Members Lounge

Courtney Barnett: “You wouldn’t talk to a friend like that, but we treat ourselves like monsters sometimes”

With End of the Day, a new instrumental record developed from the soundtrack to her 2021 documentary Anonymous Club, Courtney Barnett eschews the rich lyricism that made her a star in favour of something more abstract, but no less moving. It’s also the final release on her cult indie label Milk! Records, which she’s decided to close after a decade of great work

There is a scene in Anonymous Club, Danny Cohen’s 2021 documentary feature film that chronicles Courtney Barnett’s Tell Me How You Really Feel world tour, in which Barnett leaves a voice message for the director during a low emotional moment.

“To be completely honest, I just feel like I’ve let myself down somehow with the release of this album,” she says. “What could’ve been a fantastic conversation around fragility and depression and mental health ended up being swept to the side because I was too scared to talk about anything that’s real or heavy. I get frustrated – why can’t I be a strong and powerful communicator?”

To anyone familiar with the Australian musician’s savant-like ability to find profound meditation within the everyday detritus of our lives, her words are hard to process. Since her emergence a decade ago, Barnett’s songs have offered solace to a disaffected generation, a razor-sharp rejection of the idea that there is something wrong with being uncertain about the direction your life is taking. For many, listening to Barnett means being seen, and there is no doubting the power of that level of communication.

“I think I’m just hard on myself,” Barnett explains to me from her Joshua Tree desert retreat. “That’s what I picked up on when I watched the film. I’m fucking nasty to myself, you know, horrible. It’s that thing of, you wouldn’t treat anyone else the way that you treat yourself. You wouldn’t talk to a friend like that, but we treat ourselves like monsters sometimes.”

She admits that one upshot of being forced to reflect on her own innermost thoughts is that she now tries to be less consumed by self-doubt, and certainly that is a privilege that she deserves to enjoy.

Barnett released one of the defining debut albums of her era with 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, a searing, scabrous and sardonic record that funnelled lonely, restless 20-something inertia into furious guitar solos and laugh-out-loud one-liners (“Gimme all your money, and I’ll make some origami, honey”). 2018’s Tell Me How You Really Feel retained the same qualities, but doubled up as a hand-on-the-shoulder reassurance to her audience that these worries that unite them need not be all-consuming.

The Anonymous Club documentary eventually found Barnett rediscovering her confidence through a series of intimate solo live shows, and she now prepares to release End of the Day, a new album built from the ambient instrumental tracks that Barnett composed with her friend, the Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa, to score the film. The record is exquisitely restrained; an exercise in patient, impressionistic contemplation, designed to invite the listener to bring their own context to the table.

“That was one of our main intentions, to not influence the viewer or the listener too much emotionally,” Barnett explains. “I wanted it to sound beautiful and emotional, but not too suggestive.”

For an artist so closely associated with her lyrical voice, it is an interesting excursion for Barnett to express herself in this format. She grew up listening to a lot of classical music with her parents, however, and for years she has filled countless hours of her free time playing extended, meditative ambient guitar jams for her own entertainment. Keith Jarrett’s elegant 1975 jazz piano opus The Köln Concert is just one example of Barnett’s private listening preferences.

“I wasn’t sure what people would say,” she says about End of the Day, “but it’s been nice seeing people who listen to it telling me that they got something really meaningful out of it. That means a lot to us.”

Barnett has shown that she is not averse to the odd unexpected career left turn. In 2017, before she had even begun recording her second solo album, she released Lotta Sea Lice, a surprise full-length collaboration with slacker guitar hero Kurt Vile. “I like doing lots of different things,” she says. “It’s nice to break things up and let your brain wander and do something different. That’s the only way to grow, to break outside what you’re used to. I think I’m just really curious, musically. And I feel like to only allow myself to do one thing is just not going to present an interesting outcome.”

Aside from presenting a new aesthetic side to Courtney Barnett, End of the Day has a poignant significance as it will be the last official release on Milk! Records, the award-winning label founded in 2012 by Barnett and fellow musician and former partner Jen Cloher. By providing a platform for independent artists in Melbourne, including dream-pop songwriter Hachiku and art rockers Jade Imagine, Milk! has been a pillar of the city’s thriving alternative scene since its inception. However, an already challenging financial climate was only exacerbated by the pandemic, and twinned with Barnett’s own semi-permanent move to California, the writing was on the wall.

“I think in the end, it just seemed like the right time to close the label,” she reflects. “It’s not an easy thing to keep going. Sometimes you just know in your gut that the time has come to change something, and I think you’ve got to follow that feeling when it happens.”

