On The Hopeful Clutter

I’ve got to get something off my chest. It’s something that I’ve felt weird about for almost a month now, but somehow in this current phase of life I’ve been filling my days with busy work (ie practicing drums) and I’ve put off writing for the last couple of weeks. Writing is generally where I do my sharpest thinking, so I’ve been avoiding this weird feeling by not acknowledging it.

The truth is, I have an album I was going to release. I was going to release it next week, with a full band show at the Merri Creek Tavern in Melbourne. I had dates lined up in Sydney, Canberra and Adelaide. I released the first single Lucy back in late Feb, to a small amount of online attention, and then, to be brutally honest, I lost heart.

This is an album I started recording in April 2019. Literally a year ago today. I pieced it together with a collection of friends over two days of recording. I spent the next nine months recording and re-recording vocals in my shed. I finally pulled out the stops and got it mixed and mastered in January. I got my dear friend Nick Pensa to create some stunning artwork, and here’s the kicker… I got 100 physical CDs printed.

They arrived at my house in mid-Feb. I sold three of them to random people at gigs (if you’re one of those people and you’re reading this, then bloody good on ya, holding a weird piece of history right there). And now I’ve got a box of CDs sitting on my bedroom floor. They’ve sat there since the day they were made.

I had grand plans to do a physical release. Then I had grand plans to do an online release. Then I slowly lost all my plans and stopped thinking about that band and those songs and these social media pages. Instead I retreated to my backyard shed and started practicing drums obsessively. But here’s the problem. I’m a totally project-oriented person. I love to have a three month plan, where I can physically tick off the to-do list and claim ‘YES. I’VE DONE IT. THAT’S OVER.’ Then I start thinking about the next project.

But this album that I spent a year recording, the songs that came out of a couple of years of being a human represents a project that’s not complete. And even though I genuinely thought about putting the box of CDs into the wheelie bin out the front of our house on a Sunday evening (hello bin night), I think it’s important that I see this project through.

Even more important is that I see it through with the original intention of the project. I hilariously called the album ‘The Hopeful Clutter’, and I guess I’m hoping it’s relevant in a world where live music is dead and buried, and our sense of community is tied into computer screens and online streams.

So here’s the deal. I want people to have the physical version of The Hopeful Clutter. There’s exactly 95 copies (well 97, but I’m keeping two for myself). I’m not putting it on any of the streaming websites. I’m not putting it on iTunes. I’m just putting it on Bandcamp, and you can ‘pay what you feel’. I know that 90% of my friends have lost work, I know the arts community has been decimated, I know some of my dearest friends are having trouble putting food on the table hence it feels little greedy to be taking money from an ever shrinking audience pot when I’ve still got a couple of days of teaching to keep me alive during these times. All I’m asking is you cover the physical postage costs. If you choose to throw in some more money then bless your little heart. I’ll put a little surprise in every package, although I’m not sure what that’s going to be yet. Maybe a handwritten version of my lentil Bolognese recipe.

If you read this far then you can order it right here, right now.

I love you all and I miss you seeing you face to face. I hope The Hopeful Clutter that exists in my mind finds a place within yours.

Part two, the artwork:

I want to delve a little into the artwork Nick Pensa made for me, and some hidden little gems that I got him to incorporate in to it.

My pitch to him was a collaged image that evokes the ‘general anxiety on the death of humanity’ (how prescient, this was on January 5th, 2020). Nick came back with three ideas, one of which was a silhouette of my head, stuffed full of random objects. I loved the silhouette because it was so obviously me without being me, so I re-pitched the concept, using that silhouette and a selection of random objects. This was the list: sparrow, couch, bones, bicycle, coffee percolater (one of those Italian ones?), bottle of wine, a small dog, an instrument maybe drum or guitar, a backyard shed, running shoes, a beard.

I also sent him the two pictures below, asking if he could find a way to incorporate these. These two pictures hang on my living room wall and were made by two amazing women. The first one is painting of peonies, made by my Grandma. The second is a landscape by my Mum.

20200421_184450.jpg20200421_184542.jpgDistrokid Image.jpg

On Lucy

New Music, this Friday… Link here: https://distrokid.com/hyperfollow/nathanpower/lucy

Lucy inhabits a weird corner of my mind. She officially started life on April 8th, 2019 as an abstraction called ‘Empty Bar Blues’. She wasn’t a ‘blues song’ in any of the standard definitions (12 bar form, melody borrowed from the blues scale, call and response etc), but I’d just spent several weeks working with Year 5s on writing and performing blues songs and as part of that discussion we talked about how the blues can also characterise a mental state, and I had this inkling that I wanted to write a song around the experience of feeling the blues.

This coincided with an odd intersection in my personal life where a good friend was going through a break-up and I started to piece together the ideas of feeling down and coming to terms with loving someone who no longer loves you. At first it felt a little trite to borrow from a friend’s misery to create my own art, but Lucy evolved quickly beyond being a ‘break-up song’ from my friend’s perspective into a meditation on time and my general hope for either a quick painless death or the ability to live forever suspended in the now.

Anyone who has read any of my writing, or listened to any of my songs might notice that the underlying thread that ties nearly everything I create together is time. My first EP explored my fascination with seasons. The first song I wrote when I started my singer-songwriter phase in 2017 was called Springtime. Four of the five songs on my new record ‘The Hopeful Clutter’ deal with time either directly or esoterically. It should seem obvious that we all live in and around time but while some merely dabble at the edges, I’ve submerged myself so deeply at the bottom of it that I find myself sucking for air and staring up at the small circle of light that promises an elusive escape.

I remember at around age thirteen I realised that I had found the secret to make time slip by faster than it ever had before. Where once I’d spent summers in languorous idleness, bored and longing for something to do beyond re-reading the same series of five books that I borrowed from our neighbour’s home library, I now found my days were sliding past like hours and my hours like minutes and minutes like seconds. I luxuriated in the idea that I could finally move beyond boredom and begin to experience life, little realising that the ever flickering fingers of time don’t stop, and once I’d opened Pandora’s ticking clock and peered into it’s depths I’d unleash the awareness that there’s no stopping, there’s no stopping, there’s no stopping.

