Sitting in the garden of a polling station in east London on the day of the European elections, Courtney Barnett is explaining the challenges of voting while on tour. “I had to go all the way to the embassy in Greece to vote,” the musician says of the recent elections at home in Australia. Did she get the outcome she wanted? She laughs the weary laugh of the liberal. “No.” But election days always come with a sense of optimism and, in the sunshine, as lunchtime voters filter past to do their civic duty, Barnett seems perhaps not “happy”, but at least not unhappy.
“I feel like I’m back at square one”
Optimism is not her default setting. She has made a career of excavating her emotions through poignant vignettes of everyday normalcy, tiny epiphanies triggered by the most mundane moments in life. In a Courtney Barnett song, buying a coffee machine is a cog in the great wheel of mortality; an allergic reaction while gardening is an allegory for crippling anxiety.
Growing up in the relative musical deadzone of Sydney, Barnett picked up a guitar aged 10 and relied on one particularly formative mixtape to further her musical education. Before it ran down, she spent hours listening to the same few Nirvana, Jimi Hendrix and No Doubt songs over and over – it is not hard to pick out those influences in her scuzzy guitar riffs, close-range vocals and prodding of existential anxieties shot through with humour.
In 2013, she released the aforementioned allergy-anxiety epic “Avant Gardener” on her own record label, Milk! Records, run from a warehouse in Melbourne. It caught attention online and her straightforward, self-questioning style soon made her a face of modern slacker-rock, along with frequent collaborator Kurt Vile and her ex-wife Jen Cloher, in whose touring band she also played until their split last year.
“I feel like I… don’t really know,” is Barnett’s response to a general: ‘How are you?’ Perhaps it’s down to relentless touring (she’s just come from the launderette, , which was “very desperately needed”) and spending a year performing songs that burrow into her psyche. Her last album was titled Tell Me How You Really Feel, in case there was any question over her intentions. Part sarcastic riposte, part genuine plea to herself, it was released almost exactly a year to the day of our interview.
Much as she has tried to get to the bottom of how she really feels, she’s still not there. “I feel like I’m just back at square one. Songs change over time, so one year on, it’s different – it’s only just seeing lyrics now that I understand what I meant when I wrote it.”
In her trademark conversational monotone over grunge-lite guitars, Tell Me How You Really Feel digs into the pressures of life and expectation as well as taking aim at internet trolls and self-doubt – quite literally on a song titled “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence”.
“The stage is the only place I feel comfortable”
Her earlier work often deflected personal moments with humour; this album added distance by addressing an unidentified “you” which, in many cases, was really “me”. It has been hard for the naturally closed-off Barnett to talk about the deeply personal music she has been making.
“The hardest thing is that I didn’t quite know how to talk about it. I still don’t. Effort goes into the writing and then I don’t really understand it,” she says sincerely but with a smile, recognising the absurdity of it all. “So talking about it is kind of… I just feel a bit stupid sometimes.”
A lot of musicians talk about the catharsis of songwriting but for Barnett, it’s less a one-stop offloading of emotion and more a conversation she’ll be having with herself for ever. The unease she feels discussing her songs makes sense, an unfortunate by-product of success: imagine recording and dissecting your therapy sessions with a series of strangers, to be interpreted and read by unseen thousands.
“I think,” she says of that awkwardness, “that’s just my personality, honestly. I’m like: ‘Look at me, look at me, don’t look at me!’ It’s a process that’ll probably take my whole life to understand, not just, you know, one album.” Conversely, playing live feels much less intimidating. “I guess the stage is the only place I feel comfortable because I’m singing the songs that I know, that I like, and I know what I’m doing.”
Along with the end of a major relationship, one change over the past year has been Barnett’s interest in exploring the personal by detaching even further. It’s a new way of prodding those feelings but also a writing exercise that she keeps meaning to put into practice. “On my first few albums a lot of the songs start with ‘I’, then this last album, a lot of it was ‘you’ – so I was like: ‘Maybe I should try to write an album that encompasses neither of those things.’ Obviously ‘I’ has a personal element and then ‘you’ has almost a judgement or something, so I’m interested in having a non-judgemental [stance], like, just to observe with no character.”
She cites the poetry of Mary Oliver, whose exploration into her own interior life used the small moments in nature to do so – a still pond, moths in the moonlight. We’re talking about this just as a pigeon makes a timely play for a cheese ball Barnett has been saving to snack on: the internal meaning of the pigeon is yet to be made clear to us.
As part of Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett and her team created a website for people to write in anonymously and do just that. There was no real point to it, other than it being a nice exercise, but it has since spawned an art exhibition in Melbourne. The team had been concerned that people would abuse the system, take the opportunity offered by anonymity to be crass, offensive, hurtful. What happened was the very opposite. “We got some really emotional, honest responses.” Many people expressed the same feelings – “hopeless and lost and sad and lonely but grateful” – and Barnett found it useful to read through the entries.
“I love reading artists’ journals and people’s diaries. – I’m sure there’s an element of human behaviour that enjoys that kind of voyeurism. You want to know that other people struggle, just like you. Like: ‘Thank God I’m not the only one’.”
It’s sweet and appropriate, and kind of magical, that this throwaway project gave Barnett what she, ultimately, gives her listeners: a peek into an open diary, an insight into another person’s life and a chance to think: “Thank God I’m not the only one”.
‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ is out now. Courtney Barnett is performing at Glasgow’s Indian Summer, Manchester’s Psych Festival and End of the Road, Larmer Tree Gardens, in August
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