The release of the Tender Document album in 2000 garnered some of the best reviews I’ve ever received. The Goodbye Notes followed up these accolades with a unique promotion strategy which involved almost completely ceasing to play live, and having no useful online presence whatsoever. You can read Part 1 here.
By 2003 we’d stopped playing in any form. We had children to raise. I had no band. Why write? In a naff, romantic and private gesture I actually kissed my guitar goodbye, and packed it away thinking it would be impossible for me to write or play once childrearing became the focus.
But I had started playing with recording acoustiic music on a basic looping and layering program on my computer. In rare moments of rest I’d clear away the clothes and toys in the spare room and take a seat in front of the screen and microphone. Starting with modest fragments – chord progressions and riffs – I started to build new music.
So this story’s about finding my way back into songwriting and playing, the band re-finding its footing, then falling.
My little family had moved into the suburbs of Brisbane, and the horizons had changed. Lowered, come closer. A walk round the corner with my toddler son was an adventure. We’d go up to the top of the hill near our place to see the fireworks from a distance, rather than have them explode overhead.
The poet in me looked from the sky to the suburban nightscape. Beneath the subsidized explosions, the lights of the households below seemed far more spectacular: glowing evidence of all the homes people were making, just like we now were. Homes where the lights are left on to comfort sleeping children. And so I wrote a song about the ‘fireworks’ not being ‘over’, but just seen from a completely different perspective.
I was lucky enough to be my son’s main carer, working part time. I’d also been generating lyrics born of my change of life, and I saw it as a challenge to write songs about parenting that weren’t totally daggy. Listening to a lot of soul gospel, as well as Wiggles, I now knew what a voice like Barbara’s voice was capable of, and was trying to write songs that might let it truly fly.
I’d demo these quietly in the spare room using my ‘inside voice’ as my son had his daytime sleeps, and late at night. I’d play multiple guitars, bass, drums, and anything else I had lying around. When I could get away I’d mix the tunes off and go for a drive, when I had the mental space to come up with words and tunes.
In writing Handmedowns I had the image of a couple in a crappy house on the edge of an outback town, isolated and facing each other and the demands of the son/sun. I pictured them going though clothes, but also other, deeper things that once belonged to others – things that we wear every day, till they seem like they’re part of us.
The 10CC-style vocals on the song’s coda [@ 3:30] illustrate how you can distract yourself by making music while waiting for the song to come. You can hear backing vocals from a certain toddler on the demo.
By 2005 I had a collection of demos that were starting to sound like an album. I burned CD’s for the band and gave it the ironic title ‘2005: The International Year of the Goodbye Notes.’ Nothing happened until the next year. Barbara and I agreed to rehearse – knowing how hard it was to do at home, we met for a few months at night, after 9pm in an upstairs rehearsal room at an old building in the CBD of Brisbane called Metro Arts. Sitting on two chairs, facing each other in the big wooden room, with moonlight streaming through the big window, Find the Time was the first song we attempted. Others followed. It was good to hear them sung out by Barbara, rather than under-sung by me. It felt right. The two of us rehearsed through the winter, meeting in various rehearsal rooms well after bedtime. Here’s us in rehearsal, working on a new song. The audio’s from the same night.
Luke Monsour and I had won some equipment hire as part of a film competition. Lights. Cameras. We needed action. We needed to use the gear by the end of 2006, or lose it. Barbara had a friend who lived in a block of art-deco apartments in Spring Hill, who wanted us to play there.
We thought we’d premiere our new music at a roof-top concert for an invited audience. The new stuff would be done as a duo, followed by a short full-band set. Luke would film and edit it as an experiment. Maybe then we could put it up online via this new thing called Youtube. It was a fun afternoon, but it was a real struggle to pull it together, and the full band portion of the set was unrehearsed.
The next step was to do a studio demo of the new songs. Simon Monsour, who’d recorded our last album, had a set-up in his lounge room at Seven Hills, and he agreed to capture the new songs. Barb and I just stood in front of the mics and played them live. I overdubbed some key riffs from my demos, and the result was a lovely, tender, vulnerable set of studio performances. New songs. The acoustic demo for Find the Time was shortlisted for a Q-Song Award, 2007, in the category of Blues and Roots. I don’t think that was our genre, but it was encouraging. I may have had Etta James’s I’d Rather Go Blind in mind when I wrote it. Here’s that song, with images from the night we recorded it
So we decided to record an album. It took quite a while. The initial vision was that the full band would record it standing in the same room at the same time. In fact, during the recording we were never all in the same room at the same time. Most of the songs on Tender Document had been demoed, rehearsed and played live by the full band before they were recorded. Road-tested. Even if it was just Sandgate Road. But was very different this time.
