Interview: Graeme Connors

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Graeme Connors is a name that will be familiar to many country music fans. Graeme has not only worked in the music industry but has just released his seventeenth album, Kindred Spirit, which is not an album of originals – as the previous sixteen were – but, instead, a celebration of Australian songwriters, from 70s star Kevin Johnson to Richard Clapton to country music hit-makers Allan Caswell and Drew McAlister. The album was conceived by Graeme and rock historian Glenn A Baker.
Recently I spoke to Graeme about the process of selecting the tracks for the album, amongst other thins.
I actually hadn’t planned to start off by saying this but it struck me, after I’d listened to your album a few times, it sounds almost wistful in a way and I kind of wondered if there was a sense when you were making it that it’s almost like a longing for something behind it or just some kind of sentiment that, maybe, was behind it.
That’s a very interesting assessment and I’m going to have to try and take that on board and think on my feet in that regard. Maybe with a couple of songs, like “Lost on the River” and “The Love I Leave Behind”, I can see where you’re coming from.
Yeah, that’s true.
I guess with “Dotted Line” and “Sounds like Summer”, though, it seems to me like there’s a sense of quite happily travelling that road, you know? The content of the songs, I haven’t thought about in terms of anything other than each song has its own sort of casual Australianness, if you know what I’m saying. Like “For the Good of the Nation”, it really does echo our sort of love/hate relationship with politics and politicians. “Flesh and Blood”, to me, captures some sort of sense of contemporary culture with Indigenous culture, like a timeline. I’m going to have to really take that on board. With the album – with the brackets around it, you know, think wistful, and see where we end up.
It’s just, you know, when you sort of listen to an album as a whole as opposed to breaking down the individual songs and there’s the impression that comes out of it. And because it’s a collection of songs by other artists and they’re all songs you’ve chosen for individual reasons, I suppose it did surprise me that I had that overall impression. But, you’re right, the two songs you mention, “Lost on a River” and “The Love I Leave Behind” are probably the most … not emotional of the bunch, because I think there’s emotion in all of them, but probably the ones that do sound – they’re probably more in a minor key, let’s put it that way [laughs].
Well, yeah. Well, “The Love I Leave Behind” being the lead-off track, I mean, it’s a very serious idea, isn’t it? I mean – and especially when you’re talking about an artist who’s – let’s put it this way, I’m past the halfway mark when you’re talking about 100 years of age, right?
Sure.
[Laughs] So “The Love I Leave Behind” does have – it’s probably more pertinent to me than it would be to a 24-year-old singer.
Yeah, yeah.
Um, you know, there’s that element. I think it’s – I love songs that deeply touch you, you know what I mean, and these songs have in some way got to me, to the core of me. And if that means that maybe there’s a sense of life is pretty serious and this is what happens, then that must be what it is, you know? Musically, I would suggest that there’s no way to – Matt Fell was responsible, very much, for the musical component here. I chose all the songs, I learnt them on acoustic guitar, took them in the studio, played them to Matt, as if I’d written the songs, and then Matt generated the musical palette. And each song has its own sense of place, musically, and it’s not an echo of the previous recording because he hasn’t even heard the previous recordings. The song has had to, within itself, inspire him musically. And that was a very intriguing thing to see happen as well.
Was it quite a different experience for you to hand over the musical palette, I guess, to him in that way, because you’ve had so many albums of your own?
Yes, I think – yeah, huge. But having said that, I trust Matt implicitly. We’ve just made two really successful records for me, Still Walking and At the Speed of Life. Both records have really done – they’ve connected with my audience and, as a consequence, that gives you the confidence to say, “Matt, take it away,” you know? And there are things on this record that I wouldn’t have thought to do on an album, songs like “She Flew Away” by Glen Cartier. Glen’s version is fairly jaunty, sort of acoustic – there was a bit of a bounce in it. I played it to Matt pretty much like that but he didn’t – he felt the lyric had a depth and a sensitivity that was being overlooked by that musical approach and so came back a couple of weeks later with this sort of cinematic, end-of-the-movie feeling in which he got me to sing at the bottom end of my register. You know what I mean? So it’s a very intriguing – it’s a process I wouldn’t have thought to do myself. And that’s exciting for me and I’m sure if we come back to make another record together, that’ll spill over. You know, the more confidence you have – you know, I’ve worked with Mark McDuff for years and years and Mark and I started off with that thing where you sort of – you’re discussing everything that happens in the studio. The same thing happened with Matt. Then, eventually, you get to the point where you’re so comfortable, you don’t talk about anything any more. It’s just like it just works, it’s just two minds become one.
It’s a true collaboration.
It is, it is. And it can only come from a relationship when you have trust and confidence in each other.
