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)

Mark Seymour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And more band co-writing going on then?

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

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

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

Straight after the band?

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

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

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

More of a live thing.

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

Yeah the 80’s to now.

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

Which ones?

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

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

Yeah he just keeps going.

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can you say what the play is?

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s inescapable.

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

 Punters?

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

Oh yeah, god yeah.

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

Was that some of the songs from Mayday?

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

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

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

They would record live too, didn’t they?

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

Bit before my time.

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

But you got the feel of it though.

 Incredible.

 How do you know when a song is finished?

 You don’t, really.

 How do you get to that point?

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

 In the studio?

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

 And hearing it from other people’s ears.

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

Mark Seymour Tour:

2017 Tour Dates

Mark’s Website

Hunters live at the 2013 AFL Grand Final

Westgate

Ashley Naylor

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

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

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

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

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

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

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

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

Your solo stuff as well?

My solo stuff I play all the stuff.

Then with gigs is it solo acoustic?

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

Sometimes it’s easier?

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

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

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

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

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

Is that for the better?

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

Which bands?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Staying true to yourself.

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

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

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

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

You write an instrumental completely first?

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

Do you think that’s from playing in bands?

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

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

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

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

That’s a killer!

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

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

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

I’m in a band with myself

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

 Any recurring challenges with song writing?

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

Well that’s the stuff everyone relates to.

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

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

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

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

How do you know when a song is finished?

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

More a feeling, than something conscious?

Yeah, cause the options are limitless really.

 

Photo credit: Emma – Jane Johnston

www.ashleynaylor.com

www.even.com.au

Last of The Longhairs – YouTube

EVEN – Black Umbrella – YouTube

Nick Barker

nick-barker-2

 

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

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

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

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

Do you remember what that was about?

No, that’s one of the one’s!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other bands were you always the main song writer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you know when a song is finished?

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

https://theheartachestate.com/

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

 

Mick Thomas

 

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

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

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

Do you remember the first song you wrote?

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

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

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

Did you write it with your cousin?

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

You were hooked.

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

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

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

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

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

Did you use the songs for the next albums?

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

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

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

Yeah I get confused by it!

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

What even is it?

It’s just a f***ing hard drive.

Is it based in LA or something?

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

Why do you think that is?

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

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

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

And that’s your favorite song.

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

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

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

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

Do you have any song writing routines?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Leigh MacKenzie

http://www.mickthomas.com