In Part One of the interview, I talked to Genevieve Maynard about her career, about the problems of being an independent artist, and about Twitter.
In this section we talk about genre and other annoying labelling that critics do, as well as her influences and who makes her list of heroes. As you’ll see, my take on where the album fits was often pretty wide of the mark, though not necessarily in a bad way (he says).
For me, the most interesting stuff is about the actual writing of the songs, the way mood or story became chords on a guitar and lyrics on a sheet of paper. It’s always good to hear artists talking about that creative process. We began by talking about the album as a whole, but there are also some interesting comments on some of the individual songs. I think you’ll enjoy the discussion…..
To me, this album is just that, an album. It coheres musically and lyrically. There is a connection between the tracks which means that they support and reinforce each other in a way that makes The Hollow Way something more than a collection of songs. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, if you like. With the advent of iTunes and related technologies, there seems to be an ongoing argument about what is/should be seen as the primary musical form, the song or the album. I asked Genevieve for her view on that.
I don’t think this is a new thing, Tim. I think radio has only ever played songs, really, unless you are listening to an album show, of which there aren’t very many. Radio has always been about songs, so iTunes is just a bigger radio station. I mean, I don’t actually listen to the radio anymore much at all — occasionally FBI here in Sydney — but I listen to last.fm, because I can hear anything I want to, just by dialing in someone’s name, and then getting exposed to all this stuff I would never hear otherwise. And I find that really exciting. And then to know that if I find an artist I like, I can pretty much immediately access their album on last.fm, or find it online…that’s really, really exciting.
In terms of The Hollow Way, I understand what you are saying. To me the album is very themed and coherent. It is an album about journeys of one sort or another, and about revisiting places that you think you know well and find out that you don’t, or finding new places that you’ve never been to before, whether they’re literal places or places within yourself. So it does have that, and it is definitely a themed kind of concept.
That wasn’t a conscious thing, it just happened, given where I was at that time in my life when I was writing songs, and I was very quick to weed out things that wouldn’t work in the context. Once I had six songs, the rest of them just seemed to fall into the slot as I was writing them, so that influenced the final product.
Next Genevieve talked about genre, though she didn’t use that word.
I knew I wanted to head down the alt.country route, back to an organic kind of thing, and I didn’t want to have anything electronic on the album whatsoever. I did, maybe, four or five drum edits, across the whole album, which is completely different to how I’ve been working for the past ten years. I was absolutely anal with the band in pre-production, in terms of making sure everybody knew what everyone else was playing and I’d, you know, frequently stop them and get two of them to play with each other, and then a different combo, so that I knew how the parts were interacting. I was very conscious of making space for everything to happen.
So the whole album was developed as an album with those aims in mind, but if people latch onto a song and really like that, then that’s just as good to me, you know? The thing is for people to hear the music and if they relate to it; that’s brilliant, that’s what I want.
Just on all that, genre is one of those things that critics tend to harp on about but I think it is less important to musicians. But…this is me kind of thinking out loud about your album. On the surface, the instrumentation has all the hallmarks of that country/roots music sort of genre — lap steel, fiddle etc — but to me, there’s a sense in which it’s not that sort of music. So the critic in me wants to put it in a box, which I know is bad thing, but it kind helps people who haven’t heard it get some idea of what they are getting, and the thing is, I don’t know what box to put it in at all. I’m not sure I’d even call it alt.country or roots…?
For me, the genre has never been important. With Stella One Eleven we made a conscious effort to go in a pop direction, but that was the first time I’d ever done that. With this new one, I knew what direction I wanted to go, what instrumentation I wanted. Originally I wanted pedal steel, but Bryce couldn’t get his hands on one, so we ended up with lap steel, which is a pretty different sound: you just don’t get the same kind of vibe with it, you know?
But I actually do put the album in alt.country and that’s because I’ve been listening to a lot of alt.country.
So much for my theories!
I’m a huge Neil Young fan, and then there’s Lucinda Williams and Gillian Welch and those sorts of great artists. But then there’s this alternative strand within that, so maybe people like Wilco are within it, and Mercury Rev, and Great Lake Swimmers, and Bonny Prince Billy, Sun Kill Moon, Sun King, all of those types are in it. They are categorised as alt.country and that’s really where I see my band sitting.
It’s a really sort of nebulous slot, but it’s not “indie”, it’s not “rock”, it is alternative, but it definitely comes from that sort of storytelling roots tradition. Not roots as in blues roots, roots as in…
That Appalachian tradition…?
Yeah, and just folk music. That’s what my parents listened to. They were folkies…so it is actually what I grew up with.
And were they listening to English folk or American folk…?
American folk. They were into Dylan, Pete Seeger…though actually my dad did love the Clancy Brothers, so there was that sort of Celtic thing in there as well. And of course, bands like the Clancy Brothers influenced Dylan and others. Later in life I found Buffy Saint Marie too, so I do relate strongly to that sort of storytelling tradition.
