Australian musicians band together to invest in solar

In the spring of 2017, immediately after the release of the Australian band Cloud Control’s third album, Zone, the band’s keyboard player, Heidi Lenffer, was contemplating what the their upcoming tour would cost. But this time she wasn’t just thinking about the money; she was thinking about emissions. Independent bands are used to running on a shoestring budget – a carbon-conscious Lenffer wanted Cloud Control to run a more environmentally efficient operation, too.

She began asking climate scientists in the field, and connected with Dr Chris Dey from Areté Sustainability. Dey crunched the numbers for Cloud Control’s two-week tour, playing 15 clubs and theatres from Byron Bay to Perth.

He found that it would produce about 28 tonnes of emissions – roughly equivalent to what an average household produces in a year. And that was just the national leg of an album tour that would take the band to the US three times.

“I had suspected that all of this flying, and all of the energy that goes into tours, can’t be very good for the environment – but there was no solution that existed beyond carbon offsetting,” Lenffer says.

Offsetting is essentially an attempt at equalisation: when you offset your flights, you try to compensate for your carbon footprint by donating to a program to suck it out of the atmosphere, via tree planting or sequestration somewhere else. Lenffer wanted to aim higher.

Partnering with the superannuation fund Future Super, and the developer Impact Investment Group, Lenffer has established FEAT. (Future Energy Artists): a platform that officially launches on Wednesday and will allow musicians to build and invest in their own solar farms.

Early signs are promising. As well as Cloud Control, other Australian bands already signed up include Midnight Oil, Vance Joy, Regurgitator, Big Scary, Peking Duk and Jack River. The first solar farm being built with their help is Brigalow: an 80-hectare project near Pittsworth on Queensland’s Darling Downs.

“At last, a project that takes the great passion many artists have for a healthy world powered by renewable energy, and makes it doable,” says Midnight Oil’s frontman, Peter Garrett. Paul Curtis, Regurgitator’s manager, talks about an “actively engaged citizenry embracing a more optimistic and progressive approach to the future”.

Lenffer wanted to tap into the creative drive of her industry to find a solution to a complex problem. “The environmental movement often lacks a positive premise for action,” she says. “It is exciting to own a piece of a solar farm. To do that collectively, we can leave a lasting, tangible infrastructure legacy and say, ‘We built that together.’”

Here’s how it works: money that artists invest in FEAT. is put into a portfolio which is managed by Future Super, and can be used to buy ownership stakes in solar farms or loaned to build their infrastructure. The land that Brigalow solar farm is being built on was previously used as a sorghum grain farm. It is now being leased from the land’s owner to build the solar project, whose progress is closely monitored by Impact Investment Group, which manages the underlying fund investing in Brigalow.

And artists can put forward as much as they can afford. Perhaps they want to throw in a one-off lump sum, or offer a percentage of their touring income; the idea is that everyone should be able to invest in their financial and environmental future – which is why FEAT. set a floor price of just $5 to set up an account.

FEAT. says the 34.55-megawatt Brigalow solar farm could power the equivalent of 11,300 homes for 30 years. (Looked at another way, it could generate more than 2,000 Cloud Control tours in renewable energy.) That energy is then sold into the energy market, with a target return on investment for artists of 5 percent a year.

The total emissions output of the global music sector is not well studied. A 2010 investigation into the UK industry found it was responsible for more than 540,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas every year, much of it from live music. Most of that was transport, not just of band members and equipment, but fans: audience travel alone accounted for 43 percent of emissions.

A further 26 percent came from the lifecycle of CDs, which speaks to the age of the study. But, according to researchers from the University of Glasgow, the streaming age hasn’t made for a cleaner product: the energy required to store and process music in the cloud makes for an even worse carbon footprint than manufacturing and distributing CDs and records.

For artists, the pitiful royalty rates generated from streaming, and the crash in sales of physical product, means that live music makes up the bulk of revenue. For Lenffer, going on tour meant contributing to the global climate emergency – but she was willing to gamble that “a progressive community like the music industry would have the guts and imagination to embrace change”.

Lenffer says she was inspired by community movements overseas, particularly in Europe, where groups were banding together to buy investments in renewables. “Sporting clubhouses would install solar panels on their rooftops purchased by the residents in the area, [who] would then be paid back through the energy generated over a period of time,” she explains. “I found about 70 groups in Australia doing it, as opposed to around 500 in Scotland and 1000 in Germany.”

