Courtney Barnett goes to the dark side on 'Tell Me How You Really Feel'

Publish Date
Wednesday, 23 May 2018, 5:40PM

By: Siena Yates

Courtney Barnett shot to fame telling quirky stories and turning mundane observations into masterpieces. But now things have changed.

Her writing's become darker, more personal and more political than ever. Her music is more rock than folk, with heavy electric guitar and a louder - metaphorically and literally - voice.

Following the success of her debut album Sometimes I Sit And Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, Barnett hit the charts, the touring circuit ... and then a wall.

She was exhausted and suffering from writer's block and did everything from bashing away at a typewriter to reciting poetry with a loop pedal to get past it.

"I just kind of sat down and started writing a lot of stuff and didn't really have an idea or direction in mind - I just pile ideas down and stories kind of form out of them and it becomes a song," she says.

What came out still bears Barnett's lyrical flair and upbeat playfulness, but as a "reflection of just every day, how I feel", the album gets heavy and melancholic too.

There are songs about insecurity, stress, the struggle to maintain relationships, internet trolls and sheer exhaustion. She was also clearly influenced by current politics, penning rage-filled tomes against the patriarchy with lines like "I wanna walk through the park in the dark/Men are scared that women will laugh at them ... Women are scared that men will kill them/I hold my keys/Between my fingers."

That song, Nameless, Faceless, was written before #MeToo took off, but Barnett says, "It's all the same thing".

"I was really glad to see that conversation really open up over the last year. I think people are getting more aware of behaviour, I've seen the pin drop, people understand. The good thing about #MeToo is people sharing personal and intense stories and people who were just so unaware of those thoughts, this button kind of flipped for them and they saw things from someone else's perspective and it can really change the whole attitude of a person," says Barnett.

The idea of seeing things from a new perspective and understanding our own misgivings and shortcomings, is what the album's about - Tell Me How You Really Feel is an instruction to herself as much as those around her.

"I was just trying to understand a lot of my behavioural traits and communication and connections with people. Things like why you get angry or why you get upset or embarrassed by something - just trying figure out where all those things stem from, the fears and stuff that generates it," she says.

"Just to kind of be aware of patterns instead of just letting them form into these big cyclical things, so you can turn them around maybe."

The upshot of that constant discovery of self is Barnett's sound and skills have evolved dramatically, and Kiwi fans will get the chance to hear it live when she returns this August to play shows in Auckland and Wellington.

Playing live is after all, what helped that sound evolve as it made her "become a bit more confident as a musician, as a singer".

"I remember when I first started recording, I would record in my bedroom and would have to sing really quietly and timidly so I didn't wake people up. This is just the opposite of that; being given this freedom of the studio to scream and explore the power of the dynamic between those two. I think it's just the freedom to experiment."

This article was first published on and is republished here with permission.