‘An only child, in the jungle’
Australian singer-songwriter Ali Barter is of Irish descent and grew up in the jungle of Papua New Guinea. She told Colin Gannon about how her new album helped exorcise old demons.
Ali Barter knows little of her Irish heritage. Her father who raised her was Irish, and her grandmother’s surname was O’Lauchlin, a family that emigrated across to the other side of the world from Cork. Nevertheless, she believes her Irish DNA has somehow imbued her art.
“My father had a great sense of humour and I feel like that’s a particularly Irish trait,” Barter tells the Irish World.
“He loved music too and I’ve been told that there is music in all the pubs in Ireland. Being an ex-choir girl, I love a singalong.”
In a way, Barter grew up in the jungle, a great expanse, unlike anything in Cork, which allowed her to explore barefoot, free and alone.
Living as an only child in both Papua New Guinea and the northernmost part of Queensland, however, she desperately desired a sense of belonging outside of her family.
She pined for a large family, and even felt boarding school was the only way of achieving this connection. Things changed once she left her childhood behind.
“When I was a teenager, I definitely rebelled, going out a lot, and as soon as I got a car, I was out of there,” she says. “There was too much pressure being an only child.”
From the age of 17, she flitted between cafe and bar work, but never truly felt happy in herself. “I needed to do something different and the only thing I liked — or was any good at — was music,” she says.
“So, I started writing songs and playing open mic nights.”
After some time hustling at open mic nights and sharpening her musical toolkit, her fortunes changed drastically: Barter won the Australian radio show Triple J’s Unearthed competition, which transitioned her from talented scenester, and aspirational local musician, into some approximating professional musicianship.
In 2017, the former choir girl released her debut album, A Suitable Girl, a feathery, indie-pop introduction. She toured relentlessly, completing two sold-out headline tours, a number of festival slots and supported well-established acts like The War on Drugs, Stevie Nicks, and, most notably, her personal hero, Liz Phair.
Despite the album’s earnest successes and critical acclaim in much of her native Australia, Barter grew dissatisfied, regretful even, about the record’s sound and execution.
Self-doubt flooded her brain: Her voice was too high; the production was overly polished and stiff; she didn’t hear herself in her own songs.
“I think I had all these expectations about how I would feel after I released my first record,” she says.
“And when I didn’t feel more confident or less jealous of others, I became really de- pressed. I had to let go of the ‘shoulds’ and stop comparing [myself to others] to find freedom and enjoy creating music.”
A few months passed and Barter absconded somewhere rural for some headspace, her beloved guitar constituting her only company.
Ideas for new music over- flowed, and what resulted from these rough sessions land on her upcoming sophomore album, the resiliently titled Hello, I’m Doing My Best.
In the time that passed between her debut and actually recording these new songs — which were done in collaboration with Oscar Dawson, her loyal producer and husband with whom she shares a “very special partnership and relationship” — something clicked into place in her life, allowing her to have “way more fun”.
“I have learned to take things less seriously, and to manage my expectations,” she says.
“Music is my job and when I look at it like that, I’m much more level-headed and able to show up and perform, without anxiety or pressure.”
Barter also confesses to having battled with eating disorders and alcoholism, linked with her feeling self- conscious since a child, debilitatingly so.
“I managed [feeling self- conscious] with food, control and partying. It worked for a while, and then it started to destroy my life.”
When she stopped drink- ing entirely, she entered a stage of self-acceptance and began healing.
Now, seven years later, she’s part of a 12-step pro- gram and has been teetotal for “a few years”.
Her formative musical influences range from Lily Allen to The Dixies, a warm, welcoming confluence of chart pop and ‘90s grunge.
Sonically, though, her new album’s sound arose from her ambivalence about her debut, resulting in music less lustrous and over-produced than much of her introductory tracks.
“I listened to lots of The Breeders and the record Pinkerton by Weezer,” she says.
“More space, less instruments, a rawer sound.”
While recording music, she prefers to soak in music through osmosis, surrounding herself in notes, chord changes, good writing, sharp hooks.
But, she admits, “when the record is done, I listen to podcasts. Music turns my brain on, so for a while I use it to do research or find inspiration, then I need silence.”
Barter also acknowledges her classical vocalist back- ground, which, perhaps sub- consciously, has had an impact on her songcraft.
She adores pop music but thinks her uncanny pop melodies are the natural result of both being a chorister and dabbling in jazz standards as a youngster.
“My vocal training has definitely shaped and helped my sound today, but in ways I don’t think about. That’s the thing about learning something when you are younger, it becomes muscle memory.”
The new album, Hello, I’m Doing My Best, allowed Barter to use writing as a way of purging old behaviours and ugly attitudes.
Writing these scrappier, more unfiltered songs, she emphasises, is a form of catharsis. “I become more aware of my behaviours and I can either forgive myself or let them go.”
Hello, I’m Doing My Best also seems like an apt thesis statement for the album, especially considering its origin story.
It’s unclear whether she’s addressing the world or her- self with this title — and she prefers leaving its meaning ambiguous. That said, it’s now her go-to life motto, one she’s picked up after some rocky, bloodstained years. “It is an acceptance of myself,” she says. “This is who I am.”
Hello, I’m Doing My Best by Ali Barter is out now