On the Disposable Nature of Music

I’ve talked before about how I read voraciously, deep-diving into all-consuming worlds that supplant my reality for days and weeks and months at a time.

As a child I spent most of the years between eight and fourteen in bed, books wedged against pillows to hold them in a comfortable reading position. My parents supported my reading addiction by carting around boxes and boxes of books from house to house, country to country, every time we moved. Each summer I’d read through everything on my shelves, then immediately read through them again. I’d borrow a book from a friend and read through it that night, then call them the next day asking for something new. On camping trips our family would cart around bags of books, mainly for me and Mum and Dad. My brother would be out fishing. So from an early age reading has been an addiction of sorts, and I know that when I start a good book, everything else in my life will suffer until its finished. That’s how I read all seven Harry Potter books in one seven day spell, shuffling around various positions in a one bedroom apartment to find comfort. This is not meant as a point of bravado but merely a demonstration of how poor my ability is to multi-task when I have a book in hand.

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On Waking

I remember waking. Fresh faced from a solid slumber, kick up up up to free my legs from the blanket, roll off the top bunk with a bang that reverberates through the floor boards and stirs my bunkmate down below.

Morning time. I’m good in the morning, if I choose to be. I’m simultaneously a morning person and an evening person, or I possibly just lack self-awareness, for I know when the tiredness hits of an evening I tend to doze off wherever I am: living room couch, kitchen table, in the car at the traffic lights. It’s a switch, instantaneous grogginess and a stumble to bed to catch the sleep wave. I also know that I’m grumpy in the morning, for the fifteen groggy minutes between rolling out of bed and leaving the house, and then with a click I revert to my normal staid self. So maybe I’m neither a morning or an evening person. Maybe I’m just a person in these hours between when my eyes open and close, and something else entirely in those other hours.

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On The Hopeful Clutter (Lyrics)

For posterity’s sake I figured it’s worth including the lyrics to this year’s EP The Hopeful Clutter as a blog post. Not because anyone seems particularly interested, but just cause.

If you’re interested in listening along, you can stream it here (I still have at least 50 physical CDs, so if you want to support me you can buy a copy too! No pressure).

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On My Favourite Time of Year

It’s my favourite time of year. The time when all the local households take things they no longer need and put them out on the street. It’s a strange aspect of Australia culture, officially known as ‘hard rubbish’, but every council area I’ve lived in for the last twelve years has embraced it wholeheartedly. My current council is Darebin, and my current house is in a steadfastly upper middle class area, so the quality of the goods people discard is second to none.

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On Mess

The backyard is a mess, all pot plants lined up in rows with good intentions, lovingly planted and then abandoned at the first sight of some other distraction. I garden like I do everything else in life: in short sprints, tackled over a week of high motivation and high spirits. Then a day off in bed, or a day where someone asks me to do something else and every project is abandoned to wilt and wither on its own. I have a period where I’m remarkably good at growing mint. I know, it’s a weed that will literally grow anywhere and take over any garden, but I check it obsessively everyday, noting its growth and the little spidery leaf patterns feathering out across the clay pot I found in hard rubbish last year. Then I forget about the mint too and the next time I glance at it as I shuffle past, it has been devoured by a family of snails that hug plumply to the inside rim of the pot, sleeping throughout the day and sliding in ecstasy upon my minty leaves at night. I prise each snail off the pot individually with a slight sucking sound and throw them over the neighbour’s fence.

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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.