Album Walkthrough: Ali Barter dissects her new album, Hello, I’m Doing My Best
In the follow-up record to her sensational debut A Suitable Girl, one of Australia's best songwriters returns.
For Ali Barter, writing her second record was a difficult task. There are a lot of anecdotes of artists suffering from the 'sophomore slump' - the anxiousness and stress of creating a record that meets the expectations people have in place after an artist's first and often career-making album - and while A Suitable Girl was a remarkable, career-defining record from one of the country's now-essential songwriters, Ali Barter's struggle with what's next wasn't exactly due to outside pressure, but pressure from within.
"The first record came out and for some reason I rejected it," she says. The problem wasn't other people's perception of the work - in fact, it's one of the country's most acclaimed and adored indie-rock debuts for as long as I can remember - but instead, her own internal perception of the album and its contents: "It’s too polished and my voice is too high," being two of her complaints she found within her own work. At one point, the self-doubt felt strong enough for Barter to stop writing music, until a trip away inspired Ali Barter's realisation: "When we demoed [the songs] up, I was like, 'Oh, there I am.' The thing I was pushing against was me."
Hello, I’m Doing My Best is Ali Barter coming out of the other side on top, with two years of sound-refining and confidence-growing encompassed in a package of eleven songs that don't as much feel like an extension of A Suitable Girl, but more a moment of evolution: the grittiness of her debut more gritty this time around; the open and honest songwriting more honest; the relatability and signature Ali Barter charm remaining, albeit a touch more pronounced without the rich lushness of her debut.
Musically, Hello I'm Doing My Best is Ali Barter stripped back to her most raw. Lester is delicate and bareboned, particularly recorded on an iPhone app to expose its rawness which on album highlight Ur A Piece Of Shit is conveyed through other ways: charging guitar riffs and catchy chorus hooks that disguise a theme of "acknowledging that nobody is perfect." On Big Ones, those guitar melodies morph from slick and subdued to crunchy, peaking at an almost punk-ish level that you wouldn't expect diving into A Suitable Girl. Cocktail Bar moves with breezy melodies and bass grooves, while January strips things back further, until anthemic riffs come in for the song's choruses.
Dive deeper, however, and you find the stories of one of Australia's best songwriters and her knack for bringing the beauty out of hardship. History Of Boys is a tale of abuse - "food, sex, a relationship, alcohol, drugs, shopping," she lists - and the need to recharge to find peace within, while Cocktail Jar finds her opening up about alcoholism. "This song is really about how baffling I found my behaviour, how baffling I found my alcoholism," she explains. "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."
One of A Suitable Girl's big drawcards was relatability, and on Hello, I'm Doing My Best, this holds truer than ever. On one side, the album's title alone is a message many may say in regards to their own lives, while the album's more complex and personal themes - the aforementioned light shined on alcoholism, indirect abuse and regret - are those that others may find comfort in, the disguising happy-go-lucky melodies charading incredibly important moments of opening up that may just help people with their own issues (much like Stella Donnelly, and her work with Beware Of The Dogs).
Hello, I'm Doing My Best is a complex record, and to help better dissect its themes and creation, we got Ali Barter herself to detail the album's birth one song at a time. Dive into the record below while you read up on its creation, then catch Ali Barter around the country throughout October and November - more information HERE.
I wrote Lester one day after watching American Beauty. The main character reminded me of my dad and watching that movie took me back to a time when I was a teenager and I hated him. I was getting wasted and he was distant and in his own shit.
I wrote Lester thinking about that time before you realize your parent is a human, and just a person doing their best. This song is a voice memo made on an iPhone and that’s the way it always should be. We tried to produce it as a fully blown track but it never really worked, so we kept it in its rawest and most unproduced form.
2. UR a Piece Of Shit
UR A Piece Of Shit is a song that I wrote for my best friends, it’s kind of a love letter to them. I have grown up with a particularly awesome group of girlfriends since high school. We have been through everything together; we’ve all fucked up and we’ve all experienced weird parts of our lives that have affected us today.
