I was first introduced to Courtney Barnett while helping a friend renovate a one-hundred-year-old farm house in rural Prince Edward Island in the dead heat of the summer many years ago. As we were choosing music for the day, he said: “Have you heard Courtney Barnett yet? She’s great, like if Sheryl Crow was Australian.”
I was hooked. We listened to Sometimes I Sit and Think and Sometimes I Just Sit on repeat late into the endless days under the PEI sun tearing the walls down in that old farmhouse.
Barnett is a singular talent, her songs are expertly crafted odes to the world around her and the people and places within it. Barnett shines in her masterful wordplay, taking the implicit simplicity of life and turning it into clever masterpieces that honor the wonder in the everyday.
But something Barnett has also long excelled at is writing openly and honestly about her various states of depression, anxiety, lethargy, and self-doubt. In her unwaveringly honest voice she has sung at length about her struggles with her mental health “Avant Gardener”, an early hit single, is a perfect paean to the kind of crippling anxiety that doesn’t allow us to so much as get out of bed.
Barnett has a documentary that’s hitting select theaters throughout North America after premiering in her home of Melbourne. It’s called Anonymous Club, and it’s a slow and tender portrayal of what it looks like to be a touring artist working as hard as Barnett does, interspersed with audio notes she recording into a dictaphone to collect for the film’s director Danny Cohen that describes her mental and emotional state as she tours her 2018 record Tell Me How You Really Feel, and finds a way to refresh when the toll of that tour becomes too much.
I spoke to Barnett and Cohen over Zoom on the morning of the film’s debut in Los Angeles at Brain Dead Studios, which would be accompanied with a live audience Q&A.
Niko Stratis: How did the documentary come together, and Courtney, when the idea of the documentary was brought to you, how did that feel for you?
Courtney Barnett: The idea started off very loosely. Danny and I have worked together, we’ve been friends for a while and we’ve worked together doing some video clips and photos, and the idea of the documentary started off as this idea of Danny coming on tour to capture these moments. And it didn’t have the direction that it ended up with. So yeah, I guess the idea grew over time.
Niko: So it was an organic thing on the road, as opposed to, we want to make a documentary about X?
Courtney: Yeah, I think so. Which I think was kind of a nice process. Maybe Danny can speak more to it, but I feel like you were figuring it out as you were going, right?
Danny Cohen: Yeah. The first few months were just seeing if it was a fit, If there was an idea there and what it would be and how it would look like, and so we used those first few months as a proving ground for the doc. All the while, Courtney’s starting and keeping the dictaphone diary and me just filming very short snippets because I was scared of burning through film, so it was a really good discovery time for both of us. And then at the end of those couple of months, I can’t remember if it was one or two tours, I cut together a little sizzle reel, like a little teaser, just to show what I thought the sort of feeling and the tone of the documentary could be. And then we all agreed to just keep going until I thought I was done.
Courtney: Yeah. We didn’t really have any strict rules or ideas.
Niko: I was wondering that as I was watching it, because it must be interesting for you, Courtney, as a songwriter and a storyteller to take part in a storytelling exercise that you don’t get to have control over the narrative as much as you do when you’re writing a song. Did that feel like that for you?
Courtney: Yeah. That’s a good way to put it. I feel like as the film was coming together, I definitely had — and because it is quite a confronting emotional story line — I guess everything I’ve made I am in charge of it or can point it in a direction that feels, kind of, where I want to go. So it was a different process for me.
But it was good. Our kind of communication was good and I definitely had moments of calling Danny freaking out about it, but, I think, at the end of the day, I trust him as a friend, but also as a filmmaker.
Niko: How did it feel when you started leaving those dictaphone notes for yourself in the beginning, to lay yourself bare in such a different way?
Courtney: It’s very different…I guess it feels unnatural to me, in a way. I’ve always kept notebooks, kind of journals or notes and ideas but it felt very, it was just a difference. It took a little bit of getting used to. And then, once I got into the swing of it, it felt a little bit more natural, but always a little bit strange. But it was still…I think, it brings out something. Once you get talking and your subconscious gets rolling, like when you write in a journal, just like an automatic writing and you don’t quite know what’s going to come out. So I do find it interesting on that slightly psychological level.
Niko: And were you sending notes over? Danny, did you know what she was recording or were you just gathering at all at one time?
