Hey Michael, thanks for chatting to Forte Mag! Congrats on the release of your album The Weir. Can you tell us a bit about the concept of this album and theme of growing up Australian?
Thank you! This record means a great deal to me – because it’s about my community in Gippsland.
As you say, in a sentence, the album is about growing up Australian. So, we talked about the title track as capturing that Australian sound that had been developed through the RSLs and pubs and garages of Australia when we were growing up – and then shared with little country kids, like me, by Molly Meldrum on Countdown. The drums in the track are modelled on Michael Barclay’s drumming (on Paul Kelly’s ‘Dumb Things’) and the guitars of The Saints (in ‘Just Like Fire Would’).
When we went to record the backing vocals, I said to Shane that I wanted one of those great backing vocal sounds that I associate with Australian rock like the McGarrigle sisters or Rose Bygrave and Marcia Howard from Goanna. When Shane suggested Lyn Bowtell and Felicity Urquhart I was very excited. These women just know each other’s voices so well and created this magic sister-sound. Their vocals shine in six of the thirteen songs on the album.
This kind of became the mission statement for the album – be inspired by our faces, our stories and our sounds.
In this record, I tried to capture pictures of the people and places that I grew up with. It’s as warm and comforting as a woman at the local bakery who calls you ‘love’ when she sells you a bottle of creaming soda and one of the best pies in the world (I grew up literally believing that the Maffra bakery produced the best pies in the world and that we were globally renowned for them). It is as fun as being towed on a tractor tire by a speedboat. It is as sad as a roadside cross and a plastic rose. It is as cheeky as riddling a ‘no shooting’ sign with bullet holes. It is as disappointing as pulling in a fishing line to see what you haven’t caught. It is as wild as the parties where we used to wince while skulling Brandivino (a pretty toxic form of goon that we used to drink. Brandivino is mixture of wine and brandy made famous to us through a lyric in Cold Chisel’s song ‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’). It is as simple and beautiful as throwing a tennis ball into the weir while the dog obediently and joyfully swims in to bring them back for you. It is not one of these emotions – it is all of them.
If I was to sum up this album in an image it would be this; driving to the middle of the dried-up Weir – and realising that, far below the surface of that reservoir – where you used to swim, and get towed around on a tractor tire, and throw tennis balls in for the dogs to retrieve – there is the rotting ghost of the history of that place, an old farmhouse that was there before the weir wall was built. This record is a picture of a place that is integral to our being as Gippslanders – buried in the DNA of who we are – but we discover that there is something older that lies underneath it. It is humbling, because you realise in that moment that you, too, will one day be a part of a forgotten and buried history; others who come to this place that is a part of your being won’t every really know how important it was to you – or who you even were. Place is bigger than us.
What was the process like in bringing this one together? Have you been working on this for a long time?
I write a lot. I’m really inspired by the people and places of Gippsland and by my love for my family. So, there was a great deal of material that I could draw from. One new year’s eve, I received a picture on Facebook that had been taken at 2am. It was a picture of a group of men sitting on fold up camp chairs around an esky and a camp fire. The caption to the selfie was ‘listening to Michael Waugh songs at the Weir’. This picture is the inspiration for much of this record; what other music were these guys listening to? What is their story? What are their connections to this place? That’s where everything started.
Shane and I lined up the first session starting on 1st January 2018 – and we literally finished a few days before Christmas 2018. I’m a school teacher, so we planned lots of recording around school holidays. Every time I came into the studio, I had some more tracks to add – or drew on some older material that seemed to really make sense of the themes that were emerging. ’50 Words’ is a really old song for example. I wrote it in 2001 – and while I did some minor lyrical tweaking, it still rang true and made complete sense.
How did it come about that Shane Nicholson in the producer’s chair? Have you worked together previously before?
