The Spaced-Out Insight of Courtney Barnett

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Photo by Pooneh Ghana

Courtney Barnett was walking around her hometown of Melbourne, Australia when she noticed something that made her pause. In a local shop, she saw a sign in front of a box pamphlets that said, “Help Your Self.” The play on words immediately intrigued Barnett: What, really, was the difference, she wondered, between saying help yourself and help your self?

“I just found it really funny in a nerdy, grammatical kind of way,” Barnett says. “I had never noticed how close the difference between those two phrases was. It was just one of those funny moments in my life, kind of like a hidden message in a movie where someone’s walking down the street and there are all these kinds of signs jumping out at them.”

Courtney Barnett’s uncanny ability to recognize those very moments has helped transform her over the past five years into one of the most renowned indie singer-songwriters on the globe. The exceedingly commonplace subject material of Barnett’s music—organic vegetables, swimming laps, the search for a new home to live in, the puns on clever store signs—are grounded in a relentless attention to detail from Barnett, who is constantly jotting down notes as she travels the world recognizing the hidden messages in life’s quotidian absurdities.

But on her second full-length album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett, 30, raises the stakes on her observational humor. Though the album is still anchored in small moments and offhand realizations (one song is titled “Help Your Self”), Barnett’s latest work, her most intense and emotionally complex to date, employs these observational anecdotes less as its primary narrative focus and more as a mere starting point. Her new songs are less whimsical, tinged with a newfound sense of righteous anger and minor-chord frustration. It is her first release, for example, following her 2013 double-EP and 2015 debut LP, that does not contain multiple references to assorted fruits and vegetables.

“I think I’m focused on different things, other things,” she says. “Instead of taking that surface idea and running with it, I tried to delve deeper. I tried to find what was behind the surface idea.”

Compared to her earlier work, Barnett’s latest writing is more spare and streamlined. “My tendency is to ramble and try to explain myself in a long-winded, roundabout way,” she says.

Nevertheless, the singer still occasionally sprinkles in delightfully arcane language into her otherwise straightforward indie-folk-rock narratives. On the tellingly titled “Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack Of Confidence,” Barnett introduces pop audiences to the word “anosmic” (definition: someone who suffers from the lack of a sense of smell).

Tell Me How You Really Feel wrestles with a host of heavy topics, including gender-based violence, self-esteem, identity, and misogyny, but the album’s primary concern is communication, or, rather, the lack thereof.

The record is littered with characters trying, and failing, to communicate with one another, from “City Looks Pretty” (“For 23 days I’ve ignored all your phone calls”) to “Charity” (“Are you listening? Can’t we talk about it once we’ve slept?) to “Walkin’ On Eggshells” (“Ya know what I mean? Not really it seems”).

“I reckon that’s the biggest, most constant theme of the album that no one seems to pick up on,” says the singer. “It’s what so much stuff comes back to. Everything in human relationships and connections, a lot of it comes back to that kind of failure to communicate, whether it’s to yourself or to other people. That’s why people fight in wars, because we can’t talk about whatever the hell is happening. But also on a personal level, it can be about not admitting to yourself that you know what’s going on or what you’re going through. It just felt like everything kept coming back to that level of honest communication.”

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In conversation, Courtney Barnett is much like the extremely tranquil, consistently amused, and mildly disaffected character she portrays in her own music. “Courtney is pretty much exactly what you would expect,” says Burke Reid, the Australian producer who’s worked with Barnett on each of her first two albums. “That’s part of the appeal and charm of her: she’s really herself.”

Listeners were first introduced to that offbeat charm in 2013’s surprise breakthrough “Avant Gardener,” a humorous depiction of a panic attack set to the chords of Wilco’s “Handshake Drugs” that introduced Barnett to American audiences and set the tone for her standout 2015 debut Sometimes I Sit And Think And Sometimes I Just Sit. That album resulted in a flurry of unexpected early-career milestones, topped off by the surreal moment when Barnett received a 2016 Grammy nomination for Best New Artist alongside major-label pop stars Sam Hunt and Meghan Trainor.

Despite the occasional misgivings and inevitable complications that have arose as a result of her newfound semi-fame, Barnett appears very much unaffected, if not slightly confused, by her newfound notoriety. “Still strange,” is how she describes the experience of having to consistently describe her music to a flurry of strangers every time she releases a new album. “The thing is, I don’t understand it,” she says of her own music.  “So it’s like people are looking for answers and I don’t know the answers either.”

When trying to work on the much-anticipated follow-up to her Sometimes I Sit, Barnett struggled for some time to settle on exactly what she wanted to say with her next record. She ended up sidelining the album when she spent a year working on a side-project with Kurt Vile, which resulted in an LP, 2017’s Lotta Sea Lice, and an extensive tour.