Danny: I’d back up the dictaphone every couple of months. So yeah, I wouldn’t have any idea and I’d rarely give Courtney prompts. There might be a moment at a show or something like that and I might text Courtney, be like, “Hey, maybe, if you feel like it, have a chat about this tonight or something.” But I just wouldn’t know, and it is a weird way of keeping in touch with your friend. I know that’s one sided. And then when I check in three months later, it was three months ago, so I’m bringing back up stuff that Courtney has already processed and moved past.
Niko: It sounds like, at least from what we get to hear in the documentary, You’re going through a lot of pretty deep emotional beats. So that must be hard for both of you, in a friendship, even, to have that sort of nature added to your relationship.
Courtney: It was weird. It was kind of bonding, in a way. I definitely feel closer to Danny now, after all of this, since when we first became friends, because we’ve just been through so much and we’ve talked so deeply about different things. But, yeah, once it got going and he had access to those dictaphones, there was checking in. I guess it was just a slight, delayed checking in.
Niko: Was it nice to have that support? Almost like a new layer of support in your system?
Courtney: Yeah. I think it’s just… I think finding in life, all the time, finding people who you can talk to and trust and go deep on certain things. And, I guess, that’s a slightly recurring theme, that we all want someone to talk to or to tell our story in different ways. So, I guess, it slightly even ties in.
Niko: Well, a thing that I was thinking of a lot, and you mentioned at one point in the doc in one of your notes is that especially during the tour forTell Me How You Really Feel you talk about wanting to have a conversation around mental health stuff. Was it nice for you to be able to have that conversation through a different medium? Like through this doc and through doing this sort of storytelling?
Courtney: I guess, what I learned through this whole process, I realize that I get frustrated at myself for things like that. But then I just discovered that maybe that’s not the way I communicate and it’s not even that I want to be better at it. It’s just that I have a different form of communication. And it seems that my most comfortable and strongest form is through songwriting and through playing music and through performing. And, I think, it’s about embracing that, instead of trying so hard to be better at something else that doesn’t come naturally. It’s like, how do you hone what you already have to suit? Yeah. So that was a good realization.
Niko: Yeah. You know, I think a lot about the misconception that people have of, this is what it looks like to have depression or anxiety, or to struggle with these sorts of things. Was it an active effort to be like, Okay, we can, actually, show the reality of this versus what many people think of as the stereotype. Was there a real drive to show the reality of what it looks like? Good and bad?
Danny: I don’t think Courtney was driving for that to be shown…
Danny: But it was there. And, to me, I found it really fascinating to see that contrast and, also, to just show another side of an artist and a touring musician and what that experience could be like.
To me, sure, it was touring and press and all that stuff. But, I think, underlying there, it’s what Courtney was saying and feeling is what a lot of people feel. Not just music, not just artists. But everyone goes through self doubt and the… I guess, if you want to call them mental health issues, they’re quite universal. So when I heard those, I just thought that, I think, there’s power in that vulnerability. And to be able to show that stuff, it helps people connect and think about the way they tackle their own problems and how they feel about certain things.
Courtney: That’s really nicely put.
Danny: [laughs] Thank you.
Niko: I’m as a person, myself, that struggles with depression and anxiety. I know how that feels. You get into your little hole that you dig for yourself of, “Well, I’m the only one that knows what the idea of this hole looks like.” But it’s really nice to see it laid so honestly. I think the film does really well is… Courtney, especially, you’re very charming and you’re funny and you’re outgoing. And you’re such an incredible artist and all this stuff, but also, to be able to see the other side of that, I think, is such a brave and honest thing that not a lot of people might, necessarily, do. Have you watched the documentary back?
Courtney: Yeah. I saw a couple of edits, like the Melbourne screening last year we went to.
Niko: How did it feel to watch yourself?
Courtney: It was confronting. I think it was a bit of a process of getting used to and, I think, that now I feel okay about it. But it was, I think, just a heavy watch for me, because it was like seeing myself from a different angle and just remembering those moments. It was kind of interesting, a very emotional watch, but yeah.
Niko: Does it help you process that time period a little bit better, too? That you can watch it back now, with fresh eyes, so to speak, and see those moments? Are you able to process those memories in your head a little easier?
