Ali Barter — Hello, I’m Doing My Best (Oct. 18th, 2019)
℘ ALI BARTER
⌈Θ⌋ Two years on from her blistering debut A Suitable Girl, Ali Barter has announced her triumphant return with Hello, I’m Doing My Best — a revealing collection of songs that track her most formative relationships: to her body, her instincts, sobriety and the old vices it counteracts, and the people she loves most.
⌈Θ⌋ Hello, I’m Doing My Best is set for release on October 18, via Inertia Music / [PIAS], today Ali also revealed her first ever love song with, ‘Backseat’ which premiered with triple j and her first ever global tour.
⌈Θ⌋ Directed by Anna Phillips (‘Ur A Piece of Shit’), the video for ‘Backseat’ also premiered today via Consequence Of Sound, and sees Ali weave through a comedy of errors with long time collaborator and husband Oscar Dawson (Holy Holy). Ali describes the treatment as being about “two awkward people that get together one night at a bar. A girl admires a boy from afar but when she meets him they are so clumsy and over eager that they end up injuring each other during a late night jam session. It’s just like love really: a mess”
Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Album release: October 18, 2019
Record Label: Inertia Music
01 Lester 1:37
02 Ur A Piece Of Shit [Explicit] 3:22
03 History Of Boys 3:25
04 Big Ones [Explicit] 2:43
05 Cocktail Bar [Explicit] 2:20
06 January [Explicit] 3:03
07 Backseat 3:13
08 Magoo 2:55
09 Are You Happy Now? 4:00
10 This Girl 3:50
11 I Won’t Lie 4:10
↵ Ali Barter — vox/bass
↵ Andrew Braidner — drums
↵ Alex Crosara — guitar
by Shaad D’Souza, OCTOBER 28 2019. Score: 7.2
℘ With frank lyricism and clean production, the Australian songwriter and guitarist channels the confidence and immediacy of 2000s pop~rock.
Though happily married and sober, Melbourne songwriter and guitarist Ali Barter wouldn’t dare write about anything so peaceful. Barter’s muse is the thrilling turbulence of young adulthood, and the lasting resonance of the bad decisions one makes in their early 20s. On her new record Hello, I’m Doing My Best, these themes coalesce with the confidence and immediacy of 2000s pop~rock. The result is an emotionally nuanced album that never takes itself too seriously.
℘ Barter’s debut, 2017’s A Suitable Girl, was a lovably slapdash collection of, in the words of one beloved teen film, “angry girl music of the indie~rock persuasion” — feminist pop~rock that angled for everywoman relatability. That formula worked well for Barter, with the singles “Girlie Bits” and “Cigarette” achieving modest success in her home country. Many of the songs on A Suitable Girl, though, suffered from a certain anonymity. Her bid for universality resulted in lines like “What’s a woman made of?/Something glorious” — well~intentioned but nevertheless a little hackneyed.
℘ Hello, I’m Doing My Best makes no such attempts, instead leaning full~tilt into Barter’s loose~cannon instincts. She draws herself as an indie rock Fleabag, a self~deprecating and hard-drinking flirt who texts her crushes at 3 a.m. and listens to “Malibu” to get through the hangover the next morning. From its earliest moments — the Hole reference comes in the very first line — Hello, I’m Doing My Best is appealingly frank. “Ur a Piece of Shit,” the second track, is a bombastic love letter to a friend in crisis: “You got your daddy issues,” Barter sings. “It made you real suspicious/That’s why you hacked in his account.” She wastes no time with poetics, and while it’s a risky move — she ends up rhyming “drugs” with “drugs” — it displays a kind of gonzo commitment to the album’s messy, diaristic heart.
℘ With loud and unadorned production, Hello, I’m Doing My Best taps into a current of emotive, candid pop~rock typified by the Josie and the Pussycats soundtrack and currently practiced by the likes of Charly Bliss and Bully. There’s not an ounce of crunch or grit here, just clean, sanded~down edges and lacquered finishes. The production — handled by Barter’s husband, Oscar Dawson of the band Holy Holy — adds an early~2000s patina, giving the record the pleasing accessibility of teen classics like Avril Lavigne’s Let Go.