This song is just acknowledging that nobody is perfect. We look around and everyone’s trying to present that they have their shit ‘together’ on the outside when our insides are usually pretty messed up. That’s the great thing about having friends; you’re going through this life with people by your side. I understand why they’re fucked up and they understand why I’m fucked up. We’re there for each other and we know everything’s going to be ok.
3. History of Boys
History Of Boys is kind of about how I can abuse anything. Whether that’s food, sex, a relationship, alcohol, drugs, shopping. It talks about my past when I used to drink 'til I blacked out, and that’s how I use things; I use things until I can’t fucking use them anymore.
Even though I don’t drink anymore, I still abuse stuff. This song is delving into that mentality of using things to make your insides feel better. Especially with love – I used to tell someone I loved them because I wanted to feel that feeling of love but it didn’t last because it wasn’t real, cause I didn’t really love them I just wanted to feel better! So this song is about excess and the need to change your insides so your outside will feel better.
4. Big Ones
I wrote Big Ones in LA and it quickly became a song about opinions. When it says: “protect yourself from the big ones / protect yourself from the little ones too”, that’s about those opinions that feel really big, like society’s opinion, or your dad’s, or your mum’s or your best friend’s – whoever’s opinion is big in your mind. But then also the little opinions – the ones you tell yourself subliminally that you don’t even know about, and how that affects your everyday interactions and feelings about yourself.
It’s kind of me trying to take my own advice “you’re good, you’re good as you” – I have to remind myself of that, because I don’t naturally come from a place of being ok with myself. So this song ends with a big, rousing chant of “you’re good as you”, which is the eternal struggle, for me at least. So yeah, fuck the opinions.
5. Cocktail Bar
I had the idea to write Cocktail Bar in a cocktail bar in San Francisco. As I was sitting there, drinking something non-alcoholic because I don’t drink anymore, this memory came back to me of a time when I woke up and someone was having sex with me. They were going along with something I had initiated while I had been in a blackout.
This song, as with all my songs, is set to an upbeat, happy instrumentation, but it has heavy subject matter. This song is about how confusing I found my drinking. I would wake up and have to apologize constantly. I would wake up and my car would be somewhere I couldn’t remember, or I would wake up next to someone I didn’t know. I really was a girl I didn’t want to be, and it was a song I really felt like in needed to write about a time that was truly baffling for me. I guess a lot of these songs are about getting this stuff out and letting it go and Cocktail Bar specifically is about the desire to be better but having no idea how to do that.
January is essentially a “fuck you” to New Years Resolutions – it’s about accepting that I want to change myself every year, and every year I come back to that same place. Anything that I think is the answer, it turns out it’s not and I’m left with just me again. Instead of trying to fix and change and push down this stuff about myself, this song is kind of an understanding that I’m a human being and I’m not perfect. I’m may always going to obsess about sex and watch too much TV and bitch about someone behind their back to make myself feel better. It’s this eternal struggle to feel ok and I think, looking at every day or every January as if it’s another day / it’s another month – there’s a freedom in that. I can let go of this need to perfect and just do my fucking best. Which is really the overarching theme for the record – and this song is really key to that message.
Backseat was the first song that I wrote for this record. I took myself away for the weekend with my guitar and, at that time I felt like I was being influenced by outside things, so I wanted to be alone and write something. At the time I was listening to The Breeders and I started writing this song.
When I’m writing, sometimes words just start coming out and it’s like “Oh, so we’re writing about this today” and it just turns out that I was writing a song about Oscar [Dawson] and me getting together and how I just thought he was really hot ;) So when I needed a guitarist, I really did cold call him until we eventually met up one day. I invited him round to my house to practice some songs for this gig. He does have cool hair, his handwriting is kind of neat, he’s a gorgeous boy and I crushed on him from afar. There’s really not much more to this song than that. It’s the fluffiest song on the record, but it’s fun and true.
