At the start of this year Angus Gill, a prolific singer-songwriter and producer from Wauchope, NSW/Biripi country, was up for two Golden Guitars for 3 Minute Movies, an album he released last year with the band Seasons of Change. The year before that he’d released his second solo album, Welcome to My Heart. And before 2021 got too old he released another solo album, The Scrapbook. It’s an impressive collection of songs, several of them about his family, some of them very moving. The album debuted at #1 on the ARIA Top 20 Australian Country Albums Chart, #2 in the ARIA Top 40 Country Albums, #4 ARIA Top 20 Australian Albums (All Genres), #19 ARIA Top 50 Albums and #12 ARIA Top 20 Vinyl Albums. Not bad for an album that didn’t seem to be planned at all.
‘I recorded the duet “Whittling Away” with Jim Lauderdale,’ says Gill about the album’s third track. ‘We wrote that song a couple of years ago. I actually wrote a song that he cut for a separate project of his own and then the next day we wrote that one. I rediscovered it in September last year and it really struck a chord, particularly in light of COVID and everything that’s been happening.
‘I was doing preproduction on that and I emailed Jim and said, “Look, I think this song’s a duet – would you be keen to do it?” And he got straight back to me and sent me his part about a week after. And all of a sudden I had this slow bluegrass track that was sitting on its own and I thought, What the hell am I going to do with this? Shortly after I’d written a song called “Samson” and I’d intended it to be a kind of alt-country thing which had this banjo feel to it. And I kept playing it and playing it and I thought, It’s actually a bluegrass track – the way I’m singing it, the phrasing, the vocal stylings. So I tracked that one.
‘I’ve always been a big fan of bluegrass and real bluegrass, and I’ve wanted to create a real deal bluegrass album for a long time, but I didn’t realise it was going to happen so soon. And I just happened to have a few bluegrass songs that I’d written several years ago that I really liked and they didn’t fit on anything, and also a few traditional country songs that I’d written. I wanted to do something with them. But I hadn’t planned to record another traditional country album. So I had them sitting in a pile and I actually cracked them open and I thought, well, actually at the heart of them they’re bluegrass songs. So I only wrote a few more just to round the album off. There were a few feels that we needed. We needed an uptempo. And then we wrote the a capella song, “Forget Me Not”, on Australia Day. So we were pretty much tracking it from the end of December to probably the middle of February. Then I took some time off to finish my comedy album that I was putting out with all these comedians. And then we had a flood in the middle of all of that, on the mid north coast [of New South Wales] and my studio was half flooded. I finished the album, mixed the album, in the middle of April.’
Yes, you read that right: Gill also made a comedy album, which included the song ‘Crummy Mummy’ which he produced for comedian Bev Killick and which was nominated for an ARIA. Such productivity is, it seems, in Gill’s nature.
‘I write so many songs, not only for my own projects, but for other artists’ projects. I write songs with other artists for other artists, and I also produce albums with other artists. So I’m always writing. I have a pot of creative output. So I have a lot of songs sitting around and when there’s a good song in there and I know that I really connect with it and I send it around or play it to other people, I know that I just have to create another album,’ he says with a laugh. ‘Because otherwise the songs are just sitting around and I’m always writing new ones. And also I’m also a producer, so I’ve got everything at my fingertips – so there’s really no excuse!
‘I just have a need. I don’t write songs because I feel I have to do it. It’s my calling. So I can’t not do it.’
Gill is still quite a young man but has the work ethic of someone who established his habits and practices long ago, with the results to show for it. Perhaps that is because, as he says, ‘I’ve always been an old soul. I just had that about me and I put it down to spending a lot of time with my grandparents, but also coming from a town like Wauchope on the mid north coast.’
Gill started playing guitar at the age of seven, ‘because I pretty much sucked at everything else,’ he says, laughing. ‘I was forced to do a lot of things against my will, like play soccer and karate and all that. None of it connected with me. Mum dragged me along to a guitar lesson because a friend was doing a shared lesson at the local music shop. I sat down and I thought, Oh, I really like this. I am actually kind of good at it. I think I might stick at this. And then shortly after that a retired professional country singer who lived around the road, he was chatting to my old man and he offered to come around and teach me to sing and play.
‘I had an interest in singing, I was in choirs and all that, but I was never a good ensemble member. They would plonk me on the end but I would always be pulling focus! Trying to sing louder than all the other kids, tapping my foot out the side of the choir and the choir teacher would have to reprimand me. I was never a naughty kid at school but when I came into that choir environment I was the star.’
He started songwriting at a young age too and has never stopped.
‘I’ve never suffered from writer’s block,’ he says, ‘because I think it’s an excuse. I’ve worked and been friends with Steve Earle for quite a few years. I met him at a camp he did in New York when I was probably 15 or 16. I remember him saying something about that – he said it’s like a job, you’ve got to punch in and out, you have to decide to sit down and do it because, he said, otherwise it won’t get done. And I take that same view. Even people like Nick Cave – I’ve seen quotes of him saying that people who go on about writer’s block are just lazy.
