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Courtney Barnett: The In-Between Moments

I AM convinced I have gone to the wrong place as I walk up to the Milk! Records door.

The exterior of this small warehouse – in Coburg, Melbourne – looks just like the one near my studio where the occupants had allegedly faked their relatives’ deaths and had been on the run for months. Run down, and locked up.

After checking the address a couple of times, I gave the door a cautious knock. To my relief, inside were two smiley, young women standing at the desk in a warmly lit studio space. After talking for a little while, they alerted me to the fact that Courtney was in fact sitting behind me the whole time.

She started getting up from her desk. And just when I thought she had finished standing, she kept going. Aren’t well-known people supposed to be shorter than you had imagined? She was towering over me as we shook hands.

We walked to the next room, separated by a large sheet sporting the wobbly Milk! Records logo, and took a seat at the desk, right next to the performance space brightened by fairy lights.

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‘'I like that it's imperfect. [It's] a bit of a weird shot, not one that you would normally put on a cover."

AROUND the desk are scattered packets of polaroids which immediately drove us down a wormhole of art talk. Courtney, as it turns out, studied drawing and photography for two years in Tasmania, where she worked on her drawings that would eventually become her album covers.

I wonder whether her beginnings in art influenced her music. “I feel like some of that transfers onto the songs.” she says. “I was always interested in documenting like [photographer] Nan Goldin.”

This inspiration makes complete sense as both artists have an incredible ability to notice unnoticed moments. “The more I studied art theory and things I learnt before,” she continues, “I guess it kind of opened up my brain to surrealism and the kind of writing practices through that.”

Courtney’s interest in surrealism runs through her music, video clips, and her recent cover art: two surreal, faceless images for her single ‘Nameless, Faceless’; and the almost matching red portrait for Tell Me How You Really Feel, the follow-up to 2015 debut Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit.

These, Courtney explains, are Duochrome polaroid selfies.

“I was writing here most of the time and procrastinating and taking a photo everyday. This is what I look like,” she says, matter-of-factly.

“Some were really close and washed out, [but] when it came time to do the artwork, I was going through all my stuff. Out of all of them … I just loved that one, it was so in focus. Kind of awkwardly close, it cuts my lip off.

‘’I like that it’s imperfect,” she adds. “[It’s] a bit of a weird shot, not one that you would normally put on a cover. I like the look in my eyes. It looks ambiguous. I don’t really know what I am thinking about but it matches the title [Tell Me How You Really Feel].”

This ambiguity is something I have always actively tried to avoid in my own work, despite having enormous respect for it. Courtney explains: “You can see it, it’s normally the in-between moments. That’s the funny thing, when you are not waiting. It’s the one that the photographer always wants to throw away.”

These moments all belong in my unselected folders. But after this discussion I am becoming more convinced to give them a second look.

Throughout Tell Me How You Really Feel there are little moments that highlight fleeting discussions and gestures. On the album’s closing track, ‘Sunday Roast’, Courtney sings: “Just bring yourself, you know your presence is present enough.” It’s that small, passing phrase that often gets rolled off the tongue before the brain can even think about it.

This particular song also has quite an incredible backstory.

“I wrote the music part of it when I was 13,” Courtney proudly explains. “It was a school assessment. I always liked it and I always play it when I am just sitting around playing guitar. I could never put words to it. I could never get to the next step of what the song needed. But when I was writing this album I think that things reappear for a reason. Suddenly I had an idea for a melody and I had some words that went with it. I added a new part and then it was this finished song.”

She sits back beaming. “I love that song, it’s nice to know it has that history. I remember writing it.”

Courtney got a pretty average mark in that assessment, despite describing her teacher as great. I personally would like to vote to have it re-assessed.

As for the album as a whole, these in-between moments seem to have become moments in a far more emotional and personal dialogue than previously seen.

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COURTNEY describes the album as a “bit less guarded, a bit more vulnerable and I guess kind of scary”. And it’s there in the titles – from ‘Hopefulessness’ to ‘Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack of Self Confidence’, with the chorus stating, “I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know anything.”

Courtney explores the vulnerabilities of those around her as well as her own difficult experiences, particularly with internet trolls.

“It makes me really angry but it also makes me sad. It’s confusing where it comes from and what fear they have of the world that they have to project all this shit onto other people to make themselves feel better.”

‘Nameless, Faceless’ was a consideration of both online bullying and real world incidents regularly covered in the press. “Rates of domestic violence and sexual assault – you talk about it with friends. I was just trying to figure it out. I was dwelling on it. Why? What is this?”

This reflection of the intersection between online and physical violence is brilliantly explored in the track itself. “You sit alone at home in the darkness,” Courtney sings. “With all the pent-up rage that you harness/I’m real sorry ’bout whatever happened to you/I wanna walk through the park in the dark.”

That intersection is further explored in the brilliantly made video directed by Lucy Dyson, which once again brings out Courtney’s surprising interest in surrealism. The random collaged imagery of cats, hot dogs in space, and eye-masks on the planet earth somehow manages to cleverly portray the serious narrative in a powerful but playful way.

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THE interview runs overtime and I have just 10 minutes to channel all of this new and wonderful information about Courtney into a quick series of portraits. But this time with a new mindset. I will need to be prepared to throw away my favourite images and pick only those moments in-between.

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