Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Martha Wainwright interview (2010)


Talking to a member of the Wainwright family about music, one can't help but feel like a student in the presence of a particularly well-informed teacher. This brood of freakishly talented Canadians were seemingly born to keep a musical bloodline going as though it were royal title being upheld at all costs. Yet the family's eldest daughter, Martha Wainwright embodies a performer somewhat less burdened by titles and more intent on getting by on her own steam. Part traveling troubadour and part bluesy mama, Martha and her close-knit band, which includes husband Brad Alberta, are en route to Australia this February, along with a brand new bearer of the famous Wainwright genes. "This tour has changed dramatically since we were last in Australia because we bring baby along now." Martha beams, "It's all very un-rock'n'roll, my show!"

Wainwright's near-annual visits to Australia over the last five years are largely down to a childhood fascination with the place. She happily recalls the thrill of her mother's return from touring here - as part of the famed McGarrigle Sisters – and the tacky souvenirs only one so young could covet. "I remember when I was little, my mother would bring home these cute koala bears you'd clip on the end of your pencil and these painted boomerangs, which was so exciting for me." Martha laughs, "I never knew where Australia was, but I think I did draw the conclusion that there was an Asian connection because she would always go to Hong Kong at the same time as Australia. Later on when I was a teenager I traveled around a bit and would meet Australians in Europe or the US, just backpacking and they always seemed to me like they were from this magical faraway land that I'd only known about from my bizarre collection of gifts."

Martha has arguably become the most loved branch of the impressive Wainwright family tree in Australia. Even her mother never knew the level of admiration her daughter has achieved here, and so, after Kate McGarrigle's death at the start of the 2010, a particular memory for Martha is held dear. "You know the last time my mum was in Australia it was for the Leonard Cohen tribute show at the Sydney Opera House with Rufus and myself and we were together, just the whole time." She adds, "It's kind of cool to think we got to share the same experience in this far-off place my mum had visited when I was just a kid." Many fans would be quick to identify the subject of Wainwright's notorious blues rant from her 2005 self-titled album, Bloody Mother Fuckin' Asshole as being her father, Loudon, but notably absent from both Martha's and Rufus's work is an undeniable ode to Kate. Many fleeting references do appear, however and Martha stoically offers a fine tribute in words befitting any song.

"As an artist she was a very talented and growing up around somebody who already had the basics well and truly down was a great start for me to becoming a singer." She reflects, "But more so, as a female watching her growing up in Westmount, which was a nice neighbourhood, was very inspiring because mum was probably the only single mother, and certainly the only working artist. Through her I understood early on that identity is not about traditional gender roles and also that somebody can be a free spirit and still keep their shit together." Although Martha's first experience of being on stage was through drama class, she wasn't to resist the path each of her parents, and older brother Rufus, took for long. Martha sang and played in Rufus's band while gradually building her own songbook from the wings. It seemed as if a music career was beyond anyone's escape if they were born under the Wainwright name. Risking a burn, I propose that the right of the child is to rebel and oppose the will of the adult, but Martha claims, she was by no means bored by her parent's and their grown-up world of folk-music.

"Kate was not overly ambitious career wise, so music still has this joyful, pleasant feeling attached to it for us  as kids as opposed to just seeing it as a job our mother did." She explains, "If she had been a lot more withdrawn from us and motivated to further her career instead, I think we might have ended up resenting music in a way." With only a few exceptions, Martha Wainwright's songs, are mostly thoughtful, witty affairs but 2009 album, Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, a Paris (a tribute to Edith Piaf) demonstrated a darker side to Martha, and offered fans a peak into her obsession with a quite tragic figure in music history. Following Kate's passing, Martha's cabaret-style tribute shows for Edith Piaf, have an added gravitas and, the singer explains, an unexpected comfort.
"I think that singing some of these Piaf songs over the last year is very helpful in dealing with pain and suffering. A lot of them are quite tragic in a way, and so that expression feels right to me and gives me some context for my own loss. As an artist it's hard to know how to put into words exactly how I feel right now about Kate's passing because in many ways I'm speechless about it. I'm still in shock and so I can't write about how I feel because I want it to be right and honest. In a way I feel quite paralysed." Martha's re-interpreting of Piaf's work was never just a between-albums-muck-around-project. It has come from a life-long fascination with the star of Parisian cabaret. She elaborates. "Both my brother and I always have been interested in older music from the '20s, '30s and '40s...You know standards, and so I was listening to Piaf as a kid. I was comfortable singing in her style because to me, growing up with that, I understood her and her music already so well. Plus we spoke French fluently at home, and so there was never a language barrier either." Martha's Piaf fixation, not unlike Rufus's keen interest in Judy Garland, was naturally enough exaggerated by the fact that these artists were born out of extreme conditions and died by the very same. Wainwright explains further.

