Interview: Luke O’Shea

I first learned of Luke O’Shea when I saw his name in the programme for the Tamworth Country Music Festival – and then I saw it the next year, and the year after that, always lots of shows at the same place and appearing with his band, The Medicine Wheel. But Luke is too young to be an ‘institution’, so these regular appearances had to be about something else – he just had to be a great performer. And, if you’ve seen Luke play, you’ll know that he is. He’s also a great songwriter who recently released a single, ‘New England Sky’, sung with Dianna Corcoran, from his fourth album, The Drover’s Wife, which provided a good opportunity for me to interview him, and I encountered yet another example of the high calibre of human being working in Australian country music – each interview I do for this blog makes me more convinced that our country music singer-songwriters are an exceptional bunch of talented people.


You’re a storyteller and I was wondering where you find a lot of your stories?

It’s just everyday people you meet – especially when you’re playing music all over the shop. You need characters.  The only problem I have is not having enough time in the day to pursue all the other stories and characters that I’d like to go and get involved with.
Some novelists, for example, keep a notebook of story ideas or things they’ve heard.  Do you tend to keep notes as you go?
Absolutely, and one of my songwriter’s tools is [going] straight into pen and a notepad.  There’s a lot of digital media that we use at the moment which is your phone, and sometimes I hum, you know, the melody or a couple of lines into the phone and people think I’m crazy. But it comes back a little bit later on; maybe a month or two, maybe six months, maybe even a year down the line it will be either those notes or those melodies that you might have come across.
Do you find that you tend to have a stockpile then, that you could be drawing on something that’s many years old or something I guess that you think up this morning?
Yeah, absolutely. We’ve worked with this song, ‘The Drover’s Wife’, that had been bouncing around the back of my head for a number of years. But then all of a sudden I was doing a gig with a guitarist and I said, ‘Look, have you got any melodies sloping round your head with a lyric in them?’ I went home and I wrote it within an hour. The concept was there and a couple of the key lines were there.  Not the melody, I wanted the melody, time and place, and then I knew the story would just follow. But that’s just one way, there’s no rules, except rules to have a song come out here.  But other times you can be labouring over a song for days and months and weeks.  Other times it just pours out of you in a couple of minutes.  There’s no rule or rhyme.
You mentioned asking your guitarist for a lyric and I noticed that you tend to write most of the songs on your own.  But it seems that when you do involve someone else it’s more of an organic process, not that you consciously set out to co-write, but that becomes useful.  Is that true?
Absolutely. I really like the co-writes, but a lot of the times you just don’t get the time or the opportunity to sit down with other people that you really admire, you just don’t know sometimes.  Whenever I find that I get in that space where I can get with a co-writer I usually love that dynamic or that magic that can happen when the muses get together, especially when the muses are happy.  Sometimes you can sit there for hours and nothing will come out, but other times, you know, you can sit down and write two or three songs.  But it’s quite exciting to be a part of.
You’re the first person in a while I’ve heard refer to the muse – so you do believe in a muse?
Oh whatever it is, who knows what that is? But creativity certainly does have ebbs and flows, that’s for sure. You can get moments where there’s just so much inspiration around you that you’re just intoxicated by how much you want to write, and how many new chords and original melodies will come out.  But there’s other times where it’s an absolute desert – there’s just nothing.  So you’ve just got to ride that ebb and flow and you learn how to discipline yourself to sit down and work at it, and also when it’s the good times you’ve really got to utilise that, write it all down and make sure that it’s not lying.
I know you have a few kids and you work with a lot of children and you have a job, you have a life, you have a home.  I would imagine it is difficult to find some spare moments to allow that creativity in.  Do you think there’s any merit in having like a disciplined practice of turning up every day to play, or to write?  
That sounds great in theory, doesn’t it? You just want to practice, but reality is you take it when you can get it and you throw in two occupations, two careers, three children, and a mortgage. And you’ve got to try and stay fit in there somewhere, you’ve got to have some kind of exercise or sport, otherwise you start getting all stale and cranky. It’s a fine dance but, you know, I find that even with the time there’s still plenty of opportunities to steal away into a little corner and get your guitar out and kind of nut out a tune. But you know it’s like a crossword puzzle, some people get highly addicted to Sudokus or crosswords and that’s the same with the songwriting – you keep on nutting at it and in the end you can’t really rest until it’s completed.
