Dan Kelly

After some initial discussion on Melbourne’s ongoing changes, and moving between north and south, i’m speaking to an articulate Dan Kelly about his writing process. It’s the middle of winter so luckily we find a heater and some wine and get chatting. Dan is amusing, reflecting his outlook on influences, old style 4 tracking, layers in songs and travelling to Greece.  While still portraying his uniquely comedic and lyrical style, his 2015 album ‘Leisure Panic’ has struck me as a having a change in sound from earlier recordings – I’m keen to investigate how the songs originated and how much came along later with production.

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

I sort of divide that into two first songs I ever wrote.  I tried writing songs when I was a teenager in Brisbane, but don’t think I ever finished them.  Then I joined band which was a classic 17 year old Gold Coast band call Liquid Meat – teenage boy type of thing.  Really intelligent guys, it was like Mud Honey.  I wrote some stuff for those guys, but it was often to their music.  Then I moved to Elwood (Melbourne), was living in a house opposite Elwood High, 4 tracking a lot. I’d make up Ween like songs – not necessarily just like Ween, but fun 4 track things I didn’t finish. But my mate who was the bartender at the Greyhound hotel, said ‘I booked you a gig, you can come and play open mic night’ and I was like ‘f**k I have to finish something’,  so I finished 4 songs. I had a song called ‘Pickin Hay’ which was about selling speed to some school kids, and a song called ‘Puff Daddy goes to Thailand’, and two others. They weren’t that good – I sort of work on 1000 shit songs theory, I reckon I wrote 1000 shit half songs before I came up with a good one.  It’s almost like I didn’t let myself say it was finished until I was happy with one, you know?

Was that in your early 20s?

I moved to Melbourne when I was 21, and it was probably around early 20s yeah.  I was always doing it early, but I didn’t really put myself out publicly as someone who wrote songs until I was forced into it, I think 27 actually. Saturn Returns was a big hippy thing in the 90’s and I was like ‘i’m just gonna say i’m a musician, and then I am’. There’s something to be said for positive visualisation, because I was so self effacing ‘Ah i’m just doing this thing’ but eventually I was like ‘ok im a musician’.  So somewhere around then, 1999, 2000.

So there was 4 songs at the start – do you remember what they were about?

Well ‘Puff Daddy goes to Thailand’ was kind of a post modernist mish mash.

Stoner?

Yeah sorta stoner but really not that different from any songs I still write now. I write comedic songs which are kind of about me but kind of not, that take in the world behind me, and that’s never changed in a way. ‘Counter Meal Kim’ which was the single off my first EP was another one, sounds a bit like Custard, when I look back – but then a lot of my early songs did.  Everyone sort of starts with a vibe, but other people reacted too – you go ok, this actually lives as a song, not in my projection or imagination.  It was a quixotic song, a song about an adventure.  And for better or worse I still do that, but I think it’s more sophisticated now. I didn’t get into a confessional style of songwriting, talking about my feelings.  I’d tell a short story where stuff happens and the characters might be real or not but generally my story would be kind of hidden in that.  And that way I think you can get some feelings into it, and it’s not just pastiche.

There’s a narrative.

Yeah a narrative. But you sort of get an idea of whoever this person is writing the song, what they’re thinking about.

Do you think partly setting you off on that style, was things happening at the time? There’s a couple of songs that remind me of Beck or similar artists from around then.

Oh definitely, when I was on a 4 track in Brisbane, it was Mudhoney and I loved Nirvana but it wasn’t like the key band, more into stuff bit before that and a bit after that, and Butthole Surfers. Often quite funny but quite intense. Then you had people coming through like Beck and Ween, and Pavement which was a huge thing for me, which probably keyed into stuff I was more into as a kid. I was into English TV, my parents were playing ABC and the Goodies, there was a sense of humour to it, and that suited me.  I kinda combine that American guitar bands, getting a sense of humour, with stuff that I was learning about, Queensland bands which was like Robert Forster from the Go Betweens, and Custard – people who were writing about suburban, dry situations.

There was a real scene then too.

Yeah I wasn’t part of the scene, but I watched it. And I had no idea that it would hit me, because it wasn’t until years later when I got to Melbourne I actually found myself more attracted to where I came from, than trying to be whatever was happening in Melbourne at the time.

I was in Melbourne and I was into the Brisbane thing when I was teenager.

Yeah well it was dry and funny and sub tropical, those kind of things had a bit more pathos – it’s not like a big fist in the air kind of stuff.

Not taking yourself so seriously?

Yeah, but not trying to be a joke musician.  Beck was always good at not being a joke musician, until he freaked out about being a joke musician, and then I got bored.  But I thought he had the balance straight away.

I’d heard your earlier songs, but didn’t listen to your last record Leisure Panic until recently. The production seems different, particularly the guitars.  Is production something you think about while writing songs?

Because it’s never come that easy for me, often my songwriting will be mixed up with having a band or recording ideas – it all cascades over.  I might’ve recorded a song for the first record on four track, that didn’t have a chorus.  I was playing with this band – essentially it was me with The Drones, so you’ve got this sound, and you’re like ‘Ok this chorus is gonna work with this sound’.  I wasn’t like Neil Young or someone – just pump out a song in the afternoon and go with a feeling.  I take months thinking about it, that’s why all the songs are multi layered and have a long journey. A lot of the best songs come out naturally, but not in my case – its built in with my life, who im playing with and what im doing.  First record, I was living with Gaz of the Drones and Aaron who’s produced quite a lot of my records, he did the last one.  We bought an 8 track tape recorder – this was 2001 – we were like ‘f**k, this is huge’ (laughs).  Its changed so much – definitely influenced by who I was playing with, what I could record on.  But the first one was more elemental because I had this rock band, I could actually give them good songs, and I didn’t need to add a lot of fancy shit.

So did the recent record happen the same way?

Sort of, the first record was quite intensely guitar-y and also that was of the time.  I wanted to sound like Pavement – but not exactly, and the second one we were into Pro-tools and multi track recording was really huge, so we made this huge sparkly sounding record. The third Aaron and I went into a room and I started trying to make a minimal record and it ended up being a huge colour painting. The fourth record I was like ‘I cannot do that any more’, cos it’s so hard to do live and also you get a bit lost in it. On the last record, I was trying to get the songs ready to go, do them with the band, not add too much.  So in my band there’s my vocal, electric guitar, there’s drums, a keyboard player and a bass player, and my two cousins Maddy and Memphis singing.  It’s still not like a live indie record (with) everyone in a room but its not as cluttered, and because of that, not so compressed. If you’ve got 25 tracks it’s like sculpting, or painting, if there’s less you’ve gotta concentrate on the guts of it. The rhythm’s good and songs are good and it’s me and the girls back and forth, simple non harmonic vocals.  I wanted to do a minimal record from the start but it took me four records to do that.

‘On the Run’ the first song, I really like how it goes into a jam.

Yeah and there’s no vocals after a while.

I was thinking today- it’s not really a comedy song either, and It feels like it just flowed out.

 I wrote it fairly simply and didn’t finish it, it was just like a beat and some lyrics. I played it to the band and they were good, saying let’s do a more kraut rock beat from the 70’s, a driving thing.  We were  in a really cheap studio at the time that was an experimental ‘we might do a record, we might not, lets just go in’ and it was one of the rare times of my recorded thing where it was four guys in a room going ‘ok, were just listening to each other’.  It’s two takes.

That’s the recording on the album?

Well it’s actually like Cortez The Killer by Neil Young, it’s two takes spliced together.  Cortez the Killer stopped because they had an earthquake in the middle and the studio shut down, so they had to record a second part.  But it’s two takes, that’s why it’s actually a bit longer.

It’s really cool that it opens as the first song, it might get missed more if it was towards the end?

 Exactly. I’ve usually put my long jam songs, like ‘Poisoned Estuary Jam’ which I really like – that was the last song on ‘Dan Kelly’s Dream,’ and people really liked that song but it’s after 48 mins of quite intense media, just everything going on.  And it’s (Leisure Panic) a road trip record, and that sounds like a drive.

Like a drive out of town.

Yeah and the lyrics are about heading out.

I have to ask about ‘Hydra Ferry’, because I went to Greece last year. I know that ferry, and it’s a cool idea.  How did that song come about and do you love adding to the creative history of that area?

