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)

Dave Graney

I became a Dave Graney listener in the 90’s.  Wearing polyester, $2 shop bling and with an offbeat yet fabulously intelligent song writing style, he fit the scene of mis-fits who created their own niche between grunge and alternative rock. He gave the impression that anything goes and don’t take yourself too seriously.  His eccentricity was welcomed with wide open arms, by a Triple J audience and then the general public after winning an ARIA for Best Australian Male Artist in 1996.

Although at first listen you hear catchy pop chord progressions, closer attention to the lyrics reveal layers of images and themes giving insight and humour to rock celebrity and other cultural challenges.  By the 90’s Dave had been around in many bands for many years, experimenting with different styles, line ups and influences including The Moodists, The White Buffaloes and The Coral Snakes.

Recent 2017 album ‘Let’s Get Tight’ with partner and collaborator Clare Moore, Dave says began from ‘Starting (a) project of writing, recording and releasing a song every month, for a year or more.’  He describes the album as ‘the most varied collection of songs I’ve ever done’.

With a vast body of work to reference, my questions bounced all over the place, eager to get a glimpse into his song writing process.

I’ll begin with ‘Rock n Roll is Where I Hide’, as it was the first song of yours I heard, which I totally loved.  Did that song begin with the guitar riff, and build from there? 

We started The Soft N Sexy Sounds sessions in the same rehearsal room as the previous years album, ‘You Wanna Be There But You Don’t Wanna Travel’.  That album had debuted in the top 10 in Victoria and top 30 national and we had made it after a lot of touring nationally (for the first time).  It was a product of that touring and was a great rock n roll album, quite sprawling with 14 tracks and initially came with an extra 7 tracks we chucked down after the album sessions.  We were bursting with music and I wrote pretty much all the material.  Also, it was a new thing to be recording music for an audience that was waiting for it, and also a business that was interested.

During that touring through 1994, Clare Moore had started to buy exotic, weird vinyl in junk shops when we travelled.  It was all so cheap and we got into Arthur Lyman and Martin Denny, Perrey and Kingsley and a lot of jazz and soundtrack stuff. At the time we felt a lot of kinship with the Beastie Boys and their instrumental album ‘The In Sound From Way Out’ was great (named after a Perrey and Kingsley album and the same cover design).  We also loved ‘PULP’ and through our label Universal Music we used to get all these Island record comps with lots of trip hop on it.  We loved ‘Tricky’ and ‘Portishead’ and ‘Tupac’ and a lot of the ‘Wu Tang’ solo stuff.

BUT we were a rock band in Australia.  We played the Big Day Out in 93/94 and 95.  94 was a horrible rock BDO year with Primal Scream and the Cult.  I hated Grunge rock in general but those acts were really lame too.  We (Clare and I) started to think of making a more textured kind of recording, like the stuff we were listening to.  We’d done two albums with Tony Cohen and wanted a change. Victor Van Vugt was an old friend who’d left Australia with our band The Moodists when he was 17 and stayed in Europe. He’d just done an amazing album with Beth Orton which we loved. He was back in Australia so we planned on doing it with him and did just that. We wanted to do a “studio” album with emphasis on production as distinct from just putting it down on tape which is what the previous two albums ‘Night of The Wolverine’ and ‘You Wanna Be There’ had been like.

We had all the songs for it and just went ahead. There was a lot of tension in the studio as the process kind of sidelined the band in some ways. We wanted to do songs and not represent a band.

At the last day of rehearsal I played everybody ‘Rock n Roll is Where I Hide’ and I had all the licks and the arrangements thought out and that was it.

When the album came to be released it had a song called ‘I’m Not Afraid To Be Heavy’ as the first single.  It was given to Triple J who thought it was some sort of ironic joke, like ‘TISM’.  At some point ‘Rock n Roll Is Where I Hide’ was chosen as a lead song.  It had the most overt guitar on it.  It was 6 minutes long and had no chorus, just a groove and a bluesy story half spoken and half sung. It was edited to 4 minutes and got thrashed on Triple J.  I still play it at most shows.  It has such power and the guitar lick is primal.  It builds and surges.  Sometimes I do it solo (after many years trying to do that) and it also gets powered up.

I wrote about where the lyric came from in my book ‘Workshy’.  Like a lot of my songs it begins with one idea in one pace and then wanders and fly’s off.

I felt very out of place in the Triple J “youth music” world and grunge rock as well.  I felt like a visitor from another scene.  We had been playing music for years in the underworld and had that kind of perspective.

I also remembered sitting in a dressing room in Hamburg in a club on the Reeperbahn in 1984, sharing it with East Germany’s premier rock band, who looked like POISON.  I wondered what would happen to a band of spies in a rock band who were on tour, perverting western culture, when their whole communist system fell over and they were stranded.

Over the years have you found your song writing process change, or do the same techniques still work?

I have no techniques, I have a voice and with that, a flow.  That’s all you need.  Some sort of trick to trick yourself into flaming on.

