Around the galleries – August 2009

August 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, August 22, 2009.

Around the galleries Dan Rule

Rod Moss

WHAT Rod Moss: Agony in the Garden; The Diagnosis of Dr Goldenberg
WHERE Anna Pappas Gallery (formerly Uber Gallery), 2–4 Carlton Street, Prahran, 8598 9915,

There’s a particular tension to the synthetic polymer and graphite works that comprise Rod Moss’s latest series of works. His vibrant, highly textural renderings of the people and sites of his adopted hometown of Alice Springs skirt both Aboriginal and Western painting aesthetics – both realism and theatre – alluding to discourses as various as colonialism, place, domestic violence, police brutality and disadvantage. Whilst littered with stylistic and historical references (Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, Goya and Bruegel for three) these scenes’ real resonance is in the collision and coalescence of black and white. The show’s title piece reveals Melbourne GP, author and kindred spirit Dr Howard Goldenberg – who launches new book Raft tomorrow at the Melbourne Writers Festival Club at ACMI – tiptoeing about a setting of glowing red rocks and shrubs while his Aboriginal accomplices look on bemusedly. It’s a lovely play on a white man’s otherness in the desert. Interestingly, in all these works Moss renders black skin using graphite, though paints all else using synthetic polymer materials. This seems an admission of separation. He may live in the desert and paint its hues and textures, but his understanding and connection can only stretch so far. Tues to Fri 10am–6pm, Sat to Sun noon–6pm, until August 30.

Sally Smart

WHAT Sally Smart: Performatives
WHERE Block Projects, Level 4, 289 Flinders Lane, 9662 9148,

You can witness evidence of Sally Smart’s fragmented, rough-torn collage aesthetic in the work of a generation of illustrators and designers 20 years her junior. The South Australian-born artist’s attention to gesture, texture and tactility echoes throughout the work of artists like Kat Macleod. But where Macleod’s work takes femininity and beauty as its cue, the 100 figures that make up Smart’s Performatives wear their troubles, neuroses and back-stories on their sleeves. Every tear, cut and reconstitution seems evidence an experience; the body becomes a compilation, a patchwork. It’s a striking, if not overwhelming collection. Smart’s slew of deconstructed and recontextualised body parts act as signifiers for all that humans affect and are affected by. Wed to Fri 11am–6pm, Sat 11am–4pm, until August 29.

Monika Behrens

WHAT Monika Behrens: Have your cake and eat it too
WHERE Gallery Smith, 170–174 Abbotsford Street, North Melbourne, 9329 1860,

There’s a lot more to Monika Behrens’ feast of garishly playful paintings than meets the palate. Indeed, on closer inspection, her flamboyantly coloured animal cupcakes, biscuits and deserts unveil an activist intent. Each of Behrens’ sweet treats – whether they be Hopping Mouse Party Cakes, Toolache Wallaby Honey Biscuits, Brooding Frog Cupcakes or a White Gallinule Pavlova – depict extinct Australian species and meditate the conditions of consumerism that have contributed to their demise. While the subjects of these works seem stickily sweet, the realities of their consumption leave you sick to the stomach. Thurs to Fri 11am–6pm, Sat 11am–4pm, until August 29.

Clare Rae

WHAT Clare Rae: Climbing the Walls and Other Actions
WHERE Centre for Contemporary Photography, 404 George Street, Fitzroy, 9417 1549,

There’s a dualistic quality to Clare Rae’s new series of highly gestural self-portraits. Showing alongside this year’s CCP Documentary Photography Award, as well as Tracey Moffatt’s new series First Jobs, Rae’s works pulse with both movement and inactivity, her half-dressed body frozen during various states of action. In one photograph, she balances perilously on an upturned drinking glass; in another she literally climbs the walls. It’s as if she’s a tree-scaling child, consciously testing her own limits. But no matter how far she climbs, how she contorts herself or whereabouts she perches, Rae – who frames the series as a response to her discomfort within traditional representations of femininity – is still stuck in a room, by a window. We’re left with a distinct feeling of tension. The figure is capable of so much more than her setting and context allow. Wed to Sat 11am–6pm, Sun 1pm–5pm, until September 27.


Beats – August 2009

August 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: Music Australia Guide #68, August 2009.

