There’s no mess in here; there’s David Messer, and a Messiah, but no mess…

Messiah3

David Messer, from Richard Grayson Messiah, 2004 (video still)

David Messer is a regular customer at Egg Records who shares a love of the Beatles – and also the Rutles, I recently discovered. However, he has a passion for country and western and bluegrass all of his own. He has been working on a country and western version of the Messiah for the last little while and brought me in a copy knowing that I’d immediately offer him the opportunity to talk it up on air. I did even better than that: I liked the concept so much, I bought an additional copy for a family member who should go for it in much the same way as I kind of want to give it a bit of a wide berth – after all, the Word of the Lord is the Word of the Lord, no matter how you dress it up. But I’m impressed with the authentic-sounding country and western and bluegrass stylings. And just for the record, there is actually truth behind that vintage Blues Brothers joke, “we got both kinds of music – country and western.” Before the genres were conflated (no doubt for marketing purposes), the cowboy songs of western music were distinct and separate from the Appalachian folk songs that include southern gothic murder ballads and the ‘yugg-dugga-dugga-dugga’ banjo pickings of hillbilly country. The Midnight Amblers, (“‘Midnight Ramblers’ with a silent ‘r’,” David admits) has it all. Hopefully this will go to air in the ABC NewsRadio Music News slot on Saturday. But why wait until then? Listen to it now.

Soundbite: ‘Sinfony’, from the album Richard Grayson presents The Midnight Amblers Handel’s Messiah

Demetrius Romeo: David, how on earth did a country and western version of Handel’s Messiah come into being?

DAVID MESSER: Well the Midnight Amblers were basically a band that was playing parties and stuff like that, doing covers of old Hank Williams and Chuck Berry songs, that kind of thing. And then, just through sheer coincidence, one of the band members was friends with an artist called Richard Grayson. He asked us if we’d be interested in recording a country and western version of Handel’s Messiah as his next artwork, it being a DVD recording us performing what we had played.

Demetrius Romeo: So the actual artwork was the recording of the artwork.

DAVID MESSER: Yes. In a sense, we have become part of the artwork. The band itself is part of the artwork. This interview, I suppose, as far as he’s concerned, is still part of it.

Demetrius Romeo: how do you go about re-writing the Messiah for a country and western band?

DAVID MESSER: That was something we were wondering about at first. I wasn’t too keen on trying to do a direct cover version of Handel’s music, following all the classical arrangements, the melodies. People have tried that sort of stuff in the past with African Sanctus and the Electric PrunesMass in F minor and that sort of thing and it never quite works for me. So I asked Richard, and he said, “Just pretend you’re in a parallel universe where Handel’s music never existed, and follow the libretto,” which is by the now-forgotten Charles Jennens. The words themselves, he took them from the King James Bible and arranged them for Handel. Quite quickly, I think; in a couple of weeks. Handel himself composed it in a few weeks. So we re-arranged the libretto into a structure that would work with country and western songs – verses and choruses and so on – and basically just divided the songs amongst band members and started strumming away on our acoustic guitars, writing little country and western and bluegrass songs that happened to use the same words as Handel’s Messiah.

Soundbite: ‘There were shepherds abiding in the field’, from the album Richard Grayson presents The Midnight Amblers Handel’s Messiah

Demetrius Romeo: Okay, so you’re using the words of Handel’s Messiah. Why does Handel get a mention? Why isn’t it Charles Jennens who’s mentioned in the title?

DAVID MESSER: Well, we are traditionalists, and Charles Jennens has always been forgotten so we thought that he should stay forgotten. Also, there are a couple of tunes that take something from Handel’s music. Although that wasn’t our original intention, one band member just happened to sit down with and acoustic guitar, he just put on the CD of Handel’s Messiah, got out his guitar and worked out chords that worked with that. So you’ll find that song – I think it was the track ‘Behold A Virgin Shall Conceive’ – follows the structure of Handel’s original piece, has essentially the same melodies, except in this case, has banjo and mandolin and that kind of stuff.

Soundbite: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive’, from the album Richard Grayson presents The Midnight Amblers Handel’s Messiah

Demetrius Romeo: I notice also that the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ makes an appearance in the country and western version.

DAVID MESSER: Yeah, we just couldn’t resist that. I mean, the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ is probably the only thing that most people would recognise from the Messiah. I mean, it’s one of the most recogniseable parts of a classical piece of not just Handel, but anybody. So, you know, we needed a hookline, something that people would recognise immediately and spark their interest in the thing. It’s just a catchy tune, too. And works very well in a crazy bluegrass fashion, I suppose.

Soundbite: ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn’ (ie, the ‘Hallelujah chorus’) , from the album Richard Grayson presents The Midnight Amblers Handel’s Messiah

DAVID MESSER: It just works. When you think about the kind of music we’re doing, it’s based on bluegrass and the old-time music from Kentucky and Tennessee. That goes quite well together with the religious lyrics. When you think about the kind of people who play that kind of music, they were into the Old Testament, New Testament, whatever. That’s what they were inspired by. So it does actually go quite well together in a strange kind of way, if you ignore the fact that this dead German guy was somehow involved.

