I first saw Australian singer-songwriter Courtney Barnett on a late-night show some years ago. She looked impossibly young, dark bangs down to her eyes, wearing no discernable makeup and a plain shirt and dark pants. No pop princess, this one. At the end of her song she repeatedly attacked the last chord on her Fender Telecaster, knocking herself back a little and smiling broadly—a left-handed guitar ecstatic, St. Courtney of the Frets.
Barnett, now 34, is a formidable shredder, but the word fret takes on another meaning in Anonymous Club, the new documentary about her directed by her friend Danny Cohen. At a Q&A after a screening at the Angelika theater, Cohen explained that the singer has difficulties with interviews, so he instead asked her to record her thoughts as she began a world tour for her aptly titled 2018 album, Tell Me How You Really Feel. This audio diary, which spans three years and is about 30 hours long, provided a voice-over for the movie, as well as a voyage through Barnett’s psyche. From it we learn how sad she often felt (she calls herself an “emo kid”); how inauthentic (“It feels like I’m being part of this scripted performance … really pointless”); how inadequate (“I just write rubbish about nothing”); how, at times, even despairing (“I feel like the world’s come crashing down around me”). When we hear her plaintively sing, while on a solo tour, Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” we’re pretty sure she means it. And she does cry at a Dallas show, during the last chorus of “Depreston,” causing the audience, gamely and touchingly, to take over the vocals for her. Despite these struggles with depression and self-esteem, it becomes obvious that Barnett often derives strength from her audience—she reports that the crying incident felt liberating and that the bandless tour brought confidence. “We’re doing this together,” she tells one crowd, “this music thing.”
She played the outro in her thrashing way (delirium tremens of a different sort), following that with “Nameless, Faceless,” which began with only Barnett in the spotlight and ended with all three musicians in the dark, dissonant notes floating, it seemed, above them.
That Barnett needs confidence might surprise anyone who’s seen her perform, whether (though especially) live or on-screen. On July 21 at Radio City Music Hall, she rocked the landmark Art Deco theater (home to the more family-friendly Rockettes and, at Christmastime, camels), especially during instrumental breaks, succumbing to her own jangly, distorted, and ragged guitar sounds with lunges, kicks—with her long limbs, she can seem all angles—and backbends. Judging from the roar of the audience, we all succumbed too. She had the help of her simpatico bandmates, bassist Bones Sloane and drummer Dave Mudie (who also appear in the film), as well as a spectacular light show reaching all the way to the back mezzanine, where I was sitting, with puzzle pieces of light swirling around the arced ceiling. But the set also suggested another side of Barnett—several old-fashioned floor lamps and a couple of rugs added a cozy touch, befitting such songs as “Rae Street,” the first one she did. (In the film, Barnett, at home base in Melbourne, makes toast for her friend and collaborator Stella Mozgawa and putters around with plants.)
I’m not sure when this indie darling made the leap to warranting such an extravaganza, to being, if not yet a huge rock name, probably on her way there. When I first heard her breakout single, “Avant Gardener,” on NYC’s alternative college station WFUV, I was struck by her Dylanesque talky manner of singing and her conversational lyrics (“I sleep in late / Another day … ”), which, while moving apace from gardening to severe asthma attack, suddenly seemed to be about more than what’s on the surface—“I’m not that good at breathin’ in.” Though that track has some off-kilter, piercingly high guitar notes, I thought of it as more in the folk-rock vein and wouldn’t have expected such an electrifying performer onstage. At times those crazy lights at Radio City seemed to be trying to keep up with her. On “Need a Little Time,” small yellow spotlights pulsed faster as the song grew in intensity, with Barnett reaching up for those high “you-oo-oo”s and “me-ee-ee”s. She played the outro in her thrashing way (delirium tremens of a different sort), following that with “Nameless, Faceless,” which began with only Barnett in the spotlight and ended with all three musicians in the dark, dissonant notes floating, it seemed, above them.
Like the film—in the Q&A, Barnett said it “made me unlock something inside myself”—the concert ended on a positive note: The singer introduced “Splendour” by telling us her girlfriend was in the audience and that she’d written the song for her. How typical of Barnett that a love song includes the words “oh no” repeated again and again (“Oh no, I am really gonna miss you”). Always something to fret about.…
Dressed in a blue T-shirt and black pants (plus ça change … ), she had played a long set, but it didn’t include “I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch,” which I was hoping for because of the explosive performance I’d seen in Cohen’s doc. In the narration, Barnett says on the day after that show, “I’ve lost my voice due to the anger.” Sometimes when I heard such diary excerpts during a Barnett close-up in the movie, it was as though I could see her thinking.
Shot on 16 mm film, Anonymous Club, titled after Barnett’s song of the same name, practically glows with sumptuous color. When Cohen, who’s known for quirky music videos (see “Over Everything,” in which Barnett and Kurt Vile lip-sync each other’s parts), does focus on her face, her green eyes seem almost otherworldly. And she is otherworldly, as we all are—part of us dealing with earthly concerns, another part reaching toward something ineffable. Laboring at her songwriting—we see her in hotel rooms from Berlin to Tokyo, usually with notebook at the ready, guitar in hand—Barnett tries to make effable whatever she can, wanting, as she says, to give her audience “an emotion that allows them to transcend life and helps them on their journey.” She may be more successful than most at this because she’s clearly one of us, often awkward (it’s as though she’s a rock star while remaining a gawky teenager who wants to be a rock star) and often happy with the “small thrills” she touts in the gorgeous “Here’s the Thing,” from her latest album, Things Take Time, Take Time. She’s a poet of the quotidian, taking our everyday lives and lifting them to the skies. ❖
Mary Lyn Maiscott is an NYC-based singer-songwriter whose latest release is “Alithia’s Flowers (Children of Uvalde).” She has written about music for Vanity Fair, the Village Voice, and other publications.