the gentle hum the manic strum… blue sky sentiments sung out hung out to dry these notes of goodbye..hung out to dry
Towards the end of Friends of the Iguana I was sick of singing. My friend Barbara Fordham could sing. We’d toured and performed together as actors when we were younger and had stayed in touch. We talked about playing together, and worked up a set to play at a festival called the Winter Solstice in Davies Park, West End in 1997. It was kind of like Woodford but more relaxed and way easier to get home. Less rain. We played some covers like Tony Joe Whites’s Did Somebody Make a Fool Out of You. I loved standing beside a singer as good as Barbara. It felt good and sounded better. It felt easier, yet richer. With a good song and a great singer and the song sorted you can start reaching for something new in performance.
With my guitar back in its case, I took a peek in the tent afterwards, on my way to another stage, when I was playing with Friends of the Iguana. I looked through the curtains where The Sensitive New Age Cowpersons were softly singing I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You, the whole crowd singing along. There was a lot of love in the tent. I saw again how a song brings people together, and that sometimes there’s no border between performer or audience: there’s just music.
Barbara and I started writing together, and adapted some of my songs. My songwriting had been almost completely solo until this time. You might think that co-writing a song is an intimate activity, with an exchange of personal information, and it is, but not in a discursive way. What the songs were ‘about’, or where they ‘came from’ was rarely discussed. No less emotional for their lack of specificity, they kind of took on a life of their own.
We both liked The Sundays, but brought differing musical influences to bear on the collaboration. I Imagined her as being solely influenced by soul and blues, she perhaps thought me completely bound up in singer-songwriter stuff. We were both wrong.
While I’d been rocking Brisbane with FOTI, Barbara had her own adventures with her first band the Hot Potatoes. It was liberating to write for another singer, one who could let a melody take flight and sing with passion rather than apology. In performance, it felt good to be the side, rather than the front-man, and when Barb was on song it was wonderful to be close to. We did a demo out at OPM studios (including a cover of Billy Bragg’s Tank Park Salute) and I asked Paul Morris to play his very musical drums on the original tunes. I carried the cassette out to the car and stuck it in the stereo as I drove home through Brookfield’s trees. It was the beginnings of something. Barb’s man Neil Neilsen joined as bassist and we had a band: The Goodbye Notes. The name seemed to sum up the band’s ouvre.
We played gigs, rehearsed and wrote music. We recorded an album on a shoestring. We did it in a shed out the back of a house in Bulimba, in a studio that had been built by Simon Monsour, who’d agreed to produce the record, and did an amazing job. In 1999/2000 digital recording was more accessible (only five years earlier, FOTI had blown all our money recording in a large studio onto magnetic tape), and Simon talked about using this project to really get inside the process. After the locked minimalism of two guitars and a cello, I was interested in building more layers of sound. The working title of the album was Tender Document, named after an unfinished song. Here’s some tunes and notes on a selection of the songs, followed by a kind of conclusion.
Fall This song was one of the first Barbara and I recorded, as part of the first demo sessions in 1997. I’d written it for FOTI, and it had been sung by our cellist/vocalist Madelaine, so I figured it would suit another female vocalist. For some reason I write a lot of waltzes. For this recording we slowed the song right down and gave it space which opened it right up. I came up with the idea for the song while crossing South Brisbane’s William Jolly Bridge: recognizing a figure, and going though the complex mechanics of deciding what you’re going to do once they recognize you – but then realizing it’s no one you know. And in that falling feeling, thinking about what you might have been hoping for. Something like that.
Not Yourself This song was written in one go at a dining table in Bardon. I was experimenting with the melody line on a nylon string guitar and decided I’d let the melody lead the lyrics, and not interrogate them. As such the song was a risk. It’s a rare moment is songwriting when the melody and lyrics all come at the same time, and I love the song for that, as well as the band’s loose, but precise rhythm, and the Crowded House style backing vocals by Paul, Neil and me, perhaps related to the gorgeous chorus of Nails in My Feet. We played this song well live, and I think there’s a quality to it that captures what was best about The Goodbye Notes.
Chocolate, Red Wine, Coffee and Cigarettes (D.Megarrity/A. Mullins) This is one of only a couple of co-writes Anthony and I did for FOTI. We never performed it, it was too blues-y for that band, but I thought it was worth reviving for TGN , it really suited Barb’s voice and let the band show off a bit. With its piano by Kellee Green and sort of Queen backing vocals added as a surprise by producer Simon, I’d never recorded anything like it before, or since. Music reviewer Noel Mengel, who wrote a number of pieces about the band, loved the track and used it to sum up Tender Document:
“Tender Document is a … great rock-pop record that’s as addictive as one of its standout tracks – chocolate, red wine, coffee and cigarettes.” Noel Mengel, Courier Mail 17 April 2000
One Extra In 1996 I took my guitar to London, looking for I know not what. I played some gigs in London and Ireland, and I guess I was hoping to come back with a swag of songs that I could confidently say that I’d ‘written in London’. Expensive patter.
