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A fuller idea of The Idea of North

This interview with Trish Delaney-Brown of the a capella quartet The Idea of North almost didn’t happen. They were in the middle of rehearsals for a national tour and I was going to be chatting to them during a break in the middle of a ‘movement’ rehearsal. (Not having seen them live, I have no idea how their stage performances are choreographed.) On the day we were to meet, the rehearsal was called off due to illness. I don’t know how many were ill, or which ones, but was grateful that Trish Delaney-Brown wasn’t one of them; she’d just won a clutch of songwriting awards which included being named ‘Songwriter of the Year’ by the Australian Songwriting Association. So I got to promote a new album by a talented bunch of musicians with a genuine ‘news’ angle. Also, it meant that as the interview went to air on Saturday 12 June, it could be heard while the The Idea of North were touring. As I post this, their gig guide attests.

Soundbite: ‘Sister Sadie’ – from the album Evidence

Demetrius Romeo: Trish, I understand that you were recently named Songwriter of the Year. Tell me about that.

TRISH DELANEY-BROWN: That’s right. That was with the Australian Songwriters’ Association. They hold a songwriting competition each year. It’s been running for twenty-four years now, and I entered three of my songs, all of which appear on Idea of North’s new CD, Evidence, and they all placed in the top ten; I was also awarded the over-all Songwriter of the Year Award, so it was very exciting and very encouraging.

Soundbite: ‘We Will Find A Way’ – from the album Evidence.

Time is running away
Night is hunting the day
Life is driving me crazy
But the dawn is coming, and we will find a way.

Demetrius Romeo: I understand that ‘We Will Find A Way’ took out the Gospel award.

TRISH DELANEY-BROWN: Actually, that was one of the hardest things with the competition: you have to nominate which categories you put your songs in, and you can enter them in multiple categories but it costs you every time you enter them, so I only wanted to put them in one.

Soundbite: ‘We Will Find A Way’ – from the album Evidence.

The future used to be clear
The answers used to feel near
That was all an illusion
But the truth is standing, so I am waiting here.

TRISH DELANEY-BROWN: ‘We Will Find A Way’ has a kind of life-affirming positive message so I thought that it sat really easily in the Gospel category.

Soundbite: ‘Rachel’ – from the album Evidence.

Rachel I really must be going
Life's gone but you go on

Demetrius Romeo: Tell me about ‘Rachel’.

TRISH DELANEY-BROWN: ‘Rachel’ came seventh in the open category. It’s probably one of my favourite pieces at the moment and it just kind of takes people through the process of this imaginary person who the four of us are singing as, through their process of grief and coming to terms with loss.

Soundbite: ‘Rachel’ – from the album Evidence.

Won’t you take my hand,
Fill my heart and ease my hurting.
I am laid so low, lift me to the sky

TRISH DELANEY-BROWN: I wrote it in a year that I was experiencing a lot of loss – not just life and death, but loss of friendship and loss of identity and so I just started exploring those issues. The best way to explore that, I found, was to come at it as a particular person grieving for another particular person. But ‘Rachel’ isn’t based on one person; she embodies a whole lot of things.

Soundbite: ‘A Simple Feast’ – from the album Evidence.

A simple feast
Come share with me
Bread and cheese, a summer breeze
And love

A simple view…

Demetrius Romeo: ‘Simple Feast’ also placed. Tell me about that song.

TRISH DELANEY-BROWN: ‘Simple Feast’ came second in the jazz-slash-blues category of the competition, and as the title suggests, it’s just a very simple song. The inspiration for that came from a picnic my husband and I had; it was one of those late summer evenings in a park overlooking one of Sydney’s beautiful waterways with a glass of champagne, a couple of crackers, antipasto – just really simple fair – and my husband said, ‘man, I love these simple feasts’. That just brilliantly caputured the moment we were sharing, and those times when you don’t have to have much to feel like you own the world, you know?

Soundbite: ‘No More Blues’ – from the album Evidence.

No more tears and no more sighs
And no more fears, I’ll say no more goodbyes
If travel beckons me I swear I’m gonna refuse
I’m gonna settle down and there’ll be no more blues.

