Plenty of musicians sound completely different when talking than they do singing. Courtney Barnett is not one of them. We first meet at an outdoor venue a few blocks off Austin’s bustling Sixth Street, on a sweltering Monday a few days before the release of her reflective new album Tell Me How You Really Feel. In a white t-shirt and black jeans, she clutches a bottled kombucha, sitting with her long limbs arranged spiderlike on a picnic table bench. She hasn’t been feeling well---I wasn’t sure we’d be able to meet at all today---and doesn’t talk much at first. When she does, she prefaces her thoughts with a hand pressed to her forehead and punctuates them with a few clipped laughs. I ask how her life has changed now that she’s a successful musician who spends much of each year on the road away from her native Australia. She pauses and answers, “I used to work in a pub every night, and now I play in a pub every night.”
This is exactly the kind of offhanded aphorism you might encounter in a Courtney Barnett song, delivered in essentially the same casual cadence she uses on record. Her lack of affectation and conversational writing can give the impression that you are a receiving a direct transmission from her experience of reality when you listen. Tonight, a handful of devoted fans are gathered at the venue doors hours before showtime to listen in on soundcheck. Later, she’ll perform Tell Me How You Feel in its entirety, dipping into a few more familiar songs only after she’s finished the album.
“People have been very patient about listening to ten new songs,” she says. “I’ve tried not to overthink it. I’m really bad onstage about wondering what people in the crowd are thinking.” She assumes the role of a disinterested concertgoer, pantomiming a yawn and stretch, then pulling an imaginary iPhone out of her pocket and burying her face in it. “What are you doing? Why are you standing in my eyesight?”
The loiterers on the sidewalk didn’t need to come so close to hear Barnett practice and tune up. When she and her trio of backing musicians soundcheck “Hopefulessness,” a somber and personal sort of protest song that is Tell Me How You Really Feel’s opening track, they are audible from at least a block away. Writing political music in the era of Trump and Weinstein has proven challenging for plenty of musicians: How do you address problems so pressing and so utterly obvious without resorting to the same gestures everyone else is using? For Barnett, whose songs thrive on irony and self-examination, the answer involves accepting the truth of the tired chestnuts without failing to acknowledge them as such. “You know what they say,” she sings to lead her band into “Hopefulessness,” a line that frames the rest of the album. “No one’s born to hate, we learn it somewhere along the way.”
A familiar sentiment, but it rings poignantly coming from Barnett, who’s better known for minor epiphanies about everyday drudgery than she is for broad proclamations about tragic human nature. Tell Me How You Really Feel is both more intimate and more outwardly political, concerning itself with private insecurities and the social ruptures large and small that inevitably result when they are allowed to simmer unchecked for too long. Barnett spends much of the album addressing a terminally anxious you with a mix of plain compassion and frankness bordering on exasperation. At times, she sounds like she’s comforting a close friend or lover. At others, she might be talking to herself.
But "there’s always the they people,” she reminds me after soundcheck, of the jerks and blowhards that also populate her lyrics. “Terrible people.” The new album contains plenty of barbs for them, too. Recently, Barnett happened to catch the eye of her monitor engineer when delivering one of the album’s more biting putdowns. She felt a paroxysm of guilt, even though she’d written the line about someone else. “It was like I was being really passive aggressive,” she says, laughing heartily now. At the time she didn't say anything of the awkward interaction. “I didn’t tell her about it, because then I was like, ‘What if then she thinks that’s what I actually think, and it’s Freudian or whatever?’”
Today, Barnett is still recovering from an ailment that struck at a show over the weekend in Arizona, where she was so sick that she was unsure whether she’d be able to finish her set. She says she experienced lethargy and appetite loss that left her unable to eat for two days, and spent the afternoon before our meeting at a doctor’s office. She’s still unsure about her the origin of her illness, but explains that she’s not immune to performance anxiety, having also become physically unwell in the days leading up to a 2016 appearance on Saturday Night Live. “I realized I got sick last Friday, which is exactly a week before the album comes out,” she says after soundcheck. “I’m not above recognizing that the manifesting of sickness probably came through that in some weird way. I’m on the mend, thank God. That show was hard. This one will be easy.”
Tell Me How You Really Feel is Barnett’s second proper full-length and third major release. 2013’s A Sea of Split Peas, which collected her first two EPs, felt like a debut album for those of us who didn’t witness her early days on Melbourne’s DIY punk scene. It had a cult hit in “Avant Gardner,” a breezy rock song with guitar solos that are more feedback than fretted notes, recounting a hyperventilation and subsequent hospital trip in near-hallucinogenic detail. Two years later, she released Sometimes I Sit and Think, Sometimes I Just Sit to even more acclaim, earning a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist (she lost to Meghan Trainor) and several ARIA Awards, the Australian equivalent of Grammys.
