Photography: Pooneh Ghana
Sydney born Courtney Barnett is a tender soul. Known for her biting lyrics, she released her solo debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I just Sit in 2015. This May, she released her second. Tell Me How You Really Feel is a fistful of glory and songwriting prowess.
'Charity' is one of many highlights from the album. Musically, it’s got a coming of age, energetic momentum that winds, bends and thuds. Reminiscent of The Breeders, it’s one of Barnett’s most uplifting songs from her back catalogue. Delve into the lyrics, though, and discover underlying vulnerability. “You don’t have to pretend you’re not scared/ Everyone else is just as terrified as you,” soldiers the singer as if talking to her younger self from a place of experience. “Medication just makes you more upset/ I bet you’ve got a lot to prove/ I know you’re still the same.” Barnett’s honesty, as ever, makes her deeply relatable, which is perhaps her greatest draw. She grounds herself, levelling out that pedestal between bands and their fans. She may well be touring the world and selling out big arena shows, but that doesn’t make her any less human.
Woody Cecilia chats to Melbourne based Courtney Barnett about being an emotional kid, overcoming shyness and stealing lightbulbs from Sydney Opera House.
'City Looks Pretty' from Tell Me How You Really Feel, via Milk! Records
I heard you recorded Tell Me How You Really Feel last June. How does it feel, creating something and having to wait a whole year for its release?
It’s kind of weird! It’s a weird process – but, in a way, it means everything gets done properly. It can be kind of frustrating, but it was a real relief when it came out the other day. And, I mean, it’s not like the songs are so now that they needed to be heard straight away. They exist in their own time and place…
Who were you most excited to hear it?
Whoever connects with it and gets something useful out of it!
What’s your favourite stage of creating a new album?
I think it kind of goes up-and-down. In some parts, it can be so liberating and validating, but then so stressful, frustrating and paranoia-inducing at the same time, so it really jumps around, but the writing process is good – it just can be so hard for me. And the same with recording the studio part of it.
Definitely for me, sitting down to write something can be terrifying. But once I get going, I get absorbed into this positive rut of creativity and I don’t wanna stop. I don’t know if you’re the same?
Yeah! I think that’s a really good lesson that I learnt at some point in the last year or so of just getting on with it [laughs]. Just sitting down to do it, instead of thinking about it or thinking how hard it is really helps, something will eventually happen.
I think a lot of songwriters are the same – they’ll be working away at a hundred different songs and never finish one. Do you have any tips for people in the same boat?
Just keep on working at it, I think, is the best advice. And I think if you keep on turning up and putting in the time, when the moment is right, it’ll happen. I’ve got a song on this new album which I started writing when I was thirteen years old that I just finished it – so it’s like, if you stay open to it, it’ll come back around and it’ll make sense.
'Dead Fox' from Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit via Milk! Records, Marathon Artists and Mom+Pop
Exactly! How does it feel playing a song you wrote when you were so young and unassuming to a big crowd? That must have a big effect on you.
It feels good! It has a real beautiful sense of nostalgia and just a sense of accomplishment. It’s a satisfying feeling, I think, to make something and see it follow through.
Did thirteen-year-old you ever imagine you would be here today?
You said when you started writing music aged thirteen, you’d record onto a tape deck. Do you have any of those tapes still?
Maybe at my parents’ house, I might have left something there, but I keep meaning to get a new one. I’ve got this little dictaphone I’ve been using, which is really fun. But there’s something that I just love so much about a cassette [laughs].
What were you like as a child?
I was kind of nerdy and good at school, loved all my teachers, but a bit kind of emo at the same time… Just an emotional kid!
You’ve mentioned how you’re naturally quite a quiet person. Is that because you’re naturally shy or just reserved?
I don’t know! I don’t really know what I am anymore. I have moments of loudness, like anyone, but I think I’m mostly quiet. I don’t know! I think it’s just trying to fit in and get through life…
I imagine your first ever show and interview, you must have been bricking it then. Do you remember much from that time?
