Friday, May 4, 2018

The Music: Courtney Barnett On Her New Album

The Melbourne Musician Who's Shaping Australia's Sound

All photos by Kane Hibberd
May 3rd 2018 | Jessica Dale

Courtney Barnett has achieved more from one album than most could dream for in a lifetime. Jessica Dale speaks with Barnett ahead of the release of her second album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, as well taking a look at her career so far.

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For most Australian artists, validation from a member of The Go-Betweens is among some of the country's highest honours. Still, seeing Lindy Morrison on stage welcoming a very excited crowd to Sydney's Lansdowne Hotel for the launch of Courtney Barnett's latest album feels like a very natural pairing. It seems even more fitting since it was The Go-Betweens'-inspired Depreston that was the song that truly launched Barnett into the international market.

Morrison goes on to list the awards Barnett has won including winning APRA, AMP and ARIA Awards, as well being nominated for a Grammy. "She did so much with that first album, that was called Sometimes I..." she trails off to let the room finish off the lengthy Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit album title.

"Finally, we're up to a new album, her second studio album, for God's sake, she's done so much and it's her second studio album and it's called Tell Me How You Really Feel, and the single is just fabulous, the album is fabulous..."

When we meet, it's a few weeks out from the launch event and Barnett's in Sydney for a few days prior to the shows she'll play as part of her partner Jen Cloher's band. She's friendly and casual, and seems happier to talk about the likes of her favourite true crime shows and lighter topics than the intricacies of her album, which seems fair considering it's probably her most vulnerable release to date. In Barnett's own words though, she's "really excited" about Tell Me How You Really Feel, smiling and animated when asked about its impending release.

"I kind of just started writing. I think I knew I wanted to make another album, obviously, and didn't really have a direction or concept or anything," she says when asked how this album came about. "I just kind of kept sitting down and writing each day and it was very, just like... whatever was going on, and so it was very messy. I feel like that always happens. And then at some point they come together and stories kind of start appearing and they break off into songs."

"It feels like there's a bit more breathing space," she laughs when thinking about her debut and second albums side-by-side. "It does feel, to me, a bit more, like, emotional — it's all of the same sort of emotional plane. It's hard, I can't compare it to the other one but it definitely feels like a very concise body of songs."

While Barnett's works have always been heavily autobiographical, Tell Me How You Really Feel delves to a new level of honesty for the songwriter, with themes of self-doubt and mental health appearing consistently across the album.

"When I was writing I think was kind of allowing myself to be [open] because I wasn't really writing songs to start off with. It was more just, I think I allowed myself the kind of freedom to be more open and honest with myself and with the kind of promise there that no one would have to see these pieces of paper. So I think that that kind of realisation allowed me to be a bit more kind of vulnerable," she says, trailing off.

The topic eventually turns to the level of success Barnett has achieved both at home and internationally, and she's more than humble in her response when asked if she's ever felt like somewhat of an ambassador for Australian music overseas.

"It's never actually felt like that, to be honest, for me. I guess just like the awareness that there's all this stuff and [that] kind of perception, that can be kind of overwhelming, but I haven't felt like a spokesperson or anything like that."

"I think I allowed myself the kind of freedom to be more open and honest with myself and with the kind of promise there that no one would have to see these pieces of paper."
While she may not feel like 'spokesperson' for Australian music, Barnett's influence certainly goes further than just her own albums. Since 2012, Barnett's been at the helm of Milk! Records, the label she now runs with Cloher. Starting as an outlet for Barnett to release her own work, the label now boasts some of Australia's most promising indie artists, including Evelyn Ida Morris, Hachiku, Loose Tooth and East Brunswick All Girls Choir.

"I think Courtney has been quite influential to myself and many, many others," says Jade McInally of Jade Imagine, one of the label's most prominent signees. "To me, the music she creates always feels fresh, honest and unique. She's just that type of songwriter... And through being that herself, she has definitely helped me to accept my own writing style and to embrace my 'quirks', as they come up.

"Seeing her shred on stage is also somewhat liberating. I don't like to blame things on gender, but as a female performer sometimes it can feel a little harder to 'let go' for whatever reason - social norms about women and how they should look and act on stage, etc - and really lay into the guitar. I've definitely been inspired to experiment with and develop my own playing style."

