Interview: Lachlan Bryan

238629-L-LOSince I saw Lachlan Bryan play for the first time, several years ago in Tamworth, and then listened to his solo album Shadow of the Gun, I’ve been a fan. Bryan has a way with words, and a way with music, and he combines the two to tremendous effect. The latest release from him and The Wildes, Some Girls (Quite) Like Country Music, provides more evidence of that effect, and I was very pleased to have an opportunity to talk to Lachlan about the album.

It’s release day and it’s a fantastic album – but how are you feeling? Are you relieved it’s out? Nervous about people’s reactions? Are you excited?

I see people posting about their release days, because I’m Facebook friends with other musicians, and I know everyone tries to make it look exciting, but I think it’s more nerve-wracking than exciting. It’s not so much that I’m nervous about people’s reactions – we really love this record. We feel very close to it – so obviously people’s reactions are important – but it’s more that, I guess, the goalposts keep changing when you release music. Once upon a time people probably wanted millions of record sales, and then at other times people wanted reviews and things, and everything has changed. There’s not really many music magazines now and newspapers don’t run stories about music very often. So it’s almost as though release day isn’t as important – it’s when we go out and start playing shows and actually playing songs to people and giving them a chance to take it home with them. That’s probably what I look forward to more than actual release day.

Do you think there’s now a more direct relationship with your audience because there aren’t those gatekeepers – well, they’re gatekeepers in a way – but especially with the genre you’re in, do you feel like that connection is stronger with the listener?

Yes, I do. I think the relationship with the audience is more important than ever. And I have to admit that for me the best way to have that has always been live performance, and maybe even more than ever now. I’m not the best at getting on Facebook and thanking everybody all the time, and being nice and friendly. I try and do those kinds of things but it doesn’t come naturally to me. But it does come naturally to me to get up on stage and play the songs. So the two aspects of music that I love are playing, and writing and recording are one process for us these days. All the other stuff is weird. But I do love the close connection with the audience. I do feel it more at live shows than I do during social media experiences. And I remember when we first put out albums, we’d worry about reviews coming in and all that sort of stuff – ‘What’s this writer or that writer going to say about us’ – and it’s a real shame in a way that a lot of those writers don’t have their jobs at the Sydney Morning Herald or wherever any more. So while I do love the close relationship with the public, I do lament the lack of gatekeepers in some ways as well.

It’s gatekeeping and it’s also interpretation. For me as a blogger – and this is not a conversation I expected to have – I see writing about music as important because I want to make sure that these Australian stories in song can be known about by other people. It’s not that I perceived a lack in the traditional media, it’s that the more people talking about this stuff the better, because this is culturally really important – and apart from that it’s great entertainment.

Absolutely. The thing for me with people like yourself is that it’s great to have people talking about our music other than ourselves. That’s the problem with social media: you feel compelled to go on and plug your own stuff all the time. I guess what I’m saying in lamenting the lack of the media is I miss the concept of you make something and you let people independently decide whether they like it or not [laughs]. And you’re one of those people who helps people decide – so while there is that direct contact with the audience, there’s also this, ‘Oh, so much music comes out and there’s no one there to help you sift through it’. So don’t stop doing this, please.

Social media is an extra element, and I would imagine it’s a burden sometimes. Your core competency is in that storytelling and in singing those stories. The more craft there is around that, the more time you dedicate to that and the more you perfect it, it becomes such a honed skill, the less likely it is that social media would suit you because they take you away from that job. I see you as focused on that job.

That’s true. The way that I’ve dealt with it is by completely ignoring Facebook and I don’t have a Twitter. I do have an Instagram but I only do something with that if I’m on the road and I’m bored. But I don’t do much of the social media interaction and I get told off for it all the time, but the only way that I find to deal with it is to look at it as a bit of a creative outlet as well. So now when I write anything I’m … not careful about what I write. I’ll make it a creative outlet and just talk rubbish, just like I do when I’m on stage. So I think my way around it is to make social media a bit of an extension of stage banter.

I will talk about the album now, and one could never accuse you of making the same album over and over again because they are all different, but complementary. On this one I had the feeling of space – big sky, big landscapes – and also a feeling of contemplation in it. Is that true to say?

