Note: This piece first appeared in Australian Guitar #127. Subscribe to our print edition here!
Melbourne’s indie-punk trailblazer reaches new heights on her head-turning second solo album. Words by Matt Doria
A lot has happened in the three years since Courtney Barnett dropped her mainstream-crashing debut, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit (henceforth Sometimes). World tours, copious accolades and a duet album with indie twanger Kurt Vile all filled her journals, and though most of the journey has been exhilarating, it hasn’t been without its pitfalls as well.
Both sides are explored on Barnett’s second solo album, Tell Me How You Really Feel: an album that mediates as much on the Melbourne songwriter’s catapulting success as it does on the always erupting supervolcano that is her inner monologue. On the striking lead single “Nameless, Faceless”, she bites at the comment section warriors that plagued her rise to the spotlight, and how violent quips aimed at women aren’t uncommon coming from men in (and out of) the music scene. On its follow-up, the mellow and melodic “Need A Little Time” (which is an indisputable highlight, if we may say so ourselves), Barnett ruminates on the stresses that weigh down her personal relationships.
The record is equally polarising from a musical standpoint. Structures are pulled apart and pieced together in ways that scream originality. Guitar parts are more ambitious and often experimental, and from the bleak throbs of “Hopefulessness” to the elegant strums of “Sunday Roast”, she dives into a wealth of newfound craftsmanship. From the bustling corner of a cute inner-city Sydney café, we caught up with Barnett to dig deep on the musical profusion that makes LP2 her most exciting record yet.
Why would you say Tell Me How You Really Feel is your best record thus far?
I guess it’s special because it’s the most recent one, and it covers the most relevant thoughts that were going around. I think with each thing I’ve made – and I’m sure this will continue over time – I’ve picked up new skills as a guitarist, a songwriter and a singer, and it’s fun to just experiment with that. I think after a couple of years of just straight up touring, mostly as a three-piece but sometimes as a four-piece, I’ve had to really step up my guitar, so I felt like I got to play a few more cool guitar bits on this album as an outcome.
The biggest thing that stands out about this record is how bold a lot of the guitars are – you’re not afraid to bust out a sick hook or a ripping solo on some of these tracks. Was it a gratifying album to record as a guitarist?
Yeah, I had a lot of fun. In the past, I hadn’t really been in that many studios. I’ve only made a handful of albums – either mine or other people’s – and my experiences so far had just been learning and getting comfortable in the studio, because it’s quite intimidating at first. But I was a little more comfortable this time around, so I was doing a lot more experimenting; just turning amps up really loud, putting earplugs in and seeing how the sound would be different, and trying heaps of weird pedals and stuff – stuff that I wouldn’t be bothered to use in the past because I’d be like, “Oh my god, we need to do this all quickly!”
Did it push you out of your comfort zone to try all those new techniques?
Yeah, I reckon so. The first chunk of recording I did was all by myself. I was just going to write and demo some basic melodies, but I ended up demoing nearly all of the songs playing drums and bass, and then playing guitar as well. That was really fun and really challenging because I’m not a very proficient player of any of those things, but I’ve been learning a lot recently. I love it. I love playing the drums so much!
I feel like this record is a lot more unhinged and raw-sounding than Sometimes was. Was that a creative decision to match the more vulnerable and emotionally strained lyrics at play?
Yeah. I think along the way, I learnt the importance of playing the guitar emotionally, and how much more powerful it can be to have that connection between the guitars and the lyrics. I think before, those parts were really separate and the guitar was really just something to sing over. It took me a while to figure out, but I discovered just how much extra the guitar can say dynamically.
My understanding is that you wrote this album at the same time that you were writing Lotta Sea Lice with Kurt Vile.
Did making both of those albums back-to-back give you a bit of a different perspective or influence that you were able to bounce back and forth on?
I think everything kind of adds to and inspires those things. The stuff with Kurt was so spread out; we did it over three days one summer, three days the next summer, and so on. It was really spread out and we were doing all of this other stuff in-between, but having the project in the back of my mind, chatting with Kurt and swapping ideas here and there, it influenced [Tell Me How You Really Feel] in a roundabout way. Having that kind of friendship and support was just different, creatively, and making music with him was inspiring as well.
Were you working on this album as a designated project from the start, or were the songs just little jams that you’d write to get out of the headspace of collaboration?
I think my main project was this album. He was working on an album as well, which I guess he’s still working on. But I kind of feel like everything is a part of the same bigger project, which is a life’s work of stuff – it’s all just scattered around. I think I was doing the Jen Cloher album somewhere in-between all of that as well, so it was kind of all over the place.
How many songs did you end up with in the end? Is there much you had to leave on the cutting room floor?
There was one more full song that we recorded, and then there were a couple of other ones that were more folky and a little less worked out. That one fully recorded song will probably end up somewhere eventually, but the others just weren’t quite there yet. I always have songs that take a good five years to finish [laughs].
And you recorded this album as the CB3 again, didn’t you?
Yep! We had Dan Luscombe [of The Drones] with us in the studio as well.
The legend himself! How did you manage to bring Dan into the fold?
I’ve been friends with Dan since I was working on my second EP [2013’s How To Carve A Carrot Into A Rose] – I’d recorded all of the songs but I hit a bit of a roadblock with the mixing, so I took it to him and I was like, “Can you please help me finish this EP!?” He added a bit of guitar on “Avant Gardener” and I recorded a lot of the vocals at his house, and we’ve been really good friends since then. He’s just such an amazing musician, and he has so much knowledge about historical music that it’s scary. He’s good to have around because I’ll be like, “Does this sound like another song?” And he’ll go, “Yes! That is this riff from this song,” and I’m like, “Ah, damn it!” He played a lot of guitar on [Sometimes], but I was like, “This time I want to play more guitar, and you’re going to play keys and synth.” He’s great at that, and he painted all of these beautiful textural sounds all around the album.
I noticed there are a lot of atmospheric little bits here and there.
Yeah, I just wanted a bit more soundscape – less melodic hooks and a few more rumbles and tones and high… Sounds.
How do you think all of that will translate to the live set? Can we expect to see Dan in the corner with a little MIDI setup?
Well not Dan, but my friend Katie Harkin is going to play keys and guitar for this tour. She was in the Sea Lice band with Kurt and I too, and she’s an amazing musician and songwriter.
Speaking of the live show, you’re currently on a massive world tour playing some of the most prestigious venues on the planet. Did you have these big, grandiose theatres in mind when you were writing the album?
Not really, because I write most of them at home, in my warehouse. I’ve noticed that it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes [the live show] changes the energy of the song, but I definitely wouldn’t try to write for it, y’know? I remember actually having a moment at a festival where I was watching a band that I like, but I was noticing all of these little festival tricks, and I was like, “I’m going to try not to do that on purpose.” I think it’s a nice thing when the crowd gets really into a part, but to write a song and be like, “This will be such a great anthem, and this is the bit where people put their lighters up…” I don’t like that.
It all comes down to serving the song on its own merit.
Exactly! I think that if you can play a song on one acoustic guitar, or a straight electric guitar with no pedals, and you can still get the message and that emotion across, then that’s a real good sign that it passes. I love it when songs are really adaptable – you can play them acoustically or they could be played with a full orchestra, and they’d still have the same message.
With that in mind, do your songs change much when you take them to the stage as a band?
We start rehearsals for the tour next week, and I actually don’t really know how they’re going to translate. I guess that’s the really scary part of starting a tour sometimes, but I think it’ll be great. I’m really excited to see what happens, because they always change with different players and in different scenarios.