Courtney Barnett looks on the bright side of life
While making new album ‘Things Take Time, Take Time,’ the musician embraced the forced stillness of the pandemic as a time for reevaluation, emerging with a more hopeful perspective
When COVID brought the world to a halt early in 2020, Courtney Barnett had recently wrapped a lengthy tour, finishing with a pair of mid-February dates in Los Angeles. At the time, her plan was to find an apartment in the city and stick around to work on new songs. Instead, the pandemic forced a return to her home in Melbourne, Australia, where she'd spend a bulk of the next two years writing songs and adjusting to new realities.
“It’s such a mixture of feelings when everything you know changes, and every pattern of your life changes,” said Barnett, who headlines a concert at Kemba Live (formerly Express Live) on Wednesday, Jan. 26. “It’s confusion and fear, but then there was also a part of me that felt relieved that I didn’t have to do anything. It was such a conflicting bundle of emotions.”
With the downtime, Barnett said she tried to lean into being creative, taking time out to write on most days, with the stillness of pandemic life gradually bleeding into and shaping the tunes that make up her most recent album, Things Take Time, Take Time, released in November 2021.
“I wanted the album to reflect that time and that space, and my mood and mindset,” Barnett said. “I wanted it to be calm and repetitive and peaceful, which wasn’t how I felt all of the time, but I guess some of the time I did. I think I wanted it to reflect the feeling I wanted to feel, if that makes sense.”
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Things Take Time, in turn, is a softer, gentler affair, with Barnett exploring the various personal relationships that became socially distant amid the viral spread, fears that stay-at-home might never end (“Looking like I’ll never leave this room again,” she sings on “Here’s the Thing”) and the need to hold onto hope in an era that had started to feel overwhelmingly bleak. Witness “Write a List of Things to Look Forward to,” which Barnett wrote in 2019 as wildfires ravaged her Australian homeland, and which took on even greater weight after the pandemic hit.
“It came from a time when I was quite depressed and needed something positive to think about,” Barnett said. “So, it was retraining the brain, or not even retraining it, but giving it something positive that it could hopefully soak up. … And there was a point in 2020 kind of out of the blue where [my mindset] shifted, probably because I’d been working on it and thinking about it.”
This new perspective is on display throughout the record, which returns time and again to the idea that it’s important to center those moments of joy that can sometimes be lost amid the constant doomscrolling and the understanding that our time here is finite. “Stars in the sky are gonna die/Eventually, it’s fine,” Barnett sings on “If I Don’t Hear from You Tonight” before pivoting. “You know that every morning/I’m rising with you on my mind.”
Always an observational songwriter, Barnett continues to take a more outward stance here. On “Rae Street,” the musician watches from her window as life continues outside: garbage trucks make the rounds, a couple teaches their child how to ride a bike, painters repaint a brick house. Indeed, Barnett sings “you” more than “I" throughout, which she traced to the reality that a number of the songs were written “for or to people,” centering romantic relationships and friendships at a time when she, like everyone else, had been forced into solitude.
“Those [relationships] just came front and center a bit more. I think for a lot of people, [the pandemic] rekindled the importance of those close connections,” said Barnett, who noted that her motivations for making music had evolved in recent years, increasingly drawn in by the sense of community and personal connection possible in the form. “If everything else in the world falls away, then what do you have, and who do you have, and who do you call, and who means something to you? These are big things to be faced with, so to really acknowledge and be grateful for those connections — those friendships, those relationships, whatever they are — I thought that was a pretty powerful thing, and it seems like a lot of people felt the same and went through that same process.”