Queensland singer-songwriter Tobias released the poignant single ‘Just a Boy’ recently, ahead of the release of his album Alive on 4 November. Tobias has played in other people’s bands as well as creating his own songs; now he’s focusing on a very productive solo career of writing, playing and performing. It was my pleasure to talk to him recently.
You’ve returned to the Sunshine Coast to live – how long were you away?
I moved to Melbourne nine years ago. Before that I did a lot of travelling around the world. I lived in Brisbane. I tried to settle in Noosa but the city lights beckoned. And I’ve just decided to come back now, just to be with family and stuff. It’s been really, really wonderful.
Once you’ve got an attachment to that place, it’s hard to leave it behind.
Absolutely. It was just time, you know – I was ready to come back. And it’s been great for music as well. For songwriting.
On Hastings Street [Noosa Heads] there’s the odd venue that has music, and I know there’s the surf club at Sunshine Beach. Are you finding that there’s a good number of places for you to play there?
Yes. The Sunshine Coast has really changed in the last ten years, and especially lately. There’s a lot of places that still appreciate original music. A lot of venues, and a lot of things just popping up through Yandina and Caloundra and Nambour, Eumundi. All over the coast there’s a real support for local music, and it’s great [laughs]. It’s amazing. People love it up here. They love music. Coming from Melbourne, where there’s a lot of original music and it’s really hard to get people along to shows, up here is very different. It’s very alive.
I’ll backtrack now and ask you a bit about your musical lineage – what lessons you used to listen to when you were young, where you think your musical style has come from.
I grew up in country Victoria up I was about eight. My mum and dad were real folkies. We moved out to the country and always had Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and John Denver. A lot of folk music from the ’60s and ’70s like John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman. So I grew up with that music and around that sort of art. Dad taught me how to play guitar and I just fell into the style of folk, blues, finger-pickig guitar. That’s where it all started for me – and it hasn’t ended, either [laughs]. I have new love affairs with country artists. I’m just so into Willie Nelson right now, it’s so funny. But also my music’s influence a lot by bands I grew up with in the ’80s and ’90s, like The Cure and The Smiths. Bands like The Shins. I love to think that my music’s influenced by a lot of country, folk and pop – not pop but indie music.
John Denver gives me a bit of a clue about your melodic sensibilities – I can hear pop in your music, in a good way because I love pop music. And I think it’s hard to write melody really well and in a way that suits your voice. John Denver and Johnny Cash is an interesting combination of influences. They’re definitely both in your sound. And country music is storytelling in song, that’s a big part of its appeal
Absolutely – and it’s beautiful, isn’t it, when music does tell a story, and it’s meaningful and you can connect with the music. It takes you out of your life and your body, I reckon.
Which leads me to ask you about your songwriting process – do you start with a story idea or with a melody, or both? Neither?
It starts with a melody or a chord progression but it comes hand in hand with an emotion. If I’m playing something, mucking around, or I hear a melody I’ll play it, but it normally ties in with an emotion I’m feeling, or something I’m remembering, then it snowballs from there. But I find if I just play chords and melodies there’s not much meaning in it and I shelve them. I write a lot of songs every week. I never switch it off [laughs]. But it always starts in the morning – my best times are sunrise and with my morning cuppa [laughs], when my head’s clean and fresh, and when the ideas come freely. I muck around with melodies and chords, and then if it takes me away somewhere the song will get momentum and it structures itself, I think.
With the writing every day, was that something you decided a while ago? Was it a discipline you needed to have? Or do you feel every day that you want to write?
It wasn’t something that I sat down to do – it’s something I’ve always done because I love it so much. And I just need to, it’s one of those things – like eat [laughs]. I’ve got to do it. Sometimes the songs are terrible but sometimes they can be really nice and they might take me away. It’s funny sometimes to have to talk about this stuff. But I’ve always done it.
I always find it interesting to find out about the process. Some songwriters write every day to write things out, essentially, and some like to obey the muse. There is something, I think, to be said for writing out the stuff that isn’t working to get to the stuff that is.
Absolutely. I find that one song might come out of mucking around. I might have to write three or four songs that sound the same, and then one of them comes out of it, and it won’t be until I look back at the demos that I think, Whoa, that’s all the same song. That progression, that melody. That’s a test of a good song, I think, if you always come back to that progression and think, What’s that? [laughs] ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I’m hooked on.’
You talked about expressing emotion in song – did you ever consider taking another path to do that, like painting or writing prose, or was it always music?
It’s always been music. I’ve done a lot of visual art stuff but it doesn’t come naturally to me. Music and songwriting seem to be the best way for me to express creativity and to be whole as an artist, I think. It’s just the way that’s been natural for me, and it always has since I can remember. It’s really nice to be able to still do it and hone that craft. I’ve done a lot of things in my life that haven’t come naturally and have felt very awkward, but it’s beautiful to do something that comes easily.
Do you ever write with other people?
Yes, I’ve collaborated quite a bit. But it’s something I need to work on a bit more. I get a lot out of writing songs with other people and playing with other people. I learn from ear so I grew up jamming – that’s how I learnt to play, and learnt how to play with people on stage.
In terms of how your voice developed – it has such an incredible tone to it. Is that something that came from the ether, for lack of a better term? Or have you consciously modelled it on someone?
No, I just opened my mouth [laughs].
Well, that was a happy surprise!
