Attacking things with a sense of empathy: a conversation with Courtney Barnett

Since releasing her debut full-length album Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit back in 2015, Courtney Barnett has been celebrated as one of the sharpest and most unique voices in indie rock.

And rightfully so. With her signature deadpan wit, Barnett flips seamlessly between clever social commentary and heart-wrenching self-reflection. Now, just days before she embarks on her next Australian tour, we caught up with Barnett to chat everything from typewriters to YouTube comment sections.

Courtney barnett interview
This illustration is by the awesome Natasha Michels. Check out her Instagram

At the moment everything’s really crazy, but things have always been crazy“: We caught up with Courtney Barnett to chat typewriters, indie record stores, and the art of attacking political issues with a sense of empathy.

HAPPY: It’s been a few months now since Tell Me How You Really Feel came out, and it feels far more melancholic and introspective than past releases. Was this an album you intended to go out and make, or was it something that emerged naturally?

COURTNEY: Yeah I don’t think I really intended anything. I just started writing everyday, and kept on going, and that’s what came out of me.

HAPPY: It’s obviously quite different to Sometimes I Sit And Think, Sometimes I Just Sit… following the success of that album, were there apprehensions releasing an album like this?

COURTNEY: I didn’t really know how to consider that. I kind of tried to just not think about it, because whatever I thought didn’t matter. I couldn’t tell if I was writing what people wanted. I don’t think it really matters anyway because everyone likes different things. So yeah, I didn’t think about it too much… I just wanted to put out the best thing that I could do.

HAPPY: You started writing the album on a typewriter, yeah?

COURTNEY: Yeah kind of. I always try to use different writing tools to keep me thinking, and to keep my brain in a slightly different headspace. Different kinds of working environments are good. It’s important not to get too built up in one space… but yeah, I definitely wrote a lot on a typewriter just to kind of mess around with a slower pace

HAPPY: Do you think that slower pace affected the sound of the album?

COURTNEY: Yeah. I think it’s just slower and it doesn’t react as quickly as a computer… so my brain would be racing off before I could finish typing what I was thinking about. So I’d read back these slightly disjointed sentences, going off in different ways. It made it really different.

HAPPY: When you released the first single, Nameless/Faceless, you sent out a number of advanced copies to independent record stores around the country… how important is it to you to continue supporting these stores?

COURTNEY: I think it’s important to support people who care about music and care about what they’re doing. It’s more about the creation than the other stuff. It’s about supporting the people that support you, I think. It’s not money and popularity based.

HAPPY: Around that same time, you set up a thing on your website where you encouraged people to tell you how they really felt…


HAPPY: Did you ever read any of those messages?

COURTNEY: Yeah, yeah I read through a lot of them. It was really overwhelming reading them all, because a lot of them were very personal, and people were really open or really funny. It was quite voyeuristic reading through them all.

HAPPY: Are there any particular ones that have stuck with you?

COURTNEY: Not really particular ones, but more the tone of them. You can imagine that people kind of feel similar things, obviously. So I think that at the mind of it, we’re not just ourselves in whatever situation we think we might be in.

HAPPY: It’s pretty well-documented the kind of “feedback” you receive online. Is this difficult to disengage from?

COURTNEY: I don’t really try to disengage from it… I just don’t try to engage with it. It’s easy to avoid – you just don’t look at it. I certainly don’t like spending my time looking through things about myself, whether they’re good or bad.

HAPPY: Going back to late last year, with the announcement of the same-sex marriage survey results… Apple released a video celebrating the outcome, and they used your cover of INXS’ Never Tear Us Apart


HAPPY: The reaction to that was so bad they had to disable the YouTube comments section. I can’t imagine what it’d be like being involved in something like that…

COURTNEY: Yeah I did see some of that… which was pretty intense. I mean, that’s got nothing to do with me. That all comes from other people’s homophobia and hatred… so yeah, I don’t care on a personal level… I’m more upset and angry at the supposed evolution of our society. At the same time, there was still a lot of really positive stuff, but of course, the negatives always outweigh the positives because it’s more upsetting. People are always more eager to display their negativity than their positivity, just like Yelp reviews.

HAPPY: You’ve always made pretty direct political statements in your music… and while those statements are still there on the new record, they feel far more introspective. Do you think it’s important to have these different methods of attacking political issues?

COURTNEY: Yeah, well at the moment everything’s really crazy, but things have always been crazy. There’s always been inequality on every level. I think there’s different versions of being political, and how people choose to project it. You wouldn’t wanna hear a song just about the things that piss me off, because it’d be really boring. You might as well just write a blog that has a dot-point list of things. I think the point of music and the point of art is to kind of suggest those things and to paint a picture of a situation – to attack things with a level of empathy that hopefully will connect with someone with a different opinion. But yeah, it’s also effective to scream and shout about something… I think that’s awesome as well. It’s just whatever works on the day.

Courtney Barnett’s new interview Tell Me How You Really Feel is out now.

You can catch her on tour this August and September. Get your tickets here.

Friday, 17th August, Thebarton Theatre, Adelaide (All ages)

Saturday, 18th August, Metropolis, Fremantle (18+)

Wednesday, 22nd August, The Tivoli, Brisbane (18+)

Thursday, 23rd August, Sydney Opera House (All ages)

Saturday, 25th August, Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, Sydney (All ages)

Saturday, 1st September, Festival Hall, Melbourne (All ages)