Beats with Dan Rule


Totems Flare

Chris Clark is often overlooked in an era of British electronic music signposted by the likes of Autechre, Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. He is surely of their ilk. Six albums into his career, Clark is yet repeat himself, and the visceral, sweepingly beautiful scenes that comprise Totems Flare see him at his deconstructive best. Buried synth vistas are fragmented and remoulded into shapes that reference both the churning IDM of 2006’s Body Riddle and flickered tech and early rave signatures that peppered 2008’s Turning Dragon. But Totems Flare pushes beyond them both. This complex, rewarding and occasionally profound record re-imagines itself at every turn.



Concrete Jungle

Melbourne’s Diafrix negotiate a path between rugged street story and expansive musicality on debut Concrete Jungle. It’s rare balance, but MCs Momo and Azmarino – political refugees from the Comoros Islands and Eritrea respectively – pull it off to remarkable effect. Tracks like Time Will Tell, the title-track, ESL and the stabbing horns of African Affair lend genuine expressions of place and displacement to organic, soul-drenched beats, while Count Bounce’s remix of In tha Place is a growling beast of a cut. There are missteps – Crazy (with N’fa) and Out of Control for two – though at its best, Concrete Jungle proves a dynamic statement of identity.



Gully Platoon
The Great Divide

When Obese CEO Pegz announced his onstage retirement in 2007, we knew it couldn’t last. What we didn’t predict was that his comeback – in the form of his Gully Platoon collaboration with young Blue Mountains signing Dialectrix – would be this damn good. From the layered explosions of opening stanza Gully Kicks, The Great Divide is flat out electric. There’s a real chemistry here, with Pegz’ strident baritone offset perfectly by Dialectrix’s nimble, elastic flow and Plutonic Lab and Jase’s maximal hooks, fluid atmospheres and stuttered beats. Forget what you’ve heard – The Great Divide is one contemporary Australian hip hop’s defining statements.


Serengeti and Polyphonic

Serengeti & Polyphonic

While you don’t expect to come across anything particularly conventional from San Francisco Bay Area imprint Anticon, Terradactyl is something of an oddity even by the label’s own skewed standards. This pieced-together collage of ambience, austere string sections, free poetic introspection and unlikely swirls of glitched, digitised groove is the work of dichotomous Illinois sound-maker Serengeti and his verbose vocal foil Polyphonic, and while it may sit on the hip hop shelf, it ain’t rap as we know it. Check the drifting atmospherics of Cleveland and the alien crackle and pop of Steroids for odd, nonetheless enjoyable evidence.



Depart from me

Tales of personal turmoil and doom have become a staple of NYC rapper Cage’s tenet. The guy speaks from experience; his early life was tarnished by abusive parents, drug addiction and crime. Third album  Depart from me is yet another dirge. Across a suite of gnawing rock textures and thickset beats from El-P and F. Sean, Cage unleashes a series of densely packed expressions of anguish and self-pity. But while this soul-scouring approach worked on the genuinely affecting Hell’s Winter (2005), Cage has gone a bit off the boil here.  Depart from me is so deeply invested in Cage’s own despair that we’re left with almost nowhere to turn.

Definitive Jux/Inertia

Reverend & the Makers – ‘A French Kiss in the Chaos’

August 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: Music Australia Guide #68, August 2009.

Reverend & the Makers
A French Kiss in the Chaos

On 2007 debut The State of Things, Sheffield six-piece Reverend & the Makers did little more than scratch the surface. Their references were conspicuous enough; a melange of jangling Brit-pop pedigree and danceable Manchester bass lines underscored their sound. But while it garnered some commercial success, the record wasn’t much to rave about. It was clear that precocious front man Jon McLure – whose former band Judan Ski featured Alex Turner and Matt Helders from Arctic Monkeys – and the gang had a lot more to give. A French Kiss in the Chaos is the statement we were waiting for. From the swelling guitar and sitar overture of opener Silence is Talking, this is a record that transcends the comfortable musical domain of its predecessor. The magic here is in the effortless departures. While McClure and his band stay within the vague boundaries of the Brit pop format, they’re willing to at least explore the perimeter. It’s written all over the spacious, melodic pop of Hidden Persuaders, which soon enough morphs into a snide, anti-consumerist barb – “You’re free,” croons McClure, “to do what we tell you” – while on No Wood Just Trees, a lone Spanish horn motif melts into bass-heavy dance floor groove. The dizzying psychedelic dynamics of Professor Pickles and stunning closer Hard Times for Dreamers, meanwhile, are almost orchestral in scope. But through all the colour, A French Kiss in the Chaos is still very much a British pop record, and this is its precise achievement. It strays, but never so far as to lose itself.

