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Interview: Lachlan Bryan talks UK tour, new album and songwriting process

The Australian singer-songwriter spoke to us during his recent UK tour.

Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes
Credit: Lachlan Bryan & The Wildes

Lachlan Bryan and The Wildes have been on one of the most popular Americana acts in Australia since forming in 2009.

The band won the 2014 Golden Guitar Award for Alt-Country Album of the Year for their album Black Coffee, and have toured with some true legends of the genre like Steve Earle, John Hiatt and Joan Armatrading. They’ve just completed a second UK tour -including a date at London’s Green Note – and released their fourth album, Some Girls (Quite) Like Country Music, in the UK last month.

During the tour I caught up with Lachlan to chat about the new album, performing in the UK and his songwriting process.

How would you describe your music?

We do what’s called Americana – that’s weird when we’re Australian. We do a kind of music that’s more storytelling music than anything else, really. There’s a country music influence and there’s some blues music, folk music influence, but mainly storytelling. And I tell a lot of stories on stage – I don’t really know what they are before I start and I just start talking between songs and that’s part of what we’ve always done. But I guess usually we plays songs that are kind of wordy and not necessarily designed to be hits, but I enjoy being able to have a conversation with the audience in the songs and between songs as well.

What keeps you coming back to the UK?

This is our second time. We came last year and we had a really good time. We did a very similar tour last year – very similar venues, even to the extent that we spent time in Switzerland last year and we’ve just come from Paris yesterday. We were down there for a few days. It was suggested to us by our agent who’s based in New Orleans. She’d been booking us in the US and she suggested that we should come and do the UK and Europe, and we got booked for the Maverick Festival last year and it went really well and we did a couple of shows in London and shows around England. We though people were really nice and we had a good time. And it’s winter in Australia so we don’t want to be there, so it’s nice to be here.

Do you find UK fans react differently compared to other places?

Yeah, I think so. I mean we have a lot in common. As Australians we have a lot in common with America but we have more in common with the UK. I think our sense of humour is more similar – Americans are a little straighter in a way, and I think Australians and British people tend to be a little bit self-deprecating, a little bit cynical, a little bit sarcastic. So we have a lot in common in that way.

But more than anything the world’s pretty small now and people that like a particular style of music tend to be similar the world over. We come and play in England and we see similar people – people that look similar, talk similar, people that are interested in the same artists as the ones we see in Australia. And to an extent it’s the same in Europe as well. Even though there is supposed to be a language barrier, there’s not, because Europeans tend to speak a lot of English. But it’s the same kind of people. And fortunately playing this kind of music, we really like the people that come and see it. We often have very similar world views. We’re usually a bunch of lefties so we have political things in common, which is funny because country music is associated with being very conservative whereas this branch of music tends to be people the other way. That doesn’t really come into it musically, but the thing that we notice is that we see the same kind of people that we see at home, and we like them.

 

How did the Australian country scene and the Melbourne music scene influence your style?

Melbourne is a really great music town and there’s an incredible amount of musicians – I think there’s probably more musicians than there are music consumers. Everyone you meet is a piano player or a guitar player or a singer or a songwriter. So there’s definitely an influence because you can’t grow up in Melbourne and start playing in a band without being exposed to hundreds of other acts.

However I think that travelling has just as much influence on us and on me. The people that you discover, the different songwriters that you’re introduced to all have an effect. My favourite Australian songwriters aren’t from Melbourne. They tend to be from Sydney or Queensland or Adelaide. Probably one songwriter from Melbourne that I’m a fan of is Nick Cave, and he lives over here.

As for the influence of Melbourne, I think the main influence it’s had is it’s a town that encourages you to get out and play live, and has a great support system for bands and artists that are coming through the ranks. There’s other places in Australia where you get paid better and sometimes even where you can pull more people, but Melbourne is a great incubator.

What’s the one thing you’ve learnt from touring and being on the road?

I’ve learnt many things but I think the main thing that I’ve learnt is that people are all the same, and the people that support live music are usually kind people, and fun people. Definitely the people are what makes a place, not the buildings or the weather – it’s definitely the people. And I’ve learnt that you make your own luck. You go out and you’re forced to talk to people and so you’re forced to find out that people are interesting and kind. I would say the thing about touring that I’ve learnt is that we’re all the same and our differences are very minor. They’re kind of irrelevant.

Do you find that festival audiences are different to other shows?