And you said that you went into the studio and you played him the songs as if you’d written them yourself. And I’m wondering, given that they didn’t go through that same creative process within you, when it comes to – and in your notes about this album, you’ve talked about people being interpreters of songs, and I agree with you, I think that that art of interpretation is really undervalued. I’m just wondering when you as a performer, as opposed to the singer/songwriter, come to these songs, is there a bit of instinct about how you interpret them or do you tend to break down the music and the lyrics that’s there and think logically about how you’ll interpret them?
Well, I think, having done what I’ve done for all these years, it’s an instinctual approach. It’s just like I know what the lyric is saying, I know what it makes me feel and I have – due to experience, that translates from the microphone to the media, do you know what I’m saying—whatever that happens to be. And the musical component that Matt chooses to emphasise ends up being – you know, because of our relationship, it ends up being very simpatico. It’s just like it works. It’s just my voice, Matt’s music, somehow or other the magic happens, you know? And believe me, you know when the magic doesn’t happen, and I’ve been in circumstances where you do that, where you’re battling and battling and –  and it’s just not right until you recognise that scrap it and start again is generally the only way to approach. But we didn’t have any of that here. It was like luckily or fortunately, the songs, themselves – you know, you have to understand that I didn’t go through the labour of delivering these songs as I do with my own songs, you know? I didn’t get up at four o’clock in morning and stare at a blank piece of paper and work with it until I got it right. These songs existed by other writers and I really admired their work and I connected with it but I still didn’t go through the labour pains that a writer goes through. Matt probably did more of that than I did, but I knew what the song was about in my heart and head. I knew what I’m here to sing about, you know? I got it, you know, just that sort of thing.
Well, I think, to an extent, all the labour of the previous songs and the years you’ve been playing, in a way I think that means you do get to have it a little bit easier doing it this way, because you’ve essentially done your degree in music and, yes, it’s Matt job to do the work and put it together, but I think, to an extent, you can give yourself a little pat and say, “No, no, this one I cannot work quite as hard on.”
I think it’s very perceptive of you, Sophie. I did feel that way. I’d step off to work in the morning, to go to the studio, with this sense of, like, what’s going to happen today? You know, whereas, quite often when you’re making a record it’s like, hang on a minute now, I want to make sure I get that piece there right, there’s something, you know, I just want to get a texture. Maybe we should use a small string section or maybe we should use a horn section there, you know? Or maybe it should be completely bare, you know? So I understand. I mean, when Elvis Presley went in the studio to make records, it must have been really fun, you know, because he didn’t have to go through any creative labour apart from just sing the song, you know? And that’s instinctual. It’s like, you don’t think about that because you know it, you’ve just got it. You know what the song’s about, you know how to translate it. Ray Charles and those guys, great interpreters; Frank Sinatra. No wonder they had so many records out, you know what I mean? They recorded so often because they didn’t have to suffer the pain and agony of creating the copyright, you know?
Yeah. Well, you mentioned some great interpreters of times past and I was wondering who you think are the great contemporary interpreters of any genre, not just country?
Oh, dear. Well, there’s very rare artists now who don’t get involved in the writing process. It’s almost like – you remember Harry Nilsson and people like that? A great singer, a great songwriter, but he was better known for his interpretations than he was for his own  writing. And my worry is that the pressure is on artists so much these days to have a finger in the creative pie of writing the song that that sort of sense of just being the interpreter is maybe getting lost. You know, like, it’s just not – freedom isn’t there to just step up to it and go – like Joe Cocker didn’t write most of those great songs he recorded but, my God, he sang them better than any singer/songwriter – he sang them better than anyone could do them, you know?
Do you think that that pressure of being the songwriter can sometimes take away from the joy of performance? Because what you’ve described with those artists like Ray Charles and Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, is that there was usually a joy in live performance. And maybe being the songwriter means that you’re perhaps kind of looking around a little bit more than usual to see if people like the song.
Well, I’ve got a funny thing I say, “Bloody songwriters, you’re a twisted little bunch.” [laughs]
[Laughs]
I’m being facetious but, you know, it’s like Paul Simon is very self-aware, you know what I mean? Like, he’s very – and it’s just different to that – when you watch a clip of Ray Charles throw his head back and just do “What’d I Say” or whatever it happens to be, you know, there’s this freedom and joy that comes with just interpreting a song and not having to be responsible for the –    
[The call was disconnected accidentally.] Anyway, we’re back.
Yeah. Where were we?
I think we were talking about the joy of performance and songwriters being a twisted little bunch, I think, was the last thing you said.
[Laughs] Yeah, well, intense little creatures, aren’t they?
[Laughs].
I mean, the one thing that I’ve always loved about Paul McCartney and John Lennon was that they wrote all these great songs but, you know what I mean, they’re up there and you can see them having the time of their lives performing it. Bob Dylan, another story. Love his work, absolutely love his work but you never see Bob with this big beaming  smile on his face sort of going, “Here I am having a great time,” you know?
I tell you who I’ve seen who I think – two singer/songwriters who manage to just really always have a great time is Rufus Wainwright and Ani DiFranco, who’s an American folksinger.