Dan Rule

Around the galleries – August 2009

August 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, August 15, 2009.

Around the galleries Dan Rule

Katherine Huang

WHAT Katherine Huang
WHERE Neon Parc, Level 1, 53 Bourke Street, city, 9663 0911,

This unassuming little show from Melbourne’s Katherine Huang resonates with both an architectural and geographical nuance. Her compact, modular sculptural arrangements – comprising plaster and terracotta casts, plastics and discreet, found objects – feel like the relics of a lost city. But this new body of work, created following travels in the Middle East, isn’t part of some modelling project. The architectural languages that permeate Huang’s work are far too inconspicuous to be literal. A potential roofline occupies the mind for a second, before being subsumed by a less definable angularity; a city square becomes a more abstract gesture of space. The fact that her primary terracotta works were cast from the polystyrene packaging of an Apple Macbook offers another intriguing divergence. Wed to Sat noon–6pm, until August 29.

WHAT Octopus 9: I Forget to Forget
WHERE Gertrude Contemporary Art Spaces, 200 Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, 9419 3406,

Curated by the NGV’s Stephen Gilchrist, the ninth edition of Gertrude’s annual flagship curatorial project Octopus wrestles with the socio-cultural tropes of Australia’s post ‘Sorry’ landscape. Disturbing iconography and relics surface in several of these works. Tony Albert’s exotic OTHER comprises a wall of vintage ‘noble savage’ ephemera, while Jonathan Jones’ adjoining fluorescent lighting installation bathes the room in pervasive white glow. Andrea Fisher’s Shackles series, meanwhile, is both quaint and disturbing. This group of artists render ‘Sorry’ a hollow phrase without genuine and enduring acknowledgement. Tues to Fri 11am-5:30pm, Sat 11am-4:30pm, until August 29.

Louis Porter

WHAT Louis Porter: Australian Colour
WHERE Monash Gallery or Art, 860 Ferntree Gully Road, Wheelers Hill, 9562 1569,

Living in Australia since 2000, English-born photographer Louis Porter sees his adopted homeland through a fresh, unjaded pair of peepers in new show Australian Colour. Across a suite of 17 large-scale inkjet prints, Porter recasts the gritty suburbia of Melbourne’s outer north, west and southeast as sites brimming with aesthetic happenstance and almost fantastical possibilities. Opportunistic crops, empty streetscapes and saturated colour are very much Porter’s currency here. A knot of bright red flowers entwine a rusted, railway line fence in Newport; a pair of former taxis make an all too perfect colour match with a canary yellow shopfront in Dandenong. Through a different pair of eyes, these suburban scenes could have easily become yet another dire representation of Australian suburbia, but nimbly sidesteps the archetype. His gaze is affixed only on the countless potentialities. Tues to Fri 10am–5pm, Sat to Sun noon–5pm, until September 13.

Paul Yore

WHAT Paul Yore: The Big Rainbow Funhouse of Cosmic Brutality
WHERE Heide Museum of Modern Art, 7 Templestowe Road, Bulleen, 9850 1500,

Detritus is the new black in the art world. Barely a week unfolds without another new crop of artists emptying their gleaned junk onto a gallery floor. That said, Paul Yore has unfurled one of this year’s most arresting, positively mind-bending examples of junk-related practice at Heide III’s project space. The Rainbow Funhouse’s loquacious title doesn’t even come close to invoking the sheer scope of its detail. Constructed from an intricate tangle of gaudily coloured consumerist waste, throwaway plastic products, twigs, branches and motorised parts, the Funhouse is as garish and psychedelic as it is beautiful. Totemic structures composed of bottle caps, fake flowers, dolls heads, red cordial fountains and a reconfigured, percussion-producing turntable echo with themes of rituality, consumerism and environmental decay. Yore’s lurid world lays bare the absurdity of our own. Tues to Fri 10am–5pm, Sat to Sun noon–5pm, $12 (adult) $10 (senior) $8 (concession), until November 15.