Soundbite: ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn’ (ie, the ‘Hallelujah chorus’) , from the album Richard Grayson presents The Midnight Amblers Handel’s Messiah

Demetrius Romeo: What would the next project be for the Midnight Amblers, given the success of their version of Handel’s Messiah?

DAVID MESSER: This is a very difficult question. I was having a drink with Robert Scott, who plays bass and mandolin and sings in the band, last night and I was asking him that same question and he just shook his head and said, “We’re going to be playing Handel’s Messiah for the next ten years.

Demetrius Romeo: Well, you may be playing Handel’s Messiah for the next ten years; I think we’ll listen to it for the next few minutes. David Messer, thank you very much.

DAVID MESSER: Thank you, Dom.

Soundbite: ‘He that dwelleth in heaven shall laugh them to scorn’ (ie, the ‘Hallelujah chorus’) , from the album Richard Grayson presents The Midnight Amblers Handel’s Messiah

The Midnight Amblers launch their version of Handel’s Messiah Sunday 19 December at the Alexandria-Erskineville Bowling Club, Fox Avenue, Erskineville, from 5 pm - 8 pm.


China’s Princess Turandot

Turandot

The offer to interview the principals from the cast of China’s Princess Turandot was one worth taking up, particularly because there'd be the presence of an interpreter. In my mind’s ear I heard those Foreign Correspondent or BBC World Service stories where the soundbite begins in another language, but fades as the translation begins over the top. Here’s what the finished interview (as an MP3 file) sounds like, as lifted from the ABC NewsRadio Music News broadcast. Initially, I was chatting to Mr Sun Yong Bo, Ms Liu Pin and Ms Zhu Qin, who sat before me in the classic ‘v’ formation in that order, so that Ms Liu Pin was the centre of attention. Although I directed some questions to Mr Sun Yong Bo and Ms Zhu Qin, the fact is that a more direct story is told by editing together just the ones directed at Ms Liu Pin. I was startled to learn that ‘martial arts’ is one of the four artforms that comprise this production, and am looking forward to seeing it for myself!

Demetrius Romeo: How does China’s Princess Turandot differ from Puccini’s opera Turandot?

Ms LIU PING: The difference between China’s Princess Turandot and Puccini’s Turandot is that we add a new character which is Handmaid Liu Er who is quite important and she reveals a simple but very strong fact, that love conquers all, and in China’s Princess Turandot we want to show people what the beauty is, what the kindness is, and what the truth is. We use the character Handmaid Liu Er to reveal all these things. So there is a big difference.

Demetrius Romeo: Musically, does it differ at all?

Ms LIU PING: China’s Princess Turandot combines the music factors in one – that is, the traditional opera, and also the traditional Chinese folk songs like ‘Jasmine Flower’ – and most importantly we put Sichuan Opera as the main musical factor in this performance.

Demetrius Romeo: When composers – Western composers – used to write their operas and set them in places like China, and Japan – I’m thinking of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Mikado as well – they were often choosing places for their exotic remoteness from where they were. [1] How do you capture the difference, the exotic nature? Does it come into it? If it doesn’t, is it just a matter of dealing with the universal themes that everyone understands: the love, the truth, the beauty.

Ms LIU PING: Basically, this is a combination of the Orient and Occidental scenes, so actually, we want to capture the answers, like you said; we want to reveal what the true beauty and the true love, and also the truth is. Mostly we’re taking some other kind of patterns to reveal this, mainly by means of Chinese traditional drama, especially Sichuan opera.

Also, this is a story re-created by the Chinese, so we add some characters and we add some other plots. So our purpose is not to create the Western opera one hundred percent; this is not our ultimate purpose. Our purpose is to pull them together and to reveal a common sense.

Demetrius Romeo: LP, is this a lead role that you’ve aspired to, that you’ve always wanted to play, or have you always had similar roles as the beautiful princess?

Ms LIU PING: Yes, actually, this is quite a new role because it is quite a challenging one. Also, by playing this sort of new character, I have to perform and I have to reveal all of the five talents of Sechuan Opera. That is, the singing, the dialogue, the dancing and the martial arts. So it’s a complicated role. It’s quite challenging, but I love it.

Demetrius Romeo: Do you think that Quentin Tarantino might snatch you up for his next Hollywood blockbuster, having to achieve all of that in one performance?

Ms LIU PING: Yeah, actually, we hope so. We know that Quentin Tarantino tried to absorb a lot of things, like Hong Kong legend. But actually, Chinese drama is quite colourful and quite versatile. I do think he could absorb a lot of things from it.

Demetrius Romeo: If there was only one reason why someone had to come and see this show, in your mind, what is that one reason?

