Oliver Mann – A song of subversion

October 23, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, October 18, 2008.

Oliver Mann brings disparate vocal strands into a beautiful symmetry, writes Dan Rule.

THERE’S AN UNLIKELY verisimilitude to the various musical guises of Oliver Mann. The 29-year-old’s tangential musical leanings often play out simultaneously – not only on the same album or song, but in concurrent musical phrases.

His bellowing, operatically trained baritone swoops against a whisper of skeletal acoustic guitar; a shimmering, textural drone rises amid a sparse folk melody; a bed of field-recordings underscores a loose clutch of rattling percussion. It is anything but unnatural – it seems innate, perfectly untreated. Like it’s meant to be.

In Mann’s world, formalism meets experimentation; poetic lyrical streams bleed into the classical canon; previously discrete modes and genres buckle and shift and coalesce with a rare, nonetheless beauteous ease.

But for the vocalist, chatting over a pot of tea and a cupcake or two in his Brunswick backyard, disparity and difference are at the music’s heart. “I feel like I respond to contrast and I find great beauty in contrast,” he urges. “I’ve always loved pastiche and just sticking things together.

“Like, I’ve always made my own posters for gigs by cutting stuff up and sticking it on a page in a different way, and it’s kind of like that for music,” he smiles. “I’m not afraid to cut and paste.”

It’s not the kind of assertion you would necessarily expect from a journeyman of the classical world. Canonical cliche would seem to predicate unyielding formalism as its raison d’etre. To unravel the form is to subvert, and in some cases, cease to be.

Mann – who will launch his stunning second album The Possum Wakes at Night at the Northcote Social Club next Friday – comes from such a classical cast. He began singing as a primary school choirboy at Christ Church Brunswick, later going on to study voice at Monash University. These days he sings with Opera Victoria and curates an annual Schubert recital.

Nonetheless, he always found notions of classical music somewhat troubling. “For the first year I was at Monash, I was just completely averse to anything associated with classical music,” he says. “I hated the apparent homogenising of the voice with classical singers.

“You become a baritone or you become a bass and you just become this tool or this puppet for Handel or Mozart or whoever is conducting, and you’re just thrown into boxes. I hated that and it really disgusted me in a way.”

His work as a solo artist certainly reflects this desire to transcend classical patois. His 2005 debut Oliver Mann Sings saw him sway between blues, storytelling and minstrel-like minimalism. The Possum Wakes at Night only sees him expand the palette.

But it would be reductive to consider his musical explorations in a context of youthful rebellion. With or without his folk, blues and experimental structures and inflections, Mann’s music gestures towards a celebration of classical form far more than it does a revolt.

“I guess I had this xenophobic little aversion to classical music,” he says with a chuckle, “but when you spend time with it, you realise that there are very beautiful intricacies to everything. There was this very beautiful coming around, in the same sense that you come around to anything that you’re scared of. I kind of got to a point where I realised that the classical voice didn’t have to be homogenous.”

He began exploring and drawing inspiration from more idiosyncratic classical vocalists like the late Bulgarian bass Boris Christoff, whose interpretations were something to behold. “He does this song cycle … where he takes on this first person of a child in a cot, so you’ve got this massive bass singing like a little child and it’s kind of disturbing,” he says with a laugh. “But it makes you think that there’s someone who has got this amazing instrument but is using their mind and their creativity to engage it.”

Mann began honing his new-found instrument, writing songs and “building little nests” for his voice in the same way he had with his elder brother – Paddy Mann of celebrated folk ensemble Grand Salvo – in high school. “I kind of locked into this cycle of singing and fell in love with it in a way that I have with nothing else,” he says. “I immediately knew that it was a vocation.

“I was living in a share house and I would have to practise out in the shed, and I just spent hours and hours of the day out there just exploring my voice. I was making all sorts of disturbing sounds and it was like this beautiful process of introduction where I got to know everything about my voice. There were days when I was making noises like a siren or a cannon or something and the lady next door, who was quite interested … had guests around for a tea party in the back garden one day. I was just in the shed going off and I remember her shouting ‘Jesus Oliver, not now!”‘ He bursts into laughter. “I was like ‘Sorry!’ and had to run off inside.”

His joy for song is written all over the wonderfully layered arrangements of The Possum Wakes at Night. Employing collaborators from the folk, rock and classical worlds – including Dirty Three drummer Jim White, brother Paddy, celebrated songwriter Laura Jean, avant-guitarist Leif Svensson, harpsichordist David O’Brien and sopranos Monica Sonand, Fiona Clarke and Jordina Howe – Mann moulds his voice to fit all manner of song structures.

The shimmering harmonised balladry of Evie and the shuddering baritone and beautifully sparse arrangement of poetic ode By the Rock I Roll make for two stunning highlights, while the field-recordings, rattling drums and choir of Crackers Cracking and instrumental atmospheres of Slow Dancing see him explore fascinating, more experimental territories.

But for Mann, when it comes down to it, music is a fairly single-minded pursuit, no matter the guise. “Everything I do – this album, the album before, the reason for playing shows – comes to sustain this act of singing,” he says beaming. “So I can prolong it and extend it and do it as often as I can.

“You know, I can still remember one night at that share house all those years ago,” he says. “I was just singing in the back yard and I’d been out there for a couple of hours or something, and I was just dizzy on song.

“I remember just looking up into the sky and my head was spinning and I realised that I just loved nothing else like I did the very act of singing.”

Oliver Mann plays the Northcote Social Club on Friday, October 24. Doors open 8.30pm

www.northcotesocialclub.com or phone 9486 1677.

The Possum Wakes at Night is out through Preservation/Inertia.

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