Lucy borrowed a little from Dylan with the line ‘a shrine to love and theft’, a little from physics with a brief ode to carbon atoms and I tied her together with a nod to insomnia, another running theme on ‘The Hopeful Clutter’. She started a lot darker than the final recorded version, went even darker still (to the point I assumed I’d be getting worried calls from family and friends when they heard her), and then I reigned her in a little. There’s a certain joy in the macabre, but art can’t all be plague and pestilence. Lucy went through a couple of gender reveals and at one point had around seven verses, cut down to two for clarities’ sake. Some of her most poetic lines got lost on the cutting floor because they simply didn’t make sense in context, but “creativity is a hairy beast, you can always make new wigs off the prunings” (G. Mccoy).

Here she is, in her entirety.

….

Lucy works an empty bar, hoping that he’ll show his face,

Totters home alone, another night to waste, and I’m the one she calls when she gets home.

She tries to fight the cobwebs off, with meditation,

The gloom inside of her own creation, she says she’s better off alone.

 

Set the table with the bones buried in the garden,

Crumbling to dirt to dust to atoms made of carbon,

No I, cant buy, any more time.

 

It’s been weeks then months then years of daily distress,

Sell the family home and with it all the mess, suppress the thoughts of you

We’d love to slip away in sleep towards our deaths,

Every dream comes out the same a shrine to love and theft, but still she dreams of you.

 

Lucy loses beauty sleep, blames it on a fear she’ll fall to freedom,

Chasing love or chasing wisdom,

No time left for the bones thrown down in anger, we wait for the answer.

 

Set the table with the bones buried in the garden,

Crumbling to dirt to dust to atoms made of carbon,

No I, cant buy, any more time.

On Birthdays

Before you read on, I’d love you pre-save my new single Lucy. It’s out on Feb 28th. Pre-saving literally means Spotify will let you know when its out. That’s it! No money. No time. Just a chance to hear my new song as soon as it’s released.

Link: https://distrokid.com/hyperfollow/nathanpower/lucy

….

I’m experiencing existential dread. It’s a rare occurrence but it does pop up once a year like clockwork, always on the day of, or the day before my birthday. I can’t quite recall when this phenomenon started occurring but it’s been at least the last ten years, definitely since my 21st and quite likely since at least five years before that. If there’s one thing that scares me it’s the inexorable drifting of time, so much so that I’ve been reading Alan Burdick’s delightful book ‘Why Time Flies’ in an effort to slow time’s creep; funny how we use man’s one finite resource to examine man’s one finite resource. Lately the creep has started to become a jog and I fear I’ve left the summit of some unforeseen mountain and this jog will shift into a madcap helter skelter headlong tumble to the bottom.

Of course that’s a little darker than it needs to be, for I’m in still in the prime of my young days, but it’s hard to shake the sinking feeling I get once a year when the month of February rolls around and the mystical goat-fish hybrid departs the sky for warmer pastures, leaving behind a youth with a large bucket of water and a desire to be kidnapped. Amateur astrologer I am not. Galactic sceptic is probably a better description. Not that I am sceptical of the galaxies, more that I’m sceptical of anything that smacks of voodoo, and indeed anything that works against man’s ability to self-determinate. Hence there are a vast array of things I’m sceptical of, including (but not limited to): the risks of getting cancer from microwaving Tupperware containers, any of the conspiracy theories about Bill Murray’s final words in Lost in Translation, treating anything at all with ‘essential oils’ (I get that they smell good, but surely if they were ‘essential’ the government would be putting them in the water), using single strokes when loosely played double strokes basically sound the same, and anyone on the internet who claims they’ve got a secret you can learn in five easy instalments of $9.99.

I’m not really sure where I was going with this, but it’s worth slightly digressing to describe this particular brand of existential dread. It’s not really a ‘dread’ per se, more of a slight sinking in my stomach when I think about my birthday. As I get older I’m getting moderately better at thinking about myself (even if I tend to discount my own thoughts and never act on fixing my issues) and I think I’ve come to the realisation that while I like people making a fuss of me, I don’t necessarily like being the centre of attention (why am I a singer-songwriter? lol). So every year I’m striking this balance where I want people to adore me, but I don’t want it to be a perceptible thing, more of an unacknowledged elephant standing one room over and quietly trumpeting to itself. And in the midst of this existential stomach sinking I’m also dealing with the thought that I’m getting older and the one thing we can’t turn back is the ticking limbs of time and it all spins and spirals and sometimes get to a bit too much (which is odd because I’m a) generally quite emotionally resilient and b) happy with myself, this is one of the only things that trip me up… lets have three cheers for honesty).

To combat this I’ve started to write myself a yearly letter on my birthday, talking general drivel that I think I’ll find interesting later on. It generally settles into a discussion of my mental state and the positives and negatives that I perceived in the year. This started four years ago and it seems like a relatively achievable habit, something that I’ll look back on in fifty years with some fondness. I’m growing more and more attached to the concept of recording my thoughts and feelings as I waft through this life. Without physical evidence I tend to discount entire swathes of my life and the medium I identify with most to capture an essence of today is the written word. I firmly believe the written word is man’s greatest achievement. As an interesting side-note, in 1991 the ‘Guinness Can Widget’, the small plastic ball that used to come in cans of Guinness and ensured a frothy head on your beer beat out the internet as the greatest technological invention of the last forty years. Something to be said about man’s priorities I guess.