Ms LIU PING: The biggest selling point is the unique features of the Sichuan Opera. We have various kind of singing styles, we also have dialogue and martial arts in this Sichuan opera. So this the strongest selling-point to the Australian people.

1. That, at least was Beyond the Fringe satirist, occasional brain surgeon and performance director Sir Jonathan Miller’s justification of chosing the British seaside of the 1920s as the stylistic underpinning for the ‘look’ of his production of The Mikado. His is the one that featured Eric Idle in the role of Ko-ko. Which is why I bring up a production supposedly set in Japan; I wasn’t merely lumping all the productions set in the Orient together. Purists of course are incensed that anyone would dare deliver Gilbert & Sullivan with any variation to, say the D’Oyly Carte version, as if the work is some sort of sacred doctrine from which there must be no variation (on pain of finding it interesting, I suppose). But then it’s worth pointing out that the full title of this musical by William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Seymour Sullivan is in fact The Mikado or: The Town of Titipu. That’s like some Aussie, circa 1964, writing a musical set in Italy called The Generalissimo or: The Town of Poobumweebum.


David Ross Macdonald and his dark folk songs

I can’t remember if Kate Fagan approached me with the suggestion of an interview, or if David Ross Macdonald approached me out of the blue himself on Kate’s recommendation, but the story of the Waifs’ drummer who was a singer/songwriter in his own right – of ‘dark folk songs’, no less! – was too good to pass up. In the good old days when things were less structured, I’d be able to create a ten-minute interview including snippets of various songs; nowadays I’m trying to maintain the discipline of a regular weekly music news segment, so the interview component can only be about five minutes of that segment. It is thus fitting that I make a proper return to this blog – after a month’s absence spent coping with both the rolling of that boulder up the side of the retail mountain and bouts of incredibly debilitating arthritis – with the transcript of the original full-length natter with David Ross Macdonald.

I will follow it with a transcript of the broadcast version. However, if you prefer, you can download and listen to an MP3 of that shortened version.

Demetrius Romeo: David, you play guitar and you sing, and yet you’re also the drummer for the Waifs. How did you end up on the drumstool behind that band?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: That was a very, very, very fortunate thing. I was playing with a Perth band called the Ragabillys and that was a ‘boom-chick’ band. I was on washboard. We were at the Port Fairy Folk Festival and the Waifs were there as well. They saw me play and I was having a good time and we drank a lot and we had a lot of laughs and then Donna suggested I should go on tour with them, just for one or two shows, just for a bit of fun, because I was from the west and they needed a drummer when they were touring the west. I said, ‘sure. Sign me up!’ So three months later I was on a little tour with them up to Broome. We had a great time and it grew from that.

Demetrius Romeo: Your earlier album, Southern Crossing, is a collection of guitar instrumentals played specifically on handcrafted Australian guitars, so clearly you are a guitarist as well as a drummer. How do you divide your interests, and how did that particular album come to be?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: As far as dividing my interests, guitar came first. I did classical guitar when I was a teenager and played a bit of rock ’n’ roll at school, as we all did. And then I really dropped it, to become a geologist. So when I went to university, I did that. For a number of years I endured geology as a profession. And then I went to jazz college! I played drums at jazz college. I taught myself drums, and for some reason, they accepted me. So I was always surrounded by music and keen to pursue both drums and guitar. That’s how that happens.

People say most guitarists are drummers in re-hab, or vice-versa, and it’s the percussive side of playing guitar. It’s a very percussive instrument, anyway. And drummers have a lot of time to sit back and watch guitarists. Especially when I was playing with the Ragabillies. Rodney Vervest is an amazing finger-picker, so for six years I’ve watched him play finger-style guitar and I picked that up – so that was how I managed to get influence in that, I suppose.

Also through Rodney Vervest, he was a keen supporter of handcrafted instruments from Western Australia. He introduced me to the whole world of luthiers. And then a long time later, I was in Toronto, very jaded with the touring thing with the Waifs, and we were coming up to the end of the tour in 2001 and I just decided that I would do something completely different, and that would be to visit all these luthiers that I’d heard about in Australia and take my laptop and a couple of microphones and one by one, from Brisbane to the Margaret River, I visited these luthiers and had cups of coffee, went into their studios with the wood shavings and the cups of coffee and the cigarettes and the radio – that’s their sort of lifestyle, a very solitary sort of lifestyle, building these instruments – and we’d talk, he’d show me guitars, and I’d set up the mics and I’d just record. So I did it. I just went from one state to the next with my laptop and then I ended up with a record. I was taking photographs along the way – the scientist in me definitely came out in that little project. If you do own the record, you’ll see it has a comprehensive little booklet that describes construction and glues and woods and anecdotes about each of the builders.

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: Your new album, Far From Here, has guitars, has vocals, has drums, has an ensemble playing on it. Tell me about how Far From Here came into being.

