New Music interview: Chris Coleman

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Entertainment editor John Turnbull talks to Tasmanian singer-songwriter Chris Coleman about songwriting, busking, the Byron Bay Bluesfest, internet piracy and Aussie accents.

Independent Australia: I’ve just been listening to your album, and what struck me was that it didn’t sound like anything I’d heard lately. Can you tell me about your influences?

Chris Coleman: Early on, when I first started writing, it was Nirvana and Pearl Jam, along with their Australian contemporaries. Then, like most songwriters, I discovered Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, so I went down that road for a while.

In terms of Australian artists, I have a lot of respect for Paul Kelly, of course. A few years ago my mind was torn apart and put back together by an Icelandic band called Sigur Ros.

Recently I’m really enjoying a Canadian singer-songwriter called Ron Sexsmith. What a way with melody, time and time again. It’s amazing.

IA: What’s your approach to songwriting?

CC: Generally, it’s in the early hours of the morning when all of my inhibitions have been lost, or when I’m procrastinating to avoid doing something else. I’ll just be noodling on a piano or guitar and a melody will surface.

The more I muck around with that melody, vowels will start to surface, vowels become words and I guess subconsciously it starts to take on a story. You’ve just got to put the puzzle together.

IA: Let’s talk for a moment about your latest project, the Christopher Coleman Collective. Can you tell me how that came together?

CC: It was a very organic process and at the beginning I wasn’t really aware I was starting a project at all.

A mate was down from Sydney and a couple of my housemates were around, and for some reason I got the courage up to show them a few songs I had been writing. We ended up jamming for a long time and eventually said ‘bugger it’ and decided to record the songs in the morning.

It continued on from there.

Various players came in and out, we worked with a bunch of different audio engineers based on who was available. I wrote songs when I was inspired, then recorded them when the situation was right.

It was a good way to record an album, I think, without the pressure of being stuck inside a recording studio for two weeks straight.

IA: One of the standout tracks on the album is Dandelion Flower — did you know when you were writing it that you had something special?

CC: It’s funny, it was completely the opposite.

Sometimes things just click and a song takes less time to write than it does to play. The melody came instantly, the chords just fell into place.

I played through it once to my girlfriend at the time and she sort of shrugged and said ‘it’s weird’.

After that, the song just sat in a dusty notebook for a couple of years until that jam. On the second or third time that we played it as a band we realised that it felt natural, like rhythymically it just rolls down the hill, I guess.

IA: I recall Kram from Spiderbait said the same thing about Buy Me A Pony. It feels like there is a bit of punk influence through the album, particularly on the track Mr Smooth. Did you go through a punk phase as a teenager? Or tween maybe?

CC: No, not really. I mean, I know some of the classic songs by the Sex Pistols and the Ramones, but I guess I never got deep enough into the punk thing.

The real inspiration for that song is that I was watching the Tenacious D movie Pick of Destiny, and I was trying to work out the guitar riff for that scene where they’re in a bar and he blows that girl’s mind with their awesome rock.

I couldn’t quite get the riff, but I kept working on it with my loop pedal, then added in drums.

That was kind of my first satirical song.

IA: You released this album independently, but you’ve got distribution through MGM. Was the indie road a deliberate approach?

CC: Well, it’s not as if I have record labels knocking down my door, but I’d much prefer to remain independent and retain creative control. Release when I want to release, use the photo I want for the cover.

If it’s managed well, it’s totally sustainable with technology the way it is today. Distribution is obviously an important thing to lock in, so it’s great to have someone else worrying about getting the albums into stores and that sort of thing.

IA: You sing in a distinct Australian accent, particularly on tracks like Sailor’s Love Song. Have you had anyone tell you that you need to lose the accent to appeal to international audiences?

CC: No, and if they did I think I would casually dismiss them. I’m a big fan of people singing in the accent they speak in.

My voice is a bogan Aussie drawl and I’ll continue that, I think. Unless I’m taking on a character, in which case I will attempt to sing accordingly.

IA: You spent some time as a professional busker, complete with band; tell me about that.

CC: That was really an idealistic escape… from paying rent and power bills.

It was anti-capitalism, in a light-hearted sort of way. We weren’t trying to screw the system or start a cult, it was just me and a few like-minded friends who decided to do a Kerouac for a while, just see where we could go.

We started in the Hobart Mall and busked our way up to Launceston, eventually earned enough to get us across Bass Straight on the Spirit of Tasmania and then gradually made our way up to Byron. The aim was to get there on the night of my birthday when Crowded House were playing at Bluesfest, and sneak in to see them.

We achieved our goal, which was amazing, but we were so ragged and tired by the end that we all just went our separate ways and didn’t see each other for a while.

IA: What’s your opinion on internet music piracy?

CC: Good question. I’ve never been asked that before.

In my opinion it’s just opportunistic, gutless theft. Unfortunately, it’s just part of the culture, it’s so easy for people to do.

I’d like to think that people downloading don’t realise what the consequences are for the people making the music. It’s always been difficult for musicans to make a crust and it’s almost impossible now unless you’re very savvy about marketing. And how many artists are good at that?

I’m so lucky that I have a team around me who are good at that, because I’m barely competent.

IA: To finish up, you spend a lot of time on the road. What do you do to keep yourself amused in the down time?

CC: I read. I’ve always got a novel with me.

I really like Richard Flanagan. He’s a Tasmanian author who writes historical fiction, set in Tasmania. It’s amazing to walk down the streets depicted in the novel you’re reading.

His latest one, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is about a surgeon who goes to work on the Burma railway. It’s a huge, huge story of love and war.

He’s got a lot of really cool stuff.

IA: Thanks for the tip, Chris. I’ll check him out. Thanks again for your time today. Good luck with everything.

CC: Thanks for the interest!

You can follow the Chris Coleman Collective on Facebook here.

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