There’s this episode of Queer Eye that’s been on Courtney Barnett’s mind a lot recently. In it, the Fab Five are driving through Atlanta, on their way to change the life of former marine Cory Waldrop, when they get pulled over by a marked police car. It’s meant to be a gag – the officer who’s stopped them is a friend of Waldrop – but given it’s the show’s culture expert and only African-American team member Karamo Brown driving, the joke’s less funny than it should be.
After all, it’s only been two years since the shooting of Philando Castile – only a month or so since the shooting of Stephon Clark – so who feels like laughing at the sight of a burly, sunglasses wearing cop wielding their power over a visibly nervous African-American man?
“It’s really intense,” Barnett says over coffee in a busy Darlington café. “Later on in the episode, [Brown’s] like, ‘As a black guy, I was terrified when that happened.’ He shared his one-on-one stories; he explained to cops, ‘This is why I feel like this.’”
The episode got Barnett thinking. “I just thought if you had everyone do that – if you had everyone sit down and talk to someone who made them angry, or that they didn’t normally talk to…” She lets the sentence trail off for a moment; ponders. “I don’t know. I thought it could help things.”
Watch Courtney Barnett’s video for ‘Need A Little Time’:
It’s become a bit of an obsession for Barnett, as of late: how she might help things. While writing Tell Me How You Really Feel, the follow-up to her acclaimed debut record, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit, she started to worry that maybe art was the last thing that the world needed. “I was like, ‘What am I saying? Nothing groundbreaking’. I’m not saving the fucking planet. I wish I was. But I don’t feel like I am. I feel like all I’m doing is making more noise for people’s ears to have to hear.
“Sometimes it’s hard, the knowledge that there’s so many people writing songs and making music; so many bands and so many professional session musicians. You’re like, ‘Who am I? I’m just another one of them. Am I even good? Should I even bother?’”
Sometimes Barnett wishes she was more like her partner, the singer-songwriter Jen Cloher. Barnett struggles to get angry; she prefers to think about where people came from, and why they might act the way that they do. Even when she does write songs out of anger – songs like ‘Nameless, Faceless’, Tell Me How You Really Feel’s dead centre – they always come out wrong.
“I think that song ended up sounding polite. Or maybe not. I don’t know. It sounds very thoughtful, which maybe isn’t a bad thing. It was definitely born out of a lot more anger, and grappling with the violence and the hatred, and not ever being able to understand it. It didn’t help me figure anything out. But it was on the way to getting there.”
I’m not saving the fucking planet.
Cloher, by contrast, is a “take no bullshit” kind of person. “I’m a pacifist,” Barnett says with a shrug. “I mean, it’s back to that big civil rights debate: non-violence versus violent activism. Sometimes non-violence just gets nowhere. And I get angry at myself that non-violence is my natural instinct. I believe in it, and I think it’s good, but sometimes it’s like that quote – if you’re not angry, you’re not listening. So maybe change comes out of screaming about shit ’till it gets fixed?”
Tell Me How You Really Feel isn’t a political record, per se – not in the way that people talk about Politics with a capital ‘p’. It’s not “the perfect riposte to the Trump era”, or a “damning takedown of our connected world”, or any of those phrases critics like to trot out whenever they detect a whiff of socio-political satire. But it is connected, however tangentially, to the things Barnett reads about in the news; to endangered species, and online comments sections, and random, senseless acts of violence.
“You have to consider those things and be aware of them for sure. It’s a tricky one. Lots of songwriter friends I know have also dealt with the same thing. It’s like we’re all finding a way to connect with the emotions that are in turn connected with that stuff, which is obviously horrible, and making everyone miserable.”
Not that Barnett has any answers. Tell Me How You Really Feel might be assured and complete, but the musician who wrote it still isn’t. All she can do these days is try, whenever possible, to remind herself that things could be worse; that she is managing, despite the odds.
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“When you have a friend that’s suffering through something, and they’re telling you all about it, you go like, ‘But you’re great. Don’t think those thoughts about yourself.’ It’s that same attitude. You just have to do that to yourself. When writing the record, I had to go, ‘I’m alright. I’m saying things that people connect with. Maybe this can help someone, somewhere. I don’t know.’
“And there’s no alternative, really, I don’t think. I think I would be much worse off if I wasn’t writing or making music. So that’s all I can think of to do.”
Barnett likes to read, especially books about the creative process of her favourite artists. She pored over The Letters Of Sylvia Plath last year on tour; Vincent Van Gogh’s Letters To Theo a little before that. “It’s such an intense insight into artistic process. I recognised that manic thing of being like, ‘I wrote the best thing ever!’ And then the next day, they’re just like, beside themselves, and hating everything that they’ve done. It’s so sad. But it’s interesting to see how different people work.”
She buys more books than she can possibly keep up with – Cloher will often shake her head at the stack of unread novels piling up by their bed. “She’ll go, ‘Are you going to read any of those?’ while we’re there watching a movie,” Barnett laughs.