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: Far From Here was a project that came into being because I had started to become heavily influenced by Americana singer-songwriters. With the Waifs touring a lot in the US and Canada, at a lot of the festivals that we went to, a lot of fabulous singer-songwriters came to my attention, and I’d been writing songs for a long time but I had never really seen people performing… ‘obscure folk music’, I suppose. I mean, singer-songwriter stuff that’s not ‘pop music’. A lot of the material that I write has certain abstractions and poetic quality to it that isn’t something that you’d hear on popular radio, so it isn’t something that I would ever pursue or tour or record. But after my experiences of seeing people like Steve Earl and Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch and Kelly Joe Phelps, David Francey – these folks write amazingly abstract and beautiful as well as really touching and simple folk music, and it gave me the confidence to pursue it myself.

So I really got down to writing the songs and then eventually finding the time in Melbourne to get some of the guys out of Paul Kelly’s group to help out in the studio. Also some of the guys from Things of Stone and Wood – I’ve got some pals there that I could call – and that was the first half of the album, with the rhythm section. The second half of the album is just myself with Stephen Hadley on bass.

We did that not that long ago – last summer when I was house-sitting John Butler’s place, up in Byron Bay. He had a lot of instruments lying around. Once again, I used a laptop and a couple of microphones to get the takes that I felt really comfortable with. Then we pulled it all together again, with Shane O’Mara down in Melbourne, who does a lot of studio stuff. He’s great. It came about in a process of about two years, in between Waifs tours, and I called it Far From Here because I was never anywhere in particular, so I thought that was the only name I could give the record.

Demetrius Romeo: That’s interesting, because you talk a lot about specific memories of places, for example, ‘Pearl’, that sounds like a true-life experience that happened in a beach town somewhere. Can you tell me a bit about that song?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: Yeah. That song actually does have a very quick reference to Broome. A lot of my experiences up in Broome, as far as checking out the local history, is steeped in Chinese traditions. You have Chinese cemeteries and you have the old architecture there, and the history of Chinese pearl divers – because a lot of the Australians were too damned lazy to do any of the hard work themselves, so they got the illegal immigrants to dive for pearls. From my travels in Northern California and Arcadia, you had the Chinese in the 1880s, 1890s, they were working in the coal mines. At the same time up in Canada, in Victoria and British Columbia, the Chinese were building the railways. It’s kind of an interesting historical fact that after the gold rushes of the mid-1800s, Chinese immigration, whether it was illegal or not, happened in America and Canada and Australia and probably a lot of other places that I don’t know of, and their labour was used and abused. I suppose ‘Pearl’ is a song that ties in that exploitation, because it was evident at that time. And also some of the aboriginal history of the area, because it’s got amazing aboriginal history: the aborigines used to collect the oyster shells and ground them up and take them inland because they thought it brought rain. I thought it was beautiful that the white man was there exploiting Chinese people to get pearls, while the aborigines just wanted the shells to ground them up and take them inland. It was an interesting story and I felt compelled to put something down.

Demetrius Romeo: One of the songs that stands out from the pack is ‘Seeds’ and I say this because, to me, the introduction sounds almost like an Irish kind of folk song. Is it fair to say that it stands out? And how does it fit in to the rest of the collection?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: It is a little bit anomalous because it’s a tune where I wanted to muck around with the time signatures and it has a waltzy ‘jig’ sort of feel to it because the ‘three’ component of the 5/4 time that it’s in is very strong. And also the song actually starts with a single bar of three, so it feels as if it’s in 3/4, but then it goes straight into 5/4 and then dances around. I liked that rhythmic idea and I suppose I decided to sing over the 5/4 time signature to kind of disguise it, so that it didn’t come over as a straight 5/4 composition. That was just a fun thing to do.

The whole metaphoric value of seeds, whether they be seeds in conversation or ideas or letters, we all have seeds in our lives some of which grow and some of which don’t. I imagined that in the context of overhearing someone’s conversation in a park. That was the background for that song – a combination of music I had been working on first, and then pulling in lyrics that I had been working on in another area. That was where seeds came from.

Demetrius Romeo: Are you going to continue to divide your time between drums and guitars?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: Definitely. I’ve been with the Waifs now for six years and I think the first five of those six years were an incredibly dense period of touring. I remember our first American tour, we were out for over eight months, just touring and that was very intense. We went to a lot of festivals and got a lot of great music under our belt and made some really good friends over there and realised the scope of the folk scene in America is wonderful… broad. But now that Viki has had a little baby, we won’t be touring half as much as we used to, and it provides me with a great opportunity to play my music to the really small folk clubs and the little house concert series that we hear of. Also, being a member of the Waifs, you get your e-mails returned. You don’t necessarily get a gig out of it, but you get an e-mail returned. That way I’ve made a lot of connections. I’m just gonna play as much as I can, whether it be the guitar or the drums.

