It is so easy – too easy – to look at a musician and songwriter like Andrew Farriss and say, ‘Well, of course what he does is going to be good.’ The man whose writing credits include so many famous INXS songs must, it seems, slip easily into writing wonderful songs, which is why his new EP, Love Makes the World, is so good. And it is good – actually, it’s great. A perfect five-song arc of mostly country music with a surprise at the end. But it’s not easy to produce consistently great art, for anyone. Or, if there’s ease in the process now, it’s because there is so much work and diligence behind it. Farriss is constantly writing, and learning, always open to new influences and ideas. That includes working with a range of different songwriters – four of the five songs on the EP are co-writes.
‘Since Michael [Hutchence] passed away – which is a long time now ago, that he passed away,’ says Farris, ‘but we must’ve written over 300 songs together. Some of them were huge hits or whatever. But in that time since he’s passed away, I’ve written with so many people at different ages in different countries, different musical genres and backgrounds and things, and that’s been really good for me as a songwriter. It’s not just that I walk in the room and you have to have your resume on the front of your shirt. It’s not about that. You just be open minded. You listen to what other people want to do. And then you work it out.’
Farriss’s path to the music he is making now also developed, it seems, from his curiosity and openness to new ways of thinking – and partly because he allows himself to follow a path rather than trying to determine where it’s going.
‘I think for me, one of the big journeys was that my wife, Marly, is from the Dayton, Ohio area in the United States, which is about five and a half hours’ drive to Nashville,’ he says. ‘And so it was sort of a no-brainer for me as a songwriter to get in the car and drive there from where her family lives. So that’s where my journey sort of started. And when I first got to Nashville – well, first of all there was a lot of Australians running around there, which I found intriguing because when my band, INXS, first went to the United States they’d say, “You guys from Austria?” And now you’ve got half of Australia running around,’ he says with a laugh.
‘But the thing is that when I got there I found it intriguing, because I recognised really quickly that there was a lot of things about the country music scene, if you like, in Nashville, which is very vibrant and exciting, I have to add. And it’s people of all ages and backgrounds, and some were busking in the street and others driving around in Ferraris or trucks … I began to recognise really quickly that there were some similarities, not in the music genre necessarily – although there is a bit of that these days in the country music genre – but in that pop sense, in the competitive sense on the charts. And I recognised that from my career as a songwriter with a major band and I registered that.
‘At first I was a little uncomfortable because I [thought], to be really honest, I don’t really feel like doing this to compete on the charts. I don’t need to validate myself. I just really want to enjoy songwriting. And then round about the same time I left Nashville and Marly and I went down and rode horses along the Mexican border in the United States, right in the corner of Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico, because we both live on a really big farm in north-west New South Wales and I’m not a stranger to animals in the outback or whatever. So I felt comfortable riding around this wilderness area. And it’s in the area near where Tombstone is and the cowboys and the Mexicans were, the Mexican Army, US Cavalry, the Apache Indians, and the settlers. All this was going on the Wild West. And my eyes suddenly got opened: this is not a Hollywood film; this stuff was all real. I rode along stagecoach routes now overgrown. I know where Geronimo surrendered. I road up to Cochise’s stronghold where he could see the US Cavalry trying to catch him.
‘I went back to Nashville and just sat there, stunned at what I’d just seen. And everyone was going, “Hey, man, what kind of song do you want to write today, Andrew?” And I’m saying, “I want to write about the old West.” And they looked at me like I was from outer space. And they kind of grinned at me like, “Hey dude, you know, times have changed now.” I’m, like, “No shit. But that’s what I want to write about.” And that’s when the light really went on for me: I knew what I was doing. Up to that point I didn’t really feel comfortable making my music. I didn’t really know how to do it. And then when the light switched on, I thought, I know what I have to do now. I have to be honest with myself and put out the music don’t comfortable with.’
The musically atypical song on the EP is its last, ‘First Man on Earth’, which is an epic synth-driven track recorded several years ago.
‘I was working in London at the time with Guy Chambers, who you probably know from ‘”Angels” and Robbie Williams’s career and he’s had some awesome career highlights – Guy’s still having them, I think – and he’s also a good bloke,’ says Farriss. ‘We were working together and songwriting and he’d gone off, I think, for a family commitment that morning. So he said, “Look, you go in the studio, I’ll meet you there. Sorry, mate, I’ll be there soon.”
‘So I went into the studio – he had a whole lot of very cool old analogue synthesisers in the room, besides other gear and guitars. And I hadn’t seen a room full of synths for a number of years. I used to use all these things – and I still do. So when I got in the room I asked the engineer to record what I was playing, and basically that’s what you’re hearing. That’s the recording I made.
‘Then when Guy came back he said, “What have you been doing?” … I played it to him and he said, “What’s that? This is great.” So we sat down and we put the lyric together for “The First Man on Earth”. And basically the song is about how as humans, a biological species, we’re obsessed with technology.’
The song’s lyrics refer to family, and family members, and all the songs on the EP are, in some way, about connection and relationships. When asked if this was intentional, Farriss laughs and says, ‘I wish I could say I was that smart at the beginning. What happened, though, was the whole reason we’re talking about an Andrew Farriss EP is because I was actually releasing my LP in Tamworth at the Country Music Festival back in January, before the pandemic kicked in. And then of course, when the pandemic kicked in, like everybody else, everyone had changed their plans and everyone was worried about their health and their families. And there’s that word, family, that you were using just then.
‘So I focused on my health and family and people close to me. And, like a lot of people, I started doing little DIY jobs around my home to find something to do after a while. Then I started thinking about what we’re all going through the pandemic and I went back through my songs. Luckily I had some really good recordings I’d done apart from the LP. Some of them are recent. Some of them are older recordings. And I started thinking more about it and I started looking at the lyrics of these songs that I had.
