Pierce Brothers



Pat and Jack from Pierce Brothers discuss songwriting beginnings, challenges, influences and writing together as twins. Filmed at The Corner Hotel, Melbourne in February 2020, the brothers elaborate on their energetic live performances and how their songwriting process comes together.

Pierce Brothers’ single ‘Kanko’ is out now. For more information visit http://www.piercebrothers.com.au

Interview by Kate Rae
Filmed and Edited by Reece Morehu

Additional footage courtesy of Cranbourne Music and Nick Hayman

Scott Egdar

Scott EDIT1

Scott Edgar is sitting at a bar table, relaxed, beer at his side when I arrive at the popular Northcote Social Club.  A relaxed version of the performer in Tripod we’ve seen on our stages and screens, he ends a call with his daughter and we begin by noting the span of varying projects to cover from decades past.

“I feel like literally all my song writing has been in a forum that people don’t often think song writing fits in necessarily.  I kinda like that. I’m not a pop star, not a musician in that sort of way. But I still manage to make a career out of music and composing to some extent”.

Many first saw Scott with Tripod on TV as part of the Hey Hey It’s Saturday segment ‘Red Faces’, in the late 90’s.  They performed their infamous “Oasis” skit, noting how all the bands’ songs are made of the same chord progressions.

“That was a real lesson in how pervasive television was at the time.  We didn’t really realise.  Everyone the next day was ‘Hey we saw you on the telly!’ And we were like ‘Wow what’ve we done?’”

Meeting at Uni while performing in musicals, it wasn’t long before the trio (Scott, Yon and Gatesy) started busking, and built up a following at a regular gig in Williamstown, Melbourne.  In the late 90’s St Martins theatre were programming a Comedy Festival season.  “I never thought that we were a comedy act, but they had a hole in the program and I said ‘I do have this band, it’s sort of silly and we could easily do an hour’”

The next year they were off to the Edinburgh Comedy Festival, a new learning curve- they’d been playing cover gigs for years but never in the comedy realm.


Were you playing any of your originals back then?

I started a band of my own, called The Universe in 2004, and I reckon we ran for 10 years, before I got jack of my own organisational logistical abilities.  Part of me wishes that band was still around.  But I have to be realistic of the time and the hard work, you gotta justify it.

The Universe songs have humour, but on a smaller scale.  Would you solely write those songs for Scott Edgar and The Universe, whereas with Tripod, everyone is writing?

Yeh that’s the main difference.  Tripod pretty much always write together.  At the start we’d bring in songs which we’d written, but it tended to lead to a bit of tension because the other two members of the band would rip it apart, and then put it back together.

(Now) you might come in with an idea, but you don’t get too wedded to what you think it should be, because once it gets into the group situation, it’s gonna evolve.  Meanwhile I was writing my Universe songs – and they wouldn’t change really at all.

Best of both worlds.

Tripod is Tripod partly because of our personalities.  I wasn’t trying to be a different songwriter for The Universe, but I knew that people’s expectations were different, and they didn’t necessarily kick up a stink if there were three serious songs in a row.  It’s easier if you feel like you don’t have to be funny all the time.  But it’s harder because you have to be more honest.

You’ve done the cabaret stuff and then the more musical type theatre narrative. Is it the same deal – the three of you come in (to write together) when you’ve got a project coming up?

Yeh. They’re all different.  We’re gonna be playing some shows at the Spotted Mallard coming up- we are doing some writing together of some open ended, fun, generic stuff and you come in with a list of ideas and see where it will go.  But all of us would say that our preference is writing to a brief- where we understand the bigger structure of what It’s trying to do.


Bit of a starting plan?

A place with some limitations that you work within.  Sometimes it’s those limitations that spawn creativity in a funny way.  Like ‘How do I fulfill this bit of the brief, not in a way you would expect?’

Instead of completely open ‘What are we gonna write?’

That’s right.  When we’re writing for animations or musicals and the song has to do A THING, already you’ve got something to compare it to.  You’ve got the obvious way of doing something like ‘She packs up and moves to the city’ – you could write a song saying  ‘She packs up and moves to the city’, but what’s a more interesting way of saying that?  Having that framework in place, and how could I have fun inside that, in a way you don’t expect?- that’s where I get excited.

Is that why you’ve all done a bit more of those projects as you’ve gone along?