I don’t think I’m going to play drums for anyone other than the Waifs. I’ve had a few offers, but my commitment first and foremost is to the Waifs. I don’t want to be in a position where I have to say ‘I can’t tour’ because I’m playing drums for someone else. That won’t happen.

So, yeah, I’m going to balance the two up for as… well, forever, really, that’s the goal of life: to play music until you drop dead. That’s mine, anyway!

Demetrius Romeo: An excellent attitude! David Ross Macdonald, thank you very much.

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: Thanks for your time. Appreciate it.


Here’s the bit that got broadcast as part of the music news segment on ABC NewsRadio – but really, rather than read it again just to see where I made the crafty edits, why not download it here and listen to how I made crafty edits instead?


Debbie Spillane: New releases: let’s have a look at what’s happening in that department. Far From Here by David Ross Macdonald.

Demetrius Romeo: Let me tell you about David Ross Macdonald. You don’t know him, but you do know him: he’s the drummer for the Waifs, but he’s also a great guitarist and a folk singer, and he sings what he calls ‘darkfolk songs’. Now, I did have a chat with him, I will play the interview, but before I do, let’s have a listen to some of his instrumental guitar work, because his first album, Southern Crossing, was a series of instrumentals played on handcrafted Australian guitars.

Soundbite: ‘Old Macs Tractor’ played on a Wright Guitar by David Ross Macdonald, from his album Southern Crossing

Demetrius Romeo: David, you play guitar and you sing, and yet you’re also the drummer for the Waifs. How did you end up on the drumstool behind that band?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: That was a very, very, very fortunate thing. I was playing with a Perth band called the Ragabillys. We were at the Port Fairy Folk Festival and the Waifs were there as well. They saw me play and I was having a good time and we drank a lot and we had a lot of laughs and then Donna suggested I should go on tour with them. I said, ‘Sure!’ We had a great time and it grew from that.

Demetrius Romeo: Your earlier album, Southern Crossing, is a collection of guitar instrumentals played specifically on handcrafted Australian guitars, so clearly you are a guitarist as well as a drummer. How do you divide your interests, and how did that particular album come to be?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: Guitar came first. I did classical guitar when I was a teenager and then I really dropped it, to become a geologist. So when I went to university, I did that. For a number of years I endured geology as a profession. And then I went to jazz college! I played drums at jazz college. I taught myself drums, and for some reason, they accepted me. I was always surrounded by music and keen to pursue both drums and guitar. Then a long time later, I was in Toronto, very jaded with the touring thing with the Waifs, and we were coming up to the end of the tour in 2001 and I just decided that I would do something completely different, and that would be to visit all these luthiers that I’d heard about in Australia and take my laptop and a couple of microphones and one by one, I visited these luthiers and just record.

Demetrius Romeo: Your new album, Far From Here, has an ensemble playing on it. Tell me about how Far From Here came into being.

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: I’d been writing songs for a long time but I had never really seen people performing… ‘obscure folk music’, I suppose. I mean, singer-songwriter stuff that’s not ‘pop music’. A lot of the material that I write has certain abstractions and poetic quality to it that isn’t something that you’d hear on popular radio, so it isn’t something that I would ever pursue or tour or record. But after my experiences of seeing people like Steve Earl and Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch and Kelly Jo Phelps – these folks write amazingly abstract and beautiful as well as really touching and simple folk music – it gave me the confidence to pursue it myself. And I called it Far From Here because I was never anywhere in particular, so I thought that was the only name I could give the record.

Demetrius Romeo: One of the songs that stands out from the pack is ‘Seeds’ and I say this because, to me, the introduction sounds almost like an Irish kind of folk song. Is it fair to say that it stands out? And how does it fit in to the rest of the collection?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: It is a little bit anomalous because it’s a tune where I wanted to muck around with the time signatures and it has a waltzy ‘jig’ sort of feel to it because the ‘three’ component of the 5/4 time that it’s in is very strong. And also the song actually starts with a single bar of three, so it feels as if it’s in 3/4, but then it goes straight into 5/4 and then dances around. I liked that rhythmic idea and I suppose I decided to sing over the 5/4 time signature to kind of disguise it, so that it didn’t come over as a straight 5/4 composition.

Soundbite: ‘Seeds’ by David Ross Macdonald, from his album Far From Here

Debbie Spillane: That’s ‘Seeds’, from David Ross Macdonald’s new album Far From Here, and David’s currently playing gigs around Australia with details on his website.


Missy Higgins


MissyHiggins


Much as I could take the opportunity to bang on about why Missy Higgins is such an interesting and talented individual, I’m happy to let her talk for herself. If you can download the MP3 version of this interview, do so – you’ll get to hear snippets of her songs. Of course, you should have heard some of her work already – the Triple J Unearthed winner of some years back has been touring quite extensively, and her last release, The Scar EP, debuted at number one in the singles chart. So even if you wanted to, just try and avoid her.

