The Cat Empire frontman has just released the magnificent solo effort Paper Doors; we spoke to him about balancing his acts, collaborating with Katy Steele and Martha Wainwright, and what he loves about the artist who created Paper Doors‘ cover image.
Q1/ Your time with The Cat Empire must have been occasionally manic. Did you adapt to it as it went on, or were you always looking for the calm pockets which you’ve found in this album?
Touring for me is about finding quiet moments of beauty amongst chaos, excess, joy, frustration, claustrophobia, exhaustion. Ever since I was young I’ve been searching for that feeling. When there was a crowded party I wanted to be there, but when I was, I’d go into a quiet room and lie under a table or something and feel happy there. It was lovely to know that peace was possible, but only because that chaos was present. It’s true that tours with The Cat Empire can be utterly manic, but still I find those tranquil moments can happen on stage, in music, or seeing something different wandering around some nowhere place.
Q2/ Eiko Ojala’s art is mesmerising. But it’s digital – he adds light, shadow and texture to something that’s electronic. What parallels did you see in his craft that made you want to feature it as your cover art?
Eiko’s art is interesting, because it looks as if it’s analogue, but it’s very digital. That in itself parallels the album production, which is performed by a band of very natural musicians, but embellished by many digital sounds and techniques. Back to the art: Eiko also has a way of refining an idea to a sophisticated, whimsical simplicity that resonated with me. Practically speaking, these days music art should look great on a vinyl cover and also pop on a small digital screen. Eiko’s art achieves that really well.
Q3/ What are the lyrics in that main, beautiful chorus hook on Crocodile?
The chorus repeats the line “Timor Leste.” That’s the real name of the country, not ‘East Timor.’ Australia is the only country that calls it East Timor; maybe it’s an attempt to assume a sort of dominance, because we steal oil from them and spy on them. I travelled there a few years back with my girlfriend Eloise to visit some artists there, and wrote a song about my experiences.
Q4/ Katy Steele sings the same melodic line as you, initially, in Wasting Time. Because she has such a distinctive voice, I thought you’d send her wheeling off on her own verse. Did you always plan to do it in the way it turned out?
I always had it in mind that the song would have a female voice on it. It wasn’t until the end of the recording that we figured out it should be Katy who sings it with me. She’s got one of the most distinct voices in Australian rock, it made sense as soon as we heard her character enter the fray. It’s probably the strongest single on the album – I’m stoked she’s part of it.
Q5/ How did you cross paths with the marvellous Martha Wainwright?
Martha was one of the first friends I made when I lived in New York in 2009. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with her husband Brad, a bass player, and their beautiful kids over the years. It was great to have her sing on In Your Arms. She’s got a kind of lion’s smile when she sings, her voice is very soulful and distinct, and she has a wry sense of humour in her words and performance that’s always resonated with me. I think those qualities suit that song a lot; it’s full of word play.
Q6/ You’ve been on a crazy folk fest jaunt with The Cat Empire over the last little while – will you have some downtime before the launch of Paper Doors?
No! The last few years have been run on adrenalin. I recorded Paper Doors, then Rising With The Sun, while spending most of my spare time in The Pilbara writing an album that’s going to be performed by a teenage Indigenous choir, then released the album with The Cat Empire, toured the f-ck out of it, and next I’ll get off the plane from Canada and get into rehearsals for my album release. I’m not saying this to boast – in some ways it’s crazy. Music isn’t a rational pursuit; it’s a hungry animal, and you get bumper years and lean ones. I’ve been having a fairly prolific patch and I’m trying to go with it, which is more like saying I’m trying to hang on.