Home' Rhythms Magazine : November-December 2018 Contents 28
A real dark horse. Bill will often come up
with a part and I’ll think, ‘ What? I don’t
know if I like this’, then the next day I love
it. He often has a left-of-centre idea about
the overall arrangement. He’s got a great
approach to sound and takes each song
Idiosyncratic. Curly. He’ ll always come up
with something unexpected. That’s why I
love him in the band. There are deep roots
to his playing but great playfulness and
And family, is that a factor with Dan?
Yeah, that’s obviously a factor. We’ve toured
together so much. We’re family so he knows
all my faults and I know his. We know our
strengths as well.
Warm, rich. She can sing tender, but pull
out all the stops too. People tend to think
of Vika as the belter and Linda as more
mellow. But they’ve both got all the gears
in terms of singing delicate or pulling the
throttle out. They really care. I’m sorry, I’m
talking about them both because it’s hard
not to; their harmony singing, the blend,
is unique. There’s something sweet and
sour in their sound and something in that
thing that siblings have. We went to Tonga
together and I noticed the singing in church
is really powerful. There’s a real cut to the
women’s voices. The men and women sing
against each other. There’s a counterpoint
going on, different parts moving against
each other. The men are really deep and the
women have this real incredible cut, which
is what Vika and Linda have. I could hear
where it came from in Tonga.
A bit more on Vika?
She’s fun. Fierce. She’s the biggest softie, but
she’s really, really fierce. Everything I’ve said
applies to everyone. They all have strong
opinions and that’s how we operate. If
someone has an idea, rather than talk about
it, we try it. Sometimes you block stuff by
talking. We try every idea, even those we
think are stupid!
Concentration, that’s what this band is great
at. Everyone needs to be on their game each
time we’re recording. This is the thing that’s
going to be forever. The thing I like most
about recording is the hours and hours of
concentration. At the end of the day you’re
very tired but you’re exhilarated because
you’ve been focussed.
Presumably that concentration helps
when you’re on stage, in Kalgoorlie or
Byron or New York.
Yeah. They’re completely the opposite of
what you’d call a high maintenance band.
We’ ll be playing at a festival and the fold
back is shithouse and everyone just gets on
with it, because they’ve all been through it
before. They’re not whinging, ‘ I can’t hear
myself properly’ ... they just do the gig.
Before we talk about some specific songs,
what about your listening. Anything that
may have fed into the record?
I’ll listen to whatever passes through the
house. Laura Jean and Kendrick Lamar are
probably the things I’ve liked the most lately.
I’ve always gone back to Django Reinhardt.
Cooking at home it’s usually Django or
something old. Someone mentions a band
so I’ll listen to Spotify. That’s partly work,
trying to hear what’s going on.
You’ve said that beginning with poems was
a happy surprise, a new way of writing.
As a writer, you’re always wanting to break
your habits. You have themes and ways of
writing and I’ve always wanted to break that.
Putting poems to music was an accident. It
started with Conversations With Ghosts (a
2013 album made with recorder virtuoso
Genevieve Lacey, composer James Ledger
and musicians from the Australian National
Academy Of Music.) Up until then, I had
a firm idea that I couldn’t start with the
words and then write the music. I thought
if the words were there first, the music
would be too restricted. I was completely
wrong. It’s actually freeing to write to words,
knowing melodies can go anywhere. After
‘Conversations with Ghosts’, I was looking at
sonnets and I wrote ‘Shall I Compare Thee
to a Summer’s Day’. Well, I wrote the music!
I thought, ‘ Let’s see if I can put a few more
songs together.’ That led to the Sonnets
record and now it’s become a habit of mine
to try and put poems to music.
The opening song, ‘And Death Shall Have
No Dominion’, reads like lyrics.
Well, Dylan Thomas ends each verse with,
‘And death shall have no dominion,’ then
starts the next stanza with the same line. So
that gives you a chorus.
I did some digging. I didn’t realise the
line, ‘death shall have no dominion’, comes
from Saint Paul’s Epistle in Romans.
Apparently, Dylan Thomas and his friend
Bert Trick, a grocer from Swansea, both
wrote a poem on immortality in 1933 and
Thomas’ was the one that survived. The
title is quoted in Truly, Madly, Deeply and
George Clooney reads a section of it in
Where’s Bert’s poem?
I don’t know. Bert Trick, great name. Was
it always going to be the opening song?