"When I found out she used to sing on the street that intrigued me even more as a young person. I always thought she'd come from café society, you know, but in fact it was more about bar society." The playground of the bohemians in Paris was of course the dive bars and brothels, where many talented but poverty stricken artists gathered to sing/paint/write/fuck for their suppers. Martha adds. "My image of Piaf was the ultimate, exciting Parisian performer, but her life was so tragic and sad." She adds. "Having said that, in my shows when I'm doing the Piaf songs, I'm not trying to conjure her up – I'm not acting her out on stage - I'm really just trying to passably sing some her amazing songs." As her brother's Songs For Lulu concert recitals - which commanded audiences to remain completely silent throughout - are reaching their conclusion, I ask Martha what her impressions of Rufus's own tribute to Shakespeare, death, despair - and their mother – were.
"Well, I toured with him for a month in the US and so I got to see him perform that show every night." She says proudly, "I found that because I didn't applaud, my own reaction was stronger and more palpable." Martha pauses, "it was more internalised and therefore the feeling I think was far greater. When you go to a concert usually there's a release and some letting go of feelings, and that's great as well, but I think it's nice to just observe sometimes and not intervene or participate. Obviously it was different experience for me because it's my brother, but I actually loved not applauding at the end of each song without feeling like it was somehow an insult to him!"


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Kirk Pengilly (INXS) interview: 2010


The sensitive issue of INXS's post-Michael Hutchence years has certainly divided a lot of fans. It seemed as if everyone had an opinion on whether the surviving members should even have carried on at all, and when semi-permanent replacement singers continued to come and go, things didn't look good for the band's future or its legacy. Now that a new album of INXS hits re-arranged and re-sung by seemingly unrelated artists has arrived, the debating is set to continue. The project, titled Original Sin, sees the group teamed up with James Ash of Rogue Traders in the producer's chair, and a cast of widely known guest vocalists from all across the music landscape, with a common thread - each one an INXS fan.

To discuss the handing over of his band's songbook to some of contemporary music's finest singers, is Kirk Pengilly. The official band spokesman, guitarist, saxophonist and sometime leather trouser enthusiast, speaks proudly on the results of an idea that actually pays the greatest respect to their late singer, as well as reminding would-be detractors the undeniable power of some truly great songs. "We knew in doing it, we could receive mixed reactions but all the new arrangements were done by us - the original band - and each singer recorded their parts over the pre-recorded track." Kirk begins. "We didn't have a definite plan, we just knew we wanted to do something along the lines of re-imagined versions of a few songs." He explains, "We started off enlisting James Ash, who comes from a DJ background. You might remember Rogue Traders had a hit with a great remix of Need You Tonight, which is actually what prompted us to do this in the first place. We wanted him to have a go at remixing To Look At You - which was the first thing we recorded for this album - then we mulled it over for about six months and finally got him back in to work with us on the remaining tracks and expand on the remix idea by adding entirely new vocals."

The remainder of the album's re-workings are much less remixed, but rather covered by the band that wrote them, and sung by a few accomplished fans. You get some familiar voices singing in decidedly unfamiliar ways to songs you will know, even if you'd forgotten you did. Surprisingly, they haven't opted for the 'obvious rock hits' from the INXS back catalogue here, but choosing to go with The Stairs as opposed to Suicide Blonde from 1990 album, X for example is hardly an oversight. It's the career-spanning cross section of quality over commerce that ups this projects' interesting stakes dramatically, as does the unusual range of vocalists. Kirk says on how the careful selection process took place.

