Dan Warner – Cottage industry

October 24, 2008 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, EG, October 24, 2008.

Melbourne singer-songwriter Dan Warner tells Dan Rule he has made a life outside the music machine.

IT’S quiet up here. There’s just the wind and the distant sweep of highway traffic. To the east, the view stretches for miles. Mid-afternoon sunlight paints fields and farmland, and glints off the cars and utes and 18-wheelers snaking their way between Wallan and Kilmore.

It didn’t take Dan Warner long to get used to this. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he smiles, almost as if not believing it himself.

We make our way down from the top paddock to the quaint tin-walled shack – a self-renovated former hay shed out the back of a rambling farming property and vineyard about an hour north of Melbourne – that the veteran Melbourne songwriter and partner Kate have called home for about a year now. “I’m in my 40s and I’m essentially living in a shed,” he says. “But even if I was a millionaire, I reckon I’d be doing the same.”

It’s indicative of the 42-year-old’s musical life, which has stretched over the best part of two decades and multiple guises, and seen him craft a strain of narrative and character-based song writing that’s as insightful and evocative as any to come out of Melbourne in recent times.

Since the late ’80s, he has written songs and performed as part of the Warner Brothers, Overnight Jones, the cultish Dan & Al, Dan & Kev and as a solo artist, releasing 10 albums, including his new second solo record Night Parrots. He’s also toured America, Europe and Japan as a singer and instrumentalist as part of Jen Anderson’s live score for the 1919 Australian silent film The Sentimental Bloke.

His relationship with the music industry, however, has essentially been one of avoidance. Aside from a brief flirtation with a major label as Overnight Jones in the early ’90s, his approach has been as grassroots as they come. “I still do everything myself,” he says proudly. “I don’t have a manager. It’s not the Dan Warner international juggernaut, you know.”

Instead, he’s worked hard to garner a small but decidedly loyal legion of fans. “That’s what Al and I were always about,” he says of his long-standing collaboration with instrumentalist Al McInnes, known for their residencies at the Punters Club and Corner Hotel front bar.

“The thing about having a small community of followers is that it becomes like a club and people are very loyal to the club. When we did our record launch, we were still doing two free gigs a week and we got 800 payers at the Corner,” he says with a laugh.

Music was always part of Warner’s life. He began playing the guitar at five and as a child growing up in Perth adored John Denver. Neil Young and Bob Dylan soon took the mantle and by the time Warner was 11 he had written his first song.

“It was about Rottnest Island and it even had a line about a quokka in it,” he says.

“It was called The Island and it was so bad.”

Still, it triggered what has become a lifelong passion for unearthing and retelling people’s stories. Night Parrots, which was recorded and arranged by Marcel Borrack, continues the tradition. The record comprises a decade of Warner’s best-known narrative songs, many of which had previously been recorded in either a band or duo context.

“It was actually really nice to go back to those songs and help bring the story out and make it translate and give them a proper treatment,” he says, “which many of them never had.”

Pared back and wrapped in whispers of guitar and piano atmosphere, the record gives new perspective to some of Warner’s most poignant stories.

“We really set out to give this record a really nocturnal feel and make it kind of atmospheric. In some ways it feels like me singing on Marcel’s record. He was really generous with his creativity.”

Nonetheless, between dreaming up renovations for the shack and caretaking the farm and vineyard (which is owned by his in-laws), Warner is busy enough writing songs and planning regular American tours not to bother with too many grand plans.

“In lots of ways those small community experiences I’ve had with Dan & Al and stuff have well prepared me for the way the music world has gone,” he says. “The internet and MySpace is all about doing it yourself on a small scale, and that’s how we’ve always done it and it’s so viable.

“I love that I’m on a level playing field with young kids making beats on their computers and stuff like that. I feel a real solidarity with them. It’s like, ‘I do the same thing that you do and for the same reasons’ … it’s just through a different language.”

See Dan Warner discuss the album and perform songs from it at www.tinyurl.com/5qhk63.

He plays tonight at the Corner Hotel. Night Parrots is out through Croxton/MGM.

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