Darren Middleton

Back in 2015, at Darren Middleton’s Melbourne launch of second solo album ‘Splinters’, I was naively surprised how varied and expansive his repertoire was.  Ranging from earlier bands (notably Powderfinger and DRAG) as well as his solo career ranging over four albums, I was taken with how many memorable songs he had written, including the beautiful ‘Take Me With You’ (DRAG).

There were old and new fans in the crowd, guest singers (Sahara Beck, Talei Wolfgramm, Kelly Lane), and heartfelt melodies mixed with a rock band ethos.  With carefully crafted songs like those on 2013 album Translations, bringing a sense of reflection, to melodies on recent 2018 album Tides, (song In The End) I knew it’d be a bonus to gain an insight into his writing process!  Now as he approaches writing film scores in 2019 (which he’s not able to elaborate on – damn!), Darren encourages song writers to keep at it, and discusses the main differences when writing for his various projects over the years.

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

Hmmm, heading back to 1986, a song called ‘Waimea Bay’ may have been the first. All about hitting the surf and good times.  My first song with Powderfinger was called ‘Log down a river’, with such introspective lyrics as ‘Time drifts by like a log down a river’… deep. 😉

You’ve had extensive experience writing within bands, most notably Powderfinger, as well as other bands (DRAG), and your own solo work. How has that process been, from a song writing perspective?

It has varied over time and has depended on the circumstance.  With Powderfinger, it was a constant internal battle, realising that as a writer, I had to not be too precious with ideas as we worked in a very democratic way and also we very forthcoming with the concept of every member contributing a piece of themselves to the song. Ultimately, this worked very well for us, we were definitely a band whose songs were stronger when made as a whole. As a solo artist now, I am both in control of every detail and also then carry the weight of the result…both good and bad! I must say, I do really love it, not from a controlling perspective but I like the responsibility.

How was it writing your first solo album Translations? Were there many co-writes, or are the songs 100% written by yourself?

The songs, I wrote, but I had a lot of help bringing them to life. One of the things I carried over from Powderfinger, was the joy of having people leave a piece of themselves in a song.  So although I was coming up with the music, the melody, the lyric…I encouraged all the players and guest singers to interpret the ideas how they like. To me, it is very important for people to feel invested in the art. There’s no point in me asking Paul Dempsey to sing on a song but then not let ‘Paul Dempsey’ run with it wherever he will! Also, I love to work with a producer…I tend to utilise them in a co-producing sense…so more like a team, but to have an outside ear on the big picture, is quite invaluable.

You’ve featured various (strong) singers on your solo albums, including Sahara Beck, Missy Higgins and Mia Wray.  Did you write with their parts in mind?

I would write the songs and then, when thinking about the songs story, I would think about who could be good to inhabit the roles.  All the people I have had singing on my songs, are people I know or have worked with and absolutely consider amazing singers/writers.  They have all been different to work with, some are very experienced, others, new to the game…but all have that amazing ability to convey ‘something’ with their voice.

Do you ever write from someone else’s perspective?  For example, your song ‘Finally Found You’ reminds me of someone looking back on their life.

That song, specifically, was written after I read a story in the newspaper a number of years ago.  It was the true account of a young Polish couple, who were torn apart as Germany invaded, at the beginning WWII.  Both believed that they would never to see each other again, let alone survive but some 55 years later, they find each other, alive, against all odds.  They caught up on each others lives, what they did. They both had families.  It was incredibly touching and I tried to scratch the story of their lives with this song.

The songs on Tides sound more urgent, with an upbeat pop feel compared to
Translations and Splinters. Was that a conscious decision?

Absolutely! I wanted this album to be rougher around the edges in all manners. I wanted the process to be a little more organic and spontaneous, the capturing of the songs to be as ‘live’ as possible, to include variance and mistakes.

Do you add much to your song structure or lyrics once you’re in the studio recording?

I like to respond or react to the moment of recording…if something takes my ear, and idea or sound, then I like to make a decision to run with it.  I have to trust that my experience will guide me in a sense. Trusting yourself in this process/world is vitally important (though hard at times).

Do you have any recurring writing struggles?

Not really…though perhaps to not repeat myself is a struggle. I tend to fall to words/emotions that I‘m familiar with at times…and that is something I consciously need to try and avoid where possible.

Do you have any song writing routines, such as a walk to clear the mind, or feeling inspired late at night?

Again, not as such, though the one thing I do try to make a habit of is to just start something….anything…even if I don’t feel ‘inspired’.  The simple move of forcing yourself to do something can lead to places you would not normally go.

I’ve heard that you play a lot of legendary Australian songs with your band ARC.  I assume those songs and bands have been influential to your own song writing over the years?

Oh yes. With ARC, we play material that has influenced us and our musical paths over the years. At times they are songs written by people we personally know or knew.  It’s one of the most enjoyable bands I’ve ever been in.

Any current song writing influences in 2019?

I’m doing a lot of film score at the moment…so it’s possibly John Williams.  A lot of orchestral arrangements going on… I am also planning a little project with another Melbourne duo…something that is a joint project in all areas, not a ‘Darren Middleton’ release.  I’m pretty excited about it (even though I really haven’t given you too much info…sorry!)

How do you know when a song is finished?

Once I’ve played it quite a few times usually.  A song or music is not a ‘real’ thing until you have played it for people…because it’s the moment of connection that finishes it….to my mind.

Anything else you’d like to add?

To the writers out there…keep writing, tell the stories of your lives because although we all share many similar moments/experiences…they are also just a little bit different.

Darren’s website

ARC (Australian Rock Collective)

Mick Thomas

 

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