Danny Cohen’s Anonymous Club is about space. It’s about the air in a room feeling lighter as the anxiety of the day exhales itself out existence. It’s about feeling comfortable enough to put your thoughts down on page, or in the case of the films subject Courtney Barnett, onto a Dictaphone, and to not feel self-judgement for those thoughts. It’s about being allowed to be a person, standing in the spotlight, singing songs about how you’re feeling.
Courtney Barnett stands as a perceived enigmatic figure. Interview-shy, rarely maintaining a public profile outside of gigs in front of crowded rooms, Barnett can easily be considered someone who is closed-off, reserved, and holds back from revealing herself to the world. Listening to her tunes, allowing them to absorb into your mind, to become part of your consciousness, you’ll quickly realise that everything you need to know about who Courtney Barnett is as a person is right there, hanging on each emotionally-fused lyric.
This is a person who has hung a masterpiece of a song about going into anaphylactic shock and the ambulance journey that came with it. This is someone who walks us through a deceased estate, embracing the history of this unknown woman, all the while acknowledging that her past is going to slip away under the grips of gentrification, overpriced housing, and the flurried stomp of civilisations demand for progress. Barnett once asked listeners to tell her they really felt, and by doing so, opened up herself as a conduit for our mental illnesses and ailments.
These are big things to hold onto, and even larger subjects to cut yourself open with on a regular basis when being pushed out onto the press trail to discuss the latest album release. Anonymous Club wisely opens with Barnett’s stilted, awkward response to an earnest and excoriating question about her own anxieties. Minutes later, after whirlwind tour diary (of sorts) backed by City Looks Pretty, Barnett meets a young fan, Bobby, stuttering out his awe-tinged request for Courtney to sign his shirt and write a lyric from Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party on his shirt. He clearly wakes up with the song in his mind, bouncing around like a Windows 95 screensaver, never hitting the corners, overlapping and intertwining like a confused criss-cross pattern.
Immediately it’s clear that for all the accolades, for all the sold-out gigs, for all the talk show hype, Courtney Barnett is just a regular person.
It almost feels trite to say that given the prism of celebrity feels distinctly different nowadays as opposed to the high budget music label creations of eras long gone. Now, the manufactured music icons stand comfortably alongside self-made gems, conjured into existence like some miracle diamond created out of the pressure cooker of the mind. Barnett’s label, Milk! Records, was created with fellow artist Jen Cloher, after Barnett needed a name to release music under. The grounded nature of Barnett’s music makes all the more sense knowing that her grandmother loaned her money to record her first EP.
None of this history is covered in Anonymous Club.
Instead, Danny Cohen eschews a traditional music documentary narrative, leaning into what makes Courtney Barnett’s music so iconic: the vulnerability, the relatability, the openness, and the mundane. “I overthink what I need to say, and then I don’t say anything. Maybe it’s more useful to just… talk,” Courtney says in one of the exposed moments of dictation that overlays footage of a world tour, glimpses from the wings of stages, comfortably claustrophobic amongst the tight cabins of buses, stretching out pressure during the pre-gig shuffle. Anonymous Club shows an artist trying to find their place in this world of touring.
I love you I hate you I’m on the fence It all depends if I’m up I’m down I’m on the mend Transcending all reality
In between the gigs, Courtney finds solitude in hotel rooms, alone on a bed, testing lyrics in the dull, generic decor that could be anywhere, just not home. For Barnett, home is a suitcase, a friends lounge for a week, it’s the space where being transient is allowed. Home is also the stage, in front of a thriving group of rain-soaked people in Japan, or it’s being backlit by a column of light that immerses the ever-observant silent auditorium in darkness. “I feel a confused relationship with home and being away from home.” A transient being floats around seeking a tether. The constant travel gives Courtney ample time to digest who she is as a person, never truly getting the opportunity to ground herself for longer than days, or possibly weeks, at a time.
In its opening half, Anonymous Club sees an artist clouded by self-doubt, performing the expected routine of a musician pointing to the audience just so they’ll cheer in return. Touring the album Tell Me How You Really Feel (TMHYRF), a fury-laden release that features songs like Nameless, Faceless and I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch, becomes exhausting. The songs speak for themselves, but as each city-stop comes with another interview that collides into another interview, the frustration about the albums release and her ability to ‘sell’ it comes forth. “I feel I’ve somehow let myself down with this album… It kind of got swept aside because I was too scared to talk about anything real or heavy.”
Cohen’s direction and Ben Hall’s editing gives that self-conscious pressure the space to be free, allowing it to hang there, stagnant. A warm film camera monitors the art of adding one more elastic band to a fist-sized rubber band ball with TMHYRF, easing into a calmer warmth as the creative process of creating a calmer album like Things Take Time, Take Time starts to emerge in Courtney’s mind.
