But despite outward appearances, things have very much remained the same for Barnett. “I’m still in my house and still walking to work and doing the things I do,” the singer-songwriter says. Of course, she goes on the road more, but most often she’s at home with her partner and fellow musician Jen Cloher in Melbourne, Australia.
Before Barnett became an international success in the indie world, she cut her teeth in the Melbourne music scene, first playing second guitar in the garage rock band Rapid Transit and in 2011 joining psych-country outfit Immigrant Union, which was started by Brent DeBoer from the Dandy Warhols. During her time in Immigrant Union she took on the dual role of vocals and slide guitar. One year later, she released her first EP, I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris, and then two more EPs before her 2015 debut LP Sometimes I Sit. In the indie-rock world, she struck gold with her clever, rambling lyrics about masturbation and gardeninginduced panic attacks.
Because of Barnett’s perceptiveness and candor, it’s easy to assume songwriting would be straightforward for her, but that’s not the case. “I find writing kind of difficult,” she reveals. “But obviously rewarding.” The writing process takes time for her: Case in point, the making of Tell Me How You Really Feel lasted more than two years. “I get inspiration from everywhere, but it never seems to be a consistent thing,” she explains. When she wasn’t songwriting for this record, she interspersed touring with working on Cloher’s 2017 self-titled album and making Lotta Sea Lice with Vile. “It was good [to have] another project to move onto when I hit a wall,” she says.
Although songwriting has proven to be a challenge for Barnett, song titles come more naturally to the singer-songwriter. From “Sunday Roast” to “Crippling Self Doubt and a General Lack of Self Confidence,” the track names Barnett pens are so simple and candid that they seem poetic in nature. She’s always writing down song name ideas, even if they don’t get used. “You can add this whole other layer of story and meaning to it, and it gives some perspective or mystery—I think all of that is important and counts,” Barnett says. The musician is borderline obsessive about it, changing them up until the very last minute. “I hate wasting that little part of something and calling it whatever the chorus line is,” she admits.
While Sometimes I Sit was primarily introspective, Tell Me How You Really Feel is full of keen observations. Instead of penning her inner monologue, she’s unabashedly expressing her perspective on situations outside of herself. With the record’s lead single “Nameless, Faceless,” she details the effects of internet trolls on women, singing, “I want to walk through the park in the dark/Men are scared that women will laugh at them/I want to walk through the park in the dark/Women are scared that men will kill them.” For Barnett, the song jumped out, but it was difficult for her to choose a single because she deemed all of them worthy. “I don’t feel like [“Nameless, Faceless”] sums up the album, but it has its own little story and that story is kind of important,” she says. But the record still has its personal moments, with Barnett exploring her vulnerability, which proves to be at times uncomfortable, infuriating, and sad. She confronts toxic masculinity on “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch” (“I try my best to be patient, but I can only put up with so much! Shit!/I’m not your mother, I’m not your bitch”) and gives advice on how to escape sadness on “Hopefulessness” in a way that’s unfiltered (“Your vulnerability/Stronger than it seems/You know it’s O.K. to have a bad day”). Despite several dark moments on the record, Barnett ultimately wanted the record to end on a more uplifting note, which is why she saw “Sunday Roast” as an apt conclusion. “‘Sunday Roast’ is a bit melancholic, but it’s still optimistic, and I think it fades away on this optimistic line and leaves you feeling hopeful,” she explains. While it’s a rare moment of contentment, it shows she’s at the very least confident in the chaos of the now.