Last Friday, acclaimed songwriter and producer J Walker released Oh, his ninth album under the Machine Translations moniker.
Walker and Jen Cloher have been friends for years, with Walker producing Cloher’s self-titled album (which we love), so rather than do the usual promotional thing, we thought we’d get the two artists to pose each other the questions they’d always wanted to ask. That way we don’t have to always be the intrusive ones.
PART ONE: Jen Cloher interviews J Walker
Jen Cloher: When I was last at your studio in South Gippsland last year, you told me you were going for a live band recording with this album. Capturing the energy and performance of the band rather than tracking instrument by instrument. Did this end up being the direction you took?
J Walker: Yeah I reckon about three quarters of Oh was tracked with the band in the room playing together, which is an expansion of what we’ve done previously together. By Machine Translation’s standards this is a pretty rock ‘n roll album and you can’t do that on your own. There’s actually 3 songs where the band learnt the songs literally that day and we tracked them on the spot and they came out so well…they are 3 of my favourite recordings. I think as I get older I’m finding more and more value in the magic that happens when you’ve got people in a room playing together. It’s like there’s extra spirits floating around that find their way onto the tape somehow.
JC: It’s been a few years between records. In fact I think we both put albums out in 2013 followed by albums in 2017. Four years can feel like a long time between drinks. Did it feel this way with the new album?
JW: It always feels like forever by the time a new record comes out. In those four years I was doing a mountain of other projects, many of which were really collaborative and fun, and I always felt like this record was kind of ticking along in the background. The songs came to me pretty easily this time round, albeit in little batches of time between other projects. I reckon if you just counted the days I was actually working on this record it was done fairly quickly.
JC: I know a lot of your time is spent creating scores and soundtracks for TV projects. What do you get from making your own records that’s different from scoring shows?
JW: I get total creative freedom…hah! I’m really lucky to be making a living out of music but there are a lot of strings attached when you’re making music for TV and film, and also producing other artists which is another thing I do a lot. After a bunch of those jobs it’s pretty liberating not to have anyone leaning over your shoulder giving notes and changing their minds about things. This is the 9th MT album so I know what to do and what not to do. I’ve got a simple brief I give myself which is to have fun, make all the notes count and try not to repeat myself too much…that’s about it.
JC: Has working on scores and soundtracks changed the way you approach your own songwriting?
JW: In terms of songwriting I guess my music has always had some cinematic, sonic elements to it and I’ve probably gained more understanding of how to create drama, space and energy in my arrangements. It’s funny because the new album is so not what you’d associate with screen music – it’s dry and spiky and loose, not very ‘produced’ sounding, so maybe I’m reacting against all that too. I reckon one of the biggest positive influences I’ve got from screen composing is the discipline of working fast to tight deadlines. It’s made me super quick at making decisions, coming up with parts and generating ideas on the spot.
JC: I see you’ve got some shows coming up in support of the new album, what’s the band line up? Do you think it’s a record that lends itself to being played live?
JW: So the band is me, Ralf Rehak on drums, Robin Waters on keys / guitars and James O’Brien on bass. I’m blessed to have these people play my music – they bring so much musical intelligence and energy to it. Unlike some of my earlier records, this one is totally built to be played live and the band have been in on it from the start of the recording process. It’s going to be a joy performing this material and we’ll be bringing along things like the one-noter electric guitar and the Chinese violin to keep things interesting.
PART TWO: J Walker interviews Jen Cloher
JW: Your music has evolved and changed quite a lot over the last few albums. I’m wondering if your songwriting process has also changed. How do songs come to you now as opposed to, say, 10 years ago?
JC: Not much has changed as far as the way I write – sitting down at a table with a notebook and an acoustic guitar. Perhaps the biggest changes have been playing around with different tunings. I have to re-discover the fret board each time I play with a new tuning which keeps my songwriting fresh.
JW: You’ve had the same band line-up for quite a while now. Does having a steady band affect the kind of songs you want to write, and how much input do they have into the songs?
JC: The great thing about our band is that everyone is on the same page musically. I’ll bring a song to them and half an hour later its sounding complete. It’s taken my whole career to find a band that has this kind of telepathy and understanding. I feel totally confident walking onto a stage with them.
JW: The thing that struck me very early with your new songs was how lyrically open and honest they were about everything from your personal relationships to your feelings about the music industry and music journalism. How do you make personal experience into effective and satisfying art?
JC: I suppose all songwriting is storytelling in some form, whether you’re using imagery or characters as a vehicle to express an idea or your own life. My own life and experience is the only one I feel confident to talk about with any authority and the candid nature of my songwriting is just a device to wake the listener up. I guess I’m using my own life experience to draw the listener in and once they’re listening, I use that intimate space to delve into much deeper, universal ideas.
JW: You’ve been touring the album in Europe and America. How do the overseas audiences relate to the very Australian references on the new album?
JC: I’ve been surprised by how much people have connected with the album overseas, especially in Europe and the U.K, I think that while there’s plenty of songs that relate directly to the Australian experience there’s also plenty of songs that have universal themes. The album talks about isolation and loneliness, the experience of living in a world where you can feel alone and a bit hopeless. I examine regressive politics and the influence of fear. I think now more than ever people can relate to those themes. It’s a strange time to be alive.
JW: We’ve talked a few times about the difficulties facing women in the Australian music business. Are you seeing any positive changes at the moment or are we stuck in the same old status quo?
JC: Definitely. It’s never been a better time to be a woman releasing music. All around the world people are hungry to hear women artists. It’s no longer luck or a novelty if a woman breaks through into a bigger market overseas. I am really excited to see how things change for Australian women overseas. We’ve seen artists like Courtney Barnett and Tash Sultana sell out big rooms and theatres all across the States, I reckon Camp Cope are about to smash it out of the park too.