Courtney Barnett The Melburnian indie rocker talks songwriting on the road, art shows, and the energy surrounding her new album “Tell Me How You Really Feel”

Photo: Pooneh Ghana

Going into this interview, I knew Courtney Barnett was notorious for her laconicism. Despite her reputation for her stream-of-consciousness, effusive lyrical talents, the Melburnian indie rocker is famously shy and soft spoken in person. For some musicians, acting so aloof would come off as supercilious, as if an interview were insultingly beneath them. But as it so happens, Barnett is far too relaxed for such indignations.

I met Courtney Barnett backstage at the 80/35 Music Festival in Des Moines, Iowa. She carried herself with a calm, affable demeanor and spoke quietly, shyly for much of our interview. Des Moines is the first of a litany of stops on her forthcoming tour that stretches on past November, and despite the formidable stretch of shows she’s about to embark on, Barnett seems unfazed. She maintains a coolness about her, fiddling nonchalantly with the tab of a soda can as we talk. She’s touring in support of her new album Tell Me How You Really Feel, which was released last May.

As we conversed, Courtney opined on the writing process on the road, the energy surrounding the making of Tell Me, and the art shows she held following the release of the album, among other topics.

Excited for the show today?

I am, yeah. I think it’s gonna be real fun.

How long have you been on tour now?

Well, this tour only started a couple days ago. But I was back home in Melbourne for a couple weeks, and before that we did two months. And then the album came out two months ago, so yeah, it’s kind of broken up, you know?

And this tour goes until the end of November?

It kind of goes on forever [laughs].

Oh, like Bob Dylan and the Never Ending Tour?

Well, we have more [dates] booked after [November]; it’s just not announced yet and there’s time off in between. I could never tour full time for two years, but there’s a couple weeks in between shows where we can go home and gather our thoughts.

How do you cope with the longer stretches when you’re away from home?

I don’t really know. I guess it’s a lot of mental stuff.

Do you find yourself able to write or be creative on the road?

Yeah, more so recently.

You wrote a lot on the last tour?

Yeah, I think it’s just like… pushing through and doing it. It’s like, “I’m gonna write something!” instead of thinking, “Oh, that seems hard.”

For the next leg of your tour, you’re playing with Vagabon. How did you get into contact with her?

I think she’s on my English label [Marathon Artists], and some friends showed me her music and I loved it. I’ve still not seen her live, though.

So the last album Lotta Sea Lice kind of had a relaxed, casual feel to it, but your new album Tell Me How You Really Feel seems more direct or visceral. What was the atmosphere like when you were making that album? What kind of headspace were you in?

Well, the Kurt [Vile] one was definitely low-key, kind of on the fly, like we didn’t have a plan to make an album, so it was really casual and a bit kind of goofy. But yeah, it was a fun atmosphere. And my album [Tell Me] was so different, I spent so much more time and mental energy on it. I’ve been kind of working on it for the last couple of years. And the songwriting’s kind of similar; my songs on Sea Lice are from the same kind of mental space, just executed in a different way.

Compared to Sometimes I Sit and Think, it seems to be grungier/ heavier. Did you make a conscious decision to do something different musically or is that something you realized after the fact?

A little bit. I think what I was trying to do was focus a bit more on guitars and try to find a way to match the live energy. Because live energy is so much more [visceral] and the studio always tends to be a bit timid, or polite and gentle. And so I think the nervous energy of performing just ramps it up to this other place.

And that’s what you were channeling during the recording?

A little bit, yeah. And it’s still so hard to get [that sound] because you’re in a studio, but I think Tell Me is closer to that.

Kim and Kelley Deal were both present on the new album. What did you take away from working with them?

That was so low-key, I mean, they just recorded their vocals and just sent them over.

So it wasn’t even in the same room?

No, they were in America and we did the album in Melbourne. But I was in touch with Kim a lot while I was writing the album and making the album. So it was nice to have her energy in my ear.

So what was she saying to you while you were in contact?

Oh, nothing really [relevant], it’s just hard to articulate [Kim’s role].

I read the interview with Abbi Jacobson where you talk about wanting to be more vulnerable on this album and not use humor as a kind of defense mechanism. What prompted that change to move away from humor since you were almost known for it before?

Yeah, I think it was more trying not to hide behind it. I think I’m still kind of a bit silly and stupid. I never really thought I was funny, I was just kind of mucking around, I guess. I think there’s still plenty of that on this album. But it’s less obvious.

I’m sure it’s easy to transmute that vulnerability into a studio recording with the option of multiple takes, but do you find you’re able to communicate that same level of emotion in a live performance? Are you getting the same feeling across?

Yeah, I think that’s why music is so fun and I never quite know how it works. [The songs] change so much that you don’t know how it’s gonna turn out, and even the emotion from each song changes every day anyway.

So it’s less of a premeditated thing, it’s more in the moment, would you say?

Yes, definitely, it’s kind of a gut instinct.

So many journalists have written about the alphabet soup line in “Nameless, Faceless.” [The lyric from “Nameless Faceless” goes: “He said: ‘I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you.’” The line is lifted verbatim from a tweet dragging Barnett for her lyrical style.] Do you still find yourself tempted to look at internet comments on your videos?

No, I don’t look at that stuff really. I don’t use social media much anymore, just Instagram… there are too many things to look at.

It’s a lot of stuff. Do you think you could handle [criticism] differently from when you were first starting out as a musician?

I just think it’s one of those things you learn in life in general. Some people are nasty and you need to understand where it comes from, or at least try and understand where it comes from and that it’s not personal or true.

So you worked with Burke Reid as producer again for the album. Why did you want to work with him again? What’s your relationship like?

He’s great. We did that last album, and I just felt really safe and understood. He’s a wizard [laughs].

I read that you’ve said some of these songs were written when you were a teenager, which ones were those?

“Sunday Roast,” I wrote the guitar line when I was 13, and “Help Yourself,” I kind of wrote the main riff when I was 16. I didn’t have any instruments at the time, but I had these microphones, so I just sang the drum beat and the bass line and sang these harmonies. And they both just stuck in my head over time.

So it wasn’t anything lyrically?

No, just the music stuff.

What made you want to revisit those songs now as opposed to your first album?

They’ve just always been there and I’ve played them, but I’ve never been able to finish them. So it’s like, if something keeps coming back like that, then it’s for a reason.

Did you have to push yourself to finish those songs?

Yeah, because I’m a bit of a… I put things off.

You do the cover art for all your albums. Tell me about what went into this one?

The photo that I took — I was doing this series of Polaroids while I was writing and I hadn’t really been drawing much like a lot of the albums. So the photo seemed to capture the title, I think.

Tell me about feature on your website where fans submit their email and they can post a 250-character blurb about their thoughts and feelings. Was that your idea?

It wasn’t my idea, but I can’t actually remember who came up with it. It was someone that worked with… a friend. I was trying to think of things to do around the title and around the album. I really liked it when the album came out; we did a handful of little art shows and we used all the text. It’s quite powerful reading through it all. We did a New York one. We had all the words printed up on the walls of the gallery, and I think that volume of [the comments] is quite overwhelming. Because it’s so personal and some of it’s super casual. It’s quite voyeuristic in a way, and we had no idea about the story. But altogether, it’s really strong.

Were you using it as a substitute for social media?

Not really. I think it’s more the idea of, you know, expressing yourself and talking about your feelings and the importance of that. I’ve kind of done it through writing the songs, so I’ve shared already. This is people sharing back.

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