Let’s start this by stating the obvious: yes, Andrew Farriss’s name will be familiar to you, and that’s because he was not only a member of Australian band INXS but also its songwriter-in-chief. And that’s when he wasn’t writing songs for and with other artists, such as Jenny Morris and Tania Kernaghan. His output is such that he’s been inducted into the Australian Songwriter Hall of Fame, an accolade that joins his Producer of the Year ARIA for Shiver by Jenny Morris, not to mention the awards won by his aforementioned band.
Farriss’s name has not, in the past, been associated with country music. However, once you hear him talking about music of any kind, the progression is not a surprise. He is a passionate songwriter, musician and all-round musical craftsman, the sort of creator whose curiosity takes him to all sorts of places and whose abilities mean he can do something special when he arrives there. Country music is the place he’s in now.
Ahead of the release of his new album, Farriss has released a single, ‘Come Midnight’. We spoke recently about the history of the song, about taking a piano apart – and started with a subject that is close to his life and his heart.
I believe you live in the Tamworth, area, is that right?
My family and I have a property out in the northwest [of New South Wales]. I really like the region that we live in and we’re also experiencing a very serious drought along with many other people. Very serious.
And you’ve been associated with some drought relief concerts and fundraising.
Yes, that’s right. And, one of the ironies of me putting out my own solo album, doing what I’m doing, is the platform for me to be able to do it started really with the Haymaker concert in October of last year. That was televised nationally and was a great idea of everyone involved, to get together to do it – Glenn Wheatley and John Farnham, everyone that came on board to do that. And also with Jon Stevens and Daryl Braithwaite, the Davidson Brothers – they performed with me. That was really cool. That was sort of my introduction to the live performance of where I am now. I’d already been working on an album, but it was just are ironic to me, I thought – almost beyond ironic – that I’m going through this really severe drought and the drought relief was the thing that got me on stage. And I still think it’s really strange. I don’t know how to put it.
It is strange, except that country music is a storytelling genre and you have the audience of country music that really requires authenticity from its performers and songwriters. Therefore, it does make sense in a way that it’s something so raw, really, for the community, which is drought, bringing up a whole lot of experiences and emotions, that has brought you into this particular music community.
Definitely. I think someone said to me, and they meant well, the other day – I was going through one of the small towns and we asked each other how we were, and the other person said, ‘I’m living the dream’. I thought, What dream? It’s not raining. It’s kind of a nightmare, not a dream.Its tentacles sort of go through all different parts of society, both in the towns and the farming communities, and the people who provide for the farming communities. The whole thing is very complex and very difficult for the media. I have some empathy for the media, believe it or not, in this area of trying to explain to people – especially because most of Australia lives on the coast – what is actually going on. Some people may not have the resources to go out and into more remote areas and really see or understand even, because sometimes the Aussie bush can be deceptive. Sometimes it looks like what I call green drought – it’ll rain and then some grass will come up and people say, ‘Everything must be fine!’ I say, ‘No, it’s not, it’s not fine.’
And that little bit of grass isn’t going to feed an entire herd.
Exactly. And it’s not just animals that have to be fed. The really sobering part of it to me is that it’s grains as well. It’s the food that we eat. We can’t eat technology. Food and water are the priority. The speed of technology. is fantastic, especially in the medical field and other communication areas, for emergency people, services, whatever. But to me the real heart of it all is not just animals, it’s grains, it’s fruit -– otherwise what are we going to eat?
Food security is absolutely a huge part of the problem. And listening to you talk, I’m thinking that the context for you coming out with some country music now is that you’ve spent a lot of time in this landscape thinking about these issues, and obviously given how experienced a storyteller you are as a songwriter, it would suggest to me that you have spent the past little while thinking in part how to tell these stories of this landscape and these problems.
I hope so. Part of my journey as a songwriter, you’re right, is that I try to tell things the way I see them as accurately as I can portray them. But on the other hand, part of my relief, if you like – to be selfish – from the realities of drought is to also go into part of what I’ve done on my album. I was able to really focus my songwriting when I realised what I could do is invent a series of characters, like from a play, and then write about them. So I’m not just writing about myself on the album, I’m writing about how I would see someone else seeing light. And, also, the drought hasn’t finished yet. So for me to really articulate it and write a song that I think probably needs to be written about this drought, I will probably, God willing, be able to write about it when the drought’s over, because I’ll be able to say thatwas about this. If you’re going through something really hard, as the old saying goes, keep going, or you might get stuck there.
Let’s now talk about the song that is out, which is ‘Come Midnight’. You actually wrote it quite a long time ago. What’s the story behind it?
The story behind the song is that it was all about the guitar riffs. When I wrote it originally I was writing music in a completely different genre. I was using synthesisers and drum machines, and programming things and early samplers and messing around with technology a long time ago. And then I stopped for a minute and I thought, Why don’t I write something completely different to that?I’ve always been a fan of the Johnny Cash era of country music, and so I started messing around more with that kind of thing. And then, of course, I think for me to have convinced everybody [in INXS] at that point that that would be a good idea to put out they would have looked at me like I was from outer space [laughs]. But it lived with me for a long time, the music with that. And then my wife, Marlina, championed it a lot with me. She put it on her voicemail whenever the phone rang, which drove me nuts. But basically at the end of it I realised that she really liked the music. So I finished the song, and it’s a song really I dedicate to her, especially with her cancer battle that she’s had. It’s become part of me and ironically it’s the first thing I’m putting out, even though I’ve written other things in the last, say, two, three years, even in the last two months I’ve written two of the songs that’ll be on the album. So my writing has really been a journey in itself for this.
