Getting Down to the Nitty Gritty with Ali Barter



Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Ali Barter just released her second studio album “Hello, I’m Doing My Best.”


Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Ali Barter has been playing music for seven years and has just come out with her latest album release, “Hello, I’m Doing My Best.” The Observer interviewed Barter about her musical inspirations, personal struggles and her take on women in music. 

What is your songwriting process like? Talk to me about “Hello, I’m Doing My Best.” 

The songs I write are autobiographical. I’m writing about where I am in life when I write my songs. This record for me is everything out on the table. The last record was similar, but this new record is even more. When I’m writing, I’m writing to understand myself. I had to write a track-by-track for my label, one of the songs that I had forgotten I listened back to it. When I listened to it, I was like, “Holy s—, I’m going through that!” I wrote that song a year ago; listening to it now, I understand what I didn’t know then. The record is very introspective, and it’s an attempt to understand my behavior and what’s happening.

In 2016, while you were at university, through a Facebook post you talked about the underrepresentation of women in music history. You mentioned it’s always been women supporting men and never vice versa. So what’s your advice to women right now in terms of trying to break into the music industry?

I had to seek out women role models. I didn’t start out writing music until I was 24, but the role models that I had as a kid were the Spice Girls. It was pop, and I loved it. Courtney Love, Liz Phair was another, but there weren’t many women musicians back then. So the space for songwriting and rock ’n’ roll was very much dominated by men. I think that that was something for me that made me think I didn’t belong there or took me so long to pick up a guitar and just write about what I felt. I heard about what men felt, but I really discovered Liz Phair and understood what she was saying when I was much older. 

For women and girls who are starting out, I’d say just write what you write and do it the way you do it. And if it’s men that are in your band supporting you, then that’s f—ing great; if you don’t know anyone playing music, go and find some mates to go and start a band. For me, I started playing with guys, and I always had beautiful men supporting me — close to me, which I feel very lucky about. But the further I’ve gone along, I sought out women to play with. I used to be in a band full of guys, and now I have a female drummer and a female guitarist and a male guitarist. 

What’s that band dynamic like, and what is your relationship like with music, as a female musician? 

I think I felt like I could experiment more when there was a girl around because they weren’t coming from this virtuoso perspective, and they play in a different way. When I heard Bikini Kill and guys hack at their instruments and scream and tell that story, I was like, “I can do that.” When I saw Led Zeppelin, I could not identify with any of it. 

My husband’s a guitarist, and I don’t identify with the way he plays and sometimes I ask him for advice about my guitar playing. Gradually, I learned not to do that anymore because he shows me something and I’m like, “Show me something that I can relate to.” So I don’t go to him for advice anymore because he has a completely different view of music than I do. I am telling a story; I’m using my guitar as a tool. It’s not a show-off piece. That’s the thing about women playing music which is important, is that you have to find that and realize it. 

You took a hiatus in 2017 when you released your debut album, “A Suitable Girl,” to figure some personal stuff out. What did you learn throughout that time? 

I guess the more I make music, the more I learn, I can do it. My husband and I make a lot of music together, but every time I do something I take a step away from him. The same thing with my band. I have deferred to somebody else for my musical decisions and the more I go along, the more I’m like — for example, with this record I was like — “What? Like stop doing guitar, I just want one guitar. I just want the record to sound like a live performance. If I don’t understand what that guitar line is, it’s not going on the record. I have to explain that these are the chords, this is the melody, this is the story, this is the energy.” 

So to me, this process is like, the feasibility of women in music. It’s a process for me of untangling my concept of what music should be or what I was presented with. Now it’s up to me to keep making music and keep figuring out what I’m meant to do and what I’m meant to sound like. And it’s painful. That’s why, in 2017, I put out “A Suitable Girl.” I really rejected it because I couldn’t hear myself and so I had to take myself away and write really raw, honestly, ugly and not polished to get back to whatever it was that I was trying to make, you know? And I don’t know if I’ve made it, I’m just going to keep doing it, following the same puff.

Who would you say are your musical and style influences that inspired you for this record?

Well, I love Liz Phair. So I’m a big fan of her “Exile In Guyville” record and the band Hole’s second record, which is called “Live Through This.” I’m also a big fan of the Breeders and Lily Allen. I love Weezer because their lyrics are so much fun. I appreciate and love Lily Allen because she’s so tongue in cheek, saying some things that are really true and really f—ed up. I’m very influenced by ’90s grunge music because I was becoming a teenager and my brain was turning on. Ultimately, that’s the sound I’m going for. 

Favorite ’90s films? 

I love “Stealing Beauty” and any films with Winona Ryder.  Even though I’m in my 30s, I like coming-of-age stories. I still feel like I’m still coming of age. 

What are your thoughts on coming of age?

I ran into a 22-year-old musician from New York and I felt old, but I’m pretty sure we’re writing about the same things. Overall, I think we need to debunk this myth about age. We’re all searching for something; it doesn’t matter what age you are. The thing you learn about getting older is that it’s actually not that old. I went to my mom the other day with a problem, and she’s 71 this year. She totally understood my problem and told me all the stories about when she was younger and it was the same, that is the human experience. 

Can you talk about the process and technical musical choices you made with the record? 

I think it’s still really lush, I think that’s the battle about finding your sound. I was playing with a band a while ago, and we had some tracks in the background, and there were four of us. I felt gross and uncomfortable with how much sound was coming out. Tried a three-piece which was me on bass, a guitarist and a drummer. I wanted the record to sound like what it’s played live. That involved taking things away, doing five vocal takes and then walking away and like having nothing to do with it. Letting the producer pick the takes, not obsessing and not building things up to the point where it’s this big lush instrumentation. I wanted it the music to be raw, ugly and no bulls—. 

How do you let go of the perfectionist in you? 

I’ve had a lot of practice with over listening and over-obsessing. My reaction to the last record was so negative that sometimes I have to tell myself it exists, it’s done, and let it go. Just put it out there, acknowledge it’s not mine anymore; it’s somebody else’s. If they like it, then that’s great. I think about it like that. In life, too, there might be stuff that I’m holding onto or stuff that I’m stressing about, but I can only do what I can do. I just show up and try to be present or a good person. Anything outside of that, it has nothing to do with me. I don’t control it.

In the record there’s a lyric, “I’m not the girl I want to be.”  Can you explain why you wrote that? 

I used to drink and find myself in really f—ed-up situations. It really disturbed me because I wasn’t this person that I thought I was. In my life, outside of drinking my search was to find out who I am. The lyric is specifically about my state of confusion. I was confused and I couldn’t reconcile who I was and how I was behaving, and all the things I was doing. 

Who is the girl that you want to be?

I want to be true to myself. Not hurt anybody in the process, which I guess is everybody’s thing. But sometimes, life is hard and we have so many options in life. Especially if I’m the kind of person that has this brain that says everything will be fine, I’ll want to just tear it down. So I just want to try to do what is good for me and not hurt anybody in the process. We’re all gonna f— up. We’re all going to make mistakes. We just have to keep going. This is why the title of this record is “Hello, I’m Doing My Best.”