This is the third of a multi-part interview with an amazing Brisbane singer-songwriter named Timothy Carroll. In this part Timothy talks about some of his songs and about the upcoming studio recording of the songs featured on The Swedish Tapes.
Does Brisbane have increasingly more venues for people to play?
There was a real crisis, from my point of view, about the time of the floods. There was a real crisis with the Troubadour closing down and The Hangar stopping doing gigs in the space that they were doing them in Red Hill. Because those venues were medium-sized venues that were really beautiful and well run and had good sound, and when they fell apart I felt like there was a bit of a hole in Brisbane’s heart in terms of bands of about that size being able to perform. If you move up a bit higher there’s The Zoo and The Hi Fi and the Tivoli but that’s beyond a lot of people’s reach, really, because you need to get so many people through the door in order to make it pay. But now the Black Bear Lodge has opened and they’re doing some music. There are a few other places around town. There’s a new bar in West End called The End that I saw some bands at the other day. I’m doing some shows myself at the Joynt. I’ve formed a bit of a new band with some people to work out how we’re going to perform The Swedish Tapes.
Will you then record with them?
I was recording quite a bit of The Swedish Tapes with a guy by the name of Oscar Dawson, who is from Melbourne and an old friend of mine and a very talented musician and a really good guy. So he’s living in Berlin and performing and writing with his band, and he’s coming back to Australia in late November for a couple of months, so I’m going to get him in a studio and a few other friends and go from there. So it’s a bit of a mix of some of the people I’ve performed with and some of the people I recorded with overseas. And sometimes we might have both. It’s nice to have players that are performing the stuff come and be involved as well. We’ll just have to see how it pans out.
Now to ask you some questions about songwriting … You’re good at evoking place in your songs. In ‘To Frozen Lakes’, for example, I can almost feel the cold around the lakes and in ‘Where the Catholics Ruled’ I can get a sense of the city that the song is set in. Is that a conscious evocation of place and, if so, how do you do it? Or is it just something that comes through?
It’s certainly not conscious. And it’s funny that you should choose those two titles because those are two songs that were written in a really, really short amount of time. ‘Where the Catholics Ruled’ I wrote in about twenty minutes. It’s really simple in terms of the chord progression. I just sort of spat out a whole heap of verses and then chucked a few of them away. And ‘To Frozen Lakes’ – I was at a festival in Tasmania and there was a piano in a tent and the festival was either over or hadn’t started – there was nobody around – and I just had some candles on top of the piano and was just mucking around, because I don’t really play piano that well, and just sort of wrote that one really quickly – the story of a friend of mine. So I don’t know – I guess it just happens sometimes!
On the first album the song that haunted me, for lack of a better term, was ‘Alicia’s Song’ and I was wondering if you could tell me the story behind that.
It’s interesting that that’s a song that you like, because that’s a song that I struggle with. I never play it live. I don’t even know if I could play it. I’d started working at the Troubadour at that time and there was a friend of mine, Alicia, who was working there as well and she fell pregnant, with her partner, and was thrilled about it, and it was probably the first time that someone in my world was going to have a baby and I was just kind of thinking about the wonder of that phenomenon, of a human being forming, becoming a mother and all the different sort of relationships that that entails, like the protective father and the relationship with the mother. And so that’s what that’s about.
At the moment ‘Catholics’ is the one I can’t get out of my head.
That one’s about my parents leaving Dublin. My parents are both from Dublin and they left in ’82, and so that song’s a kind of study on what was going on in Ireland at that time. I get the impression it was quite a repressive society with Catholic values of getting married and it was that important, having children out of wedlock was frowned upon. And my parents were in that situation, having my sister without being married and they all moved down to Australia, and that’s what [the song’s] about.
It seems that you’re very much a storyteller rather than a confessional songwriter – you’re telling stories about the people around you, and perhaps about yourself as well. It’s quite common in country music but not so much in pop and rock, where it tends to be more the – to paraphrase something Tim Rogers said once – ‘I’m so miserable, that girl left me’. Is that accurate to say of you?
It does seem to be the case but again it’s not really a conscious thing. I guess I listened to a lot of storytellers growing up – I used to listen to a lot of Neil Young and Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan. Perhaps some of that seeped in, in some way.
On the first album in particular there’s a certain wistfulness to the songs, or to your voice. Does that come through when you’re playing? Or maybe that’s the wrong question to ask as you may not hear it, as you’re the performer!
I do think that recording a take with the right emotion in it is the most important thing for recording – it’s not so much about how well you perform or how perfectly you sing a song, it’s about getting the take where it feels right and you’re able to perform the song ending up in a way that’s true. And when we recorded the first album it was a really beautiful studio. It was with Jamie Trevaskis who used to own the Troubadour and now owns the Junk Bar in Ashgrove [in Brisbane]. And it was late at night in his old Queenslander in Bardon and we were really close friends – I don’t see a lot of him now because he works a lot and I work a lot – but it was really relaxed and kind of wonderful. So perhaps that comes through. And also, I guess, maybe because I hadn’t recorded anything before, really, apart from a little home recording, so it was all fresh and new and exciting, and we did a lot of takes, like, first take or second take – it’s not like we were doing lots and lots of tracking. That’s something to remember – maybe I should do that on the next record.
There are some epic-sounding songs on The Swedish Tapes so it will be interesting to hear what becomes of them in the studio, in terms of many instruments and multiple tracks, but I guess you won’t know until you try.
I think we won’t have too many instruments – I don’t want it to be crowded and overdone. Another friend who’s a producer said when he wants something to sound big he puts less in it – he just has four tracks handled a certain way and that’s when you get a big-sounding moment, is when it’s simple, well recorded and well written … I’m excited to be recording the next album live, so we’ll be in the room with drums, electric [guitar], bass and me, and that will be really nice for the ebb and flow of the songs, so we can hear each other and bond, to a degree.
Because your voice is so strong as an instrument, really, you don’t really want to drown it out, and when you take a lot of care with your lyrics – which you seem to – they need to come through. And there is the danger with a lot of instruments that the voice gets lost.
Yeah, that’s true. And the guy who I’m most likely going to be recording with, Matt Redlich, he has some wonderful mikes that are like some of the older mikes that [Roy] Orbison and the Beatles at Abbey Road used to use, and we’ll be recording to tape, so it will be nice for him to be capturing what we’re doing while we play.
Timothy’s first two releases, For Bread & Circuses and The Deepest Dive, are available from timothycarroll.bandcamp.com and also from iTunes.