Tagged: Beck

Marlon Williams: Make way for love

The breakup album is a standard trope of rock music. Bob Dylan set the benchmark in 1975 with Blood On The Tracks; Beck’s Sea Change (2002) is a famous more modern example. Now Marlon Williams – the 28-year-old Melbourne-based New Zealander with the golden throat – has offered his own contribution to the form with his second album, Make Way For Love.

And Williams is making no secret of the album’s source: the dissolution of his three-year relationship with another acclaimed New Zealander, Aldous Harding, in December 2016. He even coaxed her to sing on the album’s penultimate song, the duet Nobody Gets What They Want Anymore.

“I think she saw how important it was to me, more than anything, and that song, more than any other, expresses a feeling I couldn’t put into her words any other way,” Williams says. “I’m actually telling her something in that song, and she’s responding through my words in her voice, so it’s a really important song for me.”

After a long apprenticeship in his home country, Williams burst into international view with his debut solo album in 2015. He was acclaimed for his storytelling gift and stunning voice, a tremulous instrument that’s often been compared to Roy Orbison. His band the Yarra Benders came on like an Antipodean Stanley Brothers, with string ties and high harmonies.

On his second album, Williams let those affectations go, as the songs came in a rush in the wake of his split with Harding. This time, they were mostly written on piano, not guitar. It wasn’t a conscious move away from country, he says, as much as moving towards something much more personal and revealing.

Even before the breakup gave him the material he needed, though, Williams says he wanted to make a more focused body of work. “I wanted to lock into a certain theme, regardless of what it turned out to be. My first album was pretty broad and undefined, so there was a real desire to close off certain things and just really get into one mode.”

Williams had previously been reluctant to draw on his own life for songs, but this time he couldn’t help himself. “It was freeing and exciting in one way, and also kind of terrifying in another. Nick Cave talks about songwriters being cannibals of their own lives, and I’ve always sort of tried to avoid that cyclical drama feeding into songwriting.”

But Williams’ focus in the immediate aftermath of the split helped him to simplify and unify his approach. “I wanted to close off everything else except for one thing that was going to really carry this body of work through,” he says. “So the listener will get to the other side and feel one mood.

“The hardest thing was really trying to tap into the honesty but not getting caught up [in details] that don’t matter, that aren’t essential to the feeling. It took a little bit of a re-set in my brain to get used to it, especially because I’m naturally such a storytelling songwriter. But the thing wanted to come out, so I had that going for me.”

Williams says that for him, the process was therapeutic: “I’m a much more rounded person coming out the other side of that album. But, you know, it’s difficult, it deals with difficult things, because it was so personal. It wasn’t easy in that sense, it was a bit of a gut-wrencher, but it needed to be done.”

And Harding? “I’ve given her the record now. We haven’t really talked about it, but there’s an unspoken respect, I think, (a) for my decision to make the record and (b) for my decision to be pretty open about it. She preserves her privacy and keeps it all about the art, but we’ve definitely got different approaches about that stuff.”

Is he prepared for the possibility of an answer record? “Well, it’s close enough to [Harding’s album] Party; there’s a lot of stories in there!” he says. “I’m sure we’ll be bound in a certain way throughout our lives.

“I can’t not have been influenced by her over the course of our time together. I’ve known her since we were 16 and I’ve always found her to be more musically on point than anyone I’ve ever met, so she’s definitely all over the record in a lot of ways.”

First published in The Age (Shortlist), 15 February 2018

Le provocateur

Immediately after cutting their striptease classic Je t’aime … Moi Non Plus in 1969, French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg and his English paramour, Jane Birkin, adjourned to the restaurant of their Parisian hotel. Gainsbourg, full of mischief, convinced the staff to play the record. As the song built, literally, to its climax – with the sound of Birkin in the throes of apparent orgasm – the room went still.

“Everybody’s knives and forks were in the air, suspended,” Birkin later told Gainsbourg’s biographer, Sylvie Simmons. “Gainsbourg said, ‘I think we’ve got a hit.’” And for decades, Je t’aime was the erotic novelty hit for which Gainsbourg was best known – at least outside of France, until a heart attack ended his life aged 62, in 1991.

Four years later, Melbourne musician Mick Harvey – then a key member of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds – released Intoxicated Man, a collection of Gainsbourg covers, translated into English. In the liner notes, he explained “what might otherwise be an unnecessarily enigmatic project,” professing his bewilderment that Gainsbourg’s work was virtually unknown outside of French-speaking countries.