Partly, yeh.  It is a challenge, on levels other than on comedy.  How do I explore a topic or show some part of yourself which doesn’t rely on getting a laugh every 20 seconds.  I’m not trying to shitcan the idea of comedy, it’s great but it’s the colours, you know?  10 years ago, when we did Tripod vs the Dragon- our brief to ourselves was ‘Lets let it be sad in the sad bits and funny in the funny bits and let it do its thing’ -which provided a huge marketing headache (laughs) but the lesson for us, was its not an either/or proposition.  It could be sad and funny at the same time. You could be  serious without being over- sentimental.  It was a hard learning experience.  But it made us better from that point on.  We also felt more comfortable being not funny as well, and letting things be weird.

That leads me to ask – the song Jeboticabal.  The chords are sooo sad! Did you write that song?

No, we wrote it together.  It wasn’t called Jeboticabal though, it was called another name of a town, which genuinely was a name of a town but too made up. We got the Atlas out and found Jeboticabal.

I thought ‘this cannot be a place’, but it is!  A gorgeous piece of music, then it has the ridiculous lyrics over the top. 

That’s an example of the kind of song I’m really proud of. Because its that weird mix of an alchemy of different feelings. I’ll sort of push towards simple stuff, and then Gatesy will push towards real complicated stuff and we find a balance in the middle somewhere. That was a time when we had to write credits for Skithouse.  Skithouse was a real training ground because we had to come up with something people would hear on national tv every week.

You couldn’t sit around and hope a snowflake landed on your noggin, you had to work and write and write and write, and I think there’s a lot to be said for that kinda training.

Taking action instead of waiting for the ideas.

Yeh exactly, that’s right.  That’s what Triple J was to us as well.  We had the ‘Song in an Hour’ challenge.  We used to do this thing, where we would go in every week at 6:30 – the audience called in topics and we had an hour to write the song.  We had a ball, and it was university for us – how to do it efficiently.

Was there anything (material) from that, you hung onto?

Almost nothing (laughs). It was a really popular segment, we did it for 2 or 3 years.  I reckon there is like zero songs from that. We did some stuff later on for Double J. We said we don’t want it to have to be comedy – call in the day before, we’ll write it and come in the next. We liked a lot of the stuff.  It wasn’t a very popular segment mind you.

How do you know, do they tell you how many people are listening?

No, this a bit of a debate between me and Gatesy.  He doesn’t reckon there’s any evidence to suggest that it was not popular.  But I reckon it’s pretty obvious that it wasn’t a popular segment (laughs).  We were booked for six weeks.  We did six weeks.  Also the topics started coming in from audience members– then by the last two, they were by other announcers at the station.  That to me is pretty clear (laughing).

There’s a song in that.

Yeh!  We did one for this woman whose husband had died.  That was intense.  I was crying while singing it.

Did you ever speak to her?

Yeh she was on the line.  She was bawling her eyes out.  Myf (Warhurst) was crying her head off.  I was trying to keep it together but part of me was punching the air that we’d managed to touch something.  It’s very simple in the end – make people feel feelings – of some kind.

And lyrics, is that a team effort?

In Tripod it’s a group thing.  We often experiment in how we write because you wanna mix it up a bit.

Like ‘Lingering Dad’, for example. 

Me and Yonny were on the couch, muckin’ around trying to think of something.  Gatesy was meant to be in the other room mixing or tracking something (for) Skithouse at the time. He  was hanging in the doorway, making half hearted conversation with us. Yonny sort of goes ‘Rack off you feel like a lingering Dad’– maybe it was Gatesy who said it –It was one of them to the other – and we thought that was hilarious.  Then I started playing a riff and it went from there.

It’s quite chorus driven isn’t it? There’s a lot like that – ‘BAS Time’

Ohh yeh hunded percent.  That really falls on the line of ‘Is it a song or is it a comedy bit’ you know.  We had to make that decision when we did a song book – 101  Tripod hits and a few of those fall into that category where it’s not really a song.  If you’re trying to imagine someone playing this on the ukulele at home – doesn’t get there you know.

With songs or bits like that – is it the chorus comes first?

Yeh – it was pretty groove driven that one – Gatesy was muckin around on guitar and im doing the keyboard.

Often you’d find a chorus that felt right, then (would come) the story.  I heard a great tip from Jen Cloher – I’ve never had the guts to do that one but if you find a chorus you like, make it a verse and try and write a chorus even better (laughs)

You have to be a bit brutal with yourself – I take a strange pleasure in cutting stuff these days.  Like even if you really love it but you feel the shape isn’t there, there is a weird sadistic thrill I get out of cutting stuff out.

