Courtney Barnett: Tell Us How You Really Feel
With her first album, Courtney Barnett captured a spirit that took her round the world. With follow-up ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’, she’s heading for a whole new planet.
Published: 12:47 pm, May 18, 2018
Courtney Barnett’s ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ is a record at war. Even the static title is constantly on the move. “It’s a bit of a floating statement; it could be earnest, sarcastic, a question or a statement directed at me or you or anyone,” she considers. In some lights, it’s a plea. In others, a challenge. “It could be any of that. It’s just me not being aware of my emotions, mostly. It is said earnestly I think, but it could be anything.”
And that freedom rages throughout Courtney’s second album like it’s raged through her story so far. Her debut ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit’ built on a sideways glance at the world that was crafted in early EPs ‘I’ve Got A Friend Called Emily Ferris’ and ‘How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose’. This time out though, its message kept spreading. Courtney was telling simple, heartfelt stories of the everyday, of posters in kitchens and of existential crises wrapped around the desire for control, and people saw themselves within. It wasn’t long before Courtney was being labelled a voice of generation, though she’d only scoff at the idea.
What followed was two years of near continuous shows around the world. “There were moments of burnout and general ups and downs of touring, but that always happens. I would normally approach each day feeling like I am so lucky to be doing this. People don’t realise how privileged it is to be able to travel and play your songs to people onstage… It’s incredible. I never really thought I’d make it around the world, but that was a nice bonus. I’ve got to go to some pretty incredible places.”
And while Courtney’s music has reached more and more people in the past few years, things haven’t changed as much as you might imagine. “Things have changed a little bit, obviously, but I feel like everyone else thinks it’s bigger than it is. Lots of people ask me about it as if it’s this life-changing thing, and I’ve become a different person, but it doesn’t feel like that to me.”
Playing her music to people always felt tangible. Being nominated for a Grammy, “that was just another world.” Not that she’s now dreaming of another planet. “I’m not like, ‘Fuck, I can’t believe I didn’t fucking win that award’. It’s just a funny thing that happened,” she grins. “I don’t feel like this record is too different, but I feel like it’s a nice progression of musicality. I feel a bit more confident as a guitar player and having done a couple of different projects for other people and playing so much for two years, to me it feels like the next thing. It’s hard to guess how different it is to other people. It’s not that crazy but it feels like a natural progression.”
Courtney Barnett is always busy. One week we’re talking in a London pub, surrounded by snow. The next, she’s in Melbourne, preparing for the release of her new album by playing guitar on tour with Jen Cloher. “The record is all done,” she reasons. “There’s nothing to focus on really, I’m just doing interviews here and there, but I don’t know what I’m talking about anyway, so there’s no work I can put into that. I just hope for the best.”
“I’m always kinda busy,” she says with a shrug that comes from knowing nothing else. “I like keeping myself busy. When I’m doing nothing, I don’t like it. I like having something to work towards and to aim for and to keep me flexing my creative muscles. I don’t talk about it all the time, but I like doing it. I’m never doing nothing because there’s always something happening or there’s some little project I’ve got going. If there’s totally nothing, I’ve got Milk Records which I help run. I’m always here working on the store. There’s always something fun going on.”
It’s the sort of full-tilt approach that comes from “trying to look at everything as being a possible inspiration. Even relaxing and reading, that feeds something eventually. I’m pretty lazy with reading, but I’m trying to get back into it,” she notes. “There’s always some idea that it can spark, some way you can feed it into everyday life. I try and look at everything as a positive inspiration.”
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Photo: Jennifer McCord / Dork[/caption]
Since finishing the album, Courtney hasn’t written another song, but she has played with poems and little bits of writing. Her desire to be constantly on the move doesn’t stop just because she’s sat on an album. “Keep learning is my biggest thing. There’s so much to learn and so many new things that I have no idea about. That’s pretty amazing. I just keep writing songs and see what they turn into, that’s always a bit of a mystery.”
Courtney Barnett takes fleeting moments and makes them shine. ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ is made up of personal reflection, raw emotion and “little stories, but they’re integral to the point or whatever it is I’m talking and dealing with. Most of it’s very truthful.”
Finished in the studio last year after two years of on again, off again work, ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ was as difficult as the tales promise, not that you’d know from listening. “Just the sitting down and facing it by myself every day was difficult.” It was a stark contrast to Courtney’s constantly on the go pace of previous years, “but that’s just me in general. I’m always trying to avoid thinking about how I feel, I normally just try and do something else.”
This time out though, “I was trying to feel things and focus on them. I really sat down and wrote. For a lot of it, I was just writing endless pages with no real direction or meaning, then I went through them and extracted meaning.
“I never felt like I had a really solid idea of what I was saying, but it made sense over time. I was writing really personally, and a lot of the time, I was writing a lot of letters to people, trying to express how I felt. I was doing this thing where I’d write letters to friends and not send them. It’s that thing where you try and understand what you’re thinking so you can express it. If people that I knew upset me, or frustrated me or if they were upset, it’s an exercise I do to lay it down. It doesn’t always work though; sometimes it just goes around in circles."
Difficult, yes. Pressure? No chance. “It was just a real study of myself. I kept working on it, and I told everyone I didn’t have any songs, so they expected nothing from me. I try and trick myself sometimes, just try and trick my brain into what I can do. There was no pressure from anyone but myself. I’m pretty hard on myself, so that was pretty intense but that’s just my problem to deal with,” she shrugs.
‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ does a lot of things well. It soothes broken hearts, it stokes raging fires, and it holds mirrors up to dusty, forgotten worlds. It feels familiar throughout. Not because Courtney is treading well-worn paths or echoing tales already told, but there’s something in the way she sees things that feels comforting. She treats the audience like an old friend, that connection is instant and unbreakable. “I know that feeling,” she smiles. “I love that feeling in music; it’s like it’s been there.” That feeling of friends in strangers and strangers in friends dances through ‘City Looks Pretty’ as it sings, “Sometimes I get sad, it’s not all that bad. One day maybe never, I’ll come around.”
“That song is kinda weird,” warns Courtney. “I started writing it in my early twenties, and it didn’t get anywhere, so I put it away. I always liked it, so I tried to revisit it, and I realised that some of the lyrics were quite adaptable to my current state of mind, where I’ve been and what I’ve done. I wrote it in a period of my life where I was on anti-depressants and didn’t leave my room for a while. I’d go out, walk around the city, I’d come home and my girlfriend at the time would ask, ‘Where have you been?’ Then it jumps forward to the present moment, but it still feels like it crosses over.”
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