ONE OF THE SHARPEST SONGWRITERS IN AUSTRALIA RIGHT NOW, ALI BARTER HAS DELIVERED BIG TIME ON HER SECOND ALBUM – COMPLETELY AVOIDING THE SOPHOMORE SLUMP. SHE SPOKE WITH DAVID JAMES YOUNG ABOUT HOW IT WAS FORMULATED, AND THE GEAR RESPONSIBLE FOR ITS SOUND.
The term ‘power couple’ is often tossed about with a sense of irony these days, but when it comes to the husband-and-wife team of
Ali Barter and Oscar Dawson, there’s no better term. Having been a co-writing force throughout all of Barter’s solo career, the pair kept the ball rolling with the collaborative writing, recording and production of her second album, Hello,I’m
DoingMyBest. “I write all the lyrics, melody and the chords,” explains Barter.
“Then, Oscar and I will build it up from there –
I’ll have the idea for the sound and the tone, and
I’ll often have very clear ideas. When it comes to mapping out a solo or a guitar part for Oscar, I tell him exactly what I want in the spirit of the song – something energetic, something hectic, something that mirrors the melody, anything like that. This record has a lot of quiet verses and loud choruses
– a lot of fuzz, a lot of grit, a lot of dirty tone into clean tone… We’re really set in the way that we write together, and I think you can hear that on the album.”
The end result is a listen that’s dynamic, volatile and unashamed in its approach. It takes both the rockier and the poppier elements of Barter’s debut,
ASuitableGirl, and blows them up even further.
A lot of it has to do with the guitar sound of the record, which can jump from shiny and resplendent to guttural and churning. “We experiment a lot, but I think we’re a lot clearer and more specific about things now,” says Barter on achieving her new tone.
“When we were making ASuitableGirl, there were moments where every single pedal that we had was an option for every single song. That’s not really the case anymore – it’s down to a key few of them. For instance, I have this Fuzz Factory pedal that we have a lot of fun with. It’s completely bonkers! I also have a Cream Puff fuzz pedal made by Frantone, which is used a lot on the album. For anything we just wanted to go crazy with, we’d bring in the [EHX] Memory Man – we love that one.”
Mixing power-pop, alt-rock and the hybrid now commonly known as ‘bubblegrunge’, Barter has nailed the combination of sugar and spice for her all-important second album. The self-assuredness that came with selecting pedals and tone also translated into Barter and Dawson’s guitar choices. “I’m playing a Tele on the album for the most part, but Oscar was always good at picking up when we needed something different,” she says.
“There are a few instances where we’d move it over to the Strat, or where we’d use this SG I’ve got that has Humbucker pickups installed. Alex [Crosara, touring guitarist] had a different guitar he played, but for the life of me, I couldn’t tell you what it was called. It looks like a Tele, but it’s not. It’s got a very jangly, ‘90s kind of sound to it – it goes well against the harsher, fuzzier stuff on the album.”
The dream of the ‘90s is alive and well on Hello; much of it is indebted to Liz Phair, whom Barter toured with back in March, as well as bands like the Pixies and the sound established on their SurferRosa
LP. One album Barter points to in particular, however, is Weezer’s oft-maligned second album Pinkerton.
“In terms of production, I was listening to it a lot and getting inspired by it,” she says.
“It’s funny... I wanted the record to be really raw, rough and live-sounding, but my voice is basically like a choirgirl’s, so it’s never going to sound anything but squeaky clean.” She laughs, before continuing: “That really was the endgame with the sound of the album, though. Just two guitars, bass and drums. That live sound. Oscar would keep wanting to add more guitars, and I’d have to stop him straight up – like, ‘No more guitars!’”
Barter also notes the influence of The Breeders on the sound of the album, as well – “I really like the way they incorporate space into their songs,” she says, “and how their songs are often centred around the way Jo [Wiggs] plays bass. I’d just started playing bass live before we went in to track this album, and I definitely wanted there to be a bigger presence of bass on this album.” Indeed, Barter made the switch from six to four strings in the live setting back in 2018, to convert her once five-strong touring band into a power trio. Although it was initially a business decision, Barter has found herself right at home amidst the low-end.
“It was originally a financial decision,” she says of her swap. “Being a touring band is really expensive, and just being a trio is a significant help. I did this massive tour with The Preatures last year, and when we got the offer I made the decision to move over to bass. When I was playing guitar live, I was often just chugging on the one chord. It seemed like a natural move to switch over to bass – and now I just love it. It’s a whole different energy for the live show.”