Courtney Barnett and the Profundity of the Mundane

“We’re born, and we die, and it’s okay,” she said. “Everything kind of has its place and has its purpose”
Courtney Barnett
(Credit: Mia Mala McDonald)

Patience is so much more than a virtue. Patience is also a skill. It’s something that can be sharpened and honed throughout the entirety of our lives to help realize our fullest potentials. We can use it to better understand all the important and non-important people that we allow into our worlds on a daily basis. To master patience is to master the self.

Aussie singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett knows something about patience. Over the past eight years, she’s cultivated a steadily growing audience, while releasing a string of critically acclaimed albums, EPs and collaborative projects that highlight her knack for keen, observant lyrics and formidable guitar work. In fact, the very idea of personal restraint serves as the beating heart fueling so many songs on her vividly intimate third record Things Take Time, Take Time.

“I guess what the album feels like to me, it’s about a lesson in patience…hence the repetition,” she said over a Zoom, while sitting at home in Melbourne. “I think in general — like not just in my career — the best lessons are the ones that kind of span throughout your whole life regardless of the task at hand. So, patience within conversations and within everyday life.”

 

Courtney Barnett
Credit: Mia Mala McDonald

 

Just like everyone else, Barnett’s life got turned upside down at the beginning of 2020. She had just recently wrapped up the remainder of her obligations behind her previous album Tell Me How You Really Feel a year earlier and had completed a solo tour of America when the global pandemic hit. Suddenly, life came to a screeching halt.

“I was going to stay in L.A. and just keep writing and floating around, because I didn’t really have a house in Melbourne to live in. And then I came back, and I was just in this situation where I just was writing all day and night. There wasn’t much else to that I could do.”

Barnett spent the next year living in a friend’s apartment in Melbourne, playing guitar and writing lyrics in a room with big windows and tons of natural light. With little else going on, she embraced the banal. “I think because I’m so used to being distracted, something like taking the trash out, all of a sudden, when you’re looking through the window takes on a profundity it might not otherwise,” she said. “Like even the most mundane, boring moments, you kind of see how magical they can be.”

The singer-songwriter has very nearly made a career out of finding magic in the mundane. The seemingly ordinary is something of her stock and trade. Never, for instance, has the act of real estate speculation felt more existential than on her 2015 ballad “Depreston.” In “Avant Gardner” rom her debut EP, the act of sprucing up the front yard morphs into a Pulp Fiction-esque nightmare. You see an aspiring “Elevator Operator.” She sees someone with great skin in crisis. She’s “Pedestrian at Best;” at least that’s the claim. “Put her on a pedestal / she’ll only disappoint you.”

 

Courtney Barnett
(Credit: Mia Mala McDonald)

 

Mundane inspirations gave way to mundane tasks to ward off the unceasing boredom of isolation. In between daily bouts of songwriting, she also cracked open different cookbooks and taught herself new recipes. “I would make a lot of soups,” she said. “I’ve never really had the time or the space to cook. The last place I was living in Melbourne didn’t even have a kitchen.” She also binge-watched The Sopranos, which she had never seen before. “I think one of my favorites is Sil which is it Steven Van Zandt, for sure. He’s an interesting character.”

Beyond soups and sociopaths, Barnett was afforded almost unlimited time to sit and think. At once free from the rigors of the road and the unceasing cycle of record promotion, she immersed herself in the very act of songwriting to a degree that she never truly enjoyed before. Not even when she was a veritable nobody, working in a pub, and crafting what became her initial EPs did she enjoy so much freedom to let her mind wander. “I would wake up in the morning with the song in my head that I was working on, and I would go to sleep with it,” she said. “It was there all day. I guess that was a little bit different because I didn’t have as much distraction.”

Inspiration came from unexpected sources at unexpected times. “It might be a line from a sitcom,” she said. “There might be one line or one moment that somehow resonates perfectly with whatever I’m feeling. I think that’s a good lesson: really incredible things can happen in unexpected moments.”

Despite the frenzied state of the world in which it was conceived, there’s an honest streak of optimism that runs throughout Things Take Time, Take Time. Songs like “Take it Day by Day,” for example, go far beyond the standard solace and empathy you might expect to glean from a piece of music and offer tangible advice to help make it to the next week, month and year. “Put one foot in front of the other,” she encourages in the track’s opening verse. “You’ll get what you want / I promise / Don’t give up just yet.”

