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Courtney Barnett tells us how she really feels

We sit down with the iconoclastic Australian artist to step inside her new record. 

Legs tucked under on an overstuffed chair, Courtney Barnett basks in a sunny nook at Richmond’s recording mansion of wonder Bakehouse Studios pondering where we’re at collectively. In fact, she’s so keen to know that she’s put the title of her second album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, to punters on her website inviting them to comment and nominate the song summing it up.

“It was a bit of a social experiment to see what the general vibe is,” says Barnett. “When you’re posed with a question like that, in a way like that, what do people say? I had faith that people have a lot more hope and love in them. I feel like the hatred gets amplified and it always seems to be louder, but I don’t think there’s actually as much of it.”

While the phrase is oft delivered with a snarky edge, Barnett’s genuinely interested in the response and people’s perception of the question. “It is earnest, it definitely is,” she says. “But I use it in different ways in my life, and I like that people can see whatever they want in it. I’m interested in people’s first reactions to it because I think that says a lot about you as the listener.”   

That Barnett is actively tracking down evidence of transcendent qualities like hope and love makes sense in a context where she deliberately appreciates the same in her daily life. For instance, for a while now she’s been writing poems to document day-to-day beauty. “Poetry’s a good one,” she says. “Tiny little poems are just so easy and say so much and so little. The whole process of the last couple of years has been recognising negative thought patterns and trying to break myself out of them. You know, 'When you feel yourself saying this, say that instead.' To write a little poem about something that makes you happy is a really nice way to do it.”

The album – which Barnett has described as a missive to mates who were struggling – has also highlighted a few home truths. “A lot of it was realising that I’m kinder to other people than I am to myself," says Barnett. “People in my life who were going through whatever, I’d hear myself talking to them and see myself in a similar situation down the track and hear how I’d talk to myself, and it was very different.”

Even though the songs are open letters, Barnett’s not going out of her way to notify pals. “I feel too strange sending my songs to friends because then you feel like you need a reply,” she says. “Obviously, my band and closest friends have heard the songs, but I always feel it’s a bit of a weird process to go, ‘Here, listen to this’. I guess a lot of people will hear it once it’s out, but I don’t even know if they’ll know. Maybe they would. Sometimes with songwriting, people will connect and project so much that any song can be about them. I think the rule is, if you think it’s about you, then it probably is.”

Previously, Barnett has described long-time love and rock royalty Jen Cloher as a profound influence on her work. The same is true of Tell Me How You Really Feel. “Jen is my constant, biggest influence,” Barnett says. “We share everything – all thoughts, positive and negative. We’re quite different, but then we learn from it. I love having such a strong, opinionated, creative partner as a sounding board.”

In fact, having Cloher as a creative anchor is even more important given the breadth of Barnett’s endeavours – for starters, Barnett is also in Cloher’s band, co-runs label Milk Records, and plays in a side outfit with Kurt Vile. So, how the hell does she keep all those balls in the air and maintain her sanity? Barnett’s response is characteristically candid.

“I guess I don’t always have my sanity. I think I have more sanity when I have ongoing projects. When I don’t, it’s even worse. If I’m doing something that I care about, something that has a level of purpose, then I feel useful in some way. Also, Jen’s a big part of keeping me sane and keeping the balance all of those things. 

Tell Me How You Really Feel will be released on Friday May 18 through Barnett’s own label Milk! Records and Remote Control. Pre-order the record here.