One of the greatest Australian country albums this year has come from Melbourne duo Amarillo. Eyes Still Fixed is a gorgeous, studied piece of work, and a valuable addition to the national canon. So it was with great pleasure that I spoke to Nick O’Mara, one half of Amarillo, about the band’s work and the album.
How did you name the band?
Amarillo is a city in Texas and it’s just a word that I really liked. I used to write it in notebooks and stuff, and I’d mentioned to Jac [Tonks, bandmate] that I might have a band called Amarillo one day. I was playing in Mick Thomas’s band and he knew that [Jac and I] were doing some music together and he asked us to play a show. So Jac was just on the spot and didn’t want to say we didn’t have a name so she just said, ‘Amarillo’, so we kind of got stuck with it – which is good because I liked it.
So she kind of stole your thunder, because if you were planning to use it, she made the executive decision …
No, it was there for the taking.
What are your personal musical influences?
They’re pretty broad. My other band, Raised by Eagles, is more kind of Americana, alt-country. I think Jac is influenced by … look, I don’t know. Who knows if you’re the best judge of what influences you? I’m not even sure. My main influence, really, is my parents’ record collection. They had a great record collection when I was growing up. They had the Stones, heaps of Dylan and Neil Young. A lot of guitar music, a lot of acoustic music. For Amarillo, me and Jac really love English guitar pop, like The Sundays, XTC, The Smiths and Nick Drake – that kind of ’60s English folk stuff too. Jac and I really love the same music, things that hit us both. When we get struck by something new it really kind of hits us both. When we were making the album we were listening to a lot of Australian stuff – contemporary Australian music. We were listening to a lot of Laura Jean and Ben Salter and The Drones, that kind of gear. But who knows? It just kind of seeps in – you don’t even know. Well, I don’t. You don’t seem to get to choose what kind of songs you write.
And I suppose you have to be mindful to not be too influenced by someone. I can hear a little bit of the Sundays in Jac’s vocal style but not so much that I would have immediately caught the reference.
It’s not for me, or for Jac, a very self-conscious activity, writing songs. You don’t really know what a song’s going to be until after it, anyway.
Do you pluck the ideas from the either and try to find a way to bottle them, almost?
Yeah, I think so. Some songs just come out fully formed, but definitely they just kind of pop up. That’s one of the good things about having a writing partner. I play guitar a lot and something will catch Jac’s ear in whatever I’m playing. I kind of improvise all day and they usually just drift off into the universe but if Jac likes something she’ll say, ‘What was that?’ and we’ll keep it. Also when you’re writing music you’re navigating your own self-doubt, so it’s good to have someone there who can confirm your enthusiasm for something or your doubt, if you think it’s shitful, so occasionally I’ll go, ‘Yep, yep, that is shit.’ [laughs]
It’s a bit like having an in-house editor, but the editor is also qualified to do what you’re doing.
So when did you start writing songs?
I started writing music as soon as I picked up a guitar, really. I started playing guitar when I was a kid and I’ve always written music. Writing songs – probably in my twenties. I came to songs a little bit late. Jac’s always written songs. When we met she had a whole bunch of demos, a whole bunch of stuff to go, and I did as well. Songs for Raised by Eagles as well. But definitely the moment I picked up an instrument I was writing straightaway.
Were either of your parents musical?
Jac’s whole family, her mum comes from this huge Irish family and they were in this travelling Irish folk band that people still remember to this day, called The O’Down Family Show Band or something like that. So Jac’s family is super musical. But my family – my mum played a bit of guitar and some piano. Dad was just a big music fan. And my cousin’s Shane O’Mara, so there’s a few musical heads in the family.
With your parents having that extensive record collection, they obviously had a passionate interest in music and it’s always interesting to me to hear how these things are sparked in musicians and at what age, and there’s invariably a passionate parent or two in the background with a great record collection, and by osmosis you pick up the guitar young and that turns into something else down the line.
For sure. And they were both really encouraging of it and encouraging of me discovering new music. I got an acoustic guitar when I was a kid and I was that real obsessive little-boy thing with it, but it wasn’t until a few years later that the music I was listening to was this magical thing that you couldn’t actually do. I was listening to guitar music hearing this separate, magical thing as I was teaching myself, and it kind of came together – ‘Oh, I can actually do this as well.’
Which is a pretty cool realisation at any age.
You mentioned that you were writing music but not songs – what do you think changed at the point where you started to add words to things?
I played slide guitar and mandolin for someone who I think is one of Australia’s best songwriters – Yanto Shortis, who doesn’t really play any more. I think being around him – I was his sidekick for a while, just watching him write songs. This was years and years and years ago. There’s such a neat thing to just the process of writing music is kind of this magical fun thing to do, and then after that songs are the same thing. I really love the process of doing it. It’s really cool to have a collection of songs, too. Once you’ve finished them and they’re done, they become this other thing – you kind of own them, they’re like these little objects that you can pull out and show people, like little statues or something. The process can be kind of fraught but once you’ve done them I really like collecting them – ‘There’s another one on the pile’.
I guess it helps when it comes to constructing an album – it’s not a desperate scramble for material, it’s more like editing the collection you have.
Yes, that’s it.
Do you ever find that other people tend to say, well, how hard can it be to write a song?
