Lately, Courtney Barnett has been thinking about the word “vulnerable.” Ever since her 2015 breakthrough single, “Pedestrian at Best,” the adjective has followed her around, a placeholder description for the Australian singer-songwriter.
“I’m never like, ‘I’m going to write a vulnerable album,’” Barnett says. “I just write what’s around me and what’s in my head and what I’m obsessed with. Writing is how I communicate the shit in my head. It’s the best way for me to verbalize my thoughts and lay them out, to visualize what’s going on. I guess that’s vulnerable?”
Earlier material was chock-full of self-deprecation and bruising honesty. Take these lines on “Pedestrian at Best”: “I wanna wash out my head with turpentine and cyanide / I dislike this internal diatribe when I try and catch your eye.” Or this couplet from “Over Everything,” a duet with Kurt Vile: “When I’m struggling with my songs, I do the same thing, too / And then, I crunch them up in headphones, ’cause why wouldn’t you?” But her third album, Things Take Time, Take Time, out Friday on Mom + Pop, features those trademark stories and asides, but the delivery isn’t as rushed. These songs show a sweeter, softer, and less specific side of Barnett. Recorded at Golden Retriever Studios in Sydney with multi-instrumentalist/producer Stella Mozgawa, the latest album features drum machines, a bit of Krautrock, and even a few love songs—an unexpected twist for those expecting another volume of deadpan wit.
Alongside those more adventurous sounds is Barnett’s retooled songwriting ethos. She’s less concerned with what she calls her “fear of committing something to eternity,” which she had while writing previous albums. Over the past five years, she’s learned that older songs can adapt and evolve. Newer songs can more quickly get to the heart of the matter.
“At the end of the day, a song is a story. My songs are stories. There’s no rule that says they can’t change,” she says. “The other aspect is I think every word is important. I don’t want to waste words or just put out songs that don’t mean anything. I don’t want to waste other people’s time, either.”
It’s true—Barnett is no longer “music’s Lena Dunham,” unapologetically reveling in over-sharing. Things Take Time, Take Time doesn’t sound like it’s from the same sophisticated rock stunner who stole 2016’s season finale of Saturday Night Live. The new album also isn’t the jam-style hangout of her full-length collaboration with Vile, 2017’s Lotta Sea Lice. Nor is it the overdriven grunge of her 2018 sophomore album, Tell Me How You Really Feel.
The shift began as Barnett took a much-needed break last year. After five years of touring behind three albums, the burnout was real. The pandemic was making a mess of upcoming tours, so she moved to Melbourne, living in a one-bedroom flat, experiencing the “repetitive and slow version of life, like everyone,” she says. But tapping the brakes wasn’t easy.
“I got used to the distractions in my life,” Barnett says. Her elixir was embracing a clearer, more direct voice. “That’s a special thing to understand. Songwriting-wise, the answer for me always comes back to simplicity.”
At first, the more laid-back approach surprised Mozgawa. The session drummer met Barnett while working on Vile and Barnett’s 2017 album. Like Barnett, Mozgawa returned to Australia. As Barnett began working on demos, she floated the idea of recording to Mozgawa. Before booking time, the drummer heard a different side of the songwriter in Barnett’s latest tracks.
“These songs felt to me like more classic songs,” Mozgawa says. “There was a shift lyrically. I thought it was a beautiful, natural progression in her way of writing. She’s still telling stories, but they’re a lot more to the point. Throughout the record, I was thinking, ‘I’ve never heard her sing or write like that.’”
For the first session in December 2020, the duo began work on the tracks “Rae Street” and “Before You Gotta Go.” On the latter, you can hear what Mozgawa is describing as Barnett sings on the chorus, “Before you gotta go, go, go / I wanted you to know, know, know, know / You’re always on my mind.” With each verse, Barnett describes a lovers’ quarrel, the quick voicemail apology, and bittersweet reality that “things change / You got to get away / Yeah I know and I don’t blame you.”
Rather than re-record songs with a full band live in the studio, Mozgawa and Barnett expanded on the sound of those rough tracks, layering live drums and percussion over the electronic kits then adding guitar, bass, keys, and vocals. Mozgawa concentrated most on working with new instruments, arrangements, and ways of performing songs.
“Instead of trying to make two people sound like four, we thought, ‘There’s an intimacy and a charm to these demos,’” Mozgawa says. “There’s something interesting in keeping [those sounds] and elevating them and going deeper into that. It’s very tender.”
After the initial studio session, it was clear the duo would continue working on the record. With a willingness to experiment and explore new ideas, Barnett suggested that Mozgawa produce the album. During two more sessions earlier this year, they finished recording 10 tracks. A few guests appeared, too, including Welsh musician/producer Cate Le Bon playing bass on “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight,” and Cameroonian American multi-instrumentalist/singer-songwriter Vagabon providing vocals on “Oh the Night.”
Still, Mozgawa says there weren’t too many changes from the demos to the finished product. Barnett was decisive and open during the recording process, and Mozgawa says the atmosphere around the sessions was refreshing. There wasn’t much difficulty in the way of mixing the album, either, according to David Wrench. When the London-based producer/mixer first heard “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight,” he was immediately ready to work on what he already thought sounded strong.
“I was quite keen to not lose the magic they had,” Wrench says. “I didn’t want to make it sound too polished and slick. I wanted to keep that warmth and intimacy they got in the recording.”
Wrench was a fan of Barnett’s long before working on Things Take Time, Take Time. As someone whose credits include mixing and production on tracks like Jamie xx’s “Gosh” and Frank Ocean’s “Self Control,” he’s drawn to artists who are doing their own thing and have a specific attitude. What drew Wrench to Barnett’s songs was her punk edge and swagger.
“There’s no one who’s quite like her,” Wrench says. “It’s something very real, and you know that. You believe it. There’s nothing fake about it all.”
You can hear that lack of pretense when Barnett sings about weekly Zoom calls with friends on “Take It Day by Day.” You immediately get that she’s singing about the all-encompassing anxiety on “Write a List of Things to Look Forward To” in the lines, “And we’ll scream, self-righteously, we did our best but what does that even mean.”
Throughout this downtime, she has also found herself staring out the window, recognizing the “small thrills” that get her through the day—a routine she sings about on “Here’s the Thing.” She returns to this theme on “Turning Green,” a track with a propulsive rhythm that knowingly nods to Can and Brian Eno’s psychedelia, which she’s been recently jamming.
The music, style, and lyrics aren’t overthought to cater to trends, Mozgawa says, adding that Barnett’s authenticity hasn’t been manufactured by the music industry.
“It’s extraordinarily rewarding when an artist is just like, ‘This is who I am,’” Mozgawa says. “There’s not some great shield around her that’s been created to protect herself or to control every word that comes out of their mouth. It’s an unspeakable feeling you have when you know someone is being themselves. That’s a rare thing. I think people really connect with that and are hungry for it.”
For Barnett, being true and kinder to herself is an ongoing process. The album releases the week after her 34th birthday, a detail that she loves. When asked whether she’ll celebrate, she says that she’ll “probably just see some friends, nothing crazy.” She admits that she’s still learning how to take time to celebrate things in life.
“I don’t know if I was really good at [celebrating],” she says. “I would almost always downplay something or whatever. [Things Take Time, Take Time] is something I’m really proud of. I really love this album. It would be nice to celebrate it.”
This isn’t a vulnerable moment. This is just who Barnett is, and her music is an extension of that constant learning and relearning process. She compares it to college psychology and philosophy courses.
“Understanding myself and how I interact with people,” she says, “I guess I make music for that exact reason.”
Matthew Sigur is a writer, musician, and comedian based in Chicago.