But as well as being the biggest greenhouse gas emitters per capita, Australians also have the highest take-up of rooftop solar. Lenffer says this statistic “shows that people are driving the change where our government is not”. And, compared with Europe, there are far more abundant solar resources available in our sunburnt country.

Lenffer sees the potential for her idea to catch on. “There’s no reason why this couldn’t go global,” she says. “If we can demonstrate it works here – which I feel like we can, because we’ve already got a number of big-name and emerging artists signed up – if we can take ownership over building the solar assets that are going to power our future, which we need to do as quickly as possible, there’s no reason why this couldn’t be rolled out for every artist touring the world.”

First published in the Guardian, 4 June 2019

Paul Kelly’s avian epiphany

Songwriter Paul Kelly spent most of his life “not noticing birds very much at all”. Then suddenly he opened his eyes and they were everywhere. To some extent, the songwriter’s eyes were opened for him. One influence was his partner of the past four years, Siân Darling.

Another connection was friend Sean Dooley, editor of BirdLife Australia’s quarterly magazine and author of The Big Twitch. Kelly met Dooley kicking a footy around St Kilda with a bunch of other locals. (Dooley remembers Kelly’s prowess: “He’s very skilled – runs low to the ground, deceptively quick, and from memory a raking low, left-foot kick.”)

Then Anna Goldsworthy, from the Seraphim Trio, contacted Kelly suggesting they team up with classical composer James Ledger. Kelly had worked with Ledger on an earlier collaboration, Conversations With Ghosts, and the latest idea was to set poems about animals to music.

Kelly liked the idea and wanted to work with both the Seraphim Trio and Ledger (with the addition of multi-instrumentalist Alice Keath) but thought the subject too broad. Narrowing it down to the avian world, he began poring through hundreds of poems.

The end result is Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds, which adapts works by Emily Dickinson (“Hope” is The Thing With Feathers), Judith Wright (Thornbills; Black Cockatoos), Thomas Hardy, W B Yeats and others for musical performance. An album is due later this year.

Kelly says collaborators were all determined to include a song about a magpie. Dennis Glover’s The Magpies is the final song in the cycle: “When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm, the bracken made their bed / And quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle, the magpies said.”

Ironically, Glover is a New Zealander, and across the Tasman, where magpies were artificially introduced, the bird has become a pest. “The things you learn,” Kelly says – to which the magpie might simply quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle in reply.

Kelly is conscious, at least in hindsight, of environmental themes beginning to filter through his work, even before last year’s album Nature. “The beauty of this project is that it’s opened up a whole other world to me and that’s a never-ending world,” he says.

For Ledger, the whole other world was musical. “I’m sort of being dragged over to his rock/pop world and he’s being dragged over to my classical world, for want of a better word, and the end result is somewhere in the middle,” he says.

Kelly has a different perspective. “Different genres of music are much closer together than people think,” he says, asked how his folk-rock chords and Ledger’s more baroque arrangements work together. “It’s voice and notes in the end.”

They both agree, though, that Ledger ended up more in Kelly’s world, as Ledger began to email songs with guide vocals and melodies through to Kelly. Previously, he had stuck to arranging and embellishing. “I don’t know if I moved that much towards him!” Kelly says.

Ledger, however, was tickled pink. “To hear Paul singing the songs I had sung back to me was quite a thrill, because Paul has got that incredibly distinctive voice that most Australians would recognise.”

And for Kelly the project continued to open his eyes not only to birds, but to a new way of writing songs after 40 years. Despite his reputation, Kelly has always insisted he found writing lyrics the hardest and that the music always came first.

Conversations With Ghosts was the first time Kelly had tried to put music to other people’s words; after that came his Shakespearean project Seven Sonnets And A Song. Before that, he felt writing lyrics first would force the music to “run on too rigid a rail”.

Since then, a key has turned. “In a way, it takes the pressure off. I come up with music much easier than I do words, so to know there’s this whole world of great lyrics and poems and words out there that can be tapped is exciting.”

