Ahead of her Ryman show, Courtney Barnett has thoughts on vulnerability, self-examination and the art of drum machines

Listen to the interview with Courtney Barnett

At the end of last year, Courtney Barnett dropped her third studio album Things Take Time, Take Time — and this time, we got something a little different from the famously sharp Australian singer-songwriter and guitarist. You won’t hear the heavy guitar energy of her prior records, but something that reflects a time of stillness and growth together in a very familiar way.

Barnett worked with Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa on the full-length, and they found sonically diverse ground between their different instrumental specialties.

This new album documents stages of transformation, taking us on a journey of progress, vulnerability, hope and happiness. Through it all, Barnett somehow makes the observation of everyday life seem anything but mundane with her clever prose.

Barnett will be performing at the Ryman Friday, January 28th (with Cassandra Jenkins), and she spoke with WNXP on her way to Nashville.

On the Record: A Q&A With Courtney Barnett

Ayisha Jaffer: Your approach to songwriting, from the outside, is very real and certainly based on life lessons and experiences, and yet somehow in such a quiet time, you brought us an incredibly relatable, positive, and accurate depiction of life now on your new record Things Take Time, Take Time. Can you explain your approach to this album and how the songwriting process may have differed from your previous work?

Courtney Barnett: It’s a very good question. I’m not sure how different it was, apart from that I feel like I had a bit more time on my hands, and I think I wasn’t as distracted by other things. I think of my first EP, and I wrote it in between shifts at a bar and then my first album I probably wrote while I was touring, and this album I just wrote every day and every night. I just kind of chipped away at songs and lyrics. I guess it’s different, but I think it’s constantly changing for me. I’m just trying to trick myself into writing a great song.

AJ: You brought in Stella Mozgawa, Warpaint drummer and prolific musician extraordinaire, to co-produce the album. I can tell there is a lot of sonic diversity and I love the musical ride we go through on the record where the drummer perspective meets the guitarist. What was your experience like working together?

CB: Yeah, it was great. It was so fun and different. I was writing a lot of it and making demos in my flat with a guitar and a drum machine. I sent the songs to Stella to show her, and then when we got in the studio in the end, we kept certain elements of what I’d done and just kind of worked backwards. From there, I think Stella ended up playing live drums on almost everything. I think by then, I’d gotten attached to certain elements like the metric, repetitive energy of the drum machine that I had grown quite accustomed to. It felt like it suited the mood. I liked that it stayed in there. I just I love the sound.

AJ: Your single “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To” is truly a great reminder for all of us. I heard that during sort of a dark time, after the devastating bush fires in Australia, this was an exercise that one of your friends suggested to try. And I really love the song that came out of it. It’s something we all need right now, things to look forward to. So if you’re willing to share, what were some of the things on your list you came up with to look forward to that helped you get out of your state of mind at that time?

CB: I think I was in a pretty dark space, so I think it was literally like getting a coffee the next day, which is actually still and always on my list of things to look forward to. Then my niece was about to be born, so I was looking forward to that. It was something exciting and positive. I think always the knowledge of catching up with friends and family at a certain point, I guess as well, because I’ve spent the last few years traveling so much. There’s always something really nice about looking forward to seeing a certain person in a certain place that just makes it so special. So that’s always a nice thing.

AJ: After watching your video for this release, I have to ask, did you end up finding some new hobbies or interests to dig into during this season of stillness in the world?

CB: I mean, I definitely cooked a lot more. I had to quarantine a little bit when I first got back to Melbourne and some beautiful, beautiful friends brought boxes of groceries around to my house and dropped them on my doorstep. And my friend who’s a chef, she dropped off some vegetables and groceries and a tiny cooking book. I told her that I couldn’t cook very much, so she wrote some really simple recipes for me, and I just was like, “That’s the nicest, simplest, but kindest thing.” I was so touched by it. It was just those really small things that we can do for each other, especially in that first year of everyone being very disconnected. I think it was just so nice to see moments like that shine through.

AJ: I find “Turning Green” to be the most happy and hopeful track on the album. Can you tell me the inspiration for this tune?

CB: That song is probably one of my favorite songs. I guess it’s like celebrating someone finding joy and finding love and happiness and being happy for that person, you know? I think that song took quite a journey as well, because it started out sounding so different. It started out as, like, a real guitar-heavy song, but we ended up going in a different path in the studio and subtracting instead of adding and adding on top of. And I love where it ended up, because I think when you do that, you find a different focus on the lyrics and the story becomes front and center. You connect more with it and get carried away more. It’s got one of my favorite lyrics: “forcing you to see flowers in the weeds.”

AJ: This new album truly feels vulnerable and confident, a very authentic depiction of time at this moment, finding beauty in hard times, seasons changing for the better, and even addressing some of the community changes in progress. Do you feel like you went on a journey of change yourself in the making of this new record?

CB: Yeah, big time. I feel like life should be like a series of those changes, and those developments should always be learning and striving to be better and to learn more and to change for the better. I feel like each album that I make and will make is kind of like a document of that process a little bit. It’s very interesting for me to look back at albums and collections of songs. I see the person I was or what I was thinking. It’s interesting. This album doesn’t have the piece of anger that was maybe on the album before. There’s some sort of progress, some sort of change but it’s always just self examination, reflection.

AJ: I don’t want to leave you without asking about your new documentary made with your friend Danny Cohen called “Anonymous Club” that is coming out in March. How did this project come about? And what does it feel like to release this type of personal work to the world?

CB: It’s terrifying. I probably wouldn’t do it again. I think it’s like everything else: it’s a challenge, but it’s a good. It’s just looking at yourself in a different way and kind of examining things. I think I learned a lot from it. And hopefully, people find something good, something useful within it.

It was fun as well to document that time, and it really feels like a document of time. It’s like a two-year or maybe three-year document. I already feel like a different person, which is probably a good thing, but it’s good to look back. I love Danny so much. He’s a dear friend, and I think that he made a beautiful film.

AJ: So now that the album is out there, you have a documentary set to release soon and you’re out here on the road, what’s something on your new list of things to look forward to?

CB: I left Australia in September, and I’ve been here since then. That’s probably the longest I’ve ever been away, so I’m quite looking forward to seeing a few friends. Hopefully next Christmas, I can see all of my family, and I think that would be really nice. I’m really looking forward to that. As much as you can talk on the phone and talk on FaceTime, it’s really nice to be able to spend time with people you love and be grateful for that. Hopefully that happens.