Another Life — Recording an album of songs I found in a box at a garage sale.
“Another Life” has just been released (https://open.spotify.com/album/1oN20fWy70Srr4nbz5Ph8b).
And it’s certainly the strangest album I’ve ever worked on, because I have no idea who the wrote the songs.
I don’t mean these are folk traditionals, they’re very modern - I just don’t know who wrote them, I’ve never met the author, or seen their face, or heard their voice. And, circumstances as they are, I am fairly sure they don’t know that this album, THEIR album, even exists.
It’s bit of an unusual situation, so this may take some explaining…
In 2014 I took a road trip from Sydney to Tasmania.
The plan was to take the Great Ocean Road down the east coast of Australia, spend some time in Melbourne, get a ferry across to Tasmania and meet some friends in Hobart.
It was a long drive.
Long because Australia is geographically enormous, but longer still because I was driving my father’s 1990 Combi Van, with it’s max speed around 90km per hour. The van was so old it still had a tape deck. So no podcasts or iPhone or anything. It was just the wonky sounding tapes I found in the glove compartment: Queen, live at Wembley, some South African township music called King Kwela and Bob Dylan in his most electric and most nasal period. I stayed in motels along the way and every meal I ate consisted of long-life milk and cereal from those little camping cardboard boxes. Cocopops, Fruit Loops and Nutrigrain for days. A few nights I couldn’t find a cheap enough motel so I slept in the back of the van. Sleeping on a metal slab is comfortable as it sounds, but one morning I caught the sunrise from the cliffs beside the Great Ocean Road, which made it some kind of worth it.
When I got into Melbourne, I hung out in Brunswick. Met some friends for lunch at a pub, and we drank beers and wandered around the streets a bit.
There was a garage sale going on out front of a big warehouse commune. The illegal kind, commercially zoned, where the tenants do all the fit out themselves, and fire hazards are the big worry.
They were selling all the standard garage sale things: clothes, old tennis rackets, lamps, books — but they also had boxes and boxes of stuff that had been left behind from previous tenants. Most of it was junk, but some of it was personal stuff: letters, postcards, some sketch books even.
I bought an old set of scales with a counter weight and a big brown leather folder filled with papers, yellowy with mold. On the inside sleeve, was a super old Exxon Mobil ad, with a cartoon of a 60’s nuclear family in a car outside a petrol station. A promotion encouraging families to drive across the country. The folder had four sleeves: North, South, East, West. I thought it was cool that it had the compass points listed, so I bought it and stuck the Exxon Mobile ad in the windscreen of the Combi Van.
I drove down to the wharf that night and caught the night ferry across to Tasmania. The next morning I drove from Devonport to Hobart and got a room at a hostel near the harbour.
This place I remember super vividly. It was white and wooden and pretty run down. It felt like an old English boarding school, but left to rot. There were frosted glass windows between the rooms so you could see the shapes of people moving, and hear their voices, but you could never really hear or see anyone clearly.
I had a room to myself and I remember picking out the leather folder from my bag and spreading out a bunch of the notes on the floor. This was the first time I’d actually looked through them properly. They were all handwritten, all in black ink, and on mostly torn and crumpled bits of paper. Some of it written in the margins of newspapers, some on butchers paper, the back of grocery store receipts. All of it was songs, and fragments of songs, most of it half finished, a few chord progressions noted down, some capo and tempo markings. I remember feeling tingly when I realised what I had found. It was like opening up a time capsule, cracking open someones life and looking around inside it. It made a big impression on me.
I think I liked it because it seemed so novelistic, something bigger than ordinary life.
I became a little obsessed with the notes when I got back to Sydney.
Once I got home, I took all the notes out and laid them on my living room floor so I could figure out if there were any groupings, then stuck them up on the walls in different categories: Songs, Poetry, Asides etc. I thought of it like literary detective work — though a friend at the time said it gave the room a serial killer vibe. Go figure.
There was something voyeuristic about it all that drew me in. Even though the writing was never direct, there were never any straight accounts of events or people, the notes still felt very personal. Each one a little glimpse of someone else’s inner life.
In the months leading up to the road trip I’d gotten very busy with my work, very consumed by it, I wasn’t recording much music, nor picking up my guitar very often— but finding these notes, the story-book-ish-ness of it, got me really reenergised.
A friend of mine pointed me towards the “Mermaid Avenue” album by Wilco and Billy Brag (a set of unheard Woody Guthrie songs) — and soon afterwards I decided to do something similar.
I setup some recording equipment in the living room of my Darlinghurst terrace (much to the horror of my then-girlfriend) and decided from the outset to use only ribbon and dynamic microphones, tube preamps and compressors, my rickety upright and this tiny old acoustic guitar with a hole in it that someone had given me years ago in Byron Bay in exchange for a lift.
I wanted the tracks to to sound as old and unselfconscious and unintentional and accidental as the notes stuffed into a folder.
The recordings were very rough and very quick. The whole thing was done in about 2 weeks.
Compared to the pain-staking manner of studio recording I was used to, carefully orchestrated and planned, with performances repeated over and over till we got the “perfect” take, this was probably the easiest recording I’d ever done. Things happened very organically, even the mistakes and accidents felt right.
I remember this as a very exciting time. I didn’t sleep well and kept waking up all through the night, racing downstairs to record some extra piece of backing vocals. And every day after work, rushing home to start recording again.
But once the tracks were done, and the recording setup packed down, and the living room just a living room again (happier girlfriend), all that excitement faded away, and I wasn’t really sure what to do with the actual album.
I spoke to some friends about releasing it but it seemed like shaky moral terrain — not to mention potentially complicated legal territory.
So I just filed the album away and it’s been gathering dust for the past two years.
Since then, I’ve weighed up the ethics of releasing it a lot.
So, why now?
I think, in the end, it just seems a better thing that these songs are out there, able to be heard, rather than rotting away in a cardboard box in some backroom of a Brunswick warehouse and never reaching the light of day. That seems like a very lonely end to these songs.
While I feel I know our Anonymous Author quite deeply on an artistic level, biographically speaking, I really don’t know anything about them. I don’t know their name, or how old they are, if they are a man or a woman, where they are living (or if they even are living!?).
But I really, really want to find out —
So: if something in these songs sounds familiar to you, or if perhaps you think you’ve seen them performed somewhere, or just think you know who wrote them — or if it’s you (!)— please do reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org — I’d love to hear from you and I’m sure we’d have a lot to talk about.
UPDATE: 16/12/2017: There is talk of going down to Melbourne next year, to try some amateur detective work and figure this out—if you’re keen to be updated, you can subscribe here: http://eepurl.com/dekjp9