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These records were wide-ranging in both style and content: one song about crushing on your lane neighbor while lap swimming, another about dying seals and global environmental collapse; one a post-Nirvana punk ripper, another a languid alt-country ballad. Barnett can be laconic, and once told a journalist she likes to “just sit back and listen and laugh” when she’s spending time with friends. But on record, she is the liveliest conversationalist around. Her songs are full of giddy internal rhymes, sly jokes, and free-associative plot twists, careening across topics like an addled internal monologue after a third serving of cold brew. She’s the only songwriter this side of Cam’ron or Ghostface who would consider rhyming “We drifted to a party, cool” with “The people went to arty school,” and the only one on earth who would look at cracks in a bedroom wall and see the lines of a palm reading chart, then use them to predict her own future. Naturally, doing so leads her into a moment of panic, when she realizes that her “love line seems entwined with death.”
Tell Me How You Really Feel retains some of the early freewheeling spirit, but is more considered in every respect. Its lyrics deal in universal sentiment instead of gonzo detail, and its tunes are the most graceful and immediate of Barnett’s career so far. Instead of stories set to music like “Avant Gardner,” there are tight and sparkling compositions like “Need a Little Time.” The chorus of that single takes the words “me and you”---three of the most unremarkable in the pop vernacular---on a melodic journey that renders them new again, mirroring the up-and-down arcs of the romantic relationships they usually signify: first high and wistful, then heavy and close to the ground.
Barnett’s recent approach is informed in part by her work with Jen Cloher, a fellow Aussie songwriter who is also her longtime romantic partner. They have a habit of sharing songs-in-progress with each other, and Barnett is a guitarist in Cloher’s band when she’s not touring behind her own material. “When you see the entire journey of someone else’s song, without the paranoia of your own thing, it’s pretty incredible, I reckon,” Barnett says. “And it’s good that we get to see the real skeletons of each other. She’s very encouraging, and always pushing for more stuff, more ideas, more risk.”
Barnett covered one of Cloher’s songs on Lotta Sea Lice, a cheery collaborative album she released with Kurt Vile last year. She also credits Vile as an inspiration, because of his decisive presence in the studio during those sessions: “I struggle with second guessing myself: Do I like that take, do I like this sound, should we do something else with this song? He does that too sometimes, but I noticed that he would just abruptly be like, ‘No. That’s done. That’s it,’ or, ‘We’re changing it.’ It was a bit jarring at first, but I really respect him because he’s good at trusting his gut.”
As a guitarist, Barnett has learned to follow her intuition similarly, sometimes improvising lines in the studio until she lands on something that sticks, and relearning them later. “I was going to Jen’s show every night, not really knowing what my part was. But that’s good,” she says. Barnett is a spectacular and unconventional player, attacking her instrument left-handed and without a pick, using brief bursts of dissonance to express turbulence that her laid-back vocals steer clear of.
Today, athe Austin soundcheck, she plays more tempestuously than usual, bringing “Hopefulessness” to a climax of cascading noise. On the album version, she summons the same sounds but allows them to trail off into nothing, hinting that such an explosion might be possible without actually igniting the bomb. It reminds me of Sonic Youth, Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and what Kurt Cobain once said about the fourth Nirvana album he never got to make. Rather than thinking about playing soft or loud, he wanted to “learn to go in between those things.”
“I focused a little bit more on on sitting and writing words, and editing a lot more than I have before, and I wanted it to have more guitar,” Barnett says. “But I still don’t really know how to write a song. It’s just hoping each time that it works.”
She is selling herself short, of course. Barnett wrote the music to Tell Me How You Really Feel’s cozy closer “Sunday Roast” when she was 13, adding new lyrics more recently. “Help Yourself,” another album track, also has its origins in a sketch from her teenage days. In her early 20s, she played scattered solo songwriter shows and in a variety of bands around Melbourne, including Immigrant Union, a psychedelic folk and country ensemble. That group also included two supremely affable longhaired dudes named Dave Mudie and Andrew “Bones” Sloane, on drums and bass. Barnett asked the pair to be the rhythm section for her second solo E.P., and soon they’d all departed Immigrant Union to focus fully on her burgeoning solo career.
“Courtney was just in the rehearsal room one day, she’d just joined on slide guitar,” Mudie says backstage in Austin, as he and Bones both roll cigarettes. “I offered her some chips, some Twisties. She was very quiet.” When I ask what attracted him to playing her material, his face lights up and he answers simply: “She’s a mega-shredder.”
Not long after after Dave and Bones joined the band, “Avant Gardener” started catching on and Barnett received more offers to play shows overseas. She eventually left her job at the pub. “My break times just got longer and longer,” she says. “I was like ‘I can’t work this week. And then I was like ‘I can’t work this month. And then I was like ‘I can work this one Friday of next month and that’s it.’ And eventually they’re like, ‘Do you wanna resign?’” She smiles mischievously. “But they didn’t fire me.”
Early on, Barnett’s heroes included Jimi Hendrix, No Doubt, and Nirvana, artists she mostly found out about from her older brother. “I don’t think I’ll ever shake it,” she says of Cobain’s influence in particular. She’s also a fan of Hole, which you can hear in her music’s heavier moments. She didn’t come around to these bands until closer to adulthood, something that seems to be the case for a lot of music fans about Barnett’s age (she’s 30). We talk for awhile about why that might be. Perhaps it had to do with Courtney Love’s media coverage in the late ‘90s, which created a caricature that began to supersede her music, painting her as ridiculous because she didn’t play the role of dutifully grieving widow. (Not to mention the conspiracy theories that she’d killed Cobain herself.)
