Upon reflection, my relatively brief conversation with Courtney Barnett over the phone made one thing very clear to me: Tell Me How You Really Feel isn’t just a title that neatly sums up the content of Courtney’s second and latest LP, it’s also a phrase that applies to her way of thinking.

Courtney’s music conjures an image of her as a detached yet thoughtful dreamer, just as likely to get lost in the minutiae of a situation as to construct a clear, focussed narrative that concisely confronts a large issue. Whichever way she spins it, topics are usually approached with a particularly Australian delivery and a whole lot of wit.

Her responses to my questions typically start with a thoughtful pause and end with a simple truth, as if a more complicated answer is boiled down to its rawest form before leaving her lips. When I begin to probe about her days as an up-and-comer in the Melbourne music scene and what her goals were in those days before international stardom, the first simple truth emerges along with a laugh. “Um, I guess it was just to, you know, just do it all the time. It’s what I’ve always been interested in. Which I guess that kind of means a career…I kind of created my life to revolve around it…so I always kind of had part-time jobs…just kind of enough to get by. You know, the bare minimum, so that I could just do what I wanted to do.”

Courtney’s thoughts on how younger musicians might get an edge in the intimidating pursuit of a career in music are similarly direct. “It’s the most obvious advice; if you wanna play music then play music and don’t dwell on it. I think I spent a lot of time kind of worrying about the future and how to do this and that instead of just sitting down and writing, and not thinking about what kind of song you’re writing and who’s gonna hear it, just kind of get on with it and don’t worry about the outcome.”

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We then talk about her rise as an independent artist, and the pros and cons that come with that independence. “I think the benefits are doing it on your own terms and in your own time, and not [being] pressured or manipulated by anyone. The pitfalls are, um…I think it’s just a lot of work,” she emphasises before further clarifying her perspective, “but that’s fine as well. Life is hard work, so it’s just another step.”

It seems to me that Courtney’s humble honesty is the backbone of her career. This is a thought that never struck me when I first fell in love with Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, but now seems obvious after diving into Tell Me How You Really Feel. I tell her that I see the latter album as more focused and concise- particularly lyrically- and ask if she consciously tried to change her songwriting habits for this one. “I think it was very natural. I mean, it still feels very stream-of-consciousness to me, or the writing process definitely was. Maybe…somewhere along the way and in the editing it kind of tightened out a bit or something. A lot of the way I wrote it was just kind of endless flows of thought with no real direction or goal. I think it always produces something different and something interesting.”

We then chat for a while about the Melbourne music scene and her label Milk! Records, and I ask what she thinks is unique about the Australian scene now that she has international perspective. “Any music scene that exists is a powerful thing, you know? A community of people come together and share music and share ideas and knowledge, and I think that that is a really incredible thing. What I’ve found being part of the Melbourne music scene over the years is how supportive and encouraging it is. I’ve seen this circle of inspiration. People kind of inspiring each other to be better and try different things. Yeah, that sharing of ideas- musical ideas and political ideas- it’s a really powerful thing.”

As Courtney has now been touring this album for a while, I ask how performing the new material compares to the older stuff. “Songs change so much over time and with so many elements involved, you know, time and perspective and different emotions. The new songs have been really fun to perform because it’s kind of this whole new battlefield. But then, in saying that, the old songs…I think they’re constantly evolving, so there’s always something interesting to find.”

As we move on to the topic of Courtney’s upcoming tour of New Zealand, the intrepid artist reveals that she took one of her first overseas holidays here while laughing her easy laugh. “We love playing there. The crowds have always been really great, and it’s just so beautiful traveling around and meeting people…this one will be really special, I think.”

‘Tell me how you really feel’ is a phrase most often applied sarcastically and in response to a person that is incapable of restraining a hot opinion. On Courtney Barnett’s latest album it pops up in the middle of a song called Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence. In the context of the song, the phrase appears to be directed toward a drunken character who can’t keep their opinions private. Following the line is the refrain, “I don’t know, I don’t know anything. I don’t owe, I don’t owe anything.” Whether this chorus lyric specifically refers to Courtney’s character or the drunkard isn’t clear to me, but either way it rips a simple truth right out of a complicated situation. This is what Courtney does when she writes, and- as I discovered over the course of a short phone call- this is also what Courtney does when she speaks; she simply and sincerely tells us how she really feels. So when she says this tour’s going to be special, I can’t help but believe her.


Courtney Barnett is playing three shows in New Zealand late this month with East Brunswick All Girls Choir in support. They play Auckland at the Powerstation on the 28th and 29th August, and Wellington on the 30th at the Opera House. Tickets available here.




JACK LEONARD is a Cinema and Media graduate with a penchant for dogs that look like wolves. He’s a music enthusiast who divides his time evenly between consuming unhealthy amounts of media and getting lost in forests.