I had a break. I’d been on tour playing with someone else and my ex girlfriend was going. She’s super smart and literary and she was across all that stuff, and she said lets go to Hydra, that’s Leonard Cohens island. I’d subsequently read all those Charmian Clift books, and I toured with Leonard Cohen with Paul Kelly, so I was pretty excited by going there. Then it was great, just had a great time, spent two weeks there, swam every day.  So that song is about our relationship in a roundabout way – going there, leaving there going to Santorini, but I invoked the spirit of Leonard Cohen, I met him and we had some pretzels.

Oh is that what that line is!

Yeah he said ‘Do you want some pretzels’ (Laughs).  That’s what you do in songs, you invoke another thing, sex or religion or death – there’s often a higher power or some other force hanging in the background and Leonard Cohen was a good one to use for that because – it’s Leonard Cohen.

Amazing place, just the feel.  First night we were there was a thunderstorm, all the shutters were banging and you see mostly sky from anywhere you are, because it’s all built up.

Have you read those books? You should read  and Peel Me A Lotus and A Mermaid Singing by Charmian Clift. They were the Australians who went there in the 50s – (Charmian and) George Johnson.  They went to Kalimnos, wrote a book about the sponge divers which is fantastic, then they moved to Hydra. They established that original literary ex pat scene.  Its great to write about, and I like nautical songs. It’s woozy – hung-over on a ferry. 

Obviously you tour and travel a lot, do you write while travelling, does it influence you?

I write really slowly.  This year i’ve played with Paul Kelly, Lindy and Amanda from the Go Betweens doing 16 Lovers Lane, with Neil Finn.  Haven’t done any of my own stuff.  I teach music a bit as well.  And then I go – It’s been a couple years, let’s make something.  Someone like Tim Rogers, who’s wonderful, he’s compelled to write. I’m someone like – just look at the world. I’m not cynical but bombarded by songs and media the whole time, (and) i’m not that competitive. I don’t think im lazy but i’m not compelled to always write.

Not to get to the top of the charts.

Ah id love to (laughs) but obviously not enough.

Do you have any songwriting routines? For example some people might have a coffee before they write, or might be better writers at night, than at 10 in the morning.

I don’t think I do, because I break it up too much, I can’t remember the routine.  But definitely a lot has to do with just looking at whatever I’ve recorded on my iPhone or something and then sitting down and adding a bit more.  Like when you get close to a record and you’re starting to write, often you’ll bust out a few more songs, because your muscle is happening.   Swimming is good for me. If I do have a good idea, sometimes I can go and do one repetitive activity.

There’s two kinds of people, there’s a certain person who’ll wake up with insomnia and  go ‘right im gonna pin that down’.  And there’s people like me who go’ oh f**k, i’ll have a camomile tea, why can’t I go back to bed’ – and I might hum it into a phone and forget about it for 6 months (laughs)

There’s a routine.

I know but it’s annoying. I’m not very good at finishing stuff.

Have you done much co-writing?

Not really, bit with Paul Kelly, but that’s cos we’ve often lived together or we play together so we’ll just make up stuff in sound check and he’ll go and finish it (laughs)

Perfect partnership!

Yeah I’ll come up with a bit, and he’s like ‘Hey i’ve written this song’ and im like ‘yeah i’m a genius’.  A bit with Greg Walker from Machine Translations, who’s fantastic. We got put together through a couple of songwriter things Mushroom did. I get a bit nervy writing with other people – lyrics can be a bit shit if two people are trying to negotiate them. My stuff’s idiosyncratic. It’s me, so I have to do it myself.  If you’re writing a Take That song or something, then sure, get together and just pump it out.  You’re gonna be way more successful than I am.

Everyone i’ve interviewed so far has said interesting things along those lines about co-writing.

I write with Aaron from my band quite well, he joined on the second record and he’s also really good at engineering.  Just like i’ve got an idea or a song and he’s recording it , its almost in the process of him technically engineering what I do, then adding ideas that make a song.  That’s probably the most relaxed combination i’ve ever had. He sort of gets me.  I don’t think there’s that much to get, but partnerships formed when you’re young are quite important and its harder to get when you’re older. Same goes with relationships too, there some sort of lack of cynicism or boundaries that happens when you’re younger.  It’s harder to open yourself up to someone when you’re 40, as opposed to then.

Another song ‘A Classical Song at Dandenong Station’.  There’s so much in that song, the chords and the builds. I don’t even know what the lyrics are but it doesn’t matter because there’s so many layers.  I could hear influences of 90s bands.

Yeah probably Custard, Jonathan Richman, Pere Ubu, just more vaguely artsy approaches to pop music, Reckless Eric.  That song was from the fact they play classical music at Dandenong station because people were stabbing each other so I got into this whole idea of being the DJ to stop everyone from being a f***er, but then being co-opted by all the ice freaks, you know cos everyone gets sucked into the dark side at times.  It’s a meta fantasy, that’s kinda what I do – but I like that one, it was a hard song to pull off.

It stood out as a bit different, maybe from the layering.

Yeah, its almost more like a piece, or a bit like a rock opera, it’s not really a groove song.  It’s kinda smart arse.  I was trying to draw a line between smartarse and real feelings in life, you don’t always pull it off but it’s worth a crack.

‘Drunk on Election night’ – did you think it’d be a political song?

I just came up with that chorus and I wrote it fairly quickly about feeling quite apathetic – it’s not kind of a fist in the air political song, it’s that resigned feeling you would’ve felt that when Trump won, ‘I don’t know what to do’.

Was it still quite literal, because it’s quite visual being on election night.

I completely made that up.  I took ecstacy and went bogey boarding.

You thought you were at an election party?

No not at all, (and) I don’t know anyone stupid enough to go in the surf on ecstacy – think it was 20 years ago.  It was this beautiful day, these beautiful waves, we’d just had a great day playing scrabble- the scene was perfect – we got out of the water and this chorus popped into my head and I was like ‘that’s the weirdest chorus’. That’s why it kinda sounds slippery, resigned and happy and then I just wrote it really quickly from that, made up the rest – it was based on that feeling, wasn’t like I hadn’t experienced that, but that’s what you do – you can still make things up that are real.

How do you know when a song is finished.

When it’s on the radio (laughs)

So does it get to the studio and you’re still doing stuff?

Yeah, all the time. There’s a great quote ‘you don’t finish a song you just abandon it’. if you read enough you get to a point, like you how recognise when there’s a closed conversation. It’s like that with a song too, all of a sudden no other parts stand out as being clunky, there’s nothing forced about the language – it can take a long time.  You’ve gotta go over and over it, it’s like picking weeds out of a field. You’ve gotta base it on what you think is good on your own gauge, and people you trust.

Dan’s website

Hydra Ferry

On the Run

Leisure Panic

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Liz Stringer

 

“Well you’ll have a better life. You’ll have a better life, you mark our words. Have a better life, you’ll all get what you all deserve. Oh man, this is too f*****  up.  In anybody’s language it ain’t good enough. ‘Cos I’ve been here almost fifteen years. In anybody’s language, this is fight or fear” Anybody’s Language – Liz Stringer

Liz Stringer is a traveller at heart, offering insight into the ongoing cultural and political issues facing regional Australia and the world.  Her songs insist us not to turn a blind eye, as she hasn’t been able to, while touring the county and overseas limitless times.  She’s a straight talker – no bullshit, yet laughing easily when we meet on a cold Melbourne night, portraying her understanding of the complexity of human behaviour, which she explores in her song writing.

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

Yeah I remember the first full song that I wrote. Probably when I was 15.  Before that i’d written lots of little sort-of songs, but not fully formed.

Do you remember what it was about?

My mum had died a year earlier, so I wrote it about that which was pretty full on.  That was the first one I wrote and definitely the first I recorded, about a year later or something.

That’s pretty young.

Yeah I was using it as a cathartic process, I guess I felt like I had to say something, although I don’t think it was a conscious process.  I just did it you know?

You seem to share a lot of personal stories in your songs, intimately telling someone a story with a melancholy feel.  Is there a sense of therapy with your writing?

(There) is but it’s not always actually my story.  I grew up with the kind of old Irish folk tradition- sort of adopting voices instead of writing from my own perspective. It’s funny, i’m just writing a lot recently, the last 6-8 months and writing a lot more personally than I have for a long time.  I guess it’s more the story telling that im interested in but there’s natural catharsis that happens when you’re writing about somebody else.  I think that it is used as a form of therapy, or just as a form of expression or exercising kind of emotional demons.   People do that in different ways and that’s how I do it I think.