‘I began to realise that “family” was a very good word and in the pandemic worldwide, what we’re going through is – it seemed to me to talk about names of songs like “My Brother”, “Love Makes the World”, “First Man on Earth” and things to do with the earth. The first song, “Tears in the Rain”, is about the environment. “All the Stars Are Mine” is about getting on with people from other countries. So I suddenly thought, okay, there’s a sort of lyric theme, and [Farriss’s wife] Marly chimed in and said, “Why don’t you put ‘First Man on Earth’ on it?” So I owe her for that. I said, “Nah, nobody’s going to want to listen to a song that’s eight minutes and eight seconds long. Not in this era.” Songs keep getting shorter and they’re just full of vocals. It’s all about the singer all the time. No one’s going want to listen to all that music. And it’s funny how many people have said, “I really like that track.”‘
Farriss seems philosophical about delaying his planned 2020 LP release, and that’s no doubt due to the fact that his experience in the industry has taught him that its time will come. He agrees with this and adds, ‘Marly said, “Settle, petal. It’ll all happen when it’s meant to, possum, and just calm down and it’ll all be okay.” And, sure enough, here we are. In fact, in a really strange way, I can already tell, because there’s been a lot of interest in the EP ,that I’ve probably done exactly the right thing when I didn’t know I was. I know this is going to sound a bit weird but I feel this was meant to happen. I don’t know how to put it any other way – weird.’
The fact that the collection of songs works so strongly as a group, apart from individually, suggests that, in going back through his archive of songs, Farriss has a great self-editing skill: able to identify and select songs that belong together.
‘Again, I wish I was that clever,’ he says with a laugh, ‘but some of it was actually a fluke. It’s true that a lot of the EP was exactly what I was planning to do after my LP. So I already had some of it predestined, not all of it, but some of it was very much in my focus to do after the LP and I was going to go off and be the space cowboy – but I’m already the space cowboy.
‘What I already had was a lot of the imagery as well. I know that sounds like a strange sort of thing to say, but I knew the focus and the artwork, and I have a very, very clever friend and associate in the United States, a photographer and a very clever graphic designer who both helped me when we talked – along with Marly, she helped me to put it all together and work out a way. So all this, when you look at it, not just the music and the lyrics, but the photography and the artwork and everything works together. And that was designed.’
The title track is the sole song on the EP that Farriss wrote on his own and it is, he says, ‘my reflection on how most people, when they sing about happy families, yes, of course, let’s all be happy. Fantastic. But there are also realities to it that aren’t necessarily … How can I put this? Tragic. They just real. That’s all. There’s realities to it all. And I think the more that we live in the real – and I’m not saying it to be depressing or sad and all that, I’m just saying that to live in the real is probably a good way to be happy, you know? Because if you’re in reality and you’re facing things and dealing with them the best you can, then you’ve got a probably pretty good chance of being happy. But if you’re hiding from things or abusing yourself or taking substances or whatever you’re doing, you’re not going to be very happy in the end.’
The song takes a pragmatic approach to the death of a loved one – that it’s the cycle of life to grow old and die – but adjoining track ‘My Brother’ is about the shock of grief that accompanies unexpected death, especially to suicide. In the case of co-writer Jon Stevens, it was his brother; in Farriss’s case it was a brother figure, INXS lead singer Michael Hutchence.
‘I have to say it’s such a really nerve-touching subject,’ says Farriss. ‘To be frank with you, I was very concerned about putting this song out because there’s been a plethora of people all talking about Michael’s demise, when really most of his life he was happy and upward moving as a person, and quite a funny guy, but that isn’t the way, as it’s gone on, that other people have talked about it.
‘So I felt funny at first about even putting the song out. Not because I didn’t like the song, but because I thought, well, people may just look at me as getting on another train, and I’m not doing that. I pay respect to Jon Stevens as well to have the guts to sit with me and for us to try to put pen to paper about an extremely difficult subject. And also it’s not just about the men in our lives that are no longer with Jon or I. It’s got to do with, I think – and I feel it’s a good time during the pandemic – it’s a song about loss. It’s a song about losing a male figure in your life, and it could be someone in your family, it could be a friend who’s going through a difficult time. But it’s mainly a male-orientated thing because, quite frankly, blokes aren’t good about talking about it. None. They say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, sure – anyway, the footy’s on”. And that part of it, to me, is difficult.
‘I’ve seen it in recent times where people have taken their lives and it’s this really awkward, sensitive, nerve-twingeing moment for people and no one knows how to express themselves. And some people spend the rest of their life trying to work it out.’
When asked if he and Stevens felt a responsibility, as songwriters, to express what they’d experienced so it might help others, Farriss says, ‘I’d say that’s true. I think we both shared that in the song. What I love about Jon’s contribution is that he had the strength to go there, and in that sense he’s a very strong person. Not only is he a dynamic singer – one or Australia’s or New Zealand’s greatest, but a world-class singer – and a great songwriter, and he’s a good guy. And I feel really blessed to be able to do that with Jon. But I think he, and probably to a lesser degree myself, back when we put the song together, very much had the idea of sharing something to try and assist people. I think now I feel that way. Back then there were a few raw nerves and I didn’t like touching them.’
Farriss’s willingness to approach difficult subjects – just as he does new influences and ideas – has been responsible for some of the most legendary songs in Australian music history and now, too, his new songs on Love Makes the World. They may not have been the songs that he was planning to release this year but they are the songs the year needs. Like the great artist he is, he’s followed his instinct and trusted his skills, and the result is a gift.