Musician Courtney Barnett Tells Us How She Really Feels
She’ll grant you a peek behind the curtain, but she’ll stay calm and collected and even crack some jokes while you’re gazing directly at her innermost fears and passions.
Courtney Barnett has a busy day ahead of her. A few hours from now, the Australian singer-songwriter will be boarding a plane to Perth, where she’ll be performing with her partner, Jen Cloher, later in the evening. Before that, though, she’s going to vote in a local byelection to determine the member of parliament for a Melbourne suburb called—we kid you not—Batman. Barnett, for her part, doesn’t seem particularly stressed about the outcome. “We live in a good little green bubble of sensible people,” says the 30-year-old, practically shrugging over the phone.
Barnett’s electoral nonchalance is both surprising and not, given the contents of her sophomore record, Tell Me How You Really Feel. It’s an album suited to its era, soaked in anxiety and neuroses, tackling misogyny and the current political climate head-on with unconcealed rage. But it’s still a Courtney Barnett joint, which means it’s also wry and adroit and extremely listenable. That’s Barnett’s great gift: She’ll grant you a peek behind the curtain, but she’ll stay calm and collected and even crack some jokes while you’re gazing directly at her innermost fears and passions.
This album feels more personal, in some ways, than your other work. But it’s also broader in the sense that it speaks to the kinds of frustration and unease a lot of people are experiencing right now.
“Yeah, I’m always working through some things when I’m writing. That’s the beauty of writing: You have the extreme luxury to wrestle through ideas and thoughts. It was all very subconscious for me, though. I was just writing and writing, filling the page. I didn’t really see the through lines until later, when I went back to highlight and edit and think through it all.”
What were those through lines for you?
“Communication, resentment, loneliness—all those things.”
Has your understanding of human behaviour shifted a lot since your first record?
“Oh, definitely. Growing older, travelling, being in this position where I’m around new people all the time. I’ve been introduced to this amazing pool of people all around the world. I’ve met some incredible humans who restore all the faith that the terrible ones smash down.”
Overall, are you more optimistic or pessimistic at this point? Or does it all just kind of work out in the wash?
“I think optimistic. I would’ve thought the opposite. You just reminded me: I was going to call the album It All Comes Clean in the Wash. After going through the whole writing process, I came out feeling very hopeful and with a great belief in people.”
How did you settle on the actual title, Tell Me How You Really Feel?
“It’s a line from one of the songs: ‘Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence.’ [Alt-rock legends] Kim and Kelley Deal sing it. Normally I don’t like using the same phrase twice like that. But I figured that since they were singing it—and I love the way they sing it—it was OK. And I really like it. I feel that it really sums up the whole album in every possible interpretive way. It’s a very flexible phrase, first of all. It’s been interesting to see how people interpret it in different ways: sarcastically or genuinely or seriously. Also, it’s not clear whether it’s a question from me or to me. It touches on some of the recurring themes on the album, [like] self-reflection and honesty.”
You covered the INXS song “Never Tear Us Apart” for a recent Apple commercial that celebrates marriage equality. As far as ads go, this one was really lovely. I noticed a few people in the comments section saying that they came in skeptical but it brought them to tears.
“To be honest, I was the same way. The only reason I did it was the message. I don’t want to sell no shit for them. We had this whole marriage equality vote [in Australia] last year, and it was really destructive and damaging and hurtful for a large part of our country and community. It was nice to be able to celebrate that in a way. Jen and I watched the video together, and she cried. She was like, ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful.’ But I’ve also seen some incredibly homophobic comments on some of those things, and that’s even more of a reason to put a video like that out there unapologetically.”
You’re heading out on a massive world tour—including stops in Canada. Do you like life on the road?
“I do. It’s all about finding balance. Over the years, you realize you’ve been doing things a little too much this way or that way. Eventually you figure out what works. Everyone’s got family at home, and partners, and some people have kids.”
What are some of the tricks you’ve found to achieve that balance?
“Oh, you know: eating well, exercise, et cetera. Good podcasts, good music. Positive energy. I guess the biggest thing for us, because Australia is so far away, is that it’s so easy to go ‘Well, we made the 20-hour flight. Why don’t we just stay an extra month? If we’re only going to go home for two weeks, we might as well do an extra two months of touring.’ Which is obviously ridiculous. That’s when you go crazy. It’s worth it just to go home and see everyone you love and do your normal thing.”
Have you gotten pretty good about those long flights at this point?
“I’ve personally started to love the flights. It’s this beautiful patch of however long it is where no one can really talk to you because you can’t use your phone. You get to catch up on all these movies and TV shows and podcasts. Sure, it’s incredibly uncomfortable and whatever else, but it’s actually quite nice.”