At the start of this year Andrew Farriss was preparing to release a new single and play at the Tamworth Country Music Festival. Then right in the middle of that festival came the announcement that he’s now Andrew Farriss AM – that is, he’s been made a Member of the Order of Australia for significant service to the performing arts. And while no one who knows anything about Farriss’s career as a member of and songwriter for INXS, as a producer for other artists and many other music-related roles besides, could dispute that he’s worthy of this honour, when asked about it laughs and says, ‘I was trying to work out at first what the “AM” meant. I thought it might’ve meant “average musician”!’
In all seriousness, though, Farris says, ‘I’m really, really thrilled and happy for my family too. I really dedicate the times and years that I spent running around previously and now. I’m doing the things I’ve done and they put up with me.’
He’s also very pleased ‘to see the other artists who also received that recognition, it was great for them … On a bigger scale it’s great to see Australia recognising its musicians and artists and creative people because in the world we live in today, those sorts of great artistic pursuits tend to travel around the world, especially in the internet era we’re in. So for Aussies to show that they’re proud of their Aussies is good for Australia, in my opinion.’
Farriss lived in England for a while many years ago and, he says, ‘there was a time when I remember the British focusing on promoting their art and music to the world. And I look at The Beatles and all these sorts of things that happened. Elton John, and The Police, Sting, incredible artists have come out of the UK. And one of the things I thought was really very, very clever of them was to promote them, because it’s an industry right there. One of the great things that some countries do, including America, is they promote their artists and musicians and, and people, and they rank them very high in culture, and that makes their culture bigger and better.’
If one looks at Farriss’s output alone – as a songwriter, as a member of a globally successful band, all the things he’s done since – as a cultural and financial export, he has contributed a huge amount to Australia. Trying to work out just what his contribution has been could possibly be the subject of someone’s PhD. When that’s put to him he laughs and says, ‘Thanks. I’ve always wanted to do a PhD, I just need to get my act together.
‘But, seriously, it’s not just me, it’s the guys I worked with, and I pay respect to them, all the guys in INXS and all the things that we achieved together. We worked in 52 countries, always promoted ourselves as Aussies, and we’re proud of that.
‘I can remember when we first went to the United States, in the early 80s, and really there weren’t many Australians back then in the US, let alone being successful. And they used to say, “Are you guys from Austria?” I can always remember that. “No, no, we’re from Australia.” And now, you go to some places in the US and there’s half of Australia walking around, and they’ve got fantastic bridges and opportunities in other countries, including the US, to be successful.’
INXS, of course, built some of those bridges, although Farriss demurs and says, ‘I think art and music will travel where they’re meant to go … But I also think it sure helps if they promoted properly … So many great Australian artists now are finally being recognised for the talent they really. And the same with actors and actresses. Back when we first went there, apart from probably Paul Hogan and some older actors and actresses, there weren’t many of them. It’s common now and you see some extraordinarily talented Australians and New Zealanders picking up Academy Awards for things like it’s normal now. That’s fantastic.
‘And that’s another thing that perhaps from spending so much time, like INXS did and like I have done myself recently, in my own career what I’ve done as a songwriter, I’ve always worked with people both locally in Australia and internationally. I noticed it myself, just sitting and working with people and listening to what they talk about socially, they’re very aware now of where Australia is and the talent that comes out of Australia.’
Farriss is also very pleased, he says, that honours would be going to people who fought the recent bushfires. ‘I recognise the service these people provide where they have to put their lives on the line with the military or the firefighting community. All these people really deserve so much recognition for what they do.’
Recognition such as an AM might seem to be something that comes towards the end of a career – but, of course, Farriss is nowhere near that point. For all that he’s achieved, there are still goals he has his eye on, still so much more music to make.
‘I think what I’m finally learning with all of this,’ he says, ‘is just to stay true to the things that I feel I can cope with and that I do well. I recognise the achievements that I’ve achieved along with the guys I work with but I also recognise that in order to go into areas – which is what I’m doing now – that I haven’t gone before with my band and doing other things, working outside of that unit of people and working with an open mind from a country music genre perspective, I wanted to blend in instruments and things that I had never really, really explored before.
‘I worked on a Tania Kernaghan album as a producer quite a few years ago now and that was my first introduction to a lot of the Australian community of country artists and people that I met, musicians, incredibly talented people that I met back then. And it surprised me at that time how little I knew about all of them … But at the same time I was doing all sorts of what I call exploration, where I was also working with Yothu Yindi. Those guys invited me into this northeast Arnhem Land culture and Jodie Cockatoo Creed was from the Cairns area in North Queensland. And that was an incredible experience for me too. And that all happened around about the same time.
