Album c over artwork for Chris Cheney with Pink vinyl record popping outFrom the salad days of schoolyard adventures to the gnawing anxiety of an LA night stretched artificially long, Chris Cheney’s debut solo album dives straight through the keyhole of the musician’s life and turns up bars of raw, solid gold. We spoke to him about The Storm Before the Calm.

There comes a point within the first few seconds of listening to The Storm Before the Calm – somewhere between the barroom piano and the gripping melody of the lyric, “She said, ‘I feel so sorry for you f-ck-ups/ But I love what you’re putting down'” – when you realise something very weird: you don’t know Chris Cheney at all.

Well, sure, you know him in a certain way. You know him as the dude who promised that we “don’t need no one to tell us what to do” way back in 1998, and has proven the lyric’s truth time and again across a 25-year career. But that’s not quite knowing him in a personal way. His voice has always been the vehicle for a movement, a community’s demands, a group’s ideas. “I think people associate The Living End with these rally-cry, social commentary sort of things,” says Cheney. “I’d flick through the newspaper or there’d be an event on TV, and I’d write about that. [The Living End] was very loud and shouty. [The Storm Before the Calm] is just as loud, and just as powerful, and just as shouty, but it’s just that I’m directing it inwards. I’m directing it back at myself, and it’s been really liberating to be able to do that.

“I didn’t have to sit down and go, ‘What can I write a song about?’, because every song is coming from the heart, and a deeply personal experience. I think in the past I’ve perhaps shied away from that – not for any reason other than I probably felt that my life wasn’t interesting enough to write about.”

Needless to say, he was wrong on that count – and certainly about this particular stage of his life, in terms of both the events within and his reflection upon. The Storm Before the Calm blisters with his mastery of making the intimate universal, in the kind of soaring style of the Fannings at home, and the Springsteens abroad. “I – for the first time – put all of my cards on the table, on this record,” Cheney admits. “I just laid my soul bare. I didn’t hold anything back. And that’s why only half of the album, that I made in Nashville, actually made the record.”

Having finished up that particular set of sessions in Music City in 2016, Cheney discovered that he’d created something he didn’t want to release. “I scrapped half of it; I just couldn’t listen to it,” he says simply. “It was just too confronting.” When the pandemic arrived, Cheney moved his family from LA – where he’d lived for several years, and to which he’s penned an incredibly moving rock-sonnet in album track California – back to Melbourne. Writing anew in his garage studio, the songs that eventuated were a welcome surprise. “I just kept writing, and I found that I had all these extra songs that were really good, and all of a sudden were balancing up the record; they were eclipsing some of the darkness of the Nashville sessions,”he explains.

“I definitely, for the first time ever, I was sort of okay with letting the emotional side of it be at the forefront. The [songs] had a depth to them, and a realism to them. I thought, this is really going to surprise a lot of people and I’m crazy if I try to water them down.

“So I was like, I’ve got no choice here. I either put this thing out, or I bury the whole thing altogether. It’s been the most tumultuous, but most rewarding experience, putting this together.”

Take the astounding Exile, which opens with gorgeous vibraphone – not a surprise considering Cheney worked on it with the mallet-percussion-loving Franc Tetaz, the decorated Australian film composer whose fingerprints are all over Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know – and boasts incredible mirroring of form and content: its chords descend plaintively before regrouping at the nadir and building, with heart-hammering octaves in the piano.

“That song sounded like it was out in the wilderness,” Cheney says. “It’s about being stranded out in the desert and ruminating about this downward spiral that I’ve been heading into. I was kind of morbidly fascinated by it, and drawn to it. It’s been an incredible healing period for me by making this record, and songs like that… That was when I was deep within all the questions in my mind.”

MUSIC IN MOTION

During his lockdown writing sessions, Cheney rediscovered his love for visual art; the cover image for his debut solo album The Storm Before the Calm (out now) is in fact his own creation.

“This is probably my favourite type of painting to create, because I lose myself in the process, and where it ends up visually is anyone’s guess,” he says.

“There are no rules in art, especially abstract art. It’s purely visual, and can be as crazy busy or minimal as you like. I prefer busier art like this, and I thought it perfectly suited the album themes and the state of mind I was in whilst writing the songs. The only real decision I consciously made at the end was which way up it would hang! There’s no top or bottom as such, I just thought it looked best this way.

“It was an experiment for me, doing this kind of painting, and as soon as it was done I knew it would make a great album cover.”

You can take a geez at the various stages of the painting process (as well as his many other works) on Chris’s Instagram account.

 

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The Storm Before the Calm (the painting) is a 40″ x 40″ piece, comprising spray paint, acrylic, oil pastels, and cut out paper on canvas.

The Storm Before the Calm (the album) by Chris Cheney is out now, including on powder pink vinyl, via Liberator.

Buy now at JB Hi-Fi