So do you think of the songs themselves as puzzles, then, or do you think that what you’re puzzling away at is life, really, and human stories?
Sometimes there’s definite songs  like I’ve just completed one called ‘The Great War’, it’s something that I just had to get out because I get filled with such anger whenever I teach or talk about the First World War or any of our wars that we’ve been involved in. And then there are songs which are just kind of sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair where you can just watch the world go by and it’s not meant to challenge a person at all, it’s just meant to take one up a happy escape ride.  It depends on what you’re after: a story that’s got a movie that will stick with you or something that’s just going to take you to a happy place.
The song that’s prompted this interview is ‘New England Sky’, and the notes for it said that you wrote it about the skies that you see when you get on the western side of Maitland [NSW] and you feel that opening up. But it also seems a bit like a love song to the region and I wondering what that region, that Tamworth region, has meant to you over the years?
It’s meant so much. I get up there a number of times every year. I’ll skip into the country music festival up there. But also I get up there just because I’ve got some solid friends. Every time I go up there I’m just absolutely blown away by the actual beauty of the joint. And the sunsets, which should be sung about. I’ve travelled a lot around this planet, but the New England sky should on the world list – the bucket list of people who want amazing experiences. They are just stunningly, stunningly beautiful. Sometimes you write a song that wants to educate, sometimes you want songs to provoke – but this one I just want people to kick back and  enjoy a kind of sunset experience where you just visualise it, you can feel it. Hopefully one day you’ll drive out there and see for yourself.
Is there a particular point in the New England region that you recommend seeing the sunset from? 
Oh look, Gunnedah has just got something very amazing out there, but that lookout that sits on top of Tamworth, that overlooks the town, that’s just a remarkable place to watch the sun go down.  And the clouds and the moon will come out to play; it’s just, yeah something really amazing about it, something very special.
 I do find during that it’s quite a long sunset it seems there compared to Sydney, and that hue that the sky gets as the sun’s disappearing, it is beautiful.
And those rolling mountains just in the foreground with the open plains, yeah, it’s certainly big sky country.  I know it’s a cliché, but once you get out there and you just feel your stresses and your worries just kind of evaporate into the ether. It makes for inspired writing that’s for sure.  
You demo’ed the song singing it yourself, and I was wondering why you chose to have someone else sing on it, or was it the case that you just wanted Dianna Corcoran on it?
Basically it sounds a bit strange to anybody would say that you’ve written a love song to a sunset, so the idea was to encode it into a potential, like a love song between two people perhaps watching a sunset. So you could conceive it that way. But also just the tonality of Diana’s voice, it’s just so rich and beautiful, she hits these high notes which just take you up into a frequency where you can just imagine it up there with the clouds and that, the sun setting down. It’s just one of those magic combinations of voices and imagery.
I don’t think it’s that strange to have a love song to a sunset, especially in country music, because I think part of that genre is that you’re telling stories and expressing affection, I guess, for a whole variety of things. And the land is a hugely important part of that. I think it is our storytelling genre where we can tell stories about the land. So, there you go, that’s my opinion [laughs].
No, I agree with you totally, and I’ve just recently written an article that says the same kind of thing where this land requires us to sing it up.  You know the Aboriginals needed to sing it up for 50,000 years. They believed if you didn’t sing it up it disappeared. And there are certain regions that in country music it carries on that ancient tradition of really singing up the land and making sure it doesn’t disappear in future generations, to stay strong and true and this is quite a contemporary version of that, but it still holds onto that ancient tradition of singing its praises and letting people know that it exists and hopefully continues.
And country music is very popular with indigenous people in Australia so I wonder if that’s not part of it, that it is – it is a continuation of sorts of their own storytelling. Absolutely, yeah, the traditional going-walkabout was following [what] were called songlines, where they would follow a set path and just sing up a certain features within their land and their responsibility was to make sure that they were maintained. 