This year I got a guitar and put it into an open tuning and tried a slide and three songs fell out.  I also occasionally eat a pot cookie and sit at a keyboard.  I get into concentrating on a single chord.  Another time I put a lot of compression on a drum track and it “pumped” really hard so I got Clare to drape a string of pearls on and off a cymbal while we recorded it so it had the drums “pumping” down below and then this strange, whispering, soft cymbal sound up high.  No “hitting” just swishing around.  I put some bass and synth down and had a track called ‘This Is The Deadest Place I’ve Ever Died In’.

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

I was a little kid and I ran around the back yard singing a song about a St Kilda footballer I loved called “Cowboy” Neale.  It was called ‘Up High Goes the Cowboy” and was kind of like a Roger Miller tune.

You also have experience with other forms of writing, notably two novels and regular articles.  Is writing in general something you have done from an early age?

No, something I started doing in the 90s, writing for magazines.  For money.  I wish I’d done two novels but there have been two memoirs and a book of lyrics.  The latter was supposed to be all the chords and words but I got distracted.  Most of my songs are quite literary inspired in their ways.  I’m not usually a confessional type.

Electric guitar features in most of your songs in some form.  Even on the new song ‘You’re all Wrong’, although slower, there is still the similar guitar sound to the earlier days. Do you mostly write on guitar?

I wrote on guitar but never performed or recorded with one regularly until after the Coral Snakes period, after 1997.  Most people would associate my music from that earlier period with the great piano players we had.  Louis Vause and then Conway Savage and then Robin Casinader. I n the Moodists it was Steve Miller and Mick Turner thrashing their guitars.

After the Coral Snakes finished I wanted to perform differently and playing guitar brought me back to being within the music more.  There was no piano and less reverb and two clean sounding guitars and a lot more vocals.

Many of your songs seem (to me) to focus in on an idea, a commentary on a cultural observation. Do you begin with the lyric idea or the music first? For example, the songs ‘I’m Never Off’ or ‘Feelin’ Kinda Sporty

I go off from titles or words.  Not some sort of “classic” beatlesque form.  I like street language and slang.  It’s a country music or rap thing.

Did you feel pressure with writing around the craziness of the 90’s, winning an ARIA, and the expectation which accompanies that?

Yes I did but at the same time I enjoyed all sorts of different doors being opened and different opportunities.  I had a policy of saying “yes” to anything.

Aside from your partner, has there been song writing collaboration with other members of your past bands, and how has that experience been?

On ‘The Soft n Sexy Sound’ I asked all members of the Coral Snakes to write music for songs and Robin Casinader wrote and sang one called ‘Salty Girls’.  Stu Thomas has written some music for mistLY songs.  Clare Moore did most of the music for a great album we did in 2009 called ‘Knock Yourself Out’.

I’ve written a couple of songs with Matt Walker .  I think he is a spectacular musician and singer and songwriter.

A young studio guy called Greg Den Hartog called me saying he had a track for me in 2005 and I chucked a vocal on it and we had ‘My SChtick Weighs A Ton’.

I loved working in the studio with Billy Miller and with Greg Walker from Machine Translations.  Clare and I recorded two albums in our studio for Kim Salmon and Ron Peno’s band The Darling Downs.  I have a rap duo with Will Hindmarsh from Go Go Sapien called WAM AND DAZ.

In those situations I’m there for the spontaneity.  I don’t ever sweat it writing songs.  I like to get it down really quick.  I also escape from the architecture of the chords and get to really come at the song from a  different direction.  I sing right over it.

The song ‘Night of the Wolverine’ is an example of a heavenly chord progression and feel, with a deeper lyrical story.  How was that song written?

Quickly.  It was more about the arrangement.  I had it for a while in 1991 and we didn’t put it down until the end of ‘92.  I played it with the Coral Snakes but I didn’t want to bash it around in pubs too much so I put it away.   I arranged it to be like Lou Reed’s STREET HASSLE which had all these “movements” around a simple theme.  In his he had a middle part with Bruce Springsteen speaking some words softly and I asked Tex Perkins to do something similar.

The chords, like ‘Rock n Roll is Where I Hide’, come from some 70’s rock direction. The latter is steeped in Southern rock (Allman brothers/ Skynyrd/ Leon Russell) which I loved as a kid and Wolverine is really coming from the kind of 70s rock singer songwriter which I have realized I always wanted to be and have become in many ways.  Like Lou Reed or Tim Buckley.  Electric guitar songwriter with a hot band.  That’s my thing.

Who do you draw inspiration from in 2018?

I’m in a quite creative, sweet spot. We played every Sunday in April and May in a pub in Melbourne and played 70 minutes of my songs each week.  A different 70 minutes for 9 weeks.  It was intense and made me really appreciate my band so much. the mistLY.  Clare and I have been playing together so long, Stuart Perera joined us on guitar in 1998 and Stu Thomas has been with us since 2004.  The longest lasting outfit of all.  We also do a show every once in a while with the Coral Snakes and I have really loved doing that.  Just a power packed show.  No guitar duties for me, just singing and bringing the drama.


