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Courtney Barnett's new album has pep talks for the pandemic and beyond

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Not long ago, Australian musician Courtney Barnett was struggling.

COURTNEY BARNETT: It's kind of hard to, like, put into a couple of catchy sentences. But I think it's just - I guess, I just was probably pretty depressed at a point.

CHANG: That's when a friend suggested a simple idea - write a list of things to look forward to. That advice became the title to one of the songs on her new album, "Things Take Time, Take Time."

(SOUNDBITE OF COURTNEY BARNETT SONG, "WRITE A LIST OF THINGS TO LOOK FORWARD TO")

CHANG: Barnett admits that she was skeptical at first about that list idea.

BARNETT: When that friend gave me that advice, I was very low. So I rolled my eyes, and I was like, well, nothing. There's nothing that I'm looking forward to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRITE A LIST OF THINGS TO LOOK FORWARD TO")

BARNETT: (Singing) Nobody knows why we keep trying.

And then they were like, well, what about this little thing and this little thing? And, you know, just as little as, like, waking up tomorrow and watching the sunrise and drinking a coffee. That kind of normally makes the top of my list.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WRITE A LIST OF THINGS TO LOOK FORWARD TO")

BARNETT: (Signing) I'm looking forward to the next letter that I'm going to get from you.

CHANG: So did writing it out actually make you feel better? Did you feel that your mood, your outlook, just your state of mind start to shift?

BARNETT: Yeah. You know, I think that writing in general does that for me. And some - and a lot of the writing I do doesn't make much sense, but it helps in the moment. And then, eventually - you know, eventually that might lead to me understanding something better, which might turn into a song. But, yeah, I think that for every hundred pages, there's, you know, a good page.

(SOUNDBITE OF COURTNEY BARNETT SONG, "WRITE A LIST OF THINGS TO LOOK FORWARD TO")

CHANG: You could hear lyrics in your earlier work that often explored your anxiety. Like, there's one song all about a panic attack. And in this album, you do acknowledge how the world is still a stressful place. But this album does feel different.

BARNETT: Yeah, that's - I mean, I feel like I learn a lot about my own album and my own self through, like, conversations like this with people like you with very...

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Sometimes that's how...

BARNETT: Yeah.

CHANG: ...It works. Yeah.

BARNETT: Yeah. There's definitely the kind of softness to some of these songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURNING GREEN")

BARNETT: (Singing) Trees are turning green, and this springtime lethargy is kind of forcing you to see flowers in the weeds.

CHANG: You know, also, I felt like when I was listening to this album, a lot of the songs almost sound like pep talks for yourself or for a friend.

BARNETT: Yeah, that's a good way to put it. I hear that, for sure. A lot of songs start as letters or as conversations. And, yeah, I think it's often kind of having a conversation with a friend and trying to give them advice or just listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURNING GREEN")

BARNETT: (Singing) I hear all your fears, and they are understandable, my friend.

Often in those moments, I find myself, like, saying the things that I would want to hear if I was in...

CHANG: Absolutely.

BARNETT: ...That same situation.

CHANG: Yeah.

BARNETT: And so it's like - it's this weird kind of conversation with someone else, which is actually a conversation with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURNING GREEN")

BARNETT: (Singing) Why don't you let go of those ideas? They're never going to serve you in the end.

CHANG: These softer songs that you mentioned - like, was that a surprise to you?

BARNETT: I don't think so. Maybe, you know, the environment of where I write or create something - like, I was in this small apartment, and I didn't want to make too much noise for the neighbors.

CHANG: (Laughter) That's funny.

BARNETT: And, you know, so it was like, there is that element of, like...

CHANG: Yeah.

BARNETT: ...Smallness and also, you know, the kind of anxiety and overwhelm of kind of this whole pandemic. I probably was craving the opposite a little bit. I was kind of craving this comforting repetition, that kind of meditation. Like, they're the sounds that I was kind of searching for.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPLENDOUR")

BARNETT: (Singing) Remember when we watched that sunset deep in the desert, on the cliff edge.

CHANG: Do you feel this pandemic has changed you in larger ways?

BARNETT: Yeah, I think, definitely. I mean, I had, you know, one of the quietest years of my life and the most kind of solitude I've ever experienced as well. It's the only time in my life that I've lived by myself and dealing with a lot of the internal kind of thoughts and changes, which, of course, I would not have experienced if that situation wasn't laid out in front of me because I would have had distractions of the world and distractions of my normal kind of day-to-day life and friends. And so, yeah, without a doubt - I mean, it changed a lot.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH THE NIGHT")

BARNETT: (Singing) And the days seem so familiar.

CHANG: Courtney Barnett. Her new album is "Things Take Time, Take Time." Thank you so much for being with us. This was wonderful.

BARNETT: Oh, thank you so much. Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OH THE NIGHT")

BARNETT: (Singing) Nostalgia in the sentimental scenes. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.