Right. So I don’t know what you’ll think of this, but a couple of names kept coming into my head when I was listening to the album, and one of them was, would you believe, Richard Clapton. But maybe that was more because of the lyrics…
Well, yeah. The album strikes me as very Australian, as even a real Sydney album. I don’t know what you think of that. But lyrically, the album strikes me as very “the sun, the sand and the sea”, which, of course is the name of one of the tracks…
That song was actually written in Thailand….
Okay, then. (Tim laughs nervously…)
It was written about the tsunami. I was there about seven months after it happened and it was absolutely freaky, because one side of the island had been mangled and the side on which we were staying was untouched. We were staying out of town and we would go into town every so often and people were so traumatised, that they still had this urge to just tell you about their experiences, their near-death experiences. It was all just so sad and so moving. It was just an incredible experience. So that’s where that song came from.
Anyway, when you said Richard Clapton, I thought, well, I suppose ‘Long Gone’ is a bit like ‘Girls on the Avenue’…
I was thinking more of Goodbye Tiger, later than ‘Girls’…just his instrumentation — there’s slide in there — and that real Sydney/beach feel about a lot of his music around that time, which is I guess just how I was interpreting a lot of your lyrics…
Well that’s the beautiful thing about music, that anyone who hears it can apply their own interpretation to it, and that’s why music is a personal experience. So even when I started thinking about promoting the album, I said to myself that I wouldn’t talk too much about what the songs ‘meant’, ’cause that can ruin it for people….
Okay, so I don’t know what you’ll think of this, but the other band that came to mind listening to your album was Crowded House….Just in terms of how…there is something really classically structured about your songs, the sort of thing I associate with Neil Finn…it was just another thing that came to mind listening to the album.
I would never have thought of Crowded House, but there are a couple of Crowded House songs that I’m absolutely in love with and when I was in Bug House, we did a couple of tours with Crowded House. And they were one of those rare bands that never seemed to lack credibility and everyone seems to love and admire them. Neil Finn is a genius songwriter, an absolute genius songwriter, and I guess some of the darker Crowded House stuff is the stuff that I related to, like, say, ‘Fall at Your Feet’, so yeah, I’m stoked to be compared to them…
Well to me, the quality is at that level, at the level of say the first Crowded House album, which was just such an arresting, breaththrough album, and that was the sort of feeling I had listening to yours as well.
Thankyou so much. It’s great to hear that.
On that, then, let’s look at the album and begin with the opening track, ‘Ripped’. It’s probably my favourite track on the album. It encapsulates one of the themes of the album, the idea of building protections against being hurt, against vulnerability, that sort of thing. Is that how you see it?
Very much so. By the time I wrote it, I had maybe 7 or 8 of the songs written, so I knew that the themes of the albums were journeys and….One of my friends had her partner die young and very quickly from cancer — it was just terrible — and I went and spent some time with her where she lives up in Belligen. It’s beautiful up there and I came back after seeing how crazy she was after her partner’s death and how she was trying to cope with it. So I was affected by that, by also by the sheer beauty of the landscape up there and I wanted to right a song about rivers and creeks and, you know, willow trees and death. And ‘Ripped’ is what came out of it.
In fact, Genevieve reveals, this friend had been through an enormous amount of tragedy in her life, some of it in a very short space of time, and it was thinking about, about how someone can survive in the face of all that, that allowed the lyrics to emerge.
I just thought, how can you survive these horrendous things happening to you, all the time…I thought, how are you built that you have actually survived this?
So I came back with these images of houses and creeks and trees and also a sense of calmness and repetitiveness, so when I wrote the music for the track, I became very interested in the idea of using very minimal changes. Which meant that when I took the song to the band, I had to spend quite a deal of time explaining what the subtle changes in the fingering were because they’re sort of like half chords and open chords and that sort of thing, often with only one string, one note, making the change in the chord.
They are very subtle changes and they are structured in such a way so that it seems like it slight changes happening over a gradual period of time. To me, it’s my favourite song that I’ve written. I just love the way it starts so still, and then it builds momentum and then it becomes like a train chugging along…and that’s partly because the chords change so slightly but still end up somewhere else, I think.
That’s fascinating to hear. And to me, there is something, sort of, really contained about it, like there is about the whole album. You don’t just let rip, but there’s still a passion in it…to me it sounds like people who are good at what they do exercising control over their art.
Yeah, and the whole thing with the band, the whole orchestrating of the music is about doing that too. If you listen to the drums, you’ll hear halfway through the song where Brian brings the snare in. And we talked about that, where exactly it was going to come in and what effect in would have. He also does this sort of tom pattern that happens every now and then, just little thing like that…it really was very orchestrated sort of album the whole way through.
In fact, we had to, sort of retrain ourselves. To do what was only absolutely necessary and not just fill in stuff, let everyone else’s parts come through…
Let’s talk about the song ‘Green Beads’. Having said that I don’t think the album is particularly alt.country, this is one tracks where I thought the label applied. It has a Lucinda Williams quality to it, and reminds me of her song, ‘Ventura’ from the album World Without Tears.
