I was surprised when Courtney Barnett told me that she doesn’t like solitude when she writes. Almost all of the songwriters I’ve interviewed have told me that they need to be alone, for the simple reason that they can’t have any distractions. But when Barnett told me why she needs to be around the action, it made sense: how can you be a narrative storyteller if you write facing a wall? The story ideas have to come from somewhere, and for Barnett they come from observation. “The more distracted I am, the more productive I’ll be,” she told me. And if she’s on a bus or a train? Even better. Because then it’s a constant panorama of images flying by. Another reason why Barnett likes to be around people when she writes: “It feels a bit secretive. It’s like you don’t want to let the person next to you see what you're writing. You're in your own world, surrounded by strangers.”
Barnett’s latest album is called Tell Me How You Really Feel, released in May 2018 on Barnett’s own Milk Records. It’s her second album, coming on the heels of a Grammy nomination for Best New Artist in 2016. Read my interview with Barnett about her songwriting process after the video.
What other writing are you doing other than songwriting?
I go through bursts of writing, where I’ll write a lot over a short period of time, then not so much. But when I do, it’s mostly journal writing. I’ll write, but I try not to have too much direction. It’s much better to see where my thoughts take me. Sometimes it turns into a song idea, other times it might be a poem. Then there are the embarrassing little rants. Laughs. But the process of getting something—anything—on paper can spark an idea that sends me somewhere else more useful to my songwriting.
Are you writing just because you think it’s good to write every day, or because you have ideas that need expression that you hope might turn into a song?
With the idea that it might turn into something. Not just a song, but one day it could be some other form of expression. Even then, I go through periods where I wonder what the point of writing is and what is my goal when I start something. But mostly I do think it’s best not to think too much about purpose. I don’t want to force the ideas out.
Do you think it’s important to write every day?
I don’t write every day, although I have gone through phases where I have. It’s not because I feel like I have to; it’s because I have a lot to say in those phases. Once it feels like a chore, it’s no fun. I carry a notebook with me everywhere, but I don’t use it everyday to journal. Often I might write a word or a sentence to remember later.
I have to say that when I was writing this album, I tried to be disciplined and write every day. And to be honest, it probably produced some good stuff. But even then, often it wasn’t more than a good line per page or an idea per page. I do find it interesting to read about how other people create, and the idea of flexing the brain like a muscle and keeping it well-exercised, will give you good stuff. Sigh. I don’t know. It’s hard to decide.
Do you go back through those notebooks and mine them for song ideas?
Oh definitely. I always read over what I've written. I’ll get home from tour, sit down with my guitar, then strum some chords while reading out some of those random words or lines. Laughs. It sounds like a mishmash, but something, even two random ideas, might fit well together. And I always find it interesting to see what the hell I was writing about two years ago. Laughs. But that distance lets me see things differently. Something that I thought was terrible then might actually sound good now. Or maybe that thing I thought was great two years ago isn’t that great after all. I’ll pick up a guitar and strum some cords, and the lyrics that fit may not be not the ones that seem like they would fit. It’s much more random when it comes to picking those lines.
Do you have a typical start to your songwriting process?
I usually start with words then come up with something musical. After that, I mix and match the two. Sometimes I’ll sit down with a guitar, strum some chords and make up some words. But not too often.
Is there a time of day or a place when you get your best writing done?
I’m not really sure, to be honest. The irony is that the end of my day is often when things happen. I’ll be working all day, trying really hard to make something happen. Eventually I’ll get so frustrated and fed up that I’ll just quit. And that’s when it happens! Laughs. I’ve run out of options, hit a wall, then all of the sudden there’s a breakthrough.
I do think that I work better at night. That being said, I’ve experimented with a bit of everything when it comes to time and place, but I’ve successfully tricked my brain into thinking that none of that stuff matters. And that takes the pressure off.
So the place doesn’t matter? I think you're the envy of writers everywhere if you can tell yourself that environment doesn’t matter.
Sometimes, the more structured it is, the better. But I’ve found that if I’m on a bus or a train, at least heading somewhere, I can write a lot. It can help to feel rushed, too, because that’s when you’re just jotting stuff down, almost in a hurry. And I like when people are around because it feels a bit secretive. It’s like you don’t want to let the person next to you see what you're writing. You're in your own world, surrounded by strangers.
