When Courtney Barnett was growing up outside Sydney, Australia, her father was a volunteer firefighter.
“There were some bad ones,” the 32-year-old guitarist and songwriter said of bushfires. "I remember him getting up in the middle of the night, and then we’d get evacuated. But that was nothing like this. The amount of coverage that these fires have, it’s like the size of entire European countries. It’s terrifying.”
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Barnett was on the phone this past week from her home in Melbourne, a few days after playing a pair of fund-raising shows for bushfire victims with fellow Australian rockers Camp Cope.
Her family is safe in Hobart, on the island of Tasmania. But like most Australians, she has “friends and the families of friends who’ve lost everything,” she said. “I woke up today and I can smell smoke through my windows, and I’m nowhere near a fire.”
While her country continued to burn, Barnett prepared to play music on the other side of the world. Along with interviews to do, she had a bag to pack. The next day, she was scheduled to fly to Mexico to play Wilco’s Sky Blue Sky festival. After hanging with Jeff Tweedy, it would be on to Nashville for a date with Brandi Carlile at the Ryman Auditorium. Then, a U.S. solo tour. Opening night will be at the Queen in Wilmington on Thursday.
Barnett will be performing in support of a new album that, in many ways, is her most Australian to date. And it’s not just the title that gives the eight-song MTV Unplugged Live In Melbourne (Milk! *** ½) a sense of place.
Unplugged is a significant addition to Barnett’s already impressive body of work, in part because of the way it creates community, inviting fellow Down Under musicians in on reinterpretations of Barnett’s own songs and covers of other Aussie artists.
“I think the point of music is sharing stories and sharing ideas,” she said. “And hopefully, people discover some of those other artists through me.”
The album is also a retrospective of sorts. It includes songs from all three of Barnett’s major releases, starting with “Avant Gardener,” the adult-alternative radio hit from her 2013 The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas.
That song introduced Barnett to American audiences as a gifted wordsmith with a deadpan delivery and voluminous vocabulary. She dropped polysyllabic words like “anaphylactic” and “hypochondriactic” in a nerve-rattling tale of an intense allergic reaction turning a mundane day into a near-death experience.
Unplugged also draws from Barnett’s 2015 Sometimes I Sit And Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit and 2018’s Tell Me How You Really Feel. (Lotta Sea Lice, her 2018 collaborative album with Philadelphia guitarist Kurt Vile, is not represented.)
Self-deprecation, uncertainty, and discomfort in the spotlight are prevailing Barnett themes. “I love you, I hate you, I’m on the fence, it all depends,” she sang in Sometimes’ “Pedestrian At Best,” adding, “Put me on a pedestal and I’ll only disappoint you.” And Tell Me included a song titled “Crippling Self-Doubt and A General Lack Of Confidence.”
There’s one new Barnett tune on Unplugged, a gem called “Untitled (Play It On Repeat).” It opens with “Everyday I wake, hope it’s a mistake / Wish I could go back to dreaming.”
Barnett, who from 2012 to 2018 was in a relationship with musician Jen Cloher, sounds rootless and disconnected: “I don’t really have a house, I don’t really have home,” she sings. “Maybe I belong, maybe I don’t.” It’s a song to cause fans to worry: Are you OK, Courtney?
She laughed. “When I played these shows last weekend, a couple of lovely people came up and asked me exactly that. ... But I’m OK.”
Barnett is a keen observational songwriter, with a sharp eye that shows up in songs like “Elevator Operator” and “Depreston.” But she also takes cues from confessional heroes like Leonard Cohen, and does justice to his “So Long, Marianne” on Unplugged.
Does she worry she reveals too much? “Kind of,” she said. “It’s a fine line. I’ve been writing lately and it feels really personal. And yeah, I definitely wonder if it’s too much. But maybe that’s the point. ... There’s so much that’s bottled up and not talked about. So maybe it’s worth it.”
Before recording Unplugged in October, Barnett said, her knowledge of MTV “stopped with Nirvana Unplugged [released in 1994] and Beavis and Butt-Head.”
Doing her own Unplugged “was a great challenge musically. Choosing the covers, rearranging my songs, and just mucking around with different instrumentation.”
Barnett’s bandmates Dave Mudie and Bones Sloane — with whom she usually makes more raucous music informed by 1960s garage rock and psychedelia — are augmented by cellist Lucy Waldron.
Veteran songwriter Paul Kelly, a big influence on Barnett when she was a teen, joins her on a cover of “Charcoal Lane,” by revered songwriter and Indigenous Australian activist Archie Roach.
Evelyn Ida Morris teams with Barnett for a piano-based, slowed-down remake of “Nameless, Faceless,” a song from Tell Me that calls out internet trolls “who sit alone at home in the darkness” and the threat of violence against women.
And on “Not Only I,” from the 2019 album Wild Seeds by Aussie indie folk supergroup Seeker Lover Keeper, Barnett pairs with Marlon Williams, the Maori alt-country singer from Christchurch, New Zealand.
The song confronts despair: “It’s never ending, time it goes on / Sometimes I feel so alone.” But while Barnett and Williams’ voices twine, they find cause for optimism, seeking “something to believe in / Not only I long for the feeling.”
She’s looking forward to touring solo. “I’ve done so much with bands over the years, and this is certainly a different mind-set. It’s very vulnerable, but I like having the songs stripped back to almost how they were written.”
Barnett has fond memories of touring with Vile in 2018 (“Kurt makes me laugh so much”), particularly celebrating her 30th birthday at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby. “The joke was that we’d make another record when we’re old and in rocking chairs,” she said. “Hopefully before then.”
After her U.S. tour, Barnett isn’t sure what’s next.
New songs she’s working on are driven by “finding the fun, and something to look forward to, and trying to find the real beauty in life and love and human connection," she said.
“I don’t know what I’m doing. I’ll keep writing and see what I come up with.”