Known for her witty and personal lyrics about life in the modern world, Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett revamps her perspective with new album ‘Tell Me How You Really Feel’. We caught up with Courtney at her sold-out show at Pico Union Project in LA to chat about recording the album, playing new songs for the first time live, and why friends often make the best bandmates.
You just finished making your new album Tell Me How You Really Feel, and now you’re headed out on tour. What’s it like playing these new songs for the first time live?
COURTNEY BARNETT: It’s really exciting to finally play them live. Especially after spending so long writing them, and then a short, intense time recording them, and finally time sitting on them. It’s been about a year and now, and we’ve only done a handful of shows. Less than ten times we’ve really ever played them live, so it’s really fun just to see them exist in the world.
Did you change any of the process this time around with this album in terms of the recording process?
It was kind of similar - recording live as a band, and then touching up bits here and there. Rerecording the guitar parts with better tones, because I never bother to do it right the first time. Also some vocal overdubbing, because I hadn’t finished most of the lyrics. Other than that, pretty much the same – simple & short, ten days or so. Just trusting in the moment and the process.
How does the music itself translate from the studio to the stage?
I think it ends up being different - there’s always more energy when performed live. There’s a kind of nervous energy that an audience brings on. Same in the studio, too - it’s a bit timid, and you’ll ask yourself, Am I doing the right thing? Is this good? Songs are always going to grow as time goes on, which is good.
Do you tend to use the same gear setup live as you do when recording in the studio?
Pretty much the same. It was just about adjusting pedals to be perfectly right in the studio, so that [the album] didn’t involve as much post-editing. Getting a really good sound to start with, then not having to re-amp guitars or add extra distortion later. I prefer to take the time to get a good initial sound. For example, in the song “Hopeful Listeners”, I used a cello bow to create more of a string sound. I also play guitar on Jen Cloher’s last album, and I did it on her album a lot, too - layering it in the background.
You play through both a Fender Bassman and a Fender Blues Deluxe Amp onstage. How do you utilize both to best fit your sound?
I’m still figuring it out. I’ve been experimenting with it for a while. I like making adjustments and figuring out what works. I like the different sounds and extra volume. I originally had them because I couldn’t hear my guitar properly, so I had one pointing at me from the stage right, and one from behind.
Tell us a little bit about why your current touring setup is the best match for your sound.
I got the Fender Jaguar when I started touring the last album - I had just been using a Telecaster before that. I love the Jag – I’m so used to it. And then just a handful of pedals - mostly overdrives and steps of distortion, a delay, and then chorus pedal. We played as a three piece for so long that it became a cheap way of making a bigger sound [Laughs].
You don’t use a pick when playing electric guitar live. When did you make that decision as a guitar player?
I used to play acoustic guitar when I started playing solo shows, and I hated the sound of the pick on the acoustic. So I got rid of it, and then I was used to not having one.
What advice do you have for artists when something goes wrong on stage (technical or otherwise)?
It’s so hard in those moments to keep your cool and not get paranoid that everything’s gone to shit. But I think it’s about staying calm, and not worrying about silence - people are there to watch you and have fun, they don’t really care about the little things. I wouldn’t even care, if I was watching a band.
What do you look for in a touring band member? What makes a musician a worthy addition to a live lineup?
I’ve always played with friends - I think I’m just really lucky that my friends are super-talented. I just look for thoughtful and considerate musicians, I think. Not overplaying, no massive egos. Serving the song first and foremost, and then worrying about everything else afterwards.
You have one of the coolest jobs on the planet, getting to travel around and play music for an audience. What’s the one thing that you can’t get enough of, playing night after night?
I think just having a crowd of people who’ve paid to watch you and are there just to see you. That’s a really amazing position to be in. That, and people connecting with the songs.
Courtney's new album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, is out now:
Catch Courtney on tour:
5/19 - Music Hall of Williamsburg - New York, NY SOLD OUT
5/21 - Chicago Cultural Center - Tiffany Dome - Chicago, IL SOLD OUT
6/3 - All Points East - London, UK
7/6 - Winnipeg Folk Festival - Winnipeg, MB Canada
7/7 - 80/35 Festival - Des Moines, IA
7/9 - Danforth Music Hall - Toronto, ON
7/10 - Danforth Music Hall - Toronto, ON SOLD OUT
7/11 - Ottawa Bluesfest - Ottawa, ON
7/12 - Mass MoCA - North Adams, MA
7/14 - Columbus, OH - Newport Music Hall
7/15 - Forecastle Festival - Louisville, KY
7/17 - The Pageant - St. Louis, MO
7/18 - The Truman - Kansas City, MO
7/20 - Pitchfork Music Festival - Chicago, IL
7/21 - Surly Brewing Festival Field - Minneapolis, MN
7/22 - Interstellar Rodeo - Edmonton, AB Canada
7/24 - The Anthem - Washington, DC
7/25 - Celebrate Brooklyn - Brooklyn, NY
7/26 - State Theatre - Portland, ME
7/28 - Newport Folk Festival - Newport, RI
9/29 - Denver, CO - Ogden Theatre
10/2 - Van Buren - Phoenix, AZ
10/3 - Observatory North Park - San Diego, CA
10/5 - Greek Theatre - Los Angeles, CA
10/8 - Paramount Theater - Seattle, WA
10/10 - Vogue, Vancouver, BC
10/12 - Crystal Ballroom - Portland, OR
10/14 - Treasure Island Festival - San Francisco, CA
10/17 - Pabst Theater - Milwaukee, WI
10/21 - House of Blues - Boston, MA
10/23 - Fillmore - Philadelphia, PA
10/25 - Marathon Music Works - Nashville, TN
10/27 - Stubb’s - Austin, TX