℘ Hello, I’m Doing My Best often reads as a guidebook for young adults learning to navigate the world, and in that light, Barter’s no~bullshit lyricism is punkish and endearing. On “Ur a Piece of Shit,” for example, she gleefully calls on listeners to “put your hands up” for various messed~up teenage experiences, like “eating disorders,” “if a doctor touched you,” and “if it felt good to cut yourself.” In moments like these, Barter resembles a young Liz Phair, writing with a shamelessness that few songwriters since have really relished. Lines like, “I heard you like Tool, yeah/And you got really cool hair/And I think that you should be my boyfriend” feel directly indebted to Phair, and the chorus of “History of Boys” (“I used to get drunk and blackout/I used to get drunk and tell you I need you”), while hewing closer to pop than anything Phair wrote in her early days, owes its gutsiness to her.
℘ It helps that Barter never lets a linear personal narrative define these songs. The only time she writes about her now~husband, on “Backseat,” she revisits a time before they met, hinting at the future by declaring that “we’d be perrrrrfect” alongside a grandiose Guitar Hero~style solo. “January,” a dejected highlight on an otherwise frenetic album, stops in at one of life’s Sisyphean checkpoints: the hope of magically becoming a better person come New Year’s Day. “I made it through the year again with Diet Coke and cigarettes,” she sings. It could be any year; life, Barter seems to say, runs on a loop, and despite all we think we’ve learned, no amount of personal growth is certain to prevent mistakes. Even hindsight rarely makes everything clear. At least Hello, I’m Doing My Best makes it sound like a blast. ↵ https://pitchfork.com/
〉 For Ali Barter to make music again, she first needed to learn to get out of her own way. In the wake of her 2017 debut record A Suitable Girl the indie~pop singer became a kind of vessel, slowly filling to the brim with a steady stream of doubts and hang~ups about her sound and herself.
〉 “The first record came out and for some reason I rejected it,” she says, listing the complaints she found with her own work, it’s too polished and my voice is too high being at the top of the list. “When people responded to it, I heard myself in a heightened way”. The criticisms came so regularly and in such quick succession that the vessel threatened to overflow. Barter was determined to never write a song again.
〉 But in winter, a few months after the record’s release, she went out of town to clear her head, with her guitar for company. “Stuff started coming up and I couldn’t push it down,” she says, despite feeling like she “wasn’t ready” for what these songs were saying.
When she set about recording and testing the limits of her surprising new songs with Oscar Dawson — her producer, constant collaborator and husband — she heard something in them she’d realised she didn’t need to fight against anymore. “When we demoed them up I was like, Oh, there I am. The thing that I was pushing against was me.”
〉 The process of Barter conceding to herself and recording Hello, I’m Doing My Best became one and the same. And that process has resulted in a revealing collection of songs that track her most formative relationships: to her body, her instincts, sobriety and the old vices it counteracts, and the people she loves most.
〉 Barter confesses to having dealt with eating and drinking issues, tied to the difficult and intimate relationship many women learn to have with their body from an early age. “It’s always been about some form of shame and I feel it so intensely that I can’t help but write about it.” The record opens with a gesture of understanding, offered posthumously to her dad, who died when she was 24. “I was an only child so I was very close to him, but we fought a lot,” she says, explaining the song’s title, ‘Lester’ is a reference to the character of Lester Burnham, from the film American Beauty. The song appears here almost exactly in the state it was first recorded; a spacious, delicate ditty, recorded partly on an iPhone. It’s like a note to self. Like her own dad, the character had a midlife crisis and a complicated relationship with his daughter. “He was a flawed, beautiful, hilarious person.”
〉 Films, particularly ones starring Winona Ryder or about teenagers from the late ‘90s and early 2000s, inform so much of Barter’s style, both visually — in the music video for this record’s first single, ‘Ur A Piece of Shit’, she embodies character tropes from a darkly comic high school that seems plucked straight out of Heathers — and sonically. Seminal films like The Craft, Clueless, Jawbreaker and 10 Things I Hate About You were soundtracked by women and guitars, and that generation of movies and their soundtracks remains one of Barter’s main inspirations. The darkness of teen girls’ stories, she says, all comes back to the idea of innocence lost: characters that were sheltered and naive are exposed to drugs, or they experience abuse, “or they’re in a bitchy friendship group and then kill everyone,” she laughs. “They’re always searching for something.”
