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Courtney Barnett: “We overlook how important the smaller moments are”

The Australian musician on vulnerability, touring and why her songwriting rests on the little details.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Courtney Barnett rose to prominence with a song about having a panic attack. “I’m breathing but I’m wheezing, feel like I’m emphysema-ing/My throat feels like a funnel filled with Weetabix and kerosene,” she sang on the 2013 song “Avant Gardener”, which introduced her wry wit and loose guitar rock to an international audience. 

Eight years on and three albums later, and the Australian songwriter isn’t done with being open-hearted. “Everything feels vulnerable,” she said over video call in mid-October from Joshua Tree, California, where she was staying before a US tour. She wore a white T-shirt, and turned the camera round to show the view from her window: a vibrant blue sky and the cactus-filled expanse of the Mojave desert. 

Such a remote location was a fitting environment in which to prepare for the release of Things Take Time, Take Time, Barnett’s third album, due out on Marathon Records on 12 November. At the beginning of 2020, Barnett returned to Melbourne after months on tour. Having broken up with her long-term partner and musical collaborator Jen Cloher (the Jen who insists she buy organic vegetables on “Dead Fox”), Barnett had no fixed home, so she moved into the empty apartment of a friend. She’d never lived on her own before, so it was “a real personal rollercoaster”, she said. “I think it was probably a good thing for me, just to learn, to have that space and have time with myself. To reflect.” She started bringing together the scraps of songs she’d been working on, envisioning a next record. 

Spending time in one place was always Barnett’s plan for the year, even before the pandemic forced her to stay put. Previous interviewers have described this period of her life as “burnout”. But “the ‘burnout’ thing is not really my word,” she said. “Other people have said that.” She sees that state of mind as inevitable fatigue after months on the road. “It’s just touring an album. It’s a lot of work.”

Barnett prefers the language of “balance”: “the reason we say things like ‘burnout’,” she said, “is because we’re out of balance. Doing both touring and studio work is about finding that correct balance. Like anything in life, it’s about needing to have that balance in the ways you exert energy and the ways you find inspiration.”

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The small observational details that have always peppered Barnett’s lyrics – from the asthma inhaler of “Avant Gardener” to the foggy goggles she wears as she swims in “Aqua Profunda!” – are still there on Things Take Time…, even though, sitting indoors, Barnett’s usually wide-eyed world-view was constrained by Covid-19 lockdowns. There’s the garbage truck “tip-toeing” along the road in “Rae Street”, and the flowers she sees growing from her window as the seasons change in “Turning Green”. It takes a lot of “over-writing”, and then a lot of discarding, for Barnett to settle on the details she wants to include, she said. “It’s only when you really focus on one detail that the story becomes clearer and stronger.” For Barnett, specificity doesn’t preclude nuanced emotional responses. Songs are like tarot cards, she suggested: “You feel something different depending on what you’re looking for.”

These details and Barnett’s deadpan voice have always made her songs feel small, in a way: they’re snapshots of a moment rather than anthems for all of humankind. The songwriter wears her self-proclaimed “disillusionment” with the politics of the last few years – including the devastation caused by the 2019-20 Australian bushfires, and the emotional upheaval, as a gay woman, of watching her country vote on gay marriage in 2017 (it voted in favour of equal marriage) – lightly in her songs. She’s more likely to channel that frustration into a personal mantra. She often borrows from advice given to her by friends: Tell Me How You Really Feel was the title of her 2018 record; the track “Write A List of Things To Look Forward To” appears on this one.

“Really the biggest place you can make change is in the smallest ways possible,” she said, “in the smallest interactions with people, with strangers and friends. I think sometimes we overlook how important the smaller moments are. If we’re talking about being kinder in the bigger picture, but then you’re being an asshole to your friend or your partner – it’s a weird moral seesaw.”

And thinking small doesn’t have to mean pessimism. “I used to think that there were so many shit people in the world,” Barnett said, “but more and more I think that actually there are so many great people, so many people struggling in different ways, emotional ways. It’s easier to label people as bad, because it makes other people feel better. But it doesn’t serve much of a purpose to continue to think that. You’re just digging deeper into that hole.”

The musical community Barnett has built up in Melbourne, particularly through her label, Milk! Records, but also more generally through championing new artists coming up in the city’s music scene, is one example of such localised interactions. “It starts out as just safety in numbers,” Barnett said. “You go to each other’s gigs to fill out the crowd. But it’s also about being kind to each other, supporting each other and learning from each other. We grow in those moments.”

[see also: “Society is ableist”: Alice Hattrick on gender, chronic illness and long Covid]

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