Design of t-shirts and new album

There’s a hidden quality to Australian indie rocker Courtney Barnett’s rise over the past few years and that hidden quality is empathy. You can hear it in her lyrics and you can definitely see it in the merchandise she sells. If you were to describe her merch aesthetic, it would be easy to say, “Oh, that’s just pure Courtney Barnett.” Like her album covers, there’s a minimalist vibe to what she offers us to stick on ourselves to show our support as a true Courtney Barnett fan. T-shirts full of bright colors or anything that’s really going to be an open life statement about your qualities as a human being – that’s not his thing. Instead, you can get a drawing of a brain in a mixing cup; a potted plant like this may need a little water; a can of tomatoes; or a mother duck saying the line from her excellent 2018 album tell me how you really feel“I’m not your mother, I’m not your female dog.”

Looking at those little designs that adorn his shirts… there’s something very raw about them, something simplistic, raw, yet humble. And she will tell you that drawing is not really her forte.

“I’ll be the first to admit that’s not my real talent,” Barnett says. “I love that 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 potted plants, and [I’m] draw all the different that come into my life. It’s really aimless, but an exercise in keeping the hand busy and the brain flashing.

Barnett drew all his life, taking art lessons as a child; nowadays, she finds herself doodling at her desk at home, or on the go – travel seems to inspire her creativity. There’s a pleasure in getting lost in the moments Make, where the self-editor in all of us goes out the window, and the fluid 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 those simplistic designs that adorn his merch.

“When I stop thinking about what I’m doing and stop thinking about the purpose of the play, or the outcome of the play, or whether it’s good or bad – if I stop thinking about it and that I get carried away with the moment, time can pass very easily,” she says. “The push and pull is a bit of a battle. When I find that moment between all the thoughts, that’s when it feels the most magical. On the one hand, you want to create something with the goal of publishing it, or there’s some stress behind something like art for a t-shirt, and there’s a deadline for print it. It adds that other element of stress… but also it recreates the purpose of the art in the first place. It’s a constant lesson in learning how to balance it.

On his new album Things take time, take time, this push and pull is exercised in the lyrics, the titles of the songs and the music itself. On the slow and jangly single “Rae Street,” Barnett captures a mundane day, with scenes of a mother yelling at her child, neighbors doing adjoining things like walking dogs and riding bikes, but in the end, the lyrics of the song turn into a rallying cry for someone who is clearly in trouble. On the punchy “If I Don’t Hear From You Tonight,” Barnett’s narrator gets caught up in mental relationship games that are mostly confessional, a bit paranoid, and certainly a snapshot in time of how our brain accelerates tiny things into much bigger things. So does the romantic drive of “Before You Gotta Go” – 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 meticulousness can be used to draw inspiration from bigger ideas that we all face day in and day out. And this notion of taking simple moments and extending them — it creates a unity around how Barnett approaches her whole vibe, in everything she does. The simplistic designs that adorn his merchandise, on the surface, look like this: simplistic sketched designs, probably taking very little time. But there’s more to it – and it’s a holistic representation of who Barnett sees himself as. That is to say, at least from an artistic point of view.

“Now it feels like an extension of the music,” she says. “It feels like a little visual element that connects to the music. I was thinking about how Joni Mitchell painted a bunch of self-portraits of herself on her album covers. I like this. It’s another look at the artist, at the process. Same for song titles. They are another layer of the story. It all adds up – the title of the song could be the recurring chorus or whatever, but when it’s something outward, or something abstract…it gives a bigger picture. These are all small elements that add up to the bigger picture.

Which brings us back to empathy. Barnett’s simple designs on his t-shirts have more life – just as mundane conversations or observations in his songs have more life – if we look for it. Barnett is a master at blurring the realities of beauty around the little things. It’s a great view of empathy.

“I go through times where I say I wish I had documented better this time, but there’s a world where you can live too much in the past…I don’t think that’s healthy,” she says. “The flip side is looking back at embarrassing things or bad art or bad writing. It’s kind of nice to be able to reflect on that too. You can also see your own personal growth. You can be like, ‘Oh , I was really struggling then.’ It creates this feeling of empathy… there’s something in there because you feel so distant from that person. It’s an interesting way to approach the human and psychological journey.

Elizabeth J. Harless