This is the second part of an interview with the wonderful Victorian singer-songwriter Jed Rowe. The first part can be read here. The Jed Rowe Band’s new album, The Ember and the Afterglow, is one of the best releases in recent memory (well, I think so).
In this part of the interview Jed talks about how his band came together and also about the songwriting process, and what’s great about Melbourne for musicians.
How did you three first start playing together as a band?
Well, gradually. The bass player and I have been together the longest. We met through a mutual friend and I gave Michael a ride to a festival and yeah, we just were both into music and yeah, met that way. And then I was going to do a solo EP and he was busy with other projects, so it wasn’t a matter of me saying, ‘Do you want to come and join my band?’ It was just, ‘Can you come and play some bass, or play some keyboards’, because he plays a lot of instruments. So I think I got him to play keyboard at first on that EP and then when it was time to release that and do some gigs I said, ‘We’ve got this gig, can you come and do the gig?’ and ‘Yeah, no worries’. So it was a gradual thing rather than setting out with a concept in mind. And then Michael the drummer has been with us for something like two years and we have sort of gone through several drummers – I lost count but [laughs]. But we’ve had a really stable thing with [bass player] Michael and I and then drummers have sort of lasted a year or two before they moved on. Drummers seem to have lots of projects on the go. If they’re good they are often in demand. They are able to fit in and hit things [laughs] with lots of different bands, whereas maybe if you play other instruments it’s harder to do that, I think. So [drummer] Michasel was just a friend of the bass player Michael, and they had known each other from studying together in Melbourne, studying music.
Do you have different nicknames for them so you’re not just calling out ‘Michael, Michael, Michael’?
Yeah. Michael Arvanitakis is Arvo and he’s been Arvo for a long time, like to the point where people know him just know him as Arvo, and if they hear someone call him Michael they go, ‘Is your name Michael?’ So he’s very much Arvo. Michael on the drums is just Michael.
Okay. [Laughs] You probably want the drummer to have a thug nickname though. Something about raw power.
We’ll have to think up a good drummer nickname[laughs].
So how do you find time to rehearse and gig with all the other things that go on in a life, I guess, with children and a job. I so admire the dedication musicians have to carving out that space and time to rehearse, let alone get on the road and I know you have some gigs coming up around the country so you’re carving out that time as well. Do you just have to make a commitment and do it?
Yes. I guess so. And whatever you do there’s going to be sacrifices and I guess mysacrifice has been sacrificing other paid work and just putting up with surviving on the smell of an oily rag [laughs]. I can have time to write songs and, particularly on the management side, because I do most of that – at the moment we have a couple of publicists helping out with the release, which is great, and we’ve had booking agents at various times and so sometimes there’s help with running it. But a lot of time goes into that and you try to find time to rehearse, of course, and tour so I think it kind of goes in phases. You can’t really fit everything in at once, particularly if you’re doing it independently and doing some of your management stuff as well. Like we had a stage last year when we were recording, we didn’t do a lot of gigging and so we were able to focus on the recording, and now I’ve spent a lot of this year on the management side actually, and not much performing or recording or songwriting. But then we’ll have a touring phase coming up and that will be the focus for a while, and then I guess at some point we’ll do some more songwriting and recording. So you just sort of have to focus on one thing at a time, I guess.
And in terms of your songwriting, do you find that you kind of need to create a bit of a vacuum in your life in terms of not much else to think about, in order to have that creativity come in. or does it happen around everything else?
That’s interesting. I’m sort of trying to remember because I haven’t been writing a lot of songs for a while. One thing I do find is that since I started making albums anyway, once it comes time – once the songs are sort of selected for an album, I tend to turn off the songwriting taps completely and just focus on finishing off this album, and the creative energy kind of goes into that, it goes into recording or arranging or that sort of thing, rather than chasing after every song idea that might come into your head. And then it takes a while to turn it back on after that because again, at the moment, I’m not really writing a lot and I don’t really expect to probably on the tour either. But what I found last time, for our last album, was that it just took a while, the songwriting just took a while to come back and I had to write a few songs that mightn’t have been keepers and then eventually the good ones come through. And sometimes it’s a matter of just having time to do it, but it’s always a mixture of some inspiration that just comes from who knows where — that’s the sort of backbone of the song usually —and then there’s the time to sit down and use whatever songwriting techniques you have to finish it off. So it’s a combination of those two.