I was initially going to sit on this interview until Missy’s album, The Sound of White, was released September 6, about a month after the interview was conducted, but after Scar leapt to number one, I had to run it – or at least a truncated version of it with a few less questions and song snippets, as part of the chart listing at the tail end of that week’s music news. But now I’m banging on. If she sounds interesting to you, buy her album – Missy Higgins really is a talented individual.


Soundbite: ‘Scar’ by Missy Higgins, from The Scar EP.

Demetrius Romeo: Missy, you describe yourself as a songwriter, musician and singer in that order. Is that how you see yourself, as a songwriter first?

MISSY HIGGINS: Yeah, definitely. That’s how I want to see myself, anyway. I’d much rather be writing songs and not singing, than singing and not writing songs. It’s my passion.

Demetrius Romeo: How long have you been writing songs for?

MISSY HIGGINS: I think I started when I was about fourteen.

Demetrius Romeo: How old were you when you sent your demo away to Triple J Unearthed?

MISSY HIGGINS: I was seventeen. I was in Year 12. My sister actually sent it away because I was at boarding school at the time.

Demetrius Romeo: Had you written a lot of songs by then?

MISSY HIGGINS: No. I pretty much only had that one song. That was pretty much the first song that I was proud to say was my song. And I forgot about it. It was, like, two months later, and I got a phone call saying that I’d won.

Demetrius Romeo: Wow!

MISSY HIGGINS: Yeah.

Demetrius Romeo: How’d you feel?

MISSY HIGGINS: Well, the lady goes to me, “Hi Missy. So, are you sitting down?” And I thought, it must be a pretty big deal if she’s asking me if I’m sitting down. I didn’t quite know that it was a big deal until afterwards, really, when people started going, “Wow, that’s really great!” And I got my song on the radio, which is pretty cool.

Soundbite: ‘All For Believing’ by Missy Higgins, from her Unearthed session at Triple J (although a very similar version exists on The Missy Higgins EP).

Demetrius Romeo: You seem very comfortable with different genres insofar as some of your songs are majestic piano ballads, others have bluesy horns, some of them are just straight out syncopated, scat-singing jazz numbers.

MISSY HIGGINS: Yep.

Demetrius Romeo: What influences you musically? Where do you come from as a musician?

MISSY HIGGINS: Well, I guess I’ve always listened to a broad variety of music. I’ve always really loved jazz, I studied jazz through high school and I sang in my brother’s jazz band growing up, and listened to a lot of old jazz singers. But I listen to all different types of music and I think, as a songwriter, that’s the best thing that you can do: if you want to come up with an original sound, then you have to listen to heaps of different kinds of music so that you can make your own combination.

Soundbite: ‘The Cactus That Found The Beat’ by Missy Higgins, from The Scar EP

Demetrius Romeo: The other thing I find interesting is that you were discovered through Triple J Unearthed. Within three years, you’re touring with people like Bic Runga, The Waifs, The John Butler Trio, Pete Murray. It’s all quite whirlwind. Did you have any idea that you’d be here three years later?

MISSY HIGGINS: No, not at all. I’ve always kept my expectations very low so that I’ll never be disappointed. I was just really excited by the possibility of actually having a full-time career in music, because I knew that I loved singing and I loved performing, but I always thought that it was something that I was going to do on the side. I’m just ecstatic that it’s something that I can do with all my time these days.

Soundbite: ‘Casualty’ by Missy Higgins, from The Scar EP

Demetrius Romeo: How do you manage to write songs that sound quite mature in their lyrical approach and also their musical approach?

MISSY HIGGINS: I guess I’ve always been someone that feels very strongly and deeply about things. I’ve always been a fairly introverted person and have always thought very deeply about everything that happens to me. I’m quite emotional, I guess, so something that might seem trivial to one person, I feel like it’s the end of the world, that it’s something very important that is happening to me. I guess that’s how I get the depth in my songs. And I guess I have been through quite a lot – obviously not as much as people that are maybe six years older than me, but I feel like I have been through a lot.

Soundbite: ‘The Special Two’ by Missy Higgins, from The Missy Higgins EP.

Demetrius Romeo: You must have imagined at some stage in your childhood, because you loved music so much, that you would make a career of it somehow.

MISSY HIGGINS: I always knew that I wanted to play music and perform music but I never thought that I could do it full time. I thought I would do music on the side, as something I loved but couldn’t necessarily do full time.

Demetrius Romeo: So you didn’t even fantasise that one day you would be on the cover of…

MISSY HIGGINS: Oh sure, I used to fantasise all the time about singing in front of thousands and thousands of people. I used to dream about that. I loved holding a microphone so much, and having my voice amplified and performing. Yeah, I just used to dream that one day I’d be playing at a concert.

Demetrius Romeo: So is it going the way you imagined it, so far?

MISSY HIGGINS: Yeah, definitely!

