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“Much prefer the mundane” Courtney Barnett on the ambience of her new album and her upcoming performance at Melbourne Recital Centre

photography POONEH GHANA
11 January 2024

When Bob Dylan “went electric” he alienated a great deal of his once-devoted listenership. So profound was the sense of betrayal that a former disciple interrupted his 1966 show at the Manchester Free Trade Hall to declare him the “Judas” of the folk revival’s Jesus.

Musically, Courtney Barnett’s new album End of the Day is as dissimilar to her existing body of work as Bring It All Back Home was for Dylan. In place of Barnett's usual song structures, humour-laden vocals and backing band, there is now a sparse and meandering musical space. The only sounds on End of the Day's instrumental landscape are pensive guitar and canorous synths, creating an album that is as off-kilter as Courtney Barnett can get. Still, it won’t spur any biblical hecklings from alarmed Barnett-evangelists, for it retains the raw emotional sincerity emblematic of her earlier songwriting. 

End of the Day comprises 17 tracks woven seamlessly into each other. Originally conceived as the score for Anonymous Club—Danny Cohen’s 2021 documentary following Barnett on tour—the songs have had a new lease of life, fuelled by Barnett’s decision to release them as a complete album. In Anonymous Club, Cohen samples Barnett's audio diaries to create the film’s audio narration, which works in tandem with the score. In End of the Day, Barnett returns her music to a state of objectivity, welcoming a unique emotional response from the listener.

The music on End of the Day occupies a strange space between soundtrack and song.The album’s new liminal ontology explores a theme that is also central to Anonymous Club: contradiction. How can musical performance be euphorically liberating one moment and induce ‘Crippling Self-Doubt And A General Lack Of Confidence’ the next? How can a film promote itself as “the antithesis of a rock biography”—as Cohen’s did—but also follow the life of someone who is undeniably a rock star? Indeed, how can a soundtrack exist independently of the film it scores?

These paradoxes will transcend old heights of curiosity when Barnett brings her show ‘End of the Day Live’ to Melbourne Recital Centre on February 2nd. As well as celebrating the venue’s 15th birthday, this event will also commemorate the closure of Barnett’s music label, Milk! Records, for which End of the Day will be the final release. Barnett will play two sets: the first, including music from End of the Day alongside co-creator Stella Mozgawa, and the second, a solo performance of personal favourites from across her catalogue. 

In anticipation of the event, I spoke with Barnett about her plans for the show, the raw emotional honesty of her music and how free-writing can create lyrical diamonds in the rough.

Anna Stewart: I wanted to start with your upcoming show at Melbourne Recital Centre, which is partly in celebration of the venue’s 15th birthday. Can you tell me about how the event came into being?

Courtney Barnett: Yeah, I’m really excited to be a part of it because I’ve never done one of my own shows in that venue. Everything about this album has been really nice and unexpected.

AS: What was it that surprised you?

CB: First of all, the album was never really meant to be an album. It was purely the score for the documentary. But then, when we released it, we got a few offers for shows. And people seemed interested in seeing it. So we just decided to do a smaller run of shows in really beautiful, special and unique venues. We did a short run around America in theatres and art spaces. And we did a church!

AS: How’d that go?

CB: It was really great; really fun. 

AS: These venues must bring a different atmosphere, a formality to the occasion. How did it feel performing them compared to normal shows?

CB: They felt like really special shows. As a performer, for me, it's something so different, so I really feel like I'm tapping into a different part of my brain, body and musical body. Because a lot of it has been prepared, but so much of it is still improvised, and we’re playing off each other. So it's a different structure to a normal song or something that I would normally perform, and such a different energy. The crowds that we've played to so far have had a really beautiful energy. I think that these upcoming shows will be really lovely.

AS: I wanted to ask about how you will spread the time across those two different sets. End of the Day has 17 tracks, will you play it in its entirety?

CB: No, we’ve come up with a slightly different live version that incorporates a few recurring musical themes from the album and from the songs. We've kind of reinterpreted it a little bit, just so it flows better as a live performance, which, in itself, was really fun and challenging to do.

AS: Why was the process challenging?

CB: I think because there wasn't the traditional song structure that I've always used. The way that I build my set is around songs. But this was more about building up. And building a kind of emotional scene, creating an arc that is interesting for live performance, but also incorporating enough changes and dynamics so it creates a really interesting atmosphere for anyone watching or listening.