This is my 3rd record with Shane. Over the course of those years, he has become one of my dearest and most valued friends – so, coming into this record was very special for me. The night before recording, we got drunk and talked about what this third album was going to be. It was scary and exciting, because this was going to be different to the first two records. It was also the first time that Shane had made a third album for someone. Shane never wants to repeat things that he’s already done – so there was a sense of trepidation and excitement for both of us.
This follows your critically acclaimed The Asphalt & The Oval (winner 2018 The Age Music Victoria Awards ‘Best Folk and Roots Album’) and 2016’s What We Might Be. What are the main differences for you between these albums?
I think that this record is a lot bolder in vision – and that has come out of my growing relationship with Shane. I was so tentative when I made What We Might Be. I was so in awe of Shane – and loved what he did with those songs – but I think that this record reflects much more of how we have both grown as people and how we have grown to understand each other much better now, too.
I think that thematically, the vision is bolder, too. In the first album, I wanted to revisit home. Every track can be located in 2 or 3 postcodes in that community. It is about growing up in Gippsland – and the strength and love of family in that community. In ‘The Asphalt and the Oval’, I focused more on the themes of gender and identity – with a central motif of football and the importance of football in small country towns.
This record is more about my identity as an Australian than the first two. I suppose they all explore that theme in one way or another. And, like the first two albums, every song is a story song.
Are you always working towards a new record?
I’m always working towards a new song. Or several at the same time. But, yes, I suppose now that I’ve got the feel for how to craft an album (which I feel that I found with The Weir), I have an inkling for the next album. I know that Shane has already started talking with me about it, too. That’s really exciting. I’m a benign workaholic… so I find it hard to not be thinking about what’s next…
You’re actually sharing the stage with Shane Nicholson at the Palais-Hepburn this weekend. What are you most looking forward to?
Seeing Shane. He lives on the Central Coast, and he is so busy in the studio, so having the chance to sit in the Green room with him and tell him funny stories and hear about his adventures on his recent overseas trip will be lovely. Also, we are both playing with two lovely players – Jacob McGuffie (playing guitar, banjo and dobro with me) and John Bedggood (playing mando and fiddle with Shane). Music for me is about community – and music has brought me these friendships.
I also used to work in Daylesford (at the Neighbourhood House in the early 90s) – so I’m really looking forward to sharing my music down there.
You’ve also got a tonne of other shows seeing you through until December. What do you enjoy most about been up on stage with your music?
I think I love that real connection with people. So, when you are playing with someone else and you feel their energy. Or, when I tap into that part of myself where the song came from and I can share that with an audience. But I also dearly love what happens after the show – when someone shares their story with you because one of your songs has triggered a memory.
What started as a party trick, has now seen you release three albums and perform across the country. What’s your career highlight so far?
This last weekend I launched ‘The Weir’ at Maffra Memorial Hall – the local town hall that hosted my graduation ceremony, saw me partner Carol Fitzpatrick in the local Deb Ball, and was witness to me playing ‘Will’ in the Maffra Dramatic Society production of ‘Oklahoma’. Across the road was the Maffra Bakery – that features in the title track. So, the place was full of memories. A local woman, Sue Wilson, organized the entire event. She did an extraordinary job. Most importantly, my mum (who is currently very ill) was able to see me play. At the end of the show, I got to sing ‘Heyfield Girl’ (a song that I wrote about her) to her. There was lots of tears. That was a career highlight.
You have been compared to Aussie folk and country legends Paul Kelly and John Williamson and formidable global songwriters like Kristofferson. Do you take any influence from these artists? Is there anyone that stands as a major influence in your music?
Well, I sing about Paul Kelly in the new album – so definitely him. I love all of those writers because they all write story songs. But probably Shane Nicholson (for obvious reasons). But, also, Dolly Parton. I grew up with those songs. Parts of Tennessee feel like home to me even though I’ve never been there. So, she inspired me to tell stories about Maffra and Gippsland.
When & Where: The Palais (w/ Shane Nicholson), Hepburn Springs – September 14 & Maldon Folk Festival, Maldon – November 1-3.