Melbourne singer-songwriter Ali Barter has been performing under her own name for around five years, releasing two EPs and a string of singles in the lead-up to the release of her long-awaited debut album, A Suitable Girl.
Although the LP finally saw the light of day this March, its writing was a long time in the works. “I went on a trip to LA in the middle of 2015, where I wrote a lot of songs for the record,” Barter explains. “That’s where ‘Cigarette’ started, where ‘Set Them on Fire’ started and where I wrote ‘Far Away.’ That song in particular was a pretty big one for me, because I wrote it over there with two guys called Sydney Wayser and Harlan Silverman, and then brought it back home to work on with Oscar [Dawson, Barter’s husband and producer]. It was really easy – we just kept things really simple.”
‘Far Away’, which was released as a single at the start of 2016, allowed for Barter to gainfully employ the ‘KISS’ principle while staying as far away from Gene Simmons as possible. “That process really felt like a catalyst for the rest of the production of the album,” says Barter. “In the past, Oscar and I have tinkered around with things a lot. It’s taken us a long time in the past, because we’ve been going through all these guitar tones and synth parts and effects. By recording a song really simply over two days, that really influenced the direction of this album.”
It should be stressed that just because the production and arrangement approach to A Suitable Girl was simple, doesn’t mean it’s a plain record by any stretch of the imagination. From downtuned riffs (‘Cigarette’) to bubblegum pop with a twist (‘Girlie Bits’), it’s a very diverse and sprightly album that is indicative of both Barter’s inspirations and how she channels that influence through her songs.
“I think I really wanted to explore fuzz in terms of my guitar sound for this record,” she says. “I’ve always been enamoured by bands like Nirvana and the Pixies, so I wanted to look at how they use dynamics – those quiet verses that make way for those huge choruses. The guitar plays a big part in that – playing very clean, very simple parts and then letting loose on the distortion. You can hear that in a band like Weezer, too, who I’m a big fan of. It all factored in.”
The album takes its name from A Suitable Boy, the lengthy 1993 novel by Vikram Seth – which, coincidentally, is set to have a sequel with Barter’s own gender-flipped name in the not-too-distant future. For now, however, A Suitable Girl is very much about Barter’s own identity. It’s a reflection of who she is and why she is the way that she is; an album of self-discovery and affirmation. Barter explains that, although not an easy process, writing A Suitable Girl helped her fully comprehend her own emotional process – and she hopes it does the same for others. “I was having all of these feelings that I couldn’t move past and I couldn’t accept,” she says.
“Writing this album was a very cathartic experience for me. It came at a time where I was feeling angry, frustrated and scared. I felt like the only way through it was to sit down and write it out. I wasn’t putting any expectations on what I was doing – you never sit down and think to yourself, ‘I’m going to write a single now.’ It never fucking happens. I just wanted to write honestly – straight to the point. I had to do it for myself.
“I feel like I don’t have a proper comprehension of what it is that I’m going through until I’ve sat down and written about it. I didn’t care if what I was writing was on the nose – that’s what I wanted it to be. Art is my outlet, and I know it’s that way for so many others too. There’s something so validating about hearing a really honest piece of music and relating directly to what they’re saying.”
Although Barter had already gathered quite the following prior to A Suitable Girl‘s release, it was the second single from the album – the aforementioned ‘Girlie Bits’ – that truly helped to put Barter’s name on the map. Its infectious momentum drove it all the way into the Triple J Hottest 100 of 2016, where it arrived at an impressive number 58. Funnily enough, Barter herself was blissfully unaware of what was happening at the time to her little song that could.
“I wasn’t even listening,” she says. “I didn’t want to sit around waiting for something that I honestly didn’t think was going to happen. I had other stuff to do, anyway. That afternoon, I get a call from my manager and she’s squealing down the line. I was like, ‘What’s going on?’ and she said ‘Well, this just happened…’ I was completely shocked.”
After that subsided, however, Barter was elated that her hard work had paid off.
“It definitely felt like a validation,” she says. “You do things for so long, always wondering in the back of your mind if it will elicit any kind of real response. Having something like that happen really makes you feel as though you’re on the right track.”