LANKS (Will Cuming)



Will Cuming, aka LANKS, is an Australian songwriter and multi-instrumentalist.  His debut album twentyseven is full of sweet, melodic layers and sometimes reflective moods of an artist expecting more from life and himself, as he moves through his late 20’s.  Songs such as ‘Yours’ and ‘Comfortable’ are cruisy and easily accessible, whereas the title track ‘twentyseven’ has an urgent and driving rhythm.  Although this release is a debut, it arrives on the back of three EP’s which have garnered loads of attention, leading to festival requests, a record deal and various collaborations.

Will and I spoke over email, due to his album promotion and tour preparation commitments.  I was keen to hear how he writes his folk/electronic driven songs.

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

Yes. I mean, there were a few when I was playing the flute originally but the first proper ones were as soon as I started playing the guitar at 12 years old. There’s a riff from one of those songs that I still want to rework now into a new song. That’d be pretty cool, collaborating with my 12-year-old self.

You’re a multi-instrumentalist, coming across as an electronic singer/songwriter.  Do you write song ideas on varying instruments, depending on your mood or inspiration at the time?

Absolutely. Whatever is feeling good at the time or even just a musical chairs approach where I jump from instruments when I feel like it. That’s a good approach. My brain has a different approach with these instruments and the language on each has small differences that can help unlock good ideas.

Guitar and piano seem more prominent on older tracks, while the new songs on ‘twentyseven’ seem to have more electronic layers.  Were the electronic elements added in the studio or written while the songs were in their early stages?

Actually, the twentyseven LP was one of those bodies of work that I approached with production and song writing simultaneously evolving, and I love how it influenced the outcome. It was like composing with an orchestra in front of you instead of just you and a piano and then arranging the parts out for orchestra later. I was searching for sounds and sometimes they were from guitars and sometimes they weren’t. The next body of work will probably be completely different.

Have you done much co-writing? If so, who with and how did you find the process?

Over the past 2 years I have done a whole lot of co-writing but on twentyseven I wrote every track by myself, except for two songs that producers worked with me on (circles and yours).

I love co-writing and have explored that process a lot for other people’s work that I have been involved with (Woodes, Tia Gostelow, and more) and have a lot of new work in the bag that I did in that way. It honestly is the best experience, as I feel inspired by all the amazing artists I get to be in the room with and learn from.

We met through the Push Songs mentorship program.  Does being around other song writers have a positive influence?

Huge influence. I spent so much time doing things on my own in the past few years (until recently) and that was an important phase of exploration. It helped me find myself a bit.
But now my improvement has been very rapid (especially since making this album actually) and I am very happy with that. It’s been an amazing period of growth post the LP and I’m pretty excited about some of the new work coming out.

Do you have any writing routines? For example, a coffee before sitting down with an instrument, or find that things flow better late at night?

I don’t drink coffee, which most musicians find incredibly odd for some reason. I don’t have any routines really, except to do it a lot. Just write as much as I can and explore a lot outside of pre song writing sessions too. I am definitely a morning person when it comes to anything also. Though most rules (especially that one) are often broken and great results come from it.

You have featured other singers on your songs.  Do you write with these artists in mind? For example Ngaiire on the song My Own Mystery, or Airling on the song April.

They’ve all been different! April was a song that Hannah (Airling) just really loved and connected to and wanted to sing on. It was a special part of our connection and friendship that I still feel when I hear it.

My Own Mystery was written but I wanted to add the other perspective and my partner Tacey asked if Ngaiire could play the role of her. I love Ngaiire so it was such an amazing honour to have her on a track I wrote.

I think future features etc will end up being more collaborative than those ones, but it’s just different every time.

Do you have any recurring writing struggles? Some examples other writers have mentioned are finishing choruses, writing lyrics or coming up with song titles.

I certainly have in the past, but I’ve really enjoyed overcoming those deficiencies. It’s very rewarding.

I used to struggle with lyrics a lot because they were so vague and I felt like I got lucky every time they all lined up. It paralysed me when I needed to edit them or improve them. But then I started just writing 10 verses when I needed 2 and it opened it up a bit.

Then I used to struggle with finishing off songs but slowly overcame that through doing sessions where time deadlines pushed me.

Actually, a lot of the answers I find are in collaboration. We think we need to do everything ourselves but getting someone in who’s good at your weaknesses is really smart.  And you often learn from them so you rely on it less later, which seems counter-intuitive but, essentially we are all each other’s teachers so it’s like working alongside someone who can show you how to do things.

How is it working with another producer, being a producer yourself?  I would imagine it would be heaps of fun creatively.

When the session is good it is awesome. I seem to only have really good sessions mostly. You hear horror stories but I haven’t had a lot of those so from my perspective it’s all good. If you bring the right attitude and are prepared to work hard and not have an ego that prevents good team work then you should have a very rewarding experience.

