Courtney Barnett describes Anonymous Club doco as a "terrifying experience"

WIDE-EYED: The documentary film Anonymous Club reveals Courtney Barnett like we've never seen her before. Picture: Ian Laidlaw
WIDE-EYED: The documentary film Anonymous Club reveals Courtney Barnett like we've never seen her before. Picture: Ian Laidlaw

FOR somebody so astute with her observational lyrics about mundanity of life, Courtney Barnett hasn't always been as perceptive of herself.

She once said, "I don't feel I know everything - or maybe anything - about myself."

It's unknown if that was actually true, or whether it was just a canny deflection from a singer-songwriter renown for being private.

That ambiguity has of course only fuelled fascination in Barnett and her work, which includes a series of EPs and singles, three lauded albums in Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit (2015), Tell Me How You Really Feel (2018)and Things Take Time, Take Time (2021), plus a collaboration with American Kurt Vile.

Yet the convergence of two unrelated events forced Barnett to uncomfortably turn her analytical eye inward.

Firstly there was the pandemic, which upended Barnett's plans to spend time in Los Angeles following an exhausting two-year stint touring her album Tell MeHow You Really Feel.

The 34-year-old moved back to Melbourne, and for the first time, lived alone as the COVID lockdown raged on. In 2018 Barnett had split with her long-term partner and fellow singer-songwriter Jen Cloher.

Not surprisingly, the lyrics Barnett penned for Things Take Time, Take Time - some of it in lockdown - were among her most personal.

Then there was the completion of Anonymous Club, a film shot over a three-year period in Barnett's career that claims to be "the antithesis of a rock biography."

It was directed by Danny Cohen, who has previously made music videos for Barnett, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, Kirin J. Callinan and Mac DeMarco.

Courtney Barnett - Before You Gotta Go

Anonymous Club had its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival in 2021, and went on to screen at the Sydney Film Festival, Cinefest Oz and Brisbane International Film Festival. Next Thursday it'll have its theatrical release.

"It's such a terrifying process, I wouldn't really recommend it," Barnett laughs. "It's just very confronting, I guess.

"My friend, Danny Cohen, he's the director and he's just such an inspiring person and artist. To me a lot of the film is our friendship because I'm talking to him as the narration goes on.

"I guess it's a lot about artistic process and purpose. I'm really proud of him for the film he made."

The film is the most raw Barnett has allowed herself to be seen publicly.

When Weekender refers to her previous quote of not knowing anything about herself and asks did Anonymous Club uncover anything for her, Barnett says: "I think maybe now I've accepted that we probably don't ever completely know ourselves and that's a life-long process of figuring it out.

"Maybe it's not crucial to understand it, but I learnt a lot, that's for sure."

When Weekender catches up with Barnett over Zoom she's in the Californian desert town of Joshua Tree. Four dates on the US east coast had to be cancelled due to an outbreak of COVID in her crew.

"Obviously we knew it was a risk and we did everything we could for it not to happen, but it's still a bummer," she says.

ROAD SHOW: Director Danny Cohen filmed Courtney Barnett over a three-year period for Anonymous Club.

ROAD SHOW: Director Danny Cohen filmed Courtney Barnett over a three-year period for Anonymous Club.

"Everyone is good and healthy and fully vaccinated, so luckily it wasn't too long a recovery."

On Thursday Barnett kicked off her Australian tour in Perth, which includes a Sydney show at the Enmore Theatre on March 25. Then there's a massive A Day On The Green concert at Bimbadgen in the Hunter Valley with Crowded House and The Waifs on April 24, before heading to Europe.

The European tour features a performance at Glastonbury and supporting Foo Fighters at a sold-out London Stadium.

Barnett has previously spoken about the pressures of touring on her mental health, especially during the album cycle for Tell MeHow You Really Feel.

She's taken positive steps to ensure there won't be a repeat of those issues during a hectic 2022.

"It's a learning process over the years," she says. "With a bit of time off it kind of helped to regroup and reexamine why I love playing and playing live. I'm exercising a whole lot more and reading.

"Also we were in a tour bubble so we literally couldn't do anything, like go to a restaurant or a museum. It made everything a little bit smaller, which is good.

"I started to learn boxing, which was really fun.

"I really enjoyed that and it was good for my mind as well as my body."

I think maybe now I've accepted that we probably don't ever completely know ourselves and that's a life-long process of figuring it out.

Courtney Barnett

Things Take Time, Take Time was a departure from the grungy guitar-dominated Tell Me How You Really Feel.

Barnett experimented with electronic beats, synths and piano and quietened the sonic assault of her left-handed guitar. Tracks like the COVID-influenced Write A List Of Things To Look Forward To and the heartfelt Before You Gotta Go have become fan favourites.

"There's a lot of space and quietness and I think that dynamic can be so powerful," Barnett says of performing the new material live.

"I think as well in this particular day and age, I didn't particularly want to do big loud rock shows with people jumping around. With the kind of idea of social distancing and all that stuff."

BUSY: Courtney Barnett will spend 2022 touring Australia, Europe and the US.

BUSY: Courtney Barnett will spend 2022 touring Australia, Europe and the US.

Barnett is undoubtedly Australia's biggest indie-rock star globally with a Billboard top 20 album and she is often described as "the voice of her generation." She's also a veteran performer on the US talk show circuit .

Despite the accolades, Barnett remains ambitious.

"I think the hunger now is to kind of learn more and to learn more about music and myself and how to write better songs and how to experiment with different instruments and ideas and different collaborations," she says.

"I think that's what interests me more now. Probably before it was hoping to god that someone would buy one of my CDs or hoping I could get a gig."

Barnett admits there were moments in the past two years of the pandemic where she questioned if she had a future in music.

"I remember having this moment wondering, 'what if live music completely disappears?'," she says.

"For a minute it did seem like an actual possibility. So what do I love about music and what would I do if I couldn't do that and how would I experiment differently and would I still wanna do it?

"I was like, 'yeah I still would wanna do it'. I would still wanna write songs and tell stories. It's not just learning about music, it's learning about people."

Anonymous Club is released nationally on March 17.

Courtney Barnett will perform at The Forum, Melbourne (March 17 & 18); Enmore Theatre, Sydney (March 25); The Tivoli, Brisbane (March 26); SWIFF Storyland, Coffs Harbour (April 23) and at Bimbadgen, Hunter Valley (April 24) with Crowded House and The Waifs.

This story Courtney Barnett on eternal path of self-recovery first appeared on Newcastle Herald.