You don’t need solitude?
Too much solitude can inhibit my process. I don’t like to hear myself think. There are times, of course, when that’s not true. But the more distracted I am, the more productive I can be.
That’s a pretty unique answer. Most songwriters I interview need to be alone when they create.
I do write a lot at home, but I need to write in every place. I need to experience every feeling, like the quiet and the noise. Then I mush it together to produce something interesting.
You mentioned writing on a bus or a train, and many songwriters have told me that the role of motion influences their writing process. Does it affect yours?
I do think that buses or trains, or really anything moving, can be inspiring because you’re seeing ideas pass by constantly. If I’m writing and I get stuck on a word, I might look up and see a billboard with a word I like. Or I might see a couple having an argument on the sidewalk as the bus turns the corner. I can’t help but wonder what they’re fighting about. Who are they? Where are they from? Stuff like that can be a good starting point for ideas. It’s tiny, but it gives you a push.
But when you’re alone in a room, you’ve got your cup of tea, a lamp, and your pot of flowers. And maybe there’s a window looking out to a cloud. There’s no change. Everything is stationary. Sometimes that’s good if you need that imaginative blank canvas. But I work best when I see things happening, then reflect my own story, or make up a story, based on my observations. It’s much more of a spark for me.
Do you have any writing rituals, or anything that you need with you to write? Besides your guitar, of course.
Not really. But when I was writing this new album, I made sure I sat at my desk with this one lamp. And it was always on, even if it was daytime and I didn’t need the light. I’d also have various knick knacks around that friends had given me. Silly things like that can be nice and reassuring. Patty Smyth once gave me a pin for my jacket, and I had that sitting on the desk. I love the little nostalgic items around me. Those personal things can be comforting. They are there for my peace of mind, but I like to think they give me power.
Speaking of items, when you write are you a paper or computer person?
I do to all. I have a notebook, and I have pen and loose paper. But sometimes I like the pencil more. My process has phases. When I want to gather all the messy ideas and give them more structure, not to mention make them legible, I type them on my computer and print them out. Then I make notes on the printout in pen. But sometimes I use a typewriter between the notebook and the computer phase. I like the tidy structured font and the slow, more deliberate typing. I find the rhythm of the typewriter appealing.
It’s all useful in its own way. I think the speed of each method of composition makes my brain think differently. Even the legibility of each one makes me think differently. The problem with the computer is that you lose things too easily: if you hate something, you delete it. But what if you need it later on? You can't do that with handwriting or even the typewriter. Even if I scribble something out in pen, I can still read what’s under the scribble. And I usually find that what’s under there is better than what I first thought. I’m glad I didn’t lose it.
How does the font affect your creative process?
It doesn’t matter what font, but the tidiness of it just makes it more legible. The more frantically I write, and the longer I write, the messier my handwriting. Sometimes I write in all capitals, especially when I type. It’s not that I’m yelling, but for me it looks much more bare in all caps. Like nothing is hiding.
Is there an ideal emotion when you get your best writing done?
Not really. I can write through anything. If I’m sad or happy or angry or calm, I try to spread my emotions out. Laughs.
Can you sit and write for long stretches of time?
I’ll try, but I distract myself too much if I sit too long. Sometimes I’ll set a timer and write for ten minutes freeform as much as I can, just to let my subconscious pour out. Without thinking and without stopping. Different exercises like that can help. But even from all that writing, I might take just a word or two, or just one line.
Are you giving yourself a topic to write about?
Sometimes, yes. I might pick one word to write about, or maybe something I see. Other times, not at all.
How much reading do you get to do?
I go through phases. I wish I read more, because I can be a bit lazy. But when I get stuck in a book, I love it. I especially love that feeling when I can’t wait until I pick it up again. My problem is that I get distracted by boring things, which doesn’t give me time. Laughs.
Is there a particular genre you like the most?
I like memoirs and biographies. I like to read about other people’s experiences. We’re all in the same world, just going through it in a different way, and I find that fascinating. I think it’s important to consider how other people go through it.