Australian singer-songwriter Michael Rose first played to audiences in the pub-rock scene in the 1970s. He took a break for a few years and has re-emerged with Give Back the Night, an album of very personal songs that can sometimes be confronting because they’re so emotional. But that’s all part of his drive to be honest in his music, and to connect with listeners, and the experience of listening to this album is one of being allowed into someone’s most private thoughts – you don’t know what to expect, and you may be discomfited by some of what you hear, but it’s a rare experience and a gift to the listener. It was a real pleasure talking to Michael recently about this album.
What did you grow up listening to and what do you listen to now?
I grew up listening to anything and everything. And that sounds like I’m trying to avoid the question!
No, not at all.
It would have been from The Who, early days, to Paul Williams, ‘Just An Old-Fashioned Love Song’, the Stylistics right through to Focus. Then these days back towards one of my great Australian loves, Graeme Connors, and his Road Less Travelledalbum was a bit of a watershed for me back when it was released because it felt like I was in the wilderness, but when I heard that I went, Ooh, it’s possible. I love his stuff. And today I don’t really get time to sit and listen to much, to be brutally honest. We own three cafes in Yass, Goulburn and Mittagong here in New South Wales. Running those, recording with my good friend Herm Kovac and everything else that goes with it, no, I don’t listen to much these days. [But] I grew up listening to everything – whatever was good music. My favourite, of course, was Rodgers and Hammerstein as a kid.
Very well-composed songs, and songs that were for entertainment.
Very, very well-composed songs. I listen to that and think, Geez, who am I pretending to be?[laughs] They’re very good. [I had] a very diverse background. Rock ’n’ roll – I think I was in a band that was one of the first to play Black Sabbath in Australia, back in the day. And then you go from that to listening to Paul Williams, with his lines ‘If I can make you cry just by holding you, that’s enough for me’.
When it came to forming your own sound – and I know that you had a previous pub-rock existence – is that something that’s organically developed over time, or do you feel that there’s one influence or a few influences that are stronger than others?
No, I think it’s just organic. The one thing that has always been a dilemma in my life, and a positive, is that it’s very difficult to stay true to what you are, to not try to diversify and go away from what you think is right but to copy another genre. And I’ve stayed at that and been like that for years and years and years – hence, maybe, there’s no success [laughs]. The old story. But that’s the joy of what I’ve done with Herm [on the new album] – I’ve stuck to what I did. I dropped six songs off to Herm, who’s been a mate for many, many years. I said, ‘Mate, I’d just to record a couple of songs for the kids’, who are now young adults, so that they knew that Dad really wasn’t fibbing all the time about what he did [laughs] and who he met and who he knew and all those sorts of things. Anyway, so I dropped the songs off to him and he rang me the next day and said, ‘Well, where’s the rest, mate?’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘But haven’t you got heaps yet?’ I said, ‘Yeah’, and he said, ‘These have developed beautifully – let’s do an album’. Give Back the Night is the consequence of that. Those songs range from … ‘I Heard a Voice’ I wrote in my parents’ bathroom – best acoustics in town – when I was probably twenty, twenty-one. One of the songs was written a year ago because of an incident we had in business. To be brutally honest, it’s very nice to finally have something that I’m really, really comfortable with, because it is me. It’s not someone I’m trying to be. And I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to do that, either through feelings of inadequacy or ‘I want to be this’ or ‘I want to be that’. Now I’m very content in my own skin. It’s a nice place to be.
It’s the best place to be as a creator because you’re coming from an authentic pace and audiences tend to recognise that.
I hope so. I’ve had a couple of people say to me about ‘Fat Little Boy’ that they got a little misty when they heard it – that’s what it’s about, that’s why I stick to what I do. Whether any success ever comes of it is irrelevant – I haven’t chased it for the kudos, I’ve chased it for the idea that I’d like to play my music and my songs and see if somebody actually likes it. And if they don’t, fine, I’ve worn that for many, many years. I’m quite comfortable with that too [laughs]. That happens in every life – it doesn’t have to be music, it can be in any career, in any place in life where you have aspirations and dreams and goals. You turn round and you go, ‘I’ve either got to remain true to who I am or I have to change.’ A lot of people change things to chase things, and I think that would be even more heartbreaking. For me, being able to say this time, looking from my hill here, going, ‘Well, I’m a failure’ … [laughs]
If the definition of success is material success and you’re changing what you do so you can fit into a vertical idea of what things are then, yes, you might have material success but if you look back on the work, or if that person looks back on the work, are they proud of it?
