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An Evening With Courtney Barnett At The Grammy Museum, Monday August 28th 2023

Courtney
Courtney Barnett at the Grammy Museum

A few weeks ago, Courtney Barnett announced two intimate shows at the Masonic Lodge of Hollywood Forever Cemetery and a weird thing happened: both shows sold out before I could even have access to the site. Courtney is in high demand, there’s no doubt about it. When I learned that she was also making an appearance at the Grammy Museum on Monday night, I didn’t hesitate (and succeeded this time) in buying a ticket. The event was quite different from a regular concert though, since it included the screening of a documentary, followed by a Q&A with Devendra Banhart and a short performance by Courtney. Quite a full evening, but also a way to get to to get to know the shy singer-songwriter, at a more intimate level.

Named after an old song that she released 10 to 12 years ago, “Anonymous Club” was filmed by Bartnett’s close friend, Danny Cohen, and followed the Melbourne singer-songwriter on the road. It paints a very intimate portrait of the recluse, who, as Devendra put it “seems to really cherish a private life and solitude.” Until now, Courtney has not revealed much about herself, but she truly hides a lot of existential questions behind her giant smile. In 2018, when she embarked on the world tour for her album “Tell Me How You Really Feel,” she invited Cohen and asked him to film “some stuff.” They didn’t have the intention to make a movie at the time, but she felt so comfortable with him that the collection of footage built the backbone of “Anonymous Club.”

Throughout the movie, as we follow her around the world, backstage and on stage, or sitting at her desk in front of her notebook (“writing a song is hard!”) Courtney communicates with us with voice memos, revealing her most personal thoughts and anxieties. “Danny came up with that idea because he knew that I would be quiet and probably wasn’t going to go out of my way to talk to a camera,” she said during the Q&A. The movie doesn’t have any narrative style but it is rather a collage of puzzle pieces, documenting different moments of Courtney Barnett’s life, mostly on the road, while she is constantly asking herself what she is really doing.

Barnett obviously puts a lot of herself and deep thinking into her songs, and you see her sitting at her desk, writing her thoughts, analyzing her deepest insecurities, feeling uncomfortable, challenged, and vulnerable but always honest with herself. “There’s part of me that wishes I didn’t have to speak about the music I make or the ideas that are behind it,” she said during the Q&A. “Because sometimes, I don’t even understand the process that I’m going through. Sometimes, it takes me five years to understand a song that I’ve written five or ten years ago.” One thing is sure, Courtney Barnett doesn’t like her work to be analyzed. She even finds the process terrifying, and you can read this exact feeling in her eyes when a German TV show host asks her a personal question about one of her songs.

As Courtney confides herself before getting on stage all around the world, a theme regularly comes back: her insecurity and self-doubt that she transcribes in “hate buying”: people buying a ticket out of pure hate for the artist. “It is a fact,” she says at one point as she stretches before getting on stage. “People pay for the ticket, that’s the thing and I have had that thought that all these people bought a hate ticket; no one is here to see the show, they all bought hate tickets.” This is an extraordinary and funny idea especially when you see many people scream “I love you” at her each time she is on stage. “Maybe it’s a way of moderating that kind of adoration,” Devendra (who shares her hate-buying theory) suggested during the Q&A. “It’s a mechanism of trying to stay human and humble and normal,” he continued. “Because the opposite of that is everyone has a ticket because they fucking love me so much! Which is actually what it is but you don’t really want to believe that. Maybe it’s a way of moderating that kind of adoration.” “I think it’s a protection,” Courtney added, “I think in a way of anticipating that something will go wrong so then your brain can go ‘I told you so!’”

The film documents very well how life on the road can be tough and beautiful at the same time. “I thought I wish I was a musician, that looks fun, as tough as it is!” Devendra joked while adding he has been on tour for a decade. ”I lived nowhere for 10 years and I am finally settling down somewhere,” he said. “I didn’t really have a place that I called home,” Courtney confirmed, “I didn’t realize at the time just how ungrounded I felt. But even now I feel like I’m still trying to find exactly where I am, where I want to be, and I feel like I called multiple places home, which is really a lovely thing to be able to do.” At the same time, the two musicians envision their lives as a journey and “the journey is understanding what your purpose is” despite the hard life on the road, the sleepless nights, the many sad days, the nervousness before getting on stage. “I still get so nervous performing and I wonder why I get so stressed and so nervous and why I do this!” she admitted at one point of the conversation, while many scenes of the movie illustrate this feeling. “It looks so painful to have to go through that stuff that I don’t know why!”

But a moment in the movie (and this didn’t escape Devendra) depicts her profound thought regarding purpose as we watch different people attending one of her shows while Courtney enumerates the reasons why she really does what she does: “To empower people who need empowering, to feel something, to forget something, to remember something, to be inspired, to feel happiness, to feel emotion that allows them to transcend life and helps them in the journey…”

“I think it’s easy to lose track of the original attention,” Courtney said. ”Actually, the intentions change: the 10-year-old version of me wanting to learn how to play guitar is very different to me now, but I feel like that’s a lifelong journey of constantly changing those goalposts and reinterpreting how we exist in the world and how we move through the world and for what purpose and how we relate to other people. I feel like it’s important for me to constantly be checking back where I’m at and why I am doing it.”

Courtney Barnett’s new album, “End of the Day” was recorded in 2021, while Danny Cohen was finishing the film. He asked her to compose the soundtrack, during a two-day of improvisation in a Melbourne studio, something, she said, she had never done before. With her friend Stella Mozgawa, she tried to give us a taste of this improvisation, but, unfortunately, they never managed to make the electronic table work and Courtney ended up playing three of her songs, solo. “Depreston,” “Sunday Roast” and “Before You Gotta Go.” As she hadn’t performed for a long time, she asked just before “Sunday Roast”: “What is the first line? I am serious!” She immediately got the right answer from the crowd.

“When I see a show, my favorite part is the part when someone messes up because you see the reality and you see the humanity,” she had just declared to Devendra who admitted forgetting lyrics on stage too. Forgetting lyrics was not what I call “messing up,” but it indeed revealed a great deal of her honesty and humanity, already on display during the most intimate moments of “Anonymous Club.”

 

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