How much is improvised on the spot when recording?

It’s hard to answer this question. It depends on the context. Some bands will have rehearsed a lot to record something and other times you are recording as you write so there are imperfections everywhere, but you may grow attached to them and keep them.

I studied music improvisation at VCA for my uni course so improvisation is a big part of my studio process and I love it. It’s a very, very easy way to bring human-ness to music created on computers where we can take shortcuts so easily (like not re-recording multiple choruses etc etc)

Who did you look up to in the Australian music scene growing up?

Big Scary. And I still do. That little musical family is such an inspiring hub of giving and supportive artists. They are all amazing but they aren’t arrogant at all, and they’re all very thoughtful and constructive with their words and thoughts. Big love to them.

If you could choose anyone to write a song with, who would it be and why?

This is such a hard question! It’d be pretty cool to write with one of those huge writers like Julia Michaels or someone like that. I’d love to see her process, that’d be really cool.

How do you know when a song is finished? How do you finish a song?

I used to think it never was! But not as much anymore. I think when there is a full fleshed form that makes sense and all the sections are written. And then production-wise it can go pretty deep but there kind of comes a point where you hit your wall and that’s where I like to get someone (Andrei Eremin for me) to come in and help getting all the production cleaned up and editing it basically. Then it gets mixed and mastered and you usually (ok, sometimes not true) don’t go back from there. There are always exceptions.


LANKS Tour dates:

SAT 04 AUG |  MOJOS, FREMANTLE WA (with Chelsea Cullen)

Supported by Tyne-James Organ (full tour) and Essie Holt (all shows except Adelaide, Fremantle and Castlemaine).

Tickets available from  lanksmusic.com/tour

Ukelele Death Squad

 Ben and Julian from Ukelele Death Squad are both keen to chat.  Their ukelele band have been selling out their live shows, as word has quickly spread of their talent, improvisational skills and funny banter.  This has lead to the four piece be asked to play numerous festivals since forming in February 2016, and they are still yet to find the time to record a studio album. After seeing them perform on the Blues train in Queenscliff (their carriage was the one that families and festival punters poured out of cheering and laughing, sweaty and grinning), it’s not surprising they are trying to keep up with demand.   Enthusiastic and relaxed before a gig later that night, we’re sitting in Northcote on a Saturday.

Do you both remember the first song you wrote?

Ben:  The first song we did together was a song called Not Afraid and it was a song that i’d done previously.  I’d had it all written- an intro and riff and a completely different song to what it is now, and said to Julian ‘This is a potential option for the show’ and he’s like ‘I only like the intro’ (both laugh) ‘the first 30 seconds of that intro is killer, there’s something in that’.  Then we pretty much rebuilt the whole new song from there.  It was one of those things like sometimes just one simple idea is good enough for a song, and just sticking with that idea.

Does that song now have a different title?

Julian: It’s called Just Like Fire

Ben:  It does have a different title, due to a mind blank I had when writing the album.  Forgot how to spell ‘afraid’ (laughs).

Julian:  I struggle to write a finished song, but that one, because Ben sort of had pieced it together, I found it quite easy to put words to. The vibe was there- that was really quick.

So do you sing that one (Julian)?

Julian: I do, yeah, and now we have the bass and saxophone which adds an extra vibe but essentially you could do the whole song (on uke). I think Ben’s done it before by himself, so you can strip it right back.  It kind of works like that.  You’ll (indicating to Ben) have the structure on ukulele, and we piece it together from there.  Because the uke is so simple to write stuff on.

Compared to guitar?

Julian: Yeah.

Ben: We’ve always got them, cos they’re so small to carry around.  In our last trip, we played at Open Studio – just down the road here, and we were staying just round the corner, so we’d do a lot of writing walking in the street.

Julian: Yeah they’re super portable.  And train stations- you just pull your phone out and often you come up with something catchy.

And then you work it out when you have a bit more time?

Julian: Yeah. We do find it hard at the moment.  We’ve got so many ideas, but it’s almost like the band is moving too quickly for us to catch up, if you know what I mean.  Often when we’ve been in other groups, you find you have this 3 or 4 year period where you’re writing, and cementing your sound.  This is sort of like- every show we’ve done is sold out, and we still haven’t recorded a studio album.

The one online is a live album right?

Ben: Yeah it was our third gig we ever did.  And we’re close to 2000 copies selling it, it’s crazy.

So you’ve obviously both played in other bands before this.  And there’s a lot of comedy in these songs.  Were the other bands like that at all?

Ben: They’ve been fun sort of party bands but the comedy was never really on purpose.  When we started with the idea, we put something together for the Fringe – we had this idea of doing some dirty comedy stuff, so then we discovered there’s a real sort of nylon string spanish flamenco sound to the uke, and especially with two ukes together because he’s (Julian) got a baritone which is an octave lower than the tenor that I play and um the Misirlou – Pulp Fiction song – (and) thought ‘We’ll try this’. Then we suggested Tamacun, which is by Rodrigo y Gabriela.  Then suddenly it was ‘Oh that’s the path we can take with this, and it has turned into a bit of a show.  It was “Fringy’ enough to do a Fringe Festival show but not too ‘Fringy’ to have a life outside.

