When Victorian singer-songwriter Nathan Seeckts released the single ‘Old Blood’ from his new album, The Heart of the City, it was clear the album itself would be special – and so it has proved. Seeckts has an incredible voice and an attention to detail in his lyrics that make for a rich listening experience. He’s also incredibly knowledgeable about country music, as the host of ‘Last Night in Town’, a weekly radio program on Victorian community radio station 94.7 The Pulse that focuses on Americana and alt-country. I spoke to him recently.
Congratulations on the album, which is wonderful.
It’s a nice feeling – a feeling I haven’t had before. it’s a bit unexpected. I didn’t know whether I’d be in this position, to be honest. As a solo person you can do the EPs, but I didn’t know when I’d be in a position where I could say, ‘Yeah, I’ve got an album coming out,’ let alone on vinyl and all the rest of it.
And vinyl is a commitment, over and above everything else you need to do to put out an album these days. Why did you make that decision to do a vinyl release as well?
I’m a vinyl junkie, honestly. I probably spend a little bit too much of my money on records. But it’s living in an age where the CD’s on its last legs, maybe. I like the idea of having something in your hand while you’re listening to music and you can read about where it was recorded and who was on that track.
Technically this is a debut album, as mentioned, but you do have those three EPs behind you so it sounds like a really mature work. Did you find there was a lot you learnt through the process, not just of writing those EPs but, I imagine, producing them as well? Since you co-produced this album.
It came down to funds when I first started. I was self-taught on a copy of ProTools on a computer that I’d built. That was part of the writing process and the recording process was trial and error. The third EP, my wife and I went over to the States for a honeymoon in 2016 – that would have turned into an album had we stuck around but I wanted to take something with me. And you do learn a lot by doing it yourself. That’s why I wanted to share the producing role with Roger [Bergodaz] with the album.
You recorded this album in two days, how did, how did you manage your producer role in that time?
It was a lot of trusting. The other musicians that I had working with me, it was during the rehearsal process and the preproduction – which is basically just recording those rehearsals and picking them apart – it was trusting those musicians to do what they do best. As a musician and control freak, that was a big step for me [laughs]. But I had all the faith in the world in them and they brought some amazingly beautiful parts to the songs that I wouldn’t have been able to do by myself. So it was really nice.
That has to come from your songwriting, I would imagine. If they’re musicians who play with a lot of different types of work, they have to respond to the material in front of them. So if you’ve done your work and written a great song they can find those nuances within it to bring that to what’s recorded.
It creates more of an organic feel rather than a dictatorship of ‘Right: on this bit. I want you to do this, this and this.’ I don’t have the musical knowledge to be able to say, ‘You’ve got to be doing this timing at this part’. I just play by feel.
Which I think a lot of people do. That’s how everyone comes to music initially as listeners, by feel. So it makes sense that that’s how you carry on as an artist.
Oh, absolutely. The studio set-up, that Roger’s got there, it’s this little gem. James Ellis has come out of there, and Freya and Raised By Eagles and Brooke Russell and all these other musos. There’s a great pedigree of people that have gone through and worked with him. That’s what drew me to working at the studio and with Roger.
The musicians in the band – you mentioned preproduction but had you done a lot of playing with them before? Or Where they essentially new for this process.
Mark, who is the drummer, he and I were in an old country rock ‘n’ roll band for a couple of years. so we knew each other really well. Sean McDonald, who I’ve got on the electric guitar and the slide, for the past two years we’ve been doing a lot of duo shows, so that chemistry of being able to bounce off each other was really lovely to move into the studio. He come from a metal background, so he can play like an absolute demon. You slow it down and it’s just really beautiful. And I had some very often some very talented friends like Gretta Ziller who managed to walk in and just make these things sound so beautiful.
You mentioned the control aspects of being the producer, but I’m also wondering about the responsibility of being an independent artist, because you do get control over what you’re producing and over your career, but of course it’s a lot of extra work. Do you enjoy that? Would you rather have someone else take that on?
It’s been a lot more work than I thought was going to go into it. There’s been some very, very stressful moments over the past 12 months, trying to get things at the right timing. You get to the stage now where it’s almost out and you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, I’d definitely do it exactly the same way again.’ But when I was in the thick of it, I was thinking, Why am I doing this?But being able to work with someone like Annie Johnsson with the PR, I couldn’t have done that myself. And that’s been really lovely because it’s got to audiences that probably hadn’t heard my work before.
Storytelling is obviously a feature of your work, listening to your songs. It’s not just fragments of a story, either. You like a beginning, middle, and an end, I’ve noticed. At what age did you start telling stories?
I was the kind of kid that talked a lot on the carpet in primary school. I’ve been telling stories since I could walk – probably even before I could walk. As far as the music side of things, a friend put me on to some books by Pat Patterson, the songwriting guru, about object writing and sense memory. So for the better part of a decade I’ve tried to find a good story. Because they’re the songs that you remember. My benchmark is Paul Kelly’s ‘Deeper Water’ because I just reckon that’s a penultimate storytelling song .