Sometimes more in retrospect, you’ll listen to it a bit down the track and go ‘I was actually writing about such and such’.  Also as i’m going through different stuff it can take on different meaning.  Which is what everyone does as a listener, you take what you need from it – and I do that with the songs i’ve written.  I think that I write in the darker end of the human experience spectrum because it’s a bigger palette than the happy bit and also what im interested in.  I find it really beautiful and it moves me and moves things around in me that singing songs about being happy and in love don’t do.  And that’s not because I haven’t been in love or i’m not a happy person but that’s just where – as a creative person – that’s where I find the best colour.

Are you more drawn to other people’s songs that are melancholic?

Yeah I would think so.  I think my only criteria for liking songs is authenticity.  If I feel like they’re telling the truth in whatever they’re singing about, in whatever form that is – not  necessarily literally – the way that they get across what they’re trying to get across, then I like it.  I dunno, it’s such a funny thought to think that we’re meant to be happy all the time because we’re just not. And that’s not a bad thing, that’s just part of the human experience – it’s that area that people respond to the most, because that’s where everyone is most of the time- and its art and music and thought and the luxurious things we can do that’s aside from just surviving – is working out what it is to be human.  And I write a lot of stuff that’s musically upbeat, rock n roll stuff, so it’s not about being depressing or deliberately morose, I just think it’s about discussing and tapping into areas that I feel have the most common ground, (and) is probably what I listen to.

Those other emotions are often harder to put into words, and easier to get across a feeling in a creative way.

Yeah, totally.

A song that has resonated with me is ‘Anybody’s Language’.  It comes across as a personal song, but easy for people to relate to in a communal or political way – even without the audience knowing the origin of the story. How did that song come about?

It came about from being on tour and particularly just over the years, on the Hume for example, how many towns had been bypassed and what that’s done to certain communities.  And then, I think it was during the Abbott time or just before, I guess it was my only attempt at singing about what I felt like was wrong. That people are so easily shat on and given gambling and booze and all this other shit to distract them for the fact they’re getting f***ed by the people they vote in.  It’s a very abstract song – basically imagery – doesn’t really have a narrative or anything, just a loose idea.  Then funnily enough later when I was involved with the James Price Point fight, north of Broome – a bunch of musicians were there to play for the ones defending the land, so the stuff that i’d written, the pipes on the beach line – i don’t think I even knew about James Price Point at that stage, but that then became relevant.  I didn’t get that line for that experience, but it fit it well.

You relate it to that?

Yeah I do, and I introduce it as that, but chronologically it doesn’t work.  But I knew of offshore gas hubs, and the barrier reef and desecration of the natural environment of Australia, particularly in the Kimberley – I think that’s probably where it was bubbling.

I guess with the sentiment there’s a lot of ongoing things that can relate to the feel of that song.

Yeah, totally. Because it’s such a depressing state of affairs.  For someone that was lucky enough to be born into a family that had enough money to educate, clothe and feed me – that’s not everyone’s experience. That’s the other thing about being a songwriter or observer. I feel like it’s important to be able to understand other perspectives.  I mean my people are pretty f***ed as well.  We’re not rich, but I am compared to someone who grew up with nothing, you know what I mean.

Yeah the more you travel, the more you meet people and realize.

Totally, particularly since touring.  You don’t have to go far out of the north of Melbourne to tap into the vein of racist, misogynist Australia. I wrote a song about this on my last record, you just have to understand that that’s their experience of the world – I mean we’re all getting f***ed, that’s what that song’s about.

I used to get really angry at people who had different political views to me, just couldn’t understand it.   But I think the older i’ve got I realise it’s more about listening to each other and not judging each other and saying well that’s how you grew up, and this is how I grew up – that’s how I know what I know, and you know what you know. No-ones better than everyone else.

I know it’s not as black and white as we think – but then sometimes it is black and white!

Totally! Some things are just wrong.  But we’re all united under one fact that is we’re getting f***ed by corporations.  Basically the law is that if you have enough money you can do whatever the f**k you want. It’s just what happens and that’s supremely depressing to me (laughs).

Lots of material to write songs from.

Absolutely, infinite. On-going.

I was thinking about how you said with Anybody’s Language, you started then added to it later. Do you have any song writing routines?

No I don’t have any routine.  I really am pretty um, what’s the word – pretty relaxed about it.  Which I don’t think has necessarily served me that well.  At the moment i’m in a period of song writing, and have been for the last 8 months to a year which co-incindently coincided with me not drinking booze for that amount of time.

Cold turkey?

Mmm Hmm.  I just thought I needed a rest. Began with a month, now it’s gonna be a year.  And that apparently has been really good for my song writing, which is interesting.  Because many of my contemporaries in the music world, drink too much. I needed to recalibrate that, it sucks my creativity and I realise that so I had a period before that of not really writing a lot.  And kind of feeling like well maybe now I have to put some sort of practice in place.  But now the way I do it is generally have a guitar around the house and I play guitar alot and i write songs almost daily which is what I used to do.  And that’s another reason.  I’m not going to not drink booze again, but im gonna be careful, because i realise you need energy and you need to be clear and present and able to accept the flow of whatever’s going on.  And maybe it works for some people but it doesn’t work for me and that’s been a real revelation.

The same with performing?

Yeah performing sober – oh my god.. the same thing with everything.  I realise that (with) performing, there’s so many natural highs that are going on  and it’s such a euphoric intense experience that you just totally squash when you drink.  I mean early on I used to drink a lot and play, then the last 2 years i’d have two or three drinks which wasn’t a lot for me.  But that’s actually something that I think, that I won’t drink on tour.  Just at the end of runs, or weeks if I have a few days off because really, i’m so much more open and sing better, I perform better, im more present and clear. It’s ridiculous that it’s such a revelation.

I used to perform a bit and could only have a couple at the most – after that i’d make heaps of mistakes, wouldn’t care and it just wasn’t good.

Do you have that thing where you felt like the signal was taking longer to get to my hands?

Yeah slow – it just never worked for me and I couldn’t understand how people could perform well.

I’ve known people that are incredible when they are but I know that i’m not.  I was talking to someone about this yesterday – I don’t subscribe to the idea or myth in the music industry still about the romanticism of the f***ed up artist.  I’ve seen incredible people not change their ability to play, but it’s like I was getting to the point where I was like ‘F**k I have to perform’, and now partly because I don’t drink, and have nothing else to do with my time, I get really excited about it and look forward to it and I really enjoy it which is good because it’s my job and a very intense process.  I don’t want to turn this whole interview into drinking but for the creative process for me, it’s completely changed and just stripped away all of the block– im at my most creative.  Better at performing, better at writing, everything.

And so many positive things coming out of it to prove it.

Totally – the writing is very clearly on the wall to prove how much better it is for me.  1st October, Grand Final day, will be a year so im gonna see.  Just re-introduce it slowly and see how I go. But i’m gonna be very careful around that because that’s something I don’t wanna shut off again.

It’s really hard for me to come back to Melbourne and not drink, because I spend time in other countries and it’s just not the same.  I’ve spent most of my adult life here getting smashed, so there’s a lot of association for me.  Im really happy for it not to be a thing in my life.

Have you done much co-writing?

I just started in the last little bit.  It’s funny, I really resisted it – it just didn’t enter into my thought process – it felt like it was just gonna complicate matters, like ‘I can write songs, I don’t have to worry about someone else fu**ing it up’ (laughs).  ‘This is not a democracy! I’m the dictator of this thing’ but then I started.  Dyson, Stringer, Cloher the band with Mia and Jen – we’ve written a bunch of stuff together.  I wrote with this Canadian band called the East Pointers.  They just recorded a song we wrote together.  It’s gonna be on their new record and they’re really pumped about it, which is great… and I just wrote with Linda Bull, Vika and Linda are putting a record out later in the year – that was really fun.  I’m much more into it than I used to be and when I go to the States and Canada in a few weeks i’m seeking out people to do that with.  I’m gonna go to New York and write a bunch with a friend of mine there.

Is it a bit of a writing tour, or are you playing as well?

