Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I get up early now, one of the perks of getting older. Switch the computer on, maybe open a track with the first coffee, decide how the day’s going to be. I’m writing now so a lot of piano and figuring things out.
I spent a lot of last year mixing this new album with the amazing engineer/producer Julian Mendelsson, who’s based in Melbourne, so I was up most nights. Music is a constant part of the conversation, whether having dinner with my daughter and sons, or travelling, or watching a movie where I’ll dial into the soundtrack. I listen to, make or practice music every day. It’s a constant.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
A track I really like on my first solo album, called Colour Of My Pain, started as a piano improv based around three chords, Db, Eb & Bb7 with a bell like ostinato in the right hand based on C & F notes. Then a friend of mine, Al Slavik, a great musician, suggested it could be a song and we started coming up with melodic ideas and soon we had a groove, a verse and a chorus, and the ostinato is transferred to a Nord and, lo, it became a track.
I may have got there myself but Al was first to see the potential and you need that spark of excitement in the possibility of an idea to get you going, whether it comes from within or without.
When I recorded the Nord, the midi was double triggering for some reason and it choked the keyboard sound and gave the track a certain vibe and this meant you could listen to that keyboard part repeatedly without it being wearing. Happy accidents. Always need a few of those when recording.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Patience is an absolute pre-requisite for writing and recording music, as I’m sure it is when writing a screenplay or painting a picture. You have to work at it, and sometimes it’s not the most relaxed frame of mind, but being calm and patient is key. You can’t rush certain things. Set ups in the studio can sometimes take hours, at other times things come thick and fast.
As a one time single parent I think I can safely say that I can multi-task to a certain degree, but when it comes to the focus required to write or record, for me there can be no distractions. When you come up with a sequence or some words that move you, you want to be totally in the moment to figure it out. Whether it’s 20 minutes of two hours, you do whatever it takes to make sense of the idea, because good ideas don’t come along every hour of every day, not for me at any rate, and when they do, you have to be present. You have to get it while you can.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
I see playing live as an entirely different scenario to recording but, of course, the recording process is informed by how you’re going to replicate what you’re doing in the studio onstage. You have to be mindful of not being two entirely different entities, studio and live.
Having said that, my heart always drops a bit when people come out of a gig and say ‘it sounds exactly like the recording!’ You have to breath some new life into things, that’s only natural.
I improvise at the piano all the time and I get a lot of musical DNA which translates into songs and pieces that way. I sit down each morning and always switch my phone on with a basic voice recorder before I play a note. You never know what might happen when you get out of your own way. If something cool happens, then it’s a case of shaping it into however you see fit at the time.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I think it’s important to be able to separate the sound ‘effects’ generated in the studio and what they can do to various instruments, and the DNA of the composition, the melody and harmony. Sometimes you have to strip away the harmony to reveal something magical in the other aspects, the words, the melody, the atmospherics created with EQ, studio effects and musical sounds. In the end, all music is really a sound ‘effect’ and one note played on a keyboard going through a Roland Chorus Echo on the downbeat can have as big an impact on the mood of the track as an entire orchestra. It’s just got to be the right note, played at the right time, in the right register, with the right sound and effect.
Having worked with the master of sonic landscapes, Wally Badarou, for many years, I have seen this approach in action and how powerful it can be.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
Music is to me, at it’s most basic level, simply controlled sound, targeted frequencies, a lot of which we often feel rather than hear. An untrained listener can still instinctively know if the harmony isn’t right, or if the singer’s out of tune or if the band isn’t tight.
Why do certain melodies stick in the brain? Why do certain rhythms make it impossible to sit still? There’s a lot of mystery in it, and our collective unconscious comes to bear when we hear music that makes us feel a certain way emotionally.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I always thought that if you got into a position where you had an audience you should, while not claiming to have the answers or preaching, at least ask some questions. Art to me is an exchange of ideas, or as Eugene Ionesco once said ‘a work of art is really above all an adventure of the mind’. You put it out there because it’s something you want to share, not keep to yourself, and that desire to be heard often has its roots in a deep seated need to make sense of things, and in that regard there are only questions.
When I’m listening to, or looking at, an artists work I’m looking for insight for sure, but I’m not looking for answers. Sometimes I just simply need to know that others are feeling the way I do about things and I hope that people can also get something like that from my own work also.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
Contemporary music (or pop music if you will) performs the same function in modern society that all forms of folk music have across the world and down the ages. If there was a tragedy in a fishing village in the past, where many men were lost at sea, in short order a sea shanty would emerge to memorialise the sad event. This is what contemporary music still does and will always do; it reacts to events and cultural shifts and captures the moment in real time.
Pop music has always reflected the age. In the 1920’s jazz bands provided this sped up and syncopated soundtrack to an ever faster, more mechanised world. In the 1950’s the electrification of country and blues music and the birth of rock and roll perfectly mirrored the times and now we live in a computer age the pop music we hear is largely computer based. While some aspects of what the technology brings doesn’t exactly float my boat (such as an over dependence on auto-tune and beat doctor) it’s just pop music doing what pop music has always done and will continue to do; reflect the age.