WHEN Ali Barter looks to her past, there’s plenty to find.
In defining her sound, the Melbourne-based indie-pop artist finds kinship in the female-fronted guitar bands that permeated teen movie soundtracks in the late-’90s and early-2000s. Think Letters to Cleo, the Cardigans, Sixpence None the Richer, and the Donnas.
But when it comes to the content of her songwriting, there’s a strict line separating nostalgia from experiences that are trickier to navigate and she’s not as eager to revisit.
Her new record is called Hello, I’m Doing My Best, which is as much an admission as it is a mission statement.
“[‘I’m doing my best’] is exactly what I had to learn in life: this is all I have, and I’m going to do it. And then I’m going to step away. And that’s it; I can’t do anything else,” Ali says determinedly. “That’s who I am and I can’t fucking push it away anymore.”
Over the course of 11 tracks, Ali digs up and analyses the remnants of her past with the care and attention of an anthropologist, but absent any distance or objectivity.
This is contemporary, clever pop music about classic subjects: addition, recovery, regret, obsession, and forging a fresh new way forward. It’s also intensely autobiographical.
In recent single ‘January’, Ali reckons with the trap that comes at the end of every year, when we declare our resolutions – followed by the inevitable guilt of not sticking them out.
In late 2017 – the year her debut record A Suitable Girl was released – Ali was coming to the end of an exhausting run of touring, when suddenly “the wheels came off”.
“I went to South America to do some solo shows and I completely fell apart. I was all alone on other side of the world. No people around me. And I was fucked,” she remembers.
Rather than change her situation or outlook, Ali turned inward to find blame in an easy target: herself.
“It was December and I was like, ‘I’m gonna go on a diet!’ I do this every year. I do this every. Fucking. Year. Like, I said that I was never gonna gossip again and I’m gossiping again. How many times have I started CrossFit thinking I’m gonna get a six pack in six weeks? And then I do the first five sessions and I’m like, ‘Nah.’
“I can’t tell you how many times I think I found the answer. I even did it this year. I was like, ‘I’m gonna be vegetarian, this is the answer.’ I made spaghetti bolognese last night! It’s fuckin’ not the answer. The answer is just doing my best and trying not to be a cunt to yourself and to other people.”
The song ends with Ali letting rip a bodily howl, spewing the words “going nowhere” over and over.
“It sounds really dark but we are going nowhere! The song is about that Groundhog Day shit of me trying to fix myself, trying to be different. It’s never gonna happen.”
IT’S taken Ali years to reach the place of being able to accept things as they are, to trust and believe in herself and her music, and to stop seeking out opportunities to destroy it all.
She stopped drinking seven years ago, and both her sobriety and the years before it are woven into the narrative of the record.
On ‘History of Boys’ she attempts to reconcile the person she is now with the girl who was always the last to leave the party. On ‘Cocktail Bar’ she unearths troubling memories of blacking out, being harmed by those around her, but pointing an accusatory finger at herself nonetheless.
“This song is really about how baffling I found my behaviour, how baffling I found my alcoholism,” Ali says of ‘Cocktail Bar’; a track that positions her as a searching, desperate figure in need of help and companionship and reassurance after stumbling upon the realisation that she is “not the girl I used to be”.
“It was so confusing because I was this girl who had dreams,” she continues, “and I was a nice person with a nice upbringing. And then I would go out and get myself in these really fucked up situations.”
I met him a cocktail bar/I didn’t know who he was/When I woke up he was fucking me/And now I feel a little slutty.
Ali recounts the moment the memory came crashing back into her consciousness. She was in San Francisco with her husband Oscar Dawson, with whom she writes and records, and who is a founding member of the band Holy Holy. They were in a cocktail bar – Ali with a mocktail in hand – when a past situation reared itself again.
“We went home and I wrote it on the bed in the other room, and I played it to Oscar and he was like, ‘Jesus’. With my drinking, a lot of stuff comes back to me that I’ve forgotten or blocked out. And that story came out.”
Ali doesn’t allow herself to shirk these memories. They exist as fact, and pretending otherwise doesn’t benefit her growth. “I have to use [my past] as a tool to communicate because … it happened. I can’t do anything about that. And also it can be used to talk to people about shame or drinking or bad behaviour. I have to make it a positive and I have to use it to take responsibility for myself.”
"It was so confusing because I was this girl who had dreams, and I was a nice person with a nice upbringing. And then I would go out and get myself in these really fucked up situations.”
‘History of Boys’ tells a similar tale though, one disguised behind a cheeky title and deceptively simple rhyming scheme.
Let me tell you my history of boys/Driving way too fast, making too much noise.
“It’s not really about boys; it’s about my relationship to excess,” Ali explains.
Rather than an apology or story of regret, the track is about hindsight and overcoming her relationship to more. Drinking wasn’t the only thing she consumed. Cigarettes, food, people – they all played a part, and they were all sought out to fill a void.
“I’ve felt shame about lot of the things that I’m writing about on this record,” she says. “But I don’t want to do it anymore. Everyone’s feeling shame, everyone’s feeling bad about something.”
She says she’s the first to swat away negative self-talk in her friends, to boost and embolden them when they’re struggling. And it’s about time she offered the same generosity and credit to herself.