Demetrius Romeo: So what’s the next stage of the plan? How did you imagine it goes from here?

MISSY HIGGINS: I didn’t. The only thing I ever imagined was playing in front of a sea of people. I’m yet to play in front of a sea of people, but I’m getting there.

Demetrius Romeo: Fantastic! Missy Higgins, thank you very much.

MISSY HIGGINS: Thanks for having me.

Soundbite: ‘Scar’ by Missy Higgins, from The Scar EP.


If you enjoyed this interview, Robbie Buck had a great chat with Missy Higgins on his Triple J show Home & Hosed. There is an MP3 file of it on this page.


Gerry ’Cross the Mersey

Gerry Marsden, of ‘Gerry and the Pacemakers’ fame may not mean much to you, but he and his band recorded a handful of singles – ‘How Do You Do It’ (the single the Beatles rejected, with which the Pacemakers made their recording debut, and with which, had their first number one single), ‘I Like It’, ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’ and of course, ‘Ferry Cross the Mersey’ – that are universally known and loved. ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, from Marsden’s favourite musical, Carousel, was adopted as the anthem of the Liverpool Football Club. Marsden is currently in Australia with PJ Proby, as they undertake their ‘60s Gold – Fortieth Anniversary’ tour.

I know very little about Proby – except that he used to perform a stage manouvre that would see the seams of his jumpsuit split, that would have women decorating their cookies throughout the audience. As for Gerry, I was always a bit of a fan of that early 60s pop. Managed by Brian Epstein and produced by George Martin, the Pacemakers may appear to have been another besuited wannabe Beatles as far as latecomers are concerned. But they were the Beatles’ contemporaries. Indeed, there was an occasion in which pre-fame Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Beatles performed together, as the Beatmakers. However, whereas the Fab Four were always breaking new ground, exploring and exploiting sonic territory, the Pacemakers never really changed. So when the Beatles discovered psychedelia, the Pacemakers broke up so that Marsden could pursue a career in musicals.

Forty years on, he seems to have a pretty good life on the nostalgia circuit. A pleasant, happy, chatty interview subject, I can only hope I’m having half as much fun, still being paid for doing what I love to do, by the time I get to his age! (Although, let’s face it – what’s this ‘still’ business? I hope I get the opportunity to get paid to do what I love to do just once by the time I get to his age!)

A truncated version of this was edited into last week’s Music News and broadcast on ABC NewsRadio. I may even get around to posting a transcript of that broadcast. You can listen to the broadcast version – bookended by Music News banter – here. The transcript of the full, original interview follows.


GERRY MARSDEN: The last time I was here was a year ago. This is my twenty-third trip to Australia. I’m really a national.

Demetrius Romeo: So you must like it here!

GERRY MARSDEN: I love Australia. It’s great. I have lots of friends in Australia. I enjoy working in Australia, and I love the weather in Australia. So it’s great to be back!

Demetrius Romeo: If I didn’t have any scruples, I’d follow that quote with a snippet from your song ‘I Like It’!

Now, Gerry, when you started out, you broke a record by having three number one singles as your first three singles. Did you have any idea that you’d be that successful when you first picked up a guitar?

GERRY MARSDEN: No, not at all. Music was fun to me, and it still is today. When we had our first number one with ‘How Do You Do It?’, we thought, ‘bloody hell!’, you know, ‘we’re stars!’ Next thing was, we got ‘I Like It’ and ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ as our first three number ones and there was a great surprise and a great pleasure to have them. We just loved them. That was what started my career in show biz and it’s still tremendous; I love it.

Demetrius Romeo: When you recorded ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, which was a song from a musical – apparently it was one of your favourite songs from your favourite musicals. How did you actually come to record the song?

GERRY MARSDEN: I saw the musical… the song itself is a lovely song. I love the lyrics. When we had ‘I Like It’ and ‘How Do You Do It?’, George Martin and Brian Epstein, our manager. I said I wanted to do ‘… Walk Alone’ as our third record and they said, ‘oh, it’s too slow, it’s wrong; it should be poppy!’ I said, ‘no, let me do it’. I won the fight, and when it got to number one, I rang them back and went, ‘nah nah ner-nah nah’. It’s just a song I loved and I still love singing it today. So God bless ‘…Walk Alone’.

Demetrius Romeo: It’s become an anthem; it’s still sung by hordes of people at the football in Liverpool.

GERRY MARSDEN: Yeah, it’s great. I go to the match when I’m at home, and my hair stands up and I get goose pimples when they sing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’. I stand with them and I’m singing it with them. It’s wonderful. It’s become the anthem of our football team. Wonderful!

Demetrius Romeo: Another anthemic song that you wrote was ‘Ferry Cross The Mersey’ which again sums up so much, and always brings a tear to the eye of people who can look back nostalgically on where they’ve come from and where they’re going. How did that song come about?

