A debut album adored by taste-making music blogs and the US late night TV circuit alike could go to a musician’s head. But for Courtney Barnett, the years of success that led to her second album ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ have taught her that the only universe she’s centring is her own – and that’s just fine.
“It has changed a bit,” she says from somewhere between Brooklyn and Portland, deep into the US leg of her album tour. “Life’s always changing somehow, mine has changed a lot – all the time since I was a teenager, I guess,” she says, before quickly countering, “but also not that much; you’re still doing your own thing. We all think everyone’s really concerned with what we’re doing. But they’re not! They’re all concerned with their own stuff, and everyone’s just trying desperately to get by. Once I recognised that I got a bit more comfortable.”
Tellingly, Barnett has also spent a decent chunk of the last year stepping away from centre stage, from a collaborative album with Kurt Vile to touring with partner Jen Cloher’s band and other acts on the roster of Milk! Records (the award-winning indie label the pair run). “I think it’s just a balance,” she says of sliding from frontperson to bandmate. “Doing different things, keeping your brain fresh and doing different projects, looking at them from a different angle… it keeps you on your toes.”
Although it foregoes some of the wry observational wit of Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit, Barnett paid little attention to the distinctive template of her debut when crafting its follow up. “It’s honestly hard to know how my brain works,” she says of her songwriting. “I tried to push all those thoughts away and just get on with it, and realised there’s no point thinking about what other people think, because everyone thinks different things… and I’m never going to assume the right thing anyway. It’s a waste of energy.”
Some songs, however, are perfectly potent uses of energy. On single Nameless Faceless, Barnett tackles toxic masculinity from the bottom up, succinctly mapping out how keyboard vitriol levelled at artists like Barnett, and more headline-grabbing forms of gendered violence, are linked. It’s an unpopular message for many, mainly men, as a cursory glance at the comments on a triple j Facebook post about Camp Cope or Sticky Fingers will attest. “It’s connected, that’s the basic message,” she explains. “That anger comes from the same place, it comes out in different ways and can escalate quickly.”
With its Margaret Atwood-paraphrasing chorus of ‘Men are scared women will laugh at them / Women are scared that men will kill them’ it’s a song that felt topical at the time of release, and has only grown more timely in the months since – in often painful ways. “It’s always different, actually,” Barnett says of the song’s ever-changing context. “It’s a weird one, because every day there’s always something that really taps into that song, and I think about that when I read about things that happen… and then I have to perform that song at night. It really changes meaning for me everyday.”
The song went a sobering kind of viral earlier this year, when in the wake of Eurydice Dixon’s death many on social media shared Nameless Faceless in a show of anger and solidarity. “The overall meaning is the same, but a lot of extra passion and sadness and anger go into that song depending on the day. People connect to it in different ways – it’s an important song in its own way.”
The sentiment flows into one of the album’s noisier highlights I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch, which boasts Barnett’s personal favourite lyric ‘I get most self-defensive when I know I’m wrong’.
But it isn’t all just reflecting on the darker depths of modern gender politics, as Barnett’s touring work ethic has seen her connect with all kinds of experiences around the world. “It’s kinda nice having built up an audience over years. New people discover it at different times, but it’s actually nice to see and recognise familiar faces in different towns you go back to, playing slightly bigger venues each time. It’s really cool.
“[Visiting] non-English speaking places is always kind of amazing and exciting. The first time I went to Paris, talking to people in French and just seeing the kind of connection through language and realising that music and art are universal ideas.”
Even the internet can have its upsides, in a way. “I wish I was!” she says of the temptation to disconnect entirely. “It’s still that weird obsessive, you can’t help scrolling through looking at puppies out of boredom. Which I love, but sometimes you just think, ‘What the fuck are we doing’?”
Just puppies, and the worst people in the world?
“Yeah,” she laughs, “A bit of both”.
Tell Me How You Really Feel is out now
Courtney Barnett 2018 Australian tour
Friday, August 17
Saturday, August 18
Wednesday, August 22
Thursday, 23 August & Saturday 25 August
Sydney Opera House
Photo: Pooneh Ghana