I’m playing for most of the time but not as full on as the last few years.  I’ve got a couple of two week blocks where i’m not doing much.  One in Nashville at the end, i’m gonna search out some people there.  Cos it’s such a massive thing there.. whether or not anything comes out of it, it’s just a good exercise.  I’ve found it’s been a really fun, informative way to spend time.  That’s the other thing, having irons in the fire like that and that’s ultimately my job, that’s my skill, to write songs so I should use it.  But yeah, is a very new thing.

So you’ve been doing the ’String-Along’ shows, starting last night. Any song writing surprises, any surprises in general?

Yeah did the first one.  It was really good.  We had about 30 or 40 people there.  It was great – it was a real pilot season for me.  I’ve never done this before.

At the Gasometer?

At the Gasometer.  And Micks doing one – Mick (Thomas) and I are old buddies so that’ll be fun.  Deborah Conway is next week and Neil Murray.  So it’s really an indulgent thing for me cos I enjoy talking about songs and about industry stuff and people’s experience.  I had Dr Lou Bennett on last night and she was great.  The work she’s doing around songs and language, it’s just amazing.  In the same way that co-writing is so collaborative, im interested in all these people who’ve done really diverse stuff, and within the music world use their skills to do such a broad range of things – which is necessary to sustain a career, but it’s also necessary to take yourself away from your own shit, like pushing your own songs. They’ve all run projects, all been in different bands, all played at festivals.  I mean, you know how much Mick’s done – its really inspiring for me and interesting.  The feedback last night was overwhelmingly positive – they were like ‘its so great to watch you interview people who are knowledgable about something, talk about what their exited and interested about’.  Even if there’s not a direct line into the conversation for everyone at all points, it’s still two friends talking about stuff that for us is very obvious maybe, but for punters not at all.  So I’m hoping it builds, there’s already a lot of interest for Mick’s show at the end of the month and i’m hoping that people come and enjoy it because it’s really fun.

So you play some songs and chat.

Yeah it’s a 3 part set – I play songs at the start of the night, then we chat and they play songs at the end.  I’ve asked them to pick songs based on certain categories ive given them, but it’s pretty loose.  Its so nice for me to have access to these people who are all friends of mine, but to have a more formal ‘I wanna pick your brains about stuff’ I think that’s what makes it good for the audience, that I am interested.  Im asking questions that are based on knowledge around that person, not just ‘whats your favourite pub?’ (laughs) ‘What was the name of your first band?’ I want to get further into stuff.  I’ve already had interest from other venues in Victoria wanting to put it on –and i’m like ‘just hang on a second I don’t know if its gonna work’.  It’s not a new format, or new idea but it hasn’t been done here very much.

There’s a need for that in Melbourne – things pop up here and there, then it’s quiet.

And there’s SO many artists.  This is exactly where it should be happening, because there’s so many people doing really interesting stuff.  To get access to the backend to how that works, and go this is what it is to do what we’re doing and because I feel like everyone’s leading really interesting lives in the creative field, whether or not they’re wildly successful or not – and that’s something I talk about with them – what success is.

It’s very individual – to work in the corporate world it’s like A to B to C, but being creative it’s not like that.  There’s similarities but everyone’s doing a different thing in their own way.

Exactly. There’s no direct way, there’s no system where you’re like ‘now you’re qualified for this job, now you get into this pay wave’.

You need to be self motivated.

That’s a terrifying idea – the trade off for having all this autonomy and freedom, is that you also take 100% responsibility for everything.  And that can be lonely and frightening and depressing, but the wins and the positive stuff is just so incredible.  And that’s the sort of shit you don’t get working in a structured industry or environment.  Its fu**ing rollercoaster.  And everyone experiences those set of feelings but in completely different contexts.

How do you know when a song is finished?

Good question.  What I say to song writing students is you have to keep drafting.  Songs are such a cool medium because you have finite number of words and every word has to earn it place to be there. It’s a drafting process – keep going and going, trim all the fat off it and when you can’t change anything else – every word has to be there – that’s when you’re done.  For me that’s how it works.

So really focussed on lyric and melody.

Yeah musically things happen way quicker for me.  If i play it a dozen times it probably sorts itself out.  Lyrics take way longer and that’s always a thing I finish second so um yeah god there’s some songs (looking back ) i think ‘why the f**k did you stop there you idiot?’ there’s this great song on my first record, I just wish that I… it was inexperience that’s what it was and not doing what i just said to do – keep making every word earn its place.  It’s such an embarrassing one – it’s so lazy – and it’s such a great song – potentially..

So you feel like the essence is good, but wish you trimmed it back?

Yeah trimmed it back, made the lines better and taken out some of the trite imagery.

I bet you’re the harshest critic on that song.

Oh yeah absolutely..  I don’t know actually (laughs). Im not particularly critical about other people’s lyrics – well I know what I like and I think a good lyricist, I can forgive certain things because the overall way they use language and way they craft a song is so good, its like whatever, doesn’t even matter.

Example?

Mick Thomas is a great lyricist – he plays with language a lot. Deb Conway is an amazing songwriter. Um i’m obsessed with this guy called His Golden Messenger at the moment – amazing dude. He’s Southern American – think he lives in New York now – he writes this beautiful stuff thats very imagery rich. I’m not sure what he’s singing about (laughs) but the way he uses language feels authentic, very idiosyncratic.  And that’s the other thing I say to students – cleche’s are shit…the more of your own voice you adopt the better your lyrics are gonna be.  You don’t have to be smart – sometimes it’s gonna take away from the emotional impact of the song. It’s not about having  massive vocabulary, although that helps.

I’m learning this Dylan song at the moment – there’s not many lyrics in it. It goes for about ten minutes (laughs), but its just perfect, how it should be, there’s nothing that doesn’t belong there and there’s nothing that’s missing.

If you don’t have anything to say don’t say it. Don’t take up people s listening space.  Maybe that’s what separates artists from people that just do it.  This is wandering into dangerous territory…

Like any individual voice or way of seeing the world and expressing that, and connecting across to the audience.

Totally, as opposed to maybe a voice that isn’t saying it in a way that hasn’t been said before.  Like Paul Kelly for example, its like ‘Holy f**k that exactly what that feels like!’

I know…

That’s the sign of a good writer, it opens up these parts of your mind – and he’s very idiosyncratic, uses language thats his own experience of the world but it makes it bizarrely more accessible.

That’s what’s so special, to know someone else has felt that way – and someone that you don’t know.  He’ll use everyday words but it’s the way he uses them.

Totally, he’s not using unnecisary frilly language.  Its simplistic, the way he uses words is really skilful and in him..

And the complexity of families.

Exactly. And that’s what works. The fact he can observe and be ‘what is it I feel about this situation’’

He’s staying with his own ideas.

Being able to articulate that and someone else to understand is brilliant.

Image by: Lisa Sorgini

Liz’s Website

Anybody’s Language

Liz Stringer – String Along shows

 

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Mark Seymour

Mark Seymour recognised his difficulty with song writing, after Hunters and Collectors disbanded in 1998.  Suddenly faced with writing alone, and having a family to support, he says “The criteria were pretty strong, so gradually I figured it out.  The problem wasn’t so much I was looking for a style, I didn’t really understand how to relax with my own dialogue.  It took a couple of records and asking – who do I like, who do I admire? and referencing the long tradition of music written in isolation – artists who work with bands, but you can hear there’s a singular storyteller behind it all.”

Initially known to the public as the passionate and driven performer of Hunters and Collectors, he has in more recent times been seen anywhere from reforming with the Hunters at the AFL Grand Final, as a guest panelist on ABC TV’s  Q and A, playing numerous pub gigs with his band The Undertow, to penning an auto biography, Thirteen Tonne Theory: Life Inside Hunters and Collectors.  Now, 2017 sees the release of ‘ROLL BACK THE STONE: 1985 – 2016‘ a live collection of 24 songs handpicked from the last 30 years.

Mark is clearly a thinker, and during our conversation he’s down to earth, focused and open – often willing to delve into the more curious aspects of writing and the creative process.

It would’ve been a trip down memory lane, choosing which songs to record from the last 30 years.  What was the process like?