"I feel very supported by her as a friend and peer and label mate and mentor — you feeling warm and mushy inside yet?" she jokes. "I knew Courtney before the band [Jade Imagine] was signed to Milk! but I guess now that there is that formal connection we share through the label, I get to see her more often than I might if the band weren't with Milk!" she says when asked if signing to the label has allowed for the growth of a mentor-mentee relationship with Barnett. "I feel very humbled and grateful to have that wisdom and experience within arm's reach, especially knowing and experiencing just how anxiety-inducing and isolating that being an independent artist can be."

After six years and massive growth in the business, Barnett is clearly still passionate about her work with Milk! Records.

"It's a challenge, yeah. It's a constant challenge but it's great," she says when asked about managing both her own musical endeavours and running a label.

"It's so incredible seeing it grow and seeing bands grow I think, but yeah... It's definitely very challenging but I think it's rewarding because it's such a creative project and yeah, me and Jen definitely spend a lot of time and energy on it but it's good.

"This year we have a couple of albums, like a lot of albums, nearly everyone has an album to put out and it's great because some of them it's either their first album, first or second album," she says of the coming 12 months, "and I think it's an amazing thing to see that journey of friends and artists go through that whole process because it's a real... I think it really reminded me just how emotionally crazy it is, and always kind of doubting themselves. I mean we all do it in different, whatever our outlet is, but it's good to see it all come together and be like, 'Yeah, congratulate yourself. You've done a really good job.'"

When thinking of Barnett, it's easy to just imagine an Aussie wunderkind that seemingly went from gaining local fans via plays on triple j to winning over audiences worldwide on Ellen in a very short amount of time. As the Executive Producer for Sounds Australia, an organisation that supports Australian artists and industry at international showcases like South By South West and The Great Escape, Millie Millgate knows better than most what it takes for an artist to break into the international market as successfully as Barnett has. Millgate shares that from the outset, Barnett and her team had been thinking globally.

"I don't want to say there were no surprises but I really do know that the team and for Courtney herself were incredibly strategic and very clever about their approach," says Millgate when asked about Barnett's rapid rise.

"I don't think anything they did [was] without thought and consideration, and I think Nick O'Byrne, who continues to manage her and has from the very outset, absolutely had a plan in mind. I mean obviously it takes different turns throughout but I really think he'd spent a lot of time prior to taking Courtney overseas looking at the best approach, and I think he was very well positioned to do that, and I also think he had an absolute quality artist who was prepared to put in extremely hard work.

"So as much as it sort of seems like there was this instant success from 2013, which was when she started to go overseas, I think her first international event was CMJ in 2013. I mean, she was doing US and UK tours back-to-back for a number of solid years before the album came out, and I don't know how much of that you're necessarily going to see here, but certainly the way they built her internationally was intense, because it wasn't one territory at a time which was what you used to be able to do a little more. She literally was from the US to the UK to Europe, US, UK, Europe. Also balancing that, I think, again really cleverly and thoughtfully with making sure she didn't disappear from the Australian market either."

"I got that feeling I think everywhere watching her play to international audiences and audiences for the first time, there was kind of nothing like it," she continues. "We were at Bonnaroo when she did her festival performance there and I honestly, I still find it kind of this surreal experience to have a whole lot of US, you know, middle America, singing about a suburb in Melbourne, like literally singing about Preston, and it's like, 'This is crazy.' But I think a big part about Courtney, it's just authentic, it was completely and still is, completely uncompromising, and the integrity and honesty and just her candid nature. Just not only in her lyrics, but also just in her whole persona and the way she works with people and treats people. I think it just was the right time and it was needed. I just think so much of what and who she is just appealed in a way that people just wanted to hold onto something that was so real.

"I think what Courtney has also done, just from the timeframe, is just really opened the doorways for young women to just own their own. I think when you see coming through now, and what was so exciting at the most recent South By, is the likes of Mallrat and G Flip and Hatchie and Fatai, oh, Stella Donnelly, and you've also got Alex Lahey, and Gordi, it just keeps going, Woods, Vera Blue, Wafia. These artists have all come after Courtney.

"It just shows that that is absolutely possible and the amount of women that we think over the next few years are going to hopefully have a very similar trajectory is exciting and I think she's part of that wave."

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