In Conversation: Courtney Barnett on the Quiet Contentment of “Things Take Time, Take Time”
The Australian songwriter discusses covering new ground while remaining entirely singular on her third solo album.
In an era of infinite options all the time, Courtney Barnett is entirely singular. Yes, she’s a songwriter with a guitar making four-minute, pop-leaning songs, but that only serves to make her singularity all the more impressive. From her first recordings, Barnett has had a voice all her own—wry, self-effacing, clever—blended with the chops to make this more than simple affectation. Whether she’s releasing an LP of her own, collaborating with like-minded songsmith Kurt Vile, or churning out live recordings, Barnett remains Barnett through and through. Her new record, Things Take Time, Take Time, finds her in a new place, with new concerns and a chance to explore what matters—and yet there she remains, as singular as ever.
If the overall tenor of the Tell Me How You Really Feel was anger, squarely placed and righteous as it was, this record’s mood finds Barnett practicing hard-earned contentment, a kind of acceptance without apathy. Where the last record saw Barnett rail against some of the trials of the constant touring life she had been thrust headlong into, Things Take Time, Take Time, reckons with what’s left when that evaporates, the deafening noise replaced with an equally deafening silence. From the dewy, windowsill-sitting heartache of “Here’s the Thing” to the coffee-drip vigor of “Turning Green,” these songs are less rallying cry and more Post-It note reminders, gentle nudges toward acceptance. If anything has been beaten into the collective consciousness of late, it’s the need to recognize beauty wherever one can, despite the maelstrom that may surround it, a skill for which Barnett is uniquely gifted.
We caught up with Barnett recently to discuss Things Take Time, Take Time, as well as the record’s unique recording process, her collaboration with Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa, and much more.
I wanted to talk a bit about the more spare, quiet nature of Things Take Time, Take Time. Why did that feel like the right palette for this set of songs?
It probably wasn’t intentional, I think it kind of just happened naturally like that. Upon reflection, once it was finished and when I listened back and actually started doing press and people started mentioning that, it kind of became apparent that, yeah, it was quieter or calmer. It was probably just the headspace I was in or wanting to be in.
“Vulnerability is a fantastic thing. I’m just talking about what’s around me and what’s in front of me and all the things that consume my mind. I think understanding communication and how to express those things in the most honest way that I can is my goal.”
How did your collaboration with Warpaint’s Stella Mozgawa help shape those kinds of decisions as you were recording?
The collaboration was just such an incredible back-and-forth. I think because it was just the two of us it was quite small and there was a real connection. We kind of had time to talk about the philosophy of the songs, the purpose behind the songs, and what the lyrics meant. It was really all about how best to serve each song, how best to have it exist in the world. I think we were able to do that and talk about that, which was really inspiring.
I read that you had to ditch a fair amount of songs you’d written that didn’t feel quite right for this record. How does it feel to have to abandon work you’ve put time into?
I think it is just part of the process, I do that all the time. Maybe I should have never mentioned it in the press for this album, because it keeps coming up. It’s certainly not unheard of for me. The process of songwriting is coming up with so many different ideas, and some of them just aren’t completely wrong. Sometimes I write 100 pages and only use one, and you just have to go through that process to find the final result.
You said that the last record was your most vulnerable at the time, but I’ve seen you talk about how this record is even more so—why do you think you’ve continued to trend in that way as a songwriter?
I just see what I do through my own eyes. I would never really call it “vulnerable,” but I think other people would, which is fine. Vulnerability is a fantastic thing. I’m just talking about what’s around me and what’s in front of me and all the things that consume my mind. I think understanding communication and how to express those things in the most honest way that I can is my goal.
“I think songs change when people hear them. Especially when you start to understand this bigger story, this bigger connection, they take on a different meaning.”
I also read that lockdown led you to take up a lot of solitary hobbies and interests. How do you think they’ve made their way into your songwriting?
Everything I do soaks into whatever I’m writing, even if I don’t want it to or realize it. That mood and that energy soaked in. Trying to find that calmness and trying to understand the purpose and intention behind what I do and life in general. I think it’s all kind of weaved into these songs.
Considering the intimacy of the recording process, the spare nature of the songs, and the isolation of the last few years in general, how does it feel to be taking these songs on the road and morphing them into full-band arrangements?
The journey of songs is always pretty fascinating, and this is just another little adventure. We’ve played these songs a few times as a full band and they sound incredible. It just becomes this slightly different version of what was written, which itself is different from what was created in the studio. The small steps, you know? The way I wrote them was just in my room with a guitar and a drum machine, and then the studio is this next level where you can kind of hear the brain ticking behind the recording. Then the live show is this next step up with energy and the back-and-forth that you have on stage with the band and the audience. So it just kind of continues to evolve and get bigger.
That seems like something you enjoy, watching these songs shift and change as they age?
Yeah, it’s really fascinating to me because they do change, they grow up, they adapt to the world around them. I think songs change when people hear them as well. Especially when you start to understand this bigger story, this bigger connection, they take on a different meaning.
Was there a time during this record where you felt particularly out of your element, or you were doing something you’d never quite done before?
I think I felt that way for a bit of it. Even the recording process was slightly different, the set-up was slightly different. I think it’s a good thing to constantly try to find small changes to put myself outside my comfort zone so I can grow and learn and experiment in different ways. I would definitely say it’s a positive thing. It all just kind of widens the options. It doesn’t kick anything out, it just makes it a bigger pool to draw inspiration from. FL