Yeah, sure [laughs]. It was lucky. I think it’s gotten stronger over the years – but I think it’s gotten stronger with confidence, that’s really what it’s been about. But I haven’t done much vocal training. I said to my producer recently, ‘I’m thinking of getting some vocal training’, and he said, ‘No, don’t! Don’t do it! They’ll turn you into one of those singer-singers.’
I suppose one reason to go might be to avoid damaging your vocal cords.
Yes. I definitely warm up before I perform or record – I’ve got exercises.
In one video on your website, of a live performance, you were playing a very distinctive-looking guitar – it was green. Are you loyal to one instrument or do you have a few guitars?
I have a lot of guitars. I just can’t thrown them out or sell them, so I’m carrying around a lot. That one came to me about two years ago and I haven’t played anything else but that guitar. I just have a love affair with it [laughs]. It just seems to work for me if I look after it. It’s great for finger picking and it’s quite sensitive. I can also bash it out. So I use that guitar a lot. That and a banjo I’ve got.
Was banjo hard to learn?
I think I was lucky that I’ve played a lot of finger-picking guitars and in open-chord tunings, and when I moved to the five-string banjo it was already on open G tuning, so it was just a matter of learning a few fingerings. Within six months I was playing banjo for people like Missy Higgins, Jen Cloher and those sorts of acts through Melbourne and around Australia … It’s been a great instrument, just to play with people. It’s a really fun thing. [American actor and writer] Steve Martin says, ‘You can never play a sad song on a banjo’ [laughs].
Now, on to your album title, which is Alive – why did you choose it?
I think it just sums up the experience of the way the album came about and the songwriting. Each song is really a personal experience that I’ve written about. And the only reason I can experience those is that I feel quite awake in my life right now, and I feel alive for those experiences. And the music itself is quite uplifting. So it was one word that sums up the album. Someone – a producer – said that an album’s just a snapshot of your creative career at that time, and I think that word sums up that time, this time, and the moment, and the album and the way things are.
Which is a pretty wonderful thing – some people might go their whole lives without ever feeling that.
I know. And I forget too that I do a lot of work around being awake and alive [laughs]. I do a lot of meditation and I look after myself. It all really helps.
In choose the songs for this album, did you have quite a few to choose from or were you carefully curating throughout your songwriting process to arrive at this particular collection?
Not particularly. I had about 40 songs to choose from. Some of them I want to use on the next album – that’s another story. It just sort of happened organically. A few of the songs are upbeat poppy, some of them are country, which I really love, and some of them are folk-rocky songs, and I guess I chose them to narrate a story on the album. I didn’t just throw any song that I thought would go in there — I did carefully consider which would be nice.
I get the impression that you would be careful [laughs].
Sure [laughs]. It’s really exciting to think that in my next album recording – which I’ve already teed up in a few weeks – it will keep the process going and keep the songs alive. Another producer who I really admire said, ‘If you’ve got a bunch of songs, you don’t sit on them – you either record them and move on or just put them aside and revisit them. And I think that’s what I want to do – really have relationships with these songs. Put them onto an album and then I can move on to the next one.
On the single, ‘Just a Boy’, which the notes say is about your mother, it might have been easy or tempting to become maudlin about the subject matter but you really avoided that – so it seems like you approached the subject matter from a position of not necessarily joy – or maybe it is joy looking back at your childhood and knowing your mother.
I’m glad you said that. Even though it is a really sad memory … On my last album I wrote a tribute to my mother’s passing and it was more about the grief. This song is more looking back as a memory of joy. It was growing up and going to Noosa River and fishing – everything just being a really fun, wonderful time. All this warm weather and eating barbies all the time [laughs]. Just a happy time and it reminds me of Australia as well – we love that, being outside and being together and having a barbie and shooting the breeze. It was just a memory and I wrote it when I was feeling a little bit lonely down in Melbourne and it was cold, and the sun had just come out for the spring and I thought, Wow, that was such a beautiful time. I was so blessed to grow up in Eumundi and Noosa and ride motorbikes and make bows and arrows. [Laughs] When you lose a parent at that age a lot of that lifestyle goes, so it’s easy to look back on it nostalgically. But I’m glad you said that because it is a really joyful memory – a really beautiful memory.
And it’s a lovely song. Now, my last question: you’re about to go on tour – are you looking forward to it?
You bet [laughs]. I can’t wait. I’ve got a new tour caravan. I’m going to be on the road for about six weeks I think, doing quite a few shows from Brisbane down to Melbourne then back up to Brisbane and all the way up past Rockhampton, and a few house concerts on the way. I’m really, really looking forward to it. I love being on the road, playing for people, meeting new people.
Alive is released on 4 November 2016.
Tobias tour dates:
SATURDAY 5TH NOVEMBER | ‘ALIVE’ VIC ALBUM LAUNCH PARTY @ LABOUR IN VAIN – MELBOURNE, VIC
SATURDAY 12TH NOVEMBER | THE FRONT GALLERY, CANBERRA – ACT
FRIDAY 18TH NOVEMBER | THE FOX DEN, GLOUCESTER – NSW
SUNDAY 20TH NOVEMBER | FLOW BAR, OLD BAR – NSW
FRIDAY 25TH NOVEMBER | ‘ALIVE’ QLD ALBUM LAUNCH PARTY @ BERKELOUW BOOKS, EUMUNDI – QLD
FRIDAY 16TH DECEMBER | IMPERIAL HOTEL EUMUNDI, QLD
SUNDAY 8TH JANUARY | IMPERIAL HOTEL EUMUNDI, QLD