‘I write songs on my own and I do that quite often. I’ll probably write about 10 or 12 songs on my own a year, so a song a month … I’m a lyric-based person, that’s what comes to me first and foremost. I hardly ever get musical ideas. I don’t have an iPhone full of hummed voice memos or anything. I’ve got about 7000 notes in the Notes app of different titles or opening lines or hooks to songs. And my philosophy is if I have an idea that I have thought through enough, or it’s told me where it’s heading, I will write that [song] on my own, but if I have a lone wolf title or I can see that there’s a strength in an idea – because I often write from a title, the title has a certain element of character and DNA of what could be a strong idea wrapped up in a little package – if I have that and I’m not exactly sure where it’s heading, or I’ve got half an idea but I can’t fully relate to that subject as much, I will try and take that to someone who has that insight.
‘I just wrote a bush ballad song not so long ago, which I just put out as a single kind of as a COVID project [‘The Easy Way’], and I actually got an idea for an Aussie bush ballad after reading The Grapes of Wrath [by John Steinbeck]. I had this idea about this young person being the first to leave the land, the first one in his family. Trying to fight that conflict of should he stay and support his old man or should he go and pursue what he wants to pursue, but then he’ll be letting his old man down at the same time.
‘I live in a small town, but I don’t live out on a farm and I don’t know a lot of people that have that totally are virtually the character that I’m trying to write about. So I brought in a bush poet to contribute his side of it just so that we can get that authenticity of the character – “Would the character say this? Would the character act like that? Would the character cry? No, the character probably wouldn’t because people that are out on the land, they’re very, very tough, very resilient people.
‘I often view an idea from the point of the character … I try to get inside the character’s head because it’s such an important thing. And in a lot of ways what we do as songwriters is not that different to a fiction writer, to an author.’
Gill describes his songwriting process in terms of being an editor: ‘I’m not a train-of-consciousness writer where they’ll scribble something out in 5 to 10 minutes and call it finished. I sit down and chip away at it, and then once I’ve got the song written straight through, it’s kind of like that quote from Michelangelo: “I like to chip away everything that doesn’t look like David.” And that’s the whole idea – you’re pulling these pieces away after you’ve got a finished draft of a song, asking, Is that what the character would say? Is that the best line that you can get? Every little line, every word needs to hold its own, because otherwise it needs to go.
‘And oftentimes for me, if I write with other people – and I’m a lot more diplomatic about it now, but I can’t stand cliches … There’s a few things in traditional country, [like] breaking your heart – that’s something you can’t say any other way, so I will live with that one, but there’s tons of others that I think are cliches. If a cliche is not treated in a creative way, if it’s not actually adding something, it’s got to go.
‘I get very, very particular when it comes to words. And sometimes you just have to put a song away for a week and then take it out. I don’t ever get too attached to the things that I write, because if you fall in love too much with the things that you write, it’s not a good thing for your creativity. And I don’t think it’s ever a good thing to become too sure of yourself in this game because that’s when your standards and the quality of what you’re doing just starts to slip. So you’re always on edge a bit.’
Over time Gill has become a ruthless editor of his own work, and it’s clear he views that ruthlessness as a crucial part of his process, saying he reviews his songs ‘without bias as much as I possibly can, putting my songs up against other songs and judging them for what they are, not judging them just because I was the one that had a hand in them. I’ve learned that skill of getting out of my own way, as you said earlier, of self-producing, because when you produce yourself, you really have to form that third-person outside perspective in your own head and treat it as if it’s not you that’s the performer. That’s really helped me in other aspects such as who I am as an artist, and viewing things from multiple perspectives and considering those perspectives when you create something.’
Of course, all the editing skills can’t make up for something that isn’t there, and Gill is blunt about that: ‘I just think, full stop, songwriting’s something you either have or you don’t have. I like to break it down into the art and the craft. The art is the ability to see an idea kind of floating around in the ether and think, Hey, that’s a great idea. And then the craft is your ability to take the art and convert into something that’s well constructed.’
Anyone who listened to Gill’s output even over the past two years could hear how that critical eye on his own work has been of benefit: each of his albums contains songs that all deserve to be there, that do not waste the listener’s time and which also offer something in the way or a story or an experience that enriches the listener. That’s the mark of his professionalism and, no doubt, that professionalism and commitment to quality are the reasons why so many established artists want to work with him. Including the artist he’s collaborating with for his next release.
‘I’m actually working on a project right now with a friend of mine, Eric McCusker out of Mondo Rock,’ says Gill. ‘He wrote “Come Said the Boy” and “Summer of ’81” and so forth. We were actually connected by my publisher, Philip Mortlock, and we wrote one time while Melbourne was out of iso earlier in the year.’
Gill was in Melbourne to launch the comedy album he produced, and he’d also met with McCusker on a previous visit.
‘Since then we’ve been doing some Zooms and we said to each other – because all of the touring is off the cards for the rest of the year – we should do an EP together. I’m going to produce it and get some of our favourite players to play on it. We’re still writing the songs for it, but it’s not going to be a particularly a country thing. We’re just seeing where the songs tell us they need to go. There’s a few Steely Dan influences in there, some Sly and the Family Stone. It’s going to be an interesting project. It hasn’t unravelled itself yet, but I’ve also got a whole heap of other songs that fall into more of a contemporary country with meat on the bones kind of category. So I’m just waiting for those things to kind of unravel in front of my eyes and show me the way.’
The Scrapbook is out now through Rivershack Records/MGM Distribution.