How much is improvised on the spot?  A lot of jokes seem natural at gigs.

Ben: Some of the jokes that have worked get re-used.  But we’re starting to play around some of the places we’ve been so we’ve got to be careful.  We started as on the spot, nothing was ever scripted.

Just having fun.

Julian: Ben, we call him the spiritual leader of the band (laughs).  We got booked for a festival and Ben couldn’t make it once.  We were like ‘Jesus – there’s lots of songs we just cannot do without Ben’, because Ben does typical uke playing that cannot be replicated.  So instead we sat down and work shopped up a show.  We filled like 20 minutes or so, just with banter.  Still had the same amount of songs, and it really worked and afterwards, the music and the banter just sort of took off- that kinda next level.  It’s as much about the songs as it’s a show.  You have to judge the right moment because sometimes you play a gig they just want to hear music.  Particularly with the set construction, it’s really important with the songs you choose.  Other band members are starting to write songs as well.  They’re quite different in the style.  Ben writes this quite deep, almost like smoky, teary songs – there’s one on the EP – The Hostel Bed- and knowing when to place those in a set – its great having such a range of songs we can place in the set list now.

Ben: With the comedy side – most of the songs are serious songs, but then people just start laughing at anything now – it’s like ‘Oh this is actually not meant to be funny’.

I guess the more you play together you know when to drop into those jokes, or go into that banter?

Ben: Yeah I mean a lot of it is like ‘Let’s say something about this here’ – and it always changes.

You mix a lot of genres- are you all coming at things from a different angle?

Ben: Growing up and sat in front of the computer I listened to Heavy Metal, Rap and all sorts of stuff and it wasn’t until I moved away from Tassie and just had an acoustic guitar- that’s when I got into acoustic music.  The first thing that really got me into acoustic music was when I started listening to Celtic music because of the fast shreds.  Some of those riffs and things sounds like Iron Maiden but its all on mandolins and banjos so it really drew me in. Bands like the Pogues, they had  – still got – that punk energy but it was acoustic music.  I have a very large appreciation of all types pf music, and the good thing about the Death Squad its all on ukuleles but its a band that has no limits to what can be played because in other bands im in, like the Timbers,  we would say ‘That’s not a Timbers song’. But with the uke, because its so versatile we’ve got sort of a ‘no restrictions policy’ of what we can put into the set.  If it sounds good and it works it doesn’t matter what style it is.

And your audience kinda expects that too.

Julian: Yeah it’s wierd, it does appeal to a wide range.  We do find alot of our gigs often sell out and the crowd tends to be older because young people don’t buy their tickets early enough (laughs).  But when we play festivals, we notice there’s a huge age bracket, can be jazzy sometimes – i’ve got a bit of French influence because I went to high school in France.  Ben does a bit of country – there’s a real kind of mix and because it’s on ukuleles it’s different.  We could stretch to a jazz festival, or we could play at a folk festival or a fringe festival.

And it doesn’t sound like it was fore-thought, you just had the idea it’d be fun to try?

Both: Yeah.

Julian: It’s sort of the side project that blew up.

Ben: The side project that’s destroyed two other bands (laughs)

With your song writing, how much is geared towards the live reaction?  Are you thinking about the audience a lot more than you initially did?

Ben:  Now we’re probably thinking more about the show.  Most of the time punters aren’t musicians and when you try to add ’Oh that’s a sweet diminished minor’ (we laugh), no-one cares about that, it’s really interesting for the musician but the people who come to our shows are beginner uke players.  What I try to learn – is keeping it simple.

I think I’ve learnt that writing for myself is sometimes better than writing for the live reaction. I think the songs that are going better are the songs that you arrive to by yourself. The more true it is the better. Sometimes you can think ‘I don’t want to say this, I might offend someone’ or might get embarrassed if it’s too personal to share. (But) I think sometimes with a few of the quieter ones, yeah they’re just working better because I think they are a bit more personal.

You still need the depth of the song, not just be a novelty band.

Julian: We’ve got this one song ‘Dance With The Devil’, and we’ve never finished it.  The words are ’I’m gonna dance, gonna dance, gonna dance with the devil, the devil I know’  It’s got two chords essentially.

Ben: And it just goes off.

Julian: And we haven’t even finished it.

Oh okay, so you’re playing it live?

Julian: Yeah we’ve improvised bits and pieces and we’ve never got round to finishing the song. Everyone’s always like ‘Where can I get that song?’  Someone was like’ I’ve heard that song on Triple J’ (laughs). We haven’t actually recorded it.

I wonder if it’s worth finishing or leaving as it is?

