In only two full-length albums and a handful of EPs, Courtney Barnett has mastered the art of finding purpose in purposelessness and seeing the sublime in the mundane. She attends an open house only to spiral into deep speculation about the life of the now-deceased woman who once called this place her home. She channels the anxious sweet ache of a mind preoccupied with pining for an absent lover. She spends an afternoon gardening, only to suffer an allergy attack that turns into a panic attack that turns into an uncomfortable self-realization while lying in a hospital bed. With a journalist’s attention to detail, Barnett creates worlds and populates them with vivid characters. She handles her subjects’ stories with care, yet tells them in ways that leave nothing about her characters’ inner workings to the imagination—and she writes with such wit and self-conscious charm that we can’t help but want a window into Barnett’s mind, too.
That window has always been a little smudgy. Barnett’s songs are simultaneously straightforward and evasive: an exercise in externalizing difficult feelings in order to more easily cope with them and accurately assess them. Yet as the title of her excellent new album Tell Me How You Really Feel unsubtly insinuates, Barnett is getting more comfortable with the idea of being vulnerable. On opening track “Hopefulessness,” she establishes this new edict in her own words—“Your vulnerability is stronger than it seems”—and, in quoting Carrie Fisher’s words, helps us understand how she arrived in this place: “Take your broken heart/ Turn it into art.” Tell Me How You Really Feel is equal parts diary and manifesto, topical and timeless, filled with lots of good advice to herself and to all of us. At times, it’s an outlet for helpless rage, but it also digs deep, finding Barnett pushing to understand her own mind and working hard to understand other people (including her own internet troll). At heart, it’s an album about understanding limitations and figuring out to flourish anyway; finding balance between striving for better but being gentle with yourself and others (“I know you're doing your best/ I think you're doing just fine/ Keep on keeping on/ You know you're not alone”). If only all important lessons were sung so clearly and by such a formidable talent.
VMP: So much of Tell Me How You Really Feel sounds like it’s written from a perspective where a friend has asked you for advice and the advice that you give them is really advice to yourself. You can either read these songs as being written for friends and lovers—or as you giving a pep talk to yourself.
Courtney Barnett: That’s a really good way to look at it. I think a lot of my ideas bend between those two places. They cross over quite a lot. A lot of these songs I started writing for friends or to people I had encounters with. But then you end up turning it around on yourself. You hear yourself giving these people advice—or not even advice, just thoughts—and then you wonder why you can’t give yourself that same advice. I remember when I started writing poetry in school I wrote things for other people all the time.
I often find myself in the position where I’m giving advice to a friend and thinking, “why am I not following the same advice?” Like, clearly I know what I should be doing.
Yeah—once you realize it and you’re aware of it, I think you start noticing it all the time.
One thing that struck me about the album is that it’s angry and frustrated, but it’s also kind to its subjects. To me, that just sort of feels like the condition of being in your 30s: you can balance that anger and frustration with empathy.
True. I guess over time, you learn different skills and how to better express those feelings. Ideas before that I might have covered up with some other thing—like sarcasm, or humor. I recognize how I masked those things so I wasn’t 100 percent vulnerable. And I think now [on Tell Me How You Really Feel] I really dug a little bit deeper and let myself just be vulnerable. Which is I think such a fear we all have—a fear of being seen, you know? People seeing you for what you are and all your faults and insecurities. It’s a pretty scary thing.
What’s a song on Tell Me How You Really Feel that you think you may not have written earlier in your life?
Maybe something like “Hopefulessness”—well, I don’t know. I mean, it’s funny, because a few of these songs I actually started writing when I was a teenager. The kind of instrumental side of them. “Sunday Roast” and “Can’t Help Yourself,” I started those when I was 13 or 15. And “City Looks Pretty” I started in my early 20s. It’s a weird crossover of time, feeling how long [these songs] have existed and changed at the same time. Lyrically, the ideas are probably a little bit different than anything I would have done before now.
It’s interesting to come back to something personal that you started ten-plus years ago: almost like collaborating with a different person even though it’s still you carrying it through. Is that something you find yourself doing a lot, letting ideas and work rest on the shelf for a while?
