19 May 2018

Courtney Barnett gets it all off her chest

From RNZ Music, 1:00 pm on 19 May 2018

On her new album Tell Me How You Really Feel Australian musician Courtney Barnett lays her cards on the table with songs of frustration and anger, introspection and self-help, and some of the sweetest and most earnest sentiments she’s expressed. Kirsten Johnstone speaks to Courtney. 

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Photo: Supplied

I’d like to have a beer with Courtney Barnett. Her music is so candid, witty and droll it creates a feeling of camaraderie.

She’s plainspoken and unpretentious. Scruffy and slacker, like grunge heroes of the 90s but without the drug habit.

Instead, I’m on a scratchy phone line with her. She’s on the factory line of publicity and sounds a little tired.

Her voice took a beating from touring her acclaimed debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, and she needed some vocal therapy. She’s had to learn some self-care and accept her personal limitations.

“I’ve never really toured to that extent - and there’s only so many things that you can fit into a day, and figuring out that you can’t do everything and be everywhere at once. But yeah, just finding a nice balance of everything and exercising and keeping healthy, I think that’s really huge… and it’s the kind of thing my mum would say, and I would be like ‘whatever’."

Related: Nick Bollinger reviews Lotta Sea Lice, the collaborative album of Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile

While she’s always been self-deprecating, and honest about her anxiety attacks and depression, she lets loose on her new record Tell Me How You Really Feel. There’s outbursts of anger, with a seething voice we’ve not heard before and squalling, choppy guitar lines on songs like ‘I’m not your mother, I’m not your bitch’. "I try my best at being patient / But I can only put up with so much shit" she sings.  

She takes aim at misogyny and Internet trolls in ‘Nameless Faceless’ quoting one of the more harmless burns she’s had online: "I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup / And spit out better words than you".

The opener ‘Hopelessness’ starts out pretty despondent: “No one is born to hate / We learn it somewhere along the way / Take your broken heart/ Turn it into art” but crescendos into a powerful tornado of a song. What sounds like a kettle about to boil over at the end turns out to be a tape spool running out.   

For anyone with a social conscience and liberal political views, it’s been a rollercoaster few years.

“Every time I would open my eyes it seemed something bad was happening. And [I was] trying to understand that… but instead getting angry about it,” she says.  

But the anger sometimes manifests as self-help songs. Maybe they’re for herself, maybe for the people she loves. In ‘Help Your Self’ she sings ‘Darkness depends on where you're standing / Jump the creek and watch the sunshine swim’.  

“It was definitely facing parts of myself that I would have usually kind of ignored. It was a lot of writing, for sure. Just kind of working through things.”

Two songs,‘Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence’ and ‘Nameless Faceless’ - feature Kim and Kelly Deal of The Breeders on backing vocals and there’s nothing more apt.

The Deal twins are the queens of nonchalance, and they stand beside Courtney like favourite Aunties, protesting the patriarchy together.

Related: Kim Deal of The Breeders talks about Courtney Barnett

Courtney has recently been taking a supporting role herself, playing guitar in her partner Jen Cloher’s band.

Thirteen years older than her partner, Jen has spoken publicly about her jealousy when Courtney’s career took off.

They got through it, and Jen’s career has come out of the shadows, all while running a record label together - a testament to the relationship’s strength.

Though they’ve collaborated on a few songs over the years, their songwriting is mostly done in solitude: “We tend to stay out of each other's way a bit ... I think those early stages of songs coming together are so vulnerable and I always feel really precious around early ideas.

"I guess I overhear a lot of Jen’s songwriting, and I read a lot of my lyrics, a lot of my writing out to her. We’re good honest soundboards for each other.”

Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett Photo: SUPPLIED

Courtney inadvertently proposed to Jen years before they met.

“I used to live in Hobart and I went to Falls Festival every year, and I saw Jen play there and I was one of those people, those annoying people, that yell out ‘Will you marry me?!’ so you know, I guess it’s a bit of an empty request. But it is kinda funny that we eventually met years later and ended up in a relationship.”  

Among the strong melodic songs on Tell Me How You Really Feel is one clearly written with Jen in mind.

‘Sunday Roast’, which concludes the album, is by far the sweetest and most earnest thing she’s written.

The music was penned for a school composition project when she was about 13 and has been jangling around in her head ever since. It wasn’t until she went to record this album that she found the right melody and words to go with it.

"Don't come with your arms swinging / Throw them around me/ Some kind of sweet relief / I hope you never leave"

Though the album doesn’t turn away from the darker issues, it seems to end on a note of optimism. Despite the ire in the album, she tells me she’s happier - maybe that’s just age. She celebrated her entry into her 30s back in November.

“I just feel like when I turned 30 this huge weight lifted off my shoulders. And I don’t know what it was, but it felt great.”

Courtney Barnett plays two NZ shows: 

  • Auckland: Wednesday, August 29, Powerstation
  • Wellington: Thursday, August 30, Opera House

Related: Courtney Barnett plays a video session for RNZ in 2014

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