In early 2020, Courtney Barnett expected a year of indefinite songwriting, with one condition. “It’s important to remember to live and experience and to have something real to write about,” she said. Rolling stone in an interview in January. “Not just sitting in a room and writing an album for the sake of making an album.”
Barnett laughs when she remembers that conversation now. “It’s funny,” the 33-year-old Australian singer-songwriter said on a call from her home in Melbourne. “Very ironic… Whether I like it or not, that’s what the world has given us. It was probably the quietest year I have ever had.
The album she spent most of 2020 sitting in a room and writing is called Things take time, take time, and it will arrive this November 12 on Mom + Pop Music and Marathon Artists. For fans of Barnett’s distinctive songwriting, it’s a rich reward, full of sneaky observations on the peaks and valleys of everyday life that have made her one of the most beloved independent artists of the past decade. There are surprises in store too: All 10 songs on the album shine in a newly revealing light, many stripped of the crisp rock band sound that filled their first two solo LPs, and presented instead in a form. which approaches the radical honesty of a solo chamber band. It is perhaps the most personal record to date from an artist who has already given the world a lot of emotional truth.
Barnett describes Things take time, take time like an album about finding “some kind of joy and gratitude, out of a kind of pain and sadness” – a new morning after a dark night. “Writing a to-do list,” a bright and jangly highlight of the new LP, is a good example of what she means.
She had started writing new songs shortly after the release in spring 2018 of her second solo album, The Turbulent Tell me how you really feelbut ended up throwing out most of them after awhile. “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To” was one of the first songs she kept. It arrived towards the end of 2019, at a time when she was feeling deeply distraught for reasons that included a devastating bushfire season in Australia.
“I was really sad,” she recalls. “I was in a very dark place and a friend told me… They didn’t know how to help me. They said, “Why don’t you try to write down a list of the positive things in your life that you are looking forward to? ‘At the time, I was like,’Nothing. There is nothing that I look forward to.
Her friend kept pushing, and eventually Barnett came up with enough material to fill in “like, 25 lines,” which she then reduced to the over two-minute mini-hymn that appears on Things take time, take time. “Sit next to me, watch the world burn,” she sings to upbeat chords. “I love that the song is so fun,” Barnett says. “Looks like you’re crossing a freeway and the weather is nice. I like the juxtaposition of these things.
She went on to perform a pair of bushfire relief fundraisers in the early weeks of 2020, then flew to the United States for a short solo tour that ended in a performance- benefit in Los Angeles on Valentine’s Day. By the time she returned to Melbourne, the new Covid threat meant she had to self-quarantine. With nowhere to stay, she crashed into a friend’s empty apartment. “I ended up staying there all year,” she says. “It was this amazing little apartment, and there were these beautiful big windows and a big light. I was very lucky to have this place.
As the reality of the lockdown sagged, Barnett learned to cook, subscribed to the Criterion channel, deepened into Agnes Varda and Andrei Tarkovsky films, read books she had the intends to tackle and painted watercolor scenes. “I had a lot of big plans,” she laughs. Most of the time, however, she was sitting by the window, drinking coffee and playing the acoustic guitar.
One of the sweetest songs on the new album, “Turning Green”, reflects this experience directly in its lyrics, which hint at renewed hopes after a low season (“The trees are going green / And this spring lethargy / Is it kinda forcing you to see / Flowers in the weeds “).” I sat by that window, and there was a huge tree in the front, so I watched the seasons change, “Barnett says. “I guess it’s also metaphorical. There’s something so joyful about this song. You feel the characters have gone through some kind of transformation and come out the other side.”
The album’s first single, “Rae Street,” began with a writing exercise steeped in old memories. “One day I made a list of all the phrases I remembered my parents said,” she says. The enigmatic adage of the chorus – “Time is money and money is no friend to any man” – comes from something her father used to say, repurposed for an extended period of reflection.
When Barnett was ready to record a few demos, she turned to a vintage Roland CR-8000 drum machine that she had salvaged a few years earlier after a visit to the Chicago loft filled with Wilco’s instruments. “It’s analog and a little clunky,” says Barnett, who describes himself as “addicted to cute little drum machines.”
She had never taken the time to learn how to use this correctly (“I’ll just pick a beat and be done with that”), but now she only had time. So she called her friend Stella Mozgawa, the drummer from Warpaint who had played drums on Lotta sea lice, Barnett’s 2017 duet album with Kurt Vile – and got a tutorial. Soon she and Mozgawa were exchanging playlists of artists who had made innovative use of programmed beats, from Arthur Russell to Yo La Tengo. “It was fun and exciting,” says Barnett. “This stable drum machine does something to my brain that makes it calm and secure.” Realizing that Mozgawa was “the perfect musical chord,” Barnett invited her to co-produce her next LP.
In December 2020, she and Mozgawa met at Golden Retriever Studios in Sydney to begin recording. At this point in his process, Barnett would normally have called his band mates live and put the drum machine back on its shelf. “I think I just thought it was for the demos, and when you went into the studio you had a real drummer and you kept him real,” she says. “I was adamant about it.”
This time, however, she wanted to preserve the meditative magic of her home demos. Most of the songs ended up with lo-fi beats programmed by Mozgawa on various drum machines, as well as live percussion from Mozgawa, vocals and guitar from Barnett, bass parts from both, and more. “It’s pretty much just us,” Barnett said. “It’s so alive to me, like everything is happening at the same time.”
“Turning Green” went through a long journey before taking on its final form as a spare motorik groove, just a bass and a drum machine, which blooms after two minutes into a spiky guitar solo. “I loved this melody so much when I found it, but when I took it to the studio and showed it to Stella, it didn’t sound right,” Barnett says. “It sounded like one of my other songs or something. Stella said, ‘Why don’t we split the song up and turn it upside down?’ … I love the song she became. He allows the lyrics to exist in this very bare environment. Not coated in sugar.
Other songs concentrated elsewhere. “Here’s the Thing,” the beautifully floating ballad that is one of the album’s centerpieces (“I’m Not Afraid of Heights / Maybe I’m Just Afraid of Falling”), began with Barnett playing guitar while watching TV at home. She captured the vocal take later, on a trip to northern New South Wales. “We stayed near this huge mountain,” she recalls. “It was the most beautiful environment. There is something so special about these voices.
Soon Barnett will be hitting the road for his first shows since early 2020, starting with a few solo dates this month in New Zealand; in November, around the album’s release, she will arrive in North America for a group tour that will run until next February. She can’t wait to go on tour again and see how her songs change shape. “Over the years there will be other versions of these songs because I will play them live with the band,” she says. “They’re going to start sounding different again. They still do.
In the meantime, she has a new album that she is excited to share with the world soon. “On the one hand, nothing happened to me last year,” she says. “But at the same time, there was so much going on! There are these sayings in ‘Turning Green’ about flowers in weeds – as in, finding beauty in a place you least expect it to be. This is my continuing lesson for myself.