Courtney Barnett’s sophomore album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, will mark its first anniversary this May. Since its release, it has gained multiple accolades, being recognized at the top of numerous music publications’ best-of lists for 2018. The acclaim has also produced different interpretations of the album coming from Barnett’s audience and listeners alike, and she admits she has changed her own perception of the album many times since finishing it.
“It’s funny sometimes how an album, or even a song, really grows over time,” she says via phone. “I didn’t quite understand what it was at the start. Now, as time goes on, it kind of becomes a bit clearer. I still have trouble explaining it, but it’s been interesting for me to see the kind of growth over it.”
The Australian singer-songwriter has been interested in a surreal, stream-of-consciousness style layered in rock that can be traced back to her 2015 debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. While hints of that sound can be found on Tell Me How You Really Feel, Barnett seems to have shifted more into an introspective outlook that explores worldwide issues from that personal perspective, which is mirrored by the somber tone of some of the songs on the album.
This intimate approach has beguiled fans for being able to observe Barnett open up, but it has had some people wondering about the messages she’s trying to convey. Barnett acknowledges that her intent as the songwriter might get lost once many listeners interpret her songs in other ways, but she notes that her songs sometimes hold different meanings all at once.
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“I think that when I make something, it has about five or 10 parts of story lines,” Barnett says. “It never really has one clear, solid intention. I think that as time goes on, it means different things to me as well. I think it’s kind of impossible to be ‘This is about this and this only.’ I don’t fully understand everything I’m thinking of saying or what the intention is behind it. Am I trying to impress someone or am I trying to make someone notice me? Sometimes it’s so subconscious that I don’t even know what the true intention is anyway.”
Looking back at her previous record, Barnett explains that she felt kind of numb at the time, unable to look at and analyze certain aspects of her life. When she released Tell Me How You Really Feel, she wasn’t able to notice a difference between it and her debut. But the more she heard people comment about the difference, the more she tried to figure out what it was that set both apart.
“I think it was just where I was at: friendships, relationships and general life, dealing with depressive tendencies,” she says. “I was trying to acknowledge my behaviors and the behaviors that have been happening for years on [a] circle — a cycle of the same behaviors and try to acknowledge them and see where they came from and how I could change them. It kind of wasn’t much to do with any external stuff. It’s kind of just me saying, ‘Well, I keep on making these same mistakes. What does that mean? How do I fix it?’”
Around the time the album came out, Barnett had on her website a "Tell Me How You Really Feel" form where visitors could submit a small blurb detailing how they felt. The singer-songwriter was surprised to find many people write depressing things — perhaps that was why they could relate to Barnett’s music. It helped them.
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“It’s not romanticizing the sadness or romanticizing depression or anything like that,” she says. “Lots of people wrote ‘sad’ and ‘lonely’ and ‘melancholy’ and ‘disappointed’ and ‘hopeless.’ There was recurring words and themes. Then, the people kind of boggled that out, because it’s like they don’t want to be a burden — and we try to be positive in life — but I’m sure people feel like that a lot of the time.”
In a similar fashion, Barnett helped herself through the music. Having gained the confidence to dissect her inner feelings, she wrote her latest album without hiding her true self and, in turn, evolved as a writer.
“Writing for me is just a form of working things out, and for this album especially, I really went at it like an exercise or like a discipline,” she says. “I really forced myself to sit there and show up and be face to face with those feelings that otherwise I would do my best to ignore or put off.”
Courtney Barnett performs Sunday, Feb. 17 at The Bomb Factory with opening act Sunflower Bean. Doors open at 7 p.m. Show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $24 - $36.