When she did get around to recording her own work, Barnett and Reid deliberately did not try to reinvent Barnett’s musical foundation. Her new collection is steeped in the same mix of grunge, ’90s, power-pop, and feedback-fueled folk that fans have come to expect.

“There was definitely a bit of a conscious effort, regardless of the success her last album had, to not go over the top,” says Reid, who deliberately eschewed the type of bloated, big-budget stunts that so often weigh down highly-anticipated second LPs. “Both albums were done a very similar sort of fashion, and her fans liked the last one, so we tried to keep it in a similar vein.” 

Discussing her new album, Barnett tries her best to locate the origins of her new music without revealing too much of its personal backstory. She is a pensive conversationalist, answering most questions by muttering “hmmmm” or “ummmm” for several seconds before landing on the right words.

As a songwriter, Barnett’s process is private and mostly impenetrable. One of the reasons she works so well with Reid, in fact, is because he gives Barnett the space and time to craft and create by herself.

“She spends a lot of time toying around with lyrics, usually on her own,” he says. “I would sometimes just be like, ‘Courtney, do you want some time on your own?’ I’d have her step away and let her do her own thing until she was ready.”

When she’s in the process of writing, Barnett is a meticulous editor, sculptor and critic of her own work, but once she arrives at a finished product, she’ll defer to others when it comes to drawing any sort of grand conclusions or thematic interpretations.

Commenting on the notion, which most reviewers and journalists have tended to focus on, that her new album is darker, more politically aware, Barnett shrugs. “I’ve had plenty of other songs on other albums that are just as much like that but I think people do seem to be picking up on something on this album,” she says. “But I don’t know, to me there is light and shade on every album and on every song, so… yeah.”

Reviewers have latched on to songs like “Nameless, Faceless” and “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” in which Barnett reckons with gender expectations, discrimination, and violence.

Early on, Barnett struggled with the process of trying to add a more explicitly socially conscious backdrop to her music. She hated her earliest attempts at writing songs in that vein, describing them as “a bit self-righteous and full of ego.”

Writing those early songs was an alienating experience, one that Barnett had been through before. When she began writing songs as a teenager, as she first explained to me in a 2015 interview with this magazine, Barnett initially tried to conform to the idea of what she thought a good, important song should be.

Writing for her new album, Barnett had that same initial feeling: a moment where she felt overcome by the expectations of the type of serious art she was supposed to create.

“When I was a kid I used to write the idea of what I thought a song was, which was, yeah, like a big love song. It wasn’t natural,” she says today. “The point of that story is that I was trying to do something that I thought was a version of what something should be. In a way, that’s how I started writing some of these new songs; I thought that I should do it in a certain way, which didn’t bring any truth or emotion and just made it feel mechanical.”

Gradually, she found a way to balance her response to writing music in such a dark global climate with her innate desire to find light and levity in her subject matter. “I’m always trying to find positives in the negatives and see what good that could do, or where a certain song can go instead of just dwelling,” she says. At one point, she channeled that mix of feelings into her very own new word: “Hopefulessness,” the title of the album’s opening song.

That sense of weary optimism can be heard on the album’s centerpiece “Charity,” a mid-tempo pop-rocker that serves as the closest thing to an anthem Barnett has ever written.

“At the end of/ Every season/ I’m spent up,” Barnett sings in the song’s impeccably phrased opening line. “Keep thinking this will be the one.”

“It’s a bit of an amalgamation of ideas. It’s about projection and assumption and it’s kind of tongue in cheek but also pretty serious I guess, I don’t know. It’s such a pop song. It’s fun,” is all Barnett says about the song.

Ever since she started making music, Barnett has always been infatuated with melody and pop hooks. Her songs actually frequently begin as jokes: Barnett will experiment with a comically catchy riff on guitar, and then see what it’d sound like to pair the intentionally over-the-top riff with strangely dark lyrics.

“I’ll try to write the poppiest, most silly song and then I’ll think, ‘Oh, that’s actually quite interesting,’” she says. “I’ll think, “It’d be funny to see how that works with a serious topic along with it.”

While working on Tell Me How It Really Feels, Barnett noticed that almost every song she was working on was written in the second person. Most of the songs began as pieces of advice written addressed to friends and loved ones, but gradually she realized she was actually writing about herself.

“I’d try to write a song about someone I was close to who was going through something, but it would turn into a total self-help book,” Barnett told Pitchfork earlier this year. “When I look back, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, I was trying really hard to help myself get through something.”

“Sometimes there’s no difference between the ‘you’ and the ‘me’ and it’s all the same thing,” says the singer. “Even when I’m talking about someone else, you’re ultimately talking about your own interpretation of their situation and you can’t help that you won’t have that mirrored back to you. Most of these songs were about other people, but it kind of rubs off. You can’t help weaving a bit of yourself in there.”

Barnett ponders this for a moment.

“I can’t write something that doesn’t mean something to me.”

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