really. But there was a likemindedness. It’s like finding a long-lost friend.”
The night after releasing Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett and her backup band officially usher in the next era of their career with their industry-heavy show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. “I have a lot of nerves performing, but a lot less than public speaking or something,” Barnett had said the previous afternoon. “I still can’t do any sort of public speaking well. I think with music, at least, I have the safety of [the song]. The song is written, worked on and refined, and I know what I’m saying. So that makes it a lot safer. I still get so nervous, but it’s just a bit more dialed-down each time.”
Yet, there’s little sign of that soft-spoken singer-songwriter onstage: Barnett comes out swinging, running through her new LP in its entirety, before offering a selection of greatest hits. An Amazon video crew can be spotted roaming the crowds. The night really starts heating up with album’s third tune, the angular guitar jam “Charity,” which offers a close look at her relationship woes while still taking down the overly medicated, and meditative, modern world. “You must be having so much fun/ Everything’s amazing/ So subservient I make myself sick/ Are you listening?” she sings, the song’s lyrics winking at the often falsely amplified social-media world.
Despite working her way up the venue rungs from dingy clubs to major theaters during the past few years, she says she still can’t quite wrap her head around how to navigate New York City. Yet the venue’s VIP section and back-floor industry hot box are packed with just the right mix of promoters, managers, publicists, writers, bloggers and passionate fans to ensure that the evening’s clubhouse vibe is in full effect.
Barnett currently has international dates scheduled deep into the year, including stops at marquee spots like Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Bandshell, Rhode Island’s Newport Folk Festival and the Bay Area’s Treasure Island Music Festival. She’s started to work on her next LP already, too, in the loosest way possible.
“In the notebook, nothing much bigger than that,” she says sheepishly.
She’s well aware that Tell Me How You Really Feel’s title can take on several different meanings, depending on one’s intuition. Perhaps, as she continues to grow and gain confidence, the LP’s name will take on a different tone for her as well.
“You can hear just how good a guitarist she is on this album, which is something people don’t realize until they see her play live,” Cloher says, demonstrating some of that honesty that defines their love language. “What shines through on this album is Courtney’s personality; she’s not hiding behind overly clever lyrics. The melodies and song structures have more economy and the fat has been trimmed, which gives the songs more authority. If you compare this album to her last, or want it to be like Sometimes I Sit, then you’ll be disappointed because it’s very different. But it’s a lot more mature and a real grower. It’s a truly great album.”
This article originally appears as the cover story in the July/August 2018 issue of Relix. For more features, interviews, album reviews and more, subscribe here.