They can be. We play a lot of festivals back in Australia, so they’re a great chance to reach people en masse. I guess at a festival you might wander in and see a band that you wouldn’t necessarily have discovered already or you wouldn’t necessarily buy a ticket to. Being that band, you hope that that changes and that person becomes a fan that will buy a ticket to your show. So I guess festival audiences are maybe a bit more diverse. You always feel at a festival too that you’ve gotta make sure you’re entertaining, ’cause they can just wander next door and see something else that’s great. I guess the thing is once people have paid their admission to be at a festival they wanna have a good time, so I don’t know if that makes them different but being different makes them great.

Can you tell us about your new album, Some Girls (Quite) Like Country Music?

I’ve been describing it as our most adult album yet. All of my favourite songwriters are kind of now old men and old women, y’know? Like, they’re experienced. I’ve always wanted to be older than I am, because my heroes have always been older. I love the voices and the wisdom of Tom Waits and Bob Dylan and Australian songwriter Don Walker or even Joni Mitchell. So we’re in our 30s now and we’re all starting to be proper adults – I know you’re meant to be an adult when you’re 18 but I think it takes you a lot longer. It’s certainly taken me a lot longer. So I think this album has a lot of experience behind it. It’s our fourth record, so there’s a bit more experience and I guess the stories are a lot more hard-hitting. When you’re younger you tend to write songs about meeting a girl or meeting a boy or falling in love or breaking up – very simple. Then you get older and bigger stories have started to interest me. There’s a bit more of a world view coming across on this album, I think.

There are relationships stories but they tend to be more complicated relationships. There’s a song about a guy going through a midlife crisis and finding himself in this ridiculous situation where I don’t spell this out in the song, but I imagine the guy is dating a girl half his age and making a fool of himself essentially. And those stories are things that you see and you encounter as you get older and you take an interest in them. You kind of go, ‘what makes someone decide to do that, and is he regretting it immediately?’ The stories are definitely more complex and longer and wordier, because I see so much good music around and I think if you’re gonna bother making a new album it has to say something that you haven’t said before. So for me I’m proud of the work we’ve done before but this is the first time I’ve gone, ‘oh we’re starting to become the experienced voices of wisdom that I’ve always wanted to be’. I’m still not there yet but I’m working towards it.

Were there any songs that were particularly easy or particularly difficult to write?

The first song, I Hope That I’m Wrong, was easy in the sense that I wrote it very quickly. I woke up in the morning, went downstairs. I’d moved house recently and I live in a really beautiful place with a lovely creek down the back and near the beach and surrounded by trees and possums and nice native Australian wildlife. No reason to be unhappy there at all, but I just woke up and this really bleak song was in my head, this kind of fear. I think I’d been reading a bit about the #MeToo movement and I hadn’t really discussed it with anyone, but I’d been reading about someone that had been just very subtly pushed down by every boss that she’d ever had and all this kind of stuff, and I might have actually been listening to a podcast about it. And then I picked up the newspaper that morning and Donald Trump was featuring heavily, and I just had this ‘oh man, it’s every woman and man and child for themselves these days’. And that song came out very quickly and the words just came together almost like it had been pre-written.

There’s another song on there called Sweet Bird Of Youth which was the opposite. I started writing that song seven or eight years ago, and mainly because I really liked the title – it’s actually the title of a Tennessee Williams play that I’d stolen. But I liked what the title said to me before I even read the play, and I tried to write that song three or four times. And then finally it came out complete. So I would say there’s songs on there that took years to write and songs that took minutes, but I kind of feel the same about them both in the end.

Do you have a typical writing process?

The typical writing process is that I try for ages to write songs and they all turn out various degrees of terrible, and then once I’ve gotten out all the bad stuff usually a good idea will come to me. And once a good idea comes it usually flows pretty quickly. So my process is that I try my best to have a process, it never works and then I fluke one every now and again. But I do believe that the flukes wouldn’t happen if I didn’t try and push through all the other ones.

You’ve got a song on this record with Lindi Ortega – how did that come about?

We met at a festival in Australia a few years ago. She wasn’t very well known at the time – it was the first time she’d been to Australia, and she was playing and picked up a copy of our record while she was there. She hadn’t heard us play or anything, and then she wrote to me and said, “I really like your album.” We stayed in touch, then one time when we were in the States we caught up for a coffee in Nashville but we ended up just having a long night where she took me around town. I didn’t know many people there but we became really good friends, and we’ve always just stayed in touch and written to each other about whatever’s going on in our careers and our lives.