The power of music is undeniable, especially when it comes to the knotted tension of that thing we call a brain. Our minds do a wonderful job of spiralling out of control, cruelly addicted to the free-falling nature of our crippling self-doubt and a general lack of confidence, and getting to witness Courtney Barnett’s journey to processing how her mind works through her songs is calming and comforting. The art of self-reflection is one we all struggle to master, and yet, in searching for a way to tell Courtney’s story, Danny and Courtney landed upon the Dictaphone idea, giving Courtney the space to be open with herself, with Danny, and with us, the audience.
At all times, Danny feels present with Courtney, even when he’s not. Courtney’s eased “hey Danny” opens some of the Dictaphone recordings, like she’s Margaret Simon seeking an answer from an unseen being. It’s no coincidence that the strains of Sunday Roast linger throughout the film:
Companionship and friendship and just having someone to listen to is a constant within Courtney’s lyrics. For many, myself included, that someone is Courtney herself. At once, I can put on Write a List of Things to Look Forward To and feel like everything’s going to be ok. I can listen to Pedestrian at Best and suddenly my anxiety disappears. Someone else knows what it feels like, and they’ve put it in words, and distilled its power into a fog that quickly disappears.
There’s a scene in the excellent Melbourne documentary, No Time for Quiet, where Courtney Barnett comes to chat with the girls, trans kids, and non-binary folks who are attending the inaugural Girls Rock Melbourne camp. In that moment, there’s a dawning realisation that washes over Courtney and the crowd, she’s as awkward as they are, and they see themselves in her because of that. They love her, because she is them. She’s not a celebrity, even if on paper she technically is, she’s just a musician doing her thing. She’s just a person.
It’s funny to write that, like there’s a distinction between someone famous and ‘a person’. Like they both don’t struggle to keep their house plants alive while living their lives. When we write that they’re ‘just a person’, it suggests that they’re connected with the world, the issues of the day. They know how far a dollar will go, and they know the impact they have on a life of a stranger.
Courtney Barnett is just a person.
She said it best in Avant Gardener:
The paramedic thinks I’m clever because I play guitar I think she’s clever because she stops people dying
Avant Gardener – Courtney Barnett
We’re intrinsically fascinated by other people’s lives. How they do things. Where do they put their teabags when they’re done? Do they type with two fingers, or both hands? What do they do with their hands when they’re asked an awkward question? How do they react to praise? Or how do they react when they receive an unexpected gift.
We can sit and be in awe of how people manage to do things they’re skilled at – playing guitar, saving lives, writing reviews – but at the end of the day, they’re just people. And that’s where Anonymous Club excels, with Danny Cohen giving Courtney Barnett the space to just be a person existing in the world.
During a rather intimate, ‘in the round’ style gig in Somewhere, America, Courtney takes a moment to talk to the crowd, checking in with them. Someone from the balcony calls out to Courtney, offering her a gift of a handmade coffee mug. She smiles, receives it with thanks, and we move on. In that moment, the brief ‘thanks’, Barnett registers the gift with almost incredulity, as if to say ‘I’m touched by this so much, I don’t know why I deserve it, I’m just Courtney Barnett’.
Later, that gift finds its home with Barnett in the suburbs of Melbourne, warming her spirits as she people watches from above, commenting on how these strangers would never know she’s up there. In that moment, with that footage, Barnett and Cohen have given this gift to a stranger, Emily, on the other side of the world. Emily watch Anonymous Club and they might ask themselves, ‘I’m touched by this so much, I don’t know why I deserve it, I’m just an audience member at a Courtney Barnett concert’.
Music has a way of becoming part of us. The right song, the right artist, creeps into your life and embraces your being completely. Almost a decade ago, Courtney Barnett crept into my life. First with Canned Tomatoes (Whole) from the I’ve Got a Friend Called Emily Ferris EP, then when that EP joined up with How to Carve a Carrot into a Rose and delivered Avant Gardener on the excellent A Sea of Split Peas EP. From then, Courtney Barnett’s music has become part of my life.
Anonymous Club has equally become part of my life, making the transition to comfortably become a slice of my soul. For newcomers to Courtney Barnett, this will either invite you in to her aural world, encouraging you to become a new fan, or it might distance you. Either reaction is perfectly fine. Not everything is meant for everyone.
For the Courtney Barnett faithfuls, this is a comfort watch, a warm embrace, a rare connection in the audience with a stranger across the room as you both sing in unison, tears running down your face, the lyrics to Sunday Roast.
We are human after all.
Courtney Barnett is just a person, and I hope she’s doing ok.
Thank you for cooking for me I had a real nice evening Just you and me
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