Several of the songs on Ali Barter’s A Suitable Girl begin with a simple drubbing electric guitar and a driving hi-hat, almost like the idling of a car before it takes off. Barter’s voice joins the fray, delicate but powerful – her especial distinction – and the song charges, even if it’s slow, headlong and strong. “I have a very simple guitar-playing style,” the singer-songwriter explains. “It’s kind of a chuggy thing. I usually start with a simple chord, and that’s my base. I experiment with other guitar-playing styles, but I wanted this record to be sort of pop-punk. Really kind of energetic. I wanted it to be upbeat.”
And it is, from the spry and sardonic anthem Girlie Bits through to the apologetic lament of Please Stay – they’re the two sides of the same coin. “Both of those songs are the most honest things I’ve ever written,” Barter says. “I think Please Stay is way more personal… Girlie Bits is about a day I had [where] I was frustrated about how uncomfortable I felt in my femaleness, so it’s a bit more of a concept than Please Stay. But it’s always come from how I feel.”
A few months ago, Barter launched her The History Grrrls playlist, which she initially conceived as an addendum to Girlie Bits; it’s a compilation of tracks from all the female artists who inspire her own work. But a confluence of events really ignited it into being: during a History of Music course at her Uni, Barter questioned her professor as to why there were no female musicians amongst the artists the students were studying. The Uni pushed back, Barter wrote an Op Ed piece on the subject, and the playlist was born. “I still had this idea rolling around in my head: if school’s not going to teach me about these incredible women then I’m going to learn about them,” explains Barter. “It’s been really great for me because I get to learn about these amazing things! And the response has been so nice.” The list includes Hole, PJ Harvey, Bikini Kill, Erykah Badu, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Madonna and many more.
Meanwhile, A Suitable Girl (named for Barter’s mother’s favourite book by Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy – a beautiful, episodic tale revolving around an arranged marriage) was being pieced together by Barter and her producer, husband Oscar Dawson (Holy Holy). The pair have worked on Barter’s previous two releases, and it’s a dynamic which requires ongoing navigation, Barter says. “Is it tricky working with your partner? Always,” she confirms. “But we are really honest with each other, and I think that’s the best thing. Sometimes I work with other people and I realise I don’t talk back much to them. We obviously have real mutual respect for each other in what we do.
“But you have to know when you’re saying something because you really think it, or because you want to be right,” she smiles. “Which I guess often happens in a relationship, or a friendship – any partnership. We had this record mixed by somebody else, ‘cause it’s helpful to have a third party. Then Oscar and I gave our opinions, and sometimes it was that situation. So that was an interesting process, and probably the hardest part of making this record – but one that was really great to go through.”
A Suitable Girl is out now via Inertia.