Earlier this year, one-time Hummingbird, long-time local icon, Alannah Russack, prefaced a coming album, only her second as a solo artist, with a single that delved into her past and dealt with a more recent death. It was one of a batch of songs that emerged from the coming together of natural disasters, plagues, social upheaval and regular life for a musician wholly independent, no longer an ingenue, but still – always - writing.
A bit of a challenge. “A challenge I like to meet,” she said in that interview.
Today we catch up with her as that album, As Memories Pass Each Other, finally arrives on Friday and chaos has been tamed. For now.
CONTENT WARNING: THE NEW ALANNAH RUSSACK ALBUM may contain scenes of people old enough to be parents – heavens, maybe even actual parents – engaged in, well, adult activities.
The album opens with Places You Love which is a song about the shock of never really understanding a long-time partner, about faulty memories, and how that affects places of significance for you both. But tellingly it opens with a description of the giddiness of initial attraction and falling heavily for someone, talking about holding hands and giggling in each other’s ears, "Showing off in sleazy booths/Our favourite kisses."
It’s the kind of thing that normally is kept for songs about teenage infatuations and first loves, ignoring the fact that these things can happen even to ye olde folk. And in fact in some ways can be just as thrilling but have even more dramatic impact when those actions and feelings are seen as inappropriate.
“It’s got lots of layers to it that song [but] it’s a celebration of that,” Russack says, though she pivots to the song’s real core. “There are places you love that change [meaning and significance] and it’s wanting to hang onto that. I feel it every time I go to Sydney, I think. I look at places I’ve been and then I’ll almost see the ghosts of people walking where we all walked once together.
“The title of my album is As Memories Pass Each Other, and it’s that whole notion of walking streets where you almost feel like all these memories of yours and other people are all passing each other by, and having a really lovely time thinking about those times gone by.”
That’s rather attractive really: rather than ships passing in the night “exchanging glances”, these are ghosts of memories coming together in revelry, maybe humming one of these sometimes superb pop songs she has been writing.
“I am sure everybody has this, when you see a building end you just have this flash of the feeling, remembering where your friend walked once when you picked them up and they were struggling with a box of books or whatever. And then you go into this dream about your relationship with them. Sydney really describes a lot of that for me.”
The mix of emotions in nostalgia and imagination really reverberates in Russack’s voice as she speaks. Songwriting clearly means more than just function, even 30 or so years into the craft.
“I really, really love songwriting and the reason I keep doing it is because I feel like I am getting better at it. I am actually quite proud of myself that I’ve managed a lot of things amongst the chaos” she says. “I see myself as a songwriter and an artist and I’ve always been doing something like that, so it’s a compulsion as well.”
And chaos, even more than anger, is an energy. Maybe even a guiding principle.
“I like to keep the punk. It may not sound punk but I like to keep the punk ethos alive and well,” says Russack. “I don’t look like a punk but at heart I am definitely a punk.”
What does punk mean to her?
“Doing your own thing,” Russack says somewhat hesitantly, with a definite question mark upward inflection at the end of that sentence. “Just musically too, I do try and push, and even just my nature. So I’d like to think that I relate to a punk attitude.”
As musician and academic John Encarnacao discussed in his book,Punk Aesthetics And New Folk, you can be a punk playing folk music, or soul or pop.
“Exactly,” Russack says, this time without hesitation or question mark, and the singles which preceded this Friday’s album release would bear that out, covering musical territory from southern USA and midlands Britain to inner city Sydney, without foregoing a strong central attitude.
Speaking of which, if you wondering why the singles came out regularly but quite some way ahead of the album even by modern standards, the answer is pretty simple and pretty familiar to most working musicians not called Taylor Swift.
“I ran out of money,” Russack says. “I was very proud that I was putting aside money from gigs, and paying for it but there were a few things on [see July’s story where the aftermath of repeated flooding of her property on the outskirts of Sydney was detailed, the "few things" including her daughter’s HSC].
'I remember in the Hummingbirds always wanting to release a single every month for a year but we got stuck doing other things.”
Even so, delayed isn’t disastrous for the songwriter who also doubles as a key component, alongside Adam Gibson, of the band The Aerial Maps.
“There’s something very valuable about patience for me, and in the meantime, I’m writing songs and I’ve got the next lot of music planned so it’s building nicely too,” at which point she drops a voice to a theatrical whisper and adds, “[the delay] doesn’t really matter does it?”
Hey, sometimes the most punk thing you can do is wait until you’re ready, not when others demand something, right?
“When I started recording, which was ages ago, I was just calling [co-producer] Marc Scully to remix some music I’d done. Just one track. I wanted to have some fun with remixing. He said ‘why not come in and record here?’, and then the band that I’m playing with grew out of that,” Russack recalls. “For me the whole process is mentally rewarding: there’s a lot of satisfaction in that. And I’m also playing music with new friends and old friends, and the most recent time I was in the studio I had my sister in to do backup, which was something I’d always wanted to do.
“So it started out really organically, and it’s continuing that way, a much more natural way of creating that really appeals to me, rather than it all being highly organised.”
You don’t need to be a punk to know that highly organised is overrated as a virtue.
“Exactly! I mean I do get organised every now and then, but I just can’t. I just can’t do it that way.”
And let’s face it, even if she did want to do it that way, shit gets in the way.
“Oh my gosh, yes. It has, every step of the way. That is life. There is so much shit in the way of everything.”
As Memories Pass Each Other is out on Friday. Alannah Russack plays The Golden Barley Hotel, Enmore on Friday.