“Cats are fucking hilarious, they’re just arseholes.” Melbourne indie rock artist Ali Barter is definitely more of a feline fan that she is a dog person. Chatting to her over the phone on Friday morning I can totally understand why. Minus the arsehole bit, Barter herself strikes me as the sort of person who, like cats, knows exactly who they are and what they want. “I really appreciate the way cats are really discerning about who they like and what they’re doing. It’s very much on their terms.”
The similarity shines brightly throughout Barter’s music and her approach to her craft, especially with the release of her debut album A Suitable Girl, though it wasn’t always the case.
“I sang as a kid, and no I didn’t always want to be a musician. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties and I didn’t know what I was doing with my life that I was like, ‘I like music, maybe I’ll do this for a while and see what happens’. I started a music degree and it was the only thing I stuck at” Barter says of the beginnings of her brief, but quick and often surprising musical journey. From meeting the producer of her first EP, Trip, to all of a sudden gigging around Melbourne, she remains consistently modest, not even realising she’d made the Triple J Hottest 100 for her break-out single Girlie Bits. “I wasn’t even listening to it, my manager called me! I was actually having a really bad day and feeling really shitty about myself when she called me and was like, ‘well this just happened…’ I think I burst into tears. I really wasn’t expecting it, I was just so shocked and so happy.” The evidence that Australian audiences are responding positively to Barter’s music is clear, not only as recently as this year’s Hottest 100, but as far back as 2013 when her Triple J Unearthed win put her on the stage at Melbourne’s Laneway Festival. Barter attributes much of her success to the support of those audiences and to Triple J though her talent and excellent musicianship are undeniable factors. “I’ve just been supported by them [Triple J], which is really great in Australia… I’ve had the support I needed to keep ticking along” she says, “I played a show in Melbourne last night and people sing along to the songs, they know the words.”
“I need to write about how I’m feeling, what’s going on for me, because if I don’t write about that I feel like I’m being insincere.” A Suitable Girl saw Barter looking within herself for inspiration. Bringing her grungy, heart-on-her-sleeve style she says that her debut album is about finding herself. “I came to that point as a writer where I was asking ‘what am I actually saying, what are my songs about?’ I couldn’t just write songs about wishy-washy things anymore, I had to sort of delve deep into myself to actually find out what I was writing about. It’s about being honest with myself with how I feel about myself and about the world, facing up to some ugly emotions like jealousy, anger and inadequacy.” Girlie Bits reflects this level of honest introspection, capturing in song-form Barter’s strong stance on equal and fair representation of women in the music industry. Her frustration with the attitudes towards female artists extends not only to overt sexism but also to sub-conscious and deeply ingrained cultural phenomena surrounding gender within the industry, such as how female artists are referred to in reviews. “I was reading an article by the lead singer of Best Coast, Bethany Cosentino, she was writing about how when her gigs get reviewed they talk about the way she looks, and it’s not about the music. She was talking about how they never comment on the way dudes look. I find that to be true” Barter says of the moment Girlie Bits came into being. “It was just frustration coming out, I didn’t write it specifically for anything, the intention behind it was purely what I was feeling on the day.” Like much of her music, it took on a life of its own and became relatable to audiences. “The fact that people have picked up and identified with it is so great.”
That listeners can relate to her personalised style is something Barter appreciates and enjoys when creating music. “I write about really personal stuff so people can identify with that, I’m writing about feelings that I have that people can say, ‘oh I know what that feels like’.” Her relatability may be why she is fast becoming a voice for women in the industry. Seeing more and more women take to the stage as more than just a back-up vocalist or singer excites Barter. “There’s so many of us doing it now, it’s a bit of a vibe!”
The scene still remains a male-dominated industry, despite the ever-increasing acceptance of female artists, but it is constantly changing for the better. “You encounter some dinosaurs in the back of house sort of thing, in labels and bookers, but I work with great people… I guess its things like not enough women on festival line-ups, I think that’s still an issue, one that no one talks about… if there are people that aren’t great I just don’t work with them” Barter says. She also remains cool in her conclusions about people, admitting that sometimes it’s not about sexism, but rather the person. “I just put it down to, they’re dickheads. My husband Oscar [Dawson, of HOLY HOLY], plays in a band and he encounters dickheads as well. On a whole, the industry needs to support women more, but closer to home, at a gig, I think there can just be dickheads.”
Barter draws upon a plethora of different artists for inspiration, and her own enjoyment. Recently her playlist has included everything from Billy Bragg, to Weezer and Ryan Adams’ new material, though her own music has drawn comparison to Garbage, a myriad of Riot Grrrl bands and even No Doubt. Upon mentioning that she’s even considered similar to Gwen Stefani, Barter is pleased. “That’s amazing, I’m incredibly flattered. They’re some of my favourite artists. Gwen Stefani is one of my all-time favourites, I love her song writing, I love her especially because she writes about ugly, awkward, uncomfortable feelings. Huge influence for me.” Her Stefani-esque sounds will be arriving at various locations around Australia very soon, an advent that Barter is hugely thrilled at.
“We’ve got more license to muck around! It’s more about having a good time and making sure the audience is having a good time.” She relishes the opportunity to give her fans a memorable experience and interacts with her audience, on and off stage, on the reg. A quick look at her artist Facebook page shows exactly how appreciative Ali remains of her audiences, with personal responses to visitor posts and gracious post-gig photos of ecstatic crowds. “It’s pretty cool. I didn’t think about it until maybe yesterday, because we played home town. I have thought about playing my album tour for so long, and now I’m doing it, I’m not even thinking about it!” Barter also shares her artistic collaborations off the stage with other Australian musicians, most notably on A Suitable Girl, Adalita and Bertie Blackman. She says that both women were people who she could talk candidly with. “I can sit down with a person and we talk about what’s happening in my life or what’s happening in the world and we write a song from there.” Being able to be candid, whether with other herself or other musicians, beats at the heart of A Suitable Girl.
Even while she rides the highs of touring A Suitable Girl, Barter says she is looking forward to what’s next. “When the tour’s done I’ll take some time to write some more songs” she muses. She is also scheduled to play Electric Lady, a set of two shows in Sydney and Melbourne comprising up-and-comer “electric ladies”, as coined by founder Holly Rankin (who goes by Jack River on-stage), along with Alex Lahey, Gretta Ray, Bec Sandridge and Jack River herself, to name a few. “Immediately when she [Rankin] said all these great female artists I was like, ‘absolutely I’ll be involved’, because I’ve never played with these artists before and because I’ve never played with so many women before. It’s going to be awesome.”
Barter is both talented and has an undeniable, down to earth charm. I ask her if her life was a film, and had its own soundtrack, what would be playing. Her answer isn’t something whimsical or fantastical, it’s food. “Something about food, because I’m hungry! What’s a song about food?” I suggest Peaches, by POTUS. “I was going to say On Top of Spaghetti, but that’s probably cooler. That band is so awesome, actually now you’ve said that I’m going to make a playlist and call it Peaches.” She recounts a wild night in Campbelltown post-gig, where she and her band were thrown out of a motel to wind up our chat. “The manager on duty was this Scottish lady and she was hammered drunk and we arrived late, and she obviously hadn’t received our late check-in and she came in, screaming at us, and eventually kicked us out. At 2 o’clock in the morning we had to drive to Jervis Bay.”
– Ali Barter hits Jack Rabbit Slims next Friday May 12. Tickets here.
Friday May 12 | Jack Rabbit Slims, Perth
w/ Dream Rimmy
Saturday May 27 | Live On The Lawn, Newcastle, NSW