Courtney Barnett Is Not Afraid To Be Vulnerable, And That’s What Makes Her A Fucking Rockstar

While her songs detail self-doubt, on-stage Barnett proves herself wrong.

Courtney Barnett

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“Is anyone here tonight from Church Point? It’s where I’m from.”

Despite the Sydney Opera House’s concert hall being packed, nobody responds to Courtney Barnett‘s question. The crowd is a distinct type of Thursday night timid, where no one’s quite sure whether they’re game to answer Barnett’s question with a yell — let alone stand up and dance.

That’s not to say they weren’t into it: during some of Barnett’s bigger guitar-swells, the head-boppers transform into seat thrashers, while pockets of the crowd jump up for their favourite songs. But all-in-all, we’re an awful quiet bunch. Attentive.

While her songs detail self-doubt, on-stage Barnett proves herself wrong.

And there’s reason to be: as the New Yorker wrote in its review of Barnett’s recently released sophomore album Tell Me How You Really Feel, she’s “lauded as one of the most gifted songwriters of her generation”.

Where critics say Barnett’s laid-back singing style is a carefully postured lack of caring, Tell Me How… is a countenance, a raw balance of optimism with frustration — one directed both inwards (‘Crippling Self Doubt And A General Lack Of Self Confidence’) and towards the world (‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’).

Courtney Barnett

Photo by Prudence Upton.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in album opener ‘Hopefullessness’, which might be the most apt portmanteau of 2018. Suitably, it’s how Barnett begins the night: at first, she’s isolated from her band by a hazy red spotlight, reminiscent of Tell Me How…‘s cover. Of course, it’s when she sings that her anxiety’s “getting louder” that the band kicks in, the lights flare up, and Barnett, for lack of a better word, shreds.

Despite the theatrics, it all feels very intimate. A few things help set the scene: the fairy lights littered across the stage are a nice nod to her small-show roots, and the mid-song banter could be lifted straight from a backyard DIY gig.

In part, the semi-confessional tone of tonight’s show is because Tell Me How… left behind Barnett’s narrative-based songs in favour of introspection. As a result, Barnett’s opened herself — while her songs detail self-doubt, on-stage, she proves herself wrong.

Take ‘Small Poppies’, a highlight from her 2015 debut album: it’s a spiral of a song, but when Barnett reaches the chorus’ end, she sings through the line “But I think I’m alright” with a sardonic grin. Then she throws her body into the bridge, an aggressive, spooling guitar solo which proved she was doing just fine.

There’s a confidence to vulnerability, and thankfully, Barnett’s unafraid to sing ugly. Just as Tell Me How… is less concerned with wrapping feeling in literary lyrics, Barnett is leaning into her voice’s cracks, screaming and spitting out lines about self-loathing and misogyny. It’s best to sit and watch.

Of course, a few songs — ‘Pedestrian At Best’, ‘Elevator Operator’ — did get the Thursday crowd riled up and out of their seats. But earlier, when Barnett arrived at the windier lines of early hits like ‘Avant Gardener’, a quick glance around showed most punters were spitting the words back — politely, of course, under their breath.

The room were loudest for ‘Depreston’, Barnett’s 2015 ode to the rental market, gentrification and the sad knowledge that your new house was once someone’s old home. From the start, the crowd sung softly, but together. Towards the end, Barnett backed away from the mic, her voice blending in with the chorus.

Feature image by Prudence Upton.

Courtney Barnett’s second album, Tell Me How You Really Feel, is out now. She’s currently touring Australia — her second Sydney Opera House show is on Saturday 25 August.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and often wonders about the dead people who used to live in his sharehouse. Follow him on Twitter.