Well the songs are all part of our live repertoire, so I didn’t have to kind of go back and listen to things I hadn’t for a long time. The touring has definitely escalated with this band (The Undertow).  We do a lot of regional and interstate, just generally travelling around Australia, so i’ve become interested in developing an attitude about songs that i’ve written over a long period of time, and incorporated that into the experience.  But it’s been a very gradual ‘ah let’s try that song out’ you know, so in the end it was just a matter of picking. There’s about 36, and I had to pick 24 for a double album.

I notice there’s quite a few songs from Mayday.  Is that because they’ve become a part of the live set more recently?

I think the material is better.  I’ve had periods of time when my song writing hasn’t been particularly good.  I just think my strike rate in the last few years has definitely improved. Especially having developed the relationship with this band, we don’t go into the studio unless the songs are actually cooking.  I write very simply now, and let words and phrasing carry the day. So there’s more of an emphasis on storytelling, which makes it much easier to just bed the songs down, the instrumentation can afford to be a lot simpler and more transparent, telling a yarn that holds people’s interest.

Essentially the songs start with Human Frailty onward – there’s several Hunters records I didn’t even look at.  There’s one song off a previous record I tried to play and it just sounded like shit, just couldn’t play it. A lot of that early Hunters stuff wasn’t really song writing as such, it was feel, groove, kinda big industrial landscape music with some interesting images thrown in.  That’s how I used to write.

And more band co-writing going on then?

No, well there’s a bit of a myth surrounding Hunters and Collectors, that fits nicely into some sort of political niche.  Pretty much I was driving, I was dragging the thing along.  The guys were great players, and really had a way – I mean Hunters and Collectors were an incredibly exciting band to play in – but the song writing was quite a specific thing.  Just gradually as time went by I began to realise ‘ok there’s certain types of songs I wanna explore’. I became more and more interested in simple structure and story telling.  Once you start to orientate writing around what words reveal, it’s not so much that (the instrumentation) takes a back seat,  but there are certain genres that writing just doesn’t fit with.  Early Hunters was funk, blues, long jams – songs that would take 9 minutes when there wasn’t any singing going on. So I just didn’t go there.

With your solo records, do you feel like the writing has naturally changed into a folk/country style, or was that a conscious thing?

Probably just natural.  There are a lot of genre’s – folk, country, blues, r&b – there’s so many different influences, especially in the last couple of records, that all lend themselves to lyric focused song writing. I remember when I went solo just after Hunters finished.  Just the stuff I was thinking about, ‘how can I make this sound…?’.  Trying to reveal to yourself what the fundamental tone of the song is gonna be. So that I can pick a guitar up start playing and you can go ‘I didn’t know he was going… oh that’s interesting!’  So there’s an emotional connection being created in that space.  In order to be able to anticipate that moment, you’ve gotta know what to go to in your own mind.  Finding that is an incredibly societal and communal experience, its why song writing exists.  And to be able to find that sweet spot, with the tool kit you’ve got, and suddenly not having this huge band around you and the whole experience of playing in front of tens of thousands of people – suddenly i’m alone (thinking) ‘how do I make that work?’  Well, I just didn’t know where to go.

Straight after the band?

Yeah.  I made a couple of records and they’re fine, nothing wrong with them,  just not that compelling, and as I got older I had to keep doing it. But in terms of genre, I’ve never really gone ‘i’m gonna play that style of music now’.

When the Hunters have supported Springsteen or similar artists, has that influenced your song writing in any way?

Um, I really like Bruce Springsteen.  The odd thing about him is I don’t know if his records sound any good (laughs).

More of a live thing.

Yeah, it’s funny when you listen – cos he’s made so many (and) covered such a huge range of years and production styles – because production changes from one generation to the next, and sounds change.

Yeah the 80’s to now.

That’s right.  But there were specific Bruce Springsteen records that I really loved.

Which ones?

Well I really love the Ghost of Tom Joad, and I love Nabraska – I love the acoustic records.  I love The Rising, um Born to Run’s ok.

The live thing, I mean seeing him play is a completely different trip. He’s putting on a show.  There’s something very American about it like “Yeaaah!” (laughs).  It’s totally unique and its great and incredibly positive.  He’s had a massive resurgence, he’s much bigger now than he was – a live touring animal.

Yeah he just keeps going.

Yeah.  The other thing I do is I just buy as many records of anyone who’s really endured, put them on one playlist on iTunes and put it on shuffle. So you hear songs from different eras pop up.

And a quiet ballad that might be the 11th album track, which you might not’ve paid much attention can stand out.

Yeah.

 So, political ideas in songs.  You touched on it before – when you’re sitting at home and playing, does the melody come first, or do you go ‘i’m really passionate about this thing that’s happening.’ 

It’s a difficult question to answer succinctly.  I write words all the time, constantly.  I keep a diary (laughs), my book of lies.  I’ve got a song called The Book of Lies (laughs again).

Why book of lies? Wouldn’t it be a book of truth?

You lie to yourself.  It’s an interesting thing, I write all the time, but I tend to try and distill emotions first.  I just have the guitar in my lap and sort of strum it really gently, and just croon over it. You’ll find those moments that emerge in a song, so I know that the emotional dynamics are going to emerge.  I try to write the words very quietly, and they just come into the music.  They’re already there, sitting on the desk.

Are you a notebook person, or put stuff in your phone?

I’ve got stuff everywhere.  So it’s just a really gradual distilling of feeling, really.  I’ve written a song (recently) called ‘The Sun will Rise for You’.  I’m writing music for this play.

Can you say what the play is?

It’s called LAMB. It’s about this farming family.  But the interesting thing about that is there’s all these people in it who.. the mother dies, and people return to the farm to put her in the ground, so there’s all these issues arising between siblings, so that story’s just there. I go, ‘so what happens between siblings? Whats the really elemental, fundamental basic thing that goes on between these people, and like the way a father might talk to his son.  How would a father perceive his son late in life?’ or imagine what that might be like.

 And what you could relate that to, in your own life?

That’s exactly right.  I’ve spent a lot of time with my father in the last few years, and had all of these sort of revelations about him, lots of things i’ve unearthed – by accident! (laughs).  I thought ‘I wonder what he thinks of me, wonder what he thinks of me really’ you know.  ‘How would he perceive me as a son’. And how can I inhabit that character in a song.  I mean, its speculation.  Putting all that aside, how could you write a song that could express that feeling – I don’t necessarily own it, but because i’ve been through that process already, it will inevitably have emotional weight because i’ve had all those thoughts.  So when I actually come to sit down, (hums a melody) ‘is that working?’

So it still resonates, because you’re feeling as you’re writing it in some way.

That’s right.  So you might end up with a story that’s out there somewhere, but it’s still got a kind of shape to it, that someone else could come to it from whatever situation they’re in.

And I guess siblings and father-son dynamics, everyone can relate to in different ways.

It’s inescapable.

I loved Holy Grail as a teen, and I realised you would now have a whole lot of different ages in your audience, particularly with your daughter performing with you.  Do they react differently to different songs?

 Punters?

 Yeah punters, or just people you know.  Any surprises?

Oh yeah, god yeah.

Well that’s a really good question. Look punters as soon as they hear a song they know, they are relieved. Which is nice, you know.  But I did a show last Saturday down at Lakes Entrance, it was a Jimmy Barnes support.  He’s just got hits coming out of his arse, it’s just wall to wall – every song, everyone knows everything.  It’s nuts. I had a 90 minute set which was great, and thought i’d have to play a lot of material i’ve written in the last 4-5 years, which only some of them might know. But the weird thing is, the actual integrity of the song, that it’s structured in a certain way and if it just has an intrinsic mood that works, it goes through.  You can see.  A lot of the time i’ll do supports like that and only get 45, 50 minutes anyway, and you’re not really testing material.  But when you’re in that situation.. that was a bit of a revelation for me.

Was that some of the songs from Mayday?

Last two records.  A song like Westgate for example, I mean that got no radio – my solo stuff doesn’t get radio. As soon as Hunters ended, it was over (laughs).  But a song like Westgate – you can just see they’re going ‘its a story’ (laughs) ‘its about a bridge in Melbourne..’ ‘Then he climbed up the tower, then he climbed down again, and got his feet dirty’ (laughs).  And people love it, and that works.

They’ll think about it when they’re driving over the Westgate too.