Last time she was out in Australia she said, “oh we should do a song together at this gig that I’m doing in Melbourne”. So she taught me the song – I know Townes van Zandt songs really well but I didn’t specifically know this one. She taught it to me and we thought it sounded nice together, so I said to her, “Would you mind if we recorded that?” and she was like, “Yeah, I can do that.” So that’s really how that came about.

That’s one of the things with travelling and touring – you make friends like Lindi that you don’t see very often, but you kind of understand what each other are going through. But things are pretty good for her at the moment. She’s got a new record out, she’s got married recently and she seems pretty happy. She’s moved back to Canada which I think has made her really happy. But she’s one of the fellow artists that I’ve met in the industry that is a genuinely nice person and not full of ego. She’s a really great artist and a cool woman as well, which is great.

You recently released the video for I Hope That I’m Wrong – can you tell us about the concept behind that?

The idea was mainly Shaun’s who’s our bass player. It’s based on The Picture of Dorian Gray – that’s our inspiration. In the video there’s a girl painting a self-portrait and when that is revealed it is a kind of grotesque version of herself. Shaun himself is in it; he’s quite a handsome guy but we had the chance to make him ugly in the clip, which was great fun. I think the video’s a bit of an attack on vanity and also a bit of a reflection of how sometimes what we’re projecting on the outside is not as ugly as what we see on the inside, particularly as we’re in such an Instagram world now where everyone is effectively airbrushing their lives in their photos. We wanted to do something that was actually a little bit ugly, because the song is about the ugliness of the world, and we made it very simple. I’m really into film-making so I kind of directed it and edited it, and we made it in a couple of days down in Melbourne. I’m really happy with it. It’s really simple but effective, so it was nice to get a chance to do that.

How did you get into music and what made you decide to pursue it as a career?

I’ve got music in my family actually. My brother who’s lived in London for a long time, he works in musical theatre and that kind of stuff. We don’t really listen to the same kind of music and he’s 15 years older than me, but despite that and despite the fact that he’s lived over here since I was 12 we’ve remained very close, and we kind of hear music in the same way even though we like different music. And my uncles played in bands and my cousins play and everything, so there was music in the family to get me into it.

At high school I tried to avoid it really. I tried to get into sport, and the first time I came over to England I played for a cricket team for about a year. But funnily enough when I did that I made friends with this guy from the town that had a band, and after a day of cricket we’d go down into his basement and jam. So I could never really avoid it – no matter what else I tried to do my time always got taken over by music. And when I went to uni I tried to study and I would always be in the guitar shop at lunchtime, so it was kind of inevitable that I would want to do this.

As for making it a career, that just kind of happened gradually. I realised that I was running out of time to do anything else and I had a pretty good start with music, so that just kept going. But I didn’t ever have that young kid wants to be a star on the stage thing. It just happened naturally.

What’s the one song you wish you’d written?

Oh, man! [laughs] Even narrowing it a thousand would be hard. But there are a few songs that really do stand out to me. I’m a really big Tom Waits fan, so I love a lot of his stuff but a song like Hold On is a great song. But it’s weird, but about six months ago a friend who’s an older musician in Australia played me a version of the song Jesus Was A Crossmaker. I’d heard The Hollies’ version but he played me Judee Still’s version. I don’t know if you’re familiar with her, but she was a 70s piano player and singer-songwriter. She died in her early 30s. But once I heard her version of that song – it’s kind of a gospel piano version – and I think that’s the song at the moment. This would change all the time but at the moment I’d say if I could write a song like that. It’s so complete and beautiful and I think she had a really religious upbringing that she was always wrestling with, and she’s managed to combine that with a song about being in love with someone that wasn’t reliable. But the fact that she’s done all that in such a great stirring melody is just brilliant. So I’d probably say Jesus Was A Crossmaker by Judee Still.

What does the rest of 2018 look like for you?

Well we go back to Australia in the middle of July. We’ve got a bunch of festivals. We’re talking about getting back to America. Hopefully getting back over here sooner than another year; I’d love to come back in the wintertime because we’re gluttons for punishment. And then I’ve got a couple of side projects as well – I do a bit of production work – and there’ll probably be some more music released too.

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