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Discover the Empathy of Courtney Barnett

The deadpan songstress opens up about her sophomore album Tell Me How You Really Feel

Since the release of her 2015 debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit garnered her a Best New Artist Grammy nomination, Australia native Courtney Barnett has managed to maintain an impressively modest outlook on her artistry. The music community has fully embraced Barnett’s deadpan delivery that is contrasted by her rock star guitar skills, and eagerly awaits a follow-up solo album. With the mainstream success of her debut album, Barnett humbly admits that those accolades don’t mean everything to her. “I just try to ignore it,” she says, adding, “I think there’s a little bit of pressure there, but I also think it’d be unrealistic to say otherwise.”

The bit of pressure Barnett felt seems to have aided her in creating her newest collection of songs on her sophomore album Tell Me How You Really Feel, set to be released on May 18. The album came to fruition following Barnett’s collaboration with friend Kurt Vile on their album Lotta Sea Lice, an album that Barnett admits was a bit of an accident. “We were going to record one song and then two years later it turned into a full album and a tour,” she says. On working with Vile, she says, “We had met through mutual friends at festivals and so the barriers were already down by the time we started writing together.”

It’s clear that Barnett’s signature songwriting style comes so naturally to her that her inspiration is allowed to be somewhat elusive. “It’s very internal. It was a study of self, in a way. I was kind of writing letters and songs to other people with so much empathy floating around,” she says of her new album’s narrative. “I think empathy causes a study of self-reflection.”

While listening to Tell Me How You Feel, it can feel as though you’re hearing a handwritten postcard come to life through song, with nonchalant sentiments and quietly sad observations peppered throughout. “I was sensing this kind of… overwhelming struggle and sadness everywhere,” Barnett says. The sadness is accompanied by a certain comfort in knowing that someone recognizes those emotions that you might be feeling. Songs like “Sunday Roast” perfectly punctuate the compassion that is laced throughout the album, allowing Barnett to explore a more nostalgic mood. “I wrote the instrumental part when I was in year 7 in school, when I was like 13-years-old,” she says of the song. “I always play it when I’m just sitting around and I’ve never been able to sing along to it.” As soon as she finally came up with a storyline to pair with the music, Barnett says the song became one of her favorites.

Tell Me How You Really Feel offers an assortment of moods, tempos and energy, creating a gentle rollercoaster of emotions when listened to straight through. Being able to showcase her range of talents has come from collaborating with fellow artists like Kurt Vile but also, working with her current girlfriend, singer Jen Cloher. By playing guitar in Cloher’s band, Barnett says she’s been able to broaden her musical scope. “You go over the top to try to impress someone else or to figure out what they want. It makes my brain work a little differently,” Barnett explains. With songs like “Sunday Roast” that offer surprising words of encouragement to emotional tracks like “Nameless, Faceless,” Barnett’s sophomore album is a collage of stories and memories; each told with an admirable empathetic quality. Barnett will be on tour this summer, making stops at Forecastle Festival, Pitchfork Music Festival and Newport Folk Festival.

Main image credit: Kylie Coutts

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