It’s Father’s Day in Australia and in recent days Queensland singer-songwriter Will Day has released his poignant new single, ‘Dear Dad’, a song that honours his late father.
‘My father was a much-loved man in the community where I grew up in Goondiwindi,’ says Day. ‘He was the school principal. He was a bit of an icon in the community. He loved sport; played all the community sports And he was very much loved … I’ve had comments on my social media posts from teachers saying, “Your dad was such a wonderful influence”, and old students as well. So that’s really nice. He was a very funny man. Great sense of humour. When he got sick we actually got quite close. That was a really sad part about the whole thing. But we had a great upbringing – my dad was a bit of a legend, to be honest.’
Day was eighteen when his father died. ‘I’d just come out of school and gone to uni,’ he says. ‘That didn’t work. I tried a plumbing apprenticeship – that didn’t work. Music was what I fell back on, like I always have. I just became a full-time carer with my mum for my dad in the last few months of his life. That was a very sad, heartbreaking but also very beautiful time.’
Having the chance to care for his father, however, meant that he and his family were able to give his dad a good death.
‘Mum and I and my sister often talk about death and a good death,’ Day says, ‘and my dad did have a good death. Some people don’t understand that. But he had 18 months from when he was diagnosed. I’m actually very grateful that [Sydney neurosurgeon] Charlie Teo operated on him; he gave him some quality of life. And those last few months we managed to give him a good death.
‘I’ve got nothing but admiration for [Teo] … There were oncologists in Brisbane who wouldn’t touch my dad with a scalpel. So luckily my mom got in touch with Charlie Teo in Sydney and he took pressure off my dad’s brain. Dad danced with my mum at my Year 12 graduation – he wouldn’t have been able to do that if it wasn’t for Charlie Teo.’
It’s been 13 years since Day’s father died, and Day says that what he’s learnt about grief, ‘and we’re all humans, we all go through grief every single one of us, obviously it’s part of life – people tend to say it gets easier. I don’t really know if it does. I think it comes in waves. But doesn’t get easier? No. The person we love is still gone.’
The idea for the song formed a few years ago but the song wasn’t written until Day found the perfect collaborator.
‘The very talented Hayley Jensen from Sydney had lost her dad a few years before we wrote the song,’ he says, ‘also to cancer, and we sat down on a porch at our house in Tamworth – where we were staying for the festival in 2017 – and I brought her this idea. We fleshed it out and wrote this song in an hour or two. I’m just so glad we caught up that afternoon. We decided to write that song then and there, so it’s my story about my dad but also a big reflection on her losing her dad and anyone else who has lost their dad or grandfather, or maybe never even knew their dad, or have lost someone.
‘The thing about the song that I want to connect with people is that it’s about feeling something and feeling that grief and allowing yourself to feel it and have a cry if you need to, and just imagine what it would be like to have one more day with them, to catch up and have a beer. It’s never going to happen but just imagine it. The thought of it’s quite beautiful and heartbreaking.’
Day didn’t know Jensen well but he wrote to her asking if she wanted to collaborate on the song.
‘I really like co-writing,’ he explains, ‘and I’d started doing a fair bit of it by that point after going to the DAG Sheep Station either earlier that year or the year before. I got this idea in my head of co-writing and how awesome it is. So I dropped her a line and I can’t remember if I knew about her story and her dad. I think I may have and that’s why I touched base with her and thought we might be able to come up with something. But we just really connected with our stories that day. I’ve been messaging Hayley with this release, saying, “Here it is, here’s the song”, and she loves it. To me, that means so much, that she loves it and she’s so proud of it as well. It’s a pretty good feeling to share that with your co-writer.
‘That’s what I love about country music, I really do. In Australia it’s a relatively small community as far as industry goes, but if you reach out to someone to write a song, it’s very rare that the answer is “no”. I’ve never had anyone say no to me. There’s a great sense of a creative community in Australian country music and that’s what makes it special.’
Co-writing has, of late and of course, not taken place in person. Day has been doing some writing with a friend in the United States, and in the past has written over Skype with people like Matt Scullion. ‘It’s not everyone’s cup of tea,’ he says, ‘but you just have to be open to the technology and just let the magic happen.
I’m hoping that songwriters who haven’t written online – because some people say, “Oh no, I won’t do that” – there might be more songs written now because we can connect with anyone in Australia or the world. As long as you’ve got a screen and Internet connection. It’s pretty cool. So out of all the negatives of this thing we’re living in there are some positives, I suppose.’
