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Courtney Barnett talks misogyny, frustration, and friendship

Courtney Barnett

Courtney Barnett Pooneh Ghana

Courtney Barnett doesn’t mince words – in her songwriting, that is.

But listen closely to her lyrics and you get the impression that she doesn’t always assert herself offstage. The Aussie’s second full-length, Tell Me How You Really Feel, poetically captures the angst inherent in being human, in a relationship, and a woman in the #metoo era.

Some songs, like “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence” and “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” are self-explanatory. Others are more veiled. In “City Looks Pretty,” Barnett seems to struggle to reconcile fame and reality: “Friends treat you like a stranger and strangers treat you like their best friend / Oh well.” On “Charity,” one wonders if Barnett isn’t satirizing herself: “You must be having so much fun / Everything’s amazing / So subservient I make myself sick / Are you listening?” Self-deprecation never sounded so clever, and set to Barnett’s inimitable brand of all-encompassing indie rock, it’s irresistible.

We spoke to Barnett from her homeland ahead of her concert this Saturday at Surly Brewing Festival Field.

City Pages: There seems to be a tension on the album between saying what you really want to and keeping quiet. Is that a tension you experience in your life?

Courtney Barnett: I think it’s probably just one of those…it’s almost like a trait I feel like I’ve carried with me. It’s almost like the idea of pleasing people and not wanting to cause a scene and all those kind of weird, societal things that we do. Frustration can build from that, from being unheard and unaccounted for. It’s a weird push and pull. An internal push and pull.

CP: It’s a paradox because you’re a singer-songwriter; you literally have a voice. The idea that there are things you don’t feel comfortable saying is really interesting.

CB: Yeah, definitely. With my songs, I tend to be a whole lot more honest than I do in my everyday life. Maybe some of the more angry songs on this album come from that realization of that conflicting attitude and being really angry about it because I maybe didn’t realize it. It’s kind of a frustration I’ve felt.

CP: You also seem ambivalent about success on the album, especially on the song “City Looks Pretty.” Has the reality of success been different than what you expected?

CB: Uh…I mean…I’ve never really expected much. I mean, of course it’s a surprise. Who expects to achieve any of those things without being surprised by them? You know what I mean? It’s definitely not a kind of expectation.

CP: What’s the most challenging thing about being a touring musician?

CB: I don’t know. Staying healthy? Yeah, you know, sleeping properly and eating properly.

CP: On “Nameless Faceless,” you reference the Margaret Atwood quote, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them; women are afraid that men will kill them.” What prompted that song, in addition to that quote?

CB: Around that time, I’d had a lot of conversations with friends and been witness to a whole lot of excess misogyny online, really aggressive – and not so much to me, to other people in my surroundings – and reading a lot of excess violence against women. It was not like it doesn’t happen and didn’t happen all the time, but in that period, maybe it was in excess. I remember I read that quote in the paper. I didn’t realize it was Margaret Atwood. I just thought it was powerful and strong. So I guess the song was kind of tying those two ideas together, that kind of how one can lead to another, that kind of hatred and belittling leading to physical violence.

CP: Who is the “you” you’re singing to on “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”?

CB: There’s not really a solid answer.

CP: It’s a generalized anger?

CB: Well…I mean…I think it’s open to interpretation and I wouldn’t want to ruin your interpretation of it. [Laughs.]

CP: Regarding “Sunday Roast,” if you won’t say who the song is about, will you say what kind of a relationship that song is about?

CB: Oh, yeah. “Sunday Roast” is definitely about friendship and community. It’s the kind of idea of coming together with friends and sharing a meal and sharing your troubles, I guess.

CP: Was the songwriting process at all different on this album compared to your previous one?

CB: Apart from a couple of years of difference and all of the kind of growth that goes on within a couple of years, I feel like it’s kind of maybe a bit more emotional and vulnerable than the last one.

Courtney Barnett
With: Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus
Where: Surly Brewing Festival Field
When: 4:30 p.m. Sat. July 21
Tickets: $37.50, $40; more info here