Any writing routines?

I wish I was one of those people who could get up and go straight to work and have a coffee, have breakfast then go back into the studio.  But it’s really ad hoc for me.  These days I do a lot of screenwriting and illustrating, my week is a real patch work. I’ll loosely have an idea and think I’ve ‘really gotta write that song by the end of the week’.  And sort of find time somewhere in there.  In all the things I do, I always build in time to not be thinking on it, because your brain will subconsciously be working it out.  Then when you come back and look at it you really see stuff clearly that you might not have.

Most people I’ve interviewed have said that their routine is that they don’t have a routine.

Another ritual I have is I don’t have podcasts on if im going from A to B, because that’s when your brain will wander- and if you block it up with podcasts all the time – it really cuts into that time which is precious time for an artist, that’s your bread and butter.

Even text messages.

Yeh and social media, really clogs all that up.  I’m not a total teetotaller but I am conscious of avoiding that.  And sometimes it’s like ‘of course’ and it all comes clearly to you, if you let your brain do that.

Instead of trying?

Sometimes you have to, but if you build in those times, that’s really good.  Allow yourself that freedom.  It’s very easy to fall into ‘Im doing this thing- but it’s really gross and unfinished and wonky– but you’re forgetting– youre making it now! Don’t stress that it’s not MADE yet.  Because you’re MAKING it, you know.  Sometimes you’ve gotta push yourself, but you cannot punish yourself that something’s not finished yet.

And creative stuff is not A to B like building a wall or whatever.

In Tripod I tend to be the guy at the piano going ‘We’ve got a first verse, we’ve got a chorus, but were unsure how the chorus gets to here – so this is the thing we need to solve right now’- kind of structuring the process.  When I’m writing for myself, im the opposite.  I’ve got all these bits and I try and make sure it’s really open and free and to not be wedded to anything.

Do the other guys work like that as well?

I think they’re naturally that way.  Where I fall into the category of structure/cracking the whip guy, they’re like ‘What are we up to now?’ I’m like ‘You thought of 5 solutions for something we already solved, you idiot (laughs).  They’re total time travellers those two, they’re like dogs (laughs).

It works well then!  What was the first song you wrote?

When I was young I wrote a bunch of really, really embarrassing songs, obviously.  The first one was called “It’s a cold night in hell’.

Were you a teenager by any chance?

Yeh, and it was like a AC/DC thing.  Like ‘Baby you told me hell would freeze over before you ever loved me, well guess what it’s a cold night in hell.’ Terrible.  Really bad.

But you had that feeling of ‘yehh lovin this.’?

I mean I loved doing it but never for one second thought I’d be doing (the whole Tripod thing) for a job.

Have your narrative songs always been driven that way – I assume with Tripod they’re idea based?

We try and keep it free – there’ll be a period- at the start of every production really, there’s this period where everything is possible and you say yes to everything- you definitely try to honour that phase. We’ll have a general topic an example would be a show we did at the Malthouse which was an adaptation of a Russian play on a 3 headed dragon that ran this town.

You guys chose that?

Nope we were cast in it – they were looking for a 3 headed dragon (laughs).

And you wrote the songs?

Yeh. It was our second dragon show in a row.  We need to write a 3rd one – it’ll always bother me if there isn’t a trilogy. We knew the themes but we hadn’t settled on where the songs would go-  There was a phase at the start where we did what we call ‘bandcamp’ where we go away for the weekend and get wasted, set up the instruments, cook, and jam for 2 or 3 days.  We did the same for our show this gaming life- riffs and bits of lyrics.  We wrote a song in one night a few years ago, DILF.

Obviously a popular song. I was at Queenscliff last year, that song was definitely played.

That song still comes out (laughs)

The Scott Edgar and The Universe song Met My Match- how dd that come together?

I was really into that Jazz swingy feel at the time.  That was really early on on, one of the first I wrote for that band and one of the first I rehearsed with Xani, the violin player, who was like 17 at that time – now she’s working on Come From Away – and Micky Meagher the bass player who’s in The Putbacks now.

How do you know when a song is finished?

I never know when a song is finished.  With Tripod, the process is finished when performing live– you’ve got such an opportunity to figure out what’s landing, feeling right, I try not to get too locked in. I’ll often come up with ideas for songs we’ve played for 15 years.  Maybe that’s a bad habit, but with comedy I kindof justify doing it, by responding to the audience.

