Courtney Barnett Turns Over a New Leaf

At the start of 2020, Courtney Barnett was looking forward to a year of open-ended songwriting, with just one proviso. “It’s important to remember to live and to experience and to have something real to write about,” she told Rolling Stone in an interview that January. “Not just to sit in a room and write an album for the sake of making an album.”

Barnett laughs when she’s reminded of that conversation now. “That’s funny,” the Australian singer-songwriter, 33, says on a call from her home in Melbourne. “Very ironic … Whether I liked it or not, that’s what the world gave us. It’s probably the most quiet year I’ve ever had.”

The album that she spent most of 2020 sitting in a room and writing is called Things Take Time, Take Time, and it will arrive this November 12th on Mom + Pop Music and Marathon Artists. For fans of Barnett’s distinctive songwriting, it’s a rich reward, full of the sly observations on the peaks and valleys of everyday life that have made her one of the past decade’s most beloved indie artists. There are surprises in store, too: The 10 songs on the album shine in a newly revealing light, mostly stripped of the crunching rock-band sound that filled her first two solo LPs, and presented instead in a form that feels closer to the radical honesty of a solo bedroom tape. It just might be the most personal record yet from an artist who’s already given the world plenty of emotional truth.

Barnett describes Things Take Time, Take Time as an album about finding “some sort of joy and gratitude, out of some sort of pain and sadness” — a new morning after a dark night. “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To,” a bright, jangly highlight of the new LP, is a good example of what she means.

She’d begun writing new songs shortly after the spring 2018 release of her second solo album, the turbulent Tell Me How You Really Feel, but ended up discarding most of them after a while. “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To” was one of the first songs she kept. It arrived toward the end of 2019, at a time when she was feeling deeply distraught for reasons that included a devastating bushfire season in Australia.

“I was just really sad,” she recalls. “I was in a really dark place, and a friend told me … They didn’t know how to help me. They said, ‘Why don’t you try to write a list of positive things in your life that you’re looking forward to?’ At the time, I was like, ‘Nothing. There’s nothing I’m looking forward to.’”

Her friend kept pushing, and eventually Barnett came up with enough items to fill “like, 25 verses,” which she later pared down to the two-minute-plus mini-anthem that appears on Things Take Time, Take Time. “Sit beside me, watch the world burn,” she sings over upbeat chords. “I love that the song feels so fun,” Barnett says. “It sounds like you’re driving across a highway and it’s sunny. I love the juxtaposition of those things.”

She went on to play a pair of bushfire relief fundraisers in the early weeks of 2020, then flew to the U.S. for a short solo tour that ended with a benefit show in Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day. By the time she got back to Melbourne, the new threat of Covid meant that she had to self-quarantine. Without anywhere of her own to stay, she crashed at a friend’s empty apartment. “I ended up staying there for the whole year,” she says. “It was this amazing little flat, and it had these beautiful big windows and big light. I was really lucky to get that place.”

As the reality of lockdown sank in, Barnett learned to cook, subscribed to the Criterion Channel, got deeper into the films of Agnes Varda and Andrei Tarkovsky, read books she’d been meaning to tackle, and painted watercolor scenes. “I had a lot of grand plans,” she says with a laugh. Mostly, though, she sat by the window, drinking coffee and playing acoustic guitar.

One of the sweetest songs on the new album, “Turning Green,” reflects that experience directly in its lyrics, which hint at renewed hopes after a low season (“The trees are turning green/And this springtime lethargy/Is kinda forcing you to see/Flowers in the weeds”). “I sat by that window, and there was a huge tree at the front, so I watched the seasons change,” Barnett says. “I guess it’s also metaphorical. There’s something so joyous about that song. You feel that the characters have been through some sort of transformation, and they’ve come out on the other side.”

The album’s first single, “Rae Street,” began with a writing exercise rooted in old memories. “One day I made a list of all the phrases that I could remember my parents saying,” she says. The enigmatic adage in the chorus — “Time is money, and money is no man’s friend” — comes from something her father used to say, repurposed for a period of extended reflection.

When Barnett was ready to record some demos, she turned to a vintage Roland CR-8000 drum machine that she’d picked up a few years earlier after a visit to Wilco’s instrument-filled Chicago loft. “It’s analog and a little bit clunky,” says Barnett, who describes herself as “addicted to cute little drum machines.”

She’d never taken the time to learn how to use this one properly (“I would just pick a beat and be done with it”), but now she had nothing but time. So she called her friend Stella Mozgawa — the Warpaint drummer who had played drums on Lotta Sea Lice, Barnett’s 2017 duets album with Kurt Vile — and got a tutorial. Soon she and Mozgawa were trading playlists of artists who’d made innovative use of programmed rhythms, from Arthur Russell to Yo La Tengo. “It felt fun and it felt exciting,” Barnett says. “That steady drum machine does something to my brain that makes it feel calm and safe.” Realizing that Mozgawa was “the perfect musical match,” Barnett invited her to co-produce her next LP. 

In December 2020, she and Mozgawa met up at Golden Retriever Studios in Sydney to begin recording. At this point in her process, Barnett would have normally called in her live bandmates and put the drum machine back on its shelf. “I think I just told myself that was for demos, and when you went to the studio you got a real drummer and kept it real,” she says. “I was adamant about that.”

This time, though, she wanted to preserve the meditative magic of her home demos. Many of the songs wound up featuring lo-fi beats programmed by Mozgawa on various drum machines, along with live drums from Mozgawa, vocals and guitar from Barnett, bass parts from both, and more. “It’s pretty much just us,” Barnett says. “It feels so alive to me, like it’s all happening at once.”

“Turning Green” went through a long journey before taking its final form as a spare motorik groove, just a bass and a drum machine, that blossoms after two minutes into a spiky guitar solo. “I loved that melody so much when I found it, but when I took it to the studio and showed it to Stella, it didn’t sound right,” Barnett says. “It sounded like one of my other songs or something. Stella said, ‘Why don’t we pull the song apart and turn it upside down?’ … I love the song that it became. It allows the lyrics to exist in this very bare environment. Not sugarcoated.”

Other songs came into focus elsewhere. “Here’s the Thing,” the gorgeously floating ballad that’s one of the album’s centerpieces (“I’m not afraid of heights/Maybe I’m just scared of falling”), began with Barnett idly playing guitar while she watched TV at home. She captured the vocal take later, on a trip to the country in northern New South Wales. “We were staying near this huge mountain,” she recalls. “It was the most beautiful environment. There’s something so special about those vocals.”

Soon, Barnett will hit the road for her first shows since early 2020, beginning with some solo dates this month in New Zealand; in November, around the album’s release, she’ll arrive in North America for a full-band tour that stretches through next February. She’s looking forward to touring again and seeing how her songs change shape. “Over the years, there’s going to be other versions of these songs, as I play them live with the band,” she says. “They’ll start sounding different again. They always do.”

In the meantime, she has a new album she’s excited to share with the world soon. “On the one hand, nothing was happening to me last year,” she says. “But at the same time, so much was happening! There’s that lyric in ‘Turning Green’ about flowers in the weeds — as in, finding beauty in a place where you least expect it. That’s my ongoing lesson for myself.”

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