Photo by Deon Rodger
Shit’s got real for Dominic Breen. In the best way. In a hold-in-your-hand, not a series of 1s and 0s in a program, real way.
“It doesn’t feel real until it’s 3D and holdable and now it’s been made into vinyl and it makes my music career feel real in a way,” the Sydney singer says of his debut album of guitar-jangling, melody-rich, Go-Betweens/Smiths/Apartments-style pop, Blue Volume. “It’s not much of a career yet but it makes it feel like I’m not just mucking around. It feels really nice to sum up a time in my life with music and to share it. It feels good.”
The space between the feeling and the reality, between the intangible and the tangible, between intention and action, isn’t just an issue for Breen’s actual record, it’s a very real issue for the people in his songs. Which is to say, for him.
The central character of many of this album’s songs seems to be to be summed up in two lines at opposite ends of the record: “But hey, only if you want to” and “I would be willing to try”. These figures operate from a distance, watching and wanting to be in there or closer – definitely leaning to the passive.
“Yes, that’s fair,” Breen says. “There was a time when I felt like I couldn’t access certain experiences and people anymore, through literal death or through the death of a relationship. I think there is a passiveness, in a way, to it and I think that’s because you just don’t really know what to do sometimes. Sometimes there is nothing you can do as well.”
Most of the time in these songs Breen positions himself as someone trying to work out what happened, asking why do things work this way, and why am I like this, why are you like this? This is not an album of certainty about anything.
“Yeah, yeah, I think it’s very uncertain,” he chuckles. “Because life is uncertain and you can never really be too sure about something when there are so many different things that play. All you can do sometimes is say ‘how do you feel?’.”
Not everybody is comfortable exposing their uncertainty: the omniscient author is the preferred form for many songwriters, especially male ones. Is Breen ok with that not knowing?
“I don’t think I was okay at the time, and I think that’s why these songs came out. But I think once you submit to uncertainty being, like, certain, you can move forward,” he says. “You can find comfort in the fact that uncertainty is forever. So, a bit of both. I think you gotta keep on truckin’ sometimes and not think about things too much.”
There’s something to be said for people who embrace uncertainty, at least for those of us who at best brace for impact when we encounter those who act so certain about life, religion … anything. Maybe then something to say for the “I” in these songs who is anything but boorish.
Even when there is criticism or something like a hard-line, it’s him saying “I can’t even hear you speak”, as if that’s the ultimate punishment. None of these central characters are looking to control or impose.
“You’d like to change the outcome of certain things, but as soon as you do that, the thing that you’re trying to achieve changes. So you don’t have it either way,” Breen says. And then, after a longish pause, adds, “It’s funny we’re talking about uncertainty because I’m very uncertain about how to respond to it. It’s like two roads diverged in a yellow wood [the opening line of Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken]: you end up standing there, looking down each one as far as you can and sometimes it’s more comfortable to stay at that fork because then you can at least see a bit of both.”
So, having been through these experiences, does Breen think he is someone more capable of choosing the right path in the yellow wood if he finds himself at another fork?
“I don’t know if I’m more able to do that, but I’ve learnt about what comes from making decisions, the consequences.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s not just the lyrics working in what cricket commentator Damien Fleming might call the avenue of apprehension. There is a similar absence of anything blustering or overtly masculine to things in the music Breen makes. Like near-predecessors such as Dick Diver, it doesn’t grab its space; it slowly fills it, the guitars insinuating, the basslines in discussion, the drums always in company. As with his characters’ attitude, Breen doesn’t demand you listen, though he hopes you might.
“I don’t know what I hear. I don’t know what I want either,” says Breen. “I don’t have any demands anymore. I think like I said before, once you demand something of someone, or wants you start wishing for something you change how it is. Some things can’t be changed so you do just have to do concede that, and you end up writing songs about wondering what it would be like if you could change things.”
That may be the one certainty in Dominic Breen’s career.
Dominic Breen’s Blue Volume is out today.