GERRY MARSDEN: ‘Ferry…’ was from a film. We made a film called Ferry Cross The Mersey because in the early days, we didn’t have videos, so we couldn’t actually send videos around the world for kids, and the Beatles did A Hard Day’s Night and Help! and Brian said we should do one. A guy called Tony Warren, who wrote Coronation Street originally, wrote Ferry Cross The Mersey the film, and asked me, could I do the songs for the film. I said yes, and he said, ‘well, we need a good theme song’. So I wrote ‘Ferry Cross The Mersey’. I wrote it about Liverpool people and why a ferry should cross the Mersey to get to Liverpool, and it worked and it’s became a great standard for me. All over the world, wherever I go, people say, “please sing ‘Ferry Cross The Mersey’!”

Demetrius Romeo: How do you feel that you had these massive hits at the front end of your career? Does it effect you as you go on as a musician?

GERRY MARSDEN: Not at all. You can’t continue having hit records. But the thing those records gave us – ‘Ferry’, ‘Don’t Let The Sun Catch You Crying’, things like that – they gave us a longer life in the business, because people liked the songs, they liked the lyrics, they like to come and see the shows. So it doesn’t matter now, not having hit records, truthfully. It would be nice to have one, of course, but it doesn’t matter not having one because people still love to listen to the records of those days. I’m just glad that they still do, and I can still work and enjoy myself. And travel the world. And come to Australia every year. Yeah, yeah, bloody great!

Demetrius Romeo: One of the problems for the music industry at the moment is that people are downloading songs illegally. If what you are, primarily, is a live performer, does that affect tour career as a musician?

GERRY MARSDEN: It doesn’t affect my career as a musician… Downloading is a thing they do that’s just life. It might affect me if I’m making millions and millions of pounds out of records, but I’m not; I’m making millions out of singing and entertaining, and they can’t download me – ha ha ha! I wish they could – ha ha ha. So no, it doesn’t matter to me, really.

Demetrius Romeo: What sort of audience do you draw in Australia?

GERRY MARSDEN: The nice thing is, we get kids of sixteen to kids of ninety-three coming into the show, because you get the parents, you get the grandparents who know the songs, and you get the young kids who like the sixties music and they want to see the artists who actually recorded the songs. So it’s massive. The audience is a vast array of ages, and it’s great, because the kids love the music. What you get is another bonus for us: they’re grateful and they know the words and it’s easy to sing ’em.

Demetrius Romeo: Do the kids sing along with you?

GERRY MARSDEN: Of course they do. The kids and the old kids all sing along. It’s like a party. I could go out on stage, start my first song and leave until the end because they sing every song with me.

Demetrius Romeo: Do you find, as you play different territories, that different songs are the ones that get the crowd rolling for you?

GERRY MARSDEN: Maybe so. Yeah, like, in Australia, a song called ‘Girl On A Swing’ is very popular, which isn’t really popular in England. And in the States, ‘Girl On A Swing’ and ‘I’ll Be There’, songs like that which aren’t massive in England, are big in Australia, so you find that you do have to change the act slightly. And half the time, I’ve forgotten the words to the songs, so I’ve got to relearn them. But never mind: it’s worth doing!

Demetrius Romeo: What’s your favourite part of coming to Australia?

GERRY MARSDEN: I don’t know my one favourite thing… Maybe the beaches – I love the beaches. I’m a sun worshipper, so I love the beaches. And I love the people because I just think Australians are great; they’re mad, and I’m mad, and I think it’s great fun to be back in Aussie.

Demetrius Romeo: The Pacemakers broke up in the mid 60s. How did you progress after that? Did you think it was the end, for a little while?

GERRY MARSDEN: What we did, we decided to split in 1967 – the original band – because I was going into the West End, into theatre, to do a show called Charlie Girl and I loved it. I did that for nearly three years, and the show actually came out to Australia but I couldn’t sign the contract for twelve months because I wanted to be home; I couldn’t be away for that long. And a great guy called Johnny Farnham did my part in Australia; Johnny’s a great artist, a great singer and a great guy. So I did that and then I did another show – a West End show called Pull Both Ends. Then, in about 1975, I said ‘right, I want to tour’ because I would get letters from the States and Australia saying “What are you doing? Where are ya?” So I thought ‘right!’ and I re-formed me band, just to re-tour again. And since that day, I’ve been touring and I’ve had about three thousand Pacemakers in my band since the early days.

Demetrius Romeo: Freddy, your brother, was an original Pacemaker. Is he still in the band with you?

GERRY MARSDEN: No, Fred finished with the other boys in ’67, and all he’s done since then is play golf. He’s a great golfer and enjoys playing golf, so, no, Fred isn’t in the band, but I still see him a hell of a lot of course because he’s mah bruddah. He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother!

Demetrius Romeo: Gerry, thank you very much.

GERRY MARSDEN: The pleasure has been all mine. You take care and look after yourself. God bless you.