Most of us are locked in, all of us have lost the chance to socialise, to meet and drink and talk and eat and see music and work out and enjoy things outside the house. But music doesn’t have to stop and The Great Confinement has opened up a chance to explore at home, to dig up old favourites and find new pleasures.
In this series we ask: what music is making your life better? Today, writer, director, actor, harmonica-and-bassplaying “failed musician”, and author (new book, Plum), Brendan Cowell.
WHAT ALBUMS OR ARTISTS HAVE YOU BEEN PLAYING SINCE BEING CONFINED TO HOME?
My belongings are in two storage units, one in Rosebery in Sydney and the other in southern England, so I’m just going off the old Bluetooth music collection these days. Which means you open yourself up to a lot of music, but I miss the comfort of my CDs: I love playing an album from beginning to end.
I was listening to Hurricane today when I was lifting weights and training. Bob Dylan’s Hurricane is one of the best songs to train to. People think that when you’re working out you need Rage Against The Machine, and you don’t. You need a bit of rhythm that you can get into, and that can often be found in folk music I think. When I did the Half Marathon I had all this Bob Dylan in there because it works really well with how you’re running.
I’ve become really obsessed with the album, Animal, a collaboration between Laura Marling and Mike Lindsay, LUMP. I just find with her voice, he’s just lifted her voice into a whole new spectrum, and I just find it funky, the arrangements are really weird, the drums are really weird. I think it’s a really fucking special album and I find myself listening to that nearly every day. I love This Is The Kit. I think those songs, Vitamins and Earthquake, I’ve become obsessed with.
In lockdown I’ve found myself finding a song and then playing it 27 times over, because it suddenly suits the feeling. There’s a song called Liars by Gregory Allen Isakov and there’s a bit in the middle of it where he goes ‘I’ve been riding lots of trains/Same trains as you’ and the song starts with him going ‘You take the big one/And I’ll take his brother/Let’s get it over with/Cause I’m late for work’. I love songs that start with a powerful lyric, like that Rodriguez song ‘I lost my job/Just before Christmas’ and it’s like, bang, you’re into the pain of the song. And Liars does that.
WHICH HAVE BEEN GETTING MULTIPLE SPINS?
My favourite piece of radio is Guy Garvey’s Finest Hour, on BBC Radio 6. Radio 6 is the best radio station in the world: they’ll play a 17 minute song and let people really explore their music tastes, it’s a station completely dedicated to music, and that’s it. Every Sunday, Garvey, the lead singer of Elbow, just play songs that he loves and he plays lots of This Is The Kit, and he plays lots of Neko Case and Nina Simone. I’d say those are the ones that have popped up the most. And that’s where I make my playlist from, mixing with a bit of NPR and FBi and looking at other people’s playlists and Instagram.
My mate, Nick Batzias, a producer from Melbourne, said when in doubt just listen to Tom Waites Radio, on Spotify. Tom Waites Radio is insane and I listen to that when I’m pottering around cooking.
HOW HAS LOCKDOWN CHANGED THE WAY YOU CONSUME MUSIC?
Lockdown is so brutal, and I was in lockdown for five months last year in London, and I got the virus and I thought I would escape to Australia to get away from it all. Now it’s like I’m chasing winter or something, like some psycho. But now I don’t want to mess around with anything insincere; I want authenticity. I’m done with irony, I don’t want quirky, unless the quirky is dark. I seem to want people to mean it and mean what they say. It’s the same with what I’m reading. That of course, has led me back to a bit of folk and country, where they keep it simple but they keep it honest.
Probably my favourite male singer is Jason Isbell and he is a recovering alcoholic, he sings how he’s feeling. He has a song called Cover Me Up and Elephant, off his older albums, and those are as painful as it gets and so fantastic.
And of course the late, great Justin Townes Earle. I went and saw him in Wellington, I was shooting Avatar there, probably about six months before he died, and I saw him with the shirt off and the tatts, telling stories about his dad and life on the road. There were only 30 people there and I was just up the front going ‘here it is’. So, Isbell and Justin Townes Earle speak the truth and they don’t fuck around and they don’t lie to me and they are also incredible musicians.
WHAT ALBUM FROM YOUR PAST HAVE YOU REDISCOVERED? WHAT DO YOU STILL LOVE ABOUT IT?