“And how fucked is that?” Barnett says, the most animated she’ll become in our first conversation. “You still look at her Instagram now, and people still leave these insane comments, like batshit. It’s like, what the fuck is the matter with you? Leave her the fuck alone!”
In the middle of Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett focuses her gaze on an ugly, particularly male form of insecurity. “It must be lonely being angry, feeling overlooked...I’m real sorry about whatever happened to you,” she sings sweetly in “Nameless, Faceless,” before snarling through a famous Margaret Atwood quote that she modifies and repurposes for the chorus: “Men are scared that women will laugh at them, women are scared that men will kill them.”
These are the unequal terms of male-female relationships, laid out with brutal clarity. They are startling not only for their obvious contrast, but also for the causality implied: Men will kill women because they’re afraid of being laughed at. Barnett has rarely if ever before written so explicitly about sexism or the threat of violence that underscores it, and by doing so here she lends sinister new sharpness to the parade of arrogant hipsters and angry footballers that she’s sketched so vividly across her catalog. It is a testament to the humanity of her writing that even misogynist would-be murderers have their own private motivations, their own anxieties, no matter how vile and invalid they may be.
“It’s a lesson of trying to practice compassion, and what that brings up, what it means” she tells me. “I don’t know, I’ve always actually been confused about that line myself, who I actually intended it to be aimed at.” That is, the song’s expressions of comfort could be directed at either the abusive man or his victim. “I kind of like that even I don’t know, really,” she adds. “It’s both people.”
The following song on Tell Me How You Really Feel is more forceful, its sentiment neatly wrapped in its title: “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch.” (It also sounds the most like Nirvana and Hole, incidentally.) Barnett bristles at the idea that she’s suddenly an angrier songwriter than she used to be, which she says several interviewers have expressed to her during the current press cycle. “If a very masculine male journalist asks me quite aggressively why I’m being so angry, I can assume that maybe he is threatened by what I’m saying,” she says. “But there’s always been the curve of temper within my songs.”
Immediately after landing the punch of “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” Barnett retreats from anything resembling sloganeering, gleefully proclaiming “I don’t know anything” on the refrain of “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence.” These are the tensions that animate Tell Me How You Really Feel: clear-eyed engagement with the rotten state of the world versus exhausted detachment, feeling angry versus feeling unwilling to reduce your anger to a cliche, earnestness versus humor, action versus self-awareness. The album’s conflicted sensibility should be familiar to anyone who has attempted to navigate the last several years with their sanity and dignity intact.
Barnett and her band take the stage in Austin as the sun is going down, in all-black outfits that look a bit like suits of armor. They sound punchier and more ferocious than they do on the record. (“A lot of times we record them pretty folky,” Mudie, the drummer, told me earlier in the evening. “And then when we play them live, obviously we get a little excited.”) “City Looks Pretty,” one of the advance singles, has a new krautrock-ish intro; “Charity,” the following song, gets the biggest applause of the night so far, despite being previously unknown to almost everyone in attendance. Barnett’s swaggering stage presence betrays none of her earlier worry. “We’re gonna do a set of ‘90s covers. This one’s from 1992,” she deadpans at one point, before starting “Avant Gardener.” Given her penchant for resurrecting song fragments from her childhood, I almost believe her for a moment.
They play “Help Yourself,” the brassiest cut from the new album, and one of several directed at that nebulous you. In the song, Barnett offers a litany of suggestions for calming your jittery nerves: go swimming, learn about your own mind, remember your place, don’t forget to breathe. When she reaches the line “You found inner peace in the inner northeast,” I’m pretty sure I hear her switch the pronoun to the first person, flipping the words around to address herself.
The next time I see her is on her album release day later in the week, over salads at a fancyish Italian place in New York, where she’ll be playing the following evening. She’s funny and gracious, filling my water from the bottle on the table and happily discussing her work. She taped an incendiary performance of “Nameless, Faceless” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon the previous evening, and she only felt nervous “at the very last minute,” she says. A show in Philly also went well, where she invited Kurt Vile to join her onstage for a few songs as a surprise guest.
I ask her about the switched pronouns I heard in the live version of “Help Yourself.” Is it possible that this song, like “Nameless, Faceless,” is also aimed in two directions at once? “I do that a lot,” she says with a chuckle. “Lyrics in general I just mess up. But you’s and I’s are pretty interchangeable. It’s a fine line between the two, and the projection of talking about someone else is so much about yourself anyhow. I like it because it kind of opens it up to a bigger feeling, a bigger understanding.”
“It’s basically the same thing, the personal life and the songs,” she tells me. “It’s all in there. The process of writing them helps me understand it, see where it’s coming from. With bit of time you can see what it really is,” she adds, referring to the anxiety she frequently sings about. Barnett has said that the goal of her music is to help people realize they’re not so alone, and this is how she hopes to do it: with style, empathy, and a lot of good one-liners, reminding us that everyone worries, slowly blurring the distinction between me and you.
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