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Fourth release (Absolute Truth) and four years since The Sparrow (2012). What have you been up to?
Living in New York and touring Europe. During that time my girlfriend was pregnant so I was bringing up a newborn for a while. I started recording the new album in the aftermath of that, had it mastered by 2015. I’ve been waiting for it to come out.
You recorded in the Hutt Valley with Mike Fabulous with whom you released Unlimited Buffet (2011). How was it pairing up with him again?
When I was writing the record, I wasn’t struggling to write it but normally I would have a clear idea around the arrangements. I had such little time and no studio space so I was ducking away while my daughter was having a nap to record on Garageband. Everything about the conditions for demoing was really uninspiring.
I liked the songs but they didn’t feel particularly exciting so I was happy to hand over some responsibility to Mike ‘cause I really trust his aesthetic. He’s obsessed with groove and the shapes of rhythm so his fingerprints are all over it.
Absolute Truth (2016) feels like revisiting the same song writing style used in your first album—self-contained and easily played by a single person. Was this intentional or did it kind of come around naturally?
The album was just Mike and I, kind of like a solo album. He was engineering and I was playing most of the parts but essentially it was a bedroom recording but in a studio. Which is quite different to The Sparrow, which is essentially a live album.
I think your music speaks to the 20-something melancholic middle-class kiwi dude, especially so on the last song on the album “What Became Of That Angry Young Man.” Is that an echo of your younger days?
Yeah. Not that I was ever angry, just sloppy—I still am. It’s nostalgic in some regards, but casting a less idealized view on youth. When I was writing The Sparrow I was 29 and questioning what I had done with my 20s, and it is a lament of what I was about to lose. I’m more comfortable about getting older now and I’m not so romantic of youthfulness. They say life doesn’t start till your 30s right? Yeah I dunno, just more grumpy.
You did a show with Connan Mockasin and Liam Finn at the Crystal Palace. Mick Fleetwood played a couple songs too, how did that come about?
Connan was in NZ making a soundtrack for The Rehearsal, the film based on an Eleanor Catton novel, and we ran into the people taking over the re-launch of the venue so we pitched an idea and the timing worked out.
Neil Finn asked him (Mick Fleetwood) to play on a record that he and Liam were making so he was in NZ for a month recording. Liam pitched the idea of playing “I Need Your Love So Bad” on the day of the gig. We’d been rehearsing anyway in the eventuality that he might accept but he was really keen.
Were you a fan of Fleetwood Mac?
I love them now. I thought they were a lame band that my parents liked but as I’ve gotten older I think they’re great. It was pretty surreal, he’s a lovely guy so it wasn’t so daunting.
Who were some of your musical influences when you were starting off?
Outsider ‘mentally damaged’ artists for want of a better description. People like Daniel Johnston or Syd Barrett. People who had odd views of the world that skewed things for me and made me digest it in a different way. Also The Kinks were a big thing that helped me find my point of difference that took me into a new world of songwriting.
I’ve read a couple reviews of your work and they seem to start off with stating that you’re a “classic songwriter.” What do you think they mean by that?
Anachronistic. Someone who doesn’t listen to a lot of modern music, but that’s just my diet of what I listen to. The new music I gravitate to just sounds like old music, it’s not something I’m proud of, but it’s who I am.
It’s been a great year for both music and death, what with Bowie’s Blackstar, Radiohead, and The Avalanches. What new music have you been excited about?
Let me check Spotify… Michael Nau’s Mowing. I don’t know much about him but everything I’ve heard of his has been you know… my ears have enjoyed it. I really like the Julia Holter record Have You My Wilderness, it’s really fantastic.
People denounce Spotify but I find it a useful way of finding new bands that are ‘good’.
Bands like Radiohead and Taylor Swift swore off it…
I can see why once you have millions of fans. I don’t have that luxury, so the chance to expand my audience is important. If you’re big you don’t need people to discover you, you’ve just got people you want to sell to.
I love Bandcamp, it’s easy to use as an artist and it’s certainly part of the proliferation of easy distribution, and also the devaluation of music just by the abundance of supply. It’s so easy to release music now cause there’s no barrier any more, however because of that it’s harder for people to push through the noise.
People who might not have been able to gain traction by being unsigned are now able to.
Yeah, simultaneously easier and harder for people to break through into a level of success nowadays. When I was starting the formula was essentially “get signed” and there was this separation between “signed” and “unsigned.”
Essentially that doesn’t exist anymore which means it’s not reliant on multi-nationals to decide whether or not you’re good enough to have a music career. We’re on the same level now and it’s a struggle for everyone with only a few being super-rich.