People say I’ve made a break-up album but they’re wrong, says Courtney Barnett12/10/2021
COURTNEY BARNETT likes to dwell on life’s big issues . . . and the minutiae of everyday existence.
Often, this duality can be found in the same song, marking out the 34-year-old Australian as a singular talent.
Armed with a dreamy drawl and a left-handed Fender, she combines rock sensibilities with discernible vulnerability.
Barnett likes to keep things real, her lyrics summoning feelings of unease shot through with quirky humour.
I’m speaking to this intriguing darling of the indie crowd this week, via the customary Zoom.
It is breakfast time in Los Angeles and though her expressive face fills a phone-shaped screen, I can see she’s sipping something hot and eating toast.
With third album Things Take Time, Take Time just out, Barnett is giving her new songs a live airing on her first American tour since the start of the pandemic.
First up, she’s keen to set the record straight on public perception of bruised sentiments displayed in tracks like Before You Gotta Go and Splendour.
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“I have never mentioned this myself but a few people have described it as a break-up album,” she says.
In 2018, she split with long-term partner and fellow Aussie singer Jen Cloher, hence the assumption.
'My songs reveal themselves over time'
“But it’s not a break-up album,” she stresses. “It’s very joyous, covering life and death, friendship and love.”
Barnett says: “My songs reveal themselves over time. To assume that even I know exactly what they mean is dangerous territory.
“We as humans want to fit things tidily inside one box, so we can have some understanding.”
She says of the searing standout Before You Gotta Go: “It’s a special song to me.
“One interpretation is that it’s about having no regrets but I don’t want to say it’s about a particular relationship or friendship.”
As for those wry, observational lyrics for which she has become renowned, there are plenty on album No3 from the start.
Take lilting opening track Rae Street, which finds her dragging a chair over to the window of her apartment in Melbourne, where she spent lockdown.
Barnett sings about what she glimpsed — the early morning garbage truck, two dogs entangling, a child learning to ride a bike, a person up a ladder with a companion on their knees “painting the faded brick”.
Yet, in the next breath, she considers our collective need to make the world a better place.
“All our candles, hopes and prayers, though well-meanin’ they don’t mean a thing unless we see some change,” she intones, before bringing things back down to the confines of her flat with, “I might change my sheets today.”
Many listeners have picked up on her seemingly mundane “sheets” line, prompting her to give this explanation.
“Change can start at home,” she says. “If you have big expectations, you’ll let yourself down straight away.
“On climate change, you can’t just go to the United Nations and change the rules but you can recycle and change your immediate environment.”
She has “faith in small actions all adding up” and says “that is always a good thing for me to remember”.
It’s been a whirlwind eight years for Barnett since her first two EPs appeared on one disc called A Sea Of Split Peas, featuring breakthrough song with a nice pun for a title, Avant Gardener.
Her debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit followed in 2015, earning her Grammy and Brit nominations, while her sophomore effort, the raw Tell Me How You Really Feel, appeared in 2018.
Then, after much touring and many festival appearances, Barnett began writing the songs for Things Take Time, Take Time in LA.
“I’d finished my solo tour of America in mid-February, 2020, and my plan was to stay there, work on the album and see what happened,” she says.
“Then all the Covid stuff kicked off so I went home to Melbourne because I couldn’t do much else.”
She arrived in the aftermath of the awful bush fires and was upset at “people losing their homes, whole sections of land being burned and animals lost”.
Then, as Barnett turned her attention to songwriting, she began striving for a different kind of album from the previous two.
She listened a lot to the eclectic music of Arthur Russell, the American composer who died in obscurity in 1992 and is now a cult figure.
“I wanted the record to be a bit more meditative, peaceful and calming,” she says, adding that the resulting work, a product of lockdown-induced reflection, matches her ambition.
Though her base was her rented flat on Rae Street, she recorded the album in Sydney with another Australian musician of note, Stella Mozgawa, drummer in all-female group Warpaint.
