Courtney Barnett: “I was trying to retrain my brain to not get hung up on certain things and to see the beauty in those moments”

The Melbourne songwriter trades wordplay for vulnerability and minimalism on her third album ‘Things Take Time, Take Time’. She talks to NME about her new outlook, #MeToo and the Australian government’s “lack of respect” for a music industry struggling in the pandemic

“Oh, uh, what were we talking about? The pointlessness?” When Courtney Barnett takes NME’s Zoom call, she’s sitting in a dusty yard in Joshua Tree, California, cacti on the horizon beyond an uneven wooden fence. Barnett came to Joshua Tree the first time she toured the United States in 2013, as a Melbourne songwriter with a shit-hot South By Southwest set, and has returned each time since.

Its deserts became an oasis for Barnett at the end of the 2019 tour for her second album ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’, a run marred by ennui and captured in the documentary Anonymous Club. In the film, which will hit theatres nationwide next March, Barnett looks at her schedule, booked to bursting for the next 18 months, and sighs: “I don’t get what the point is.”

Shots of Barnett struggling while speaking to foreign press underscore feelings of alienation. Barnett tells NME how she once read a YouTube comment that asked her to stop doing interviews.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Courtney Barnett
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

“I just struggled to fully verbalise what I’m thinking,” she laments. “I think that then I was tougher on myself. I would get frustrated, angry at myself, because I would see it as a failure.”

Something snapped to get her back stateside and sanguine about another endless tour – and it wasn’t just the post-pandemic joy of returning to the stage.

“It’s quite a different mindset from last time. I just feel more something. I feel this stillness. Peaceful is a nice way to put it,” Barnett says.

For Barnett, epiphanies come about in moments of stillness – life-altering realisations snap into focus as she stirs instant coffee into a cup (as depicted in Anonymous Club) or stares at a swimmer in a nearby lane (2015 song ‘Aqua Profunda’). The mundane is thrust with meaning in her world.

Her new album, ‘Things Take Time, Take Time’, is her latest paean to humdrum beauty. It is gentler and less verbose than its two predecessors, chewing through a thousand words less than her 2015 debut ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’. The quippy wordplay of her past has evolved into a minimalist, less-is-more approach: “The day begins to shine. The parent teaches the child how to ride. The bike wobbles side to side. Two dogs entangle, everybody smiles. The pair across the street; one’s up the ladder and one’s on their knees, painting the faded brick,” Barnett observes on its first single ‘Rae Street’.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Courtney Barnett
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

And the same can be said of the sonics of ‘Things Take Time…’, which is a folk record. There is far less distorted guitar, let alone any sequels to ‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’, while analogue drum machines displace the traditional rock toms that have driven Barnett’s music to date. A new collaborator was the first catalyst for this creative change: Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa, whom Barnett met while working on the 2017 collaborative album ‘Lotta Sea Lice’ with Kurt Vile.

“I just remember that day I met her. I was like, I want to work with her again one day on something. I don’t know when or where, but I need to,” Barnett recalls.

The pair met again in Warpaint’s home base of Los Angeles three years later on Valentine’s Day 2020, when Barnett organised a fundraiser show with local musicians to benefit music education in local underserved communities. Their renewed chemistry on stage for that show led Barnett to approach Mozgawa with demos of new songs, while pondering where she’d record her third album.

“When everything shut down, the options weren’t as open. Stella was back in Australia for the first time in ages, and it became the perfect moment to work together,” she says.

Anonymous Club is the film that Danny Cohen made. It’s really weird and hard for me to watch”

The pandemic forced Barnett to come back to Melbourne, where she had no permanent address due to years of wall-to-wall touring, and so she moved into an expat friend’s empty North Fitzroy apartment to ride out lockdown. Barnett whiled away stay-at-home orders writing songs by a windowsill – quieter material, in part to avoid riling the neighbours. She also indulged a love of movies, particularly older European arthouse pictures by Agnès Varda and Andrei Tarkovsky. The latter is famously a pioneer of “slow cinema”, which is defined by stillness, contemplation and observation – a style much like her own.

“More and more, I’m influenced by films more than I am music. There’s such a different level of projection on film,” Barnett says. “I’m quite a visual person, and I enjoy being able to see people’s body language, actors’ body language. The very small moments that get captured on film.”

Barnett is a whittle-away perfectionist who often takes months to tinker with lyrics. Mozgawa, on the other hand, is a real pillar of the rhythm section, who drums in lockstep with bassist Jenny Lee Lindberg in Warpaint. She told NME in 2011 their band deliberately avoided concerted “composition”, preferring “free-flowing” writing on stage.

The collision of these two approaches created the synthetic vista of ‘Things Take Time…’ when they finally got to record in person in December 2020. “We spent so much time listening to music. We talked a lot about the philosophy of songwriting, different worlds of genres, different ideas,” Barnett says.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Courtney Barnett
Courtney Barnett on the cover of NME Australia #24

“My technical brain is…” she trails off. “I think more about songwriting a lot of the time. And that’s why the collaboration with Stella was so awesome. Because she’s a lot more technical, as an engineer, a producer.”

