The instrumental album trades indie-rock for ambience, mirroring the emotive slow-burn of Courtney Barnett’s first documentary. In this exclusive interview, we explore the story behind it.
There’s a few ways you can read into the title of Courtney Barnett’s new album, End Of The Day.
For context, the 17-song, 40-minute effort – a wholly instrumental and ambient affair – serves as a standalone remodelling of the score for Barnett’s first official documentary, the Danny Cohen-directed Anonymous Club, which premiered in cinemas last March (and finally made it to DVD and streaming about two months ago).
Repurposed into an album, the soundtrack unfurls as one singular, slow-burning composition. It’s easy to lose yourself in the halcyon flow: unless you physically watch the song titles tick over, it’s often impossible to recognise when one track ends and the next begins. It’s contemplative and serene, reflective of the calm we glean from Barnett towards the end of the film itself; it’s the kind of record you’d put on to drift off and melt your troubles away to at the end of the day.
So that’s one way to read into it. Another is to see it in relation to the narrative explored in Anonymous Club – the journey of self-discovery Barnett embarked on in the purgatorial transition between her second and third albums (2018’s Tell Me How You Really Feel and 2021’s Things Take Time, Take Time, respectively). She’d learned a lot about herself and grown a lot as an artist by the end of the (metaphorical) day.
You can also read the title as a nod to the disc’s existence as the final one issued by Milk! Records: It represents the end of the day for the label Barnett (and ex-partner Jen Cloher) launched to self-release their music in 2012.
However you parse its title, End Of The Day is an undoubtedly significant release for Barnett, ticking off some key items on her artistic bucket list, and bridging the gap between Things Take Time, Take Time and her impending fourth studio album.
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At face value, it’s surprising Anonymous Club even exists. The film gives viewers a strikingly raw peek behind the curtain at Barnett’s creative process, lifestyle and personality both on and off the road, finally answering questions that have long eluded her followers; aside from what she offers in her lyrics, the Naarm/Melbourne native is extremely reserved.
From an interviewer’s perspective, Barnett is an interesting case study: she’s super easy to get along with, and conversation flows freely, but equally so is she a tough nut to crack. Her creative secrets are held behind an impenetrable wall, and you can’t fool her into helping you climb it with cleverly worded questions – she’s wonderfully effusive when she wants to be, and masterfully elusive when she needs.
Doubly surprising is just how much of Barnett’s true self we see in the film: for a tight 80 minutes, we follow the modern-day indie icon through the highest of highs (creatively enriched and brimming with ideas as she lays down the groundwork for Things Take Time, Take Time) and the lowest of lows (burnt out and emotionally battered from the Tell Me How You Really Feel era).
Speaking to The Music, Barnett recalls the first time she sat down with Cohen to watch an early cut of Anonymous Club: a moment you’d expect to have made her feel excited and accomplished, but instead left her “very stressed and emotional”. There’s a look of discomfort on her face as she reminisces, admitting she spent most of the screening “just crying” as some of the best and worst years of her life flickered by in front of her: “It’s a hard thing, I think, to see yourself how other people see you. It was very overwhelming.”
There’s a natural conclusion we can draw here: Cohen is an evil, evil man who purposely traumatised his subject in the name of art.
As great as that would make this story (controversy equals clicks, after all), Barnett stresses that Cohen was actually a dream to work with. They were close friends and collaborators long before they started working on Anonymous Club, having first teamed up for a photoshoot linked to Barnett’s 2015 debut album, Sometimes I Sit And Think, And Sometimes I Just Sit.
They got along so well that Barnett personally invited Cohen to work on the visuals for Lotta Sea Lice – her collaborative album with Kurt Vile, which they jointly released in 2017 – and then Tell Me How You Really Feel. According to Barnett, it was actually her personal bond with Cohen that opened her up to the prospect of a documentary; she knew he would “tailor it in a way that felt true to who I am”.