Yeah (laughs). But there’s a certain kinda inevitability to it. I have commercial constraints but that’s nothing, compared to the fact that people don’t buy records anymore.  They listen to Spotify, so i’ve gotta play.  In the last few years i’ve thought ‘live’ is it.  That’s how i’m making my money.  Um, so i’ve gotta make the songs work in this environment, i’ve gotta write songs and construct them a certain way, that they’re gonna have an inherent dramatic power. And that’s the 60’s!  When the stakes were incredibly high. I mean you think about all those iconic groups from that era, they just toured their arses off.  And you’ve just gotta remind yourself of that. I had a little light bulb moment.

They would record live too, didn’t they?

That used to be a common thing.  Remember that Crosby Stills Nash Album 4 way street?

Bit before my time.

(Laughs) That was a live album, by this folk/rock band from California, the West Coast.  And that album sold millions and millions of records, and it was live and really clunky!

But you got the feel of it though.

 Incredible.

 How do you know when a song is finished?

 You don’t, really.

 How do you get to that point?

Probably when i’ve completed the lyric. This thing i’m working on at the moment, I keep messing with the tempo and some of the shapes. I might swap it around, either way it works..i dunno. But the lyric is finished.  Once the lyric’s done, i’ll go ‘ok well can’t do any more.  I know if I pick the guitar up now and play it – this guy over here – he’s not gonna know that that chord works better than that chord.’  He’ll just go ‘oh this blokes father’s talking about his son’.  But that said, you get a band to play, something will shift.  Once you put bass in and a snare drum, (you) can kinda go ‘oh well maybe we don’t need that bit now, ditch it’.

 In the studio?

 Or just rehearsal, things just shift.  Which is fine.

 And hearing it from other people’s ears.

Well just physically playing it.  The landscape.  Like Ryan Adams recording the Taylor Swift record. Hearing it, I didn’t know it was a Taylor Swift record. The mood is utterly different.  And that’s kind of incredible really. It’s her melody and her words, I think it’s great. I mean it’s a very clever gesture to make and he’s making a point about song writing, and I just think there’s a stroke of genius in that.

2017 Tour Dates

Mark’s Website

Hunters live at the 2013 AFL Grand Final

Westgate

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Ashley Naylor

Influenced by bands such as The Who and The Easybeats, Ashley Naylor already had a keen interest in power pop when starting his first band as a teenager, which ultimately led to forming his current band EVEN, still going “22 years strong”.

Ashley is keen to talk about his “absolute favorite thing”, song writing.  This is affirming, considering he also divides his time between family and being a sought after guitarist for Paul Kelly, Rockwiz and Dan Sultan, among others. He’s articulate and thoughtful, ready for a chat at the end of a Melbourne heat wave, where it’s just cool enough inside our local front bar.

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that.  It might’ve been with the first band I was in, the Swarm.  The lyricist and singer was Francis Leach, the radio broadcaster.  He finished singing about 1991.  Every now and then I get Frank out and do a song with him at a party or a function or gig.   I think one of the first songs we ever wrote was probably mid 80’s.  I would’ve just written the tune and handed it over to Frances in the way Johnny Marr would to Morrissey (laughs).

So you already had that connection with him and the band, and you started writing.

Yeah we were a song writing partnership for about 5 years. We’d like to finish the songs we started as teenagers, in terms of actually recording them properly one day.  We did a couple of seven inch singles but the band never made an album so it’s one of my unfinished things hanging over my head. I’d like to record them properly, now I have the resources.

So it was after that you wrote your own songs and lyrics?

Yeah probably 91, 92, started writing lyrics and chords together.  Circumstance might’ve dictated that, because Frances left to work for Triple J in Sydney.  It was a very exciting thing for him, and pretty much put an end to the band as it was.  We went on as a trio for a couple of gigs and what would become EVEN was formed out of the ashes.  I still play with Matt the drummer from EVEN, we’ve been playing together 31 years.

Your solo stuff as well?

My solo stuff I play all the stuff.

Then with gigs is it solo acoustic?

My stuff is a fluid thing. If there’s someone else on the bill they might play on some songs, or I might put together a band for that night.  Generally I can get out with a guitar and get over the line.  I’ve kind of been hardened by years of indifference – stroke – great support, so i’m not afraid to get up there on my own.

Sometimes it’s easier?

The beauty of a solo gig is you’re free.  It’s like going for a bush walk, for as long as you want, wherever you want, as long as you know how to get back home.  That’s the key I think at a gig – know how to wrap it up, not just to wander aimlessly, which I have habit of doing – probably doing it right now.  One thing i’ve learnt from the Paul Kelly’s of this world, the Dan Sultans and guys i’ve been playing with over the years – get a set list a few days before – not scrambling the night before the show.  I’ve learnt the hard way that it’s good to put thought into the way it flows, having peaks and valleys and all that stuff.  That’s one of my current things, trying to balance songs in such a way, like a narrative, a set that makes musical sense in a way that you finish strong.  These are things i’m learning even as i’m hurtling towards 50 at an alarming rate.

When writing with EVEN, are you bringing songs to the band, or do they come about from jamming?

Mostly the former.  I formed the band as an outlet for my songs.  Essentially the band started as me demoing the songs on my own.  Then I brought Matt in to play drums, and I played bass and did all the vocals so it was a massive ego trip for me – full indulgent ego trip. Then we were lucky enough to have Wally join us playing bass.  Great singer, very supportive and wasn’t pushing songs down my throat so it gave me freedom to keep writing for the band.  We’re about one song away from finishing the 7th album, or 8th.

Do you find the revival thing of the 90’s and 2000’s is helping with EVEN?

It’s a great question, because we never split up.   We’ve been together for 22 years in various degrees of in and out of the public eye.  We did the Corner on 22nd December, played to a really big crowd which was great for us.  My brother who’s been a mentor since I was a teenager, has taken a really active role helping us get records re-pressed.  20 years since our first album, launched at the Corner, and it was just.. euphoric.  If there was sentimentality towards that era, it was exhibited in full that night. Our record came out ’96 and was really well received at the time so there’s a lot of fondness for it. Now i’m so far removed from the emotions, I can perform it with fun without the 20 something angst I might’ve attached to it.

Is that for the better?

Absolutely.  Obviously there’s something that can’t be replicated like that naievety and all that attitude.  But I think the rawness is what makes it its own beast.  It was just a time capsule and we were influenced by the bands around us, and bands that came before us.

Which bands?

Easybeats, The Who and at the time we were making the record, bands like You Am I were at the peak of their powers.  I was very influenced by You Am I. I was probably shy about it at the time but i’m very open about it now.  REM and The Smiths – a lot of jangly pop bands.  A bit of a classicist, but i’ve grown to accept that and not be apologetic about it.

The song I first knew from that time was Black Umbrella, not sure if that’s the same for others?

Yeah I think that’s similar (for others) – it was the only song that entered the ARIA top 100.

With following albums, and all that going on (radio success), did that influence how you were writing – was there pressure?

I guess there was subconscious expectation to produce music of a certain standard.  We were the judges of what we considered to be worthy.  I’m not the greatest singer in the world, but I pride myself on trying to write good songs, and play them to the best of my ability.   What I can’t do vocally i’ll try and compensate for on guitar.  What I can’t do lyrically, i’ll compensate for musically.   On our fourth album we were unsigned and had a distribution deal with Shock. In a lot of ways I look back on that as my favorite, because we paid for it ourselves, pretty much from the royalties from one of our songs being in Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  Our publisher at the time, David Vodicka (Rubber Records) had a mate in the States who put 70 seconds of one of our songs in a scene, which earned 4 or 5 grand.  We didn’t have enough money to promote it, but that’s another story. So we promoted at gigs, we went overseas, we had Ian McLagan from the Small Faces play on two songs.  It was special record in many ways.

With your solo albums you seem more country influenced.  Is that because it’s what you’re now into? 

A little bit.  Pretty mixed. My county leanings are from the ears and eyes of a rock and roll player, not from a country music purist. Any rhythms or feels from the rootsy world have come via a teenager listening to Hoodoo Gurus, they haven’t come from growing up on George Jones records.  Any flavours that come through, are from listening to the Stones and how white suburban kids translate that music.

Listening to the song Last of The Longhairs sounds quite country, and a bit bluesy.