Invariably, as I write down my thoughts and feelings and fears of the years behind and the years to come, my existential dread starts to diminish. It’s still there, but rather than a bubbling sea of stress, it’s more like a little almond of agitation, something I can tuck into my pocket, or put behind a pot plant and forget about for a while. Funny that I find my mindfulness not in the active stilling of my mind, but in spilling out on the page all the hopeful clutter that inhabits me. This term ‘hopeful clutter’ is something that will start to make sense over the next couple of months I hope, culminating in the next phase of this project.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt of Alan Burdick’s beautiful book:

“We (or at least the rest of us) reach this boundary whenever we ponder the cosmic. We imagine by analogy and metaphor: that strange and vast thing is like this smaller, more familiar thing. The universe is a cathedral, a clockworks, an egg. But the parallels ultimately diverge; only an egg is an egg. Such analogies appeal precisely because they are tangible elements of the universe. As terms, they are self-contained—but they cannot contain the container that holds them. So it is with time. Whenever we talk about it, we do so in terms of something lesser. We find or lose time, like a set of keys; we save and spend it, like money. Time creeps, crawls, flies, flees, flows, and stands still; it is abundant or scarce; it weighs on us with palpable heft.”

On Newstead

There’s an urgency in the air. A poignant warmth of energy amongst the streaming crowds that waft across each street, holding back the traffic, criss-crossing in groups that intersect and divide and combine as mothers push prams and kids beg fathers for ice-cream money and people accost friends they haven’t seen since the last festival. I’ve had a couple months off. Tied up in the day to day of finishing last year I neglected this thing that I love and it’s so good to be back. There was a point last year where I attended a glut of festivals, probably seven or eight in a couple of months, and I started to take it for granted. In the height of festival harvest feast I forgot what famine felt like, and how easy it is to slip in to the complacency of staying home to ‘finish off some work’ and ‘oh there’s always the next one’. This was a return and it felt particularly good.

I spent the weekend at Newstead where I was working with Irish lads The Ocelots. It was mainly a catch up weekend: catching up with an array of amazing musicians, some who I’ve known for years and some who I’ve eyed off from afar with awe. Catching up with punters, many of whom are more rabid about music than the musicians themselves and count time in festival experiences: “…yeah I’ve seen Eric Bogle once a decade since the 1970s” . Catching up with memories of what my favourite festival performers do, and all the little moments that fill in the slots between them.

There are the easy memories: stealing a moment to make half cooked pasta, seasoned with borrowed srirarcha in a footy oval camp kitchen. Leaving the festival to dive into the nearest body of water (not limited to: bluegrass pool parties at Newstead Live, an impromptu beach run at Illawarra Folk Festival, leaving Queenscliff to ‘surf’ at Bells Beach and then arriving back at stage sopping wet to perform, a particularly freezing river bath from Tanglewood where I stood shivering in ankle deep water hoping to wash off three days of red dust but not willing to attempt death by a thousand cuts, and of course diving into a defunct volcano at Tablelands Folk Fest). Resigning yourself to stolen moments of sleep, from the early morning tent sessions where sleep is stolen from you by the swarm of dawn galas, to the mid arvo nap where you steal sleep back under a tree in the ‘backstage greenroom’. Coating every moment is a swarm of sound. Different stages blast converging streams of noise and in between there are the Morris Dancers and roving groups of Bolivian Pan Pipe bands, all mixed up with traditional fiddle sessions and on street buskers. I remember one particularly enterprising family band at Bello Winter Fest where the family’s five children had been separated and each given their own little turf down a stretch of main street. The quality of music inevitably declined as you walked down the line, starting with a relatively capable teenage blues guitarist, descending through several fiddle players and a ukulele and finally ending on the star child, an adorably cute four year old girl excitedly banging a triangle in front of a large bucket full of money. You can draw your own parallels to the state of the music industry and what elicits the biggest emotional response.

Here are some particular moments I want to remember from Newstead 2020:

Attendees to this festival love singing, and I participated in impromptu sing alongs at nearly every show I attended (I was amazed at the first show to hear audience members start singing along before they’d been prompted. By the last show I took it as assumed that you could just start singing once you’d learned a couple of words) from Kerryn Fields, Michael Waugh, Rich Davies, The Ocelots, Tuck Shop Ladies etc. A big shout-out goes to the lady who sat next to me at one show and created a new harmony for every single chorus of a song. She started (quite naturally) on the fifth, then jumped to the third on the second chorus. For the third chorus she was singing in unison an octave up and by the last chorus she was happily warbling a wavering falsetto that slid silkily over top of everything and vaguely sounded like a theremin.

We found ourselves at the pub nearing midnight on Friday. The dying moments of Roger Federer’s Australian Open match were on the telly in the corner (fun fact, I served Federer a cheese toastie at the Players Cafe in 2008). I found myself pulled from conversation towards the glowing lights, and finally resigned myself to pulling up a chair and a pint to watch him take the match against Millman to overtime and then push point by point to a final victory as a crowd of thirty people yelled at the TV, high-fived each other and generally carried on. About two metres behind us was a fiddle session, where twelve musicians played pumping Irish fiddle tunes, getting louder and faster to carry over our hubbub. It culminated in Federer winning, the TV getting flipped off and everyone resuming quiet conversation as the fiddle session pulled to a close and the grumpy barman called last drinks. It only occurred to me later to ask one of the performers how long they’d played for that day (five hours straight since seven o’clock) and then to compare that with how long Federer’s match went for (four hours). How strange, that where one group of performers are lauded for their skills, plastered across front pages and celebrated for their endurance ability, another group fight and flurry to boost their volume over a crowd of drunk punters and play traditional music composed over a hundred years ago.

I left the festival late on Sunday afternoon to drive home, and as I pulled out of town I mulled over the memories. The term ‘folk festival’ incites a certain mood, a vague feeling of acoustic guitars and warm beers in plastic cups and tents that collapse in the night, but there is so much more to it than that. As much as I love to classify everything I come in contact with, each festival is the sum of a million parts and while the basic building blocks might be the same (singer-songwriters, dusty halls, worried looking folkies rushing down the road to catch the next set) its hard to encapsulate exactly what each festival is and what makes it special. While a festival like Port Fairy is amazing for the sheer number of patrons (and the drawing power that gives them to get amazing international acts in) and Tablelands is amazing for the location (glorious green rainforests in amongst the hills of Queensland), I have to say Newstead is amazing for its sense of community. The people behind it are some of the best in the world, and that makes it a world-class festival.