Courtney: Yeah. And, I think, that’s quite why I like documenting things and I’m always quite drawn to archival stuff. It’s kind of like reading through your old diaries. Like you see an old version of yourself and you see your growth and your change. And even though it’s embarrassing and awkward sometimes, it’s… I think to get past that ego part and just be like, “Oh, look how far I’ve come.” Or like, “Look at what I’ve learned through this difficult process.” And, I think, allowing ourselves to be proud of that, of personal change. So I do like that element of it. And I, definitely, like… Once I got over the emotional, the vulnerable, slightly… There was some level of something that embarrassed me about being so vulnerable. And once I got over that, I was kind of like, “Well, I’ve learned I’ve learned something.”
Niko: I was thinking of the juxtaposition between when you were talking about that exact thing, that vulnerability. And then, in the doc, when you were doing your solo tour and the vulnerability of that being a thing that you allude to being really recharging for you. And it’s interesting that there’s that parallel between this vulnerability of talking into this dictaphone and doing this very vulnerable thing and going back to a very vulnerable style of performing.
Courtney: Hmm. Yeah, I guess there’s just power in vulnerability and it’s unknown. But I had no idea that that solo tour was going to bring up that feeling. There’s so many stars aligning or things aligning, it’s hard to know what brings what on, but yeah.
Danny: To me, it felt like a good lesson in pushing through things that aren’t necessarily comfortable. So, from my perspective, going through it, wasn’t something that was, I don’t know, easy to begin with. But then once you start, you get into the groove, but you’re like, “Oh, this is cool.” And then I don’t know what, you discover something else about yourself or the experience that you hadn’t even thought could be possible. Not saying it has to be grand, but just something new. You break new ground with something and that leads you down a different pathway. That’s what’s cool about pushing through those uncomfortable moments.
Niko: When this was done and dusted and you were able to have a little bit of distance from it, what was your biggest takeaway from working on it?
Danny: I think, for me, it was the experience of documenting something without really… I think this is the same with most documentaries, but you just don’t know what the story is or where it’s going to come from. Things are the way they are, and that’s the way they are.
Courtney: I guess mine is kind of what I said before. That whole journey of understanding, for me, was a big one. And then I think, now, kind of like an album. I feel like I’ve gone through the processing of it and now it’s out and it’s… Now I’ve done, I think, what I need to do looking at it. And now it’s… When people watch it now, it doesn’t belong to us anymore, if that makes sense. Now it’s like people are going to interpret it and make it their own story, which is nice to know. It’s like letting go. Like a processing and then a letting go.
Niko: Right. You must get that a lot, I would imagine, your style as a songwriter is very personal. It does sort of create these worlds that we can find ourselves in and take whatever we choose to take away from it. This must feel like a different version of that, I suppose.
Courtney: Yeah, exactly. It’s an ongoing lesson of… I think an album documents a certain amount of time and place, just like this film does. The three years that we filmed it within. I think it’s definitely the same with an album. You never know when it’s finished and you could keep working on it forever, but at some point you need to finish it, put it out and let it become something else.
Niko: Well, it’s hard with something emotional, too. Because I feel like this, as a writer, the more that I can tinker with something, maybe I’ll be able to shield myself from the vulnerability of it.
Courtney: Mm. Yeah.
Niko: Is there a bit of that at play, maybe?
Courtney: Yeah, and it’s a bit of a push and pull. I think there’s a part of us that’s like, “Don’t be vulnerable,” because our brain is trying to protect ourselves. It’s like, “What are you doing? You’re going to hurt yourself or you’re going to get embarrassed or upset or something.” It is a push and pull and it’s kind of like, “You need to…” I think that we need to meet it halfway. I recognize, sometimes, when I work on something too long, sometimes the greatest, purest idea is the quickest one that comes from the subconscious, that doesn’t allow too much overthinking and too much analyzing. And then that is somehow the realist version.
Niko: First thought, best thought.
Courtney: [laughs] Yeah, exactly.
Niko: What do you hope for people watching this documentary, what would you like them to take away from it?
Danny: It’s hard, because I wouldn’t want to… My gut says, if it can help anyone through what they’re going through, that would be great. Like an extension of Courtney’s purpose she outlined in the film. But, also, I think, maybe… I just want people to take whatever they want and leave whatever they want. There’s no, obviously, no pressure, but it’s just curious, how people experience it and all that stuff. I don’t know. I don’t have any clear cut answer for that. Because it’s such a broad topic and it affects people in so many different ways.
Courtney: Yeah. I guess whatever people are looking for, I hope they find that.