I was exhausted with the sound of my own voice: Courtney Barnett
By Michael Dwyer
Courtney Barnett concedes there is an element of relief not having to write lyrics for her latest album.Credit: Mia Mala McDonald
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It’s the not-very-rock hour of 9am in London and Courtney Barnett is Zooming from a friend’s basement. “Hello, hello, it’s me!” she says theatrically, then, “I think I’m gonna leave my video off. The truth is I’m a bit sick and –” she emits a weary sigh. “You don’t need to see this face.”
She can see mine though, so I play my icebreaker card. It’s a photograph of a guitar pedal board, shot from above, taken at a gig in Melbourne eight years ago. That’s my shoe in the corner. “That looks like my pedals,” she says of the rest.
Courtney Barnett’s new album End of the Day is something of a change of direction for the singer-songwriter.Credit: Pooneh Ghana
Hah, right? I was playing before Jen Cloher that night and was slightly starstruck to find the effects board of her gun guitarist, Courtney Barnett, at my feet. If I just plugged into that, I could sound like the hottest new rock star in the world, is the gist of the gag.
“It’s a little bit different now,” she says, studying the jumble of hardware. “At the moment there’s less overdrives and distortions and a few more delays.”
Less overdrive, more delay. Is there a life metaphor in there? “Hmm. I’m sure there’s something in there to psychoanalyse.”
Touche. Media therapy is a process she’s come to know well since that photo was taken. The suburban punk-poet sensation from Australia was the pop arrival story of 2015. Her instant classic debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit threw her into the wringer of talk shows, award speeches and interviews in a sudden, dizzying rush.
Tell Me How You Really Feel was the loaded title of a slightly lesser hit three years later. That led into Anonymous Club, an exceptionally intimate documentary by her friend Danny Cohen, documenting the trail of exhaustion that ensued. A global victory teetering towards mental collapse, it’s an uneasy watch.
End of the Day, out next week, was culled from the film’s soundtrack: an album of guitar instrumentals minus her trademark wordplay and character-rich stories. Moody, atmospheric and heavy on effects, its process was loosely modelled on Neil Young’s Dead Man score of 1995: largely improvised as the movie screened on the studio wall. See, I was going somewhere with that guitar pedals picture.
Barnett on stage at last year’s Meredith Music Festival.Credit: Rick Clifford
“I used a Freeze pedal a lot … and I got this amazing Hologram Microcosm pedal. Do you know that one? It’s just, like, endless possibilities of sound,” she enthuses. Far easier to talk about than the deep contemplations and tangled intentions behind her lyrics.
“It was definitely a nice relief from that. It’s always such an important part of my process, but it was really nice to just have this one intention and focus. I was still writing songs in the background,” she adds – a fourth album of those is slowly under way after softly landing her third, Things Take Time, Take Time, during the pandemic – “but it was nice to not have that added stress [of lyrics].”
What with the soul-scraping audio diary narration of Anonymous Club, “I was kind of exhausted with the sound of my own voice,” she says. “Just talking about myself and going through that whole process …” Anyone who has squirmed through the film’s media gauntlet sequences will feel her pain.
The common ’90s childhood dream of rock stardom wasn’t on Barnett’s agenda, she says, when she started burning her songs onto CDs for friends and playing open mic nights as a teenager in Hobart. “I just dreamed of making music,” she says. “Before I even started playing guitar I wanted to learn the piano and the drums.”
Combined with its ominous title, the wordless vistas of End of the Day might sound like a drastic left-turn to some fans, but it’s all “tracing that same intrigue and taking the time to study something and expand on it,” she says. “I make so much different music in my own time, so it’s nice to be able to share it sometimes.”
TAKE 7: THE ANSWERS ACCORDING TO COURTNEY BARNETT
Last month Barnett announced that End of the Day would be the last release on her Milk! Records label, a slow-burning Melbourne success story since 2012. Fellow indie powerhouse Jen Cloher was her partner in life and business back then. Milk! became a beacon for a certain self-determining music community ethos. That was before COVID decimated the live scene and sent vinyl costs and delays soaring.
Disbanding Milk! has “definitely been a hard process, but Jen and I were on the same page of the label just being at the right time to finish,” Barnett says. “We’ve spoken about it a lot, and we’re both so proud of the label … It’s such a special thing to be a part of, and it’s nice to be able to look at it with really grateful eyes. ”
Community endures, of course. It’s pretty much everything, in fact, when all those American talk shows move onto whatever’s next on the pop radar. Anonymous Club refers to an online submission box, somewhat inspired by Nick Cave’s The Red Hand Files, where Barnett invited fans to share their feelings in the spirit of her Tell Me How You Really Feel album. In the film, we see how it nourishes her as much as any fan.
“I loved just seeing this common … anonymous space where people are kind of craving to connect with each other,” she says. “You see this thread of humanity in people reaching out and seeking something from someone, seeking help through community or through the shared experience.
“Not to say that all of it is negative or emotional or highly charged. A lot of it is really positive and beautiful, people sharing beautiful moments. But I do think it’s fascinating. It’s such a human thing to want to reach out and seek those answers.”
The gruelling success of the past eight years has clearly afforded Barnett some space to do that. I jokingly ask whether her current travels – America, a quick trip back to Melbourne, then Greece and London – comprised a holiday or a fact-finding mission.
“I make so much different music in my own time,” says Barnett, “so it’s nice to be able to share it sometimes.”Credit: Ian Laidlaw
“A fact-finding mission I like. I feel like I’m constantly on one of them. I move pretty slowly. I did a little bit of random recording yesterday. Just starting to make some little demos … awful lot of scribbling,” she says. “I feel like I’m bad at starting things. Once I get something on the page, then it’s easy to get rolling.
“When I hit those walls and those moments where I think I can’t write, and I have nothing left in the tank, it’s just about showing up and keeping my ears open to the world and so many interesting things just constantly circling around us … So, it’s nice to remember that.”
It helps to be moving, Bob Dylan once observed of his own writing process.
“There’s also something so beautiful about being in one spot,” she counters. “I’m going back to Joshua Tree soon, which I really miss. I’ve been spending a lot of time there. I often just sit and look at the mountains and look at the sunrise and sunset.
“I guess for me, it’s the exact opposite. Not moving, being in this quite desolate place, but being able to draw so many different emotions out of that one vista. I think that’s also the challenge.”
She first visited the spectacular national park two hours east of Los Angeles in 2014, before her rocket had gone stratospheric.
“I just really fell in love with it. It’s so stunning and so vast. I’ve always gone back as much as I can, after tours have ended in the past. It’s just a special place. I find a lot of inspiration from places; natural landscapes,” she says, daydreaming away her London basement walls. “The overwhelming beauty of things I find really inspiring, awe-inspiring. Walking up huge mountains, that kind of thing always really affects me.”
The new End of the Day video springs to mind. A slab of the album – Start Somewhere, Life Balance & First Slow – soundtracks her aimless wander down dirt paths, misty mountains and overgrown vegetation: a lone figure lost in thought, dwarfed by a landscape as inscrutable as her shapeless blue raincoat.
“With the instrumental album, I’m going to do a small handful of shows, which, I think, will be really special,” she says. “At the moment we’re just doing a few in America and see how they go. If people are into it, hopefully we’ll do some more.”
Coming home to play soon? “Not at the moment. Always working on something. But yeah, not at the moment.”
Courtney Barnett, End Of The Day is out September 8, via Milk! Records.
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