We wrote this song years ago called ‘Text Message’ which was how ridiculous it was at the time (we thought) that people would break up via text message.

Now it’s EVEN worse.  But we made a lot of predictive text gags and Nokia 3110 (gags).  Recently we thought ‘we’ve gotta at least update those references in the song, to like emoji’s, gifs’.

Any influences in 2019? 

I (recently) bought a 130 year old sheet music book of Irish jigs, for $12 at a market.

I guarantee no-one else has said that.

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

Tracy McNeil



Tracy McNeil’s Canadian accent flows warmly, as we find a spot to sit and talk in a Brunswick beer garden.  She’s on the phone when I rush in late and after I grab a drink, she’s quick to apologise for being on a call. An indication of her down to earth personality.  She’s strong looking with an expressive demeanor and i’m already stoked to be interviewing another female, who is forthcoming with fresh song writing ideas, and has experienced many aspects of the music industry so far.  Her last album Thieves won best country album at The Age Music Victoria Awards in 2016, and with her band The Good Life has performed at numerous festivals including Riverboats Festival, Port Fairy Folk Festival (VIC) and Americana Fest (Nashville).

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

The first was a joke song for my best friend at the time.  I used to always wanna write songs with my friends and I wasn’t in a very artsy crowd in high school. I was probably, 15, 16. I was a dancer, I came from a modern dance background. I wasn’t doing any music but just learning a few chords on guitar. So it was a joke about a friend of mine and actually it was ‘Winter Wonderland’ and we changed the lyrics. That was my first attempt at ‘Can I write?’ (laughs)

Do you remember what it was about?

Yeah.. it was kind of about her getting drunk and wearing her mums lingerie, parading around on a table and slipping on a nut while doing a strut.  You know it was ridiculous and silly but um we’re still friends and it’s all cool- It was my only way of trying to… express something.  It wasn’t until I got to uni that I started taking it more seriously. I would sit in the hall, it had great echo in the hallway of my dormitory.  I was kind of a closet writer, closet player.  I wasn’t thinking about music but (it) was always in the background.

Had a guitar with you?

Yeah. I wrote a song ‘Flashlights and Fireflies’ and it was kind of a classic love story that was written that summer working at a Jewish summer camp of all things (laughs). It was probably the first song I was like ‘Ok I’ll try to take this seriously and write something with meaning’.

Then it sort of flowed from there?

Yeah I was about 20 maybe, when that was happening.

Were you showing that song to people?

Round the campfire, to friends, but nothing seriously until I was 27. Did the whole starving artist thing- I was a rehearsal director so did the whole modern dance world thing in Canada. Then what switched me (on to song writing), was Clare Bowditch was living with my brother Logan in Canada.  Having her sing around the house was gorgeous and inspirational, and I’d be downstairs – I had a darkroom and was doing photography – writing again in the closet (laughs). Too scared to come upstairs (laughing) and she’d pass me the guitar in a living room full of people (after) she’d just slayed the floor.

Oh godddd!

She’s just melted hearts and (would) go ‘Here you play one Trace’. And I would refuse. And my soon-to-be sister in law said ‘Get off your ass, what’re you doing.  I’m sick of you and your brother’. Because my brother’s an incredible mando player and bluegrass muso . Cos we’d complain ‘It was too nerve wracking – ohhh tortured soul, and I’m too scared to share it’. And she’s like ‘Just shut up and do it.’ So that summer we rented a bunch of gear and recorded a compilation record. I had about 3 or 4 original songs, my brother 3 or 4 and a friend 3 or 4.

That’s a good idea to go in it together. 

Yeah. Didn’t do anything with the record but that was ‘Okay I’m doing this.’ And then it was probably, gee another 4 years later. I’ve come to music quite late – it’s always been in the background.

Were you still dancing?

Yeah at 29 I moved to Canada to prepare for coming to Australia to go to teachers college.

Which side of Canada?

I’m from Ontario, near Toronto so was living in Montreal which is in Quebec for 4 years before moving to Toronto for 9 months to save some money to then move to Australia.

Right ok. 

In that 9 months, I made my first solo record.  I’d been in that basement apartment in Montreal writing. Stopped going to dance class, because I was going to bluegrass nights, country music nights, at Bar Fly, this hole in the wall in Montreal.  It didn’t really work with getting up to do 1000 crunches and go to contemporary dance class at 9am, so the worlds kinda collided and the older I got my body started to break down and I went ‘This music thing’s way more fun, it’s way more accessible and it’s feeding my soul in a different way so i’m gonna have a crack at it’.  I didn’t even know how to wrap a lead when I got to Australia.

