First coming to attention as the winner of Triple J’s Unearthed competition in 2013, Ali Barter has been on a steady rise ever since. From her humble beginnings at open mic nights around her hometown of Melbourne, to travelling over to LA to write and record her new single. Barter has crafted sombre pop songs with an ear catching attention to melody. Now though, she has returned with a rocking new single Far Away, some of her best work to date. Howl and Echoes got to chat with the songwriter about all things India, new beginnings, and taking the drastic action of deleting all her notes off her phone.
How was your Australia Day?
I felt like I didn’t know what to do with Australia Day because there’s so much division in what to do with the day. Do we hate ourselves, do we pay our respects, do we get drunk, or do we just listen to Triple J? I was quite happy to just hang with babies and be able to not think about anything else, besides changing nappies and feeding children.
In an interview a while ago you said you, “stopped playing around with beats and synths and trying to be cool anymore,” what made you want to change your approach?
I guess I felt like it wasn’t me. I think doing a few EPs was really good too, because I got to try some things out. I’ve not always known exactly what I want to sound like or exactly who I am. So you know, you have to experiment a bit.
I got down to the simplicity of it and thought; what do I listen to, who do I like, and what am I drawn to? So then it became really easy and clear what I had to do, or what I didn’t want to do anymore. It’s a process of elimination sometimes.
Is it right that you were a choir singer for ten years?
Yep, I was in the Australian Girls’ Choir for about ten years.
So did that feed into your music later on, or did you try to distance yourself and get as far away from it as possible?
I guess when I was 17, 18 I resented it a bit and didn’t want to do it anymore [laughs]. I tried to get as far away from it as possible. But no, I learnt incredible things there. I love harmony. I love putting harmony on things, so I would never have learnt all that stuff if I hadn’t have been in the choir for so long.
You came up the traditional way, playing open mic nights and building your fan base up from a local base. You haven’t followed the steps nowadays where a lot of people start as bedroom producers, what made you follow this route?
Well for starters I’m a terrible producer. So I tried, but I could never pick a damn sound. I would look at it all and not know what to do with it. It would drive me insane. I just wanted to write songs and sing them.
I started quite late, I think I was 24 when I started playing and writing songs properly so I just wanted a safe place. Open mic nights are a safe place for a beginner, so I just did a lot of them. Then the next thing happened because I just kept on doing the next thing. I don’t think I’ve tried to force it too much, which is a good thing for me.
You said you were looking for a sense of community and found it in music, what was it about music that gave you this sense of connection?
I never grew up with any other musicians or people who wrote songs in high school or after it. It was only when I was 24 that I met people doing that. I really liked the sensitivity and the obsession with song. You just sort of band together and I’ve got a really amazing group of friends who play music. I guess sometimes it takes a while for you to find your place. I tried other groups of people, like I worked in hospitality for years but just ended up drinking too much, so that scene wasn’t really for me. Then I found all these muso’s and thought it was really good.
You’ve got your own label Ronnie Records, was this created with all these friends or is it a solo thing?
It’s just me and Oscar Dawson. We started that a couple of years ago, must have been 2014 when we released my first EP Community. We’ve got other friends jumping on board now, Ben Wright Smith. I’m not sure if he’s doing something that we’re involved with this year, it’s all very loose.
So you’ve sort of found that community you were looking for with your label?
Yeah, we just help each other out. Also last year Ben and I did a few shows together and it was really nice to support each other. You know, we share a lot of the same band members, so we were keeping it in the family a bit.
I want to talk about your lyrics a bit. You’ve said they’re the last thing you work on, after chords and melody. A lot of your recent stuff is very evocative though, so I was wondering if there has been a shift in the way you work with and look at your lyrics?
Yeah, I guess when I sit down to work on a song I’ll always play chord and melody first, then I’ll always have words in my phone that I have written down from some other time. That’s sort of the way it still happens. I don’t know if I’ve changed it. I sometimes get bored with the process, and I think I’m a bit bored with it now. I think I might have to do something different.