I always thought it was an opener or a
What’s the situation in terms of legalities
with using poems? Is the songwriting
Words by Dylan Thomas, music by whoever
wrote it. You have to get permission when
it’s less than 70 years after the author’s
So, Walt Whitman?
Clear. Shakespeare, clear. Thomas Hardy,
Gerald Manley Hopkins, clear. We had to
get permission from Sylvia Plath, Phillip
Larkin, Dylan Thomas, all still in copyright.
It took ages with Sylvia Plath and Phillip
Larkin. I’ve been chasing them for over a
Do they want to hear what you’ve done?
They usually ask. I know Sylvia Plath’s
estate has been quite fraught. Ted Hughes
managed her poems after she died, but then
he handed it over to his sister to manage
the estate. Complicated. It took forever, but
you get there in the end. Not always. On
‘Conversations with Ghosts’ we had a nice
piece of music for Robert Frost’s ‘Stopping
by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ but the
estate doesn’t give permission for anyone
to put music to his poems. The story goes
that Frost went to a performance where
somebody used his poems and he hated it.
How are we going? Another ten minutes?
As well as the overall theme of the natural
world, there’s your familiar interest in
death. Did you write about the natural
world earlier in your career?
Not as much. I became aware ages ago that
I have a lot of water in my songs and there’s
a fairly obvious reason for that; I like the
water. I like swimming and I like being
by the sea. When Life is Fine came out,
people said,‘You’ve got so many references
to nature. The moon, the water.’ I hadn’t
realised until I looked back. A lot of these
songs were written around that time so I
think of these two records as companion
It’s also to do with my partner Siân. She’s
very alert and alive to the natural world,
plants and animals and birds. I’ve started
looking at birds since I’ve been with her.
She’s always noticing birds and pointing
them out. She tests me and says,‘What’s
that?’ I’m opening up more to the natural
world, though I’m not a big camper.
How about ‘Bastard Like Me’, the song
about Charles Perkins. It was originally a
poem you wrote?
I wrote it for (film director) Rachel Perkins
a few years ago. She was doing a project
on The Bungalow, the institution where
her father Charlie grew up, where a lot of
Aboriginal kids were taken, just outside
Alice Springs. It was an old telegraph
station. Rachel did a theatre project and
sent some material about Charlie, about The
Bungalow and asked for a song. I read his
book, A Bastard Like Me, and wrote that
song. I wrote the lyrics first, which again,
was not normal for me. It’s the same with
‘The River Song’. I wrote that as a poem first
and immediately thought,‘I can put music
There’s a string quartet on ‘The River
Song’ and violin on‘Little Wolf ’?
That’s Xani Kolac on ‘Little Wolf ’. We were
trying to get her to play like Neil Young’s
‘Running Dry’. The guy who played violin
on Karen Dalton’s ‘Katie Cruel’ also played
violin on ‘Running Dry’. Have a listen.
That line in ‘Little Wolf ’,‘I’ve got the blues
more than I can say’, reminded me of
It sounds like a total Bob Dylan line. When
I finished that song I said,‘Is this too Bob
Dylan?’ To me it sounded like ‘Man In The
Long Black Coat’. But everyone in the band
The final song on the record is‘The Trees’,
based on a Phillip Larkin poem.
I think there’s love and joy in his poetry,
but he does have this reputation as being
a miserable git. His most famous verse is:
‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad. They
may not mean to, but they do. They fill you
with the faults they had and add some extra,
just for you’.‘The Trees’ belies that grumpy
Lastly, two questions I promised I would
ask from my children. Firstly, from Lola:
‘Do you think about how your audience
will react while you are writing songs,
particularly teenagers that are singing
I don’t really think about that. I think about
the audience when putting together a show.
You think about the rhythm of the show.
I don’t think about the age of the audience
when I’m writing songs. I write for myself,
but I think humans are very similar to each
other. There’s a lot of talk about differences
these days, but I think we are so much alike,
across cultures, across ages. I don’t think,
‘This will be good for the 20-year-olds’, or
‘This will be good for the 60-year-olds.’
You shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking
young people are only interested in young
things. Young people are interested in
their parents and ancient history and what
happened. The older facets of human
experience can interest people of all ages.
And finally, from Henry:‘What
percentage of the characters and feelings
and events in your songs are true from
your life?’ I thought it was interesting that
he wanted a particular percentage.
It would be a small percentage. Most of it’s
made up. It gets blurred even when they’re
based on true stories. You change one little
thing about it and it can change everything.
Alright, thank you. You better get to that
Sure. No worries. Another bit of toast?
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