Australian singer, songwriter and guitarist still wrestling with “the eternal puzzle” on sharp new LP
The album art for Courtney Barnett's 2019 single “Everybody Here Hates You” features a cartoonish drawing of a pen and notebook sitting on a table next to a mug. On the notebook, the lyrics to the song are written out longhand, as if Barnett had just finished an initial draft while sitting in a coffee shop, which could have been the case.
Barnett said her songwriting process can take many forms. She'll sketch out lyrics longhand on notepads, write on a computer and tap out lyrics at home on a typewriter, with each format subtly shading and influencing the shape a finished tune ultimately takes.
“There's a big difference. I think handwriting is slow, and I tend to think about [the song] too much. There's too much time to stop and reflect,” said Barnett, who opens for the National at Express Live outdoors on Monday, June 24. “On the computer, everything is too perfect and pretty, and you can backspace things a little too easy and lose ideas forever. I think the typewriter is my favorite because I just let it go as a stream of ideas, and I don't stop and read it. I just keep on going, take out the piece of paper and put it in a folder, and when I go back and read it a month later I'm usually pleasantly surprised. It's the perfect speed. It keeps up with your brain.”
Barnett wrote the bulk of her 2018 album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, at home on her typewriter, shifting slightly from the detailed character studies of past efforts to more revealing tunes that find the Australian singer, songwriter and guitarist wrestling with everything from deep-seated anxieties (one track is titled “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence”) to the anonymous online trolls that surfaced in the wake of her early success. “He said, ‘I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you,'” she sings on the shaggy rocker “Nameless, Faceless” before brushing the criticism aside with the perfect three-word response: “But you didn't.”
Throughout, songs waver between optimistic and ominous — a feeling best captured in the invented word that serves as the title of the album-opening track: “Hopefulessness.”
“That's the perfect representation, I think — the push and pull of all of these conflicting thoughts,” Barnett said. “It's that constant up and down and back and forth. … I mean, I'm generally optimistic, I think, but it's a see-saw between optimism and pessimism. If you're completely pessimistic, though, what's the point?”
Even the album-closing “Sunday Roast,” which initially comes across as a hopeful closer — the narrator sings about ignoring those doubting inner voices and focuses on the promise of brighter days — is something of a mixed bag, according to Barnett, who described the song as “sarcastically optimistic.”
“To me it sounds a bit like a campfire singalong,” she said, and laughed. “Let's pretend to be happy and everything's OK.”
Going into sessions for Tell Me How You Really Feel, which followed her 2015 breakout debut, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Barnett wrestled with the idea that she was now speaking to a larger audience, ultimately realizing that she couldn't let any associated fears bleed into her creative process.
“It's a weird one, because to be completely oblivious is probably a beautiful thing, but I can't help but be self-aware. I'm quite an observant person, so I'm always going to pick up on that idea of people listening,” Barnett said. “But I think it's dangerous if you start to write or curate ideas to what you think people want to hear. Everyone wants to hear something different, so that can become a lose-lose situation.”
It helped, Barnett said, to write constantly, digging into even bad, half-formed ideas with the awareness that those discarded efforts could in some way inform the better-realized songs that emerged later. To that end, Barnett allowed herself the time and space for the songs to develop naturally, preserving the breezy, conversational style that has become her hallmark.
“I think I can really tell when something's forced and when something is natural, and when something's natural it's usually an accident, and it's when I'm not thinking,” Barnett said. “I think the best stuff comes from a part of the brain that you don't even know exists, and it comes just like another piece of the puzzle, because that's what songwriting is. It's like an eternal puzzle of trying to understand yourself and the world around you, and then how you fit in and what the point of it all is.”