Courtney Barnett On Crippling Self-Doubt, Keeping On And Showing Up

"I observed at some point that I'd been masking my frustration to keep the peace."

Courtney Barnett

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A kettle boils slowly under ‘Hopefulessness’, the first song on Courtney Barnett’s sophomore album Tell Me How You Really Feel. By the time we reach the end, its whistle takes over, equally optimistic and ominous. The emotional two tone rings throughout.

In the space of a few years, the Tasmanian-turned-Melburnian songwriter has gone from barely-attended pub gigs in Hobart to international festivals and acclaim, including comparisons aplenty to Bob Dylan, Nirvana and Paul Kelly. But as you can tell by Tell Me How…’s most unwieldy song title, ‘Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack Of Self Confidence’, Barnett remains skeptical of the hype.

Or, as the New Yorker wrote in its review, “Barnett’s inability to express herself is the album’s main theme, and it’s a strange, almost meta proposition: a 30-year-old artist lauded as one of the most gifted songwriters of her generation who’s convinced, on just her second album, that she’s a false prophet.”

Tell Me How… is part confessional, part challenge: a reckoning to not simply list off insecurities, but to fight them off. Which, of course, is an ongoing process — especially when you’re also facing the bullshit of internet trolls, intimidation and the threat of violence caused from simply being a woman moving through the world.

Frustrations reach outwards on songs like ‘Nameless, Faceless’ (one of Junkee’s favourite tracks of 2018 so far) and ‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’, the latter of which is particularly searing — critics of Barnett’s ‘bored’ singing style haven’t heard its cracked screams.

Elsewhere, comforts come and go: lines like “You know, it’s okay to have a bad day” on ‘Hopefulessness’ linger like advice you wilfully give to a friend but never quite grasp yourself. Then again, maybe a little bit of self-doubt can be a catchcry: it keeps you from thinking you should produce five albums in five weeks, for example.

When Barnett and I talk over the phone ahead of her national tour which kicks off this month, ‘balance’ is the idea we keep seeming to land on. Which is admittedly a little cliché, which isn’t very Barnett. But it’s true.

‘Hopefulessness’ is basically a portmanteau of how it feels to live in 2018. What mind frame were you in when you wrote that song?

I think it was a pretty negative place. But, you know, [it’s more] recognising that head space and trying to talk yourself out of it, trying to find kind of some sort of optimism among it.

And with the album, did you have to make a conscious decision to not lean too much into despair?

I think it’s just my general head space — balancing between the two and talking myself out of one or the other, depending on the day. I think it’s a pretty healthy mix.

With lyrics like “Take your broken heart, turn it into art” — again, from ‘Hopefulessness’ — it’s like you’re telling yourself how to write the song as you’re singing it.

Yeah, I think a lot of it comes from a kind of encouragement. I promise you I’m not just talking about my own lyrics and writing/making art — it’s more just taking a negative and turning it into a positive, that’s what I got from that line. Making something musical out of something that feels useless.

It can be really hard to do that — elsewhere on the album, ‘Crippling Self-Doubt and A General Lack Of Self Confidence’ and ‘Charity’ build on that a little bit more. In ‘Charity’, you say you’re “so subservient I make myself sick”. How do you push yourself out of that head space?

I don’t know. I really kind of struggle with it, to be honest. I think it’s just an everyday, constant thing that I’m facing and dealing with —  [like] different personalities, that frustration that you feel when someone tries to take advantage of you or express unnecessary power over you or whatever it is that people can do to make you feel smaller than you should. There’s a million things — I think everyone would know that feeling in some version or another.

It’s just trying to stick up for yourself and get on with it.

Have you found that that’s changed very much? Now you’re quite well-known, your day to day life surely looks very different from a few years ago.

It’s different, but it’s still the same, you know? I still have the same weird personality ticks that I’ve always had, and in some ways things get easier; in some ways things get harder.

I think it’s just normal, like anyone growing up or moving to a different place or moving to a different job, I feel like there’s always something that we have to deal with and try to improve upon. There’s always something to learn.

Yeah, you never reach that 100% amazing space of where you’re like “I am now a complete person”.

Right. I feel like it takes a long time.

I read that you had a bit of writers block when you came to work on Tell Me How…. How did that affect you?

I observed at some point that I’d been masking my frustration to keep the peace.

It was more I just felt a bit directionless, and wasn’t sure what I was saying, or how I was feeling and how to express it. I think that’s just what writing is for me — I’m always suffering from writer’s block, and I think that’s just what the process uncovers, it makes that confusion and uncertainty of whatever it is I’m thinking about less mysterious .

All you can really do is keep on. I kept on showing up each day and writing, and not knowing what I was doing or where I was going, but I just kept trying. It was all I could do, I guess.

Last year you played guitar on Jen Cloher’s self-titled album, and then released Lotta Sea Lice, your album with Kurt Vile as well. Were they important in the process of working out your own solo music?

Yeah. Everything I do, and consume, and witness, and read — it always creeps into the next thing that I do, for sure.

Which takes us to ‘Nameless, Faceless’, where there’s the unintentional Margaret Atwood quote in the chorus [“Men are scared that women will laugh at them/Women are scared that men will kill them”]. Other lyrics from the song were shared around quite a lot recently following the murder of Eurydice Dixon, like “I want to walk through a park at night”. How did it feel to see that lyric be used in that way?

I was so sad, obviously. Just sad and angry at that time. Whenever I read about anything like that, it’s this whole jumble of those feelings, but I guess that one was spookily similar to the lyrics. And I don’t know how it makes me feel.

It’s not like it makes the situation better, but then, I have heard people discussing some of those lyrics or the Margaret Atwood words, or even [the lyric] “I hold my keys between my fingers”. Just the more that we talk about things, the more the communication opens.

People told me that they talked to their young sons about something in the lyrics and it opened up the conversation, and some people talked to their friends or partners. If anything, it’s a small step in that conversation. I guess that’s a good thing.

Well, the lyrics echo something that’s been said so many times before — but there’s always a chance it comes through louder this time.

Hopefully it jolts it into different ears.

Away from those lyrics, there are a lot of others that deal pretty strongly with your frustrations around misogyny and sexism, like in ‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’. That wasn’t something we heard as directly from you on your first album — why did you want to centre that on your second?

I don’t know. I think maybe things were a bit more metaphorical [earlier] — maybe I was just a bit more angry about things.

I observed at some point that I’d been masking my frustration to keep the peace and to not be too sensitive, which really frustrated me. I recognised that I had been trying not to step out of line and keep other people happy. And that obviously builds resentment, it builds insecurities: it’s really a whole lot more affecting than we can recognise sometimes, or realise.

But the album ends on ‘Sunday Roast’, which is a pull away from that anger and into a more optimistic, domestic space. I think a lot of artists stereotypically might find that routine dulling — like they need to focus on the bad things in the world. But it seems like it’s more of a balance for you.

I think I always automatically try to find the balance. I think there has to be some sort of balance. It’s just the way I am, and the way I think, and the way I live.

Courtney Barnett is touring Australia this August and September. Her second album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, is out now. 

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. Follow him on Twitter.