But Barnett can’t help herself. “I read lots of non-fiction stuff. I just feel like there’s so much to learn; I just feel like I don’t know anything. And then I get overwhelmed by the fact that there’s so much stuff I’ll never know; all these books I’ll never read and historical things I’ll never understand. I mean, it’s a great thing to learn. I’ve always been so excited about learning. But it’s overwhelming.”
Watch Courtney Barnett’s video for ‘City Looks Pretty’:
Barnett has been this way ever since she was little. She loved school growing up – she doesn’t reckon she took a single sick day. “I really liked learning,” she says. “Sometimes I would set myself assignments for my holidays. Once, I made my babysitter help me with this assignment, and she was like, ‘What is this for? What class?’ And I was like, ‘It’s not for a class. It’s just for me.’”
That enthusiasm carried over into Barnett’s great appetite for creativity. She’d dream of becoming a novelist; a poet; an artist. She didn’t even necessarily feel as though she excelled at visual art – she just liked the world, and enjoyed skulking around the art rooms at her Mona Vale highschool. “I felt safe and I felt creative being in that environment. It was a nice feeling.”
Her parents never pushed her to get the best grades, or to start seriously thinking about a job, so she didn’t. “I don’t feel like I ever really worried about it, even though it was always a thing older people were pushing on you in some way,” she says. “I just didn’t think it would be an option to be a professional musician.”
She didn’t necessarily have a back-up, either: there was nothing that captured her imagination or interest the way music did. She’d work hospo jobs as a way of indulging her habit of people-watching (“You see a lot of the good and the bad side of people very quickly working that kind of job”), and it helped her make the money she needed to keep writing songs. But she felt no kind of pressure to move out of small-time jobs and into music; she felt no kind of pressure at all, really. “Jobs are just jobs,” she says. “They can be anything. I didn’t think of a career. I just kept doing what I liked doing. It’s not very good advice.” She laughs. “But it worked.”
Of course, that all changed after the massive success of Sometimes – after she appeared on Ellen, and befriended Kurt Vile, and supported Patti Smith, and appeared on a playlist put together by then U.S. President Barack Obama. Things accumulated; pressure mounted. “Not to complain or anything, because it’s all such amazing things, but when it all builds up, it’s just like…” Barnett bats the coffee between her hands, her face contorted into a mock scream.
A lot of critics have read Tell Me How You Really Feel as Barnett’s way of dealing with fame, and it’s true there are lines that support that narrative. “Friends treat you like a stranger / And strangers treat you like their best friend” goes a line on ‘City Looks Pretty’, while the chorus of ‘Charity’, repeated over and over until it becomes a kind of threat, is, “You must be having so much fun.”
Watch Courtney Barnett’s video for ‘Nameless, Faceless’:
But Barnett doesn’t reckon that’s all the album is. “That was definitely a background noise to the writing of the record. But I wouldn’t say it’s about that. Lots of people have kind of assumed that. But to me it’s not my way of writing about that. It’s a factor of the story. It feels more a record about personal relationships and connections and communications; everyday things. Which are so much smaller than that story, but exist within it as well.”
Anyway, Barnett doesn’t really feel like she knows what it means to sell out; what it means to “get big”. They are nebulous phrases to her, as foreign to her artmaking process as it is possible to get. “The concept of selling out; I think it’s all so dependent on your own situation,” she says.
To test their differing attitudes towards their work, she and Cloher will sometimes play little games with each other. “We’ll do hypotheticals,” Barnett explains. “Like, Jen asked, ‘Would you still write songs if you couldn’t perform them?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I think I would still find it therapeutic to write songs and performing is great.’ And she was like, ‘Would you still write songs if you couldn’t record them?’ And then she went, ‘Would you still write songs if no-one else could hear them?’”
The energy you get from other people – you’re connecting with them. It’s an important part of the process.
Barnett throws up her hands. “I was like, ‘Ah. I don’t know.’ Because you can do it for yourself, or for other people, or both. There’s no wrong answer. But the energy you get from other people – you’re connecting with them. It’s an important part of the process. So it’s funny to really figure out why you do it, and what for.”
Barnett is going to be spending a lot of the next few months on the road. She’s no more used to touring than she was when she started out – she still considers it a “weird exercise”, alternately exhausting and bone-numbingly dull. “It’s just about finding the balance of looking after your mental health and physical health and all that stuff. It’s like anything else. Balance keeps it normal.”
And, in true Courtney Barnett style, she finds that balance not in the big things – not in the grand, pivotal moments that define the songs of other musicians – but in the small stuff; in the simple, everyday ways we can show ourselves love.
“My mum would always say, ‘Are you drinking enough water? Are you getting enough sleep?’ And I’d go, ‘Yes mum, don’t tell me what to do.’ But now I go, ‘Oh my god, I’m not drinking enough water; that’s why I’m getting these headaches.’” Barnett beams, the smile mostly in her eyes. “Who would have thought. Sometimes the simplest stuff is life-changing.”
Courtney Barnett plays the Sydney Opera House on Saturday August 25. Tell Me How You Really Feel is out Friday May 18. Header image credit: Pooneh Ghana.