“There’s A Real Solidarity Between Female Musicians In Australia”: A Chat With Ali Barter

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It’s a rainy Thursday in Sydney and Ali Barter is sitting in a cafe in Surry Hills, slowly sipping on a glass of sparkling water. “I’ve already had three coffees today, so I should probably give it a break,” she says by way of explanation.

Barter has already done a radio interview at triple j this morning, where she also found out that her new album A Suitable Girl, has been chosen as the feature album for the following week. She’s got interviews lined up all day, and while the press rigmarole is fairly new to her, she’s gradually easing into it.

“I’m getting better at talking about the album,” she says. “In the beginning when people ask you to explain your song you’re like  ‘uh…’. But it actually helps me to understand the songs better — I have to remember the feeling that I felt when I wrote them.”

It’s good she’s getting used to it, because Barter is on the verge of striking big. After a slew of well-received EPs and tours with The Rubens and The Jezabels, the Melbourne artist is releasing her debut album to a public that is definitely starting to take notice. A Suitable Girl is a sustained, pop-grunge punch, with Barter tackling everything from gender politics to the taboo romance of smoking.

In short: it’s a big, bold, and brilliant album. Over a couple of glasses of sparkling water, we got to know the person behind it.

When you’re writing, do you consider the audience’s interpretation of the song or are you writing purely for yourself?

Yeah, it’s very much a cathartic process for me. It was a time in my life in my late 20s, where I was sort of having a really difficult time with stuff. It was a way for me to sort of name and claim some of these emotions that I was having, because you get to that age when you should be more mature and you should not get upset about this kind of stuff and I shouldn’t be jealous about this stuff. Writing it out I had to be really honest.

So when it does get put out there, does it feel strange for people to have different interpretations of them, and coming back and being like, “I felt this, and this meant this to me.”

It’s weird cause I don’t think other people hear my songs. I write them and I put them out there and then I’m surprised when people say “Oh I heard your song!” I’m like, really? [Laughs] Yeah, it’s funny when people have different interpretations of them.

There’s a song on my record called ‘Live With You’, which is about someone that I didn’t wanna be anywhere near. Someone Facebooked me and said, “I love the housemate song”, and I was like, “What’s the housemate song?” And she was like, “Live with you, I don’t wanna live with you anymore.” She’s interpreted it like it’s a moving out song – so that’s awesome.

You’ve said that you thought of the album like a movie soundtrack? Did that influence the way you put together the album, in terms of giving the track list a narrative arc? 

Well, I love the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack. When I was thinking about the track listing I thought of a bunch of soundtracks, and I really wanted the last song to be like the song at the end of the Romeo + Juliet: ‘You and Me’ by The Wannadies. It was uplifting, and a real ‘let go’ song.

My favourite song on the record is called ‘Walk/Talk’, and I put that at the end cause it felt right. I thought of the album in the terms of a movie narrative: a bit melancholy, a bit sad, there’s a love theme going on there, and someone gets angry and then someone calms down. It was fun for me to think of it like that because I’m such a movie person and a soundtrack person.

“If you go and see a band of dudes play and they don’t smile and they don’t say anything witty and charming then everyone’s like oh they’re so serious and professional.'”

When did A Suitable Girl start coming together?

I started writing the songs for this album in the middle of 2015. I wanted to record it quite quickly, because I’ve done EPs and they had stretched out for ages. You record something and then a year later you’re still tinkering and it sounds completely different. I just didn’t want that.

We started recording probably April or May last year. I think we had like seven days in the studio, which was pretty intense but it was really fun. We had a few months of tinkering and then we handed it in – completed, mastered, mixed, everything – before Christmas.

Short time to be in the studio. Was that the objective to be in there as quick as possible, and have that bottled up energy seep into the record?

Yeah. In particular, a lot of the vocals are test takes from those recording sessions, because there’s something that happens when a singer sings when there’s no pressure. It’s like “it’s just a test take, we’ll just do a bunch here and there …”

Instead of recording the vocals four months later, we just used those takes.

You co-wrote some tracks with Bertie Blackman and Adalita. You’re such a personal writer, was it a challenge to bring other people into that headspace of writing a song?

Sometimes it is. It is like letting someone into your process, but I know Bertie and she’s such a nice person. I didn’t mind being open with her. I think maybe I would have written something less on the nose, if I’d been with someone I didn’t know as well.