That’s a very good saying – ‘vertical’. I love it! You hit the nail on the head. How do you judge that? And I can’t talk for everyone else, it’s just for me. Those moments in my life when I’ve felt the most desperate and the most … the feelings of failure have been the ones when I actually did stick to what I thought and you put it out there … I’ve had producers in the past say to me – one in particular, who I won’t mention, said, ‘Your voice is terrible, mate.’ And you go, ‘Oh, okay, well, you’ve just produced how many hits? Okay. Right. I’ll just quietly go away. No drama.’ And those sorts of things, they do affect you, but in the end I couldn’t be anyone else but me, and I’m sure you can’t be anyone else but young Sophie. [laughs]
It’s such a subjective thing, too, to say, ‘I don’t like your voice.’ If you’re singing off key, that’s one thing – but you don’t sing off key. So from an objective definition it’s not a terrible voice.
But that’s the industry we’re in. It is subjective, and that’s fine – you’ve got to understand that.
I don’t watch The Voice often but every now and again I catch wind of what’s going on, and I know there’s been the occasional country music artist on it who hasn’t gone very far – people who already have careers. It really shows that difference between focusing on just the voice and trying to make that slot into something, and then the artist who is separate.
I have an inkling who you’re talking about.
Lyn Bowtell, yes.
Lyn won Star Maker back when – 1990-whatever it was. And a recent song I heard of hers – it was beautiful. I thought, That’s really cool, Lyn – you’ve got a beautiful voice. And a little bit of envy – a little bit of green monster comes up and you go, ‘Bugger, how come you wrote that?’ But we all have that. But if you’re chasing the fame and the glory for the sake of the fame and the glory, you tend to fall on your face. Maybe I could be wrong. Lots of people have achieved lots of things in life with not doing that. But at my ripe old age, I look back at it all … I sound like my father. I look back at all this stuff and think it’s got to count for something. I am a happy person. I have a great business and wife and kids, and we all have our ups and downs, but it’s so nice to get to this stage where the things I’ve written and the stories that I’ve told – and it’s basically my life written down in Give Back the Night. Episodes from when I was twenty and being an idiot and questioning myself, and all those sorts of doubts. They’re here, they’re out there and I’m really comfortable with it.
You talked about the songwriting, and I do have some questions about that. You mentioned ‘Fat Little Boy’, and when I listened to it I thought that it’s so rare to hear something expressed so baldly. That emotion, that experience, often metaphors are used to skirt around it and you just came out and said it. And it’s not the only personal song, of course, on the album. There’s the emotion in writing the song, and then the emotion in recording the song – what is it like to try to bring that up in the studio when you might be doing several takes? How difficult is it to access that emotion?
It’s funny, when I wrote the songs – and there’s one in particular we’re putting on the next album – I wrote them because of that emotion, and you either come up with a couple of chords or whatever and suddenly the words start pouring out. It was easy doing it in the studio with Herm. The emotion was still there. And with Michael Carne and a couple of the other kids – blokes I know … I call them kids because they’re younger than me. But everyone is [laughs]. They said, ‘That’s really harsh.’ And I said, ‘Well, it happened.’ And it does happen. It’s life. The one thing I’d like to get across with ‘Give Back the Night’, the song, that was done because I felt guilty about something someone said to me. The story goes that a beautiful, bouncing lady – she was gorgeous – somebody said to me, ‘You see her? She’s good looking.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, she’s very attractive’. And this person said, ‘He beats the shit out of her.’ And you go, ‘Oh, oh – what have I done? What do I do?’ This was twenty-odd years ago. I went home and started writing that song. The fear of being … she must be suppressing that feeling all day to be bright and bubbly. And then knowing a misplaced word or action ends up in … and that’s where that song came from. That emotion came through in the studio and everyone was involved in it, which was really tickling for me too. Everyone that was involved in the production of it and finishing it off all said the same sorts of things. Even when we did the film clip with Duncan Toombs. I was standing on – I think it’s Elephant Rock, on the other side of Gosford from Pittwater in Sydney, and I walked down the hill – we’d done all the filming up on the rock, and they were all singing it. I was back down on the road listening to this, thinking, That’s really cool. If nothing ever happens, they’re into it, they’ve felt that emotion that’s come out of it. Something’s gelled … But that comes back to the same thing: it’s not contrived, it’s real. When they hear me singing it, or when Herm hears the song, he puts into it what he puts into it, the other guys put into it what they are, and I think that makes the process easier.
