The sensitive, homespun, folk-punk-rock attitudes of Courtney Barnett’s music have made her a champion of the Aussie everyperson, and ensured there are plenty of fans waiting for her second album Tell Me How You Really Feel. We asked the singer-songwriter how one of the year’s most anticipated records came together.
Opener Hopefulessness starts with a droning cello noise and ends with a kettle whistle. Are these details things you imagined specifically for the first song of the record?
That’s just how that song kind of ended up. I loved it but I always kind of envisaged that song at the end. I think it’s because it’s slow, and long, and tunes out. It’s maybe a cliched idea to put that at the end. Then Jen [Cloher, partner and musician] suggested it should go at the start and I was like, no, but then I tried it and it was kind of perfect. [The drone is] a double bass bow on my guitar; it makes this beautiful, orchestral kind of sound. I thought it really set the mood. It’s a nice, slow kind of open; the rest of the band slowly comes in and it opens itself up.
Speaking of final songs, the album closer is the beautifully contemplative Sunday Roast. You change the drumkit rhythm just before it fades out, to a lively double-time. Does that present an opportunity for a jam when you come to play it live?
Well, it will be interesting how that works out… ‘cause obviously you can’t do a fade-out live. We start rehearsals tomorrow for the tour, so I don’t know yet. That’s the really exciting, magic part: re-learning the songs and seeing what happens to them, because they always change so much. A lot of parts were still being figured out in the studio, and were made up on the spot.
So during studio time, you don’t reject or blunt any ideas just because they might not be practical live?
No. I think sometimes it might come up in conversation – ‘you could do it like this live’ – but I think for the most part, I try not to think about it, so it doesn’t limit you. And you can always do it in a different way. I’ve performed as a three-piece for the last year or two, and all of my songs are a four-plus-piece recording. So, you know, I think that songs just adapt to what’s available. I try not to let it restrict anything.
In Nameless, Faceless, the chromatically falling opening riff is a bit like a jokey circus set-up, but the chorus has these deadly serious chords. Did you write it this way as a reflection of the Margaret Atwood quote in the chorus lyrics – as in the ‘humour’ (“women will laugh at them”) versus the serious danger (“men will kill them”)?
No; instrumentally, that song started out as three separate songs, and they were pushed together. That first part was a bit comical, and then the verse is comical as well – just a bit tacky and a bit cheesy. So, all of that came before any of the lyrics or any of the song idea. I actually struggled putting lyrics to it, it was kind of silly but serious. I didn’t want to undermine the seriousness of the subject matter by making it this cheesy-sounding thing. So, it was kind of hard to balance.
Help Your Self has some great, patient guitar melody lines, and then some weird percussion that might be a cowbell or a woodblock. What’s that sound?
I think there’s a glass jar or a coffee mug. Burke Reid [coproducer, engineer] and I got together a year before [official recording] and recorded other versions of all these songs, and we were messing around to that exact song with a whole bunch of percussion. I had already done a bunch of tambourine stuff, and cowbell can sometimes be a bit obnoxious. He was like, “I’ve got it!” And so we spent an hour going through each kitchen mug to find one that was in the right key. We put water in and out of it, so it would pitch up or pitch down. Yeah, it was a whole process. And then when we came back around to recording the actual album and doing it all again, I think that Dan [Luscombe, keys] did it in the end. I think I took videos of him doing it ‘cause it looked so funny.
Tell Me How You Really Feel is out May 18 via Milk!/Remote Control.Buy now at JB Hi-Fi
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