‘I’m really proud of the achievements I’ve made in the past with other genres, funk and in the early years when I was working with a lot of electronic instruments like synthesisers and working with loops and things. Years and years ago. And now I’m really coming full circle back to my original musical roots and I’m working more with old-fashioned instruments, sort of almost classical instruments and country instruments like fiddles, mandolins, mandolas, banjos, pedal steels and things. I’m really having a great time with it because I’m finding that having had the careers that I’ve had in those other genres of music gives me a great pull of experience, to work with going forward.
‘So I have a pretty open mind. I don’t have huge big aspirations. I’ve got some ideas that I want to have fun with. That’s another word that’s sort of got lost in translation. I really want to enjoy this ride. I want to make it about the music. I’m already doing that with the people I’ve been working with. I’m deliberately working with a whole new group of people I’ve never worked with before in my career and both musicians and producers, recording studios, business people. I’m deliberately working with people I’ve never worked with before because I want to learn and I want to grow as a person into something else and I don’t know what that is,’ he says with a laugh. ‘And I’ll try to keep my pants size the same, which is tricky when you’re on the road! After a while everything looks like a hamburger when you’re rolling around.
‘I feel really fortunate, I’ve got to say that as well. I feel somehow – and it’s going to sound a bit strange – but I’m supposed to be doing this. I don’t know why. I feel like I’m supposed to be doing this.’
Having fun with the music he’s making now is a priority. ‘That’s the whole thing,’ Farris says. ‘Marlena, my wife, has been an incredible support both in the business end of what I’m doing and personally, and really rallying me and helping me with everything as we’ve been going through. We both promised ourselves that whatever we do we make it enjoyable. And I don’t mean it’s a party every night, it’s not really what I’m talking about. I’m talking more about just trying to enjoy the ride and make sure that as we’re going along that the music and the presentation of what I’m doing live and all that kind of stuff is really entertaining for other people.’
Farriss’s openness of mind is not necessarily to be expected – especially after so many different accomplishments and experiences, it could be tempting for him to say that he doesn’t need to learn or do anything new. Instead, he is constantly open to not only new things but being at the start of new things. It’s a concept known in some traditions as ‘beginner mind’ and he exemplifies it – as does a story he has to tell about his experiences in Tamworth this year.
‘One of the many things I did at the Tamworth Country Music Festival was that I, and the guys who were performing with me, played at the JB Hi Fi centre, which is a shopping mall with a tiny little stage. Everyone’s walking around with their shopping trolleys and they’ve got better things to do than look at me standing there, singing.
‘It occurred to me for a moment there that it was a bit surreal because this was something that I would have been really, really thrilled to have done in the late 1970s, if anyone had cared to look at me. Then they stopped and they realised that they might have known a couple of the songs I was doing, because especially in the Tamworth region radio have really championed what I was doing – and that really touched me, to be honest with you.
‘So they began to realise that I might be someone they want to stop and look at. By the time we stopped playing it was a really good little gig. And then someone asked me the other day why I am doing what I’m doing. I thought, What a great question. And then I thought, Well, the honest truth is I’ve probably going back to the very beginning of my life. I don’t mind playing in a shopping centre. I’m playing to people and they care. And that’s nice.’
One of the songs that no doubt featured in the set that day is Farriss’s new single, ‘Good Momma Bad’. Given that everyone has a mother but mothers don’t tend to feature strongly in songs, Farris consciously created a song about mothers.
‘The truth is that everybody needs a good mother and nobody gets through life without help from other people. That was a saying my dad used to remind me of some times. And to be more conscious of the people around you. But then it occurred to me that the first person who helps you through life is your mother. And everybody has had one. But some have been a great influence in our lives and sadly, some have not. And the point in my song is that it takes all types to make up life and that’s really what the song’s about. So it’s probably a recognition and partly a gritty sort of observation.’
The song – and his first country single, ‘Come Midnight’ – comes from his forthcoming album, which will be released on 15 May, which is later than he planned, but for a very good reason.
‘I was going to put the album out more now-ish,’ he explains, ‘and then the first release was “Come Midnight”, which was a pretty casual thing, dipping my toe into the water. And then, lo and behold, people seemed to really like it. It was a slow burn. And then, fortunately for me, BMG came on board – BMG for the rest of the world and BBR if they’re in Nashville. They really like what I’m doing and I feel really flattered.
‘So the timing for me to get the AM – I couldn’t believe it. That was not designed. It may look like it but it wasn’t. That’s why I’m not joking when I say I feel like I was supposed to do this.’
The release date has, therefore, been set by the label, but Farriss is no doubt ready for it. In some ways it seems like he is so steeped in music that he was probably born ready for it, but it’s that curiosity about so many things – and a studied reluctance to take anything for granted – that keeps him coming up with great songs time after time. That promises much for the album, which will surely deliver.
Preorder the album: https://ffm.to/andrewfarriss-album
Listen to ‘Good Momma Bad’ on: