Courtney Barnett Is On The Fence

At a time when opinion is currency, Courtney Barnett is one of the few public figures who doesn’t claim to have all the answers. Instead, her new album, ‘Things Take Time, Take Time’, muses on modern life with all its complexities, frustrations and beauty.

There are a few things you look out for when you’re interviewing. An intriguing takeaway that could help to frame the subject. Or perhaps some illuminating trait that has been otherwise missed; a startling and fundamental truth that your subject holds close. A point of view not yet shared. An opinion not yet known. When writing a profile, it’s always good to have somewhere to land.

Courtney Barnett did not make my job easy.

But that’s on me. I don’t know what I was really expecting when I sat down with her to discuss the forthcoming album, Things Take Time, Take Time, last week – but it shouldn’t have been a tidy string of quotes summarising the years of work wrought during a global pandemic. Courtney, from what I can gather, just doesn’t see the world like that – in absolutes or with finality – let alone her new album.

Instead, answers to my questions were met with thoughtful shrugs, maybes and other expressions of restraint, as I struggled to attribute meaning and metaphor perhaps where there wasn't any – or certainly not any you can justifiably explain in a 20-minute Zoom call. She isn’t certain why she wrote this album, what it means, exactly, or what others should take away from it now. It just is. In a world where opinion – preferably whittled down to 280 characters – is currency, Courtney lets her work speak for itself.

I had to appreciate her no-bullshit approach. Courtney isn’t afraid to admit that she doesn’t have all the answers. To quote Charlie Kaufman, “here’s the one thing I know about the thing you’re certain about: you’re wrong”. Isn’t it time that we dropped the pretense?

In light of this, Barnett’s latest layered work, Things Take Time, Take Time, comes off as a journey, rather than an arrival. “An album is just a document of time,” Courtney tells me, simply. “Each year, you know, I guess we strive to learn more and change for the better. And I guess for me, an album kind of slightly documents those thoughts or that pattern [of personal growth].”

Barnett’s third album is quieter than her first two. Its lyrics – while still wryly observational and perceptive in a way that Barnett’s legion of fans have come to expect from the songwriter – are more introspective and certainly more vulnerable. Its sound is softer too, with tracks swapping hard riffs for relaxed harmonies and warm acoustics. It’s an album appreciating the little things – trees sprouting leaves, phone calls, late-night ruminations – which, inevitably, turn into the big things: gratitude, friendship, love. Or were the little things actually the big things all along?

It makes sense, then, that this pensive and joyous album was born from lockdown after lockdown in Melbourne. As Courtney’s outward world became smaller, her inner world expanded, giving her more time to sit with her thoughts.

“Before, I was always doing other things, you know. When I wrote my first EPs [and debut album] I was working and then, and then when I wrote the second album, I was touring. So, there was always something busy happening and [I was] trying to juggle the time between [lots of] different elements. But I think this was a lot more focused. I just kind of really dove into the songs and kind of lived within them. I would wake up every day kind of working on them.”

As most creatives will vouch for – sometimes having too much time to sit with a thing poses its own challenges, too. Any and everything can be used as a valid excuse to avoid the thing you should be working on. And even Courtney Barnett isn’t immune to the funk.

"[It’s] kind of confronting [to write] in that way, without the distractions of the world and people or normal schedules. I think those small challenges when they come up, you just have to find a way to work with them or how to deal with them and yeah, see what comes out of it. It's always going to inform the work in some way. I feel like there's a real openness and space to some of these songs, which is maybe because of that time [that I had to sit with them]. And that kind of ability to breathe, maybe that kind of came through in the songs.”

Many will, and should, remark on the arrival of one of Courtney Barnett’s first proper love songs on this album. “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight” is a fun, if unexpected, addition to the album, showing a side of Courtney she hasn’t shared much before. Here, we see Courtney falling in love and, naturally, panicking. She’s breathless, euphoric, anxious, ruminating. “Is now an okay time, to tell you that I like you?,” she asks. “I lay awake and wonder why/I pray for rain and angels cry/If I don’t hear from you tonight.

A concept more central still in Things Take Time, Take Time celebrates love of a different kind.

Several songs on the album – “Write A List Of Things To Look Forward To” and “Take It Day By Day” were inspired by friendship and the oft-rudimentary but important ways friends take care of each other day after day. (When Courtney was feeling despondent about life, a friend instructed her to ‘write a list of things to look forward to’ – it is one of the only songs that Courtney wrote before the pandemic that made it onto the final album.)

“With all of the kinds of other things in the world stripped away from us in certain ways, a lot of it [for me] came back to like family and friendship and connections with humans … friends kind of helped us through the year and deal with how strange the year was, and like the kind of unknown elements of the future. I had so many intense conversations with friends. Everybody was struggling in their own ways. So [those songs I wrote].. I guess it was just about simplifying the world down to those things that are important, or something.”

I asked Courtney if the release of her new album – with all its revealing personal themes and vulnerabilities – feels different from her past two. Her answer? Well, ‘maybe’.

“Yeah, I guess every release kind of has nerves and excitement embedded in [it], but yeah, it's always a little bit different. But yeah, it always feels good to just release these ideas that I've been sitting with for a while now and release them into the world and for other people to kind of interpret and, and, you know, live with.”

“[When it’s released] I feel like you let go of a small piece of an idea. It just helps me process things, I think. So it's just like a small kind of step in a path to understanding a certain idea or a certain emotion or something.”

There’s a line in “Turning Green” that keeps coming back to mind when I think about Things Take Time, Take Time. Lyrics that, to me, feel like the perfect, crystallising moment that I was so badly seeking from Courtney when we spoke. “The trees are turning green n this springtime lethargy is kinda forcing you to see flowers in the weeds.” That, to me, is Things Take Time, Take Time, in a nutshell. The passing of time, and in that time, a chance at renewal. A pondering moment where the small things become full of possibility and magic once again.

Courtney Barnett’s new album, Things Take Time, Take Time, is released on Friday November 12. Pre-order the album here. Tickets to Courtney Barnett's shows in Perth, Brisbane and Melbourne also go on sale on Friday Nov 12 via Frontier Touring.

Written by Alice Griffin, writer and editor of this very site. Follow Alice on Twitter @_alicegriffin.

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Editor’s note: After this week, mtv.com.au will stop producing editorial, with publishing halting on the site from Friday afternoon, Nov 5. MTV fans can continue to follow along with the brand on social media and the channels.

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