Reinvention is hard. Whether that means reworking a song midway through the recording process, or in a larger way, reworking one’s self after a tumultuous, tiring stretch of time. But nothing good is easy, right? And the only way out of hardship is through it. These are the types of maxims popular Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett carried with her during the making of her forthcoming LP, Things Take Time, Take Time, which is slated for release on November 12.
For the new album, Barnett had to reenergize after a long previous album release cycle for her 2018 LP, Tell Me How You Really Feel. She also says she had to relearn a few cognitive habits and rework a few songs for the record, midstream. In the end, though, the result was beyond worth it. After all, good things come to those who wait.
“I think it’s always learning just how to be better,” Barnett tells American Songwriter. “How to approach things differently and how to not let things get under my skin or worry so much about certain things. Retraining the brain a little bit to break certain patterns. And, I think constantly being in a state of growth, instead of that repeating the same story and backing yourself into a corner, or something.”
Of her new record, Barnett says she’s especially proud of the collection. It was a fun project to undertake, yet, still, it wasn’t without its immense creative challenges—for example, on the song “Turning Green,” which falls near the middle of the LP. At first, that track had begun as a jangly acoustic number. In its beginning, it was catchy and beautiful, Barnett says. Or, at least it seemed that way in its infant stages. As the recording process continued, Barnett found herself a bit bored of the song. She felt frustrated but then liberated as the track morphed into a more drum machine-forward, bass-driven one.
“Turning the song upside down and starting again,” she says.
As a child growing up in Sydney, Australia, Barnett first remembers being exposed to music while playing with Legos with her older brother, building worlds, and listening to others. One of his friends, a neighbor his age, would bring over mixtapes. The neighbor’s father was American and when their family would come back from trips to the United States, there would always be new music.
“I remember listening to Jimi Hendrix and Nirvana,” Barnett says. “No Doubt and Janet Jackson.”
From then on, Barnett was hooked. Nearly every major decision in her life was made with a tie to her love of and passion for music. She worked at McDonald’s for a time, calculating how many hours it would take to earn enough money for a specific guitar amp. Later, she did the same thing while working as a pizza delivery driver. Growing up, Barnett’s mother was a dancer and her dad was a graphic designer. Music never seemed like a career option, but, at the same time, she never let it go.
“As soon as I started to play guitar,” she says, “I was writing songs and I was trying to make bands at school. I was obsessed. I just knew I loved doing it.”
Barnett grew up in Sydney and later moved to Tasmania to study at the Tasmanian School of Art. In her early twenties, she moved to Melbourne, where she still calls home. In conversation, her accent is thick, but on her record, it’s less apparent. On Barnett’s latest LP, there is a mix of slower tunes, which feel pleasantly droning. Other tracks, like the lead single “Before You Gotta Go,” are sticky as a pile of Post-its. Barnett’s music carries a sense of literature to it, similar in some ways to songwriters like Aimee Mann and Patti Smith.
“As a kid,” she says, “I was equally as interested in poetry and creative writing at school. So, I think combining those two elements was probably—that was always as important to me. As the years go on, as I continued to learn more about songwriting, I think that every word is so important.”
There are so many songs in the world, so many people singing them. But how do you do it uniquely? How do you say something universal in your own, specific way? No one has any single answer to this, but Barnett says she’s sure to keep trying to find out. While the journey is forever, there are prizes for one’s perspiration. And she has found some she can call her own.
“I think that’s why I love songwriting,” Barnett says. “Because it’s a constant learning process. I never quite know what I’m doing, so it’s always small successes and small accomplishments that seem to come from a place of thinking that maybe I can’t write another song. Then, suddenly, one gets done. That unknown element is important.”
But to mine from the unknown and bring to life something one can share—even if it takes a long time—that’s the gift. That’s the process. That’s the life and one that she can share with fans and friends alike, many times over.
“I think I love that there’s always something new to learn,” Barnett says. “Whether it’s technically or personally or spiritually—whatever the hell it is. It’s this whole other language and a whole other world of possibilities, which is obviously really exciting, and just this really nice way for humans to connect with each other.”
Photo: Mia Mala McDonald