Writing my book there’s a scene where the father and the son, Plum and his son Gavin, get in the car to go to his grand final and he says we’ll put on our favourite song. For some reason they put on Monsters, by Something For Kate. It was the 20 year anniversary of Echolalia this year, and I’m a massive Paul Dempsey fan.
We talk about Paul Kelly’s and we talk about Jimmy Barnes and Powderfinger, I don’t know why we skip over Paul Dempsey. I think he is one of the greatest songwriters alive in Australia: his lyrics, his guitar work, his voice. And that band needs to be lauded: Monsters, Jerry, Stand Up, the guitar work in Say Something. I had a month there where I just fell back in love with Echolalia and it made the book as well, so hats off to Paul.
And of course, heaps of Nina Simone. Backlash Blues at the moment I’m getting right into.
HAVE YOU FOUND NEW MUSIC – OR AN ARTIST OR GENRE - THAT WAS UNEXPECTED? WHAT’S EXCITED YOU ABOUT IT?
I think because I write I listen to a lot of instrumental and classical music. I can’t write to words because I start listening to the words and then I’m gone so I have a 12 hour mix called Writing Music For Brendan that I just add to when I find a Rachmaninov or Schubert or a Chopin, or I find a Joep Beving, or anything beautiful and moody. I’ll find a soundtrack like the Supernova [film] soundtrack that was just out, that is just beautiful. I bought a big TV with the big sound bar and I can get Spotify on the TV and it sounds really fantastic, so I listen to really loud classical music all day and I get the candles on and I write.
I’ve listened to more music than ever because I don’t care for podcasts at the moment, and I don’t want to listen to radio. I just want to listen to music, even when I’m walking. I think my tastes have got a little more feminine. I’ve always loved listening to Lucinda Williams and Sharon van Etten is my favourite female singer but I probably stretched out listening to Arlo Parks and Lianne La Havas and Angel Olsen’s voice: I think there’s a song called Free where she goes in to that falsetto and it’s insane. I saw Middle Kids at Angel Place before I left and they’ll be great one day, I reckon.
I’ve also fallen in love with a band called Big Thief, who are just beautiful, a Brooklyn four piece. Their 2016 album Masterpiece is a masterpiece, and I just love her voice. I feel like she is not lying to me either. The lyrics are beautiful and gee she can sing. I love Big Thief.
Like I said, authenticity, pain, beauty, simplicity, is what I’m going for. And that makes me feel good because if I listen to insincere music I feel depressed because the world is lying to me and is telling me to be happy, and is selling everything is going to be okay. But you know what, it fucking might not be. So I want to hear music that admits that to me, and says ‘hey, it’s tough but there’s hope, and we can get through it, and I got through this, is the story’ and I can feel the pain in the story, and I can feel the pain in the voice, and that will cheer me up, because someone’s being honest with me.
WHAT’S THE BEST MUSIC TO FLATTEN YOUR (ANXIETY) CURVE?
My anxiety is noisy and chaotic, so I can’t soften it with softening music. It’s like, I remember when I was camping in this crazy person came into the campsite and everybody was scared, then one of the girls got up and went even crazier at the crazy person and the crazy person went ‘you’re fucking crazy, I’m leaving’. I think with music I’ll go Pearl Jam 10, like Even Flow, I’ll just hit that loud. Or I’ll get into Geto Boys or Tupac and I’ll acknowledge the anxiety, and that will strip it back. I can’t meditate or chill my way out of anxiety, I’ve got to fight fire with fire.
Anxiety and panic attacks, the notion of cognitive therapy is saying, this too will pass. Pretending that anxiety doesn’t exist only feeds anxiety, that’s what anxiety wants you to do. What you have to do is talk to anxiety and panic and say, ‘hey, I see you, you’re in the room, do you want to dance? Let’s dance?’ Then fucking hit it and acknowledge it, say I can see you but I know you’re going to go away. And probably somewhere through the middle of Pearl Jam’s 10 it might start to trickle away.
So Tupac or Pearl Jam I would say for anxiety: hit it hard and give it the respect it deserves, and then you might scare it off.
Brendan Cowell’s Plum is in bookstores from September 29. In lockdown, yes, but that’s ok because “Funnily enough I think the crusade that this book has within it is one of connection. Human beings need connection to sell things in their lives and get out of tough times and make sense of the world, or their inner world. I feel like Plum can do that: it is a book about a bloke looking within and having to make a rigorous change when it does not suit him to open up and turn around 180° to get better. It’s not in his toolkit. So, yeah, I think this book can help people hold hands in the dark.”