This month I’m taking some time out to celebrate the 15th anniversary of my book, Songwriters Speak, on my social media platforms. So I thought I really should acknowledge it here, too, now that I’m expanding the content on Debbie Does Music to cover the Australian music I was raised on and worked with prior to moving to Los Angeles.
Because I am in fact starting work on a new book about music, I’ve been diving back into the memories and archives of the conception, writing and publishing of Songwriters Speak. From the first tentative steps of talking to people in the music industry, songwriters, friends, feeling encouraged and motivated to pursue my dream, to getting my publishing deal and my agent, to reaching out to all the songwriters who graciously agreed to be interviewed, making travel plans to get to many of those people, meeting with record company people to get hold of all the albums I needed to listen to, researching and studying and transcribing hours and hours of interviews…
Then sourcing photos, getting approvals on use of lyrics, getting release forms signed (a couple of songwriters I was already really good friends with held me up infuriatingly for months, while others I expected to be cautious, such as Nick Cave and the guys from Midnight Oil, signed off without a moment’s hesitation), editing pages and finally getting to the amazing book launches and publicity tour. I did a lot of press, especially on radio, and even a couple of TV appearances! It was heady, it was exciting, it was emotional and it was exhausting. But ultimately it was monumental, and not just because I pulled it off and got my first book published. It was really a landmark in the telling of Australian (and to an extent New Zealand) music history, and it was the first and still is the only book of significance written by a female music writer in Australia covering such a vast landscape of music.
I referred in my last post, about my love for Sherbet, to the coterie of male music writers in Australia whose voices are the predominant narrators of music history there. Some of their work is hugely enjoyable, some of it makes me want to scream in frustration, but regardless of the merit of other writers’ work and their perspectives, the fact is in Australia there are not enough strong female voices in music writing. So as a creative embarking on a new project about Australian music, with all the crises of confidence that go along with that, looking ahead at uphill climbs, hurdles, vast expanses of isolation (well, that’s not so hard in the era of Covid-19) and anxiety along with inspiration and excitement, it’s really important for me to push modesty aside and celebrate my achievements with the writing and publishing of Songwriters Speak.
It’s out of print, alas, and if you can find one on eBay or Amazon from a reseller, and grab it before I can (I am collecting used copies for my tiny reserve, having given away too many over the years), you will be fortunate to hold a 600-page tome of insights into the hearts and minds of some of the greatest creators of popular music of all time. I always hope to get it republished, and over the years I’ve investigated that, and then gotten distracted by other pressing needs. But right now I am completely immersed in my writing world, so Songwriters Speak, turning 15 this month, and my new book, yet to be announced, are filling my own heart and mind at every waking moment, and even in some of my dreams.
Honouring this work and thinking about all I have done in the 15 years since then, for the most part focusing on the PR side of my career, travelling, moving my life to another country, getting older – this is my birthday month so age and passing of time is also on my mind – it’s important for me to remember that I can create great work, I can make something great happen, I can bring people together and I can be heard… and read.
I’m thinking of sharing one or two of the chapters from Songwriters Speak here during this month, and I am also looking into a way to get the book republished so that more people can read what are still relevant and inspiring conversations with leading music creators. Meanwhile, I’ll share the book’s preface with you today, the 15th anniversary of the book’s launch on August 2, 2005 (at the home of Little River Band co-founder and songwriter, Glenn Shorrock, such a grand event that was!!), and also share some photos with you from the making of the book and its arrival.
I never aspired to write or perform music—I didn’t get past fourth grade classical piano, although I do play a mean tambourine—but for as long as I can remember I’ve been singing along to the songs that have formed the soundtrack to my life. I’m not sure when I first made the distinction between songs from overseas and homegrown music, but I do recall the first time an Australian song transported me to another realm. It was “Cassandra” by Sherbet, and it stood out like an exquisite jewel on my favourite K-Tel album of 1973, Rock Explosion. I was eleven years old, and music had become the centre of my world.
Australian songs were already playing in the wider world by then. Slim Dusty, Rolf Harris, The Seekers, The Easybeats and The Bee Gees had made their mark, Olivia Newton-John was a rising star, and soon Sherbet, John Paul Young, Little River Band, AC/DC and Air Supply would hit the international charts. Many have since followed, and this volume is full of songwriters whose music has been successful for some of the above-mentioned acts as well as Men At Work, INXS, Midnight Oil, Icehouse, Crowded House, Silverchair and Savage Garden.