It’s kind of a loose song.  I’m glad you mentioned it – it had a very long gestation.  Started in my mates lounge room in 2004.  I had a (16 track) digital recording device, early 2000’s thing.  Stupidly, I took it away to W.A, was staying at my mate Kevin’s house. He was working and I had the lounge room to myself. I played acoustic guitar and overdubbed another one.  Then I put on an electric guitar track. I liked it as an instrumental.  Fast forward to about 2010 when I finished off (the album) High Horse. I said ‘right i’ve gotta finish these instrumentals’.

Each verse is a different character – i’ve never really talked about this before.  The first verse is based on Anton Newton from Brian Jonestown Massacre, the second verse is a fictional character and the last verse is about me.  I pose the question – at what point does a man cut his hair?  Willie Nelson has set the standard, with cascading plaits. I grow it out and think ‘don’t cut it, don’t cut’ and then I cut it.  At what point do you stop cutting your hair? (Laughs)

I’m gonna go back and listen to the song now, that way.

It’s a deeper song than that, kind of like celebrating people who pride themselves on not being too mainstream or conformist.  I guess the bottom line is just be free. “one day when the wind blows through it will comfort you”. It’s about wearing you hair long (laughs).

Staying true to yourself.

Yeah it could be the simplest thing, routines or a lifestyle choice that has become something you pride yourself on.

Have you got any song writing rituals, like things flow better after coffee etc?

I can’t be 9-5 songwriter.  I know a lot of great songwriters have been that.  Benny and Bjorn from ABBA and Nick Cave go into their studio or office space and write.

What I like to do is write in solitude, when the house is empty. I write best when there’s no-one around. My first feeling is that (the songs) must stand up as an instrumental, before I put lyrics on them.

You write an instrumental completely first?

Yeah.  It might’ve been different in the past for some songs.  If you stripped the vocals off the EVEN records, i’d like to think that the songs have a tune worthy of being an instrumental.  It might have a guitar line or something but everything revolves around the music for me.

Do you think that’s from playing in bands?

Yeah, my first role in music was to be a side man, and I do get a lot of gigs doing that now – Paul Kelly and Rockwiz.  And I relish that for its’ own rewards.  One thing that’s a ritual is I’ll usually start on an unplugged electrical guitar.  I find it easier to hold the chords.

Touring with Paul Kelly, Rockwiz and others has obviously influenced your song writing?

It has, probably by osmosis. Playing a million songs in Rockwiz, you sort of work out what makes a song tick. At the same time I don’t feel the need for my songs to be traditional.  One thing I really have learnt from Paul is to be organised with your songs, and to also have an unwavering vision.  That’s not to say that people playing on the records I’ve done with Paul, aren’t able to contribute their own flavor to the music, but I appreciate the way he’ll come in with a lyric sheet and chord progression and very rarely divert from that. Obviously Paul’s got a track record and has been writing and performing songs since the late 70’s.  I’ve only been doing my own songs in public for 20 years, you know im still getting used to it (laughs).

It’s a great thing to watch come together.  It’s like assembling IKEA furniture (laughs) – I’ve done two items lately.

That’s a killer!

It’s a killer, but I’ve cracked it now. I cracked the code, internal high fives all over the place.  I’m trying to think of a good analogy – The new EVEN album I call a house of match sticks because it’s taking so frigging long to finish.

So you would more often than not, take a song pretty much finished into the studio?

Time is different now – I can write instrumentals at the drop of a hat, finishing the songs is a lot harder.  I bring instrumentals to the band, then take the rough tapes home and assemble a melody around the chords.  It’s almost like i’m co-writing with myself.  I’m a big fan of the Smiths and the way Johnny Marr would approach his songs is the same – he’d record the instrumental and Morrissey would come and sing on top.   I guess it sounds very Spinal Tap, that i’m co-writing with myself (laughs).  I’m co-writing with my other personality.

I’m in a band with myself

I’m forming a duo with myself.  This is gold!

 Any recurring challenges with song writing?

I always find myself failing to write soaring choruses.  I take confidence knowing that there’s a lot of songs out there I love, that don’t have  massive choruses. Also I try and write non gender specific lyrics.  That’s one thing I sort of set out to do when the band started.   Occasionally there might be a word alluding to the songwriter being a certain gender. There’s certain subjects I don’t tackle.  I always joke they’re like year 7 poetry, or first year uni philosophy (laughs)

Well that’s the stuff everyone relates to.

What’s those things, Japanese haiku? I’m trying to write pop song haiku’s.  Occasionally i’ll squeeze a fancy word in a song, but I try and limit it.

I always think i’ve got to get away from nature metaphors.

I’m all for nature.  I’m the same, the sun and moon feature heavily in my music.  Sometimes i’m in the mood to write a Brian Jonestown kind of song, like a drone with a minimal melody.  Other times in the mood to write a Ray Davies kind of song.  That’s part of the pain of song writing, that you’re inevitably falling short of your heroes.  And it’s the quest to keep going and try to write amazing songs.  I’m on a quest like every other songwriter.
It seems you put good thought into your song titles – Karmic Flop, Eternal Teen.

I’m really big on titles and I think that comes from my love of The Smiths.  I try to keep it really simple or evocative – hopefully both.  Karmic Flop was a play on words – there’s a Funkadelic song called Cosmic Slop, so that’s my white boy version.  It’s a bizarre phenomenon, naming a song, naming a band and being in a gang that has a name.

How do you know when a song is finished?

I don’t really ever know.  I think with multiple listens once you’ve recorded it, that’s when I realise I’ve got as much out of the song as I could possibly.  I have often in the past dealt with a lot of chaos in my mind, that I like writing very concise, organized music.  That’s not to say people who write chaotic, wild music do that to counteract calm and tranquility – I don’t know.  I think a song is finished when I do get that sense of order.  Given the past chaos, like a lot of people have, writing crafted, organized songs gives me a sense of order in the world.  I don’t know why I don’t do it more often.  It’s something you build and you want it to withstand the world, fashion and trends, and if it with stands those elements to one listener, then it’s worth it.

More a feeling, than something conscious?

Yeah, cause the options are limitless really.

 

Photo credit: Emma – Jane Johnston

www.ashleynaylor.com

www.even.com.au

Last of The Longhairs – YouTube

EVEN – Black Umbrella – YouTube

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Nick Barker

nick-barker-2

 

I sat down for a chat with Nick Barker on a Saturday afternoon, over a beer in the west of Melbourne.  He’s very fit for a seasoned musician! I soon find out this is due to surfing and kickboxing with a group of locals, some musicians, around the corner. In his words, he’s been on both sides of the music industry, and in the middle. Starting  in bands (The Wreckery, The Reptiles), then solo projects, co-writing (including being sent to LA at 24 to write for an album) to now revisiting the band dynamic, having formed the Heartache State with fellow songwriter Justin Garner.

We’re at his local bar where he knows the owners – he’s open, warm and passionate about everything.. it feels like we’re in an old neighbourhood, before hipsters and social media.

Do you remember how old you were when you wrote your first song?

About 15, 16. A terrible song about a girl I was in love with. There’s songs I’ve written I don’t even know what they’re about. Everyone asks me what’s a song about that i’ve written and I say “I dunno, you’d have to go and ask me at age…(younger self)!’ If I’m doing an acoustic gig there’s always one song I include that I wrote when I was twenty.

Do you remember what that was about?

No, that’s one of the one’s!

Do you have a particular routine when you’re writing?

Just like a normal morning, you know get up, have a coffee. There’ll come a point where you just get a feeling, a feeling you wouldn’t mind having a little play. I get any idea down I come up with, I record it. I never spend more than 5 minutes, just one little bit, and I just leave it.

At some point I’ll come back to it, driving down the coast, or some other time, listen to the memo’s with my headphones on. For instance this song we’re recording next week for the (Heartache State) album, I was going through some old stuff and found voice memo’s that i’d lost – one of them just started playing out of nowhere. I reckon its one of the strongest songs on the album.

I should be more diligent, should be more prolific etc, but having the benefit of knowing other songwriters and asking the.. i’ve written over 200 songs so I must be doing something right.

Working with Justin, do you each bring in ideas or just come up with stuff jamming?

We can, but we don’t very often. What we’ll do is we’ll text each other ideas. Generally it’s him writing an idea and I’ll work on it, write more of the lyrics. That works well.

It all started when I was going to do a solo record. I had all these ideas, didn’t know what to do and I ended up sending them to Justin. (In the past) he’d written an album full of incredible rock songs, but never wrote a song since then. I’m like ‘You’re mad!’  I loved that album, I was jealous! I even ended up recording a couple of the songs for my solo album.