Several of the scenes in Anonymous Club where Barnett seems at her happiest are when she is in the Milk! headquarters, so it is clear that this is a decision that did not come easily. “I am a very nostalgic person,” she says. “So it’s hard to not cling on to things. Milk! Records has always had such an amazing community of people who are such music lovers, committed to supporting artists and turning up at shows. But it’s good practice in letting go of something and appreciating what it is and what it was, and being grateful for how incredible and life-changing it has been.”

The first ever release on the label was Barnett’s debut EP, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris, which, when bundled together with follow-up How to Carve a Carrot Into a Rose, formed the breakthrough release A Sea of Split Peas, a twelve-track 2013 compilation that is now set for a tenth anniversary vinyl re-release.

Included is ‘Avant Gardener’, the song that took Barnett from Australian dive bars to US late night talk shows. Over a bed of strangulated guitars, she tells the story of an asthmatic attack through a prism of jaded, sarcastic malaise, and for the first time, the world hears Barnett’s ability to casually conflate existential despair with offhand flippancy (“I’m breathing but I’m wheezing / Feel like I’m emphysemin’”; “I get adrenaline straight to the heart / I feel like Uma Thurman, post-overdosing kickstart”).

Much like Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig’s classic 2012 film Frances Ha, Barnett’s songs soon became a guiding light for an audience seeking a way to navigate the no man’s land of early adulthood in the 2010s; if she was able to articulate the struggle to resist society’s demands to conform, then at least the rest of us were not alone.

“It’s a funny thing, because a lot of what I was saying in those first few albums was… I was so kind of lost and unsure,” she says. “Having a clear voice and an idea of what I’m saying, sure, but what I’m saying is that I have no idea what I’m saying. So it’s this weird, slightly meta thing. But even in that, maybe that’s what people connect to, because a lot of us don’t know exactly what we’re thinking or what we’re doing or where we’re going. It’s relatable, I guess.”

Considering how quickly she came flying out of the traps, it appeared from the outside that Barnett had arrived with a fully-formed and somewhat effortless artistic voice, but nothing is as straightforward as it seems.

“There’s always some element of trying to intellectualise it,” she says, pausing to consider how she marries external expectations with her desire to write truthfully. “You know what you should do, or what’s worked before, but what I’ve learned along the way is that there’s no formula. Even when people think there’s a formula, if you follow it, you’re probably going to not be as successful the next time around because it doesn’t come from the same pure place, and you can’t please everybody all the time.

“And so, the only thing to do is to just try to be as honest and real as possible. And you know, even that’s hard because we’re always second guessing ourselves. I’m always second guessing myself. So sometimes, it’s hard to find that place, especially when you know that you’re presenting to a listener. So I’m always thinking how someone’s going to hear it and all the different ways that they could interpret something, and I think the only way to get past that is just to really let go of that thought and try to just get on with it.”

While preparing material for the upcoming re-release of A Sea of Split Peas, Barnett found herself surprised by how much she enjoyed the indulgence of sifting through her archive of memories. An avid photographer since her childhood, she has literal stashes of film negatives and photobooks from the era, and even if she is still learning to be sufficiently kind to herself in the moment, she is at least able to reflect on her younger self with considerable affection.

“It feels like ten years, but it also feels like thirty years,” she quips. “And I feel like the same person, but totally a different person, and I think that’s a good thing. I think it’s good to recognise your growth as a human. I see my younger, selfish, ignorant parts and it’s nice to hope that you’ve grown and changed. You can’t be who you are now without having gone through all the things you’ve gone through in your life. It’s about looking back with care and love.”

Barnett’s third album, 2021’s Things Take Time, Take Time was a more tender, pared-back affair, dialling down the laconic lyrics in favour of a more sweetly observational writing style. She has just entered the intense period of writing for album number four, anticipating that she will be “spending months trying to write single lines of lyrics, which is just how I have to do it.”

The impression she gives is that the new material will see her injecting more of the red-blooded intensity of her earlier work back into proceedings, which would only further throw into relief the extent that End of the Day marks a departure from the Courtney Barnett norm. If Anonymous Club captured her at the moment of her lowest self-confidence, then it would appear that being forced to relive that period, creatively, has fuelled her regeneration.

“It’s not the film I would have wanted to make about myself, it’s not the story I would’ve wanted to tell. But even though it was hard to watch, it was a good lesson. It’s a process. I guess I’m just trying not to doubt myself as much now. I feel like over time I’m getting better at learning all these things.”