Ben:  Sometimes I go into a rap or freestyle, he’ll (Julian) go into a french rap, and then we do like a live exorcism with our saxophones.  Everything’s so fresh still when you start a song you’re not really sure how it’s gonna go. The song still has control over us, anything could really happen because um in other bands when you’ve been playing the same songs for 3 or 4 years you go into muscle memory.

That’s what people love seeing live.  I dunno if you’re a fan of Ben Folds at all?

 Both: yup

He does that song ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit’ (nods of recognition). It’s different every gig or whatever and he makes up the lyrics. I guess now people are playing live so much to make money and re-forming, it’s good to stand out live.

Julian:  Totally. We’ve noticed you don’t make money off your music.  Recording and stuff that’s almost like a marketing tool.  We’ve both spent money on recording and it leads to nothing.  It’s great, but realistically speaking we’ve made more money off recording from a desk at our show.

Creates that buzz.

Julian: It does, it does, totally. As, a musician you’re always thinking ‘We need to get an album done, we need the most beautifully crafted song ever, words and everything perfect, and mastered by this person, because he produced this band’ And it’s changed, it’s not the same anymore. It took us a while to get our heads around, ‘Hang on, how are we getting all this traction?’

I’m digressing off the song writing thing, but with the sold out gigs, it sounds like its word of mouth.

Ben: We’re just able to capitalise on real good targeted marketing. And you know the ukelele – there’s a lot of community.  I find if you’re a band and you’re trying to win over everyone straight away and you’re trying appeal to everyone, you’re gonna get lost, so we had this target market of ukelele groups and thing. The first gigs we did, we got the ukelele groups to be our support acts.  They’re all mature age people and they tell their daughters, their children and grandchildren and they can sell 5 tickets straight away. So it’s about finding that market and using Facebook marketing and things to target those audiences to really use that bait of the ukelele to get people into it.

In the past, or now together, do you guys have any song writing routines?

Ben: Sometimes you know when it’s on, like ‘Yeah I’m gonna sit down and do something now’, but other times we’ve often got our ukes and if we’re together I’ll often come up with something catchy that’s instrumental and so then I’m like ‘Sing something over this’ and he’ll (Julian) find something quite easily and then that sparks me off and I’ll sit down and pen some lyrics.

Julian:  Ben’s like the organised one, I’m terrible. I come up with a really catchy melody and really catchy line and then I just tune out.

That’s a good duo.  Choruses are really hard, and starting something is hard too.  So it’s more about picking up when it’s working, than sitting down same time every day?

Julian: I find I do my best work when I’m procrastinating- like if I’ve got to do the dishes or something else completely different, I’ll then actually come up with the best lines. (laughs)

Yeah, at the most inconvenient times.

Julian: The worst times, the best stuff.

You talked about it before, but Just Like Fire – what’s that song’s about.

Julian: I put the words to it, it’s sort of about bad mental health, like anxiety I guess.  Normally I’m terrible at writing lyrics and often I’ll forget them live, but Ben had it and he had the feeling there (and) tweaked it. I came up with the first sort-of draft. 

Did it start off about mental health when you wrote it Ben?

Ben: No, no after that first intro the whole song changed, the riff comes out then it went into a sort of majory type song.  So the lyrics from the first version to the second version are completely different.

Julian: I often find it’s how the words flow with the song.   I’m not good at writing stuff out, I like improvising live.  I literally had it going in the car, on the stereo going over and over and I was singing while driving.  I found it easier because it wasn’t my song.

Less attached to it maybe?

Julian: Yeah I wasn’t thinking about it.

How do you know when a song is finished?

Julian: it depends because sometimes, it’s a different process if you’re recording. Some bands, they’ll play exactly the way they record it. And others kind of reinterpret it for the live show.

Ben: I guess there’s a tentative start and finish. Like Dance with the Devil or other songs of ours it’s like ‘The crowds really into this, let’s go acappella!’ Then everyone goes acappella. Then it’s like it might finish there, or nup I’m feeling it again and we pick it back up and do it all again. But other times it’s very clear, like Paris on a Train, the riff is very sharp so it’s like let’s finish it there. So sometimes it’s either two things, it’s clear where the start and finish is or it’s very open.

And I guess because you guys are so live based it may be different to someone who’s writing an album. 

Ben: It’s something we haven’t really done yet either because you know, it’s all been moving so fast. Realistically none of the songs are actually finished (both laugh). Just Like Fire- that one has a clear ending but all the bits in the middle are subject to the room, the night, the audience, the feeling. Cos if you’re doing a front bar gig at the Corner or something like that and no one cares, we’ll finish the song.

Do you try to get as many genres as you can, is it a conscious thing?

Ben: No we don’t necessarily try, whatever works. We still are so new really, in the scheme of things, that we still haven’t really sat down properly in a room and done some song writing together.

It’d be interesting to see what’d happen.

Ben: Yeah a weekend away

A retreat.

Julian: We possibly wouldn’t be able to write anything (laughs).