"We drew up a list of singers we really admire, and who we thought would suit a particular song. Once we started putting each one together it became apparent who would be the ideal vocalist, and in some cases that's actually how it worked out. Some of the singers we approached said they really wanted to do a particular song, but in a couple of cases we already had them in mind for something else and had to twist their arm!" 14 versions of INXS tracks were recorded for the project with 12 making the cut. Present is Pat Monahan (Train) on Beautiful Girl, but there's already a buzz about an unreleased version of this song by Brandon Flowers, which was dropped at the last minute. Kirk discusses.
"As it panned out, his manager I guess felt that it was a bit of a conflict because his solo album was released just before Original Sin. They didn't like the idea of him having a separate, unrelated track clashing with it, and it was most likely going to be the lead single." He says, "It was a remarkable version though, it sounded unlike anything he'd done before with The Killers." While we're in dream guest list mode, Kirk reveals a couple of names that for whatever reason, stayed on the drawing board. "I'd love to have worked with Chaka Khan, to be honest." He smiles, "Also I'd have liked John Mayer to sing on something, but he ended up only playing guitar (on Mystify) because he didn't have the time. The interesting thing we found was the most of the people we did end up working with where huge fans of INXS. Rob Thomas, who I'd known for years, was so humble and nervous about being in the studio with us and you kind of forget that some of these people grew up listening to us and they do see us in a certain way." When re-interpreting the tracks on Original Sin, Kirk explains the band's guests where allowed free reign to make what they would of the task.
"They were obviously restricted by the way we'd re-arranged the songs, but there were no rules really. If you listen to Ben Harper's version of Never Tear Us Apart, he doesn't follow the track, but does his freestyle soul thing, and it still works beautifully. Then there's Nikka Costa's version of Kick which is probably the most distant sounding track from the original in a way. What we found was that some singers were much more comfortable playing around with variations of their track and taking the chance to do something completely unlike what they're known for." Kirk adds that there weren't any 'difficult' artist interpretations that couldn't be used in the end. "No well Jon Farris, being the executive producer, was present at all the vocal sessions in London and Paris and he talked to the artists about what they wanted to do and made sure both parties were on the same page."
Pengilly recalls a surprisingly affable session with one Mr Thaws in London. "Probably the easiest session was with Tricky (on Mediate) actually. How he operates, is you get a couple of takes and if you don't like it, too bad!" He laughs, "He knows exactly what he wants the track sound like, and he gets it done so he can go off and have a joint!" Kirk adds of Tricky's selection, "Having him (Tricky) on the album was a no brainer - Michael was always a big fan of Massive Attack and the first Tricky album (Maxinquaye)." He adds, "Another person we wanted for similar reasons was Nick Cave. He was one of Michael's idols, but Nick unfortunately declined and I can understand why. He was good mates with Michael and maybe he felt a little nervous about being compared with him."

Not completely absent from Original Sin, but hardly prominent either is INXS's current official singer, JD Fortune. He adds his vocal to album closer, The Stairs, and it's perhaps the first indication of a more certain future with the band following the bizarre mud-slinging he engaged in after his first world tour with INXS. But long before Fortune's launch pad, the reality show Rock Star INXS, and various stand-in vocalists for tours, Kirk himself was the pre-Hutchence lead singer of the iconic band. He happily recalls of those simpler times. "When I met the Farris brothers, I had already been fronting my own band in Sydney and so I did slip into the roll of singer/songwriter with them." He divulges, "When Michael came along he didn't play an instrument and so it was very conspicuous him being on stage, although he was developing his confidence as the tambourine player in the early days of the band," Kirk laughs, "but he was also obviously coming into his own as a singer, so what happened was we decided he should take the lead me step into the roll of guitarist and occasional sax player." Kirk claims he never even considered reprising his roll as lead singer following Hutchence's death in 1997, "I would never want to front INXS that would be crazy. Besides I wouldn't have the confidence now to take the knocks from Michael's fans that JD has."

As the band's official archivist who's been keeping daily diaries since their very beginning, Kirk had a major roll in compiling recent biography, Story To Story. On his word, some more embarrassing tales were cut out – "Don't want the kids reading that!" - and on occasion, he had to make the tough call on what Michael's fans might want to read or not read about his life. "The original draft had a much larger portion devoted to Michael and Paula Yates' relationship and that definitely needed to be cut down a little." Kirk says, referring to the late couple's ultimately destructive pairing. "That was a whole other story outside of the band and we had to make a decision on whether fans wanted to read about the demise of these two people, or about stuff that was directly related to the band, and I think it was the right thing to do in Michael's memory."

Considering the memory of their much adored singer, INXS have very likely made their greatest post-Hutchence move yet by recording Original Sin. Its part tribute album and part greatest hits, but it offers more to fans than either of those two things. The care taken in the re-arrangements and matching of voices to songs is undeniable, but putting it in long-time fan's terms, Original Sin is actually good enough to make up for Rock Star INXS... Almost.