On India

I’m in India. Coughing my lungs out. I came down with something on the flight out of Melbourne and its been two days of searing headache, overheating body and gut-wracking coughs. Luckily we’re booked in to the second fanciest hotel in Cochin so I’ve spent the last 48 hours lying in the direct spray of the air-conditioner and ordering room service curry.

On the first morning we call in a doctor from the local hospital. He arrives in a pair of plastic Crocs and a business shirt, accompanied by a moustachioed nurse in a neat blue one piece uniform who carries an oversize briefcase. The nurse puts the briefcase down on the bedside table and it pops open, spilling papers and medical implements across the floor. He picks a thermometer off the carpet, wipes it off on his sleeve and gestures for me to slip it into my armpit.

The consultation is a comedy of misunderstandings. I’m new to India. New to the time-zone. New to the Indian head-wobble which answers every question. Are there any foods I should avoid? Wobble. Can I use the hotel pool? Wobble. Do I need any medicine? Wobble. Later I ask the hotel concierge what the head wobble means and he wobbles his head too. Mostly yes, sometimes maybe. The doctor writes down my weight as my age, then puzzles over how I can be seventy-one. We chuckle together when we realise the mistake, then I descend into a fit of coughing.

The doctor prescribes me six different medications and I’m reminded of Yemeni childhood, where doctors visits are deemed successful based on how much medicine you take home and how impressive the medicine looks. Where I’d probably recover on my own with rest and fluid, it’s assumed that I’ve called the doctor because I want results and I’m left with paper bags full of legitimate horse-sized pills in florid colours: extract of ginseng and garlic plus antibiotics plus paracetamol plus a mysterious looking cough syrup that tastes lightly of tea and slides deliciously down my throat, coating everything in a viscosity that I cough up a couple minutes later. Along with the medicine I receive a stern list of instructions: no showers, no milk, no swimming, no cookies, no spicy foods, and an admonishment to only drink hot water for the next five days. The culmination of my treatment is when the nurse receives a phone call and disappears downstairs to reappear with a nebuliser a smoking machine attached to a face mask that he straps to my face. Breathe deeper, he admonishes as I puff out small strands of smoke. We sit in a silent circle for twenty minutes until he appears satisfied and then puzzles the tangle of cables, medicines and papers back into his briefcase.

Getting to India itself was a comedy of sorts, from a wild sprints to the wrong gate at KL airport and an attempt to pull myself up straight and not cough as I show off my boarding pass. When I was seventeen I almost got detained in KL airport. It was a thirty-hour transit from Kenya to Australia as part of my final year of boarding school and I came down with the flu in the airport. I wandered into the in-airport medical centre to wrangle some Panadol and was seen by a kindly Malaysian nurse who told me if she referred me to the doctor I’d have to skip my next flight and stay in a hotel until I was well enough to fly. I backed out of the medical centre and disappeared into the throng of flyers browsing duty free.

Indian immigration is a line of neatly coiffured moustachioed men seated in a row, making decrees on the plight of the foreigners before them. In a remarkably comfortable scenario each desk is fronted by a large lounge chair lifted straight from the 1970s and I laze back as my officer fills a stack of forms, questioning his colleague between every line. It’s a lackadaisical affair, made comical by the fact none of them seem to be working from the same playbook. Part of the process is scanning fingerprints and each officer approaches it differently. Mine accepts a thumbprint from each hand, while the guy next to me appears to be scanning both hands at once. A couple rows down the officer is standing up, leaning over the desk and physically pushing an old ladies’ fingers in to the machine, squishing them down with one hand and slapping his computer keyboard with the other.

An Indian man energetically taps my testicles with a metal detector. “Part of the job” he chuckles and stamps my boarding pass. He eyes me off as I step down from the wooden box all airport attendees are required to mount as they pass security clearance and then asks: “Australian?” I nod and he responds, “oh the fires, very sad, so many animals dead.”

It’s a weird talking point, one that pops up constantly through this trip, from the hotel concierge to the taxi driver to the man who serves up steaming muttar paneer on our final dinner. At first I’m amazed: the news of the Australian bushfires is particularly current in India (cue giant billboards on the drive from Cochin airport depicting crying koalas and flaming trees), but it’s the loss of animal life that every conversation settles on. I wonder at the media landscape that pushes this part of the conversation to prominence. Maybe it’s the Hindu conception of the sacrality of life and the concept of losing millions of animal lives in one month of natural disaster seems to resonate.

Then its days of floating. Free from commitment. Free from worry. Free from the rigour and routine that flood my daily life. I can afford to float between an early lunch and a late dinner with no real plans. Everything is a brief taxi ride away and if you’re hungry on the way there’s delicious food adorning every street corner. There’s a beauty to the break in routine. There’s a beauty to the chaos of traffic where two lanes fit five streams of traffic. There’s a beauty to walking home each night to find the same white cow pulling rubbish from the same street side bin. There’s a beauty to the clamour and the brief moments of calm.

On Sunsets

It’s been a year of pretty sunsets, spread across a hundred different places. I’d love to say I make a habit of taking time to watch the sun set, pausing as it dips below the horizon, but the reality is that the only times I catch it in the act are when someone else points it out to me. Too often my attention is drawn towards the humdrum daily thoughts that flood my mind as I’m lost within the confines of human habitation.

