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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