Was the idea to move to Australia music related?

No, it was uni, to do post grad dip in Education.  I was going to be a high school teacher, and have summers off to make music, I love teaching, I do love kids, and dance – to teach dance and drama and music in high school – and was sick of starving, so I came to it quite late – I needed money.  I looked at my coffee table and it was a milk crate and a board and I thought ‘This sucks’.  And I needed money to make records – I soon found that out, as an independent artist.  So yeah, I moved out here with ‘Room Where She Lives’ the first record, and came for 10 months and was supposed to go back to Toronto and try and get a job teaching, and keep playing with this band I put together with my brother for the record, and that was never gonna happen.  I fell in love with Melbourne, fell in love with Australia.

Did you come straight to Melbourne?

I went to Sydney for 14 days to see a friend and stay in Kings Cross, but couldn’t wait to get to Melbourne, as it wasn’t my scene.  Got to Melbourne, lived in Prahran for a month or so, with a friend, and then finally got a place. Did uni for a year, and applied for one job so I could stay.  And I got that job (smiles).

So they sponsored you?

Yeah, for quite a while. Then I found love, and married an Aussie so stayed here.  So through music I kind of found my way here.  I often wonder what would’ve happened if I’d started taking song writing (seriously) from Winter Wonderland (laughs).

So i’m guessing Winter Wonderland wasn’t Americana style?

No it was the same as (original). (sings) ‘Walking in a winter wonderland’.  Making fun of a friend, she had the party house, her mum was a nurse and we had full reign (laughs).  You know, we’d steal the alcohol and watch Friday night videos, it was the 80’s! There was no supervision.

So the Americana influence, was there much of that in Canada?

Yeah.  When I started to really look at it, I guess when I was at the Jewish camp (laughs),  I listened to Grateful Dead, Neil Young, The Band, Allman Brothers.  All that stuff was on my radar, their contemporaries like Blind Melon– which are no longer – that kinda pulled from that same sound, guitar-monies and harmonies.

I could hear that pop acoustic sound as well as the Americana sound. 

Yeah I love singing different kinds of music as well.  Mum loved Fleetwood Mac, Dad loved The Eagles. There’s so much pop sensibility in those two bands, love them or hate them. They’re so slick, and their hooks are so strong.  And I love Fleetwood Mac, as much as I love the grit and dirt of someone like Neil Young.  Then if you can take that into an indie pop sensibility, I loved bands like Pavement, Smashing Pumpkins.  Depeche Mode – was the first music concert I ever went to. The Cure, Lemonheads- that creeps in for sure, especially the newer stuff i’m writing.

The song The Valley,  there’s a lot of guitar picking etc. Does that come as you’re writing, or do you add some of that later on?

The picking progression of that (song) is a combination of what im doing, and what Dan Parsons my guitarist is doing. I couldn’t finger pick properly with the bass string if my life depended on it – so ive got this very choppy ad-hoc way of doing it, so it’s really rhythmic, I bang guitar a bit with my hand to kinda keep  that rhythm.

As you’re writing as well?

Definitely.  Because the writing usually comes from a chord progression.  The chord progression in ‘The Valley’ was a progression I used to do in the stairwell, at uni, when I was sitting by myself– a really simple walk, D Shape, up.  I would do that a lot, and I returned to that.  That ended up being the first track on the record.   Dan then does something that counters that. He’s working off what I’ve done and he’s countering that in this really beautiful way. So you’ve got two acoustic guitars interweaving.

Have you always written on guitar?

I have until last year. Actually I write in the car as well.  I can only write when I’m alone, I can’t write if Luke’s in the house or my daughter Ruby’s there- so the only time I have, is in the car. At 7:30, 8 o’clock in the morning, no guitar, put the phone on and I’ll sing into the phone, on the way to work. Hence many traffic accidents- for real.

So you’re starting with the melody?