When you are writing songs from that authentic place, so often there must be a temptation almost to censor yourself or edit yourself. I imagine there’s a process whereby you’re thinking, People are going to hear this – what are they going to think? And that’s a normal thing. But it seems like you didn’t censor yourself and there’s really sense of open heartedness in the songs.
And, to be honest, it’s actually bounced back and bitten me with one of the songs in there. Somebody said to me, ‘How dare you write that. Nobody ever knew that.’ And I said, ‘Hang on – it happened, it’s real. I didn’t do it. It’s real. It’s part of my life. But that’s it – that’s what this person thought of me back in those days.’ But it’s one of those things where you go, ‘If the honesty’s not there, what else have I got to build on? And if I lie about it – not being a very good liar – I’ll probably trip myself up.’ [laughs]
And it’s hard to perform those songs if you’re lying, because the voice is a reflection of what’s going on inside, and if you’re feeling blocked then it doesn’t come out.
Yes. You’ve nailed it [laughs].
Listening to your album was almost like eavesdropping on your thoughts, and that’s an unusual sensation. It felt like a privilege, actually.
I find that very flattering, thank you. That’s a really nice sentiment. And you’re more than welcome to eavesdrop on my thoughts. Everyone is. Because I can’t hide who I am. I keep telling my kids: you have to be honest and straight to who you are. Yes, we all fib at times and life’s not always the straight and narrow, and you won’t get what you think you deserve sometimes, and sometimes it can be wonderful. But unless you get out of bed in the morning and have a go at it, and keep a smile on your face, doing those sorts of things and be honest and candid about it, you carry around an awful big suitcase, don’t you?
You do, and it gets exhausting.
Very. I had enough trouble being overweight – I don’t need any other suitcases [laughs].
Obviously part of this process is bringing your songs to an audience, but given you have all those businesses, do you have much time to play gigs?
Yes, I do. It’s been wonderful. My wife and kids are all part of the business. I have four daughters and they’re partners, running the shops with my wife. And my wife is a terribly strong woman. She’s the one doing overarm in the pool and I’m the little fella behind doing dog paddle, trying to keep up – and happily so. It’s been a wonderful relationship. And with all of this [the album], they’ve all gone ‘Dad, this is fantastic, you do what you’re going to do.’ So we’re looking to do some gigs in the new year … You make the time. And life has given me now that space. I’ve spent those few years working really hard. My dear wife said to me, ‘You’ve got to chase this. You love it and that’s what you’ve wanted to do all your life.’
And one of your daughters sang on the album as well, didn’t she?
Yes, my third daughter, Alison. We wanted to have a representative female – I know that sounds condescending, but it’s not. At the end of ‘Give Back the Night’ I wanted an uplifting female voice in there and I said, ‘Do you want to have a sing of this?’ and [Alison] said, ‘Oh Dad, I’ve never sung behind a microphone before.’ So we took her up and Herm was wonderful. And out of my young daughter’s mouth came this wonderful voice – no autotune, no prompting. I said, ‘Alison, I’ll be supporting you! [laughs] As long as you make lots of money and pass it down!’
Or you can be her roadie.
Oh, thanks. No, I’m too old for that! I’ll need to have a walking frame.
Give Back the Night is out now.