Naturally, there is a conservation message in Thirteen Ways To Look At Birds. “In each program for the shows, we pick a bird that’s under threat and then put a link to an organisation where people can do something about it,” Kelly says.

More recently, he says, he’s been reading about the crashing numbers of insects. “People are starting to realise that the biomass of insects is dropping all over the world and people have started to realise that we’d better measure this.”

After all, without insects, there’ll be no more quardle oodle doodling, or much of anything else. “It’s impacting birds, along with all the things you know – the loss of habitat and climate change, pesticides and so on – it’s a calamity happening right in front of us.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 2019

Tom Boyd lived the dream. Now let him live his life

There’s a moment in David Williamson’s play The Club where Geoff Hayward, Collingwood’s prize new recruit, is confronted by his coach, Laurie (played in the 1980 film by Jack Thompson) after a game which he’s mostly spent watching a seagull while stoned out of his gourd. “Marry-a-wanna?” asks Laurie, incredulous.

Hayward is unrepentant. He identifies the absurdity at the heart of what he does. “It’s a load of macho competitive bullshit,” he says. “You chase a lump of pigskin around a muddy ground as if your life depended on it, and when you finally get it, you kick it to buggery and then go chasing it around again! Football shits me.”

“Well, I wish to Christ you’d told us that before we paid out 120 grand for you,” Laurie replies.

I thought of The Club when I heard of the retirement of Tom Boyd, a former No.1 draft pick, his enjoyment sucked from the game after 61 matches, only nine of them with his first club Greater Western Sydney, before the Bulldogs landed him on big money. At that time, like Hayward, he was just a kid with potential. He ended up winning them a fabled premiership.

I see a lot of parallels between Boyd and the fictitious Hayward. The expectations that accompanied his outsized talent, draft standing and salary. His awareness that sport is fundamentally unreal, even as each body-on-body contest put him in physical jeopardy. That he was living out a fantasy that compensated for the frustrations and jealousies of others.

Another character in The Club, the veteran Danny, harbours his own resentments. “If I’m going out there to risk a fractured skull or a ruptured spleen for the amusement of a pack of overweight drunks in the grandstand, I want to get paid!” he yells at the club president. If the film was set in the present, he might also be addressing warriors behind their keyboards.

Were Hayward real and playing today, as a high-profile and highly paid recruit, he might have taken the same path offered to Boyd: made an unavoidably public declaration that he was struggling with his mental health, taken time out, and been treated with care and sympathy by his employers and teammates, if not by those in the outer and playing at home.

I’ve covered football on and off for 14 years now. It’s an enormous privilege but there are times when it shits me, too. I grew up supporting and crying over a club, not the one I mostly write about. On weekends as a kid, I ran around a muddy oval, struggling to get a kick, blessed with no discernable athletic gifts, much less physical courage. (Those who can do, et cetera.)

In the earlier days of the internet, I lurked and posted on message boards and observed the way football totally consumed the lives of some people, many of whom seemed to relish tearing down players for their lack of effort or skill or dedication or all of the above. But I also recognised and revelled in the same joy and love and communion they took from the game.

Here in Brisbane, I’ve seen one final in 14 years. In footballing terms, that’s failure, and many of the players I’ve watched have been worn down by it. They might be 20 years younger than me – the kids coming through now, 30 years – and I see their physical and emotional resilience as they try to take each day one day at a time. Those words are a cliche for a reason.

At times, away from work, I’ve struggled with my own issues. For me, tuning in to the homespun wisdom of coaches could be as useful as an extra therapy session. They’d remind me that everything is temporary and that nothing is ever quite as good as bad as it seems (useful for someone prone to black-and-white thinking, and I don’t mean Collingwood).

I hope Tom Boyd’s experience reminds all of us that footy is a game, no matter how much money or prestige or pizzazz is attached to it, and that if it’s not fun anymore it’s not worth doing, or even watching. He’s 23. He’s got a crook back but he’s also got the rest of his life to live and the world at his feet. He doesn’t owe anyone a damn thing more than what he’s already given.

He was a kid with potential, who delivered in spades. With five minutes to go in that 2016 grand final, Boyd grabbed the pigskin, kicked it to buggery, and it bounced between the two big sticks. In that moment, he gave hundreds of thousands of Bulldogs fans a pleasure they’d never known before and will never, ever forget. I hope he never forgets it either.