Interview – Matisyahu

August 22, 2009 § Leave a comment

Excerpts published in: Music Australia Guide #68, August 2009 / The Vine, August 17, 2009

Matisyahu is something of an anomaly in the reggae game. Having converted to Hasidic Judaism in his late teens, the Brooklyn-based rapper has gone onto redefine both reggae and hip-hop’s cultural and spiritual parameters. But the 30-year-old’s rise hasn’t been without its share of hurdles. Aside from having to reconcile his adopted beliefs with his parents (both secular Jews), his music and way of life have raised the ire of some of the more conservative elements of the Hasidic community.

Having released debut Shake Off the Dust…Arise in 2004 and his hugely successful follow-up Youth in 2006, new album Light sees Matisyahu widen his palette. Recorded in Brooklyn, Manhattan, LA and Kingston, Jamaica, the record visits styles as disparate as electronic dancehall, abrasive rock, straight-up rap and paired back acoustica.

I spoke to Matisyahu about his new album, spirituality and connections between Rastafarianism and Hasidic Judaism.

Hey Matisyahu, what’s happening today?

Hey, we’re just travelled 750 miles from Aspen, Colorado to Omaha, Nebraska. So it was a nice long trip. We left at two o’clock in the morning and got in about an hour ago.

Ouch. You’re touring the new record?

No, no, not yet. We pretty much tour consistently in the States regardless of any record releases. We have a great fan base and go out and do shows all the time. This is the second tour since the record was finished, but it hasn’t come out here yet. This was going to be the tour for the release, but it got pushed back a little bit.

Do you find touring an aid or a hindrance to your writing process? Are you able to write on tour at all?

It’s just a different thing, you know. I feel like there’s a time for touring and a time for writing. For me, on the Light record, I specifically did not tour while I was writing the record, and that’s why it took some time.

I only just got the record last night, but I though it was really interesting sonically. It kind of walked a bit of tightrope between the more acoustically-minded stuff and the more produced, bigger-sounding stuff. Was that disparity something you were specifically interested in exploring?

Definitely, I’m sort of into multiple styles of music – organic instruments as well as electronic – so the record really kind of suggests that. I try not to stick to any rules of any one kind of music. I just sort of continued the evolution between rock and hip-hop and reggae and electronic stuff and organic stuff, and that kind of reflects on the record.

I believe you recorded the album in a few different locations, yeah?

That’s correct, but the majority was recorded in New York. I started out in a writing studio in Greenpoint, Brooklyn near my home, then moved on to record most of it with David Cohn in his studio in Manhattan. Then we did go down to Jamaica for a week or so to work with Stephen McGregor, who they call ‘Di Genius’. He’s like a 17-year-old kid who’s still in high school and does all the current dancehall stuff like Sean Paul and all that kind of stuff. Then some of it was recorded with the rhythm section from Fishbone out in LA, and that was pretty much it.

Had you spent time in Jamaica before the recording?

No, this was my first trip.

How was it, especially as something who is so involved in reggae music?

It was cool, I mean, we stayed in Kingston. It’s a beautiful country, but it obviously has a lot of issues with poverty and stuff as well. But for me, I was pretty much in the studio or in the hotel and I didn’t get out that much.

Tell me about the idea behind Light. Themes of togetherness seem to resonate throughout the record. Tell me about what the record means to you.

Prior to the record, I kind of did a re-evaluation of my philosophical take within Judaism and all that. It kind of started out as a comparison I did between different philosophers within the Hasidic movement… I don’t know how much you know about the Hasidic movement, but it basically started in about the 1700s with a sort of rebel movement or a retaliation against the stagnation of Judaism and the hierarchy in place. It was sort of like a re-infusing of energy into the religion, by using non-typical practices in order to get in touch with God. Basically, there were different leaders with different philosophies that came along and I started to do a comparison on these different leaders and their different takes on God and the world.

One of them, who I got really into, was Rabbi Nachman, who they called ‘the Rabbi of the dead souls’. He was sort of an outcast amongst them and his biggest themes were sort of the insanity and madness of God in this world and dysfunction and tragedy. And so a lot of the record was inspired by those themes and his take on them. One of the things he was really into was telling stories. A fire had burned down his house and he lost a child and he started telling these stories, kind of like fairytales that were infused with Jewish mysticism and cabala. One of his stories was called ‘The Seven Beggars’ and that was the sort of main theme that I spent the most time on and kind of used that as the inspiration for the majority of the record.

