Courtney Barnett on Grounding in Nature

The elusive frontrunner of garage folk-rock paints psychedelic sounds of nature in her joyful new album ‘Things Take Time, Take Time'.

WORDS Bella Spratley
STYLING Cecile Huynh
PHOTOGRAPHY Nelly Skoufatoglou
HMUA Phoebe Goulding

Turn that frown upside down: a how-to. The head of garage folk-rock, Courtney Barnett, famous and exalted for songs such as ‘Pedestrian at Best’ featuring the witty one-liner “put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you”, has truly earned her standing in indie rock and far from disappoints with her new album Things Take Time, Take Time due for release 12th November. Calling from sunny Joshua Tree with light streaming through the half-drawn curtains of a sandy coloured home, where she’s been for the past few weeks, Courtney speaks to us through noughties wired headphones wearing a simple white t-shirt. Shy and evasive, she’s not what you’d expect from an award-winning musician.

Joshua Tree is a familiar space, where Courtney spent lockdown at the beginning of 2020. “It’s really special to me to be out here [in Joshua Tree]. Everything is so quiet; I can hear animals, see the stars and the vastness of the mountains. There’s something about that that brings you back to reality,” she shared. The new album is an unexpected tool kit for feeling good. The hazy 10 tracks have a similar sound to Lotta Sea Lice, Courtney’s 2017 album featuring Kurt Vile. I predict this album will become a firm favourite for Sunday afternoons lying on the floor and staring out of the window. The sky is the original bright screen we like to stare at, after all. Things Take Time, Take Time feels like floating in the ocean, listening to comforting raindrops and captures her mood writing under the stars opposite the mountains: her sounding board. Coping with the pandemic and even the social transition out of it sometimes can feel like we’ve forgotten how to be human. Courtney Barnett’s Things Take Time, Take Time is a gentle hand on the shoulder and a list of how to look forward to the next day.

Writing across arid Joshua Tree to lush Northern New South Wales at the ancient volcano Mount Warning, nearby the sands of Byron Bay in Victoria and in her flat on Rae Street Courtney creates a patchwork of closet and studio recordings from mundane city streets to sublime natural surroundings. Inspired by this, Courtney recorded samples like we see her doing in her music video for ‘Before You Gotta Go’. “It was fun. I have done it a bit before in the past. Not many of them ended up making it onto the album, but a lot of the insect sounds and the general hum of the environment did. There’s a heartbeat, general percussive sounds, undertone drone sounds. A lot of them, birds and stuff, seemed too much to add. But a lot of vocal tracks have birds and crickets in the background or the hum of the heater. I just love stuff like that that creeps in and reminds you where you are.”  

It’s really special to me to be out here [in Joshua Tree]. Everything is so quiet; I can hear animals, see the stars and the vastness of the mountains. There’s something about that that brings you back to reality.

Courtney Barnett

FULL LOOK Caves Collect
BOOTS Post Sole Studio

In her music video, Courtney goes on an adventure to find these sounds, recording things you traditionally wouldn’t hear – the slap of waves against a rocky shoreline, swaying forest leaves in a gentle breeze and a hungry horse munching on grass. It shows a shift in perspective that could be environmentalist, listening to nature’s needs – she did play charity bushfire relief fundraisers, after all. It is also about listening to yourself, Courtney explained: “To me, it was about actively listening. It’s about listening in a different way to the world around you: to people, to yourself or to nature. I love that video – my friend Claudia made it. It actually came from a dream. There was this thing following me and every time I looked around there was nothing there. But there was a high-pitched horror movie sound. So I flipped it in a way, so instead of being chased by the sound I was chasing the sound and curious to know what it meant, instead of being scared by it.” 

Courtney is powerful and this album shows how to make a positive mental change. At the mention of the Wes Anderson feel to the video she replied, “I like the way he shoots, it makes me happy. One of my favourite characters is Adrian Brody in ‘Darjeeling Limited’, he’s my favourite actor.” Outside of the studio, Courtney has found joy in the kitchen too: “I’ve really loved cooking in the last two years. Before it was so stressful, I just believed I was bad and now I have found such joy in the most simple processes”. Like Lorde’s Tumblr goth to sunshine hippie transformation, Courtney has similarly let the sun shine through her new work, resulting in a radiant and warm sound. In ‘Rae Street’, Courtney talks about action over words – and that action in this album sounds like self-care.

Spirituality is a way some of us have coped with the losses experienced this year and Courtney is not afraid to reference that on Things Take Time, Take Time. While “The bible line is definitely tongue in cheek [on the song ‘If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight’],” If she had to choose, “I would be most interested in Buddhism. Since I was young I’ve been interested in it. I’m trying to constantly learn more about it.” She’s reading some great books and, like the rest of us, she admits, “I keep starting books and not finishing them. I am rereading the ‘Tibetan Book of Living and Dying’ because I have picked it up over the years and read snippets but never read it fully. I am also reading a Georgia O’Keeffe biography and ‘Man and His Symbols’ by Carl Jung.” 