First published in The Age, 18 May 2019

The pop art legend hiding in the hinterlands

In the lush subtropical hinterlands behind Noosa Heads, 90 minutes north of Brisbane, a short dirt road takes you to the home of one of the pre-eminent artists of the last century.

In a large, bright studio, down a short incline from the home he shares with daughter Zoe and her partner, Peter Phillips – who made his name in the early 60s in the vanguard of British pop artists along with Derek Boshier, Allen Jones and David Hockney – continues to paint.

Along with large, more abstract recent works and some of his earliest sketches, a few of his most famous pieces are here, including the giant Art-O-Matic Riding High (another painting from the same series, Art-O-Matic Loop-Di-Loop, was used as the cover of a 1984 album by the Cars called Heartbeat City).

But Phillips left behind the style which made him famous, and which he helped pioneer, a long time ago. “I definitely don’t favour the early work,” he says. “I am excited about some of the newest pieces, possibly because it is what interests me most at the moment.”

Recently,  Phillips, who is celebrating his 80th birthday, opened his studio to the public as part of the Noosa Food and Wine Festival. And in spite of whatever misgivings he may have, the event was called POP!, even though the work on display spanned his entire career.

Phillips will always be associated with his early work, even if he refuses to be defined by it. But that’s not his concern. “I’ve continuously evolved and done what I wanted to do, not what other people wanted of me,” he says.

Phillips grew up in Birmingham during the Blitz. “I still get chills when I hear the resemblance of an air raid siren,” he says. “I don’t recall much detail from those early years, but I do recollect burning houses.”

Militaristic themes appear in his latest work. On an easel in the studio, a new painting depicts a fighter jet being loaded with ammunition on one side. On the other, a grinning Ronald McDonald holds a microphone; in between, a young woman poses for a selfie. Two men in overalls carry a crucifix; a piglet suckles from its mother; small explosions erupt in the background.

In work like this, Phillips appears to be exorcising old fears. In 1980, he says, “I composed a painting called Mediator 3 which features a rather large python, the taxidermy model of which was in my studio at the time. I had a profound fear of snakes, and thought if I painted one in detail, it would help. It didn’t help. In that same piece, I also painted a burning house. That didn’t help either.”

His early work wasn’t so grim. In the late 1950s, he attended the Birmingham School of Art, where he learned to paint, before moving to London and the Royal College of Art. There, he says, he was told how not to paint.

He rebelled. So did many of his peers. Allen Jones was thrown out, and Phillips came close. “If you were a talented artist at the time, you were expected to paint landscapes, still life, portraits, and so on,” he says.

Instead, Phillips and his friends began creating work that was vibrant, eye-catching and obsessed with popular culture and commercial iconography – a reaction to the stuffiness of the times.

His teachers were aghast. “They couldn’t believe people would be concerned with this stuff. Some were irrationally angry,” he says. Art critic Lawrence Alloway dubbed it pop art “because it was popping off the walls”.

Phillips says “I was very stubborn – still am. I knew what I wanted to do, but I also knew I needed to be a good boy and play the game. If you win, you get to make up your own rules.”

By that definition, Phillips has won. In Australia courtesy of a Distinguished Talent visa from the federal government, he ironically now works on large landscapes with abstract features, as though rebelling against his past, even if some of the old obsessions still feature.

Don’t ask him what any of it means, though. “What you see is what you get. Don’t even try,” he advises. Much of its power, though, lies in its ambiguity and juxtapositions of contradictory imagery and information.

Everything on display in Phillips’ gallery is from his own personal collection. Some of it, he says, is sentimental, while other pieces are unfinished. The rest is in galleries and private collections in Europe and America. “This is the first time so much of my art is in Australia.”

Previously, he’s lived in Majorca, Costa Rica and Switzerland. Why Noosa? “The weather. The people. The nature. The food. The clarity of light,” he says. “The older I get the more I like the quiet and prefer nature over cities. And I don’t like neighbours.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May 2019

David McCormack on being Bandit, Bluey’s dad

As the frontman for Brisbane band Custard, David McCormack was an anomaly in the ultra-serious early-90s world of indie-rock. In an ocean of angst, he was a goofball: whimsical, absurd, childlike and funny.

