On her debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Australian musician Courtney Barnett established herself as a wordsmith — a crafty, sincere, and delicate narrator. But she was also a bombastic rockstar, one with an impressive ability to deliver lyrics like “I wanna go out but I wanna stay home” without ever coming across as indifferent.
Those qualities are still center stage on Tell Me How You Really Feel, her second solo record. It feels like a natural progression for Barnett, an artist who has mastered a signature style that often seems in conflict with itself — her delivery is chill while her sound is anything but. On her new songs, particularly, she is raw and angry about the state of the world, which comes across via punk-influenced textures, references to Margaret Atwood, and a general sonic explosiveness. But her lyrics are still blunt and expressed somewhat flatly. She’s like the Aubrey Plaza of the music world.
Making Tell Me How You Really Feel required a lot of digging, Barnett explained to me on a recent visit to Los Angeles. The finished product, out May 18 on the label that she created to release her first EP, showcases her as someone insatiably curious about the human psyche. Unlike her debut, it doesn’t often use storytelling as a device, and is generally more unadulterated when it comes to Barnett expressing the way she — and the characters that orbit her — think and feel.
There's an especially shattering lyrical admission near the album's close, on “Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack of Confidence,” a song that feels instantly anthemic. “I don’t know anything,” Barnett sings. That’s a pretty devastating thing to come up after espousing so much emotion.
Tonally, Tell Me How You Really Feel — your new album title — can be said in different ways. How do you mean it?
It’s flexible. It’s mostly earnest. I don’t think I would personally say it in the sarcastic sense that much. But I like that it has that.
The album feels very self-soothing, like you’re talking to yourself. But there are lots of different perspectives, too — yous, shes, and hes. Is it all you, ultimately?
In a way. A lot of it is about other people. In observing situations, I pick up on my own patterns and emotions from other people. Like, I would notice someone doing a recurring thing or recurring action and be like, “Why did they do that?” Part of that frustration is my own reaction to it. Why would I find this so annoying?
As opposed to the first record, where so much of the lyrical content is anecdotal, you do a really difficult thing here by talking about raw emotions without that. You talk about direct feelings without using a story or example.
A lot of it is not knowing or being aware. Trying to discover things. You can only be so honest with yourself, anyway. My mind only lets me be so honest, in a protective way.
Was that approach more challenging?
It was. It wasn’t as linear. It didn’t have the restriction. You could just go off on whatever tangent. I had to reign it in so it wasn’t flying all over the place. I had a couple of different stations to keep it different. I edited a whole lot. I wrote so much and would underline parts, write down all the underlined parts, then print them out. I have all these reams of paper with random lines and sentences. It didn’t really make sense.
"I was watching a lot of detective shows. I think that’s where the psychology element comes from, [the desire] to understand behaviors.”
Was there something you were listening to or watching while writing?
I was listening to a lot of instrumental music. I was listening to Elliott Smith, Sparklehorse, Solange, Blood Orange. I was watching a lot of detective shows. I think that’s where the psychology element comes from, [the desire] to understand behaviors.
Are you the friend who is always psychologizing someone?
Maybe not. I’m so much less judgmental than some of my friends and some of the people I know. I think I’m pretty open. I like to learn and try to understand the behaviors and where they come from, seeing how the longer you follow a cycle the more trapped you are in it. I think it’s just interesting to know and not do the same thing again.
Tell Me How You Really Feel feels very much of this time. There’s an element to it that feels very political — writing about men, a Margaret Atwood quote. But the way you go about it is so personal that it never feels over the top. Is that something you think about?
I think it is out of necessity and not out of trying to prove something. I mean, it’s hard because I find it really inspiring when people say political things, because I think it is powerful and bold and a scary thing. But it’s hard to get the tone right. It [can] sound didactic and self-righteous. Look at me, I’m so right. I struggle with that.
Can you talk about the tension between your soft, sincere lyrics and the harshness of the music itself?
I love that contrast. I’ve always enjoyed that. Even in “Nameless Places” — the poppy verse, the chimey guitar... the counterbalance of more serious words versus candy guitar or poppy songs.
You got the Deal sisters [of The Breeders] involved. How did that happen?
Me and Kim are friends. I had sung a little bit of one of their songs on their last album. She just kept saying that she had to repay me a favor. I said, ‘Well, can you please sing on this song?’ They sing the “Tell me how you really feel” line. In all the rehearsals, I never said it outloud; I think a part of me thought it was a bit silly, the line, the way it’s done. It’s a bit cheesy in the greatest way. I sent her that song and was like, ‘Maybe some harmonies in the chorus?’ She did it exactly how I heard it in my head. I think it was meant to be.
This is the first album that you use your face as the artwork rather than a cartoon. Was there an intention there?
I just hadn’t been drawing at all, really. When it got time to do the artwork, I was in bit of a rut. I always leave things to the last minute. I didn’t have any drawings but I had all these photographs. I had done this self-portrait series and I found that photo. I just thought it was so perfect. I liked how it was awkwardly propped. I pretty much just scanned it and put the words on it. I like that it’s kind of imperfect. I can’t quite determine the look in my eyes, which I think is suitable for the title.
On both this record and on Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit there’s an awareness of contemporary self-care practices, like meditation and breathing. Obviously that’s trendy and important — but is it important for you in your life?
In the last couple of years or year, I’ve found it interesting. I’ve had a lot of anxiety. Everyone gets anxiety, but just learning how to cope with it. I had some vocal issues from touring so much and I had to see a speech therapist and learn how to breathe properly. I’ve always been cynical of stuff like that, but again, even that attitude is interesting. People are like, “Ugh. Why do those people eat healthy?” It’s like, Why not? What’s wrong with being healthy? I think the person being cynical just feels a bit guilty that they’re not taking the time to do that themselves.
Because this record feels so in dialogue with yourself, were there moments of like, “Oh, I just learned something about myself?”
Constantly. One big learning thing. I think that’s my main quest, for knowledge.
There’s this lyric in “Charity” — I wrote it down. You repeat, “Everything is amazing,” which struck me as something we usually tell ourselves when everything is terrible.
I wanted to call that song “Cropping out the Sadness.” Almost like Instagram — cropping out the bad bits of our lives. It was a joke from Portlandia that I didn’t want to steal. I just thought it was the funniest sentence. It’s refusing to acknowledge the true circumstances of the situation.
How did you sequence this?
Jen, my girlfriend, helped me sequence the songs. She’s really good with it. It was a bit more musical. The narrative is almost secondary, but it ended up being perfect. The kind of ride that the narrative of the songs together goes on works. I feel really happy about it. It’s so important, I reckon, the sequence of an album.
I read that the opening track, “Hopelessness” was originally supposed to be the ending track. It has this optimism but also this cynicism.
Yeah. That’s the song title. That struggle between hopeful and hopeless. It’s a fine line.
Do you ever really know how you feel?
No. It’s too hard. There are too many options and conflicting thoughts. But I feel pretty good. Better than before.