AS: You mentioned leaving room for improvisation and playing off each other. I understand that you and Stella Mozagawa created the score by improvising while watching the film. Was that the first time that you’d seen the film? 

CB: We’d both seen it. What we did was, we went in the studio, Danny put it up on the projector on the wall and he sat in the studio with us and played through parts of the film where he wanted this extra score that we were making. 

AS: Did he give you any direction about what he wanted at different points?

CB: He had some loose directions but I think he wanted to keep it pretty organic as well, just to see how we would react to it musically and what we would naturally create. We did a few passes at each little section and sometimes went back and refined things once we had an idea. But it was mostly improvised, which was nice. The only real direction that we stuck to was to try not to force anything; to try not to force any emotion, and to not really sway the listener too much. If it was a sad scene or something, trying not to be too over the top with minor chords and sad-sounding things [laughs]. We tried to keep it pretty neutral but we still reacted to what we were seeing.

AS: Do you think that you ever would have ended up creating ambient music like this without the film project to inspire it?

CB: Yeah, I think that I would have because, around that time, it’s what I was actually making at home anyway. So it was definitely something that I was already kind of exploring a little bit and it was just nice to have an excuse to [laughs] officially do something. 

AS: ‘Deadpan’ is a word often associated with your lyrical and vocal style, which is interesting because, even despite that, so much emotion comes across in your music. How natural did it feel to pursue neutrality with these songs?

CB: Yeah, I know what you mean. I think there's a really honest response that we give emotionally, sometimes when we're not really completely thinking about what we're trying to do or what we're trying to say. 

Obviously, that can be pretty messy sometimes or it can be incoherent, or it can be a bit patchy. But I think that sometimes there's something really honest that comes through in that moment and that’s often what I'm trying to capture in my life, whether it's in songwriting or even in the ambient stuff; in the improvised. There's so much room for error and for things not sounding good or not sounding great, but sometimes there's like 1% or 5% or a little piece of something really special. That's what I'm always trying to find. And with my writing, I do a lot of rewriting to just let my brain run free. A lot of it is nonsense, but sometimes there's this little piece of something that I didn't know was there and that opens up another world.

AS: Do you experience End of the Day as a completely separate entity from Anonymous Club or do you see them as inherently bound together? 

CB: That’s such a good question. Yeah, it was and is bound, but I definitely do see it differently now. And separate. I think maybe it's because, subconsciously, that's what I wanted to do. I'm glad that we made the film but I'm also glad it's done. Just because it was such an emotional process [laughs]. Watching it back and doing the interviews about it a couple of years ago was quite difficult and confronting. So I think I'm very happy to detach, or not detach, but at least just to move on from it. In a positive way, not a negative way. 

So, in a sense, when making the album and releasing it, I did want it to exist in its own world, if possible. Because it's definitely music from the film and created to be in the film. It’s always going to be enmeshed, or part of that, forever. But I am happy that someone can find that record and listen to it without having any knowledge of the film, but still hopefully enjoy it and find something useful or beautiful in it.

AS: And to finally return to the second set of materials...

CB: Yes…

AS: There's so much that you could play. I wonder how you will approach it. Do you have a philosophy behind curating that second set of career-spanning material?

CB: Yeah, there's definitely some songs that lend themselves so much better to a solo performance. Some of the songs don’t really work as well in that setup. I dont think I've ever played ‘Pedestrian At Best’ solo. Oh, actually I did once.

AS: How did it go?

CB: It was cool. In the middle of lockdowns, Milk! Records did an online thing and I remember I performed that song with the drum machine and kind of reimagined it. It was really fun actually.

But it's really fun putting together a solo set, because a lot of the time it's stripping songs back to the way they were when I wrote them. I normally just write on an acoustic guitar or an electric guitar. Sometimes with a drum machine, sometimes not. So it's fun taking them back to basics.

I just pick the songs that I love playing [laughs] and try to get a little bit from each record, so if people have picked up on different records over the years, then hopefully there's something for everyone. But I think I just pick the songs that I love to play [laughs].

Courtney Barnett performs her meditative and slow-burning record End Of The Day, along with beloved works from her catalogue, at Melbourne Recital Centre Friday 2 February. Book tickets.

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SEE ISSUE #06 HERE. The theme for this issue, Revelations, delves into the unfiltered aspects of life. It’s an appreciation and exploration of raw beauty, where authenticity reigns supreme; the unconventional is not just accepted but celebrated. In a world of manufactured perfection, this issue chooses to validate our quirks and idiosyncrasies. After all, they are what make us inimitable.

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