‘I Felt Myself Opening Up in a New Manner,’ Says Courtney Barnett

Posted by Mike Schumacher

Courtney Barnett was in Los Angeles at the start of 2020, when her native nation was burning and the rest of the world was waking up to a worldwide epidemic. She’d recently finished a tour in the United States, and her intention was to locate an apartment and stay in town a bit longer to work on songs.

She returned to Melbourne after “it all got really wild.” Barnett finally had time to stop and reflect for the first time in six years, since her 2016 song Avant Gardener cemented her status as the newest “New Dylan.”

“There was a bit of a personal shift of some sort in my brain,” she says via Zoom, gingerly, from a sparse-looking room with no evidence. “I noticed that I was opening up in a new way.”

Even before the virus wrecked havoc on her profession, Barnett’s personal life had been torn apart. Jen Cloher, with whom she co-founded Milk! Records in 2012, had left their relationship in 2018. (the business partnership remains intact). There had apparently been “some deaths,” but she did not specify who they were. “I was just checking in with myself on a deeper level than I had previously done.”

Barnett has a habit of speaking in broad strokes with extended pauses, sometimes repeating herself in quest of a better term. It’s not difficult to see why. Her first album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, and her first two EPs (released as A Sea of Split Peas in 2013), made her one of the most talked-about Australian songwriters of her age, garnering her a Grammy nomination for best new artist. She was also a hit on the American talk-show circuit.

Things Take Time, Take Time is the title of Barnett’s third album. Lyrically, it’s a return to her early EPs, which were chatty and verbose. Words – a lot of them – spill forth, reassuring and comforting. “Are you warm when you sleep, and can you feel my cold feet?” On Sunfair Sundown, she inquires, “Are you good, are you making ends meet?”

Given the pair’s common history of creating songs with, to, and about each other, several of the tracks – particularly the second hit, Before You Gotta Go – may be interpreted as being dedicated to Cloher. However, Barnett asserts that it’s both more general and more difficult than that, in between extended pauses.

“I’ve heard it referred to as a breakup song, and I don’t want to say who’s right or wrong, but I think it diminishes the song’s intention,” she adds. “It’s more all-encompassing, and I feel like it would do a disservice to the song for me to box it into one moment, or one person.”

It emanates generosity, regardless of who it was written for – “one of the album’s biggest unspoken themes,” she adds. “It’s about relationships, but it’s also about friendships, and not clinging to regret,” the song says. It has the sense of a global song to me. It’s one of my favorite songs I’ve ever written, and I’m quite proud of it.”

The songs are all oriented outwards, to other people, according to Barnett, who composed most of the album as if she were putting a “comforting arm [around] a friend.” The music is also quieter, which is due in part to the studio environment: “I was writing in a flat, so it was kind of quiet because I didn’t want angry neighbors.”

Barnett, on the other hand, was finding solace in the cyclical rhythms of the drum machine she used to accompany her acoustic guitar. She found refuge in the music of Arthur Russell, Leonard Cohen, and Brian Eno while she was at home. “I was creating music that I wanted to listen to – music that was calm, repetitive, and very soothing.”

She forwarded the tracks to Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa, who agreed to co-produce the album with her. It was recorded without Barnett’s normal partners, drummer Dave Mudie and bassist Bones Sloane, in Sydney in the summer of 2020–21. (they have resumed their usual roles on tour, with Mozgawa joining the group, now back in the US).

The tunes have more sparkle live, she claims. “I like making music that is loud, violent, and disconnected, and I enjoy the fact that songs may have several lives. So I’m sure they’ll grow a little quicker, a little more energetic, and a little more rowdy. But maintaining that feeling of tranquility in check was what I wanted the recorded version to sound like.”

Being forced to come to a halt in the midst of a fire and a pestilence offered Barnett perspective. “There was a lot of time for reflection and gratitude, and for thinking about those things fully and truly, not just as a passing fad. Just to have a better understanding of what those terms entail.”

“You seem so stable, but you’re just hanging on / Let go that expectation, change the station, find out what you want,” Barnett sings on the debut song, Rae Street. It might be addressed to anybody struggling to make sense of the times, but it represented Barnett’s personal state of mind before returning home more than any other song on Things Take Time, Take Time.

“I think it was just a letting go of structure – maybe just a different relationship to life and death, and accepting all the things you can’t control,” she adds. “Time requires patience in order to appreciate each of those moments and how we respond to them. That, I believe, was my most important lesson, as well as the album’s most important lesson.”

Thanks to at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.

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