One of my favourite tracks on the album is Let You Go. Barb had talked about us writing a tune that she could play on the piano, so I decided to write something to fit the bill. I came up with the chords on an old piano in a drama rehearsal room not far from my day-job office. I’d pop out when I had more important things to do and if the room was free I’d run through these chords with my foot on the long pedal. Here’s the first time we played it live:
I’d come up with these lyrics in thinking about the home that parents build, and what it’s finally for. The piano on the album recording is by Kellee Green, who’d been playing live with us whenever she could. The guitar and piano for the album version were recorded together, with Kellee and I swaying to the tune’s quiet pulse while Simon listened on headphones and the crickets sang. Everything else was added later, including Paul and I’s backing vocals. I love harmonizing.
There’s a live recording of the group playing Let You Go at (what turned out to be) our last gig as a five-piece, which is just fantastic. It finishes with Barb’s small utterance of surprise, as if woken from a lovely dream.
Another song from the album, Farewell was reinvented by Barbara’s Jazz trio, recorded live at the Brisbane Powerhouse. I preferred it to our album version, which just seemed like it was trying too hard. This song was a long time coming, and it’s a real thrill to have other musicians cover your songs. Her trio just gave it space. Here’s their version.
Meanwhile, Simon laboured over the album’s production but there was something missing. To my ears the demos we’d recorded in one night were more appealing than the album we’d spent a year doing, which is hardly ideal. I played the record for my good mate Brett Collery, who’s got a great set of ears, and one of his first comments about the album was …“It doesn’t sound like a band…” And he was right.
This story’s focused on songwriting and sounds but a band’s got to ‘look’ like something, even inadvertently. In the late nineties we’d done a fun photo shoot with Brisbane photographer Grant Heaton. We’d done it at my place in Red Hill, and out the back of the Village Twin Cinemas. Even in the toilets there. It was fun, and the (black and white, non-digital) images captured something of the domestic camaraderie of the first phase of the band. Some time in 2007 we spent a small amount of band money on doing a new photo shoot, in a studio with someone who was taking what seemed like good bandshots at the time. The shoot which was as hard to arrange, rushed and uncomfortable as I’d expected. And staring out at us from the images were this group of middle-aged musicians looking like they’d rather be somewhere else. But there’d been no mistake or mix-up. That was us.
By the time Reasons to Stay was complete, it wasn’t looking good for The Goodbye Notes. Barbara and I were in dispute over another project, and our decision to continue recording the album in the hope that the music would get us through looked like it was a bad idea. Things had changed. The plan to promote and pay off the recording by playing gigs wasn’t working, as the gigs either weren’t coming in, or weren’t lucrative enough to cover the childcare fees they’d incur. Touring wasn’t an option. I was on the point of agreeing to play as a duo in the casino, of all places when it became clear it was a waste of time, and I decided to end the band.
We paid out an agreed fee to Simon, way less than he deserved. The bands’ last gig was an awkward duo appearance in a Brookfield garden for the Brisbane Festival’s Backyard Concerts series. We made sure the music was available in hard copy and digitally, with a beautiful cover image by Brisbane artist Martin Smith, and that was it. I’d been playing in bands for nearly twenty years, and it was sad and weird, but strangely liberating not to be in one any more. No longer pulling from the front, or pushing from behind.
So that’s the end of The Goodbye Notes’ story, or one version of it, anyway. The band was, by most reasonable industrial, or career measures, ‘unsuccessful’. But were these endeavours, really unsuccessful? These 30 or 40 songs – their writing, demoing rehearsal, recording and performance, the relationships and everything that went along with them, can stand as emblems for the lives we were living over the 13 year period we were together. Now, as an individual, and in collaboration, I’m compelled to write songs and will continue to do so because of what I discovered in this band, and those that came before. Because it’s a difficult, wonderful, intimate, public craft.
I wish I could find the reference, but my favourite poet Seamus Heaney, has discussed the moment when Wile E Coyote has (yet again) walked off a cliff in pursuit of the road-runner. His feet move in mid-air, walking on ground that’s no longer there, in the moment before his fall (or flight).
Heaney says that’s where the poet’s art begins. In that moment.
I like the comedy and grace of the way he’s re-tooled that image and I hope I’m not making it up.