The sunsets that have stood out this year have been enjoyed in the company of others and have spanned the entire year, starting in late January performing on the South Island of New Zealand at Luminate Festival with Hello Tut Tut. The festival was a booze-free, meat-free affair, six whole days spent in luxurious presentness (mostly deep within a book if I have to be honest) and embracing heavy beats whilst meeting musicians from as far afield as Denmark, the US and Brunswick. I observed the sunset from a luxury yurt in the artist’s camp and then wandered to the site office to ask for a spare sleeping bag to weather the five degree night. By the third night I’d reconnoitred four spare sleeping bags and was sleeping in a veritable pile of duck down. These sunsets were spent on a vast plain in the midst of a state park, thousands of eyes turned North West to salute the sun as it disappears into the forest above the doof stage.

I went to Wilson’s Prom in November with a group of ex-housemates who excitedly plan hiking trips a couple of times a year and then complain their way through the actual days of walking. The celebrations start when the trekking finishes and we line up at the pub for a hearty meal and a beer. Then we talk about how much we enjoy hiking and how we can’t wait to do it again. When hiking, the sunset signals the end of activity, for we rely on light to function and to fight our fears (on a side note, a wombat ate a hole in our tent this trip). We eat slimy packages of dehydrated food in the dusk-light as the bushland fades to peace and retire to bed by eight pm.

I spent a particularly pretty sunset with my partner in Queenstown, New Zealand. It was the midst of winter and the towering mountains that surround the town caught the sun high up in the air as it set in giant shadows across the opposing mountainsides. It took several hours for the darkness to descend on the town and we wandered through the crisp clear air with a flurry of tourists and night shopping. The local ice-cream shop was a surprise hit, a trendy establishment with a line of almost a hundred patrons spiralling out the door and around the corner. A flock of ski-jacketed youngsters blow warm air into their gloves, waiting for scoops of rum and raisin while an enterprising busker attempts to pull the change from the wallets with pre-prepared dance moves against a pre-prepared beat.

There was the sunset that I drove into for almost two hours on my journey home from my Spring tour. I’d made the dubious choice of leaving Yamba in NSW at eight am and attempting to drive as far as home as I could before stopping. I drove for fourteen hours and paused in Canberra for dinner, then decided to push on for the last six hours. By this point it was just past six o’clock and the sun was a hand-span above the horizon and I assumed it’d be gone soon. Instead it floated in my vision till almost eight, burning small glowing holes in my retinas and leaving a sunburnt strip between where my sunglasses end and my moustache begins.

My sixth grade science teacher told me that sunsets are more magnificent when the air is polluted, but of course it has to be some sort of sliding scale. Too much air pollution (ala Beijing, or Sydney circa December 2019) and the sun disappears completely, replaced by the orange wash of smog. Too little pollution and the sun is a perfect ball, slowly being lowered from its zenith to the encroaching horizon. Shades of The Cyrkle’s Red Rubber Ball abound, a song that had always felt wildly familiar, something about the cadence of the words just tickles a certain itch. Of course I found out recently it was written by Paul Simon, which makes total sense.

In some inane attempt to get in touch with my childhood I’ve been reading Wilfred Thesiger’s book ‘Arabian Sands’, a meandering memoir of his time spent exploring Rub Al Khali (The Empty Quarter, a massive desert that covers parts of Saudi Arabia, Oman, Yemen and The Emirates) in the 1940s. While many parts of the book feel problematic, I’m attempting to view it through a lens of the time period (remnants of European Colonialism, Capitalism and WWII conspire in an uneasy mix). One particular passage stood out:

“When moved, Arabs break easily into poetry. I have heard a lad spontaneously describe in verse some grazing which he had just found: he was giving natural expression to his feelings. But while they are very sensible of the beauty of their language, they are curiously blind to natural beauty. The colour of the sands, a sunset, the moon reflected in the sea: such things leave them unmoved. They are not even noticed. When we returned from Mughshin the year before, and had come out from the void of the desert on to the crest of the Qarra range and looked again on green trees and grass and the loveliness of the mountains, I turned to one of them and said, ‘Isn’t that beautiful!’ He looked, and looked again, and then said uncomprehending, ‘no – it is rotten bad grazing.’ ”

I wonder at this reality, for I feel I often do the same, albeit from a viewpoint of heedless distraction rather than a pragmatic sensibility. But isn’t that always the way? We live in the shadow of the moment, relying on occasionally being shaken out of comfort zone to notice the beauty that lies around us.

On Life Balance

The year pulls into its last couple of stops with a screech and a scream of brakes. I’ve felt a build up of pressure, beginning somewhere around March and building building building non-stop till now. It’s been a frantic year of juggling a million commitments and a billion other things that I’ve wanted to do instead. The balance has been totally off, I’ve neglected most of the important things in favour of whatever has wandered into my vision and I’m excited to now finally have the space and time and energy to put towards the things that need it.

I’ve been dwelling on the idea of ‘holding space’. The term has been popping up a lot recently, first in a therapy context where one person commits their full attention/energy/consciousness to another’s needs. It has also popped up around various hippie festivals and, more recently, jazz gigs. I’ve been examining the idea of holding space for yourself and wondering what that looks like to me on a daily basis.

An interesting aspect of growing older is slowly getting more in touch with myself, recognising both aspects of my own psyche that I’ve probably always known but never physically acknowledged and things that I haven’t realised about myself that are slowly bubbling to the surface. I recognise that I’m highly driven, very self-motivated and excited about being included in other people’s projects, and that this means I often over commit. So to hold space for myself I need to first create space in my life and then attempt to inhabit it.