There is an essence of Buddhism in her lyricism such as “Why don’t you let go of those ideas / they’re never gonna serve you in the end” and twangs of psychedelia in the electric guitar on the same song, ‘Turning Green’. Personally, I discovered Buddhism via ‘The Dharma Bums’ by Jack Kerouac. Courtney exclaimed,Oh yes! I read that too. I think [I became interested in Buddhism] when I was quite a bit younger, I remember reading about Kurt talking about Buddhism. I really liked Nirvana, the band. My auntie also reads and studies a lot about Buddhism. I picked up a lot from her over the years and through my own general intrigue. I’m curious about it and enjoy the few practices I have learned. [Yoga is something] I did a lot more recently and I [began] meditating a lot more over the past two years. During lockdown with more time and space, I definitely felt the changes and the personal shift.” Whilst my own trip to India revealed in Kerala there is an increasing Christian presence in the East, in Europe and the West we seem to remain fascinated by the allure of Buddhist practices.

COAT & TROUSERS Strateas Carlucci
BOOTS Noskin

To me, it was about actively listening. It’s about listening in a different way to the world around you: to people, to yourself or to nature.

Courtney Barnett, speaking on her music video for ‘Before You Gotta Go’

Often I feel like I’m doing the opposite of meditating when I’m scrolling through Instagram. As an Instagram addict trying to disengage, I told Courtney about my preference for physical rather than digital things; namely a physical diary and an analogue alarm clock that liberates me from the digital shackles and looming emails, at least until morning. Courtney says, “I definitely [prefer physical] notebooks. I’ve always written on typewriters as well because I enjoy the slowness and the physicality of them. Also, I like having the physical paper to hold and read straight away. When I go through stuff I’ve written, I love being able to hold it and you see how old the paper is and see coffee stains. It sounds so romantic, but it’s romanticised for a reason. They are a document of time and they hold memories. Also, I love Polaroid cameras because they capture this one moment in time that exists and will never exist again. They seem to have some sort of magic to them that other cameras don’t have. I can relate to the things you say because I’m constantly trying to get away from the phone or the computer. But it keeps creeping back in.” Writing on paper slows down my thoughts and Courtney agrees, “Totally. I don’t think I’ve written much on the computer, except for drafts, I transfer from the paper to the computer.” She uses the clean-cut and unpretentious Arial font. “I feel like when you’re typing it’s so easy to delete in moments of frenzy or frustration. You can just highlight and delete everything and then it’s just gone. With a typewriter, you can go over it with Xes but your mistakes are still kind of there, you can see your bad writing, you can see all the tacky silly stuff that you said and you can look back on it. You can learn from it, you can be embarrassed by it and move on. I like that.” 

I love sitting and looking at the mountains. I think going hiking and being so far away here is something pretty special.

Courtney Barnett

As well as writing mostly outside of the digital realm, living outside of it is an inspiration too. A hike in Joshua Tree with a friend inspired the lyric “getting lost is a fine art” on ‘Sunfair Sundown’. Courtney remembered, “I wrote that song for a friend and it was something she said that night. She was reading a book – ‘The Art of Getting Lost’ by Brendan Leonard. I love sitting and looking at the mountains. I think going hiking and being so far away here is something pretty special.” Like Baudelaire, the 19th-century French poet referenced by Patti Smith and known for his hedonism and being a ‘flaneur’. Flaneur (noun) is literally the French word for an artist who gets lost and inspired out walking, in the case of Baudelaire this happened on the streets of Paris, in the case of Courtney Barnett it was in the mountains in Joshua Tree. Courtney inspires us to get out and live life.  During writing Things Take Time, Take Time, she adds, “I was very connected to the land and earth when I was doing this [album]. Rain is a recurring [theme]. I spent a lot of time recording rain sounds. Rain on the roof is one of my happy sounds.” 

When I wondered whether nature was a refuge for her into anonymity from her fame on the streets of Melbourne, Courtney insists, “No, I don’t feel that often, ever.” That being famous, “I think it’s more the general hustle and bustle and the human element of the world [she was escaping]. I think people are beautiful in a lot of ways. I’m not one of those people who hates people, I love people. I think humans are incredibly and endlessly fascinating, but when you get away from that I just see the world in a different way. You can be grateful for the land in a different way, look at the land in relation to the humans. It’s humbling and re-setting and I feel a different level of gratitude than I do anywhere else.”

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