Courtney Barnett Wants to Know How You Really Feel

The singer-songwriter talks trying to transcend hopelessness on her new LP

After Courtney Barnett put out her first full-length, 2015's Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, a friend of hers forwarded her a comment about her music that made her laugh: "I could eat a bowl of alphabet soup and spit out better words than you." 

"I just thought it was kind of funny," she tells Rolling Stone. "It was just someone saying I sucked and it stuck in my mind. I was like, 'Well, I'm gonna use that, so fuck you.'"

She ended up sticking the snarky line in her song "Nameless, Faceless," followed by a response to the troll who wrote it: "You're kidding yourself if you think the world revolves around you." The tune, which was the first she released from her upcoming LP Tell Me How You Really Feel, is a biting takedown of male aggression, bolstered by a chorus that paraphrases a line from The Handmaid's Tale novelist Margaret Atwood: "I wanna walk through the park in the dark/Men are scared that women will laugh at them." If it weren't so spry and catchy, thanks in part to some backup vocals by the Breeders' Kim Deal, it might be ominous. But that ambiguity is sort of the point.

Many of the songs on Tell Me How You Really Feel, out May 18th, deal with soul-searching, though Barnett has a hard time defining it. "I didn't have a clear direction," she says. "I just tried to figure some things out and it kind of turned into something bigger." She was working on the album's songs before she recorded her collaborative 2017 album with Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice, and by her estimation she kept distracting herself from writing with other projects. In the time since she released Sometimes I Sit, she was nominated for the Best New Artist Grammy, a Brit Award and a couple ARIAs (a Grammy equivalent in her native Australia). "There was some pressure from that stuff, but I think a lot of my motivation was just my own pressure from myself," she says. "I just tried to ignore the other aspects. I just wanted to make an interesting album for myself."

Ultimately, she made an album of songs that deal with themes of frustration, what she calls "emotional burnout" and making sense of relationships in a much more direct, earthy way than those on Sometimes I Sit and Think. She wrote many of the lyrics by booking herself a rehearsal room where she could sit at a desk and just force herself to write. She later demoed the songs, playing each of the instruments herself à la Prince, to examine each element of the songs before reconvening with her regular band and co-producers to record them.

"It's kind of an interesting way to sit face-to-face with yourself every day and try to sort out what's going on with yourself," she says with a laugh. In some ways, the album comes off like Barnett's diary, where she's either studying a subject (as with "Nameless, Faceless") or herself. She's rarely clear about the inspirations behind any given song (or even about much of what frustrates her), but the one consistent thread among all the songs is a sort of introspective reckoning. "It's interesting to me that something so aimless in a way turned into something quite obvious," she says. "The themes were very constant. When I took a step back and tried to see whether I had enough to call an album, it just made sense."


The slow-building album opener "Hopefulness" begins with the lines "No one's born to hate/We learn it somewhere along the way," and slowly crescendos into a feeding-back guitar solo. "That's that feeling of sort of being hopeless and trying so hard to be hopeful," she says. "It's that juxtaposition and the kind of weird energy that it brings up. I think it was born from the wider world of feeling frustrated and even being frustrated at saying that you feel hopeless, because it's so pathetic and useless." Barnett laughs.

"I think a lot of it was trying to find out what to do and how to deal with that feeling, what I could do to be productive," she says. "It's about how to turn that energy into something else."

That idea of making sense of hopelessness also resounds in the album's bouncy "City Looks Pretty," on which she sings, "Sometimes I feel sad/It's not all that bad" and the lilting, melancholy "Need a Little Time" (with a heavy chorus that goes, "I need a little time out from me and you") – the latter of which was the only song that came to her in one go, when she was staying at a little cabin in the woods with her girlfriend, singer-songwriter Jen Cloher. The deceptively upbeat "Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence" features both the Breeders' Kim and Kelley Deal singing the album title, "tell me how you really feel," before a chorus that goes, "I don't know anything." (Barnett met Kim Deal while sitting for the Talkhouse Podcast and they kept in touch via email afterwards. Since they asked Barnett to sing on their new album, she asked them to sing on hers. "Their voices are so good," she says.)

And then there's the punky "I'm Not Your Mother, I'm Not Your Bitch," which is just raw id. "Obviously, it's a really angry and frustrated song, which I think comes across pretty plainly," she says. "I think it's about people walking all over you. It's going off on different people and different experiences, so it's a weird amalgamation of stories of people who try to manipulate and take advantage of you. Lots of people have interpreted that it's directed at men; it is, but it's not specifically."


One song that is specifically about men is the aforementioned "Nameless, Faceless." Barnett stumbled on the Atwood quote ("Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them") while researching violence in Melbourne. "Every time you read about violence, you're like, 'How did someone do that?' or, 'Why did they do that?'" she says. "I was trying to understand. That quote popped out in an article, and I thought it was really powerful. In a few words, it sums up this bigger thing in a simple way. Later, I figured out that it was from [Atwood]."

The one spot of unadulterated hope on the album comes on the final track, "Sunday Roast," with its lyric "I know you're doing your best/I think you're doing just fine." "It's just about the basic simpleness of sharing dinner with a community of friends and the caring, warm, loving aspect of friendship," she says. "But it also touches on other stuff like seeing friends suffer and feeling helpless in helping them. It goes back to the first song ['Hopefulness'] on the bigger scale of the world and all of the world's fucked-up problems all the way down to a smaller version of the same thing, just not knowing how to do anything. I put it last just to leave you on a hopeful note."

Now that the album is done and Barnett is ramping up to a tour that kicks off later this month, she's excited to share her hope – or attempt at hope, depending on the song – with her fans. Her website now provides a space for them to sound off on that titular question: "Tell me how you really feel." So is she, personally, reading what people write in search of nuggets of inspiration like the "alphabet soup" quip that inspired her album's single? "I have not yet," she says. "But I will."