Anonymous Club is a very un-traditional kind of music doco: it doesn’t have the standard talking-head interviews or jagged quick-cuts of Barnett’s biggest “rock’n’roll” moments, nor does it try to craft some larger-than-life narrative of who she is. It’s intimate and insular, and deliberately so. Barnett explains: “[Cohen] knows I don't like being in front of the camera that much, and he was very thoughtful and respectful of that. He would often just observe, you know? It never felt like he was obstructing what I was doing or how I was existing. We did it in a way that felt natural to me – and to him – and we just kind of let it grow organically.
When the cameras started rolling, neither Barnett nor Cohen knew they were even making a feature film. The project started when Barnett invited Cohen out to document the touring cycle for Tell Me How You Really Feel, and it wasn’t until months into the shoot that a narrative started to form. It also worked well for Cohen that Barnett was averse to the grandiosity of the typical rock doco: Anonymous Club is his first film of the sort, and because he had no framework to base it on, he and Barnett were able to shape it however they saw fit.
“I think we just wanted to make [Anonymous Club] its own thing,” Barnett says, “and have it exist in its own world. It was never supposed to be this big, biographical thing, or like a retrospective look at how I started and where I ended up. It’s very much just a snapshot in time.”
The final product speaks to the unique bond shared between Barnett and Cohen. “I think it would have been a very different film if someone else had've made it,” the former explains. “I've got no idea what that would have looked like, but I know that our friendship and our connection gave [Anonymous Club] an extra depth.”
For the audience, that’s partly reflected in the documentary’s warm and homely, pseudo-retro aesthetic, which Cohen achieved by shooting natively on 16mm film stock. “I think that says a lot about the kind of love Danny has for the process,” Barnett offers. “All the extra time and care and patience that working with film entails, it really speaks to the way Danny works and how he looks at the world.”
In developing the original score for Anonymous Club, Barnett set out to echo the film’s protean origins and intimacy. Though she’d long admired the art of scoring and would sometimes daydream about one day composing for the screen, she deliberately avoided crafting a vision for this effort. Most of the music was composed and performed improvisationally, with Barnett and Warpaint drummer Stella Mozgawa – with whom she co-produced Things Take Time, Take Time – going into the studio blind with nothing more than a few guitars and effects pedals.
“We spent two days in there,” Barnett says. “Danny set a screen up on the wall and played us the film, and we just noodled along to the scenes. You know, some of the chord structures might have been loosely based on something I'd had floating around in my head, but for the most part, it was just all improvised. We didn’t listen to [any other film scores] or set ourselves any comparisons – we just tried to react as honestly as we could to what was going on in the moment.”
It was Cohen’s idea to have Barnett perform an original suite for Anonymous Club. In a bid to mirror her stream-of-consciousness songwriting, the director gave her a dictaphone to use like a journal, recording the slice-of-life musings she’d have on tour (those later being used to ‘narrate’ key scenes in the film).
“I would sit around and play guitar while I recorded those bits,” Barnett explains, “so there were lots of little noodly riffs and things in between all my random thoughts. And [Cohen] was originally going to use some of them in the film, but one day he was like, ‘Actually, why don’t we try to record something new?’ But we tried to keep that loose, kind of free-flowing spirit intact.”
Heading into the studio, Barnett admits she felt “a little nervous and scared”, but infinitely moreso “really excited to be doing something so new”. She elaborates: “I was down for the challenge. It was a new process for me. I do make a lot of different music at home, in my own time, but I never really show other people or intend to release it. So it was nice to try something different for the score. It was a really fun project, I’m really glad I had the chance to work on it.”
The concept for End Of The Day came about nearly two years after Anonymous Club premiered at the 2021 Melbourne International Film Festival. “I didn’t really intend to make it an album,” Barnett says, noting that because she and Cohen were swept up in meeting post-production deadlines, she never stopped to consider how the music might exist beyond the film. “We just thought, ‘Let’s make this the best music we can for this specific project.’ But I kind of like the journey it took, you know?”
Barnett describes the album’s creation as “a really slow process”, during which she spent weeks poring over its ambient ebbs and flows. “I found myself listening to the tracks for hours on end,” she says, “and I wasn't sure if I wanted to add new instrumentation, or how much I wanted to change. But in the end, Stella and I – and Cal Barter, who mixed the album – we just made a few minor adjustments and additions.