I think there’s more contemplation. There was a bit more band contribution particularly in the production of things, and we kept it pretty in-house . The main thing I think that I feel different about with this one – and you’ve always been very complimentary about our stuff in the past – but I look back on things that I’ve done before and they feel a bit childish to me. Not everything. There are certainly things that I still listen to and there are things we still play, but I’ve had this real desire to tell more adult stories. There’s a song on [this album] tackling the idea of this guy’s midlife crisis. Those kinds of real things that happen, I’ve always thought that at our best we’ve told those stories but I’ve always wanted to weed out times when we’re not doing that. So for me the main focus of this has been to get more focused on telling the harder stories ad the bigger stories. There’s still a few light-hearted moments. I was determined this album would only be eight stories and it crept out to eleven. But I’ve kind of got this thing as I’ve got older of wanting to release a smaller amount of material, at least in batches of smaller amounts, and keep it really focused. And that applied to the production as well. I didn’t want us to have anything on there just for the sake of it this time. I wanted to make it the nuts and bolts, the absolutely essential ingredients for making these songs. We didn’t want fancy icing on there. It was all just the eggs and the flour, I guess [laughs]. And the sugar.

I note that you used the adjective ‘childish’ about some of your earlier material – and I actually would expect you to say that, not because it was childish but because that restlessness of wanting to keep creating, keep doing more, keep doing better, is what keeps the work so good. It has always been good, but your nature, perhaps, is to not think it was as good as it could be or that there’s more that’s better in the future, and that’s why you keep producing good work.

I hope so, and thank you. The band started when I was in my twenties and I’m now well and truly in my thirties, and I want to try to keep getting better at stuff. My favourite artists seem to keep getting better. I hope that at some point I’ll hit a point where I don’t look back and say, ‘That was childish’ [laughs]. I hope with this record that I don’t look back when I’m 55 and say, ‘That was childish’. I hope I’ve hit a point where I’m happy with it. But trying to keep getting better is the main point, I guess. That’s why we keep doing it.

Not everyone does. This is not a statement about anyone in particular, but it’s easier when you’re going at something to keep doing it. It’s a harder path to decide that that was good but you want to see what else is there. It’s a little bit scary – you need to have courage to go into areas that you haven’t necessarily explored lyrically and musically.

Definitely. And I think having courage is probably harder the more successful you are, as well. I know people in the business who are extremely successful – and I mean commercially successful – and they seem to be the ones who take the least risks. I like to think that if I had an album that sold a million copies, my next album I’d be free to do the most creative, interesting thing I could. And people don’t seem to do that, which surprises me in one sense but when I get to know them I realise that it would be pretty scary to back something that was really successful up with something that was really alienating or didn’t sell as many, and people’s expectations change. Fortunately, that’s not a problem that I’ve ever had to deal with [laughs].

I’d argue that you have been successful, but I know what you mean. The notes for this album say that it was influenced by Leonard Cohen and Billy Bragg. I was interested in that because neither of them is noted as a singer, shall we say. But your voice has always been a feature. So it made me wonder if you don’t think of yourself as a singer so much as someone who sings his stories.

You’re right – I don’t think of myself as a singer at all. I think I can sing and it’s not like I work really hard on my singing – I don’t find it hard to sing on my own records, and I don’t hate the sound of my own voice or anything, but I don’t really think of myself as a singer, partly because I know so many good singers, and I know that if they were casting for a singer in a band I know so many other people who would get the gig before me. So I do think of myself essentially as a storyteller and I do it through singing and songwriting probably because whenever I try to do something more substantial, like write a novel, I just get plagued with self-doubt combined with laziness, I guess [laughs].

Also, that longer-form storytelling may not be right for the stories you want to tell. When you have stories in mind, there are different forms for them – you could write a screenplay, for example. But particularly the way you write songs, you have the knack of essentially writing a novel in a song, so that short format suits you but you do have a way of getting a lot of detail and emotion in there, in three verses and a chorus.

I think that’s probably the key to storytelling in songwriting: trying to find a way of using words and sentences that imply a lot more than they actually say on the page. And that depends a bit on your audience too, because I think some people are really good song interpreters as listeners. But what I really like about songs and their shortness is that if I listen to a song and you listen to a song, the bits that I fill in in my head might be different to the bits that you fill in, so we both almost end up with a different story but it’s all triggered by the songwriter. Even with my own songs people have come up and said, ‘Is this about …’ and then they’ve told their version of the story and it’s not really what it’s about but I can completely understand, from thinking about the lyrics, exactly how they came to that conclusion.

Some Girls (Quite) Like Country Music is out now through ABC Music/Universal Music Australia.

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www.lachlanbryanandthewildes.com