I don’t know if this is just being presumptuous, but do you feel between worlds in a sense? I’ve read that you have attracted your share negative attention within the more conservative elements of the Hasidic community.

There’s been some negativity, but it’s never really been too bad or been anything that I really pay attention to. But they are definitely some people who aren’t all that hip to what I’m doing. But I don’t really pay any attention to it so much, you know, I just kind of ignore it. Most of the people who I meet when I’m out on the road or most of the kids who are coming to the concerts are not religious certainly – and not Jewish as well – and my focus is on the people who appreciate the music. Not the ones who have something to say about it.

A lot of records that are coming out now were written during a pretty significant period for America, during Obama’s election and so on. Do feel that that different public sensibility had some bearing on your work through that period?

I feel that it might have, but it wasn’t really something that I was tapped into really. My work has been more personal; it’s inner work. My music comes more out of a personal, spiritual, emotional, mental war that’s going on in my head. It’s about me trying to figure my place in it all and how to manoeuvre through the world. I don’t focus too much on politics. I’m obviously aware of all those things, but I feel a little isolated from the happenings of all these things going on in the world.

Tell me a little about your introduction to music and what it was about the idioms of reggae and hip-hop that really made sense to you.

I guess I grew up listening to a lot of classic rock that my parents played. The records that come to mind were Harvest Moon, Neil Young; Wooden Ships, Crosby, Stills & Nash; Grateful Dead records that were around the house; Paul Simon, Graceland; James Taylor, Never Die Young. Those were like the staples that I grew up listening to and when I was about 14 I was introduced to Bob Marley. The music, first of all, I just loved, and being someone that sensitive to music – I was always sensitive to the sounds and songs that were on the radio – I feel like I was just being influenced by everything that was going on through the 80s and 90s.

One of the things about reggae that really perked my interest was hearing a lot of the Old Testament references, references to what I knew as The Torah, the psalms and all these things that I had only heard in a Jewish context in Hebrew school. Mind you, I didn’t grow up religious; I went to public school, but you know, we would go to Sunday school and in that medium, Judaism was such a kind of alien thing to me. It wasn’t relatable to my life in any way.

Then, all of a sudden, hearing Bob Marley singing about this stuff in this different context of Rastafarianism and everything that goes along with that, as a 14-year-old it was totally intriguing to me and I started getting into it more and more and listening to the lyrics and the message. Going through my own identity crisis as a teenager and trying to figure out my own issues with authority and purpose, I really latched onto Bob Marley and reggae’s message.

Where did hip-hop fit into that?

I guess it was just like any teenager who was growing up in the 90s, hip-hop music became like this staple thing. I was always more into conscious minded things, so for me, the first record that turned me onto hip-hop – and I was kind of the hippie who was anti-hip-hop – was the Nas record It was Written, which started out with a slave revolting against the slave master and I just really got into that record.

So that was the record that kind of turned me onto hip-hop music and then I got into beat-boxing and went and saw The Roots and really got into the instrumental hip-hop thing, and basically it’s just continued to grow from there.

The new record seems to step outside both hip-hip and reggae a little…

Yeah, I agree. I guess that’s how I’ve been thinking about music these days. Light has sort of been a bit of departure from reggae and hip-hop and sort of a way of figuring out all these other sounds. I haven’t had one style or type of music that has been my focus, you know. I can’t say that there has been one artist or one genre that has kind of taken over for me. It’s been more about opening up and going ‘Oh, I love the way Goldfrapp sings those high, melodic lines like Bjork and I love the synth sounds in Thievery Corporation’s record and I love the way this band plays dub music’. That’s kind of the long answer.

Dan Rule

Light is out through Sony Music |

Around the galleries – August 2009

August 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Age, A2, August 8, 2009.