This is good in theory but so so hard in practice as the loudest parts of my personality are firing “go go go, got to be involved, got to be acknowledged”, whilst somewhere in the background the introvert me is whispering “hey, why don’t you take a year off and disappear into a book”. The healthiest option is obviously to combine these two aspects and live a fulfilling life of moderation but instead I veer wildly between the two. Every year around this time I disappear into a ‘book coma’, where I pull about twenty books off the bookshelf and lie in bed for a week, refusing to engage with the world. Notable book comas in my life include my teenage years where I read all seven Harry Potter books in seven days and last year where I read three notoriously dark books (Eggshell Skull, Normal People and No Friend But The Mountain) in a yurt on the South Island of New Zealand and then collapsed in a heap of despair. This all ties back into my childhood where I used to practice a form of escapism by reading and re-reading three of Enid Blyton’s kids mystery thrillers and imagine rolling green hills and doorsteps of bread covered in lashings of butter while peering out the window at the warm dusty streets of Yemen. Suffice it to say, once I start reading a book I find it very hard to stop until the book is complete and I compensate by speed reading and neglecting the outside world. If I allow myself to read when something important is occurring in life, the important thing gets ignored. But if I don’t let myself read I get sucked into an introvert’s nightmare of constant outward attention and no introspection.

Turns out the human existence is complex hey?

My most recent idea is to replace social media with book reading, so every time I think about checking Facebook or Instagram I instead read a page of Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (which I got to via Eric Hansen’s Motoring with Mohammed, the next book I’m interested in is Lawrence of Arabia’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. I’m slowly making my way back through a particular examination of the world’s largest expanse of sand, Rub’ Al Khali from the white European point of view). The idea is good in practice but I tend to check social media first thing in the morning and this week I skipped both breakfast and my morning shower and was almost late to the last day of school because I was attempting to finish David Byrne’s brilliant book ‘How Music Works’. Not sure if the balance is right yet.

Luckily, after tonight’s gig I have zero commitments until the end of Jan (other than a couple of thousand emails), so I can feel a book coma coming on, and it’s going to be a big one! I’ll tackle the life balance thing later.

On Tour Stories (part 2)

I’ve been thinking a bit more on stories I’ve gathered from the road. There’s been a lot of them. I’ve been touring seriously since around 2014, across a heap of different bands. I generally play around a hundred shows a year, some years more, some years less, but nearly every show has some sort of meaningful interaction that I take with me when I leave. The problem is remembering them, as my journaling is truly sporadic, verging between extremes of writing in my diary twice a day to a nine month period where I didn’t write at all.

There was the night in Katoomba where the pub was cleared by a man who excitedly leaned across the bar to order the next round of drinks. Accidently dipping his hair into a candle there was a flash of light, then an acrid cloud of smoke floating up towards the ceiling. The bar staff flicked up the house lights to see if he was ok and then the smell hit us in a wave. Literally one of the strongest things I’ve smelled, you could see the crowd on the dance floor lifting their heads and wrinkling their noses in disgust. In a mass exodus, the entire bar emptied out as everyone retreated to the smokers area outside for some fresh air. That was night over for us, the bar manager called last drinks and we got to pack out early.

There was the metalhead who heard one of our songs on the radio and excitedly decided to come out and see us play. ‘Yeah boys, really excited to hear you play, can you do that song about dying?’ So we played the song about dying as our first number and he sung along the whole way through then disappeared towards the back of the room. He reappeared one song later with a pint in each hand and yelled out ‘Yeah, play the one about dying again’. Dealing with hecklers is a fine art, and the finest part of it is often strategically ignoring people in the hope that they’ll go away, but old mate was one of about four people there and he stood solidly in front of stage and asked us to re-play that song literally after single song we played.

We got off stage and I was in a bit of a grumpy mood, so I strategically disappeared to the toilet. When I come back he is happily singing our song to the rest of the band. They were in a happier mood because he’d bought a round for the band, so we finished up and loaded our gear out and left him excitedly telling random punters that they missed a great show.

We thought this was the end of it, until we arrive back in that city about a year later, and he’s back. This time though he’s brought his entire extended family (a girlfriend, his brother, his brother’s partner, two random friends and his mum). They’d obviously been drinking for a while at that stage, but he makes a strong effort to introduce everyone to the band and tell us that he likes the new single, but he ‘really wants to hear that song about dying again’. Luckily we showed some foresight, so instead of blowing the one crowd favourite as the first song, we decide to keep it till later in the set. Cue him again, up front with a pint in each hand, enthusiastically yelling at us to play the song he knows. After about thirty minutes of this, the bouncers decide to cut him off and sit him on a park bench out the front of the venue. We play the song about dying to his mum, who gives us a thumbs up and then we load out the back door to avoid him.

There was northern NSW and sleeping in my car, down a back road twenty minutes out of town. The local petrol station has taken the initiative and flattened a square patch of ground behind the bowsers as a ‘free camping ground’. It’s basic, possibly even elemental, to the point where its actually just an open field with nothing in it. I wander into the petrol station to ask about using their toilet, an open bowl with no seat inside a wooden box with no taps, no lights and a spider literally the size of my face that doesn’t scurry away when I walk in by the light of my phone, but sits placidly on the back of the door and watches me do my business.

I walk back into the petrol station and strike up a conversation with the attendant. Anything to fill the time between a seven pm sundown and an honest bedtime, and lying in the back of my car reading books by the light of my phone gets pretty old pretty quickly on the road. We scamper in quick succession through small town life, his childhood, my childhood, my music, local town industry, the local footy team, breakfast options and finally stumble into a point of agreement with the latest season of Game of Thrones, swapping fan theories, dismissing directors and eyeing off the future of the story line. He excitedly tells me he’s just pirated the latest episode which I haven’t yet seen and asks if I want to watch it. At this point I’m well tired of conversation, so I agree and he disconnects the security camera from the in-store TV and plugs in his USB and we have a spontaneous GOT party, gathered around a little TV behind the counter in a petrol station out the back of nowhere.

There was supporting a high-profile female act at Port Fairy Folk Festival. She’s had a baby in the last year and is a little scattered as she’s in the midst of a national tour to release a new album as well as dealing with a new born baby and lack of sleep and breast-feeding at regular intervals.

