Courtney Barnett: Taking her time

At the beginning of 2020, while her home country burned and the rest of the world was waking up to a global pandemic, Courtney Barnett was in Los Angeles. She’d just completed an American tour; her plan was to find herself an apartment and stick around a little longer to work on songs.

Then – after “it all got really wild” – she came home to Melbourne. For maybe the first time in six years – since her 2016 hit Avant Gardener turned her into the newest “New Dylan” – Barnett finally had time to sit and think. “There was a bit of a personal shift of some sort in my brain,” she says carefully over Zoom, from a Spartan-looking room that offers no clues. “I felt myself opening up in a different way.”

Barnett’s personal life had been riven with upheaval, even beyond the virus that wreaked havoc on her industry. Her relationship with Jen Cloher, with whom she founded her label Milk! Records in 2012, had ended in 2018 (the business partnership remains intact). There had also been “some deaths” – she doesn’t say whom. “I was just checking in with myself, on a different level than I maybe had done previously.”

Barnett is prone to talking in broad brush strokes, with long pauses, sometimes repeating herself in search of a better choice of words. It’s easy to understand why. Her first two EPs (released in 2013 as A Sea Of Split Peas) and debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit turned her into one of the most talked-about Australian songwriters of her generation, earning her a Grammy nomination for best new artist. She also became a darling of the American chat-show circuit.

Barnett’s third album is called Things Take Time, Take Time. Lyrically, it’s a throwback to her conversational, verbose early EPs. Words – lots of them – tumble out, offering reassurance and comfort. “When you sleep, are you warm, can you feel my cold feet? Are you good, are you making ends meet?” she asks on Sunfair Sundown.

Many of the songs – especially the second single, Before You Gotta Go – could be construed as being addressed to Cloher, given the pair’s shared history of writing songs with, to and about each other. But Barnett insists that it’s both more universal and more complicated than that.

“I’ve heard a few people refer to it as a breakup song, and I don’t want to say that anyone’s wrong or right, but I think it diminishes the intention of the song,” she says. “It’s more all-encompassing, and I feel like it would do a disservice to the song for me to box it into one moment, or one person.”

Regardless of who it was intended for, it radiates kindness – “One of the biggest unspoken themes of the album,” she says. The song itself “is about relationships, but it’s also about friendships, and not clinging on to regret. I feel like it’s a universal song. It’s one of my favourite songs that I’ve written, and I’m so proud of it.”

Barnett says she wrote much of the album as though she were extending a “comforting arm [around] a friend”; the songs are all directed outwards, to other people. The music is also softer, partly a product of the space in which it was written: “I was writing in a flat, so it was kind of quiet because I didn’t want angry neighbours.”

But in a way, Barnett was seeking comfort herself, centring herself in the cyclical patterns of the drum machine she used to accompany her acoustic guitar. At home, she sought solace in the music of Arthur Russell, Leonard Cohen and Brian Eno. “I was making the music I wanted to listen to – calm, repetitive, very comforting music”.

She sent the demos to Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa, eventually asking her to co-produce the album. It was recorded in Sydney in the summer of 2020–21, without Barnett’s usual collaborators, drummer Dave Mudie and bass player Bones Sloane (they have resumed their usual roles on tour, with Mozgawa joining the group, now back in the US).

Live, she says, the songs have more fizz. “I love playing loud and aggressive and disjointed music, and I love that songs can have different lives. So I’m sure they’ll get a bit faster, get a bit more energy, get a bit more raucous. But what I wanted the recorded version to sound like was keeping in check with that sense of calmness.”

Being forced to stop, amid fire and plague, gave Barnett perspective. “There was a whole lot of time for reflection, and to be grateful, and to consider those things wholly and truly, not just as a kind of fleeting buzzword. Just to really understand what those things mean.”

On Rae Street, the first single, Barnett sings: “You seem so stable, but you’re just hanging on / Let go that expectation, change the station, find out what you want”. It could be addressed to anyone fighting their way through the times, but perhaps more than any other song on Things Take Time, Take Time, it reflected Barnett’s own state of mind before coming home.

“I think it was just a letting go of structure – maybe just a different relationship to life and death, and accepting all the unknown things that you cannot control,” she says. “Time needs patience – taking each of those moments and how we react to them. I think that was my biggest lesson, and the biggest lesson of the album.”

First published in the Guardian, 6 November 2021

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