Demetrius Romeo: One of my favourite songs on the album is ‘No More Blues’, which contains ‘vocalese’ in place of the original piano solo that was written for it.

Soundbite: ‘Scat’-singing section of ‘No More Blues’ – from the album Evidence.

Demetrius Romeo: There’s another track that actually features a flugelhorn.

Soundbite: ‘Scat’-singing and flugelhorn section of ‘But Not For Me’ – from the album Evidence.

Demetrius Romeo: How do you decide the instrumentation that a song will take?

TRISH DELANEY-BROWN: Generally speaking, we are an a cappella outfit, so arrangements that we intend to do for the group are always arranged as four-piece vocal. When it comes to recording, we allow ourselves to use some tricks in the studio, so we will often do over-dubbing and multi-tracking; we’ll use body percussion that might be played in in loops – so I might do two bars of a chest kick-drum, that kind of thing, and loop it. Other times we have taken samples of sounds like that or hi-hats and have created a particular sequence of them. We might sing along to those. Sometimes we just like to invite friends.

James Morrison has been a wonderful support for the group, and Naomi had already arranged ‘But Not For Me’ for the group, just for four voices, but that was a track where she said, ‘wouldn’t it be great…?’ We could just hear his flugelhorn over the top of it. So she wrote an additional section and James came into the studio and knocked down this brilliant solo, so that was really exiting. We always love being involved with James; he’s such an exciting talent.

Soundbite: ‘Evidence’ – from the album Evidence.

You can hear why it’s Monk,
Yes he’s the one that we turn to
When we need hard-core groove,
Not like the rest.

Demetrius Romeo: Another song that James Morrison had a hand in was ‘Evidence’, the title track of the album. Tell me how that song came about.

TRISH DELANEY-BROWN: This is a little bit of a story, actually. The seeds were sown for this arrangement early in 2001. James had this idea of taking a Thelonious Monk tune and turning into a dance-slash-punk-slash-some other style kind of arrangement, and it came back and it was nothing like that. But it was a fantastic jazz arrangement and he actually wrote the lyric that tells you the story of Thelonius Monk. ’Cause, of course, Monk was one of these guys who was into dissonant harmony.

Soundbite: ‘Evidence’ – from the album Evidence.

He’s the one who takes you
Out from in and still swings.

Demetrius Romeo: Often when I think of a cappella groups, they’re either religious, like gospel groups, or their novelty acts like barbershop quartets or doo-wop. Why do you think there is this division in what they do how do The Idea of North fit in to that?

TRISH DELANEY-BROWN: The word ‘a cappella’ actually translates to ‘as in the chapel’ and heralds back to when music in churches was just vocal music, so there are threads of the gospel and spiritual coming through from centuries and centuries ago. Then you’ve got the barber shop and doo-wop traditions which, I suppose, at the times that they started were the contemporary slant on a cappella music.

With the Idea of North, we’ve always been interested in having a variety within our repertoire because we have found, personally, listening to other a cappella groups, that a lot of them settle on a particular style, and that’s all you get for the entire evening. So you’ve heard three songs and you’ve heard them all. We don’t have the option of ‘here, listen to guitar for a while and rest your ears from voices’; it’s all our four voices, and there’s only so much you can do to change the tone in your voice. So what we offer in terms of variety basically gives the listeners’ ears a bit of a break every now and then. They’re not being assaulted by all four of us singing the same thing all night long.

Soundbite: ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ – from the album Evidence

Isn’t she lovely, isn’t she wonderful
Isn’t she precious, less than one minute old.
I can’t believe what God has done…

Demetrius Romeo: I notice on this album you also do a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’, and I know that song has been in The Idea of North’s repertoire for many years now. Why have you come around to recording it now?

TRISH DELANEY-BROWN: Mainly because Andrew came up with a new approach for the recording. It seemed to capture the vibe of Stevie’s original recording, so it was really exciting to finally get it down on tape. And of course, that song means a lot more to us now because in the last couple of years both Andrew our bass singer and Nick our tenor have become fathers.

Soundbite: ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ – from the album Evidence

Isn’t she lovely, isn’t she wonderful
Isn’t she precious, less than one minute old.

Demetrius Romeo: Trish, thank you very much.


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