Around the galleries Dan Rule

Phaptawan Suwwanakudt

WHAT Phaptawan Suwannakudt: Three Worlds
Arc One Gallery, 45 Flinders Lane, city, 9650 0589,

Phaptawan Suwannakudt hails from lineage of traditional Thai mural painters. Having served her apprenticeship under her father – the late, great Paiboon Phaptawan – the now Sydney-based artist practiced in the ancient art for upward of two decades. While contiguous to the tradition, her stunning new show at Arc One transcends its remarkably executed aesthetic. As its title alludes, Three Worlds seems to represent a collision and coalescence of Suwannakudt’s various life experiences and creative contexts. Themes of departure, place and identity resonate in these highly narrative works; traditional Thai motifs merge with signposts of migration and contemporary Australian suburban architecture, each veiled by passages from Traiphum Phra Ruang, a fourteenth century philosophical Buddhist text. Suwannakudt seems to cast herself in the role of the elephant – its vividness fading the further it ventures into Australian suburbia. Tues to Sat 11am–5pm, until August 22.

Peter Robertson

WHAT Peter Robertson: Land Marks
WHERE Helen Gory Galerie, 25 St Edmonds Road, Prahran, 9525 2808,

Our reading of landscape often rests in a kind of documentarian discourse. The artist or the photographer renders what lies in front of them, capturing and evidencing place and time with a certain solidity. The large-scale, oil-on-canvas works that comprise Peter Robertson’s Land Marks dismantle the dogmas of landscape painting from the ground up. Robertson’s vast building sites and cleared lots show a landscape in motion. The viewer is invited to imagine what these fluid and very much temporal scenes might become. Things are further complicated when it’s revealed that these paintings are retrospective and actually depict sites long ago developed. At the end of the show, we are invited to use the gallery computer to view the sites in their current states via Google Earth. The further we explore Land Marks, the more the surety of these landscapes buckles and shifts. Wed to Sat 11am–5pm, until August 15.

WHAT Kristin McIver: Sold
WHERE Shifted, Level 1, 15 Albert Street, Richmond, 9421 0884,

Showing alongside Jade Walsh’s This is an Art-Rage!, Kristin McIver’s Sold deals in the currency of architecture and the rise of housing-as-capital in contemporary Australia. Neon lighting – twisted into the phrases “ordinary” and “room to breathe” – draws us toward the domestic and architectural signifiers of her laser-cut acrylic sculptures. But the sculptures defy their neon messages. The central work depicts a set of dining room chairs symmetrically upturned, one after the other, in a perfect, albeit crowded row. The slogans of happy domestica are upended. Wed to Sat 11am–5pm, until August 15.

Ruark Lewis

WHAT Ruark Lewis: An Index of Kindness
WHERE The Narrows, Level 2, 141 Flinders Lane, city, 9654 1534,

Sydney artist and writer Ruark Lewis frames his new show at The Narrows in terms of a kind of textual cinema. An installation of black and red flags hang from the ceiling of, each adorned with a maxim; a snippet of language that, in context, might make some sense, but here is just a thread. Objects striped in red, white and black – a violin, three mallets, a globe and an oversized ball of wool – litter the space, peppering us with ultimately unfulfilled hints. It’s all little dizzying, prolix even. Lewis appears to be playing with ideas of engagement here, of our will for coherence and narrative. Among the flags, bits and bobs, we’re left grasping at straws. Wed to Fri noon–6pm, Sat noon–5pm, until August 15.

WHAT Len Lye: An Artist in Perpetual Motion
WHERE Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Federation Square, city, 8663 2200,

It’s hard to know where to begin with An Artist in Perpetual Motion, the most comprehensive exhibition of the work of legendary New Zealand artist Len Lye (1901–1980). Curated and presented in association with the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Zealand, the retrospective includes Lye’s incredible, early abstract films (in which he hand-painted imagery directly onto the film stock), his paintings and batiks (developed during stints living with the indigenous people of Samoa) and beauteous ‘scratch films’. Perhaps the most striking are Lye’s spectacular kinetic motion sculptures from the 60s, which juxtapose fluid, organic movement with their cold, steel exteriors. A thoroughly underrated figure. Daily 10am–6pm, until October 11.

Grand Salvo – Dirt Music

August 9, 2009 § Leave a comment

Published: The Big Issue #334, July/August 2009.

Under the guise of Grand Salvo, singer-songwriter Paddy  Mann finds beauty in an imagined past – and meaning in mulch.

