“I haven’t done a Fringe for years. I managed to pack a hell of a lot into five days, I’ll tell you.”
Canberra-born artist Mikelangelo raises a deep belly laugh, looking back on touring his hometown for the Canberra Fringe Festival last month, before turning his sights back to his show in Melbourne this weekend paying tribute to three legendary songwriters – our own Nick Cave, Californian balladeer Tom Waits, and the inimitable Leonard Cohen.
Now conceptualised as a complete show, it was “quite a whim” for the musician when he walked into The Old Bar in Fitzroy, Melbourne four years ago and began work on the classic album series, delivering performances of records steeped in melancholy and hope: Your Funeral, My Trial (Cave), Franks Wild Years (Waits) and Songs of Love and Hate (Cohen).
“I was just sitting with Joel (Morrison, bar co-owner),” Mikelangelo remembers, “and he was saying, ‘If you want to do something, we have a residency’. I said, ‘It’d be nice to play one of my favourite formative albums each week’, and it’s one of those ideas where if you weren’t sitting there with the venue booker, it might not have happened!” he laughs.
“Those songs are such a part of me, and it’s a beautiful thing that you can travel with them. They become part of your psyche, your world,” he relates sombrely, before adding with a chuckle “I don’t even listen to them that often, but I feel like they’re these invisible mentors.”
Performing Leonard Cohen, who passed away on November 7th last year, has been a visceral experience.
Mulling over those recent shows, Mikelangelo muses, “It certainly infused the songs with more meaning for me, but also for audiences. It reminds you of the gifts that you’re given. I’m not being Tom Waits or Leonard Cohen, I’m being Mikelangelo as a solo artist, which is the lovely thing about taking these songs that are often delivered with a full, incredible band… To strip the songs back really brings you deep into the lyrics, and also into what great melody-makers they are.
“People always talk about Cohen as a great lyricist – and obviously he is – but he’s a cracker songwriter. He delivers these timeless songs in this effortless, big tone that it almost sounds like they’re singing themselves,” he laughs.
maybe Cohen would have found it quite funny that as I’d just found out about his death, someone was explaining to me how to use a jaffle maker
That spiritual connection flowed strongly through Mikelangelo as a boy, and as the man considers how he handled the gifted storyteller’s death, he admits, “I felt very strange. I can remember the moment when I found out.” While the singer laughs, there’s an edge to his voice.
“Someone was trying to explain in very clear terms to me how to use a jaffle maker, and it was so mundane that I was like, ‘I really want to punch you right now’. But maybe Cohen would have found it quite funny that as I’d just found out about his death, someone was explaining to me how to use a jaffle maker so I wouldn’t break it.
“It’s about as unpoetic as you can get,” he finishes lightly.
What is poetic, however, is Mikelangelo’s newest group Spectres of Love. It’s a testament to his over ten-year bond with TV and film composer AJ True (drums) from the Central Coast, earthed from old project The Honeymoon Suite.
It was also their Sydney bassist Michaela (from El Dinero) who prompted the musician’s move to regional NSW, after living in Melbourne for many years.
“The thing I love about being in the country is that you’re seriously not interrupted,” he ruminates. “When I’m out on our property, I actually have no reception, and it’s the most incredible thing in the world,” he adds with a chuckle.
“It’s good for all of us. You need those quiet moments to connect with something deeper that we shut out in our everyday life, because we need to get on with stuff. But our job is to remind people of all those good things that are there, just waiting to enrich our lives if we’d let them. Sometimes we need to stop and smell the roses.”
Sometimes those roses are in darker places that we think. It’s new Spectres of Love song ‘Dark Heart’ – one Mikelangelo’s still seeking to understand as an introspective artist – that’s really at the core of his current headspace. Reflecting on fears that we’re living in supposed ‘dark times’ made the musician think, as he recalls, “What do we actually mean? It’s really a crock of shit”.
What clearly drew me to Cave and Cohen as a young man was that they had something to say, and it wasn’t all happy
“We are made up of that light and darkness, and all the greys in between… Beneath that is also the fact that we’re not accepting the sides of ourselves that are unknown, those things that are important to unfold.
“What clearly drew me to Cave and Cohen as a young man was that they had something to say, and it wasn’t all happy. There was beautiful hope and life, but they were certainly scouring some difficult stuff, and then continued to. Cohen’s last album You Want It Darker is bloody great. It’s this incredibly raw one about having to leave this life, and coming to some real understandings.
“As a guy who has tried out Buddhism and has Jewish background, he really goes towards, ‘I have no idea what’s coming’, yet starts suggesting that we need to stop reading the Bible,” Mikel laughs. “He says that subtly, but he understands that deep down, religion is creating a lot of havoc.”
Mayhem often results from storytellers whose lyrical and sonic impulses haven’t aligned. That certainly hasn’t been the tale for Mikelangelo and The Black Sea Gentlemen, now together for 16 years.
“I think what we are as lyrically-based storytellers clearly have instrumentation that is old-world European, and people don’t know whether to call it folk, gypsy…” he says, clearly delighted at the bemusement. “The artists I love are really beyond genre because they’ve got something to say, and the music is this beautiful backdrop for the story.”
The setting for latest album After the Flood, woven during their two-year residency in Cooma from 2013, is certainly stunning. It’s a rich tapestry of refugee stories from a generation who came to Australia in the ‘50s to work on the Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme – one of them was Mikelangelo’s father.
Here the songwriter delves into his family’s history, and truly understanding his roots.
“My dad faced communist Yugoslavia in 1999 and spent a year in an Italian refugee camp, then came out and worked on the scheme. He’s always been pretty tight-lipped about it, and I knew it would’ve been a hard time for him. Really his life in Australia started when he met my mum in Canberra at a dance. She was an English migrant and couldn’t understand a word he said, but he was more interesting than the other guys,” he laughs.
The Black Sea Gentlemen is really a vehicle to understand my own European-ness.
“The Black Sea Gentlemen is really a vehicle to understand my own European-ness. Before I’d ever gone over there, some of my first songs were drawing in these influences that I’d never heard. Dad didn’t play folk songs, and his records were these weird ‘60s instrumental guitar records that we’d put on and jump around on the bed to. They certainly weren’t Croatian folk. Interestingly, there was some of Waits’ ‘80s albums like Rain Dogs and Frank’s Wild Years that draw in a lot of accordion and stuff I really connected with. Even the first Cave album I heard Your Funeral, My Trial has this carnival waltz.
“Now Dad’s about to turn about to turn 80 and he’s relatively settled, but he had all that anger and disconnection from homeland that comes from fleeing when you can’t go back. That affected all of us, so it’s not surprising I’m drawn to liking music that’s dramatic,” he says with a laugh.
Catch Mikelangelo performing his special Cave–Waits–Cohen show on March 25th at The Spotted Mallard in Brunswick, Victoria, with tickets available here.