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“He said ‘I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup
And spit out better words than you’
But you didn’t
Man you’re kidding yourself if you think
The world revolves around you”
So sings Melbourne, Australia’s Courtney Barnett on “Nameless Faceless,” a song addressed to internet trolls and the first single released from her much-anticipated second LP, Tell Me How You Really Feel. This song is just the beginning as Barnett does not hold back in rest of the follow-up to 2016’s critically lauded Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. Written and recorded amid a flurry of two years that included world tours, Australian Music Prizes, Grammy nominations and a collaboration with Kurt Vile (last year’s Lotta Sea Lice), the new album explores an unabashed direct communication style that is sometimes a struggle even with a million tools at our disposal.
Performer Magazine recently spoke with Barnett about the new record, establishing more human connections and finding inspiration in The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984.
When did you first get a moment to really catch your breath and absorb all of the success of that first record?
Honestly, it was just a constant thing that seemed to happen as I went along.
What were some of your favorite memories from that time?
Just so much travel and seeing places for the first time. That was really amazing. Also, meeting incredible people around the world and playing these big shows. People turning up and really connecting with the music. I think all of that was incredible and overwhelming.
Which came first, the songs for this record or your collaboration with Kurt Vile? If these songs came first, why did you hold onto them?
They were kind of happening at the same time. I can’t remember exactly, but I probably started my own album first, and then somewhere in between, Kurt and I started talking about our project and working on our songs. One of the songs I did with him was a really old idea of mine that I had just been hanging onto for a long time and didn’t quite know what to do with.
There’s no real reason why they went with the Kurt project first and not [my] new album. It’s obvious in some way, but I don’t know how (laughs).
Upon first listen, a lot of these songs have lyrics like they could be conversations you have had since your career really took off. The chorus of “Help Your Self” sounds like it could be someone who is concerned that you’re taking on too much as an artist or you’re venting your own thoughts. But the title of the new album suggests that you are the one speaking to the other person or listener. Is it either one or more of a combination this time around?
I think it’s both and all. I don’t think there’s a real solid answer. I started writing about other people, but within that process, it becomes a reflection of yourself. It becomes a combined version where you just don’t quite know who you’re talking to, whether it’s yourself or someone else or people you know who are talking to you. I think it’s just a well-rounded version of being human with all of the communications and relationships that we encounter.
For someone who wrote a pretty biting takedown of internet trolls in “Nameless, Faceless,” you still keep a constant stream of interaction with your fans through social media and playlist sharing. How do you balance that optimism while still establishing healthy boundaries at this point in your career?
I rely more on shows and performing and interactions, more human-facing interactions. I use a bit of social media, but not so much using it for interaction. Everyone is different though, and there is a fine line of how everyone works.
The American filmmaker Joe Swanberg had a movie called LOL in 2006 that dealt with relationships via texting and early social networks and how disastrous they could be because of the lack of voice, tone and overt signals. Your record (and especially the song “Charity”) seems to echo this idea that 12 years later, we might be worse off with more options to communicate than ever.
Totally. That’s a lot of what I’m trying to figure out, those kinds of communication issues and how it affects you and how it affects everything really. I know that bottled up feelings turn into hatred or resentment or fear. It’s a strange thing.
Your first album featured an illustrated cover and this latest one features an up-close picture of yourself. What sparked that particular decision and why was red chosen as the filter color?
Drawing has always been a partner-in-process to writing and making music for me. For the last few albums I’ve incorporated illustrations into the album artwork because it was part of the story in a way. For this latest album, I wasn’t really drawing much at all, but I was taking a lot of photos. Mostly 35mm and Polaroid shots. I began a self-portrait series while sitting at my writing desk every day, documenting the writing process, wondering if I could capture the emotion.
These were all shot on a special series of Impossible Polaroid red and black tinted film (I had a bunch on the shelf). I didn’t do any Photoshop touch-ups, I just scanned it and left it as is. I liked this particular shot out of the whole series because it was an awkwardly close crop, with a few imperfections, but a strangely ambiguous look in my eyes.
To help promote the album, you set up a link to your website so that people could tell you how they really felt in 250 characters. How did you come up with that concept and what were some of the more interesting responses that you received?
I’ve actually been waiting until a bit closer to the release to look at them all, so I could go through them all at once. But then that will be part of another project that I will reveal later.
The aforementioned “Nameless Faceless” has lyrics that were inspired by a Margaret Atwood quote from the novel and subsequent Hulu series, The Handmaid’s Tale. Were there any other books, films or art that informed the writing of this record?
I watched The Handmaid’s Tale and read 1984 around the same time, so it was this really dystopian hole that I was in as well as watching the news and media coverage over time. Everything I read, watch and listen to inspires me in little ways, but nothing too grandiose.
As an Australian who has been touring the world over the last several years, what do you think about what’s going on in America?
I’ve been in America for a lot of the time and have been back and forth so much. It’s scary stuff. It’s kind of frightening. I feel for the people who are struggling. There are humanity issues that relate even to other people who aren’t there and aren’t directly involved.
Lastly, what are three albums you can listen to from start to finish at any point?
A Ghost is Born by Wilco
Soul Journey by Gillian Welch
Naturally by Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
Tell Me How You Really Feel is out May 18th via Matador Records, with Courtney Barnett embarking on a U.S. tour on April 29th.
**photos by Ian Laidlaw