Yeah! And then I get to work and I might have a break at lunch and go get the guitar and try work out what I was doing, or wait until I get home, or several days later – which is interesting because sometimes you end up playing different chords than you would if I’d picked up the guitar and reverted to the same patterns. The Thieves record I was at my mums when I wrote that in Canada, she’s got a piano downstairs and I started trying to write on Piano. I’m really limited, I can just play basic chords but it’s so melodic so really marking out chords, trying to get a vibe – and then having to re figure it out on guitar and take it to the band (laughs). But that’s been interesting because this new record, we have a keyboardist now in the band so he’s taken the demo of me on guitar and he’s playing it on piano or demos on piano he can really cut that out and play it beautifully.

So writing on the run.

The phone’s so easy for that, i’d die without it. I don’t know how many phone recordings I’ve got, it’s ridiculous. You get an impulse. I used to get that sometimes on a train, constantly thinking of melodies, thinking of lyrics and speaking into the phone.

It’s definitely changed things, a lot of people are doing that now, or using their notes.

I’m not formally trained so I can’t go ‘Oh this chord works with this’ or ‘Move it up to this chord and it’ll be really satisfying to the listener’.  I can never think about it from that perspective, it’s so emotionally driven. Always.

There’s lots of ‘How to write a hit song’ technical tips out there, but if you can’t feel it..

Yeah, what’s the point.

Have you done much co writing?

I’m doing a bit now with Luke (husband and musician Luke Sinclair). So we’ve got a duo called ‘Bell Street Delays’

Is this the first time you’ve co-written with Luke?

Yeah. We’ve been doing this thing for the last 4 years, but it’s a side project that can never quite get off the ground because we don’t have the time.  The plan is to release a record in the next year and a half.  But we are such different writers- lyrically we come at it from a different perspective.  We’re different in almost every way, it’s interesting.  So we compromise a lot when we write together because they way I feel things is different, my phrasing is different- his phrasing is much slower.  I mean, im talking a mile a minute (laughs), I cram so much shit in there – and he tries to reduce it to the simplest amount.  But when we get it right it works beautifully.  It’s kind of this real compromise, and we’re getting better at learning how to do it.

Do you each bring in a start of something to that (project), and then nut it out together?

Yeah that’s it. The role in this particular thing – generally speaking – is he’s crafting most of the lyrics, and I’ll be crafting a lot of the melodies. Sometimes the roles reverse and sometimes we each bring a complete song to the table. I think as a married couple, to write about stuff that’s personal –you have to be willing to get into some fights or messy territory. You’re in this weird place writing about experiences we relate to but about other things, other people. You externalise it a bit- I think you have to. But it’s still gotta be real so it’s this fine balance, like we need to feel it and perhaps (to have) lived it but it can’t be about us.

And you’d think about what the other is thinking too much, get in that analytical thing.

Oh yeah – ‘Why are you writing that, who’s that? You don’t love me any more’. You can get into that place. The only other time I’ve co-written was with Jordie Lane. I had a duo with him – Fireside Bellows many moons ago, and we wrote a record together. Same thing, you gotta compromise somewhere in the middle. It was the first time I’d experienced that idea that the song isn’t always completely personal. You sometimes need to be able to step outside of it so it can exist without it coming from the depths of your soul. Because there’s two hearts, two heads, two people coming at it, but anyway, both collaborations have worked really well.

So is that inspiring?  Would you maybe come back from some co-writing and look at things in a different way?

For sure.  And everything’s valid, it’s what’s gonna work for you in the moment. What’s another way I can say this, What’s another word that hasn’t been used a million times but still has an impact or the listener is gonna get it.

Maybe its like when you pick up a different instrument. Because it has a different sound you start hearing things differently and get inspired.

Absolutely.  It’s weird, like me playing piano- an, i’m not even a piano player – you can’t even say that phrase really, but the songs on piano have this soul kinda feeling because all I can do is (plays a basic rhythm sound on the table), your voice sounds different, it feels instantly different, like when in the car.  Yeah you need to change it up.

It sounds like you’ve finished the songs on your album?

I think I have, i’m not sure.  There’s this great graphic artist (image), a self deprecating cycle of the artistic vision – ‘Oh my lord I love it, Oh im not sure, oh I like it, I fu**ing hate it, its fu**ing the worst thing ever, oh actually it’s not too bad, oh I love it! It’s fu**ing excellent!’

It’s a cycle I do that all the time- so I thought i’ve got 12 songs, I only need 10.  Normally people have 20 songs and whittle it down to 10. At the end of the day its gotta be right.  I brought one to rehearsal and i’m trying to be really quick to give up if it sounds a bit shit.  And it’s not their (band) fault but you’ve got it in your head.  They’re playing different rhythms, it’s late in the night.  I thought ‘This is shocking’.  They’re like ‘No! Give it a chance, we’ll try it another day with a fresh perspective’.