I have the impression that you are constantly writing and that this has been going on probably since you first wrote songs. Is that correct?
Yes. I’m sorry, I’m laughing because yes, you’re right. And I think even Marlina, it drives her nuts, she says, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m writing a new song.’ She says, ‘What’s wrong with the ones you’re about to put out on the album?’ I say, ‘Well, because that’s what I do. I can’t help it.’ If I think of a good idea – well, I hope it’s a good idea – and I’m sure other writers will understand exactly what I’m talking about – it doesn’t come to you like, ‘Oh, tomorrow at 8 a.m. I might have this really good idea and I’ll put some time aside and I’ll work on it then.’ That’s not how it works. Usually these things come to you as if you’ve got little antennas, like you’re a Martian or something, and suddenly you’ve got this thing going beep, beep, beepthat wants to come. It arrives at the door and you either pay attention to it – and I’ve learnt this instinctually over the years – or you brush it off, and that can be a big mistake, because that thing that’s trying to tap on your shoulder or from heaven or wherever it’s coming from, I’d better listen to it. I’d better pay attention to this.
It’s that process also of learning to get out of your own way, which is something that that can be really hard to learn. It’s one thing to have that creative flow, but you obviously learnt at quite a young age to trust what was coming in, to not say to yourself, ‘That’s not going to be any good.’ You’ve talked about not ignoring it, but that’s also about not self-censoring. You’ve learnt quite a long time ago to just go with the flow, for lack of a better term. Is that something that as a young man you knew instinctually?
I think so, because I remember when I was fifteen my uncle very kindly left a little upright Beale piano at our family home. I went beyond just doing scales and trying to re-create Beethoven or something. I got bored with all of that and I said, ‘I just want to learn to play chords so I can play all these pop songs.’ So I started messing around with it, but then I took it further. I started taking the piano apart. I started taking the frame apart to see how it all worked, and that explains me very well. I’m not just comfortable with writing a song, I have to pull the whole thing apart and look at it really carefully. And sometimes I’ll come up with something – it could be a lyric or like ‘Come Midnight’, some guitar riffs or whatever it is – and I’ll live with it for a frightening amount of time. I’ll just sit there and I’ll think about it, you know? And then one day I say, ‘Oh, that’s what it’s supposed to be.’ And it’s just right there. And then it suddenly becomes apparent to me why I’m supposed to be doing that thing. And you’re right, I’ve learnt to trust that. And I can also can tell – because it’s not all about me – when the same thing sometimes is happening with another writer that I’m working with. I can see it in them.
That is an engineering kind of brain as well. Engineering, mathematics, carpentry, all sorts of things. So do you have other interests that are aligned with that? Where it is that deconstruction/reconstruction?
Yes, I do. Why do you think I’ll live on a farm? [laughs] I like fixing things. I like fiddling around with stuff. I like preparing things. I’m fascinated with how certain engineering things work. I’m still absolutely a huge fan of someone that could come out and fix a complicated windmill problem or some really complex pressure pump arrangement or something. I’m just absolutely gobsmacked at the genius. But yes, you’re right. That is part of what I get from my enjoyment with the music bit of it. I like the engineering part of it.
I’m also really curious about your cataloguing system, given that you’re writing constantly. Are you a pen and paper person? Are you a voice memo person? How do you catalogue your work?
That’s one of the better things about mobile phones, that you can memo stuff easily. I’ve worked in every imaginable capacity. I’ve written chords on a piece of paper. Sometimes I’ve written a rough lyric idea. Sometimes I type it out on a computer and spit it back out at myself to see what it reads like in bold face or whatever. And other times I experiment with things and just mess around. Also with grooves – not so much recently but in other parts of my songwriting career, doing dance grooves and funk feels and stuff has been a lot of the area I worked in, and especially riffs and rhythms and things were things I got right into. But this album that I’m making now is really not so much about that. I might go back to that again later on, but I’m trying more to go back to an earlier time in history, probably before the twentieth century, before technology. I try to limit myself with certain things that I would have experimented with before and I’ve tried to use, as much as possible, instruments like banjos, mandolins, the fiddle, acoustic drums, acoustic bass on a couple of tracks, and vocals. I tried to stick to that on this album as much as possible. Some of it rocks. I can’t help it! I guess I’m old rocker in that sense. But I also like the gentle sounds of the nineteenth century. I like the emotions that they tend to promote. And their roots are in the beginnings of country music. Folk music is really such an integral part, even though we don’t realise that a lot of what is on modern radio goes back to folk music. Not so much heavy-duty electronic EDM – and that’s exciting in itself. That may sound like a strange thing for me to say, talking about a country music album, but I think that’s an exciting genre, especially where younger people can put out these hugely successful recordings from their bedroom. I think that’s incredible. That’s really cool.
‘Come Midnight’ is out now.