He can still be all of those things. But McCormack, who turned 50 last year, has two young daughters now, and around a successful soundtrack career as well as occasional reformations of his old band – now more of a hobby – he lives the dad life.

He’s also living it out in cartoon form: McCormack is the voice of Bandit, the dad dog in the ABC Kids animated short series Bluey, which chronicles the adventures of an irrepressible six-year-old blue heeler, her younger sister, Bingo, and her mum, Chilli.

Since premiering last October, Bluey has been a runaway success – with over 75 million plays, according to the ABC, it’s the most-watched show on ABC iView. A series of three Bluey books will be out in time for Christmas, and on Thursday it was announced that Bluey has been renewed for a second season. And it’s brought McCormack a very different kind of new-found fame.

Bluey is aimed at five- to seven-year-olds: that age when kids, like dogs, just want to play all day. Bandit and Chilli (voiced by Melanie Zanetti) are the perennially exhausted but loving parents doing their best to keep up with them.

The episodes are sweet six-minute adventures as relatable for parents as they are recognisable for kids: looking for a lost soft toy (Chickenrat); discovering the natural world (The Creek); making grandma dance (Grannies); a trip with dad to the dump (The Dump).

“How good is going to the dump!” says McCormack. “I relate to that totally, because I do love going to the Refuse Transfer Station, as it’s called now, with the kiddies. They gave me the script and I’m like, ‘yeah!’ I don’t have to try too hard to get in the vibe of it.”

Another favourite is The Pool. “The dad takes the kids to somebody’s pool, but in that sort of laissez-faire dad way, forgets to bring all the important things, like sunscreen and flotation devices and thongs to wear on the hot concrete and towels and all that sort of stuff.

“And then the mum turns up and saves the day, she brings all the boring stuff that’s essential. And that’s pretty accurate for my life. My wife is like, do you tell them what’s going on? It’s pretty much like they’ve peered into my life and written it. But it’s universal, right?”

McCormack’s involvement with the show came about by chance, via contacts made with his soundtrack company Sonar. “I thought it was just going to be reading a couple of lines, but I ended up reading all of them for the pilot.”

Initially, he had very little idea what he was reading for. He’s based in Sydney, and voices the part of Bandit remotely, in isolation. The rest of the show is produced in Brisbane, his home town.

“They send me the script, they highlight my lines, and I just read my lines,” he says. “I don’t have to act, I don’t have to change my voice or anything. I don’t hear anybody else talking; all I do is literally read what they tell me to and that’s it. And they do all the animation and all the other voices and the music.

“So I had no idea what it would look like. And then they sent me the pilot and it was like hey, this is pretty good! And it’s a very Brisbane-looking show, it’s all classic Brisbane skylines and architecture and animals, which takes me back to my formative years.”

Another Brisbane band from the same era and with a similar sense of play, Regurgitator, have recently released a children’s album. “When you hear about it you go, of course, Regurgitator would do a kid’s record,” McCormack says.

He marvels at the turn of events himself – “Who would have thought in 1992 that we’d be talking in 2019 about me being the voice of a parent dog?” – but says his parents got the rudest shock. “They’re like, what’s this dog show kids are saying you’re doing the voice to?”

Voicing Bandit, and having daughters of a similar age profile to Bluey and Bingo, has opened McCormack’s eyes to the enormous children’s entertainment market: a world away from the slim pickings available to Custard, now practically a heritage-rock band.

“Kids get involved and suddenly you go, ‘wow – there’s eight different kids’ channels on Foxtel!’ There’s this whole world of bizarre kids’ stuff out there,” he says.

“I’m yet to find out whether it’s the path to riches, but it is the path to being popular at school drop-off time. Lots of other parents are like, ‘Hey! Did I hear your voice on…’ It’s sort of like 1994 all over again, but in the primary-school world.”

First published in The Guardian, 16 May 2019

Chasing rainbows with Aldous Harding

The third album by Aldous Harding, New Zealand’s woman of a thousand voices, is called Designer. Its sleeve represents the title vertically – white on matt black, in a form that immediately recalls the pulsar signal on Joy Division’s classic 1979 debut Unknown Pleasures. Like Joy Division, Harding’s name is missing.