Photo credit: Suzi Murphy

Just Like Fire

Ukelele Death Squad Website

Charm of Finches


COCharm of Finches sisters Mabel and Ivy met with me on a Saturday morning in Northcote to chat about their songwriting.  Mature and natural songwriters, it’s no surprise their first EP Home, and 2016 debut album Staring at the Starry Ceiling have already earned them multiple slots on the festival scene (Port Fairy Folk Festival, Woodford Folk Festival) and supports gigs (Jordie Lane, Yirrmal, Raised by Eagles, Kasey Chambers). There are numerous ‘next big thing’ lists, but the Charm of Finches girls seem less about hype and exude promise of staying power, where dedication, passion and a good sense-of-self assist you though the sometimes fickle and ego centric music industry.  Add to the mix their own writing style and young ages (mid to late teens!), I was keen to learn their songwriting process.

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

MABEL: Well when I was 12 I’d been in the same class throughout my whole primary school, because we’d been to Steiner school.  In Steiner you have one teacher all the way from Grade 1 to Grade 6 and I kind of reached the end and the teacher was like ‘we should write a song for the end of the journey’.  So yeah, I wrote a song for my teacher.  That was the first time I picked up guitar and then kind of just went from there.  I think it’s a bit addictive!  And the second song was about a book that I read – when I was 12 (laughs) yeah about druids (laughs). 

What about together, are you both equal songwriters, or do you write the songs Mabel?

MABEL: Well in the past i’ve written most of the songs on our EP and on our album, but now we’re co-writing a lot more.

IVY: I write a lot of the harmonies as well.

There’s a lot of harmonies with you both isn’t there? So you have two albums?

MABEL: Well there’s the EP which was a Year 8 project.  A project that went on for 3 months and we could choose anything that we would like to do.  It was a big long term project .  I was like ‘oh yeah, i’ll make a little EP of my songs and you know just burn it and give it to a couple of friends’.  But it just expanded and it was this huge project.  Our friend Michael Johnston, who is a harpist produced it and his friend did the sound and we did it professionally so it snowballed. We got heaps of gigs.

That’s cool.  And then the album?

MABEL: Released last year

IVY: Staring at the Starry Ceiling – bit of a tongue twister.

When recording the EP and the album did you find the songwriting changed, or did the songs you had stay pretty much the same?

We did a lot of work on arranging with different instrumentation.  This album was quite a studio album, whereas our EP was quite live – there were only a couple of overdubs of extra instruments but this one we had a long period of time where I sat down and wrote all the parts and string arrangements and banjo and glockenspiel. The songs were ready and we decided we could expand on them and give them a different flavour to when we perform them live. Nick Huggins produced our album, who’s an amazing guy.   I think that was a really great pairing.  He was able to put his ideas in the mixing bowl.

Added to how the songs were already?

MABEL: He had a lot of really nice creative ideas and it’s just great to have someone from the outside looking in to the project and giving input. We also gave him all our fave albums that we love the production and arranging on, like Sufjan Stevens and Agnes Obel.

People who are doing something a bit different and staying natural?

MABEL: Yeah we put ourselves in the folk genre and I think it’s quite an expandable genre.  There’s so many things you can do and I love how people now are adding things from all sorts of genres and putting them into that melting pot. It’s really exciting to take ideas from everywhere and morph them in together into something that’s become our baby (laughs).

And what about you IVY,  when you’re working out harmonies and stuff – when Mabel will play you a song on guitar, do you take that away and work it out?

IVY: We used to do it more like she’d bring in a song and play it through a couple of times and i’d join in and come up with harmonies.  But then recently when writing songs together more, it’s been like more along the way, coming up with the harmony and melody at the same time.

MABEL: We’ve been doing a lot more co-writing, it’s really nice.

What about playing live together, do you sometimes come up with things then or when rehearsing before a gig?

MABEL: Um, not often.

IVY: It’s happened a couple of times

MABEL:  I think when I was writing Sky Watching, a song on our album, it was still a song in process. I think I had a chorus and a bridge, but still didn’t have a second verse.  And we really wanted to play it because its so exciting to play a new song, there’s that kind of energy, a new thing.  We had about an hour before we played, so we wrote the second verse, and then played it at that gig.  And we’re really happy with that song and that’s the single on the album – so it worked out pretty well.  I think some songs don’t take a long time to write, some of them just kind of drop out of the air like they’re already written, and some of them I have to sit on for a long time.

What would you say is the longest time?

MABEL:  Yeah months.  I have a lot of unfinished songs, just bits of songs everywhere.  Like I’ve got a great chorus that’s sort of waiting for some verses to put with it, and yeah just so many bits and pieces waiting to come to life.

Do you find you then get another idea and start working on it.

BOTH: All the time, so many songs at the moment.

MABEL: It’s sometimes hard to return back to an old song and recapture that emotion, or that inspiration that made it happen.

Because you’ve grown and have a different perspective sometimes.

MABEL: Yeah, or its changed dramatically since then (laughs).

Any songwriting routines?

IVY: We went on a holiday and it was going to be to write songs, in Gippsland.  It’s our friend’s holiday house who lent it to us to finish our songs.