“We had met over the years at festivals,” explains Barnett, “and then she played on the album I made with Kurt Vile (2017’s Lotta Sea Lice).
“We remained friends and I just knew I wanted to work with her again one day.”
Mozgawa also found herself back in Oz as pandemic restrictions hit and it seemed their stars were aligned.
“I was picking Stella’s brains about the drum machines I was writing songs with,” says Barnett. “I also knew she did producing. Next thing, I was asking if she wanted to work on my album.”
The first song Barnett conceived was a deliberate attempt at positive thinking, Write A List Of Things To Look Forward To.
“It started off as 30 verses,” she recalls. “I guess my songs are normally like that and then cut to make more sense.
“That song captures a lot of the emotions going through my head. I’m musing on life and death and the circle of everything but, in the end, it’s extremely joyful.”
On pivotal track Turning Green, Barnett returns to the theme of change, not just in her surroundings but in herself.
She says: “Change of seasons and leaves changing colour seemed like the perfect metaphor.
“I was in that room in my flat during lockdown and, as I watched the seasons, I also felt myself going through internal transformation.”
Did she arrive at a better place? I ask. “Yeah, definitely,” she replies.
Next Barnett talks about the gorgeous If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight, a love song of sorts but one that hones in on a specific moment.
She describes it as “pretty much autobiographical” and says, “I struggle to write songs about things that are not real.
“They’re always about something within my reach, whether it’s a message to someone or showing support or love.”
When I suggest If Don’t Hear From You Tonight has a Velvet Underground vibe, she acknowledges that Lou Reed and Co have been a touchstone for a lot of musicians over the decades and is wary of the cliché.
“I recorded a version with my band a few months before I did the album and it sounded very Velvet Underground,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is too much’. I had to change it but I can’t deny the influence.”
In further VU news, Barnett performs the sultry title track on a recent tribute album, I’ll Be Your Mirror, stepping into the shoes of original singer Nico. “It was exciting and an honour to do,” she reports.
Another side project involved her writing the punchy theme song for Apple TV+ children’s series, Harriet The Spy.
She says: “That was a different and very personal challenge for me, slightly outside of my comfort zone but also fun.”
If Things Take Time, Take Time fully represents Courtney Barnett in 2021, it’s worth taking a trip back to her childhood and find out how she got into music in the first place.
“I have an older brother and, as a kid, I looked up to him,” she says. “He started playing guitar so I copied, as you do.”
Barnett was eight when what she calls her “obsession” began, the endless hours of practice a sure sign that a career beckoned.
Barnett breaks into a big smile when she remembers those days. “I just loved it. I wanted to learn all the songs I heard and liked on the radio,” she says. “Then, naturally, I wanted to write my own.”
So what was she into? “My brother’s music mainly — No Doubt, Janet Jackson, Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix.
“Not that I could play like Hendrix when I was eight and I still can’t!”
Nirvana’s Nevermind was the first CD she bought, suggesting innate good taste, and the arrival of the internet meant she could type in a song to discover its guitar chords.
As for her individual approach to lyrics, she says: “That evolved over time. I learned how to put down words in ways I found interesting or humorous.”
Barnett truly found her voice on her first EP, 2012’s I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris, a deadpan and witty take on her twentysomething life in the New South Wales capital.
“Up until then, I’d been balancing different ideas or styles,” she says. “After that EP, I reached the point when I could quit my day job.
“I was working at a bar in Melbourne but I started touring a whole lot more. I would say to my boss, ‘I can’t work Friday this week,’ and then it became, ‘Oh, I can only work the first Monday of the month’.”
Barnett says it was a “monumental moment” when music became her full-time occupation.
Her parents, who she says “have always been great”, encouraged her endeavours but also stressed the need for a back-up idea.
In reality, there’s never been a Plan B for Barnett and next year she’ll be supporting Foo Fighters at two massive sold-out gigs at Villa Park and London Stadium.
When she bought that Nevermind CD with Dave Grohl on drums, I bet she didn’t imagine, even in her wildest dreams, that one day she’d be sharing a stage with him.
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