And when you’re crafting a song, do you start with the lyrics ordoes it all come together, melody, lyric or a chord and a lyric?
For most of the tracks I try to get a melody happening with the chords. I’ve got voice memo or whatever app I’ve got running on the phone. I’ll just try and provide some lyrics to get a snippet of a story or grab something out of the air to try and get the ball rolling. From there I’ll sit down and try and build off that. I was there was a magic formula, but some days they come very quickly and some days they don’t.
I think the magic formula is work, basically.
Yeah [laughs]. With ‘Old Blood’ we went into the studio and the story was entirely different. We’d done all this work on it and I was never really entirely happy with it. So we tracked all the drums and the bass and the guitars and went to track the vocals and I could see through the window, Roger wasn’t … it wasn’t that he wasn’t getting it, but when the songs were working I could see him throwing the horns or giving the head nod. But he couldn’t feel it and I couldn’t feel it. And he said, ‘Do you want to come back and we’ll have a go at it in a week when you’re coming back to finish the vocals?’ And so I went home, scrapped the whole melody lyrics and started from scratch and rewrote it in three days. But that one was a very different one.
Given the amount of time you’ve now spent with music and creating music, do you trust yourself in those moments where you think, All right, I’ve got to do this. I trust that I can find something here.And then you just kind of leave it up to the ether to send it to you?
I think so. It’s like the night before the assignment’s due – you find something. As a teacher, I know you’re not supposed to say that [laughs]. I knew there was a good song in there and I’m really proud of how that one came out.
As you should be! In the notes for ‘House Lights’ you write, ‘As a songwriter. I used to constantly question just how much people cared about the stories I was pouring my soul into.’ Now, that song is about someone who told you just how much your stories meant to him. Do you feel more now that you have a relationship with your audience and almost that you have a responsibility towards them, if that’s not too heavy a word?
I think you do. I’m still finding that audience, but I think I have a responsibility to give them something memorable or something to take away, whether it’s a song that’s cathartic – I’ve had people come up many times for the song ‘Sirens’ and said, ‘I had a good cry on that one, and thank you for that.’
As a listener, as a fan, as a younger person, can you remember the first time you had that experience in the crowd responding to a gig?
Look, that’s a long time ago [laughs].
And I’m sure you’ve been to a lot of shows.
A memory came up on Facebook the other day – my wife and I, the first time we saw Springsteen in Melbourne. And three songs he played this track ‘Wrecking Ball’ and that floors me, that song. And I think that’s what you’re aiming for as an artist: the hairs-on-the-arm moment for someone out there if you can.
Part of that communication and that storytelling is your voice, which is a really distinctive, powerful singing voice. At what age did that voice emerge?
I did the punk-rock band thing in my twenties. Basically, you’ve got to sing over the top of everything else. And it’s the big Welsh genetics, the barrel chest that allows me to do that. But it wasn’t until I started doing the solo stuff that I suppose the voice really came to the forefront because I wasn’t having to compete with drums, bass, and very, very heavy guitars. It’s a lighter acoustic guitar. It’s something that I definitely take a time out of my day, out of my week, to maintain. I think it’s very important, like storytelling. If you’ve got a good voice and a good story you’re halfway there.
I have a theory about people who’ve come from punk into country and related genres. It seems to me that in punk you have to get so good at crafting songs really tightly and making a point that it’s actually a really good set-up for other sorts of songwriting.
Absolutely. One of my mates years ago just said that country music is just slowed-down punk. Three chords and the truth [laughs].
Of course, you know a lot about country music because you host a radio show and you particularly know a lot about Americana or alt-country. So from your perspective, what is the state of those genres in Australia today?
It’s amazing. We did our first trip up to Tamworth in January and I was blown away with the level of talent that Australia’s got when it comes to that singer-songwriter Americana umbrella. We’re not starved for it here.
I completely agree. And Tamworth always blows me away for that reason. The festival itself makes artists competitive with each other in a good way, because you’ve got to get the attention of all of those people with so many other artists around and it has just meant that the standard has become so high. Then they – you – take that standard into whatever else you’re doing. And then it continues to develop over the year. Then you all go back to Tamworth and the process starts again.
I was really surprised at how welcoming [people were]. There’s absolutely that competitive nature because everyone wants to be seen but other musicians want you to be seen as well. As a first-timer, and as a dude from Geelong who doesn’t know many people face to face – I know them through their work, obviously – but I felt so welcomed.
So maybe you’ll go back to Tamworth next year?
I don’t think we’ll camp in the Tarago again. That was baptism of fire – literally.
It was so hot, it was insane. We camped down by the river opposite the Leagues club that had the cover bands till three o’clock in the morning. I don’t know how many times I heard ‘Run to Paradise’, but it was nuts.
The Heart of the City is out now. Find it on: