Courtney Barnett emphasizes empathy S
elf-confidence is a funny thing, especially when you don’t have it and know that, no matter what you accomplish in life, you probably never will.
Courtney Barnett gets that. To pore over the lyrics on her second proper full-length, Tell Me How You Really Feel, is to conclude that sometimes all the platitudes in the world don’t amount to much. The ragged-glory rocker “Charity” has the Australian outlier singing “So subservient I make myself sick/are you listening?”, while “Walkin’ on Eggshells” has her laconically opining “Say what you want/don’t got a lot/oh but what I got/i’d give it all away.”
As for the brilliantly titled Track 7, “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self-confidence”, the message is received long before Barnett gets to lines like “I never feel as stupid/as when I’m around you.”
As she kicks off a fall tour of North America, Barnett has every reason to feel like she’s arrived as an indie-rock superstar, even if she’ll never admit it. Reached by phone in a Denver hotel room, she self-deprecatingly notes that she’s sold out the city’s legendary Ogden Theatre, which has hosted everyone from Harry Houdini to Prince and the Pogues. Before heading to Vancouver for a two-night stand at the Vogue, she’ll detour to Los Angeles to headline the city’s fabled Greek Theatre.
Her summer, meanwhile, had indisputable highlights like a doubleheader at the Sydney Opera House in her hometown.
“It was incredible,” says Barnett. “I mean, I grew up in Sydney, and—obviously, as an Australian—the Sydney Opera House is iconic. So it’s a really big deal to play there, and I was really honoured that people came out to show
Tell Me How You Really Feel.
their support. My parents were there, so that was pretty amazing.”
But despite such triumphs, there’s plenty over the course of the interview to indicate Barnett is the same person she’s always been since breaking out at the beginning of the decade: a self-doubting introvert who sometimes wonders if anyone truly likes her. To be the 30-yearold Australian icon in the making is to be convinced you’re never the most interesting person in the room, this despite being responsible for gold-star lyrics like “The paramedic thinks I’m clever ’cause I play guitar/i think she’s clever ’cause she stops people dying.”
To further illustrate this narrative, recall—if you were lucky enough to be there—barnett’s 2016 headlining triumph at the Commodore, where she came on like a Crazy Horse–fixated guitar goddess riffing on undiluted Seattle grunge and golden era American college rock. Halfway through the show, a technical glitch caused a 10-minute interruption, the singer eventually stepping to the mike to note few things horrify her more than having to talk to an audience between songs.
Just because you’re never at a loss for words with a pen and a piece of paper doesn’t make you one of the great rock ’n’ roll orators of all time on-stage.
“The inner conflict is always there,” Barnett explains. “I feel like every day kind of brings those conflicting feelings between my introvert and my extrovert self. But I guess it’s good to be forced into positions like that [Commodore] show, because sometimes you’ll surprise yourself.”
Consider that a sign she’s deep-down convinced we have the ability to grow as people, something that gives Barnett a reason to keep on going in a world that’s seemingly losing all its civility.
She’s obviously not immune to moments when it all seems hopeless, chronicling what it’s like to stare into the void on the deceptively buoyant “City Looks Pretty”. But in her typically clever fashion, she’s interested in much more than herself on Tell Me How You Really Feel, addressing everything from sexism and double standards in the music industry and beyond (“I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch”) to the importance of reaching out for help when the dark clouds roll in (“Help Your Self”).
What ultimately stands out is her empathy, even on “Nameless, Faceless”, where Barnett takes the high road while addressing the keyboard gangsters of the world. As a public figure, the singer knows what it’s like to be attacked by people who’ve never met her and never will. But rather than coming across angrier than Rico Nasty covering Rage Against the Machine, she’s almost sympathetic, addressing the cyberbullies of the world with lines like “Don’t you have anything better to do?/i wish that someone could hug you” and “You sit alone at home in the darkness/with all the pentup rage that you harness/i’m real sorry ’bout whatever happened to you.”
“Empathy is one of the most important things in life,” Barnett offers. “I don’t think any one of us ever knows what is truly going on with another person. So all we can really do is to try and listen, understand, and talk about things with other people. A lot of my album is about the importance of communication.”
Communication that, hopefully, gets us to a better place. Barnett might not be willing to consider herself the indie-rock genius that she’s frequently hailed as. But at least there are times when she understands that maybe, just maybe, she could be a little easier on herself.
“I know that I can dwell on what I think I am, to where you kind of get stuck in this revolving cycle,” she confesses. “Like ‘I am shy. I am quiet.’ And ‘I can’t go to the function where there’s going to be people because I am scared.’ So you avoid things. But I’ve kind of found myself in this position where I almost have to go sometimes. Or at least will go ‘I should really do that.’ Then I end up going, and it’s not as bad as I thought.”