There’s a hidden quality about Australian indie-rocker Courtney Barnett’s rise over the last several years and that hidden quality is empathy. You can hear it in her lyrics and you can certainly see it in the merchandise she sells. If you had to describe her merch aesthetic, it would be easy to say, “Oh, that’s just pure Courtney Barnett.” Like her album covers, there is a minimalist vibe to what she offers us to plaster on ourselves to show our support as a true Courtney Barnett fan. T-shirts full of splashy colors or anything really that’s going to be an overt life statement about your qualities as a human being — it’s not her thing. Instead, you can get a drawing of a brain in a mixing cup; a pot plant looking like it may need some water; a tomato can; or a mother duckie uttering the line from her excellent 2018 album Tell Me How You Really Feel, “I’m not your mother, I’m not your b*tch.”
Looking at these little drawings that adorn her shirts…there’s something very raw about them, something that’s simplistic, crude, yet humble. And she’ll tell you drawing isn’t really isn’t her forte.
“I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not my true talent,” Barnett says. “I enjoy it and it’s another level of expressing ideas… expressing little pockets of life and trying to recreate moments. But for the most part it’s a fun exercise. I have a few objects in my life, like chairs, or pot plants, and [I’m] drawing all the different ones that come into my life. It’s for no purpose really, but an exercise to keep the hand busy and the brain flickering.”
Barnett has been drawing all her life, taking art classes as a kid; nowadays, she finds herself doodling at her desk at home, or when she’s in motion — traveling seems to inspire creativity in her. There’s a pleasure in getting lost in the moments doing, where the self-editor in all of us goes out the window, and the free-form flowing part of our brain takes over and allows creation to happen. These moments exist for Barnett in the act of writing songs, but also in the act of these simplistic drawings that adorn her merch.
“When I stop thinking about what I’m doing and stop thinking about the purpose of the piece, or the outcome of the piece, or if it’s good or bad — if I stop thinking about that and just get carried away in the moment, time can pass very easily,” she says. “The push and pull is a bit of a battle. When I find that moment in between all of the thoughts, that’s when it feels most magical. On one hand, you want to create something for the purpose of releasing it, or there’s some stress behind something like art for a t-shirt, and there’s a deadline to print it. It adds this other element of stress… but also it recreates the purpose of the art in the first place. It’s a constant lesson to learn how to balance it.”
On her new album Things Take Time, Take Time, this push and pull exerts itself in the lyrics, the song titles, and the music itself. On the slow, jangly single “Rae Street,” Barnett captures a mundane day, with scenes of a mother yelling at her kid, neighbors doing neighbor things like walking dogs and riding bikes, yet at the end, the song’s lyrics flip to become a rallying cry for someone who’s clearly struggling. On the punchy “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight,” Barnett’s narrator is caught in mental relationship games that are mostly confessional, a bit paranoid, and certainly a snapshot in time of how our brains accelerate tiny things into way bigger things. The romantic drive of “Before You Gotta Go” does this too — it’s a song about a fight and a desire for reconciliation.
These themes of time and space run deep in Barnett’s work, where the minutia can be used for inspiration around bigger ideas we are all grappling with day in, day out. And this notion of taking simple moments and expanding them — it’s creating a unity around how Barnett approaches her whole vibe, in everything she does. The simplistic drawings adorning her merch, on the surface, look like just that: simplistic drawings sketched out, likely taking very little time. But there’s more to them than that — and it’s a holistic representation of who Barnett sees herself as. That is, at least from an artistic point-of-view.
“Now, it feels like an extension of the music,” she says. “It feels like a small, visual element that connects to the music. I was thinking of how Joni Mitchell has painted a bunch of self-portraits of her on her album covers. I love that. It’s another peek into the artist, into the process. Same with song titles. They are another layer of the story. It all adds up — the song title could be the recurring chorus or whatever, but when it’s something outside, or something abstract… it paints a bigger picture. They’re all small elements that add up to the bigger picture.”
Which brings us back to empathy. Barnett’s simple drawings on her t-shirts have more of a life — just like the mundane conversations or observations in her songs have more of a life — if we look for it. Barnett’s become a master at blurring the realities of beauty around the little things. It’s a grand vision of empathy.
“I go through moments when I say I wished I’d documented this time better, but there’s a world where you can live too much in the past… I don’t think that’s healthy,” she says. “The flipside of that is looking back at embarrassing stuff or bad art or bad writing. It’s kinda nice to be able to reflect on that as well. You can see your own personal growth as well. You can be like ‘Oh I was really struggling then.’ It creates this empathetic feeling… there’s something about it because you feel so far removed from that person. It’s an interesting way to look at the human, psychological journey.”