Good Things Take Time For Indie-Rock Heroine Courtney Barnett
The Australian singer tells Karl Puschmann about squeezing in tours between lockdowns, her songwriting secrets and why we all need a little patience
Hard as it is to believe, it has been only four months since Australia’s Courtney Barnett was driving around and playing shows all over Aotearoa. It feels like a lifetime ago and it’s startling to realise how much our world has changed. Again.
Courtney slipped in during those precious months earlier this year when New Zealand was a Covid-free oasis. Thanks to the small footprint of the tour — herself, her multi-instrumentalist pal Stella Mozgawa and a tour manager — hers was one of the rare international tours that actually went ahead before our beautiful oasis revealed itself to be not much more than a mirage.
If you were fortunate enough to go to one of her shows, then you’ll know they felt transcendent. A reminder of the music and memories we’d lost when 2020’s level 4 lockdown forced everything to shut down but also an intoxicating glimpse at everything we could now look forward to as venues began to rock ’n’ roll back into life and musicians began stepping back onto stages around the country.
Certainly, the near-capacity crowd that had packed themselves into Mt Maunganui’s live music venue Totara Street on a brisk Thursday night in July were buzzing.
The accessible anxiety and real-world relatability of Courtney’s lyrics has earned her a legion of extremely devoted fans and continues to scoop up converts, but her audience here proved especially enamoured.
“It was lovely,” she smiles warmly over an oat-milk latte the morning after how show when Viva catches up with her at a cafe in Tauranga. “There were some really excited people. It’s a special thing. I feel like in the last year or two I’ve found a whole new level of gratitude for music-making and live music. I’m f***in’ travelling around, singing my songs to people. Is that my job? That’s so weird. But also so amazing.”
This new appreciation was borne out of her own lockdown experience in Melbourne, which saw her hunkering down in a friend’s flat.
“It was a long period. It was pretty strange. It’s the most time I’ve spent alone in my life,” she says, thinking back. “I’m grateful I had that flat. I was safe, I could work from home ...
“It was a journey. I think everyone was on their own internal journey in whatever their situation was around the world then. The people I was communicating with, my friends and family, I could see the pattern of the ups and downs. People being proactive and wanting to do all these things and then crashing. It’s hard to see people that you love going through those very extreme emotions.”
Wanting to keep things more level, Courtney resolved to take a different approach in coping with the tests of lockdown.
“I was like, ‘Well I’m not in control of this situation so I need to learn how to live with it, learn how to deal with it,’” she says. “I tried my best to learn something from it.”
What she learned became something of a mantra. And while she’d begun work on her new album it so dramatically impacted its creation and so influenced its direction that it became the title: Things Take Time, Take Time.
“A lot of the album was a lesson in patience,” she says. “It’s a very slow and patient album. Kind of calming, meditative, rhythmic. That’s why the drum machine stuff was so important to me, because it was such a juxtaposition to the anxiety and uncertainty. I found it calming. It’s such a subtle theme but it’s definitely part of it. The album kept me sane and kept me working and gave me something to work towards.
“But it’s an ongoing lesson of patience. So much of life is accepting that things just take time all the time. Relationships ... friendships. People come into your life and you’re sad that they go but then they might come back in again 10 years later. You’ve just got to accept that that happens.”
If we were hyperconnected before various lockdowns, our reliance on fast-moving technology has only accelerated during isolation. We’re always online as that’s the only way we’ve been able to communicate with people outside our walls. But it’s rewired our brains into wanting instant responses.
As a species humans have never been particularly patient but these days we really do want everything now. Slowing down and taking time is something that’s easier said than done.
“I think so, yeah,” she agrees. “That’s why it’s ongoing and something I feel I constantly have to deal with within myself. In those moments of frustration or wanting to get things done quickly — like needing an answer from someone’s text or email straight away — it’s seeing the situation for what it is; how important is this email answer? We’re just used to everything happening so quickly.”
Is she saying we all just need to chill out?
“Yeah,” she laughs, before elaborating on how she’s worked to slow herself down.
“I’m more and more aware that I don’t know anything. I’m accepting of that eternal search for knowledge, constantly learning new things and wanting to soak in as much as I can,” she says.
“Small things. Like patience is a very good one. It’s very important for everything in our lives. Things that frustrate me, maybe I have no patience for or maybe I need more empathy for other people. That’s a big one. Understanding why people act certain ways, where it comes from and then trying to give them time and patience and understanding. I think I’m one of those people — annoyingly so to friends — who’s always imagining myself in someone else’s situation.”
Then she smiles and says, “If everyone did that then it might be a nicer world instead of everyone reacting with defensiveness or anger.”
Then with a sigh she says, “It’s hard to do, I guess. Again, it’s constantly keeping it up.”
Nowhere do you see her tendency to put herself into other people’s shoes more than in her song lyrics. Her introspective musings on the minutiae of day-to-day life and more grounded take on love, loss and relationships act out almost as a conversation between two people.
She likens them to letters or, more revealingly, drafts of things she wishes she could say.
“That’s how a lot of songs start. I always find it so fascinating that the people you love the most or have the strongest relationships with, when they break apart suddenly you’re like strangers,” she says.
“Someone that you loved so much isn’t in your life anymore. I find that … it’s understandable, but it’s also hard to deal with. Everyone, everyone, has experienced that in some way or another. If it’s a lover or a friend or a strong relationship. But I think, again, it’s the patience thing. Sometimes those things just take time to heal. Then surely, eventually, they heal or those people come back around.”
Or, alternatively, you never see them again.
“Totally,” she acknowledges with a grin. “But I’m sure everything happens for some sort of reason. A lot of my songs end up being about communication or that struggle of communication. How to say something the right way. I think that’s a good thing. It’s good to understand what you want to say. Our minds are so good at protecting ourselves from getting hurt or getting embarrassed. That’s why we say horrible things or make excuses for whatever went wrong. Our brain just wants to protect ourselves. But once you recognise those little things you’re like, ‘Ooooh, I’m on to you, brain ... You’re not as clever as you think you are.’”
Because we all go through our own variations of the same universal things we can all recognise ourselves in her words. She gives us the conversations we wish we’d had instead of the lousy ones we actually did.
These “draft conversations” may be pulled from her life but she’s fairly confident she’s not saying things out loud that, perhaps, she shouldn’t.
“I take so long to write songs that I have time to judge if it’s something I might not want to say. It’s normally a gut instinct whether it feels right or wrong. For the most part if something feels vulnerable, as long as it’s not hurting someone else or it’s my own, I feel I can talk freely about my own experience and my own emotions because it is my own perspective. But I try not to project my s*** on to other people. Because it has the danger of … it’s kind of unfair. For the most part I’ve balanced it.”
Then with a knowing smile, she says, “They walk the line of being mysterious enough to not be too revealing.”
But still universal enough to connect?
“Yeah,” she nods. “At least I hope so.”
Courtney Barnett’s new album Things Take Time, Take Time is out Friday, November 12.