Magoo was written one day after getting off the phone to a friend. This friend was calling me and complaining about the same shit over and over again and she wasn’t doing anything to change her state of mind. The reason I can understand that and empathize with that is because I do the same thing. I’ve sat in an uncomfortable feeling - a victim feeling – and not changed it. Only out of hitting rock bottom or being in an immense amount of pain have I gone like “Oh God, I have to change this for myself”. Anyway, I was frustrated my friend was playing the victim, being needy, not doing anything to help her situation so I wrote a song about it.
The song was inspired by a feeling someone else gave me but, ultimately, the song is about myself; which, I guess is what all these songs are about. They say that when you point a finger at somebody, there’s three pointing back at you and that’s always what my songs are about. If I’m writing a song about someone else, I’m really writing a song about myself. Might be a narcissist!
9. Are You Happy Now?
I have an ex and I kept having this dream about him where I would bump into him in airports and he had his backpack on and he was drinking at the bar. Like me, he didn’t drink, so it was a strange place to meet him in a bar and it the encounter was always very transient. This recurring dream stayed with me and I wrote this song one day because I thought it was this amazing dream place to meet an ex.
I really interpreted it as how life is so transient and you’re able to miss someone and wish them well from far away but know that you’re never going see them. To be honest I don’t want to see him but he was in my mind and it’s a feeling that I think a lot of people have; “the one that got away”. Whether they be the right one or the wrong one for some reason they’re still in your brain and I think there’s something beautiful in that.
10. This Girl
This Girl started out as a bit of a “Fuck You” song. I think I was writing a song to a boy who wasn’t growing up or was annoying in some way. But the more I wrote it, I was like “I don’t know who I’m talking to, I don’t have that person in my life” and then, I realized this song is about myself – telling myself to grow up and saying “I’m on a path, it’s my own path and it’s a great path”.
This song talks about lying on the floor of a hotel room and feeling golden. I was in South America, I felt really alone, really confused about what I was doing and I lay down on the floor of my hotel and I just felt …grounded. I just lay down and gave up pushing against myself and the world. I just was. That’s when Hello, I’m Doing My Best came in to my head ‘cause I had to wake up everyday on this trip in South America, where I thought I had nothing to give, and say “Just go out there and do your best” and I got through it. So this song, ‘This Girl’ is about finding autonomy in your own life.; getting up and moving forward. Not subscribing to what everyone else thinks you should be doing and being yourself.
It’s an idealized look at myself. I wish I could be this. Somedays I’m like this, somedays I’m not but she’s in me all the time. I just have to shut up and let her come out.
11. I Won’t Lie
I wrote I Won’t Lie the same weekend as I wrote Backseat. I think it was the second song I wrote for this record. For me, being honest is a cathartic thing; talking about a really dark feeling gets it out and you can let go of that shame. So this song was me talking to the little devil on my shoulder and letting it free and saying “I won’t lie but I will lie” and “I’m not ok, but I am ok” and acknowledging my feelings.
I was listening to lots of The Breeders and Pixies when I wrote this song and I wanted the last song on the record to have an uplifting feeling. I think my songs are strangely uplifting, in a weird way, even though they deal with some heavy shit. This is another song I feel like really sums up the record Hello, I’m Doing My Best.
Friday October 25 | Rosemount Hotel, Perth, WA
Saturday Oct 26 | Kyneton Music Festival, Kyneton, VIC
Thursday October 31 | The Zoo, Brisbane, QLD
Friday November 1 | Oxford Art Factory, Sydney, NSW
Saturday Nov 2 | Til The Wheels Fall Off Festival, Launceston, TAS
Sunday November 3 | Alter, Hobart, TAS
Thursday November 7 | Jive, Adelaide, SA
Friday November 8 | Corner Hotel, Melbourne, NSW
Saturday Nov 9 | This That Festival, Newcastle, NSW
Sunday Nov 10 | AMW Beach Concert, Cronulla, NSW
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