Definitely, the first show… I don’t really remember the first interview all that much. But the first show, I was so, so nervous and shy and almost crying in my singing voice. I mean, I still get nervous now, but it’s pretty scary sometimes! There’s a lot going on with us humans!
Have you become less shy over time, or have you just got better at dealing with it?
Yeah, I think so! I think I have as I’ve grown older – and also, being thrown into the deep end a bit, what with travelling and touring and having to be around all these people. I think it was a pretty good thing, and I moved school half way through high-school, and I had to figure out how to fit into this new world and I think things like that are good for you!
If you could pin down a few environmental factors that made you the songwriter you are today, what do you think they would be?
I think our general environmental surrounds like the environment, community, family and upbringing have got a lot to do with it… All that stuff, it’s more than we can measure! I lived kind of far out of town and couldn’t really hang out with my friends that easily on the weekend or after school, so a lot of that [had an affect]! You know, it’s very simple – but I think for that reason, I spent a lot of time alone or playing guitar or reading my book, or whatever. I think at that point, finding your own entertainment was the key. And that probably created some sort of little world in my head – and I think just that general empathy and awareness for other peoples’ feelings and other peoples’ behaviour, I think I’ve always been kind of aware of that stuff, and I think that has a big input into songwriting.
'Nameless, Faceless' from Tell Me How You Really Feel via Milk! Records
Can you talk us through your first time at the Sydney Opera House?
I was in high school! Yeah, I played guitar for someone doing a performance there. It was crazy! I must have been like fourteen or fifteen. Yeah, that was a big deal, you know?
I heard you stole a lightbulb as a memento?
I did, yeah! [Laughs] how did you hear that?!
I have top secret sources.
[Laughs] Yeah, it was pretty funny! It was a very cute teenage moment.
How does it feel to be heading back there as a solo artist?
It’s incredible! Especially being a Sydney kid and it being one of our most famous iconic venues, it’s just really nice. Our parents are gonna come and it’s just a really nice full circle, I think.
And it’ll be seated, I assume.
I think it’s fully seated, yeah! We’ve done a bunch of theatre shows and seated shows – and, I mean, obviously it’s a whole different energy, but it’s still good… I love going to seated shows! I get tired standing around at gigs.
Your songs are super lyrically led, so it makes a lot of sense though.
I’ve done it a lot! You just have to be in the right headspace. I think, if I’m just standing there, getting paranoid, thinking that people are bored, it can really send you to a horrible place as a performer – but I just have to think, ‘Well, if that was me, I’d be sitting there, like, loving it, but not stomping around – I’d just be politely sitting there [laughs] and so maybe that’s what they’re doing!’
Do you remember the moment you got to quit your day job? How did that feel?
Yeah, it would have been somewhere when we started touring all overseas. It felt pretty good! I mean, it was pretty terrifying, knowing that you can’t fall back on something or whatever, but it’s also taking a chance. I go back there a lot! They do great music and I see a lot of gigs there… It’s the local spot. A lot of my friends go there and some of my friends are still working there.
You’ve had a pretty busy year! Working on Jen’s album, doing your collaboration with Kurt Vile, running Milk Records, releasing this… Do you feel in a hurry to produce work at the moment, or have you always had this work ethic?
Nah! I don’t feel in a hurry, I just like to do things. And I think being self-employed, I just work weird schedules. Sometimes it’s really busy, and sometimes it’s really quiet… There’s never really a routine so much, but I just fit in fun things where I can. Little treat things, like going to shows or going to galleries or reading my book, or going to the park or something. But when I’m back home, it’s a weird thing, because I don’t really have days off. I kind of just work all the time.
What’s next on the to-do list?
Hmm, I have to pack my bag [laughs] but work-wise, we go to Paris tonight and we play a show there tomorrow. We’ll keep touring for the next couple of months and I’ll keep writing and keep looking at the world with inquisitive eyes and wondering what it all means and sing songs about it and then sing them to people and so-on-and-so-forth!
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