Courtney Barnett’s new album Tell Me How You Really Feel might be instructing the singer herself as much as it is her audience because about two minutes into our interview she does in fact tell me how she really feels.
“I think if it was up to me I probably wouldn’t be doing this interview right now.”
To be honest, that’s fair enough. Our interview at Barnett’s Milk! Records warehouse in Melbourne’s northern suburb of Brunswick comes at the end of a long album cycle to promote Tell Me How You Really Feel. It’s the follow-up to the singer’s wildly successful debut album (which was also filled with wry observations and self-aware neuroses) Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, and comes loaded with expectation.
“Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you,” sings Barnett during one of the most memorable moments on her first album. That fear of failure is something Barnett still wrestles with.
“It’s kind of an internal constant – and it’s not just about music – it’s about everything,” Barnett says. “It’s about life in general and relationships and jobs … It’s definitely a feeling that holds pretty strong.”
That internal struggle remained a challenge when writing Tell Me How You Really Feel, but pushing past some personal demons was ultimately a cathartic process.
“It was a lot of facing internal stuff, which I maybe didn’t want to deal with … psychological things. Personal things,” says Barnett. “I definitely came out of the process feeling lighter.”
Those feelings have changed and shifted since the album was released.
“The meanings of songs and lyrics have changed even in [the] months and in the last year since writing them, and it’s a nice, constantly [shifting] thing,” says Barnett.
One message on the album’s centrepiece, Nameless Faceless, though, has only solidified.
“I wanna walk through the park in the dark. Men are scared that women will laugh at them,” sings Barnett during the song’s chorus. “I wanna walk through the park in the dark. Women are scared that men will kill them.”
It’s a line Barnett adapted from a quote she heard and then learned was by Margaret Atwood, the author of The Handmaid’s Tale. Although Nameless Faceless was written before the rape and murder of young Melbourne comedian Eurydice Dixon, Barnett says for her the meaning of the line has now intensified.
“It was almost too scarily and sadly fitting for the song,” she says. “Now I think that feeling will always be there.”
And while the themes and rage of that song have solidified in the weeks since Dixon’s passing, that doesn’t mean the message gets through to everyone who hears it.
“I’ve noticed that [during] that song there’s always this slightly aggressive mini male mosh pit that I keep seeing at shows,” says Barnett. “[People are] kind of aggressive and unaware of their surroundings, and people turn around and give them the look at the gig that means ‘Hey, don’t do that’.”
Aside from ironic moments of male aggression, Barnett ultimately finds the mutability of songs and their meanings fascinating.
“That’s kind of a strange and beautiful part of performing, I think. Depending on what mood I’m in or what happened that day or whatever the thing in the news is, it can just totally change the kind of energy of the song and how it’s performed,” she says.
“That’s the same for the audience. Whatever they are going through in that exact moment, whether it’s pain or happiness or something else in-between, that shapes the song and the way they hear it. So I just don’t think anyone can interpret one song in the one way – which is kind of a nice thing.”
Tell Me How You Really Feel is out now on Milk! Records.
Courtney Barnett tours Australia in August and September. Information and tickets here.