Yeah, I think I tend to dwell on things. I think I’m pretty indecisive, so finalizing a song idea…I can see by how long some of these songs have taken me to write that that kind of decision-making process of deciding it’s finished and moving on is a long road.
You have a real gift for being able to write about very specific personal experiences in a generous way. A listener definitely has enough room to identify with the song and feel like a part of the story. I think you’re able to do this because you chronicle these experiences like a journalist would, but I’m curious to hear why you think you’re able to hit that mark.
I don’t really know how or why—I think I don’t think about it too much, maybe! The more I try to think about whether a certain person or group of people will resonate with it, or how someone will react to this or that…I think the variables are so huge that you could forever keep sacrificing ideas to try to fit into what you think someone else might like or might connect with. I like to shut off those functions and think about what the things that someone else might think to be a massive waste of time and energy. I like to strip all of that away and think about the most honest version of something.
That dovetails with the way that this album shifts between externalizing personal experiences in other characters, and internalizing or personalizing these societal-level, cultural, more universal issues. There’s this shift back and forth between the two.
It’s hard for me to say. Sometimes it just changes within one song. Like, even if there is a character, there’s normally some sort of element of myself in him or her. It all blends together so much that it ends up being everything at once and not one specific, separate thing.
** Was this a hard album to write?**
I think it was. But I think that everything I’ve written has been hard. I just find writing hard. Which isn’t a bad thing. It just means it’s challenging and makes you think about things. This one felt a little harder, but maybe it’s just because it was the most recent thing that I was focused on. You kind of forget about the past, you know. But it was hard just because I was more vulnerable and I think I dug a bit deeper than maybe I had before.
Did you coin the word “hopefulessness?” It’s the perfect word to describe life in 2018.
I don’t know—maybe I did! I remember I couldn’t find the exact word I wanted. And really, it’s not just about the song: it feels like it sums up the whole album. That kind of seesaw between hopeless and hopeful. Optimistic and pessimistic. And trying to find a comfortable balance between the two instead of completely ignoring one or being completely oblivious to the other.
I feel like there are a lot of songs on the album—especially “City Looks Pretty”—about feeling alienated from something familiar. I’m sure people are interpreting that song as you coming home from a tour, but it also sounds like it could be about coping with coming out of a depressive episode. Really it seems like both give you the same feeling: coming home to a home that doesn’t feel like home anymore.
It’s a general kind of disconnect which you can relate to a lot of situations. And that song I find most interesting because it was written in two times, really. I started writing it when I was 21 or 22, and then couldn’t finish it so I put it away and came back to it while I was writing this album. It has lyrics that cross over from both periods of time in my life. It’s got that depressive, in bed, indoors part—and the second part is about being away from home. So they have different meanings, but it all comes back to a general disconnect from your surroundings and peers. And people in your life.
I imagine that’s something that comes up a lot since you spend so much time away from home now. Has it gotten any easier to deal with?
I think I’m getting better at getting used to different things. Figuring out how to adapt and deal with them.
In contrast to some of your earlier work, on this album you more directly deal with social issues. Did anything specific inspire this shift in your writing?
I think those things were always there in my songs but I struggled with how to say how I felt—how to express those frustrations. I think also, time goes on, I get more fed up and let down by all those things.
I wonder if the troll that you talk about in “Nameless Faceless” will reach out to you at some point.
I doubt it. I doubt they’d either know about this song or care! (laughs)
Do you have a favorite memory from recording this album?
Ah, it was so close to home—I’d walk to the studio every day, and it was the dead of winter in Melbourne, and there was this little fireplace in the communal kitchen area of the studio, and so we’d light these little fires. It was just nice, you know—it was a small group of people, just my band. And it’s long, you know: I like to do long recording sessions in a short burst of days or weeks. I think I tend to drive myself a little bit crazy. It’s probably not the most sensible or healthy way to do it. But it makes it interesting.
It gets you fully immersed in the music, I imagine. Like it’s easier if you get in that headspace and just stay there for an extended period as opposed to dipping in and out of it.
It seems to work for me so far.
Susannah Young is a communications consultant for nonprofit organizations by day and a music critic in her free time. She lives in Chicago with her boyfriend — who, like her, is a Tennessee native — and their bossy rabbit. All three of them love collard greens.