She’s high-profile, but not quite high-profile enough to hire a nanny on the road, so her partner/manager tours with her to mind the baby while she performs and mind the business the rest of the time. Of course the baby experiences extreme separation anxiety when mum puts her down and walks on stage, and the backstage green room is filled with screams and a crowd of worried stagehands and musicians attempting to placate this little sobbing ball. Finally the manager takes the baby and walks to the side of stage, holding her out Lion King style towards her singing mum. The baby quiets and stares in wonder at the massive crowd before her.

Later I see the mum signing CDs at the merch tent, baby held in one hand, sharpie in the other.

I’ve been slowly dawdling my way back through five years of diaries, pulling out stories that I’d forgotten. It’s funny how fickle the memory is. Things that are massive deals in my life today slowly get their edges worn down over time and disappear into the bucket that is the past. Sometimes when I see old friends I get the chance to pull some old memories out of the bucket and twist and tease them back into shape, gnaw on them like buried bones, dissect how they made me feel and how they’ve impacted my life. I’ve always been pretty ‘forward-thinking’, more interested in the future than the past, often to the point that I ignore the present completely in favour of thinking about whats next. While I guess that’s a little more healthy than being consumed by where I came from, there’s definitely a fine balance and I’m probably weighted a little too heavily in one direction.

One day I’ll probably look back on this post in the same way…

On Tour Stories

It’s day three of this two week solo tour and everything starts to gain clarity.

It’s been a hectic start to the tour with three shows and around fifteen hours of driving. I’m feeling great emotionally, just tired and its starting to show in my daily routine, where every activity includes a little time for a power nap. So far I’ve napped before every show, napped roughly every three hours on the freeway, napped post-lunch, napped outside the library in Wagga (where I fell asleep in shade from the hot sun and woke to find bucketing hail). I’m getting remarkably good at closing my eyes, ticking off ten minutes and waking to a sense of peace. Think meditation but with a deeper dive than originally expected and occasional surfacing to find kids staring through the windows as I dribble down the steering wheel.

I wonder if this insistent napping is a sign of something below the surface, maybe a general life exhaustion borne not from burning the candle at both ends but from tossing the entire thing into the bonfire of running a small business and playing music and teaching part-time and also trying to be a creative being. But no, that couldn’t be it and introspection is for introverts, and I’m touring solo so I push all introspective tendencies to the background.

In normal life I don’t normally nap, although I often feel the urge. Tour life just allows me the freedom to succumb to it. Throw this into the mix of being an adult I guess.

I’ve come to realise that there’s a lot about touring that I love. Playing music is the main joy. Spreading music and practicing my live craft and experimenting with my songs in front of people. Sometimes it works and sometimes it fails, but even on the worst gigs I’m generally getting joy from it, even if it’s a post-show wry chuckle at what went wrong. Other touring loves include: exploring new places, eating out most nights of the week, delving into Australia’s thriving craft beer subculture (I’ve been tempted for a long time to do a ‘beers I’ve tasted’ list), listening to endless streams of driving music, and finding park benches to devour books and nap.

But more than anything, it’s the people that I enjoy. I’ve got a small but growing network of people I have itinerant relationships with. People whose lives I dip into, borrow some anecdotes and important facts from and then disappear into the night. Over time these chance encounters re-emerge, the ‘emotional neural pathways’ (yes, I’ve been reading ‘Incognito’) get revisited and the bonds get stronger. There are people who I met ten years ago in some band that no longer exists who see I’m coming to town and shoot me a message to catch up. There are people who hang around after the gig and offer me a place to stay and music recommendations. There are people who send me messages weeks after I’ve been to town to carry on conversations we never completed. There are many people who I meet in once off encounters and may never see again, but the stories stick with me.

Here’s a couple of anecdotes, borrowed from the ether. I’ve changed some details to save some reputations and possible make the stories more compelling, but at the heart of each is a kernel of truth spurred by a late night conversation.

“My parents only had me cause they didn’t want my sister to grow up alone.”

A mumble from the bar amidst a literal pile of beer glasses. It’s closing time and the bar staff have piled all the empties in one long sopping line along the edge of the bar in an attempt to make him see that they want to close and go home, but he sits with a well-nursed pint clasped between both hands and eyes off the couple of stragglers who totter out the front door as I roll the last of my cables and throw them into my Bunnings bag.

I hesitate to dive headfirst into a conversation which I assume will be a) laborious at this time of night when all I want to do is pack up, drive five minutes out of town and have a deep sleep in the nearby caravan park and b) rambling as his tongue is well greased by the copious beer I’ve seen him consuming throughout the night. But I’m a glutton for punishment and it’s been a quiet night and I haven’t talked to anyone beside bar staff and service station attendants in almost three days. So I pull up a bar stool, armed with the knowledge I can call the bar staff to attention if I want to bail on the conversation. You develop conversation deflection tools when you spend your life amidst people who either don’t take social cues or are just so excited by new conversational fodder that they’ll chew the ear off anything.

It’s worse than I expect, a winding backroad ramble through some sixty years of life experience, beginning somewhere in the early 90s with a dubious career as a festival promoter (“I brought Nirvana to Australia man, that first Big Day Out was all my idea”) then wandering backwards to birth in Malta and a long boat ride at age three to Australia. Everything is tinged with a vague sense of sadness, and I wonder if it’s retrospect that’s making him sad or if he’s carried self-worth issues through from an early age. His opening comments make me suspect deep-seated worries inflicted upon him by external forces, and I understand it because worries bloom in the fertile fields of man’s mind. Without the capacity to pull the electric pulses from another’s brain and turn them into language, we rely entirely on what the other tells us through word and body language to determine what they think. It’s a flawed system, for who truly says what they’re thinking? Surely every thought is encircled in a ring of protective language, the edges sanded down and smoothed out before it is thrown into the world and allowed to take root in the soil of someone else’s expectations. At best, we almost express what we honestly believe and then rely on the person to take it at face value. At worst we obfuscate our thoughts, and the recipient confuses them again in their interpretation and we disappear into an ontological blackhole where all participants nod in agreement and walk away confused.