I said ‘How about we do this album, but i’m not doing it unless you write at least a third of the songs.

In other bands were you always the main song writer?

Yeah in the Reptiles. The Wreckery was Hugo (Race). Then everything I’ve made since then.

You’ve co-written songs with a range of artists in the past, including Tim Rogers. How has that been?

I did a few co-writing workshops, the song writing was ok. I always found it a bit odd. There’s a certain amount of luck, it’s always been a bit of a roll of the dice. Tim Rogers and I have never co-written together. Strangely enough there’s this song on the new album he wrote. We were mucking around, going to do this thing called ‘Shithouse’, and I found an old CD in my garage with ‘Shithouse’ written on it – and there’s a really great song on there. I decided to write some words to it. Tim said he would, but he hadn’t. We’ll be recording it next week.

A song I really love, you performed with Tim, The Other House.

(That song) is from the mid 90’s, the last record on Mushroom then we re-recorded in for Liberation Blue.

Mum was an only child and for some reason I got the job of telling my Grandma when Mum died (in a car accident, when Nick was a teenager). (My Grandma) had a real old worldly stoic thing, said ‘Oh at least she didn’t have any pain’ – was her way of dealing with things. And over the years she lost her mind, and thought she had two houses. The ‘Other House’.

How do you know when a song is finished?

Songs can meander along and have six layers. I had a real thing about middle eights for a long time, it sounded to me like song writing 101, and that the old school song should be 3 and a half minutes. You realize a lot can be said for 3 chords.

https://theheartachestate.com/

http://www.facebook.com/theheartachestate/

 

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Mick Thomas

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When you hear about Mick Thomas around Melbourne, you’re pretty much told he’s approachable, an interesting conversationalist and a familiar face in many a pub front bar. He even recently co-owned a pub.

We meet at the Wesley Anne – for its quietness, and Mick says the beer is good. It’s dark and there’s candles, even though spring is near enough for Mick to have ridden his bike there.

We find a relatively quiet table and we’re on our way, covering topics including modern problems, history and literal song writing. I’m keen to hear his differences between writing for bands (Weddings Parties Anything, The Sure Thing) and his solo projects.

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

I was pretty young, 14 or something like that. I’d started playing with American R&B Rock n Roll bands and I couldn’t really get much traction with that music. While I loved it, it didn’t really speak to me. I’d sort of just discovered folk music, and my father had a big country music thing, so I liked Johnny Cash growing up.

I can remember quite strongly it was (about) my cousin, there were three brothers and the eldest one didn’t want to be a farmer. It was called ‘Leaving the Land’ from his point of view, singing it to his father.

It was pretty rough, I remember Mum and Dad were shocked that I’d come up with something so close.

Did you write it with your cousin?

No, I don’t think he even heard it. It was way before I had any repertoire to play to anyone – but it was a song.

You were hooked.

Yeah I remember the feeling of writing something very close to me.

I recently spoke to Nick Barker about song writing sometimes being like therapy.

Yeah it can, song writing can be very confessional. I remember much, much later when I’d become a songwriter of sorts for the Weddings, there seemed to be a period where songs were very confessional. Paul Kelly had some really confessional songs, like brutally confessional. Billy Bragg had a couple. It was like ‘Oh that’s what you do’. I think it’s different with everyone, but with me it was definitely just a period I went through, then went ‘hang on, I’m going to hold back a bit about my life – and I really have. I haven’t written anything about having a kid. First child songs are generally pretty awful – well quite often they are.

What about special projects, you’ve written music for productions?

That’s where, as an older writer you tend to go. I’ve had a lot of luck in that regard. My older brother runs a production company out of Hobart and we’re very close culturally in terms of what we like. I guess a lot of the things that he cooks up are ideas that i’m pretty across, so I tend to get the call for short films, documentaries and theatre productions that get a run. Even with projects I run myself i’m pretty lucky – I had a period when the Weddings started and it was really exciting. I was writing all the time so by the time we did our first album I had another two albums of material sitting there.

Did you use the songs for the next albums?

Yeah over the years. For the first album there were probably 30 or 40 songs we picked 12 from. By the time the next album came along we’d written another 12 or more so i’ve had that backlog and probably in the last 15 years start to cut into it.

The last proper album we did for Liberation was the one we did in Portland, Oregon and Darren Hanlon produced it. I gave Darren 30 songs I thought were candidates and 2 of the ones he picked were from the early 80’s. He said ‘What happened to those songs??’ I said ‘I dunno they just didn’t make the cut’.  Some less kind might say ‘Well that’s because you had better songs in those days’ but it was just where the bands were at and those songs just sat there.

Archiving is pretty important – and again, this is a modern problem, archiving is different now. It used to be a bundle of tapes – all of a sudden you go there’s f***ing hard drives everywhere! You have all these new concepts, especially coming to the internet late. The second Weddings song book I did on this typewriter thing with a screen. You’d get to the end of a line and you hit a button It was so awful to work on. I didn’t even realise a word processor and computer were the same thing! Now you go ‘its all on dropbox’ Its still on a hard drive somewhere – dropbox is just a hard drive.

Yeah I get confused by it!

And the cloud, my mate goes ‘its not up there (pointing upward)’!

What even is it?

It’s just a f***ing hard drive.

Is it based in LA or something?

Probably, who would know! As he (his mate) was saying, well sooner or later someone’s gonna come along and wipe them all out.  (Archiving) becomes more important. You get older and you write less.

Why do you think that is?

You use a lot of your ideas up. You have themes and ideas and most artists who go for a period of time would have certain ideas to keep going back to.

But you’re not sure you want to say the same thing?

Yeah. When I went to work with Darren Hanlon he said ‘I’ll pick 10 I think we should do. Inevitably you will write another song on the eve of going in there’. And he’s right.

And that’s your favorite song.

Your most recent song is always your favorite. You tend to write that song because it’s got somewhere to go. Especially if you’re like me – backlog – don’t get me wrong, some songs jump the queue. I can tell you Fathers Day went into the set the day after it was written, everyone just knew. But a lot of those other songs – you write them, you think ‘Yeah, maybe I’ll finish that’.

And then at some point i’m guessing you go back and listen and get a feel for what is working?

Yeah, I reckon I could be a bit more diligent. I had this thing called the Monthly Music Club, where people could subscribe and i’d send them out stuff every month. I’d send a couple of demo’s- a couple of older songs. Some that id never released, and sometimes it’d be a first demo of Fathers Day or something like that. 2 years of doing that was really what led into the last album.

At the moment what I’m trying to do is this series of singles but with a download of the single , a bit more stuff – 3 or 4 songs with it. It encourages people to download – legally, and it encourages me to be more active.

Do you have any song writing routines?

I cant say i’ve ever had a routine. One of the things that’s really affected me is not being on the road so much. I wrote a lot on the road, that’s why the Weddings always had stacks of songs to choose from.

I really like sitting in a hotel room and writing. I never wrote about the hotel, that was much, much later – there might’ve been a few road songs there, but I was so happy to be on the road – so happy.

More than routine it was about a state of mind, just being happy and inspired. And we’d just talk about music. Dave Steel joined the Weddings, he moved into this house we were working out of in Carlton, and if we weren’t playing (music) we were talking about it. ALL day. It was amazing, we just never stopped. So in terms of routine, it was just sort of down time.

People tell you having a kids not gonna effect it – well it does. You just don’t have time.

The great Oscar Wilde quote is his kid said ‘What did you do at work today Dad?’ he said ‘In the morning I put in a comma, and in the afternoon I took it out.’ That’s kinda what it’s like, it can be very slow and painful.

Every artist is keen to tell you about the song they wrote in 5 minutes, they don’t tell you about the days sitting around, going nowhere, or working at stuff. It’s all over the place. Its kinda what attracts me to the form, it’s very hit and miss.

When writing a song, how do you know it’s finished?

Usually show someone. It really does depend. If you’re taking it to a band, sometimes you’re happy to leave it. I’ve got a criticism of my work – i’ve been quite slack lyrically over the years and that’s because i’ll quite often go –“i’ll tidy that up in the studio’ And you f***ing don’t! And I find myself still scribbling lyrics..

Photo by Leigh MacKenzie

http://www.mickthomas.com

 

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