Today (April 30), Ali Barter has released her new ‘Chocolate Cake’ EP via Inertia.
Predominantly made up of songs originally intended for Barter’s third album – until the pandemic forced a change of plans on the Melbourne-based artist – the four-track project sees Barter move away from straight ’90s grunge-pop, a genre that has defined her music since 2016’s lauded debut album ‘A Suitable Girl’.
“They’re not your straightforward, bash-it-out-on-the-guitar songs,” Barter tells NME over the phone. Instead, on ‘Chocolate Cake’ Barter lulls audiences with disaffected speak-singing, experiments with electronic textures, and elevates her classic pop melodies.
That said, the EP retains Barter’s signature reckless, playful temperament and ’90s rock influences. She cites Beck’s ‘Loser’ and The Offspring’s ‘Why Don’t You Get A Job’ – “or one of those shitty Offspring songs that I adore” – as inspiration behind restless single ‘You Get In My Way’.
While in transit and nursing her French bulldog Edina Van Halen on her lap, Barter spoke with NME about the dark feelings that lie behind the title track’s sugarcoated lyrics, as well as her changing relationship to shame and songwriting.
What inspired the sound shift we hear on ‘Chocolate Cake’?
“All of the songs on this EP, except for ‘You Get In My Way’, I wrote in February last year just before COVID hit. I was rolling around LA writing the songs and I felt a weird energy; the world felt weird. And these songs ended up being kind of weird too – especially ‘Chocolate Cake’.
“K-Flay and I wrote that song, and it ended up being so hilarious and bizarre and fun. She’s got such a great energy to her music; she really brought this big beat. I made that riff up, which is funny because I often don’t write riffs; I often write the melodies and the chords and the words.”
There’s an interesting blend of tones there: you’re talking about sweet chocolate cake but then you have a riff that sounds like it’s off of a Fast & Furious soundtrack.
“I want it to be sweet and nihilistic at the same time. Obviously it’s not about chocolate cake – it’s about a feeling of blackout or numb-out, you know? It feels like the world is a weird place at the moment and I don’t know where I’m gonna go, I don’t know what I’m gonna make, I don’t know anything – and this EP is like a sonic little mash-up of all those feelings. A lot of the songs are about tongue-in-cheek frustration and a bit of silliness. Yeah, a lot of silliness.”
We need a little silliness right now, especially during this period where people are being constantly bombarded with reminders of their mortality.
“Totally. I hadn’t really thought about last year until the last couple of weeks, and I was like: fuck, that sucked. Everyone had their own journey with it, but, personally, there were so many disappointments that I just pushed through: I had a lot of music stuff on the horizon and touring that got cancelled halfway through. I managed to make something that reflects the fucked-up-ness [of that time], but yet is still fun. I want to put out things that make people smile and dance and feel like it’s okay to be weird, you know? I’m glad that that’s what came out of me during that dark time.” [laughs]
I admire the honesty in your lyrics, ones like “Sober is cool, but fuck it’s boring” in ‘January’. Where do you think the restlessness in your songs comes from?
“I think I’m a restless person. I’m always looking over there. And that’s what ‘January’ is about: it’s always ‘the answer is over there’. A lot of my songs are about that actually. And the answer isn’t ‘over there’ because I get to ‘over there’ and then the answer is somewhere else. And it’s a painful process to constantly be doing that. But that’s why I write about it.”
I read that a lot of the songs on your sophomore record ‘Hello, I’m Doing My Best’ were about shame. Has your relationship to shame changed through writing the songs for ‘Chocolate Cake’?
“I’m not sure through writing these songs that it’s changed. I think age changes your relationship to shame. In this EP I think it’s more just that I’m older and I don’t take it so seriously anymore. I can identify it as shame and let it go.”
That identification is a big step: if you have this blurry bad feeling but can’t figure out where it’s coming from, that can cause a lot of grief.
“Totally. And I think that once you start to identify your feelings and talk about them or do something with them, you can separate yourself. The other day I had some feelings and I felt really bad about something, and I was like: I’m not my thoughts. Then I was able to go ‘cool, now I can get on with my day’ instead of just sitting in a soup of shame all day feeling like I’m the worst person in the world.”
What do you think motivates you to make music, from this point onwards?
“I have been thinking about this a lot actually because I’ve had such a break from it, and I’ve never had this long of a break from music. I think what’s motivating me is definitely my feelings; if I have a feeling, if I have something I want to convey, then I will write something down. I wrote some lyrics down the other day because I had something to say. And now I’m waiting for that to come up again.”
I feel like working in a capitalist music industry there’s a constant pressure to be visible, but every artist is different: some love writing at a fast pace, some at a slower reflective one – that can be powerful, to speak only when you have something to say.
“Yeah, and I’ve put out three EPs and two albums since 2012. It’s been a constant: go, go, go. And then stopping has made me think a bit about it more. I don’t want to rush into it this time.”
Ali Barter’s ‘Chocolate Cake’ is out now via Inertia