We never actually discussed his relationship with his parents and his sister, but I start to see my ‘on tour’ role as less of an entertainer and more as an itinerant therapist (sure I’ll take your emotional baggage) and handyman (sure I’ll help you move the living room table).

She is an olive farmer. An award-winning olive farmer. I ask her, tongue in cheek, if she eats olives for every meal, and it turns out that yes, yes she does, and her recipe for Mediterranean scrambled eggs (think fluffy eggs interspersed with creamy fetta, halved cherry tomatoes and garlic olives on a floating bed of olive sourdough) is a neighbourhood hit.

Her farm produces some six hundred thousand jars of olives a year and I imagine some modern day ‘Plain of Jars’ scenario where down a back road in rural Victoria there exists vast fields covered in glass jars and the local village kids run barefoot, slipping in streams of olive oil and sneaking handfuls of puckered, salted olives into their mouths between replenishing the nation’s stock of stone fruit.

The reality is much more sanitary, an in-house bottling plant where all surface are sanitised multiple times a day and most of the process is automated. Imagine conveyor belts and hissing steam and vast quantities of freshly washed olives floating down stream to the olive pipping machine that gently punches each olive in the gut once, flicking the stone into an alternate life path where it leaves its fleshy covering to be soaked in brine and devoured amongst its own kind.

The olive stones disappear into bins and are then crushed and tilled back into the earth to create fodder for the next generation, but recently new experiments with olive stones abound, from potential use as car fuel, a replacement material for plastic and as a cleansing agent amongst industrial machines. Man’s ingenuity abounds and where once we discarded piled olive pits we now delight in second use cases, waste reduction and further chances to monetize our industries.

“I put Don Burrows in a mine” he claims proudly, assuming we have a knowledge of who Don Burrows is, and why we’d want him underground.

At first I assume it’s some word play on ‘burrow’ and ‘mine’ and underground semantics and maybe he’s functioning at some level of understanding much deeper than my own. But it turns out that Don Burrows is actually a renowned Australian jazz musician, and the mine was the Mt Lyell Mining and Railway Company.

As part of the mine’s centenary celebrations back in 1994, Don Burrows and his band Moment’s Notice (assumably named after the Coltrane album) were dropped two kilometers down a mine shaft to perform a show. The show was turned into a subsequent live concert which can be ordered via your local library’s VHS rental service.

Unfortunately all this information came to light months later via some internet sleuthing. In this current conversation he proclaims disbelief that we don’t know who Don Burrows is, and that we don’t know why he thought to put him down the mine in the first place. “How can you be an Australian musician and not know who Don Burrows is? If you don’t know your history how can you look to the future?” Relevant questions, but I’m a folk musician, and examining the careers of Australia’s mid-90s jazz clarinetists is not a current concern. Standing on the shoulders of giants, yes. Attempting to balance atop a revolving cast of the millions of musicians who have come before, not so much.

He storms off in a huff, muttering about youngsters who don’t know their heritage and I’m touched by the depth of human existence. For this man, one of the cornerstones of his life’s achievement is that time he put a jazz band down a coal mine, and I get it. It’s a beautiful concept. It’s newsworthy. It’s a memory that a select group of people will carry throughout their entire lives. It’s the kind of ludicrous idea that I’d probably put together myself and I imagine myself, fifty years in the future, beleaguering the next generation of young musicians who don’t understand their history and don’t appreciate the ludicrousity that is man’s imagination.

I gather these stories like blind mice gather grain. Haphazardly. Unplannedly. Totally-without-meaningfully. Some days the pickings are slim and some days I’m hickory dickory docking my way into fertile food stores and delighting in the flood of stories that I coat my body and mind in. I’ve started to journal the stories I’m told on the road for while the human imagination is a wild and wonderful thing, the human memory is remarkably suspect and I tend to forget more beautiful anecdotes than I remember.

I use these stories to springboard my own creativity: as song fodder, or anecdotal evidence, or even just as creative gristle to mentally chew over as I drive.

On Sparrow Song

This was originally a Facebook post. Copied here for sentiment’s sake.
It brings me great joy to share some new music. Click hear to listen.
 
When one of my primary school students asked me what this song was about (I showed them the live video in class and asked them to identify the instrumentation, tempo and mood, not sure if its a bad reflection on me that one of them identified Stephen Hornby‘s double bass as a banjo), another of the students blurted out… “did you want to be a bird when you were little too?”
 
Gillian Welch tells us that we should never dictate to our audience what our music is about, after all without an audience, music is causeless. In essence, the audience is the key part that makes the music meaningful and who are we to decide what our audience sees in our lyrics/art/performance?
 
So I had no choice but to say yes, and then we spent the last five minutes of class discussing what type of bird we would be if given a choice and then the bell rang and we went out to playtime.
 
 
Suffice it to say that I’ve never really dreamt of being a bird, but I understand the sentiment, and this song probably hints at some underground sense of escapism. Or maybe its a dissertation on the search for home amidst a shifting, shapeless 21st century multiculturalism. Or maybe I just saw a sparrow one day and wrote a song about it.
 
 
I found my first draft of the lyrics for this song, in my diary under the headline ’23/12/17′. I was interested to see that both the verses on this recorded version arrived fully-fledged in that first draft. The chorus was something entirely different and the bridge (probably one of the more interesting series of chords I’ve ever stumbled upon) didn’t exist.
 
I used the word ‘autotelic’ in the original draft. I had to look up what the word means as I’d forgotten it completely. It didn’t make the final version, but now I’m wondering if it should have.
 
 
autotelic
/ˌɔːtə(ʊ)ˈtɛlɪk/
 
(of an activity or a creative work) having an end or purpose in itself.
 
 
Big thanks to Lucy McKenzie-McHarg, Vinny Russell, Alexandra Keusch, Stephen Hornby and Damien Sutton for their musical expertise.
I’ll playing this song live with a full band. This Sunday, September 1st at The Wesley Anne.