One of my favourite ‘finds’ of recent times has been The Jed Rowe Band’s album The Ember and the Afterglow. Seeing the band play live in Sydney recently just made me love their sound all the more – it was truly a fantastic gig. With a catalogue of beautifully crafted songs and three gifted musicians, it would have been hard for it to be anything other than that.
I spoke to Jed Rowe before he embarked on the tour and found out that there’s a reason why his songs are so great: he’s a thoughtful, diligent songwriter who has been developing his skills for quite a while now, and he understands the role storytellers play in a culture, regardless of the medium in which those stories are delivered.
This is the first part of a two-part interview.
I’m going to start off the conversation by saying I think the album is just fantastic.
Cool. Thank you.
One of the things I found really amazing and noteworthy was that the first song, ‘Castlemaine’, has a female narrator and then I worked out that four of the songs on the album have female narrators, and that’s really unusual for a male songwriter, let alone a singer-songwriter, to do. So I was wondering if you could talk about why you had chosen that song to start with and also how these female characters developed for you.
I think that choice of that song as the opener was Jeff’s – as in, Jeff Lang, the producer – and I think he just went for it because it was a kind of a strong musical statement. So it certainly wasn’t a conscious choice to, you know, let’s open with one of the female perspective ones. And nor was it a conscious choice, like we had sort of 30 or so songs to choose from that we could have recorded, so it wasn’t really a conscious choice, either, to pick four that had that female perspective. I think it’s just that … I read a lot and I’m kind of just interested in stories, good stories, and so it didn’t seem weird to me to write songs about female main characters, and having it in first person with a female actually – the main character – narrating it, I think just gives it a bit more immediacy, it makes it a bit more real. So yeah, that’s kind of why that approach, but it’s just a kind of an accident that it works out that way [chuckle].
Because you have, I think why the first song is such a surprise – and it was a surprise to me more than once, actually – is because you have a really masculine voice and quite a deep voice and so it’s just that almost kind of mental shift of, ‘Oh, this is a woman’s story’ and then it completely goes to show that stories can be told by anyone, if the intent is there.
Yeah. I haven’t really thought of that but, yeah, that song particularly is kind of, I guess low – low-ish – in my register, so it is very much a male voice telling the story of a woman.
Well, a woman giving birth and laying in the ground. It’s just really almost a visceral story.
I think that side of it comes from my own experience with having kids, because my kids are pretty young and that’s sort of been one of the main themes of my last seven years, having kids, and lots of my friends are having kids. And I just know my wife’s had her struggles with sort of pregnancy and childbirth and depression and stuff, and also I’ve just had lots of friends who – it’s the same. So I took something of that – that kind of sacrifice that goes with carrying a child, for a mother, and it sort of found its way into the song. The stories are just sort of the way its told but yeah, I think as far as the themes go that’s where it comes from.
It sounds like an historical song as well and I get the sense with your songwriting that it’s kind of like a fabric of Australian history in a way – not Australian history but Australian stories, there are all these perspectives of country towns and travel, like travelling through the countryside. You said you read a lot – do you read a lot of Australian novels or Australian history?
Yes. I do. I read sort of a lot of whatever, I guess. Something that comes to mind is Peter Carey’s book The True History of the Kelly Gang, which is the alternative story of Ned Kelly and that one is told through Ned Kelly’s perspective, so it just really recreates a feeling of being in that time. And I’m just interested in history so I kind of read bits of history when I come across it.
And are audiences quite respectful, in terms of they’ll sit and listen to you? Because these are songs that don’t really go on in the background.
Look, it varies. No matter what songs I was playing some venues and some settings are about people sitting dead quiet and attentive and listening, and other venues are about background for something social that’s going on and it doesn’t matter what song I could be playing in some venue, they’re not a listening venue. I think actually the recorded form is often kind of where the songs get really soaked up, too, because if people can listen to it again and again and listen to it in a quiet setting or however they like, as far as the stories and lyrics go sometimes, yeah, recording is good for – for that getting that across – more so than live sometimes.
That’s true. And I found with the musical setting of each story it was – it seemed like it was – there wasn’t a single song on that album that I thought, ‘Oh well, that doesn’t really work, that musical setting for that story’. So having those 30 songs demo’ed, had you pretty much set the tone musically for the songs then or did Jeff Lang actually contribute quite a bit at the production stage?
I’d say a bit of both. I think the very choice to work with Geoff is kind of a choice anyway that affected that, because I know of his music and I knew that it would really suit what we do, his sort of style aesthetic. And it’s his approach to do everything as live as possible and just to sort of have the core of the song being what the three of us do, the three of us being the band [Michael Arvanitakis on bass and Michael DiCecco on drums], what we do when we go and play it live and then to add some things in a kind of a subtle way to just support that. As far as instrumentation goes, there were a couple of songs where I had the two of the string section – I’d already written those string parts before we got together with Jeff, and they would have been part of the demos that I sent him, those string arrangements, so they were set. But other than that I think a lot of it was just choices. But, again, I kind of knew – I had a good idea of what we would be getting in working with Jeff, in terms of it would be pretty live, he would focus on just the real instruments, mostly.
So the songs that didn’t make it on, are they like your orphan children now? They’re just sitting there going, ‘Will we ever find a home?’
Probably not all of them. There’s at least one song on this new album that I wrote – oh, I don’t know, somewhere eight years ago or something like that. The last song, ‘When the House Shakes’, the last song on the album, I wrote that about eight years ago and it was one of the ones that Jeff picked out of those 30, and we did a little bit of rewriting of sort of a bridge section and cut a few lyrics out, but other than that that the bulk of that song was around eight years ago. So you never know when it’s going to turn up, and also there’s those two that we did record as well and left off the album, so who knows where they will end up too. Particularly one of them, I actually really like it, but we didn’t leave it off because we thought it was bad – we were just going for the right sort of mix of the up-tempo songs and the more down-tempo acoustic ones. So that was just a choice based on what we thought would work for the flow of the album overall rather than sort of leaving off some that we thought sucked.
But it must be hard knowing they’re kind of sitting out there just all recorded ready to go.
Kind of – but it’s kind of handy to have extra songs, like they might turn up as bonus tracks for something or something like that, who knows.
Part II will be published soon.