That’s so true. Writing music – writing a simple, neat little song – is heaps more difficult than writing a big instrumental piece, which I used to do a lot of as well. Writing a really concise little song that has some beauty and honesty in it, and is within those boundaries, is hard. It’s really hard. Or it can be. Sometimes it’s really easy. I often say that if people are really critical of someone’s song – ‘sit down and write ten classic songs, see how long it takes you’ [laughs].
There’s also that process whereby you have the song, you go into the studio, you record a version of the song, and if you’re taking it on the road there’s probably a point in time where you’re thinking, Hang on a second – that recorded version is not the one I like any more.
Definitely – they become something else. They grow legs and they can morph. Sometimes you can get so far way from them. I’ve had that experience where your recording of something comes on and you think, God, this doesn’t resemble what we do now.But Amarillo’s pretty close – the arrangements are pretty sparse, so it’s kept pretty close to the recording.
I noted on the songwriting credits that there was one shared credit with you and Jac but the other songs are split between you. But I found on each song, there’s a real interplay between her voice and your guitars, and I’m presuming you are behind most of the guitars on these tracks. So even though you write separately, do you have that feeling as you’re each writing that you’re dancing around each other, not jarring at any stage, but there’s a real sense of symbiosis. Do you feel that before you start to record?
Definitely. That’s really cool that you notice that. So the songs that are Jac’s and the songs that are mine they’re still really informed by what the other person is doing with them. With my songs that Jac sings, they become something else because she sings them – even in the arrangement of them and construction of them, we do that stuff together. And I love writing guitar parts for Jac’s work as well. She’s a really lovely acoustic guitar player, really simple but it’s a lot of fun to ornament her songs. She has some really super-personal songs – her lyrics on the album are really beautiful, so it’s really nice to get invited into other people’s songs and help them out.
And it’s a great way to put, to ornament the songs, because whenever you add lap steel to a song it does have that sense of an embellishment but a necessary one.
Hopefully, yes, just keeping it within the boundaries of whatever idea she had of the sound world of whatever the song is – you don’t want to break it. But Jac definitely knows what she wants musically so we just help each other.
A lot of this album was written on the road, and quite a bit in the Top End, in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Were you there playing at the time or did you go on a songwriting trip?
We did a couple of gigs in Darwin and the Kimberley but we spent a little bit more time up there too, just trucking around and staying in hotels and motels and stuff. We’d never been up there before, either of us. It just blew us away. You feel like it’s foreign – it’s so Australian but you feel like you’re in another country. It smells like Asia or something, it’s just incredible. We went to Arnhem Land. The landscape looks prehistoric. We did write a bunch of songs up there that are on the album and we both had notebooks, we filled them up. It felt like that crept in a little bit. Then there was one track and we really thought about it when we recorded it – ‘All I Can See’ – when we were in the studio we wanted it to sound like how we felt about the landscape up there. I think we got it. I think Shane got it for us.
I’m curious about that process, because obviously translating a feeling and an impression into a song is tricky. As you’re talking to him, are you trying to describe it or are you experimenting musically until you get it?
Mostly you don’t but you’re right – there’s not really the language to do that. Talking about music is really quite difficult because you can only talk about it in really broad strokes. So if you say, ‘I want it to sound like the desert’ [laughs] that can be meaningless to someone who has no idea what you’re talking about. Or someone could kind of know what you mean. I suppose that’s the beautiful thing about music – you can’t really pin it down with language. But I guess it does make the process harder.
It no doubt helps that you know Shane well, so I’ll move on to asking about him. Were there any family squabbles in the studio?
No, no, none at all. We got on really well – it was really fun. He’s really good in the studio, in every way. He’s a world-class engineer and as a producer he’s really good at knowing when things are getting stuck. He’ll move things quickly. All the performances were pretty much one, two or three takes, mostly live. It was done quick and I think his experience is really so broad and he knows when something’s happening and something isn’t happening. So he’s really good like that. He really guided what was going on. And we were on the same page. We were driving there and I said to Jac, ‘I want my guitar to sound like Ry Cooder’s guitar on Sister Morphine.’ And I was setting up and Shane said, ‘You should go for that Ry Cooder sound on Sister Morphine.’ So there were a lot of simpatico moments for what we were after.
Shane is obviously quite busy and producing a lot of Melbourne artists. I recently interviewed Shane Nicholson and made the point to him that when you start to produce a lot of different artists, there’s a level of influence there culturally speaking – not that any of Shane’s productions sound the same – but there’s this sense that these people who are producing a lot of artists can really have a big influence on culture, because they have a lot of knowledge. I always pay attention to producer credits because I think it’s so interesting to see those webs of connection and Shane [O’Mara] certainly has one in Melbourne.
Absolutely. That’s really interesting. He’s like our sonic overlord [laughs].
There’s a few of you in the Melbourne alt-country scene doing great work – it’s obviously a mutually supportive scene and creatively rich. I don’t know if you feel that, being there?
Definitely. I feel so fortunate that there’s this thing going on – we just make really good friendships, really good collaborations. In every city in the world there’s thousands of musicians with nowhere to play, and we feel so lucky that there’s this thing going on that seems really rich and people are excited about. It’s a really good thing to be part of.
Eyes Still Fixed is out now.