Unfortunately the parade of hostels and backpackers proved unconducive to writing, and I experienced by first bout of writers block. I wrote only one song, while staying in glamorous Peckham with Madelaine, and One Extra was it. It came initially from a familiar place of self-pity, but further drafts of the lyrics took it to a better place. I think it was a way for me to grieve the loss of my grand-dad, through the eyes of my Nana, and more broadly the details of surviving the loss of any life-long love. I think it’s one of the best songs I’ve ever written.
On my return I played it to Anthony on his back stairs, and he said it was like a Paul Simon song, which was a very nice thing to say. FOTI recorded a version of it at the Conservatorium, but I never felt like we nailed it in-studio or live, so I thought it was worth giving it to TGN. Another spacious waltz, it again features the piano of Kellee Green.
It was the last song on a long album. I lay on the old couch in the studio and listened to the playback with a catch in my breath and tears in my eyes. The song saddens me, but I was also proud I’d achieved something so beautiful with my friends, and relieved that the long recording was over.
Tender Document came back from the factory in its boxes. Opened them and there they were, all lined up in their jewel cases. The album got some amazing reviews, especially from Noel Mengel, which I considered a great compliment. I was really proud of it. We launched the album at The Zoo, and then we started playing fewer gigs.
As a promotional project we recorded a cover of The Toothfaeries’ Leaky Boat for a ZZZ competition where you had to record the song of another Brisbane band. We brought a great sadness to this bouncy folk-punk song. The ‘competition’ was won by some group doing a comedy cover of a Savage Garden song. While that was a bit dispiriting, finally, it was misdirected energy. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
There was a lot of other stuff going on for me in 2000, and I assumed we’d get back to it. But with children on the way and other professional demands, The Goodbye Notes didn’t fulfill the promise of the record they’d made. A natural progression would have been to do video clips, get strategic supports, tour and all that, playing the album to new audiences. But that wasn’t going to happen without management. We just did what we did, driving towards songs without a genre in mind; but that’s not really enough. I sent the album to record companies and publishers, not expecting much to happen, and those expectations were met. It’s hard to imagine now, but the release of Tender Document pre-dated facebook, itunes and youtube. People purchased the album at gigs (and from Rocking Horse Records) and the CD sold out. So the music’s ‘out there’.
We tried to get it together again in 2003. We’d rehearse under Barb’s house in Nundah, teatowels over the drums, trying not to wake her sleeping child. We’d do covers, just to caress the kinds of sounds we knew we could make. We’d try to write, experimenting in different genres, but we were both scatty and not focused enough to complete anything much usefully. By this stage both Barb and I had children, which had slowed down band activity significantly. We played only one gig that year, in the Speigeltent for the Brisbane Festival. We played well, but were we a festival band? No. Not enough ‘show’ in our shows. Neither were we ever going to pile into a Tarago and drive to Melbourne with beer cans rolling around our feet.
Thinking it was all over bar the shouting, I decided to spend the band’s remaining funds on a last demo session at the unfortunately named Nasty Studios (at a converted office-furniture warehouse in West End) to capture material we’d not yet recorded. The songs were sweepings. We’d lost focus.
I loved Everything but the Girl’s Amplified Heart album but shortly after they released it they’d shifted to dance music. The Sundays had stopped playing entirely. Even if I’d been inclined to follow more contemporary trends in music, we’d never have pulled it off convincingly. We just did what we did. Being children of the 1980’s we used to open our sets with a slow Depeche Mode cover. We recorded our version of Just Can’t Get Enough in this last studio session, but we had. We’d had enough.
There’s a familiar trajectory of fall here: it’s hard to keep a band together. There’s no service medal. Hollywood continually vomits stories of recognition and discovery at us – when artists ‘take it to the next level’, and then their issues come out in the pressure cooker of what some might called success. This is not that story. I’m not sure if it even is a story. Some falls have a bounce.
We knew how to play our own songs. We wanted to stay original. We could dash off a weary cover version in our sleep(lessness) while children slumbered upstairs, but weren’t sure what to write next for ourselves. Here’s us warming up playing a cover under a house in Nundah at one of our final rehearsals during this time. At a gig in Fortitude Valley’s Ric’s bar, in 2000, someone watching the band, possibly Alison St Ledger, wrote us this poem, and gave it to us during the gig, a beautiful gesture:
From the first note breathed out, strung out, sweetly sung, the gentle hum the manic strum, the delicate dream. I sift these sounds and float and reel, can’t help but feel these beautiful blue sky sentiments sung out hung out to dry these notes of goodbye.
Less a fall than a coming to rest. Read Part 2