Um, well, oddly, this is one of the tracks that I didn’t think fit into that alt.country category…
(God, more nervous laughter.) Okay, tell me about your take on it.
This one is quite interesting in that it was three bits of songs that I had written. And I knew that two of them worked together, but I couldn’t work out how to make them go together. I knew that they were related — I’d had them sitting around for a couple of years — and every couple of months I’d come back to them and try different bridging chords to get the two bits to work together. Lyrically they just didn’t seem to match up.
Then what happened was that my aunt died and I inherited these jade beads from her. She suffered from polio and was bed-ridden and I spent a fair bit of my childhood jumping around on her bed. She was also Catholic and I’m not religious at all and so the funeral was very confusing for me, apart from everything else. Then seven months later, my mum died as well, and, in amongst all this, these lyrics came to me as I was processing all this, and strangely, getting that unified idea with the lyrics actually seemed to make the music work as well, the chords suddenly seemed to go together. At which point, the third part of the song slotted right in.
So eventually it came together over a long period of time, though initially, it still sounded to me like three bits, but the boys in the band said, no, no, it sounds like a song, and I’ve learnt to hear it like that now.
‘Albatross’ is the fourth track on the album, and, incidentally, this is the one my twelve-year-old son really likes. He likes the whole album, but this one in particular, and I think it is partly because of the mythological overtones in it. What is the myth surrounding killing an Albatross?
If you were a sailor, to kill an Albatross is extremely unlucky. So being burdened by an Albatross is like years and years of bad luck and calamity and I wrote the song about a family member who was basically having a nervous breakdown, and he could not find his way out of it, or so it seemed to me. So it was incredibly sad to see him going through this and all the weird things his brain was coming up with during it. So it was about that.
Musically, the six-eight timing seems to go together with the nautical theme. It sort of sways.
‘Sunburnt Boys’, track five, was the one that most reminded me of Richard Clapton, a comparison that Genevieve still (politely) found a bit hard to understand, though she did agree with me — enthusiastically — that the guitar solo was great. Hat-tip to guitarist, Steve Campbell.
‘Sunburt Boys’ is my homage to Neil Young. If you listen to the opening guitar, it’s sort of cross between ‘Old Man’ and ‘Out on the Weekend’ or something. He was a massive influence on me, although I didn’t really hear his music till I was about fifteen when I used to visit my step-dad in Sydney. He lived with a guy who had this massive record and book collection. He was a big music fan. Still is. In fact, I still know him and he comes to see me play, though he didn’t recognise me the first time he showed up at one of my gigs! Anyway, my step-dad lent me a tape of Harvest, and I…I stole it. I just put it on and, you know, was obsessed with it. It introduced me to a whole different world of music.
So this song was me taking a kind of “Neil feel” and using those kind of chords, and that’s where the music came from.
Lyrically, I wrote the words when I was on holiday in Bali.
So much for my theories of Richard Clapton and Sydney surf songs! Moving right along, then, we spoke about the remaining tracks, and I found that these, too, were inspired by journeys overseas, including to India, punching more holes in my “Sydney album” fantasy.
The song ‘Earthbound’ is another favourite on the album. The melody takes you by surprise, and I wondered if this was a recent composition.
‘Earthbound’ is the oldest song on the album. I wrote it after my second album and when it had become apparent to me that I wouldn’t be able to break through certain barriers that had been put in my way. It was like, I don’t want to be trapped in this situation, but I am, I am trapped in this bloody mud, and it’s like, how the fuck can I get out of it? And you know, I wrote it around, I think, the second year of Australia Idol, and there’s Mark Holden on TV telling all and sundry you do this, you do that and it’s successful and it works and that’s all you have to do, and I just thought: fuck off, Mark Holden. It is not that easy. If you don’t fit that mould, the barriers can be insurmountable. That’s where that one came from.
Appropriately, the album finishes with a track called ‘Take Me Home’. The end of the journey.
This is another Indian song, and when I was writing it, I knew immediately that I was writing the last song of the album. It was written at that end of that two-month journey and, you know, it is an extremely overwhelming country. You experience the best of people and the absolute worst of people; and the best of yourself and the absolute worst of yourself. Some places in Asia are like another world, but India is like another planet. It is just so extreme, and by the end of my seven weeks there, I’d had enough. It was exhausting and I was like, take me home. So this song came out of that exhaustion and the full-on information overload of trying to deal with what is India. Just take me home.
And that was the end of our conversation. I obviously learned a lot about the album, and it had me thinking about that rarefied position of authority that critics tend to assume when they write about music and it was useful to find out just how misplaced that sense of authority can be.
But it was all good. I knew where I was coming from, and even if the reality disabused me of some of my theories — the confusions I had jumped to — it did nothing to change my enjoyment of the album itself. Talking to Genevieve, I increased my appreciation of the work that goes into an album like this, while the theme that I had picked up on, of journeys temporal, journeys spiritual and journeys geographic, was duly enriched by the stories she told and the explanations she offered.
I reckon the album is worth your time and money. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.