Photo: Mia Mala McDonald
Courtney Barnett Examines The Moving Parts Of New Album 'Things Take Time, Take Time': "Kinder To The Self, To The Listener, To The Writer"
Think of the go-to lyrical themes of pop and rock: lovesickness, loneliness, feeling like a stranger in a strange land. Which artists swerve around those emotions and write about patience, care and compassion instead? Arthur Russell, Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell immediately come to mind. Add Courtney Barnett to the list, as her curative new album Things Take Time, Take Time draws from all three of those artists.
"It just feels calmer and kinder. Kinder to the self, to the listener, to the writer," the Aussie singer/songwriter tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom. "Not that the other [albums] were unkind, but they were maybe not as aware or something."
Born of an anxious and unmoored period following an exhausting tour, the GRAMMY nominee's latest is soothing and hypnotic. Credit for this is due in no small part to drummer Stella Mozgawa, who Barnett had previously worked with on her album with Kurt Vile, 2017's Lotta Sea Lice. "A lot of the songs revolve around the beat and extra percussion," Barnett says, adding with a chuckle: "I wanted to exploit her skills in that area."
Things Take Time, Take Time, which arrived Nov. 12 via Mom + Pop Music, has a rootedness that sets it apart from the garden-variety indie dotting the landscape. Highlights like "Before You Gotta Go," "Take it Day By Day" and "Oh My Night" are therapeutic, but not in a cloying or insubstantial way. Rather, the album is like a massage for the prefrontal cortex; its spare, cyclical loops can work out the knots in your psychology.
GRAMMY.com caught up with Barnett to discuss the period of solitude that created Things Take Time, Take Time; her creative chemistry with Mozgawa; and making her most interior, rhythm-first album to date.
After the Tell Me How You Really Feel tour, you've said you felt "exhausted — not exhausted of touring or music, but just of life." What was going on with you?
A lot of it was probably internal, emotional exhaustion. It's a broad statement because that's just where my head was at. Everything was a bit too much to take in. The start of the process of finding my center was coming back to Australia and leading a very quiet year in pretty much solitude. A lot of reflection time.
What art were you absorbing while alone? What were you letting into your imagination?
I guess I was taking the time to read books that were on my shelf that I had bought and never read, and listening to records I'd never listened to. I was a bit of a sponge for everything — old, classic movies I had been meaning to watch and never seen. Just slow — slower.
Courtney Barnett. Photo: Mia Mala McDonald
What records were you checking out?
I listened to a lot of ambient music. I had a few moments of feeling kind of anxious toward the middle of last year, so I was listening to music as a calming exercise. Almost like meditative [music], I guess. Can, Arthur Russell, Nina Simone, some old Joni Mitchell records I'd never listened to. A bit of everything.
Were you getting into the Joni dark-horse favorites, like Taming the Tiger?
There was one, like, Chalk… Chalk Mark in the Snow, or something?
Chalk Mark in a Rain Storm?
Yeah, yeah [Laughs]. That's it. I think that was '80s-ish.
When I think of Arthur Russell and Nina Simone, I think of how they carry a sense of care and communion and reassurance. I feel like your new record has those ingredients.
Yeah, I think so. That's great if that comes through. I think it is. It just feels calmer and kinder. Kinder to the self, to the listener, to the writer. Not that the other [albums] were unkind, but they were maybe not as aware or something. I'm not sure.
Was there anything you wanted to say to yourself or your audience with Things Take Time, Take TIme that you didn't with past records?
Not really. Nothing grand. It almost feels like a lot of the songs are quite an understatement, or something, if anything. But it feels like there's a stronger meaning hidden in the simplicity of them, I think. No grand message, but I think the general energy that I put into it was what I was hoping for people to take from it.
Again, that kind of calmness and patience — a "patience with people, patience with yourself" kind of messaging.
Is that something you've ever had a problem with? Suffering fools or tolerating the people around you?
I think my patience levels are OK. I think it's always something I could be better at. I probably do that thing with the people closer to me — the more I love people in my life, the less patient I can be. We know those people are going to love us back regardless, so it's a lesson in being better and more patient in those moments.
If you were to lay out the music you love buffet-style, what did you want to take for Things Take Time, Take Time? Any particular mood or aesthetic?
A lot of it was centered around drum machines and a cyclical sort of percussion — a steady, repetitive beat through a lot of the songs. I think that was the baseline, where a lot of the songs started. I definitely wanted to keep it kind of warm, and a lot of those Arthur Russell [albums] are very rich and warm — a lot of things piled on.
We recorded a lot of stuff to tape, using a lot of analog gear. I wanted to keep that feeling of comfortable warmth.
What can you tell me about your accompanists on the record?
I made the album with Stella Mozgawa. Stella played drums with me on the album with Kurt Vile [Lotta Sea Lice] a few years ago. So, that was the first time I'd met her, and I wanted to work with her since then. We both happened to be in Australia when I was getting ready to make this record, so it was kind of perfect.
I wanted to work with her, and I was a bit too scared to ask her. But then, a lot of it was kind of circumstantial. It was perfect — the stars aligned for us to be in the studio together. A lot of the songs revolve around the beat and extra percussion; I wanted to exploit her skills in that area [Chuckles] to build the songs from there.
I was finding that to be the most interesting level of a lot of songwriting. I ended up playing a bit less guitar because I realized I was always doing the same thing. It was just the two of us in the studio and we swapped instruments. We played half the bass lines each and played piano.
It was a really exciting way to make an album, actually.
Why were you scared to ask Stella to work together?
In my creative situations, I think it's kind of that weird childhood fear of people not wanting to hang out with you or not being good or interesting enough. I had made up my little story in my mind, which is obviously just realistic.
I think I do that a lot in creative situations. I think no one's going to work with me, and then I ask them and they're like, "Oh, yeah, cool! That'd be great!"
What are your favorite moments on the record? Ones that might even blow past the listener?
Maybe something like the last song on the album, "Oh the Night."
I had it floating around as an acoustic song for a while, and then we demoed it with drums and bass and drum machine and everything. We did a whole version of it, but it just kind of wasn't right, so we ended up switching out instruments. I put down my guitar and played drums, Stella sat down at the piano, and we ended up reworking the song.
We just started again, basically, and tracked the version you hear on the album. It's kind of bare and simple. I did these really rough vocals. I listened back to it and loved it. When you can hear a song in a different way — and all of a sudden hear the lyrics properly and hear the emotion behind the song. That felt like a really special moment on the album for me.
And also, just the lesson in letting go of being frustrated working a song for so long and putting time and effort into getting it somewhere, then kind of starting again. There has to be some lesson in patience right there. So, that was a good one.
Courtney Barnett. Photo: Mia Mala McDonald
Is your ideal process tinkering with something until it's perfect or ripping it up and starting again? Is it a slow and methodical process, or a swift one?
Maybe a little bit of both. I guess we went in there with a very rough idea of tempo and key — the structures were pretty much there — but that last five percent of the song came fully alive in the studio.
I think I'm more of the small fixer, but sometimes you can only fix something so much until you need to tear it up and start again. I always find that really terrifying. It seems like such a dramatic response, but sometimes I think it's useful.
Any final thoughts on the essence of the album?
I think this album, more than any others, existed in two parts. We recorded some in December and some in February. And then, in the months or weeks between, we worked outside of the studio.
I don't know. It has this other level to it that feels a little bit mysterious.