On her latest album’s opening track, “Hopefulessness,” Courtney Barnett whispers over a grungy guitar dirge, “Take your broken heart/turn it into art,” before promising “Can’t take it with you/Can’t take it with you.”
It’s in that spirit that Barnett hits the road this summer and deep into the fall in support of the album, Tell Me How You Really Feel. The trek takes the Australian singer-songwriter through North America, including a stop at the BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn Festival at the Prospect Park Bandshell on July 25—a venue Barnett is looking forward to playing in a borough that has become a frequent stop during her seemingly constant touring schedule.
“I love it. We’ve played a lot there,” Barnett said of Brooklyn. “New York is a special spot for me. It’s the first place I ever went and toured overseas, playing my first ever shows outside of Australia. And every time we go back, we play in bigger spots and, I don’t know, I’ve always felt really lucky in New York, always a great connection with the crowd.”
Barnett’s last connection with a New York crowd was at Music Hall of Williamsburg on May 19, the day after the release of Tell Me How You Really Feel, a brisk 10-song journey through the full spectrum of human emotion—despair, hope, anger, anxiety, fear—it’s all represented with Barnett’s signature wry lyrical style laid over guitar-led indie rock. During that mini-tour, Barnett and her band played the new album in its entirely, before mixing in songs spanning her fledgling career.
“It was great to feel how [the songs] transform live and seeing people connect with them was really incredible,” she said, adding the self-confessional nature of her songs can make live performances somewhat nerve-wracking. “It’s very vulnerable and that in and of itself is pretty terrifying. The first couple of shows or maybe that first tour that we just finished was quite emotionally taxing, but in a good way—like it’s good to get nervous before a show because it shows you’re alive and you have emotions. The process of performing the songs as opposed to writing and recording them is this whole other world and adds greater depth of understanding of what the songs actually are.”
Her latest batch of songs sees Barnett evolve into new lyrical and musical territory, with a higher level of urgency injected into her songwriting than was present on her full-length debut, 2015’s Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, or on her 2013 double EP A Sea of Split Peas, which featured the crossover hit “Avant Gardener,” a breezy, yet anxiety-riddled tune that is likely the best song ever written about suffering an asthma attack while gardening. And though Barnett’s music has always possessed an element of self-examination hidden beneath her droll delivery, Tell Me How You Really Feel adds a dark and mournful twist that exposes the songwriter’s vulnerabilities and world-weary angst.
There’s the timely anger of “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch;” the online comment section torpedoing of “Nameless, Faceless;” the emotionally naked “Need A Little Time;” the self-explanatory “Crippling Self-Doubt and a General Lack of Confidence;” and the all-is-not-lost-even-though-it-really-feels-like-it-is spirit of the aforementioned “Hopefulessness.” The tracks convey the message that Barnett is not pulling any punches—either with the world at large or with herself.
“I think I always had this anger in me my whole life and it kind of crept out in some songs,” said Barnett. “I think the last couple of years I’ve had some realizations and begun to understand the anger in a different way and I’m finding this whole other frustration in the world that we have come to know. I guess it came out in a way that maybe it was bottled up before and it came out quite abruptly. I was just sick of sitting with it and holding it in.”
Barnett said that much of the new album deals with that release of anger, but also the full gamut of emotions we all live with in a world that seems to deliver a constant flow of new calamities.
“It sums up the feeling of hopelessness in a world where you want to be hopeful and you want to be positive and you want to be strong and you want to help and you want to make a change, but you don’t know how,” she said. “I feel a lot of anger and sadness and frustration and despair. It’s such an overwhelming [pauses] it’s a f*cking overwhelming world that we’re living in and it’s hard to not just lie down and give up. It’s all about trying to figure out what to do with that energy.”
And the energy built up on that album culminates in the set’s closer “Sunday Roast,” a song that came from Barnett and friends getting together once a week for dinner. It’s a positive, sweet-sounding tune dripping with melancholy optimism—ending with the cold comfort of its uplifting fade-out that confirms the dourness of the opening track while giving the listener something, anything, to hold onto.
“It’s community and it’s friendship and it’s coming together,” she said of the closing song. “And it’s being aware that we all have our own stuff going on. I was seeing people in pain and me similarly feeling that and I guess the idea is that you can share that weight with people and you can talk about it and you can communicate and it won’t make it better, but it will make it a little bit better.”
Courtney Barnett performs at BRIC Celebrate Brooklyn Festival at the Prospect Park Bandshell on Wednesday, July 25.
New to Courtney Barnett’s music? Start with these seven essential songs.