Day also found himself having to work virtually for his other role: lecturing at university, teaching music.’ ‘I do all of that on Zoom,’ he says. ‘I’ve been working with my students that way so I’m very used to that online connection with people now … At the university I teach at we were diving straight into it. I had no choice but to get in and learn the ways of Zoom and a way to connect with your students. I do a lot of teaching ensembles and teaching an ear training class with my vocal students. You have to adapt and I adapted pretty quickly, I think, and did an okay job and we’re slowly getting back to in-person stuff.’
The current restrictions also mean that he can’t tour in support of his new single, but he says he’s been playing the song live since he wrote it three years ago, ‘and a lot of people knew of the song from seeing me play it at the grand final for the Muster Talent Search.
‘I’ve played it at gigs around the place. I’ve done some acoustic stuff on YouTube. What I love about this release is that my producer, Jared, and all the musicians who played on the track did such an amazing job – especially Jared, producing and arranging the track – to create something I’m just so extremely proud of. So now I can share it with the world in this recorded sense but there’s no Dear Dad tour, and I hoped there would have been. That was the plan.’
But due to the fact that he lives in Queensland, where restrictions are not so severe, he was able to play two shows when the song was released.
‘I celebrated spending two days at number one in the iTunes country chart playing to a crowd in Brisbane and a crowd in western Queensland,’ he says. ‘So that was a bit of a treat … It was just nice to play and blow out the cobwebs.’
If nothing else, the enforced time off the road has, he says, made him realise ‘how much playing live is built within me. It’s just become this part of me since I was 15. It’s what I do – it’s what I’ve always done.
‘It’s very cliched to say so you don’t know how much you miss something till it’s gone – and it really has been gone for me and all my friends in the industry this year, And it’s coming back slowly but nowhere near it won’t be for a long time, what it has been. To be honest, I kind of enjoyed being at home with my family – my two kids and my wife – for a couple of months there. I thought, This is a bit of a break and my voice is not as tired and that’s all good, and I’m at home. But now I’ve got a single out I’m really yearning for that connection with the crowd. I just love being in front of a crowd with the band, playing country music, it’s my favourite thing to do, so I am really starting to miss it now. It’s really crept up on me.’
And it wasn’t only Day and his band who enjoyed playing live: ‘The sense we got from the crowds at the gigs was that they were hanging for it. It’s not just the artists who are missing out – it’s the live music fan. It’s amazing what live music does for people in their lives and it’s been missing for months now. There are some gig starting up in Queensland but it’s just not the same, and who knows when it will be – that’s the scary part.
‘I’ve done a few livestreams – not a whole lot. It’s about adapting as musicians, singer-songwriters and artists. We always have to adapt to things and we kind of don’t have a choice. This has been a massive change for us to say, “All right, how do we connect with our fans?” People have come up with some great ways through livestreaming and doing events where some people are there and some people are not and it’s ticketed. And we’ve got to be thankful to the Internet because of that. Livestreaming is an option and I’m going to use it.’
Day says he had plans this year to ‘go as far and wide as I could. I actually have a single lined up for May. I have a really cracking single that was ready to go for May and I was going to tour that. And I had “Dear Dad” lined up for Father’s Day, which was always the plan. I wanted to get into new areas [to play].’
When asked if there are any specific places he’d like to play once he’s able, he says, laughing, ‘Everywhere I could. I really wanted to do Victoria this year – it’s somewhere I haven’t toured before. And also South Australia – I haven’t toured there either. I had some big trips planned with the caravan. I planned to have an album out as well. Lots of things planned that didn’t happened, but fingers crossed for next year.’
He started the year with a bang – 15 shows at the Tamworth Country Music Festival. ‘I had the best Tamworth I’ve ever had. It was crazy good,’ he says, but he can’t believe the festival even happened this year.
‘And let’s not forget the people in the bushfires. I feel like they’ve been forgotten,’ he says.
While Day has had plenty to do while at home, one thing he hasn’t had much time for is listening to a lot of country music. ‘I’ve been listening to a lot of recordings of my students,’ he explains. ‘When we went into lockdown, instead of playing live the students had to record folios. So I’ve listened to hours and hours of a lot of original music from my students and a lot of covers. There’s a lot of amazing talent there … I’m at the point now where I feel lucky that I can help mentor people who want to have a career like I’ve had in music. I really enjoy exploring a different part of the industry.’
Once the borders are open again Day will no doubt start travelling as far as he can – and as he’s done in the past – but it seems fitting that his new single, which will give every listener a chance for reflection, has been released at a time when we’re all somewhat standing still. And Day himself can see that there is some good to come out of what’s been happening in 2020
‘I feel very grateful that I’ve still been able to be involved in music this year,’ he says.