Courtney Barnett interview: Tell me how you really feel
Blaise Radley spoke to the Aussie singer songwriter about everything from Milk! Records to Riot Grrrl ahead of a headline slot at Manchester Psych Fest in August.
Last updated: 7th Jun 2019. Originally published: 6th Jun 2019
Image: Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett is lounging in the French sunshine, watching a stage get set up as we dial into a conference call with her, having bussed it up from her show at Primavera in Barcelona the night before.
She’s on the cusp of a long slate of summer festivals with a truly global reach: Italy, Canada, Japan, Finland - the list goes on and on. When we discuss how this lifestyle has affected her conception of the mundane she laughs: “I used to be writing songs in my bedroom and working at the pub down the road, and it’s not better or worse - it’s just different.”
Different is definitely the word, though you get the sense that it’s done little to change Barnett’s outlook. The path from bedroom crooner to internationally-renowned rockstar Barnett has mapped is one characterised by her freewheeling approach to songwriting, paired with an evident clarity of vision.
She's got two tonally distinct, critically acclaimed albums under her belt, the second of which, Tell Me How You Really Feel, she's still touring. And just last week her DIY label Milk! Records put out the new single by alt rock cornerstones Sleater-Kinney, produced by none other than St. Vincent.
“Well I became friends with the band a couple of years ago. I don't really remember how just… somehow.” she says, talking with a tone of both self-effacement and genuine warmth about her connection with Sleater-Kinney. “And yeah. We hung out a couple of times, and then Janet [Weiss] played drums with me and Kurt Vile on our tour. They've just kind of become friends, and so it was a real honour to release their new song and then the album on my little label. It's amazing.”
When I ask if she grew up on Sleater-Kinney and their contemporaries she pauses before saying no. “To be honest I didn't actually grow up with them. I didn't even know what DIY was,” she says. “It wasn't until my early 20s that I discovered this whole other world. If you remember that doco… documentary we call them docos - but yeah, that documentary about Kathleen Hanna. I watched that and I was like oh wow: Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney, and so I started researching what riot grrrl was and all that stuff. I mean I was probably actually in my mid-20s. So like five years ago.”
It’s telling of her attitude that Barnett was emulating the staunch do-it-yourself principles of her peers way before she was even aware of them. With a handful of tracks, a loan from her grandmother, and a sketch of a milk bottle in hand, she ran the first 1000 CD pressing of her debut EP I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris way back in 2012.
Seven years later and she’s managed to maintain those principles, even as her records are distributed internationally. Such a scale of interaction has clearly afforded Barnett some consideration on how perception and time affect meaning, especially a year on from the release of Tell Me How You Really Feel.
“It's funny how much songs change over time. From writing them and then even from the first time I show them to people. Like when I first showed them to my band suddenly they meant something different with someone else listening to them,” she tells me. In much the same way, Barnett’s own vocal delivery has shifted over time, from the rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness rhythm of her debut, to the more measured cadence of her follow-up.
“It wasn't conscious really. I think it's because I wrote a lot of the songs on piano. I'm not a piano player but I kind of taught myself how to play and was mucking around writing songs and I think I found more melody on the piano because it's right there.”
It’s this sense of self-reflexion mixed with an acute awareness of how communal consciousness shapes meaning that led Barnett to turn the spotlight back onto her fans in a series of art installations (most recently at The Other Art Fair in Melbourne) spun off from her last album title.
The open-ended question - namely ‘Tell me how you really feel?’ - saw Barnett open up a whole portal dedicated to the manifold answers. “Since the album started we’ve had an online site where people could submit a paragraph and then we were funnelling it back through the website as just like these big stream of words and thoughts and emotions.”
This web of words act as a broad reflection of Barnett’s increasingly confessional lyrics. On the aptly titled ‘Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack Of Self Confidence’ the yelped chorus of ‘Tell me how you really feel?’ is met by Barnett’s own confession: ‘I don’t know, I don’t know anything.’
This internal conflict in turn offered the springboard for everyone else’s candid admissions. “I think there's definitely a voyeuristic kind of tendency reading other people's very personal thoughts amongst a sea of them all. It's a big big sea of words when you just look at a wall full of people's submissions.”
If Barnett views reading other people’s innermost confessions as voyeuristic, we wonder aloud if she herself feels like the subject of voyeurism. “Yeah for sure. I think as a songwriter you’re projected onto, and you kind of can’t fight it - that's part of the whole package. I was just thinking about this yesterday. I'm reading this Zadie Smith book of essays and she writes this essay about Joni Mitchell and how much she loves the album Blue and how as music lovers we have an idea of the artists that we love and they're forever kind of captured in that time and moment.”
This unique blend of self awareness and humility, wherein Barnett recognises her status as a figure of interest, but doesn’t overstate her worth, can’t help but be charming. Earlier, when discussing the art installations pieced together from her fan’s contributions she chuckles slightly, then says “It's a funny thing cos I didn't really... do much, because it's just everyone else's words.” As said in her breezily-tempered Aussie accent it’s sincere, even as it elides the sweeping impact her own words have had in cultivating such a wide-spanning and open discourse.
Later as we're saying our goodbyes, we ask Barnett if she has any work on the horizon. She mentions her sophomore record and how she’s still really enjoying taking it on tour. She discusses the successes of Milk! Records, and how they’ve always got new projects in the works. She outlines how she makes sure that she’s always working on her own material regardless of where she is in the world. But the statement that best encapsulates her approach is the simplest: “Keep writing and hope for the best!” So long as Barnett maintains her idiosyncratic worldview, it’s hard to imagine she’ll get anything less than she hopes for.