“It was a bit like a puzzle, I think, putting it all together in the end – just finding those transitions and figuring out how to make it all flow very naturally. I wanted all the songs to bleed into each other and not have a sense of pause or distraction in between them.”
The concept was partly inspired by Thursday Afternoon, a 60-minute ambient work that Brian Eno released in 1985 as his tenth studio album. “I’ve spent so much time just listening to that song over and over,” Barnett says, “and it just feels so peaceful to me. I love listening to music like that, where you can just lose yourself in the melodies and be taken on that journey. That’s exactly what I wanted to do with this album.”
She was also excited to explore the process of making an instrumental album – especially as someone whose songwriting is “so lyric-heavy”. She says: “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time; there’s just something so powerful and magical about building a world without the words to tell a story in it. Usually in my songwriting, I spend so much time thinking about the story and the narrative of a song – so being able to flip the script on that, just really focusing on and feeling the music, was a really special thing to be able to do.”
Reflecting on the entire journey that led her to End Of The Day, Barnett says: “It was a very unexpected, but very important project for me. I had no idea it would carry the weight it does, but I’m really glad I pushed myself to do it. I think I learned a lot throughout the process – and to be honest, I umm'd and ahh'd a lot about releasing it, because I kind of wondered if anyone else was going to be interested in it, or even bother listening to it. But I'm really glad I did [put it out]. It just kind of reminded me to trust my gut, I think, and that it’s worth following through with the things you really love.”
This is the same kind of conclusion Barnett came to in Anonymous Club, learning to trust her creative instincts as she reckoned with burnout and emotional exhaustion. At the end of the touring cycle for Tell Me How You Really Feel, she consciously decided to approach her next album with a more laidback attitude; she did away with the hectic studio sessions and full-band jams, instead noodling casually on acoustic guitars and fooling around with drum machines, chasing song ideas as they cropped up naturally.
The film shows us the early stages of this process, but Things Take Time, Take Time came to life a fair while after the cameras stopped rolling. Thankfully, though, Barnett says the film’s hopeful ending was indeed indicative of the way that third album’s cycle unfurled: “I’m so proud of that album,” she gushes. “I loved playing those songs live, especially. It was really fun.”
“You know, every album of mine is just like another chapter in my life – it’s a snapshot of that moment and what was going on during it, and all the emotions I went through in that timeframe. When I was a kid, I used to love pulling out all my family’s photo albums and flicking through them, just watching time elapse in these memories. And each album kind of feels like one of those photo books. I love being able to document those moments and those emotions and all of those stories, and then share them with people and have everyone interpret them in their own ways... It just feels like a really special thing to be able to do.”
I’ve seen Barnett perform at least a dozen times over the past decade, and I can say with confidence that her best sets to date came during the touring cycle for Things Take Time, Take Time. She agrees but offers a more utopian perspective on why that was: “I think every year, I just feel a little more comfortable in my own body and mind. That’s probably just an extension of touring so often and being a live musician, learning what it means to be one and what it feels like, and just getting more used to it. But yeah, that tour – I certainly remember feeling a lot more comfortable, and a lot more present onstage than I ever had been before.”
Part of it, too, comes down to circumstance: “There was something unique about touring right after those last COVID lockdowns were lifted,” Barnett continues, “like a real extreme sense of gratitude that we were able to do that again. When we started touring – and especially touring this album in particular – there was just a different feeling in the air, all around the world, and it was something I'd never felt before. It was really special. It gave me a completely new outlook on what it is that we do.”
Looking ahead to the future, Barnett is optimistic: She’s never felt more excited by music, and she’s never been keener to dive headfirst into the unknown. She’s not quite sure what her fourth album will sound like, or how she’ll get it out to the world after closing up shop at Milk! Records; “I'm figuring all of that out as we speak,” she chuckles, showing that aforementioned elusiveness.
“I’m very deep in ‘figuring it out’ mode. I’m writing songs, but I don’t really know how to describe them yet – they just feel like the songs I normally write, you know? They’re about feelings and people, and the feelings people have...”