There’s a nostalgia to the way Ali tackles her past, but it’s always tinted with the awareness of having moved on, grown and learned to show up for herself in a way that her teenage self couldn’t.
Now 33, Ali remains fascinated with not only her own adolescence, but those captured on film.
GROWING up in Caulfield, an enclave of Jewish residents in Melbourne, she describes walking down the street coming home from Catholic school and wishing she was invited to a Shabbat dinner with her neighbours.
It’s the exact inverse of how Charlotte Flax, Winona Ryder’s character in Mermaids felt. Ryder is a reference and influence that Ali returns to time and again. Her video for the record’s first single, ‘Ur A Piece of Shit’, pays homage to Heathers, where the interior darkness of teenage girls manifests itself in grizzly ways.
It’s all about innocence lost, she says. Characters that were sheltered and naive are exposed to drugs, or they experience abuse. “Or they’re in a bitchy friendship group and then kill everyone,” she laughs. “They’re always searching for something.”
“Those teenage years are just so intense,” she continues. “I would like just listen to a song and it would just make me feel so much stuff. Movies that I watched back then and the music that I listened to back then still now move me in a way that nothing else does. I don’t have that anymore, which is fine because I’m a grown-up now. I think.
“I keep going back there because that was the most intense and beautiful, romantic, horrific time of my life when stuff was happening. Maybe I won’t write about it forever. Maybe it’s just coming out of me now.”
"That's what this record is for me. It's like me sitting down with a bunch of friends and having this talk, and being like, 'I did this on the weekend and I hate myself.'"
When it was released in March, ‘Ur a Piece of Shit’ struck a nerve with its depiction of formative female friendships and offered up possibly the darkest call-and-response in pop music history:
Put your hands up if your dad had an affair/Put your hands up if your mother never cared … Put your hands up if your teacher used to stare/Put your hands up if it felt good to cut yourself.
Fittingly, Ali set the video in a high school bathroom, which is second only to a bedroom or diary as a site of girlhood secrecy and horror.
The song is an ode to Ali’s lifelong friends, the ones that bring her down to earth but also lovingly talk shit when she’s not present at their regular catch-ups.
It’s “a loving, judgey, complicated thing that girls have”. Those same friends became the “Piece of Shit Choir”, joining in the cries of “Put your hands up” in the very song their bond inspired during the recording process.
“That’s what this record is for me. It’s like me sitting down with a bunch of friends and having this talk, and being like, ‘I did this on the weekend and I hate myself’, and I have this problem I need to get it out.”
She’s broadened the circle of trust to include every potential listener, and in doing so has taught herself not to be scared of what that brings.
“When I put out the first record and people responded to it, I heard myself in a heightened way. I felt like a little snail, and someone had touched my antennas –” she gasps and draws in around herself protectively.
She compared herself to other people, and didn’t like what she saw.
“I think I hung myself too much on people’s responses to the last [record] – which were amazing – but because I was so concerned with that, I couldn’t feel it.”
In recording and listening back to her music, Ali hears herself. In the past, she took issue with every part of that – her sound, her stories, the reality behind them. But the same tools that hold her through her sobriety also ease the pressures she liked to place on herself.
“The thing with alcoholism is the alcohol is just a symptom; it’s not the problem. The problem is your mind. So [getting sober is] a process of changing your attitude.”
The sound of this record is a tribute to all the things Ali has learned to accept about herself: less instrumentation, less polished production, fewer tracks – in other words, an ability to hear herself behind the noise and sonic distractions.
“I didn’t want it to be wall of sound, lush. I wanted it to sound gritty and a bit shit sometimes. I really like Weezer and I really like Hole, and if that’s not cool right now then fuck it. This is what I’m making.”
"Underneath all the production or all the time away or all the different people I work with, it’s still going to be me."
It helped that Oscar was by her side through the entire process. The single ‘Backseat’ chronicles her admiration of him as an artist before they met – and, she says, became immediately inseparable – and an absolute trust in him as a producer and partner guided Ali’s newfound acceptance of her sound and style.
She toyed with the idea of making the record with different people but as soon as she and Oscar began to demo the songs she’d written, she realised that was the way it should be. He handles the rhythm section while Ali comes up with the lyrics, chords and melodies.
“I don’t know how to do that and I’m not interested in learning; I just want to tell stories.”
After rejecting the version of herself she heard amplified back at her on A Suitable Girl – “I was like, it’s too polished and my voice is too high!” – she ventured back into the studio with Oscar for Hello, I’m Doing My Best and was surprised that while the voice remained the same, her response to it had changed.
“I was like, ‘Oh, there I am.’ That’s who I am and I can’t fucking push it away anymore. Underneath all the production or all the time away or all the different people I work with, it’s still going to be me. And the thing that I was pushing against was me. Writing this record was a bit of a like conceding to myself. And that was a relief ’cause I’m not fighting it anymore.”
“It’s a lot more natural and easy when I’m not hiding myself. Even the song subjects are much more like” – she mimes throwing up, purging herself of the work and the personal narratives they reflect – “That was fucked, I did that thing, there you go. And maybe that’s my angle. Maybe that’s who I am.”