TWO DECADES AFTER Kurt Cobain redefined mainstream rock with his raw, uncompromising songwriting and anti-guitar hero way of playing guitar, a left-handed guitarist and art school student in Hobart, Australia, took inspiration from his example. Courtney Barnett knew the rock music of several eras, thanks to a neighbor’s mixtapes, and her own modest CD collection consisted mainly of Nirvana albums. While playing righthanded guitars upside down at first (due to the unavailability of good lefty guitars), she developed a unique way of playing rhythm and lead with her thumb and fingers, since she didn’t like the sound of a pick against the strings.
By the early 2010s, Barnett was playing in bands and appearing as a co-writer and guitarist on recordings by local singer-songwriters. After a stint as a slide guitarist and co-lead singer in the psych-country-folk group Immigrant Union (you can hear her on their sophomore album, Anyway), Barnett released her debut EP, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris in 2012 on Milk! Records, a label she co-founded with fellow artist and then-partner Jen Cloher.
The 34-year-old’s widely eclectic take on indie rock can be gleaned from a playlist of influential songs she curated for a streaming service for many years following those first band experiences. Her selections show a wide tapestry of musical input, ranging from her parents’ favorite jazz singers to the ’90s bands of her generation, like the Lemonheads, EMF, Pavement and the Breeders, as well as Jimi Hendrix, Yoko Ono, PJ Harvey, Leonard Cohen, Sonic Youth, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Patti Smith and Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings.
Barnett signed with Marathon Artists in 2013 and combined her first EP with a new collection of songs as The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas. Momentum quickly built. The international music press picked different tracks as their “favorite of the week,” while Barnett got booked on American late-night TV shows and landed a slot at the Coachella festival. Her 2015 debut album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, became her commercial breakthrough and was lauded as a rock — not indie-rock — classic. Her infectious songs were a meeting of uncompromising noise rock and American roots music, combining an exhilarating mix of sharp stream-of-consciousness lyrics and humor, delivered in an instantly recognizable half-singing vocal that sometimes recalls Lou Reed. The album was accompanied by a series of fun music videos that revealed a self-deprecating artist who also played many of the album’s fills and solos on her black Telecaster. You don’t see that too often, and people welcomed her with fervor.
Onstage during Splendour in the Grass 2016, in Byron Bay, Australia, July 24, 2016. Photo: Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images
It’s not hard to grasp what intense adulation can do to a person who suffers from anxiety and depression, as well as to their art, where it can be tempting to keep giving the audience the musical identity that they love, but that you are starting to outgrow. And so Barnett started to expand her ways of expression on her 2018 follow-up, Tell Me How You Really Feel.
This new direction is also noticeable on her new album, Things Take Time, Take Time, a lockdown memento born of change and calamity. Barnett was struggling following her breakup with Cloher, the pandemic lockdown, and the terrifying Australian bushfires of 2019–2020, known colloquially as the Black Summer. When a friend suggested she make a list of what she looked forward to, Barnett gave it a try, focusing on small things: a cup of coffee, sunrise. That, in turn, gave birth to the songs on Things Take Time, Take Time, a collection of sprawling songs built from the minutiae of everyday things. To record it, Barnett chose a studio that was new to her — Golden Retriever in Sydney — and worked without her usual gear or her band featuring bassist Bones Slone, drummer Dave Mudie and guitarist Dan Luscombe. Instead, she created and co-produced the record with Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa, who had previously performed on Barnett’s 2017 collaboration with guitarist Kurt Vile, Lotta Sea Lice.
''Maybe that was a subconscious effort to push me out of my comfort zones and try something different,” Barnett says of her decision to work amid so many changes. “I wanted to work with Stella again, and the timing was perfect because both of us were in the same country. If the pandemic hadn’t been there, we would’ve been busy with our other projects.”
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