It’s impressive to note just how global the stories of our songwriters are. Those who speak here have written for performers as diverse as Cliff Richard, Tina Turner, Michael Jackson, Robert Palmer and Christina Aguilera. And throughout this book the passing parade of co- writers, producers, friends and admirers includes Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Albert King, David Bowie, Richard Thompson, Elvis Costello, John Oates, Van Dyke Parks and Bono.
But this is not essentially a book about the international success of Australian music. It is a collection of in-depth conversations with songwriters whose work has left an indelible imprint on Australia’s cultural landscape. It is an insight into the hearts and minds of some of our greatest musical poets. The forty-five songwriters interviewed here were not all born in Australia and a number of them have chosen to base themselves overseas for most of their careers. Some speak with foreign accents and less than half have made a deliberate effort to write songs that are overtly identified with this great southern land. But something unmistakable connects the writers in this book to each other, an indefinable but palpable creative sensibility that has to do with growing up or settling in a unique and faraway country.
New Zealand songwriters are here, too; all had their greatest successes while based in Australia, and each has created music that is linked in some way to his or her homeland. Sense of place is one of the key points of interest I focused on in my interviews, along with family and peer influences, education, religion, musical inspirations, band politics, collaboration, lyrical subject matter, conceptual ideas of how song ideas arrive and where they arrive from, and pure songwriting mechanics—how a song takes physical shape.
Some songwriters describe intricately how they put music together note by note, some speak of the trigger of inspiration, and others discuss relationships and circumstances that created the environment from which a song could take shape. Most songwriters don’t “write” per se. There is hardly any composition in the traditional sense of notation, even for the classically trained. Rolf Harris was a rare exception, and I’ve now added to my mementos a hastily scribbled sheet of notation for “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport”, which he gave me after a demonstration of his own method. Most songwriters use notebooks; some use recording devices to capture their moments of inspiration—although most seem to lose them. Many begin organically, strumming a guitar or playing a chord on the piano; several use no instrument at all. For many the digital age has transformed the writing process, and especially for those songwriters who create songs for other artists to perform, that process involves the ability to create a fully produced studio demo. Steve Kipner calls himself a “record writer” rather than a songwriter. Even those who began in their earliest days simply singing out ideas to their bandmates and bringing a song to life in rehearsal are now engrossed by the possibilities of Pro Tools. Fortunately, whatever the method, the songs continue to come.
A great array of songwriters are interviewed here, but there will always be gaps in such a collection. Songwriters Speak is mainly and unashamedly historical in focus. I had been mulling over the idea for some years but it was Ted Mulry’s death in early 2001 that gave me the impetus to put it together sooner rather than later. I had already missed out on talking to Peter Allen, Paul Hewson, Marc Hunter, Michael Hutchence and now Mulry; I felt an imperative to record the thoughts, inspirations and anecdotes of our greatest songwriting legends before we lost any more. Sadly, as the book progressed, the health of Slim Dusty deteriorated. I spoke to his wife, Joy McKean, on the telephone one day in September 2003 and she told me, “You’re too late, Debbie. You’ve missed Slim. He won’t get better.” Slim Dusty passed away the following day. My interview with McKean, a pivotal songwriter in her own right, took place three months later and is imbued with love and longing for her husband, soul mate and musical partner.
But nothing can make up for missing out on talking to Slim. And so the shortage of young, contemporary songwriters here is not out of disrespect for their contributions, but out of a pressing need to record the stories of those who came before them. There are many more stories to be told, and perhaps other volumes like this will follow. It was gratifying to find a publisher who believed in a project of this immensity and trusted that one person with a lifelong passion for song could conduct so many interviews in a relatively short period and elicit such frank and heartfelt responses from some of the most respected musical luminaries of our time.
At the end of four years of interviewing, I was intrigued and at the same time content that no one songwriter could offer the key to songwriting success. Many recognised when one or more of their songs had hit a certain benchmark, and then admitted that they had no idea how they did it but wished they could bottle it. “The best songs are the ones that surprise you. Astonish you,” Paul Kelly said. Neil Finn is often baffled by where the initial spark comes from. “I still haven’t figured out the smallest aspect of what brings inspiration,” he admitted. Part of the allure of speaking to great songwriters is that no matter how many wonderful stories I hear, the enigma of how songs come to be remains unsolved. It means that every new song I listen to contains an enchantment of its own, keeping me enthralled and eager for the next one. I hope that these interviews offer some enlightenment and at the same time help to keep the mystery and the magic in the music alive.
Sydney, April 2005