I actually just deleted all of my notes in my phone the other day, I thought they were all sad and depressing. So now when I’m writing I’m like “I don’t have any words!” [laughs]. I’ll have to go on a holiday or something and have an experience so I can start writing lyrics again.
Talking of holidays, you said you were a big fan of India and regularly went there. What makes you keep going back, and what is it about Indian music that you love so much?
I love India, it’s just one of those places where it’s a land of extremes. It’s very beautiful though. It’s colourful, the food’s amazing, and it’s so big. I haven’t seen nearly enough of it and I’ve been there four times.
I find the music really soothing. Sometimes I can’t listen to Western music because it gets me too fired up, like it’ll start me off thinking about writing again. On Spotify I listen to Night Ragas for each different time of the day. The night ones are particularly relaxing, they’re so beautiful. Then I can also pretend I’m in India when I listen to it.
Your previous releases had quite a sombre pop sound, but your new single Far Away sees you with a different sound. You went to LA to write last year, was it that experience which changed your sound or was it something you were moving towards naturally?
I think I was moving towards a different sound before I went to LA. But by going there and getting a different perspective I came back and thought ‘I want to record this differently.’ I don’t want so many layers, I just want it to be a bit simpler. I didn’t want it to be so heartfelt and languid. Let’s just try a loud, fast song.
Far Away is a complete expression of how I was feeling on the day. So when I came back home I just wanted to record it in a day. I didn’t want it to be a long and drawn out process.
It’s got a real heavy sound, is that something that will be continued on the rest of your album?
We haven’t actually done the rest of it yet. We have done four or five demos though, and they are a bit simpler. I think Far Away is going to be one of the highest points we hit-like for that level of energy and heaviness. It’ll be a range but the single will definitely be a reference for what’s to come.
In it you talk about how you’ve spent so much time on freeways and the internet that you feel disconnected. What’s your relationship with social media, is it something you like or do you see it as a necessary evil that you have unfortunately become addicted to like everybody else?
Well yeah, that’s what it is. Social media unfortunately has the power to make you feel amazing or make you feel like you want to kill yourself. It is a necessary evil. But I always want to delete my Facebook account [laughs]. It’s just one of those things.
I don’t know, look, there’s good days and bad days, there’s ups and there’s downs. If things are going well I love checking my Instagram. If there’s nothing happening or I feel a bit insecure or down on myself, then Instagram will ruin my day [laughs].
You’re going to be performing at Laneway Festival next month, what are you hoping to bring with your show?
I just want them to be really fun and really loud. I have an awesome band and we’ve been rehearsing, and still have a couple of more sessions coming up. We’ve got some new songs to play- lots of new songs actually. Yeah, it’ll be a bit of a new vibe.
I think I care less, which is a good thing. You know, like I’m not so stressed about what I’m going to wear, what it’s going to sound like, or if it’s going to move people or whatever. I just want to play music that’s going to be fun. And that’s something I always tell the band. No one cares as long as everyone’s having a good time.
Do you think you were too caught up with things like aesthetics and what people thought of your music beforehand?
Yeah, a bit. I mean I can say that now, but I am me and I still have my little neuroses. I definitely did get too stressed about the little things before. So hopefully I can keep this going [laughs].
Finally, I read that you were a massive fan of soundtrack albums, what’s one of your favourites?
My all-time favourite is Stealing Beauty. It has Superstition by Stevie Wonder, Glory Box by Portishead, Nina Simone is on there- it’s just so good. It’s a film by Bernardo Bertolucci about a girl coming of age while on holiday in Tuscany. It sounds really daggy, but the music is really beautifully done. It’s very evocative, and I love that.
Ali Barter will be performing at St Jerome’s Laneway Festival next month:
Dates and venues:
Friday 5 February – Harts Mill, Port Adelaide (16+)
Saturday 6 February – Brisbane Showgrounds, Brisbane (16+)
Sunday 7 February – Sydney College of the Arts, Sydney
Saturday 13 February – Footscray Community Arts Centre And The River’s Edge, Melbourne
Sunday 14 February – Esplanade Reserve and West End, Fremantle