Click to watch:  
INXS "Devil Inside" with commentary by Beavis & Butthead!

Michael Hutchence, 1988

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Stephen Fry: Last Chance To See (DVD review)

Last Chance To See: BBC DVD (Madman)

The wild-life documentary field has been, let's face it, exhausted of possible new angles. David Attenborough's engrossing commentary of a lion eating a zebra is an image I can safely say we're all quite familiar with. A recent, excruciating addition to the world of beasts behaving beastly on camera, include awkward English blokes hooning around the African planes offering, in strained excitement, a more hands on approach to the animal kingdom or Kaki shorts-wearing galoots you'd cross the road to avoid. It's funny then that Stephen Fry, as metropolitan as they come, has inadvertently rescued the genre from those agonising adventure naturists, who you always secretly wished would stumble right into an 'un-planned' hungry bear.

The story of Last Chance To See began with the late Douglas Adams, (yes, the author of Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy) who made several pilgrimages to see some of the world's rarest species in their natural habitats during the late '80s. He had intended then to revisit the same locations 20 years on (in 2009) but due to his unforseen death, Fry along with Adams' original travel partner, Mark Carwardine set out to finish Adams' work and report on his endangered animals' progress. Although finding out the level of certain species depletion is the goal, Fry in particular seems also to be on a mission to test his own limits, and gain a personal level of respect for these creatures as Adams had done. Fry is well read and experienced in untold magnitudes, but Last Chance To See reveals a surprising side to him – in spite of a lack of any conceivable comforts, he simply needs to see and touch to fully know what most of us are content to read about. It is however, Fry's ability to bridge the gap between big long science-y things and school boy attention spans that makes him so watchable. 

Before the Amazonian manatee has even been properly introduced and Adams' findings on the creature revealed (in episode one of six in the series), Fry delights in telling a popular held belief that drunk sailors used to mistake the manatees for mermaids and have their way with the blubbery mammals. The fact that their Caribbean-derived name translates as 'breast' is even further cause for his amusement. Not so hilarious though, is the first port of call in Fry's Amazon visit; he despairs at the sight of golf carts carrying chunky American tourists along cemented path-ways. His contempt for the tender-footed "thrill seekers" is barely masked, but the pressing matter of rare sea mammals to track soon takes over. The very real danger of being killed by poachers in the 'lawless' Amazon forest is one of the many challenges that await Fry and Carwardine, but when Stephen actually breaks his arm falling on a boat's slippery deck in the first episode, the viewer is left wondering is he more a risk to himself? Cut to Fry sitting on a beach in Florida – "the absolute closest hospital, darling", arm in cast, and the realisation that a broken bone was a small price to pay for not being shot and dumped in a muddy ditch.

Fry's feverish love of technology is well known - you may already be one of his Twitter-following minions – so watching him struggle through jungle settings without so much as mobile reception is close to painful. The pain is only added to by his frequent mentioning of this fact, but a part of me did want to teleport directly to the Brazilian rain forests and put a comforting hand on his shoulder, while saying something like, "It'll be alright. I'm sure I see a tower around that next bend." But the well mannered, endearing nature of Fry makes even his occasional sulks a charming addition to this adventure series, rather than a blight on its strange landscapes. The big lumbering fellow, in a particularly sorry-for-himself moment, had me in stiches as he patiently waited in driving rain for his obsessed travel companion to catch a glimpse of a manatee - which may, or may not be anywhere near the area. In these moments, Fry can't help but make his ordinary suffering seem fascinating, while others more adventurous pursuits seem tiresome, without a hint of narcissism.
The fact that Stephen Fry's basically the last of his kind, isn't an irony lost on this reviewer. He maybe saw the pipe and slippers looming once his comedic and dramatic roles were replaced by docu-reality films, but it's his obsessive quest for information that's prevented a great mind from wasting. He's never seemed satisfied with knowing that he knows stuff, so now Fry is learning about the Brazilian capybara, (for example) simply because he didn't previously understand very much about them and as the viewer you can't help but be fascinated with him, and hope even a little of his lust for knowledge will catch on.


Fry... Out of his depth?

* A little diversion from my normal blog subject matter... But hey, it's Stephen Fry dammit, and much like a lot of music I write about on here and bands I interview, Stephen's language and work always fascinates me and seems to have a great resonance, I would argue somewhere in the same realm of music. *