These days, it’s a different story. Gainsbourg’s legacy is everywhere: from season two of Mad Men (a jingle for a coffee company is a reworking of his racy 1964 single Couleur Café) through the work of everyone from French band Air to Beck to Arcade Fire. Bonnie And Clyde has been covered by a multitude of artists, including Luna, Tame Impala and Belinda Carlisle, as well as being sampled by Kylie Minogue.

And Harvey’s translations of the songs, which meticulously preserved the rhymes, innuendos, puns and endless double-entendres of the originals, are a major reason why. He claims as “a feather” that Birkin, with whom Gainsbourg also recorded the classic 1971 album Histoire de Melody Nelson, credits Harvey for her own continued ability to tour Australia and the United States.

Then he backtracks, as if wary of over-inflating himself. “Oh … That’s nice,” he says with a self-deprecating chuckle, when told that’s quite a feather. “It’s not necessarily the aim of what I’m doing, but it’s a pleasant side-effect.”

Harvey, who remained with the Bad Seeds until 2010, remains the perennial side-man, burnishing the songs of others seemingly in preference to his own original body of work. (Our conversation is punctuated by the roar of passing trucks outside a studio in Bristol, where he is rehearsing with another long-time associate, PJ Harvey, ahead of a forthcoming tour.)

Harvey followed the cult success of Intoxicated Man with a second volume of Gainsbourg songs in 1997, Pink Elephants. In 2014, the albums were paired together and reissued, with Harvey playing shows to support the release in Australia and Europe. Talk turned to expanding the project; now there’s a third album in the series, Delirium Tremens – with a fourth to follow later this year.

If that seems a bridge too far, consider this: Gainsbourg left behind well over 500 songs, many of them written for other artists including Brigitte Bardot – with whom he first recorded Je t’aime – Françoise Hardy, Juliette Gréco and France Gall, who sang his winning Eurovision entry of 1965, Poupeé de Cire, Poupeé de Son, a version of which will be on Volume 4.

If four album’s worth of covers devoted to a single artist seems obsessive, Harvey’s reasons for returning to Gainsbourg’s catalogue is disarmingly simple. “The first time around I saw it as a large undertaking, a daunting task, and took it all very seriously,” he says. “And at some point JP Shilo [formerly of Hungry Ghosts, now in Harvey’s band] suggested ‘Well, why don’t we do some more? Are there any other songs?’

“So I just started looking at the prospect of doing another album, and when I came back to the material I found that it was just really entertaining and great fun to engage with.”

Besides, he says, the first two albums were just the tip of the iceberg. “I used to ask in interviews quite often, when people would declare themselves to be big Gainsbourg fans, ‘Well, how many songs do you know?’ – and there’d usually be about three or four,” he says. “A lot of the songs on Delirium Tremens are some of his better-known songs in France – Couleur Café, even The Man With The Cabbage Head is from one of the now revered concept albums.”

Translating the material was no less of a challenge. “The toughest songs to translate [were] the two songs from the concept albums, The Man With The Cabbage Head and Cargo Cult … SS C’est Bon was the other one, with all the alliteration, that was pretty hard to solve, but I think we got there. It was a very funny song to do – kind of ridiculous, but with Serge, that’s part of the deal, the ridiculous.”

He also hasn’t shied away from the most provocative aspects of Gainsbourg’s oeuvre. For Pink Elephants, he translated Aux Enfants de la Chance, Gainsbourg’s parody of an anti-drug song, recorded for his final album in 1987 when he was at his most dissolute: “To all the lucky kids, who’ve never been on trips, shooting up shit / In substance I’d say this / Don’t try dragon-chasing / Don’t even think of freebasing.”

Gainsbourg’s willingness to shock and scandalise, Harvey says, was crucial to his art. “To shy away from the more controversial material would be to do the balance of his work an injustice, because that was a really big part of what he was doing. It’s not who I am, and it’s not even really a major aspect of what he does that I like, but I have to acknowledge that it’s there.”

Asked about the notorious Lemon Incest – which Gainsbourg recorded with his then-12-year-old daughter to Birkin, Charlotte, in 1984 – Harvey keeps a studied intellectual distance. “I don’t feel responsible for the content of those lyrics, so it’s really like a depersonalised event for me in some ways,” he says. (Charlotte Gainsbourg has publicly defended both the song and her father.)

“That song is a number of things. I think it’s a beautiful song, in a way. Even though it’s got a dodgy undertone, it’s actually very gently rendered. It’s a declaration of love, as well as being put in a manner to deliberately upset people.” He slips into an accent akin to John Cleese’s French taunter. “‘Oh, if I just put this line here and that line there, it will outrage everyone – and why not!’”