And Adalita? 

My manager said to me one day, “Who would you like to write with?” I just answered instantly: “Adalita.” And one day my manager said: “Adalita’s going to be at the studio on this day.” I think I got there like four hours early, I was so nervous.

Then she came and she had a really really bad cold, I think she had the flu. She came with her tiny little Vox amp and her electric guitar, and she was so beautiful.

She just sat there and just listened to a bunch of the songs I had already, and then I played her a song. She really guided me and changed a couple of the chords, and said “You’re doing a really great job, this song’s really awesome.” and we fleshed out some words.

Then she left and I had to lie down, cause I was overwhelmed. That song is called ‘Walk/Talk’ and it’s my favourite song on the record.

The title is from Vikram Seth’s novel, A Suitable Girl, why did you choose it?

Because I love the book and I love what that book is about, and I really identify with the main protagonist, whose name is Lasso and the story is about her mother trying to find a husband. Although that’s not my experience of life, it’s really about her finding her own way and making decisions and dealing with expectations, and all the characters in the book have these expectations of her.

And I think that’s something that I as a woman deal with and that’s what I was writing about. You know in my late 20s I had expectations of myself and expectations of society and whether they’re unspoken or not, you deal with them all the same.

“The thing about women in history is they were so fucking great at what they were doing, but they also had to work so much harder.”

It’s such a perfect name for the album when you consider the themes, particularly the song ‘Girlie Bits’ which has that great opening line about a man telling you to smile. These big issues of gender expectations and societal expectations are in play.

You’ve started up a Spotify playlist called History Grrrls, to give legendary female musicians more exposure – can you just talk a bit about that and where that idea for the History Grrrls came from? 

I was studying music history last year, and each class was based on two artists. They could be called like Johnny Cash and the Beatles or Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, or something like that. Within those lessons they might go, “Oh and, Aretha Franklin sang his song and blah, blah, blah”.

I was the only girl in the class. I’m sitting there going “this isn’t for me, like they’re not talking to me”. It really gave me the shits.

So I wrote this article for Junkee, and I started the playlist because I wanted to learn about these women.

The thing about women in history is they were so fucking great at what they were doing, but they also had to work so much harder. They were called crazy, and they were called drug addicts, and they were doing the same things as the boys but instead made out to be tragic. And then we wonder why there’s not more women in the music industry or more girl drummers.

You used this great example about Ryan Adams’ 1989. And that struck a particular chord with me because I love writing about pop music. And for me Taylor Swift – regardless of anything else – is an exceptional songwriter. And so for when Ryan Adam’s cover album came out, to hear the acclaim he was getting from a lot of people was really frustrating.

Well that’s the thing, and I hate the way pop music is seen as fluffy or whatever because little girls love it. Millions of little girls can’t be wrong. Why is their opinion not as credible as Ryan Adam’s fans? And I love Ryan Adams, but it gives me the shits how we have this hierarchy of art.

That was the point of that line in ‘Girlie Bits’ –  I read an article by Bethany Cosentino from Best Coast where she was saying how when people review her shows they say the band was great but she didn’t smile. If you go and see a band of dudes play and they don’t smile and they don’t say anything witty and charming then everyone’s like “oh they’re so serious and professional.”

And if a girl doesn’t do it they’re like “oh she’s a bitch or she must be having a bad day.”

The great thing in Australia is that there’s this real solidarity between female musicians. People reach out to each other, and encourage each other. There’s all these different types of women playing music in all these different ways – and we can raise each other up. Talking about it works.

Ali Barter’s debut album, A Suitable Girl, is out now through Ronnie Records/Inertia. Check out her tour dates below. 

Ali Barter tour dates

Thursday April 13 – Star Bar, Bendigo, VIC
Friday April 28 – Workers Club, Geelong, VIC
Wednesday May 3 – Karova Lounge, Geelong, VIC
Thursday May 4 – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, VIC
Friday May 5 – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne, VIC
Saturday May 6 – Jive Bar, Adelaide, SA
Friday May 12 – Jack Rabbit Slims, Perth
Thursday May 18 – The Foundry, Brisbane, QLD
Thursday May 25 – Hudson Ballroom, Sydney, NSW
Friday May 26 – Rad Bar, Wollongong, NSW
Saturday May 27 – Live On The Lawn, Newcastle, NSW

Photo Credit: Hannah Markoff/ Supplied