Courtney Barnett’s sound is certainly definitive. Her half-spoken lyrics which manage to sound conversational whilst containing phrases like “I want to wash out my head with turpentine cyanide/I dislike this internal diatribe” have garnered the world’s undivided attention and prove that if put on a pedestal, she certainly won’t disappoint you.
This makes releases that stray from the expected, such as her joint album with Kurt Vile Whole Lotta Sea Lice and the uncharacteristically sing-song chorus of ‘Need A Little Time’ from her latest album, all the more exciting. ‘Need A Little Time’ is no outlier, either. Barnett’s latest album Tell Me How You Really Feel displays a subtle yet undeniable shift as a whole, in both approach and attitude.
Previously, we’ve seen Barnett reflecting on herself through introspective and often analytical lyrics, though this time she has turned the mirror on the world, as if we are seeing it from her perspective.
“This kinda feels like an extension of ideas and just kind of seeking new interest, experimenting with different things,” she says of Tell Me How You Really Feel. “Nothing felt too like, you know, wildly different. [I’m] just kind of, you know, constantly trying small different things and different sounds.”
Between playing alongside her partner Jen Cloher and working closely with Vile, Barnett is constantly testing her creative boundaries, and the effects are evident. Where previous tracks like ‘Debbie Downer’ and ‘Pedestrian At Best” were timid, vulnerable and self-deprecating, Tell Me How You Really Feel is upfront, unapologetic and fed up with the status quo.
“I try to keep pretty open to, kind of, different strains of inspiration. That project [Whole Lotta Sea Lice] definitely crossed over while I was writing my album,” she says. “Every project I get to work with [does], but especially Jen. 'Cause I've gotten to play in her band for a couple of years now and had two albums with her and she's just growing [as a] musician over time. I think it all adds towards the ongoing project.”
That’s not to say Tell Me How You Really Feel is less personal or honest; Barnett is still baring it all, we’re just seeing a different side this time around – something she says was a natural progression and a theme that developed organically.
“I just kind of write the songs without really thinking about it. It is a kind of strange thing. But it's just quite liberating I think, to share those stories,” she says. “I just sat down and wrote everything out without having something in mind and then things kinda became apparent. It was like a behavioural study of myself and other people in my life.”
Tell Me How You Really Feel displays a rockier, punk infused sound than what we’ve previously heard from Barnett, though the melodies are complex and intricate across the album, with moments of fragility amongst the jagged, angry riffs.
“I was playing a little piano, actually. I was kind of figuring out how to play that and writing a lot on it, which was nice to kinda let the happy accidents [happen]. I think it opens up this other world of melodic ideas that I hadn't really found on guitar.
“I probably tried a couple of sounds, just like lots of different pedals. I've been playing a lot of bows, with the cello, [to] get the kind of rich string sound. We only ended up doing it on one song on this album, but I tried on a couple. I loved the sound that it made.”
Barnett’s passion for creating new sounds and exploring the abilities of an instrument is palpable and something that undoubtedly stems from her beginnings as a musician.
“My very first guitar was just this nylon string guitar which was just like half broken, but a family friend gave it to me. He then passed away, and it always held a kind of sentimental spot for me, just 'cause you know, the kindness of someone sharing their instrument with me. And that's how I learned to play. I think that's a really beautiful part of music, that kind of sharing.”
Having kicked off 2018 sharing the stage with Cloher, Barnett is gearing up for another tour following the release of her new album which will take her across Europe, America, New Zealand and Australia. Excited at the prospect of sharing a new set of songs with the world, she describes the feeling of performing as an entirely different energy to that of creating an album.
“I think just like seeing a connection, physically kind of feeling a connection between yourself and the crowd, it's really powerful,” she says. “The minute you play a song to someone else, it takes on a whole other meaning and you know, people project onto it and it just becomes another kind of story, in a way.”
Catch Courtney Barnett on tour throughout Australia from Friday August 17. Tell Me How You Really Feel is out on Friday May 18 through Milk! Records. Find out more about the guitars, amps and effects driving Barnett's sound in our Gear Rundown here.
Image via Pooneh Ghana.