The pair had more time than the get-in-record-get-out schedule Barnett was accustomed to, and so Mozgawa pushed her to experiment with style. Album closer ‘Oh The Night’ started as a traditional Barnett-guitar number, and though it was “bouncing along”, as she puts it, the song felt flat. So Mozgawa made Barnett play the drums and carried the progression herself on piano. It worked: “I heard the words differently, I heard everything differently. It sounded closer,” Barnett remembers.

Elsewhere, ‘Things Take Time…’ demonstrates Barnett’s own growth over the course of her career. She toured for years as the guitarist for her ex-partner Jen Cloher, often tearing out discordant solos to rupture a song’s structure. That wonky shredding is encapsulated by the guitar break in ‘Turning Green’, which is her first and second takes glued together. Those recordings, it turns out, had a magic that Barnett herself couldn’t recapture.

“After that, I did about 30 takes to try to do this awesome, perfectly-wonky, imperfect solo and none of them were good enough,” she recalls. “I couldn’t replicate it, I couldn’t copy it. I kept hitting the wrong notes and I just couldn’t make it exactly how I wanted it to and maybe that is the perfect analogy of my so-called amazing guitar playing.”

“I was and just am curious, really curious, about the world and about people”

Anonymous Club is the second rosetta stone to Barnett’s evolution on this album. Danny Cohen, a longtime friend, filmed her on tour and at home for three years. The director, anticipating Barnett’s reticence to open up on camera or in interviews, handed her a vintage dictaphone to record an audio diary, telling her to speak as if she were on the phone with him.

The raw results serve as the film’s narration, Barnett monologuing about on-tour despondency and a creative rut: “I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about anymore. I don’t understand the point of talking about my feelings… I’ve got nothing to complain about so what am I doing talking about it? I should realistically have the power to be useful, to be helpful… my heart is empty, my page is empty.”

Putting quotes like these to Barnett make her uncomfortable.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Courtney Barnett
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

“That’s the film that [Cohen] made. And that’s the story he thought was important to tell. It’s really weird and hard for me to watch,” she says. “It’s weird to think that’s gonna exist in the world, but I trust him. And I trusted him that whole time. He made a really thoughtful film of what he saw.”

Joshua Tree is the site of what the film pitches as a turning point, Barnett’s epiphany moment: She has begun writing ‘Things Take Time…’, and is filmed smiling around the house, sipping a coffee in the morning air. What switch had flipped? What had she discovered?

“I’m not sure exactly what it was either in the film or in my life, but I think it’s an ongoing lesson of always reevaluating why you do what you do – if you know what the purpose is and what your intentions are, how it serves you and how it serves others,” she offers.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Courtney Barnett
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Barnett first started to tease ‘Things Take Time…’ in July by sharing snippets on Spotify under the name Oliver Paul (which diehards will recognise from the lyrics of ‘Elevator Operator’). The tracks were copyrighted by a ‘label’ called A Crabby Mettle Neutron – an anagram of her full name, Courtney Melba Barnett. It was a quicksilver flash of the quirky humour that endeared the songwriter to the world when she broke out in 2015.

Barnett’s middle name comes from Dame Nellie Melba, an early 20th century Australian opera singer whose soprano is rather distant from Barnett’s own deadpan vocals. Barnett grew up listening to Nirvana around Sydney’s Northern Beaches, though she was also a self-described “goody goody” that paid extra attention in music and art class.

“I enjoyed school and spent a lot of time at the library ’cause I had to wait for my mum to pick me up,” Barnett says. “I think that I was and just am curious, really curious about the world and about people.”

She played in cover bands with a friend during school, but it wasn’t until Barnett moved to Hobart in her late teens that she began singing her own music at open mic nights.

NME Australia Cover 2021 Courtney Barnett
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

“I guess that was the beginning of my solo career,” Barnett laughs. “The songs were pretty folky, pretty cute… I had a lot of nerves back then, and not a lot of confidence.”

Part of what prompted her to write original material was hearing Australian songwriters like Paul Kelly, The Go-Betweens and Darren Hanlon for the first time after years on a diet of American music; “I didn’t really know that there were any decent Australian bands until I was around 20,” she told Pitchfork in 2013.

Barnett moved to Melbourne just before she turned 21, entering the local music scene via a patchwork of bands including Immigrant Union, Rapid Transit and her own project The Olivettes.

“Immigrant Union was a country band, so I learnt how to play slide guitar with them. [In] Rapid Transit I was the second guitarist, so I made up all these weird riffs. It was a challenge, it was fun and I was always learning something,” she says.

“Take the one name out of ‘Depreston’, and you could plonk that song anywhere”

Dame Nellie got her Melba pseudonym from Melbourne, so perhaps Barnett was fated to move there. Her early music is inextricable from the city; her twin debut EPs and 2015 album ‘Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit’ had songs set in the Nicholas Building, Fitzroy Pool, on High Street and the Hume Highway. It was a surreal moment in 2015 when she performed on Ellen the song ‘Depreston’, which is about house hunting in the outer-north suburb of Preston amid skyrocketing inner-city prices.