Seven years ago, Barter quit drinking and began playing music. Through the process of getting sober and learning to accept the way things are, and to turn the volume down on the perfectionist instincts that used to push her harder until all she could do was feel failure for not measuring up. The symptoms and effects of her past life with alcohol are flecked across this record, something the overwhelming feedback to her breakout single, ‘Girlie Bits’, gave her the confidence to do. “Other people’s responses to it made me feel like I could go deeper, like I could say more. And so that’s why I have gone deeper and I have said more.” Let me tell you my / History of boys / Driving way too fast / Making too much noise she sing~songs on the anthemic ‘History of Boys’, a track with much more going on beneath the title.
〉 “It’s not really about boys; it’s about my relationship to excess,” Barter explains. A song like this is underpinned by brutal honesty, which Barter was more than prepared to indulge in. “When I hear people share honest things about themselves it makes me feel less shame about my own stuff.” To keep her past from being like a “dirty little secret” she needs to vocalise what her behaviour did to her, what it felt like. “I wear my faults on my sleeve.” “I’ve felt shame about lot of the things that I’m writing about on this record,” she says. “I definitely felt shame about being the last girl at a party or falling drunk off the roof or eating until I make myself throw up.” Her relationship to more of everything propels this song into its
darkly catchy chorus of I used to get drunk and black out! “It is an acceptance of my relationship to things outside of myself.”
〉 After that first self~imposed exile that led to new material, Barter and Dawson made time for more writing sessions, this time together. By now, they’ve fine-tuned their working relationship. Barter writes the lyrics, chords and melodies, while Oscar handles the bassline, drums and “guitar riffs or whatever — I don’t know how to do that and I’m not interested in learning; I just want to tell stories,” she shrugs. They set about recording the album over three sessions at Head Gap studios, in the northern Melbourne suburb of Preston. After being confronted by, and in turn resenting, her sound, Barter learned to embrace it.
〉 Using her previous experience of making a record as a barometer, Barter made sure it was different this time. Less pressure, fewer opportunities to open herself up to her harsh inner critic. “I wanted less instrumentation. Less polished production.” Everything outside guitars, bass, drums and vocals were stripped away. “I didn’t want it to be wall of sound, lush. I wanted it to sound gritty and a bit shit sometimes.”
〉 The grittiness of her sound crosses over lyrically, too. On ‘Big Ones’, a crisp guitar becomes crunchy and heavy as Barter sings about the act of encountering outside opinions, and choosing only to focus on the ones that matter. On ‘January’, a Groundhog Day~style recollection of trying over and over, every new year, to transform into a “better” version of herself, Barter
offers an existential truth in a repeated howl: we’re all going nowhere, ultimately. “It sounds really dark, but we are!” she says. “Every day is just a day.”
〉 “There’s a line in the song that says, Hey there, salutations / Wasn’t really the end, because I’ve said goodbye to so many things: goodbye bad energy; goodbye this behaviour; goodbye carbs; goodbye whatever,” she explains. “It’s never the end. They always come back.” Barter has a knack for tapping into dark and confronting truths in a way that sounds light, sometimes even cheeky. You can almost hear her smile through a song like ‘Cocktail Bar’, a catchy recollection of catching sight of yourself in a metaphorical mirror and not realising the person staring back at you. It opens with a troubling recollection that came flooding back to her when she and Dawson went out for a drink (a fruity mocktail for her) while visiting San Francisco: I met him a cocktail bar / I didn’t know who he was / When I woke up he was fucking me / And now I feel a little slutty.
〉 “I really connect to the idea that you can say something really controversial, but if you say it in a nice way people are more likely to listen to it,” she muses. “Like, la la la, fuck you! It’s manipulative. I’m manipulative.”
ℑ Barter says writing about the dark experiences of her history with drinking is a way of owning it, as well as a tool for talking about shame and bad behaviour, as she does later in ‘Cocktail Bar’. “This song is really about how baffling I found my behaviour, how baffling I found my alcoholism. It was so confusing because I was this girl who had dreams and was a nice person with a nice upbringing. And then I would go out and get myself in these really fucked up situations.” The sentiment she repeats in the chorus is somewhat of a theme for most of this record: I’m not the girl I want to be.
ℑ Or at least, she wasn’t. For all that Barter describes this record as an act of purging her past, doing so with hindsight and a level of distance illustrates her growth, as both a songwriter and a person. She is able to understand and empathise with the girl inhabiting these stories, while also moving past the shame that threatened to consume her. That distance allows her to accept her sound and style and self just as they are. “The record is called ‘Hello, I’m Doing My Best’, which is what I’ve learned to tell myself in life. It is an acceptance of myself. This is who I am.”