And have you learned those songwriting techniques through experience or did you go and study somewhere when you were younger?
A bit of both. I’ve done different things, studying. I studied music for a year and singing was my kind of major, so there was some music theory and probably a bit for songwriting. I actually studied creative writing as well at uni for – again, I think for about 18 months, and that has helped with lyric writing definitely, because the assignments were sort of sit down and write short stories and develop characters and things like that, so that comes into it.
And it shows, because if I look at your CD insert with the lyrics set out, it looks like poetry. It’s set out with that poetic rhythm, like you’ve studied your cadences and your meters and constructed it that way, so those 18 months definitely had an effect.
Yeah. And I’ve always liked writing and I’ve always liked words so it’s not just the study, it’s just also partly the way my brain is wired. Whereas to some people music is much more about just the musical elements and the words are just the vehicle to give you something to think, which is fine too. And there’s music that’s great to listen to where that’s the case.
You’re a New South Welshman by upbringing and you’ve defected south of the border. Do you find Melbourne to be a more supportive creative environment, particularly if you’re an independent artist? I’ve noticed that your CD has got a bit of funding from Arts Victoria.
I’m not sure about in terms of government because I’ve never applied for sort of arts grants or anything. I never did that when I lived in New South Wales. I think Melbourne is definitely a much bigger scene probably than anywhere in Australia, I think, in terms of music. So whatever kind of music you’re into there’s probably a pretty good team going on in Melbourne. I think it just helps; it helps for the quality of it. You need be around people who are doing really good stuff and it can work, in terms of it being a supportive scene, it can kind of lurk the other way too; I think in Melbourne, to an extent, that there’s so much good stuff going on that it’s hard to kind of stand out from that crowd because it’s a big crowd [laughs] whereas when we first started touring we would kind of often have better responses interstate than some of our Melbourne gigs, just because you’d go to some country pub and they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, you guys are great. This is good.’ They don’t get as much good music going there, I guess. So in Melbourne audiences can be a bit spoilt for choice and it can be a bit hard to be impressive [laughs] maybe.
And do you feel like you’re part of the country music community? One of the things I love about Australian country music is that it is quite a supportive community in terms of new artists in particular. People in country towns will turn out —if you say you’re a country music performer they’ll turn out for you. For me you fit completely within a sub-genre of country, so it sounds like country music to me.
That’s interesting. Like I wouldn’t say I’ve set out to be a country artist or a blues artist or a folk artist or a rock artist or whatever, but I guess I just love good songs and I tend to like a wide variety of music, and that tends to show up in the songs that I write. And the country has kind of been more of a thing of the last few years, as far as listening goes, I just sort of come across some really great songwriters, stuff like Gillian Welch and I love the album that Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson did together, Rattlin’ Bones, and things like that — perhaps you would call them old country, I don’t even know. I know it’s necessary to categorise music but I always find it hard to put it into words or categories’.
I guess one of the main reasons why I think of your music as country is that country music, more than any other genre I’ve identified, is a storytelling genre.
And it’s what the audiences expect. In country shows you get a lot of talking between songs because the artist is setting up the song, in a way, because they understand they’re telling a story. This album is like reading a collection of short stories — it’s the most literate album I’ve heard in that sense —and you seem to really understand that role of being a storyteller, that cultural role of being a storyteller.
Oh well, that’s a good – good compliment to get. I think that’s one of the things I would set out to do. When I first started actually listening to more country stuff that was kind of why, I guess, just because it’s where some of the great songwriting was going on.