Courtney Barnett: You Must Be Having So Much Fun. Everything’s Amazing.
Mike Greenhaus | July 10, 2018
Courtney Barnett can sum up her current world view in a single breath: “hopefulessness.” Like many of her best zingers, it’s a sharp, quick-witted descriptor that’s both biting and playful, pairing well with the updated slacker-rock riffs that have always helped Barnett’s slice-of-life observations roll off the tongue so easily. She even used her new, soon-to-be hashtagable word as the title of the first song on her sophomore release, Tell Me How You Really Feel—a deep meditation on confusion and communication in the modern age, masked as an infectious set of simple rock songs.
“Whether it was an altercation with someone, a relationship or a bigger political issue, I noticed that a lot of the problems that kept coming up went back to communication,” the 30-year- old Australian singer/guitarist says of the moody track. “It wasn’t something I was purposefully writing about; it was just what was on my mind, and I was trying to understand it all.”
Early on, she considered closing the new LP with “Hopefulessness” but, eventually, she decided to switch things around so that the record creeps in on a darker note and comes around to a brighter horizon by the time she reaches the album’s wistful, yet new-dawn finale, “Sunday Roast.” That’s not to say that Barnett considers “Hopefulessness” to be a totally sad song either, but it does dive right into her anger with these complicated, emotional times while wading into some righteous shoegaze fuzz. At one point, she even paraphrases Nelson Mandela.
“It’s that struggle between feeling hopeful, or wanting to feel hopeful, and feeling hopeless,” she admits with a flash of her small but warm smile. “It could be any time, really, but the last few years have been so full of these things.”
At the moment, though, Barnett has good reason to embrace the hopeful part of the her new emotive mash-up.
It’s a mid-May afternoon near the end of a relentlessly dreary, never-ending winter, and Barnett is hunched over and passively rocking back and forth on a barstool at a restaurant in New York’s hip Bowery Hotel. Earlier in the day, she officially released Tell Me How You Really Feel, after blasting through her upbeat and at times grungy single “Nameless, Faceless” on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon the night before. Tina Fey also sat on the couch during the program.
Barnett and her band went for dinner and drinks after their talk-show taping, so she’s feeling a bit “dopey” today. Dressed in her uniform—a denim shirt and black jeans— and sporting a purple baseball cap with a koala on it, she looks rock star enough for a preppy woman sipping her glass of wine to not-so-subtly inch closer to eavesdrop as Barnett digs into her three-year lag between solo releases. But she doesn’t scream famous enough for the bartender to stop his casual conversation with another customer from seeping into the interview. Nearby, New York University is in the middle of its commencement ceremonies and there’s a palpable air of celebration in the area; the streets are filled with students sporting purple caps and gowns.
Barnett has a few of her own celebrations on tap, too, including an interactive art- happening at a Downtown New York space later in the day and an intimate album-release show at a venue she’s long outgrown, Brooklyn’s Music Hall of Williamsburg, the next night.
“We put an invite out to a couple of visual artists—gave them the brief on Tell Me How You Really Feel and gave them some film—and they created these really diverse and interesting little collections of photos, and I love it,” she says of that evening’s presentation, while fidgeting with a magazine laying on the bar. “It’s been so cool seeing people’s interpretations and stories because it’s obviously so broad. And there are these red telephones you pick up and you can hear someone talking to you. When we launched the album, we had a little box on my website and people could say how they really felt so we recorded a bunch of them [and] a couple of people read them out loud. They’re beautiful and really varied. Some are funny and some are silly, and some of them are vulnerable and sad.”