Over the course of your career – because you’ve had, I think, four albums now and you certainly have been playing for a long time – have your musical influences changed?
Absolutely. The first two albums were with the Medicine Wheel, so that was a rocky outfit, our only way into the country industry was through the back door because of the late-night timeslots and that – the party stages and the rodeos and the B&Ss. But what attracted me to the country music genre in the first place was the stories and the storytellers, and the respectful view the audiences had for the lyric. And so as I started to get older I started to focus more on the flow of songs on the albums and delivering them and stripping back the production of the songs and the shows, so that the characters within the stories would start to shine through. And, you know, I find that very powerful when you can connect with the audience on the power of the lyric, as opposed to the power of the beat. 
I remember seeing you play more than once with Medicine Wheel at the – it’s the Tamworth Services Club you’re usually at, isn’t it?
That’s right.  That’s our spiritual home, they’ve been giving us a space where we can just explore and see what works.  My evolution as a songwriter has definitely been largely attributed to that beautiful space at the Tamworth Services Club.
And will you be back there next year?
Oh absolutely. If they’ll have me [laughs].
Well, they’ve had you for a few years now, so I can’t imagine they’ll kick you out.
No, it’s a wonderful kind of space and we really do love it, and it feels so much at home when we all just sit up there. We don’t get to see each other too much, the boys from Medicine Wheel and myself. And it’s only when you get that magic festival that you’re sitting there and going ah, it’s like a comfy old boot.
[Laughs] I actually sometimes look at the number of musicians in Tamworth and you all seem to know each other or are about to know each other or used to know each other, and the potential for collaboration would be high. I actually think it must be difficult to pull yourself back from kind of rushing in and saying, ‘Well, let’s do this and let’s do that.’  Because you’re all there in the one place and you could cook up all sorts of things.
Yeah, you do end up in a lot of strange places together and a lot of the time when you’ve finished the show there’s only one thing left to do. We all love a beer, so you get a lot of – it is a camaraderie, that’s for sure, because it’s small but it’s a beautiful little filtering system that we have, because there’s not a hell of a lot of money in music in Australia full stop, let alone within country. And so everyone understands that everyone is doing their best to pay mortgages, raise children and keep their passion alive. So you’re only dealing with committed, passionate people who have the focus in music as you do, and there’s not too many – we’re all a bunch of selfish little freaks. But occasionally we really get to have those really good times together and it’s a lot of fun.
Is there anyone, though, who if they said, ‘Luke, come and play on my album’ or ‘Let’s write an album together’, you’d absolutely love to?
There’s a whole series of people that I’d love to come and co-write with.  I’ve got a lot of heroes within the country music genre that create images and stories and hold audiences spellbound with just their power of delivery and song, and that’s where I want to go. But I don’t think your program’s long enough to list them all.
Just going back to what you were discussing earlier about having song ideas and things that might be older or newer – when you’re starting the process of doing an album do you look at what you already have and think well which songs am I going to develop now for the album?
There’s a definite risk you follow through in an album; it should feel like a book. With The Drover’s Wife there’s a real Australian theme throughout it. And be it from Ford and Holden to last scene in the movie or to bad advice for directions, there’s a definite kind of theme there which is different from The Prodigal Son, or This and Other Words. I’m working on this next album at the moment, like you write a swag of songs – you probably have 25, 30 songs to scale it down to about 12.  So it’s like you love your children, but some of them you have to put to a special school.  [Laughs] You know what I mean? You’ve just got to figure out what you love playing the most on stage, what you want to be known for and make the selection based on that.
‘New England Sky’ appears on Luke’s album The Drover’s Wife, which is out now.

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