I know Ani DiFranco, she is brilliant.
Yep. And Rufus always looks like he is interpreting someone else’s songs because he’s always tossing his hair around and having a great time.
I’ve never seen him live. He was out here with Paul Simon just recently.
He was. And I’ve seen Rufus many, many times, including the first time he came to Australia and he – but he also grew up in a family that really prioritised performance so that was his culture.
Yes, well, I mean, what’s his dad’s name?
Loudon.
Loudon Wainwright.
And his mother was Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters.
That’s right, yeah. And his song the “Matapedia”, do you know that song on Matapedia?
I don’t know a lot of her work, I’m ashamed to say.
Oh, man, it is just the most beautiful song. I’ve got that one on my, you know, we’ll say it’s a desert island sort of song list but it’s on there and it’s her and her sister, I can’t remember – “Matapedia” is the name of the song. It’s about this train and they’re in the car racing the train and the whole relationship is about that, the parallel of – yeah, beautiful.
But I’ll steer this conversation back to your work now because we want to talk  about your album.
You’re right.
Reading the liner notes, it seemed that you might have started the song selection process by artist. Like, you had some artists in mind that you wanted to put on the record. Is that true?
Well, I think the logical starting point is for songs that you know and the artist that meant something to you at a point in your career when it was important. And John J Francis was a classic, if you like, and he opens the disc because “Play Mumma Play” was an inspiration as a kid. When bands were having hits on the radio, he was the singer/songwriter who was, sort of, there with his guitar having a hit record, which made me think if he can do it, I can, too. So that would have been a strong connection for me there. Then there are the singer/songwriters you’ve met, you actually know, like Shane Howard. We’ve met on a couple of occasions and it’s a natural process of, I must check Shane’s work. Glen Cartier started his career at Festival around the same time I did. I don’t want to forget Glen, do you know what I mean? Then, of course, there’s Glenn A Baker, who’s at the other end of the spectrum shooting all these artists at me and names: “God, there was so and so. He wrote a song that ended up on a Peter, Paul, and Mary recording in 1972. You’ve got to record it, it’s just fabulous. Listen to this.” But I mean, as it turned out, there were a lot of those songs that didn’t stand the test of time—
Right, interesting.
—that sounded like they belonged in that period. It was the language, the musicality, someway. There are a couple of songs that Glenn really loved and felt strongly and I understand why, but they were period pieces and they were, sort of, grand and overblown now, like, do you know what I mean? Like in terms of trying to record that song, the language was too grand and, like, just didn’t work, you know what I mean?
Yeah, yeah.
So there is that element. It was highly selective but if I could sit down with the songs that didn’t make it and play them to you against the songs that did, there would be a very clear mark of delineation, you know, like I can see why you wouldn’t have recorded that song.
So do you think then that there are any common elements to the ones that you did end up with on the album in terms of perhaps the song structure?
Timelessness and the lyric, particularly.
And the lyric, right.
The lyric has to stand – not only did it have to stand 2013, it’s got to stand 2020 and it’s also got to have stood 1991, you know, or whatever else. It’s like trying to get that breadth in a lyric is really important and that’s where the great writers come in, where language is elemental and timeless. It’s not fashionable, it’s not – the words aren’t hip. The words are the words that people will always be able to – the simplicity of direct language. And I think each one of these songs bears that hallmark.
Yeah. So I know that you have a family business in Mackay and one quote I read, you said, it’s more like going on holiday when you go on the road [laughs].
[Laughs] Yep.
I’m wondering whether, therefore, you have time to tour this album and if you do tour it, will you be touring it just playing songs from the album or will you also have your own work in it, in the show?
I’ll have my own work in it as well. This album will – ultimately, it’ll get a little bit drawn into the 25th year of North because North is – 2013 – to be honest, the album, I was hoping to get to, Kindred Spirit, out in 2012, so I’ve kind of focused on there but just the song selection and getting it ready. And then there was very strong interest from a major label towards the end of last year, that they definitely wanted to take it up but the deal couldn’t work for – like, just the nature of the business these days, they were offering what was an old-style deal that won’t work for either of us, you know – hang on, sorry, won’t work for me [laughs].
[Laughs] Yes and you would know because you worked in a record company.
That’s exactly right. I know what the margins have to be to make a living, you know what I mean? Anyway, long story short, so it carries over into 2013 as a release date and now, in October, it marks 25 years since North. So we’re doing, like, Sydney Opera House and QPAC and all those big concerts to celebrate North. And this album will be subsumed in some way into that, as sort of part of a body of work. The first half will just be North from the beginning to the end and then the second half of the show will be – plus here we go, you know, this is where we’re up to now. So I won’t be touring it as an entity in its own right simply because my audience demand the 17 CDs set out. And I understand, I don’t want to go to a concert and just see the latest CD, you know what I mean? It’s like, hang on a minute, I want my favourite.
Kindred Spirit is out now.

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