Did just the two of you go up?

MABEL: Our whole family.  But we had our own room in the end of the house, which was the songwriting room.

IVY: I find that really hard to just set a time and the pressure of having to finish the song, or thinking that you have to. And so we got like – we got one song done.

MABEL:  And it actually turned out very well.  Which was surprising because at the time were like ‘this is taking so looong’.

IVY: We’d go on another walk and then come back (laughs)

I think that’s pretty common, if you think ‘ok im gonna sit down and write a song’.

MABEL: I find the best songs come when there’s a reason to sit down and write it, there’s an emotion or something has happened that has triggered emotions that leads very fluidly into a song. And they come out very naturally.

The song Paper and Ink- I realised that’s one of the songs you played early on in our song writing group.  How did that song come about?

MABEL:  I wrote it when I was 15.  It started off as a riff – the riff at the start of the song, which I really wanted to put in a song.  It was kind of a co-write.  Ivy and I just sat on the bed, recorded the riff and just put it on repeat and wrote poetry as that was in the background.

Without singing any melody, just writing?

 MABEL: And then we just looked at our poetry and what we liked and didn’t like.  And we kindof had some inspiration didn’t we?

IVY: Yup

MABEL: I had some flowers on my desk, that Grandma had given me (laughs).  And we sort of based it around that.

IVY: It was a rainy Sunday afternoon (laughs)

MABEL: So that motif of the flowers runs through the song.  The song is quite sensual in that way, alot of imagery which kind of conjures the emotion.

That’s a really interesting way to co-write, a bit different to what you normally do?

MABEL: Well as I said I don’t normally do that with my songs.  We had another way, for the new song which doesn’t have a name yet – we wrote in Metung.  I had been studying a book by Banana Yoshimoto – Kitchen, which is about grief.  We found a page in the book and took out our favourite phrases – to spark the beginning of the song.

IVY: The song was also about when my friend passed away, at the start of the year, so that was my way of expressing my feelings for that – which I hadn’t done before – it was still bottled up inside of me, so I feel like it helped.

That sounds like a nice way to do it, by using the words and imagery instead of being really direct.  Does imagery come naturally when writing, or is it a conscious choice?

MABEL:  I think for me it’s quite natural.  I’m inspired by nature, since growing up through the Steiner education we have a lot of camps we go on and in Year 9 we go on hiking camps, which are all different terrain.

You’re both at Steiner school now?

MABEL: I’m in Year 11, so it’s a Steiner stream within mainstream – i’m doing VCE.

IVY: I’m doing Year 9 which is still Steiner.

How do you fit in songwriting around school demands, VCE and as young women in your teens?

MABEL: It’s sometimes hard to juggle

And performing as well.

MABEL: We are often going to a festival and in the car doing our homework on the way (laughs)

The rockstar life. 

MABEL: Yeah!  This year I’ve chosen subjects which kind of compliment my music like literature and art, which are still feeding and inspiring my music.

What about songwriting influences? You mentioned before Sufjan Stevens – any others?

MABEL: We still listen to, and used to be hard core fans (laughs) of First Aid Kit – the Swedish sisters.  I think they inspired us initially to start being musicians, because we heard they made their first album when they were 16 or something and we were like ‘hey that’s pretty young, why don’t we do that’.  We listen to a lot of folk music, like Celtic folk and we both play violin and cello – I play classical cello and Ivy plays fiddle.

Were they your main instruments before guitar?

IVY: Yeah.  Because in Steiner in Year 3 you have to choose either violin or cello, so that feeds into our music.

So that sort of music you’re listening to is not really main stream artists.  How do you find them?

MABEL: Folk festivals really.  We are introduced to a lot of artists there, and it’s so fun just like following them around (laughs), and getting to know them when we’re artists on the same bill or in the artist campground.

IVY: It’s so much fun. 

How do you know when a song is finished?

MABEL: I think it comes into its own.  We often play it at a gig, and I think if it doesn’t go well, we go ‘its a crap song’ and put it in the pile again to revisit another time, or it’s a good one and we keep playing it.

IVY: We’re pretty harsh on each other (laughs).  We have each other to kind of decide whether its finished or not.

MABEL: And our parents as well, it’s nice to hear someone from outside say ‘you’ve gone too far, you’re adding too many bits, just keep it simple’.  One of the songs on our first EP, the last track ‘Go Back Down the Track’ doesn’t have a chorus – kind of a simple folk song and I was just playing it ‘this is a bit of a song, do you wanna hear it mum?’  And she goes ‘that’s it – don’t add anything else’.

Photo credit: Emma McEvoy

Charm of Finches website

Sky Watching

Paper and Ink




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.


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 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

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.


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


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 successful songwriting 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.


 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?


 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.


 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.

Mark Seymour Tour:

2017 Tour Dates

Mark’s Website

Hunters live at the 2013 AFL Grand Final


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



Last of The Longhairs – YouTube

EVEN – Black Umbrella – YouTube