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.