Ali Barter on Letting Go of Perfection [Q&A]
Choirgirl’s voice meets a fuzzy guitar. Although music has been a constant in punk-pop artist Ali Barter's life, it was never really a given that she would make a living out of it. She spent eight years in the Australian Girls Choir but quit when she was around 16 and, in her own words, became a real "rat bag," drinking too much, behaving badly.
She returned to music in her mid-twenties and soon after she released her first of three EPs. Her debut album, A Suitable Girl, was well-received by both critics and fans but Barter had her doubts about it, and for a while, she wasn't sure if she would be making more music. Turned out she couldn't keep it in and her second album, Hello, I'm Doing My Best, released earlier this fall.
We caught up with Barter in between shows at Reeperbahn Festival in Hamburg, Germany for a chat about the new album, women in the music industry, and thinking of yourself as a vacuum cleaner. Yes, a vacuum cleaner.
Ones To Watch: So the first thing I've written down about you is "choirgirl turned punk rocker."
Ali Barter: When I was a kid, I wasn't really into sports, but I liked to sing so my mum put me in a choir when I was eight, I think. I was also classically trained. I guess my mum just wanted me doing something extracurricular, and then when I was 16 and all my friends doing all these other fun things, I quit. When I came back to music, it was more because I worked in a café. I'd dropped out of five different university courses.
I'm just not a school person, I tried really hard, and I have a lot of debt because of it. I realized that the only thing I really liked was music, so I enrolled in a university degree with that and then I started writing my own songs. It just sort of started from there. I have this really pure choirgirl's voice, and I smoked, and I drank, and I sang really low and dirty to try to get it out of me, which never really happened. The more I write songs, they get faster and higher and the choirgirl training has now come in really useful.
Why do you think you ended up in the punk rock genre?
I grew up in the ‘90s and early 2000's, so I listened a lot to Nirvana and Pixies and all that stuff so that grunge thing is so deep within me. There's that thing that the music you heard as a teenager gets in you and stays in you forever. I tried writing singer-songwriter stuff and there was a while way back when I wanted to be Lana Del Rey. But then there's also that sort of stripping back; who am I and what am I doing, and I've got to make music that feels satisfying to me. The music that does that has a really strong melody, so I love pop music and that's probably the choirgirl in me, but I also love rock n' roll. It's interesting how you can't fight your own self and your own sound. Maybe I'll go a bit more pop eventually. I kind of want to.
You recently released your sophomore album, Hello, I'm Doing My Best. Your debut album, A Suitable Girl, came out in 2017 and you've said that that album "wasn't really you."
I think the album was just another version of myself. I have a lot of shame. As a kid, I was very self-conscious, so I put out this record and it was this really public thing and I felt like it was saying "This is me," and then I heard it and I was like this isn't me. I think it had less to do with the music because I listen to it now and I love it and it was exactly as I was at that time, so it was probably more about me accepting myself. And I had to go through this really painful process of trying to be somebody else so much or trying to fit in. I expected that record to make me feel like, "Here I am, I am great, I am fine, this is me," but it didn't. It made me go "I don't know who I am," and I was looking at all these other artists and they all looked like they had it all together and had figured it out. I thought I would have figured it all out by then and so it all just bottomed out for me at the end of 2017, and it was really painful but it was the beginning of what this is now.
So when you started writing songs again, did you know from the beginning that you were writing another album?
I write a lot of songs so I always thought there would be an album but it took a while to know what I was writing, I guess. I started writing alone and I didn't want anyone to help me because everyone else fucks it up. I was sort of looking for someone to blame for me not liking the first album. But I made some demos and I sounded exactly the same, so I was like, "Fuck it, I might as well just go and be me."
Do you usually write alone?
I start to write alone and then I take it to other people. I work a lot with my husband (Oscar Dawson of Holy Holy) who produced my record. I co-write with a few people I really love and trust and go back to over and over again. The lyrics are always mine. I think that's the one thing that nobody else has anything to do with. Sometimes somebody will suggest a lyric, but it's very personal. But musically, I look to other people to help me produce the songs. If I sit alone with a song, it will be there for years, but if you take it to someone else there are just so many ideas and my head doesn't get in the way.
I talked to someone about that today. Women can be so bad at just finishing things because we want it to be perfect but a lot of guys are better at putting something out there before it's at its best and ask for advice.
Exactly. And it such a hard thing to let go of. I talk to my girlfriends about it all the time. There's just this idea of perfection that we are all trying to measure up to.
You've previously spoken out about the under-representation of women in music, and I'm wondering if you see a change in that area?
I think so. Especially in Australia, anytime a festival line-up comes out there's always a massive blowback. Everyone is talking about whether they have done it properly or not. I always want female support acts. My husband's band only has female support acts. People are thinking about it, at least in my area. It's a long way to go. And language around women is a really interesting thing. I still sometimes say that "girl band" instead of just band. People are a lot more aware though and they want to see diversity. It's less like we have to hit a quota and more like people are getting bored of just seeing four dudes in a band.
You've toured Europe, Australia, and have played in the States. It must be overwhelming but I take it you're also excited?
I'm really excited, and I love it, and I'm glad that I've done stuff like this in Australia so that I know that I don't have massive expectations. I can just play my songs. I hope that I can engage with the audience and they can see my personality. I know it's about that rather than getting up and playing perfectly every night. It's like being at a conference and you're selling a vacuum cleaner, presenting a product with certain features. I know it sounds really unromantic like that but that helps my head. It's like, "Here I am, this is what I do, this is how I say it," but in that, I feel very good and happy and excited to say that now, whereas a few years ago I would have probably completely self-sabotaged because it had to be perfect. So time and age and a bit of experience make this really fun. I'm having a lot of fun and can appreciate that it's a hard and stressful thing to do, but I feel okay with me, so I feel really okay to share that with people.
Is there something you want people to take away from your music, either listening to it at home or going to a show?
I just want people to have fun and feel okay. That's what I'm always trying to do. I have anxiety, I have things I battle with, and the older I get I'm like, "It doesn't matter, let it go."
Who are your Ones To Watch?
From anywhere? Well, my guitarist Alex is in this amazing band called murmurmur. They've put out a couple of singles and they're working on an album. And then my all-time favorite band is DZ Deathrays who are also playing this festival. I love them so much. And then there's also an Aussie girl called Mallrat who's absolutely amazing.