“I can take an arms-length position, really, because it’s someone else’s song. And anyway, I don’t think there’s anything true in that stuff … I think Gainsbourg, at his core, was a very gentle and loving person; I don’t think all the wild-man stuff was really who he was, until much later on, when he sort of descended into drunken idiocy. Before that he was a very considered and charming guy.

“I think if you just look at the list of artistically empowered, strong-minded women that he worked with, who just adored him and wouldn’t say a bad word against him, I don’t think you’re dealing with a boorish misogynist; it just doesn’t add up. The evidence doesn’t back up the idea, I’m afraid.”

First published in Spectrum (The Age/Sydney Morning Herald), 17 June 2016

Taylor Swift is single. Bring on the breakup songs

Taylor Swift is single again, and I for one am glad. Not for her heartbreak (as a fellow human, naturally, I’m sorry for her pain), and certainly not because she’s “back on the market” since, needless to say, I’m not in it. No, I’m glad selfishly, because if it produces a song half as good as I Knew You Were Trouble, the world will be a better place, for she will ease the pain of anyone who’s ever been through the same.

Which, let’s face it, is pretty much all of us. Romantic heartbreak is the lingua franca of the pop song. In the opening soliloquy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Rob (played in Stephen Frears’ film by John Cusack) poses a universal question, as the 13th Floor Elevators’ garage classic You’re Gonna Miss Me blasts through his headphones:

“What came first – the music or the misery? People worry about kids playing with guns, or watching violent videos, that some sort of culture of violence is going to take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands of songs about heartbreak, rejection, pain, misery and loss. Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?”

And then Laura – who is about to shoot to number one with a bullet on Rob’s desert island, all-time top five most memorable breakups, in chronological order – walks into the room and pulls the plug, literally, on the music and, metaphorically, on their relationship.

The tabloids are already coming after Swift. Grazia listed 13 times ex-boyfriends have apparently inspired her music, saying she had “infamously” mined her personal life for lyrical inspiration. Like every other songwriter in history. Actually, maybe we should be glad for Swift’s critics, because she’s already kissed them off in fine style with Shake It Off. Can we have another one of those, too?

Did anyone complain when Otis Redding practically tore out his (and everyone else’s) heart singing I’ve Been Loving You Too Long? How about the Clash’s Mick Jones, who wrote Train In Vain after his breakup with the Slits’ Viv Albertine, while the band was recording London Calling? Do we even need to talk about Joy Division’s all but sanctified Love Will Tear Us Apart?

No one complained when Bob Dylan got an entire album out of the collapse of his marriage to his first wife, Sara Lownds. That album was Blood On The Tracks. It has been the measuring stick for every breakup album by a serious male singer-songwriter since, from Nick Cave’s The Boatman’s Call (which features at least two paeans to PJ Harvey) to Ryan Adams’ Heartbreaker to Beck’s Sea Change.

Adams, of course, later covered Swift’s 1989 in its entirety. Stripping Swift’s songs back to basics, focusing attention on the brilliance of their construction, threw up an interesting set of questions around pop, authenticity and Swift’s superstar status – especially around what a female pop singer has to do in order to be taken seriously by a mostly male critical establishment.

Or, in this case, not do. For the more cloth-eared members of that establishment, unable to look past Swift’s glossy image or admit that rock music is often equally as factory-assembled, it took Adams’ emo take to legitimise Swift’s talent. (Adams, by the way, isn’t the first male artist to try his hand at this sort of thing: see Richard Thompson’s version of Britney Spears’s Oops! I Did It Again.

Can anyone recall an album by a female artist being compared to Blood On The Tracks? I can’t. Certainly not in pop music. Not even, in the rock arena, PJ Harvey, whose Is This Desire? was dedicated, in turn, back to Nick Cave. Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours is frequently described, in a very feminised way, as a soap opera, due to the somewhat complicated nature of the relationships within the mixed-gender group.

Pop music is dominated by women, from Madonna to Rihanna to Sia to Beyoncé, and along with boy bands and almost anyone playing dance music, their music is routinely dismissed as lightweight. But if grown men can confess to being moved to tears when Springsteen and Dylan turn their attention to matters of the heart, then why not, say, Swift’s Wildest Dreams?

I hope Swift finds true love soon. Really, I do. But in the meantime, I hope she goes on too many dates and can’t make ’em stay. Let her go on making the bad guys good for a weekend a while longer. Actually, now I think of it, I hope she gets back together with Calvin Harris, just so she can break up with him again and write another version of We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together.

Just like her male peers, like all of us, Swift gets down and out about the liars and dirty cheats of the world. The only difference is she’s doing it to a sick beat. As for the haters, well, we all know what they say about them.

First published in The Guardian, 8 June 2016