As commuters slide and stagger about the ice-covered pavements of London - reenacting a very shoddy take on Torvill and Dean’s famous Bolero figure skating routine as they tumble to the floor - Courtney Barnett appears to be the only person in the city immune to the Beast from the East. “I love it!” she exclaims, striding down the street with a snowflake-covered beanie perched atop her head. “I never see it, so I think snow is really exciting and romantic,” she beams later on, tucked away from the storm with a cold beer in hand. Soon enough, she’s whipping out her phone to show off pictures of her beloved cat, Bubbles, waxing lyrical about long-term girlfriend Jen’s [Cloher, musician and fellow Milk! Records boss] talent for cooking veggie stir fry, and declaring that she actually really likes her new album’s cover art. To be honest, it’s slightly surprising to find her being so open and upbeat at first.
Last time Courtney visited London on press duties, ahead of releasing 2015 mega-smash debut ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit’ - she cut an altogether different picture. Affable and quietly witty - albeit in an awkward kind of way - she also found it near-impossible to talk about herself. Shifting about in her chair, most of what she said was either highly self-deprecating, or addressed to a nearby table. Sometimes, it was both. Over the course of a single hour last time we spoke, Courtney claimed she was rubbish at: words, remembering things, drawing, art, table tennis, and dealing with jetlag. Unconsciously refusing to refer to herself in the first person, every discussion about her own music clung onto “the band”, or “we” as a safety buoy. There was a sense that, flung outside of Melbourne’s close-knit DIY community, she was struggling to make sense of her own surprise success story. Presented with SNL season finales, momentous festival slots, an infinite line of eager collaborators, GRAMMYs, and sell-out shows across the world, her main takeaway was the immense pressure to follow it all up. The oft-repeated fable of a ‘difficult’ second album kept on rearing its head, mainly because other people wouldn’t stop banging on about it. “I don’t think you can really ignore [that pressure],” Courtney comments today. “Especially because everyone kept asking me that question,” she laughs. “[But] the more I wrote, the more it made sense; this just needed to be something that I cared about.”
While her debut album ‘Sometimes I Sit and Think..’ was a feast of quirks and microcosms - telling meaningful stories through splattered roadkill, pressed metal ceilings, and soy linseed Vegemite crumbs - her second album takes a notable swerve in a different direction. Instead of taking a microscopically-detailed interest in depicting the quotidian world around her, ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ is an album that turns the lens back around on its creator. While her first album felt - to quote her words back then - like “turning my brain inside out and showing it to everyone,” the follow-up tries to make sense of her inner-workings instead.
“I was writing endlessly, and recognising lots of recurring themes and being like, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m thinking about!’” she explains, picking things apart today. “That’s what’s on my mind, obviously! I think turning up and sitting face-to-face with your… stuff,” she ponders, “each day, whether it’s whatever emotional stuff I was going through, or the thing that tells you that you can’t write… it was very up and down. But I think that’s just me in general,” she adds more brightly. “Jen says I’m happy in the morning, depressed in the afternoon, and then OK again. There are a couple of lines that when I hear them I think, ‘ouch, that’s personal’,” she admits. “but I didn’t wanna take it out because it was integral to the thing. When I think about the music I’m inspired by most, it’s one hundred times more personal than that.”
As markedly confident as this record may be - fronted by a picture of her own face for a change, slightly too close, and looking blankly perplexed - don’t go thinking she’s switched into a new era of all-guns-blazing rock stardom. Typically self-aware, and witty even when she’s tackling her own hang-ups, she doesn’t even sing the vocals on the particular line which titles the entire thing; instead she called in a favour from The Breeders’ Kim and Kelley Deal, who guest for the hook. And the song which houses that pivotal, album-naming lyric? Why, it’s called ‘Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence’, of course!
As well as charging her own anxieties with humour, Courtney’s also darkly amusing on ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ when she directly tackles social issues for the first time. While debut cuts ‘Elevator Operator’ and ‘Depreston’ might’ve slyly nodded at capitalist fatigue and creeping gentrification in their own way, ‘Nameless, Faceless’ - this album’s first single - takes on rape culture and misogyny with brand new bombast, paraphrasing The Handmaid’s Tale and offering hugs to lonely keyboard warriors. “Men are scared that women will laugh at them… women are scared that men will kill them,” she rages on the chorus, the huge gulf between the two threat levels creating an uncomfortable tension. “‘Nameless, Faceless’ just kind of came out,” she explains. “I’d been talking about that a lot with friends, and it can’t be avoided in a way. I was reading a lot about domestic violence and stuff that had happened in Melbourne, and I was focused on it for that period. It came out like that.” Shifting her attention to the mocking verses, and that killer chorus, she’s quick to note the bleak strain of humour. “It’s funny in a way, but really not,” she remarks.
“I’ve never really understood how and why that kind of humour tool works so well, but I think maybe it catches your attention, and catches you off guard, in a way?” she goes on. “It catches me off guard when I hear something like that. You’re like, ‘hah hah, that’s funny,’ and you understand the meaning. One of my friends was saying that when the song came out they were talking about that line [in the chorus] and she was explaining it to her boyfriend, because he didn’t quite get it. I would have trouble explaining it, but it makes sense to me.” It’s a line that makes sense to the majority of women, trans and/or non binary people, and other marginalised communities listening to ‘Nameless, Faceless,’ too. The anger and fear that charges this record - keys clenched between fingers - is very real, and for many people, all too relatable.
Beginning her second record with a promise to take a broken heart, and turn it into art, ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ ends with a gentle reminder that you’re not alone on ‘Sunday Roast’ - a song Courtney started writing when she was thirteen, and only finished last year after the words finally came to her. Turning her knack for examining other people with a curious and descriptive hand back towards herself, this album might not arrive at any concrete answers, but it points towards a musician who’s done squirrelling herself away behind barriers, and is ready to connect, directly. In yet another surprising turn of events, the infamously introverted Courtney - renowned for sparing stage patter and a fixation with gazing at her shoes - is chomping at the bit to start performing it.
“I’m so excited!” she declares. “I’m really excited, I can’t remember being so excited last time… I think it’s because it happened quickly?” she wonders. “Nah, I dunno. Anyway, I’m excited to play these new songs. I just realised how much I love performing, recently. The physical, amazing thing it gives me. Everything suddenly… I can communicate how I’m feeling all of a sudden!”
‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’ is out now via Marathon / Milk!
Taken from the May issue of DIY. Read online or subscribe below.
Photos: Phil Smithies / DIY