It seems appropriate that we meet in a place like this. Dark wood panelling runs the length of the walls but for an open fire; unpolished floorboards creak beneath each step. Paddy Mann isn’t one for the contrivances of modernity for its own sake. He is a fellow who lives in the past tense.

“I’m always reminiscing and sentimentalising things,” he mumbles, staring into his beer. “I do it constantly, to the point where it’s become almost ridiculous.”

It’s a quality that has echoed throughout Mann’s work. His beauteous, acoustic renderings as Grand Salvo deal in the currency of memory and record and artefact. It is the quietly spoken 32-year-old’s salve.

“Any idea that you have or anything that you do,” he says, ”you have to make it work within your own obsessions and neuroses.”

In a career that has spanned over a decade and four celebrated records, the Melbourne songwriter – who releases his intimate fifth album Soil Creatures this month – has transcended style and era. His faintly vocalised sound worlds summon an indefinable past, lost somewhere in the throes of traditional folk balladry and the classical canon. Stories wind through narratives of longing and loneliness and love and loss, of the land and weather and water.

“I basically write the same album every time really,” he says. “But just looking at those same things from a slightly different angle I think.”

“Once you’ve struck on one of the themes that drives you, the you can and let it ring across every song,” he continues. “There’s a kind of resonance that you can allude to whilst still being economical and not explaining things away.”

It’s a sensibility that has coloured his entire output. While their protagonists came from different point on the map, the creaking, rattling odes of 1642–1727 (1999) and River Road (2002), the whimsical meanderings of The Temporal Wheel (2005) and shimmering orchestrations of narrated storybook album Death (2008) each shared similar stories and similar ways. While River Road invoked a harsh landscape and dying trade, Death – which was recorded and performed with a makeshift chamber orchestra – followed the tale of a young bear, rabbit and rat in their journey across a frozen landscape in search of their parents, only to perish in the ice.

Mann’s relationship with music trails all the way back to his early childhood. Growing up in Melbourne’s inner north, he and younger brother Oliver – now a notable songwriter and baritone in his own right – were choirboys at a nearby church in Brunswick and went onto perform in Carmen. “Our choirmaster was quite well respected, so Opera Victoria would source these choirboys for their urchin roles and stuff, so we got to be urchins in Carmen,” he laughs. “It was just really amazing and looking back we didn’t really appreciate it.”

“The stuff we used to do in that choir was quite complicated and we didn’t know how to read music or anything. We’d kind of follow the lines, like a mixture between learning off-by-heart and kind of watching the flow.”

Nonetheless, gaining the confidence to perform his own material was a struggle, to say the least. While brother Oliver is a natural showman, the elder Mann’s performances are still marked by moments of awkwardness and anxiety. “Yeah, it’s a constant feeling I have,” he admits, offering an uneasy smile. “There are a few people in the world, real go-getters – who just tear it up and just rip it up from the day they were born until the day they die – and have no regrets.”

“But most of us have quite a few regrets and let things slide and let things fall through our fingers and don’t have the courage to do things at certain points and don’t take opportunities and prefer to sit in the corner rather than get up and dance and shit like that.”

That said, new album Soil Creatures is perhaps his most crystallised statement. Breathing with knotted, organic imagery and intimate, familial themes, the album’s 10 tenderly crafted vignettes – recorded at Chris Townend’s studio in Tasmania and in the Richmond Library Theatrette – echo with a rare, elemental quality.

Whispers of strings and harp and marimba, gently underscore Mann’s acoustic guitar phrases and lilting high-register, assisted in part by long-term vocal foil Zoe Randell. “I guess it is about decay and aging and time and getting old and how everything gets mulched,” says Mann.

“Vegetables and organic matter get mulched by the earth and worms and microbes, and at the same time our bodies are breaking down and changing, and in time, our thoughts kind of get mulched as well.”

“As you age, your thoughts seem to become less sharp and angled than they once were and you can look at things from different perspectives.”

But time is not something that Mann fears. For an artist obsessed with looking back, each new day brings another chapter.

“Even when I’m writing about the present, I do it from the perspective of someone looking back on that point,” he says, smiling through his beard, almost sheepishly.

“That’s how I appreciate where I am now.”

by Dan Rule

Soil Creatures is out through Preservation/Inertia

Grand Salvo tours in August

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