On the video for the album’s single, The Barrel, the viewer is led through a tube of drapes to find Harding, in black with a white ruff around her neck and a very tall straw hat. She looks straight down the camera lens – until the hat is pulled down to cover her entire head. Later, she dances in a blue mask, and by the end of the song, in her underwear.

It’s surely the strangest, most disconcerting clip we’ll see or hear this year, full of jarring lyrics that the sparse, eerie music highlights. You can make of it what you want. It’s just Harding being Harding, albeit Aldous (her stage name) rather than Hannah (her real one): a born performer, who either compels or repels listeners by virtue of her sheer otherness.

On a Skype call from New Zealand, a conversation that goes for well longer than the allotted time is filled with long pauses, odd digressions and elliptical observations as she tries to explain her art. “I’m not really trying to do anything, you know, they’re just ideas,” she says. “I can only follow these ideas and the imagery around the choices I make.”

Harding is artfully deflecting the possibility that Designer is especially designed. The first songs that came to her, she says, happened while she was on the road, touring her second album Party – the album which elevated her from a Kiwi curiosity to a cult star, praised by, among others, a one-time New Zealand DJ called Jacinda Ardern.

Those songs, she says, were darker than the ones she wrote at home. “I’m unaware of how much of it is conscious,” she says. “Maybe it was a subconscious strive for balance, which is all I feel like I’m ever trying to do. But even that balance is invisible to me; I couldn’t tell you exactly what that looks like. And if I did, it would be incredibly boring for both of us.”

And she quotes Mike Tyson: “Everyone’s got a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Harding is no ingenue, though. Growing up, her mother worked in the Fortune Theatre in Dunedin, at the bottom of South Island. “I remember sitting in the dingy old dressing room and watching my Snow White video while she was rehearsing … She did clown work, and she’s a puppeteer. So I know how to work a space, which is all my job is, really.”

If you’ve never seen Harding work that space, look up her rendition of Horizon on Later… With Jools Holland, from 2017. It’s a stark piano ballad of just a few widely spaced chords, played by Harding’s producer John Parish, best known for his work with PJ Harvey. Harding sings it perfectly, but it’s the eye-popping theatricality of her performance that lingers.

The connection to Parish came about through both bravura and chance: Melbourne songwriter Laura Jean suggested he might like to work with her; Harding inquired; Parish said yes. “I’m not much of a fan-girl,” Harding says. “Of course, it felt amazing. But at the same time, I didn’t grow up desperate to meet these people or work with these people.

“I remember going, oh, great. That’s positive. But I didn’t punch the air or anything.”

Designer’s nine songs are probably Harding’s most focused set yet – or most balanced, as she suggests. But it’s still an enigma wrapped in a riddle, as she deploys, sometimes subtly and sometimes dramatically, different voices from song to song. Trying to pin her down, on record or in conversation, is like chasing rainbows.

“I guess they’re characters,” she says of those voices. But they’re all her. “It’s an instrument, you know – people change the settings on their guitar, depending on where they want to take you, or take themselves. That’s what they’re there for, and because I am a theatrical, diverse person I don’t see any harm in that, in embracing all of those parts.”

“I guess that’s kind of what Designer is about … I knew what people would do with that word. We all know what that word means.” She loses the thread, thinking through what she’d do with that word herself. “Maybe I was going for a combination of, this is something I’ve worked really hard on, you know, in my head, for you to understand or to feel.”

Whether you enjoy what Harding does or not maybe depends on how comfortable you are with the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in her work, and her. “That’s how I feel a lot of the time, because like a lot of people, I am a lot of different things at once. And sometimes it’s hard to understand yourself, or accept yourself and whatever state you’re in.

Does she enjoy unsettling an audience? “I enjoy doing the thing that I find interesting really well,” she says, suddenly sounding very uncomfortable herself. “Segments of my generation seem to have an issue with admitting they’ve been affected [by something], you know, they’ve [got their] hands in their pockets.

“Maybe I’m projecting, but I’m not somebody who could necessarily hold your interest in any other way. I don’t know a lot about art and music culture. And I am a little shy, and I like that I am who I am, and I can get up there and do something interesting, knowing that the person up there is not necessarily the person you would meet, and how nice that is.”

First published in The Age (Shortlist), 26 April 2019