“I think that was the way my subconscious was forcing myself to kind of survive by trying to find the plus moments,” she said. “Everybody copes so differently. Everybody’s in such a different situation and you never know someone’s situation completely. That song for example, I wanted it to be upbeat and like fun and funny and bring a smile to someone’s face. Like, essentially, it was almost written like as a joke for friends to make them laugh. But it’s pretty dark content, some of it. I guess it’s just like trying to find the joy amongst the hopelessness there.”

Another method to find joy amongst the hopelessness? “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To.” That song stemmed from Barnett’s attempt to ward off pessimism amidst a catastrophic wildfire season in Australia that left the earth scorched, the air toxic, and untold millions of the country’s wildlife dead. “I remember feeling a little bit kind of lost and it was already feeling slightly apocalyptic,” she said. “I guess there is just like a fear. But again, trying to find positives amongst them. I think that song to me is positive. It’s an optimistic song, even if it sounds like it has moments of pessimism. I think it’s meant to highlight the fact that we’re born, and we die, and it’s okay. Everything kind of has its place and has its purpose.”

 

Courtney Barnett
(Credit: Mia Mala McDonald)

While the process of creating Things Take Time, Take Time was a largely solitary adventure, Barnett eventually leaned on the talents and wisdom of drummer Stella Mozgawa to help her bring the record to life. The pair worked together for the first time several years earlier on Barnett’s collaborative album Lotta Sea Lice with Philadelphia songwriter Kurt Vile. When Mozgawa moved back to Melbourne during the pandemic, Barnett started sending her different ideas to get her opinion. They began having lengthy, philosophical conversations about music and the act of songwriting. From there, it was a natural leap to begin playing and recording together.

“I was trying to figure out how I wanted to make the album. I didn’t really know,” Barnett said. “So, I kind of just booked a few days here and there and did different sessions. I think one of the second sessions we ended up in the studio just the two of us and then we just started tracking all the instruments ourselves and it was so fun. So, we just kept doing that.”

Some songs, like the vibey “Here’s the Thing,” didn’t deviate much beyond the initial idea on the demo tape. Other cuts like “Turning Green,” took wildly different shapes. “It started off as this cute, little kind of acoustic, a very guitar, cheery, jangly song. We tracked a whole version of it, and it sounded fun and great, but it just didn’t sound quite right. It kind of blended in a little bit too much. We wanted it to kind of stand out, I guess.” Needless to say, the psychedelic guitar breakdown near the end of the track is a surefire attention-grabber.

The recording process itself was sporadic, but fruitful. The pair spent five days tracking together in December, followed up by another four-day session in February. “Then throughout January we set up a bit of a home studio and we were working on demos and working on the next session stuff.”

 

 

One constant? Drum machines. While Barnett certainly loves the sound and feel of a live kit, she holds a special place in her heart for synthetic percussionists. “There’s something really fun about just hitting play on a drum machine and working on a song for 20 minutes,” she said. “You don’t want to make a drummer sit there for 20 minutes playing the same beat it might get a bit boring.”

In fact, drum machines have become a vital part of her creative process. They help remove some of the self-consciousness that naturally comes with collaboration. “When I’m first working on a song, I do these kinds of very extended long versions of things just to get my brain kind of flowing just to see where a song goes and where it ends up,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a bit hard to do with people around you. I mean, I love my band. They’re like family, but I think that early songwriting stage is such a vulnerable process. I say a lot of things that don’t make sense and sometimes it’s strange what comes out of your mouth when you’re not thinking about it.”

But while drum machines have their uses, they are a poor substitute for tangible human connection. “When Stella and I got together and started playing music in the studio together, that was really fun. It was a reminder that it’s such a joy to make music with other people and to collaborate,” Barnett said. “And then just couple of weeks ago when [the band] all got together and played the new album, that was really fun as well. It’s really special.”

With Things Take Time, Take Time on the verge of release, Barnett’s patience is finally on the verge of paying off. “I’ve spent so much of the last year and a half just playing guitar by myself…I’m just really excited for this album to come out. It’ll be so nice to get it into the world,” she said. “It’s such a joy finishing an album, but I think the next step is when people hear it and can really connect with the songs or interpret the songs and it becomes its own kind of entity.”

Patience is a virtue. Things take time. Take time.

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