But Barnett doesn’t make too much of these hyperlocal references and settings.

“Take the one name out of [‘Depreston’], and you could plonk that song anywhere. It’s about living this far out of the city. It’s slightly cheaper, because that’s how most cities work,” she says.

“It’s the same way we grew up listening to Bob Dylan and Velvet Underground who reference New York streets. I don’t think it’s that important when you’re really invested in the emotional side of the story.”

All the same, it felt like Barnett was asserting an Australian canon when on ‘Kim’s Caravan’ she sang “I was walking down Sunset Strip; Phillip Island, not Los Angeles”. After the parochial malaise of ‘Sometimes I Sit…’, the release of ‘Nameless, Faceless’, the lead single from her 2018 album ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’, felt like a significant shift. The song was sick with anger at the patriarchal structures that make it unsafe for women to walk home alone at night, borrowing for its chorus the famous Margaret Atwood quote: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

NME Australia Cover 2021 Courtney Barnett
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

Three months before that, as the #MeToo movement unfolded, Barnett had signed an open letter demanding “zero tolerance for sexual harassment, violence, objectification and sexist behaviours” in Australia’s music industry. In the four years since, the country’s defamation laws have continued to stifle survivors hoping to speak out about their experiences of abuse and assault. But the last 16 months may yet prove to be a watershed movement for the local music industry: Jaguar Jonze and other artists have taken vocal stances against harassment and abuse; the social media account Beneath The Glass Ceiling has become a prominent avenue to air anonymised disclosures and allegations that might have otherwise been suppressed or silenced; and multiple former employees of Sony Music came forward to Four Corners and other national media with allegations of sexual misconduct and gendered discrimination that they claim defined the workplace culture at the label.

In ‘Rae Street’, Barnett observed candlelight vigils and mused: “Though well-meanin’, they don’t mean a thing / Unless we see some change / I might change my sheets today”. Australia’s music industry may be making moves towards accountability for abuse victims, but Barnett wouldn’t call it an outright breakthrough.

“I guess there’s progress in the way more people are talking about it. But it’s people having to go through their own pain and their own trauma to enlighten other people,” she says. “Obviously, it kind of takes that to get the conversation going and hopefully to keep it going.”

“There’s progress in the way more people are talking about [sexual abuse in the music industry], but it’s people having to go through their own trauma to enlighten others”

What she hopes to see is “people actually taking on the education and educating themselves, educating their friends or whoever they come into contact with and having those awkward conversations. Making the change themselves, instead of other people having to do the hard work.”

#MeToo is a conversation that got louder in Australia, perhaps not coincidentally, while the local industry languished under rolling COVID-19 lockdowns. Though Barnett is lucky to have been able to leave Fortress Australia to tour, her new band (featuring Mozgawa on keys and percussion) couldn’t manage a single rehearsal in the same room due to Melbourne’s sixth lockdown – save a remote performance for The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon – before they left the country’s shores.

Barnett was again one of the bigger signatories of an open letter in March this year calling on the Australian federal government to extend the wage subsidy JobKeeper for the music industry – a request, like many issued by the sector during the pandemic, left unanswered.

“I felt disillusioned, for sure,” Barnett says. “I never quite felt that much faith [in government] in the first place. But I think it’s just a lack of respect for this whole sector of people who work in the country. I don’t know what to say about it except that it’s a mess. I think that’s the biggest thing: that lack of respect, that lack of care and devaluing of people’s lives, the thing that people do.”

NME Australia Cover 2021 Courtney Barnett
Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

So, how has Barnett come to the optimistic, peaceful place she’s in now? When she was in the depths of her personal slump at the end of 2019, exacerbated by despair at the Black Summer bushfires, a friend encouraged her to write a list of positive things she was anticipating. It was hard going at first – “at the time, I was like, ‘Nothing. There’s nothing I’m looking forward to’,” she told Rolling Stone – but soon, it became at least a page long.

Barnett turned that into a two-and-a-half-minute upbeat jangle literally titled ‘Write A List of Things To Look Forward To’: A baby is born in her family, and a relative dies; the world burns, and we don’t know why we keep trying to save it; but “so on it goes… I’m looking forward to the next letter that I get from you”. The writing exercise encapsulates Barnett’s new worldview – having faith that the passing of time will offer healing and perspective.

“I had been wallowing for a while. I think I was constantly trying to retrain the brain to not get so hung up on certain things, and to see the beauty in those moments,” Barnett muses. “There’s nothing wrong with sadness or heartbreak – it’s finding the positive lesson or the positive outcome of those moments and thinking how grateful you are that those things happen so they could make you change in whatever way.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing of understanding more as time goes on and how it shapes you and how it shapes the people around you and just embracing that change. I think I used to be scared of making changes.”

Courtney Barnett’s ‘Things Take Time, Take Time’ is out now via Milk! Records. She tours Australia in March 2022