That’s a good idea, because I guess day to day you can be feeling differently about things.

Oh yeah totally.  And i’ve had that feeling about a song i’m loving right now, that’ll be on the record. It had this whole different feel and I thought ‘This is the worst, and now I love it, might be one of the first singles.  So it’s a journey and I couldn’t go on that without that band ive got and they bring their ideas and their talent and it’s not me alone in the room any more- and that’s when it gets exciting.  That’s when it comes to life.

You trust their judgement.

Totally, and we trust each other and try things, come back at it from a different perspective.  Which is good because im so quick to go ‘It’s a shit song, i’m so sorry I brought this to you!’

The song Last Place I Looked on the album Nobody Ever Leaves- the chorus is gorgeous.  How do your choruses come about?

Whether I know it or not at the time, i’m trying to get it into a higher register so it pops or whatever, and its often the hook of the song, kind of the anchor.  I wrote that in Best Street, Nth Fitzroy, in the bedroom.  I tend to often know when it’s the chorus- it’s moving to another place.  Some other songs have 2 chords. Luke and I are writing one at the moment the chords don’t change- we’re getting verses, a bridge, a chorus out of the same two chords.  I guess the only way it’s happening is melodically.  I think you can be more efficient than you realise. You can be creative with the melody (and ) achieve a sense of movement or direction.

But I certainly don’t do the thing of ‘ABABAC’ or any of that.  It’s emotive, in the moment.

So it comes from how you’re feeling and you go back to it and it either feels right or it doesn’t?

Yeah.  The good ones come pretty easily.

Everyone says that.

You might go back and edit a few things. The ones you have to toil over, sometimes they’re not as satisfying, it feels like you’ve run a marathon. Because you had to work so hard and it’s a gift.  I wouldn’t say i’m lazy, but when it comes to song writing I don’t wanna have to go back and work and work and work.  I know lots of song writers who do sit for hours trying to get that verse to say what they’re really trying to say.  And that’s a craft in itself, and an important craft – because you might have three verses of a song and you’re missing that verse that’s gonna anchor the whole thing, or give some resolution.  It can change the whole perspective of the song.

On Finer Side I notice the melody is a lot higher. Were you thinking about that at the time?

That was one I wrote at work, on the piano in the music room.  I dunno what Key its in C – I dunno. It needed to be way up there.  I remember thinking ‘Fu** am I gonna be able to do this after ciggies and whisky at the bar? (laughs)’.  But i’ve been trying to do that a bit more, the songs for the new record. It’s not gonna sound pristine, I don’t have a huge range.  If it’s not perfect, hopefully it’ll be emotive.

You’ve been playing that one live?

Yeah, yeah.  That one I thought from the beginning I want to write a song where everyone can take a verse.  We kinda do that at the end of the gig and it’s a nice way to feature the band.  We have such strong singers in the band. I love that moment.

I was listening to Middle of the Night, and really like the bridge.  Writing in the past i’d often leave bridges until the end. How do you approach them?

Yeah i’m kinda similar, come back and go ‘Oh it needs a bridge’ and work that in– absolutely.  Often you get the verse or sometimes even the chorus first.  It’s a bit like a puzzle. The bridge for that one I remember trying to work on in the tour van for ages because it shat me.  It’s like ‘meet me by the waterfall’ come on, where am I (laughter).  But then I was like ‘There’s nothing else I wanna say!’  I’m a fan of a dreamy bridge.  I love chucking those in there. My stuff is often over 5 mins – you need something different.

How do you know when a song is finished?

When I don’t really have anything else to say.  From a writing perspective ‘Does this feel complete? Have I left anything out?’  Then sometimes that doesn’t match musically – maybe there’s more work to be done instrumentally. You can say everything you want to say but if you don’t arrange it in a way that feels complete, there might be more work to be done there.

Sometimes if you take it to the band?

Yeah working it out, what feels good, should we do the chorus here, chuck in another round of chords before the bridge?  That stuff we work out in the studio or rehearsal room.  I bring songs to the band I feel are done, but then the arrangement might change. Subtle changes or extreme changes, (though) I usually feel like all the parts are there.  I think it’s a gut (thing).

Tracy’s Website

Thieves album

The Valley

Last Place I Looked

Finer Side

Middle of The Night

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