A Q&A w/ Jack Colwell

Photo by WILK

by Jake Cleland

So the show at the Toff on the 21st is to launch the new version of ‘Seek the Wild’. What compelled you to re-record it?

I’ve always liked the song, and admittedly I thought it was quite catchy, but the essence of the song (in its original recording) was different to how I currently perform and view the song. A few years ago Kate Bush released an album titled Directors Cut which was a reworking of her two studio albums, The Red Shoes and The Sensual World. Kate said that she felt the original albums were rushed and incomplete, or at least not fully realised, and that by going back over it and pruning the songs (so to speak), she felt a sense of closure with the work, but also a new sense of excitement and inspiration about it. Re-doing ‘Seek The Wild’ allowed for me to find a new and fresh way into the song, and reinvigorate it. By no means is my artistic practice, or catalogue on a similar level to Kate — but I certainly like how she operates, and I think that there is definitely a school of thought in the music industry to just be generating new material all the time, and to put anything out, no matter the quality, but ultimately the work and footprint you leave online goes on to define you — so I think it’s important to make sure you keep putting your best foot forward, even if that means changing the shoes. As an artist you can decide when something is finished, and that’s not always when you first think it is.

What’s the song about?

The song is about joy, and finding who you are. We’re all born into this world crying, with no sense of self or identity, and we discover and learn who we are over time, or at least the person we tell ourselves we might be, or who we want to be. The core message of the song is to ‘Seek The Wild’, which to me is just about uncovering parts of yourself that you shouldn’t be afraid to expose, and to show those without fear to the world. It’s a broad message, but a positive one I think we need as a population during this time.

One thing I’ve always admired about your shows is how intense they are. Even from behind a keyboard you project a kind of ferocity that’s both intimidating and empowering. How do you summon that energy?

I think it’s just there. Stage presence is a funny thing to examine and talk about, because it’s this extra chemical that just has to exist for a performance to carry, and most importantly, be sustained. To me, it’s about being present in the music — if you aren’t present in your performance, then what’s the point? Performance is a translation of narrative and feeling, and in its most drawn-out the performer is a conductor of these two elements, passing them to a greater audience. I think it’s a very mental, as in psychological, state of being. At my worst, I don’t believe I translate my ideas well, and therefore no ‘magic’ or state of being is heightened, but if you apply this theory, say the way a visual artist might apply a manifesto, then you believe that what you’re doing is meaningful, and I think that shows through in a performance. If you believe in what you’re doing then others will too.

Is it exhausting or cathartic?

I think it’s both. In order for it to be cathartic, you have to exhaust yourself. A great performance is one of submission.

I think that’s always been the case with your shows, but the first time I saw you with Ella at the Northcote Social a few years ago, the look and the setup were quite different. It was almost baroque in a way, but now it’s less theatrical, more raw. Why’d that change?

I was interested in different things then. I remember that show, it’s such a short time ago, 2014 I think, but it seems like a lifetime away from where I am now as an artist. I want to get to the core of what I’m making, or trying to say, and in order to do that you need to strip things down, and then strip things down again. As a queer artist in Australia you’re often relegated to the path of a cabaret performer, or your expression is labelled as theatre, which carries a host of associated connotations that I just don’t identify with or connect with. I read a review of my performance once that described me as part Liza Minelli, and when talking I was Mr G, and I still feel really sad that I didn’t challenge those reviewers, because I don’t think they were listening — they were reading me with their eyes. I see myself as a rock musician, and it’s very tiring that in Australia you’re read as a rock musician by a certain look, or by what you’re associated with. I want people to listen to my work, and maybe in order to do that I have to make the setup as focused and streamlined as possible, so that when I sing there is nothing for them to get distracted by, except my message.

Part of that confrontation is that some of your songs are particularly explicit, like ‘No Mercy’. I remember when you sent me the demo my first reaction was shock that the lyrics were so violent — which is the point, of course, but it seemed like new ground for you. Did you have any concerns for how an audience would receive that song on first hearing it?

Yeah, of course. I actually get really anxious before I perform the song, but the anxiety gets easier every time. If I can, I’d probably relate it to the coming-out experience. They say that a queer person never stops coming out during their life, but that it gets easier the more comfortable you feel in your skin. ‘No Mercy’ is a really violent song, that aims to turn the violence of a bully back on themselves. I am sick of gay men, and all queer people, being seen as weak, and funny. All we are to a fair amount of mainstream population is someone who loves shopping, has a funny joke for every occasion and isn’t very good at sports.

That’s a generalisation I know, but there are lots of queer artists coming out and using their art to shout. We’re shouting because we’re angry and want to be heard, and not just because of Marriage Equality, which is a tip of the ice-berg issue, we’re shouting because people need access to mental health, and medicine, and clothing, and safe places to live, and there are governments that are using our basic human rights as political ping-pong balls. When I first played ‘No Mercy’ to my backing band, I felt embarrassed for myself to use the word ‘faggot’ publicly, I felt ashamed, and I was unsure what they would think — but they were very supportive and I felt better.

When I included the song in my setlist for the Sarah Blasko shows, I was frightened of what people would say, but they clapped louder at the end than after any other song. At the Enmore in Sydney I knew my whole family was coming to see me, and subsequently hear the song, and I worried before I went onstage what they would think — I couldn’t help it, it’s overtly violent and political in tone, but they smiled and said they enjoyed it. After The Tote in Melbourne a few months later a man cried and said that he hadn’t heard a song that expressed his repressed self before, and he both hated and loved it. I think it’s an important song, and if it makes people uncomfortable, or confronted — then perhaps that’s a good thing.

You released ‘No Mercy’ in support of QLife, a vital service for LGBTQIA people, after queer teenager Tyrone Unsworth took his own life due to sustained bullying. How was the response?

The response was pretty overwhelming. I’ve always been interested in music that was political, and that was out there to say something. I did an interview recently where the interviewer said that music had never been so politically charged as it was in 2016, but I’m not too sure… I think we forget a lot of songs in the 60s were aimed at breaking down race relations, and during the 90s and early 00s women were breaking down their own walls in bands like Hole, and even on a more mainstream platform like Christina Aguilera’s ‘Stripped’. I think that it is just that the conversation has turned queer, and that queer artists have started rallying to be heard — the sheer volume of it can’t be ignored, especially when you have someone like Anohni using her voice in such a strong way.

‘No Mercy’ wasn’t about Tyrone Unsworth, but the tragedy around the situation made me want to let people know that queer artists in Australia were listening and reacting to the news. It seems as though there is a lot of negative information fed about queer people in the Australian media, and as an artist, and someone with a very small public platform, I think it’s about how we use these platforms to let people know we’re serious, and we will challenge them. I raised over $1000 which will be used by Qlife to do research into what can be done to help counsel young queer Indigenous people, who may be faced with specific issues. To me, that probably feels like the most important thing I have done. I was able to raise that money due to the support of the song, and by people who share my view that music can still make an impact in today’s world.

And what else is in the works at JCHQ for 2017?

There’ll be an album. Ready yourself.

Originally published in STRINE WHINE: ISSUE SIXTEEN