James Reyne has been an active feature of the Australian music scene for more than 40 years, with his distinctive vocals and musical style possessing a quintessential Australian-ness that has resulted in him being nothing short of a household name. Beginning as frontman of Australian Crawl, where he had seven top 40 hits, Reyne then went onto an even more successful solo career that has thus far garnered him nine top 40 hits. In 1996 he was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, and he was recipient of a medal for the Order of Australia in 2014 for his contributions to the arts. Now returning with his 12th studio album Toon Town Lullaby, MICHAEL HOLLICK sat down with Reyne to find out more about Nashville toons, his fears about humankind’s treatment of the planet and what he thinks about people’s interpretations of his work.
What is the inspiration behind the name of your new release Toon Town Lullaby?
A bit over a year ago, I went to Nashville to write some songs with other songwriters for other people. I’ve been there a few times now over the years and while I was there it was just one of those expressions that popped into my head, a combination of how Americans call these songs ‘toons’ as well as the cartoon-ish aspect of Nashville. The title is also a reference to Blaze Foley, a guy that was killed by his brother-in-law who was an Americana alternative country songwriter.
What did you make of Nashville?
Nashville is a really great place, it’s the centre of professional songwriting. Of course historically it was the home of country songwriting but nowadays a lot of pop songwriters work out of Nashville, and that makes it a very interesting, vibrant place.
What inspired you to get back into the studio and put together this album?
From time to time I do get to the point where I have enough songs for an album but I wasn’t actually planning on recording and making a record (from this batch of songs). It was my manager who said, “you know what, you’ve got enough songs, you should do it” and I said “really? You think?” and he said “yeah, why not” that kicked off the process. And once I started getting down to work, it did feel like the right time to do it, it was quite an organic process.
You worked with Dorian West on this record. How did you two meet?
I worked with him once before on a track that I was asked to write for the film Palm Beach. Prior to that, I had heard of him but had never had the opportunity. We both liked what we did on that song and enjoyed working together so it came quite naturally to follow-up with him when it came time to make this album. He’s great; a great musician, a great engineer and he’s got a studio set up at his house so that meant all the bits were in place to make this record.
Was there anything specific about Dorian that drew you two back together?
I’ve been at this for a long time now and I’ve been lucky enough to work with many different people from all over the place over the years. I’m always looking for someone that I not only get along with and feel comfortable with, but that I also respect musically and that I think is going to challenge me musically, you know, someone that you feel brings something to the party, which Dorian certainly does. He just fits the bill, he’s conservatorium trained, an incredible trumpet player, incredible bass and guitar player, he plays all sorts of things, and as I play a few instruments myself, we were able to play everything on the record. Except for the drums, which we got John Watson in, whom I have played with for many, many, many years. That goes back to 1983 I think, so that’s 37 years now.
Previously you have said that working with John is like working with ESP?
Well it is, especially when you play with someone that long. John and I both feel the same kind of way about my songs, we think the same way musically, I’m very fortunate to have him and I’ve always felt that since the beginning. He just knows how to lock inside my songs, for some reason he just gets them, it’s a perfect kind of marriage if you will.
You’re not someone known for writing love songs so I was particularly amused by the track Trying To Write A Love Song. What was the origin and inspiration behind that song?
A couple of women close to me have said “why don’t you write any love songs?” and I’ve always replied, “I don’t think I’m any good at it” and from that I came up with the idea of writing a song about a guy trying to write a love song. I started by picturing this guy in some crappy little motel, with a couple in the room next door making a lot of noise, and so I started putting down his thoughts for the song’s lyrics. And so he is trying to write these serious love song lyrics, but he is very aware they’re just on the fine line of being okay, and in reality they’re kind of mawkish, a bit clumsy. For the end of the song, I also wanted to wind up those that have said to me, “why don’t you write a love song?”, so I gave it a little twist at the end, where there is no resolution and you’re left hanging, just to be annoying to them.
I believe the track The Tallest Man I Have Ever Knew is a very personal tribute?
Yes, that is a song I wrote about my friend Brad Robinson, who is sadly no longer with us. I tried to write something that I was about him, so there’s a fair few in-jokes in there that possibly only he or I might understand, but I also wanted to get some sort of lyrical sensibility in there to also make it quite universal. Things like “he didn’t care where he was going, but he was on his way” which to me is a nice, open sentiment that can be interpreted however you want to interpret them. Because that’s what is important, I think that my interpretation, or yours or Joe Blow down the street’s is just as valid as anybody else’s.
Do you enjoy hearing other people’s interpretations of your songs?
Well if it means something to somebody then great. There have been many times over the years for certain songs that people have come up to me at gigs and said “oh, I love that song and it meant so much to me because of this” and I think isn’t that wonderful, what a lovely sentiment. It may not have been what I get out of it, but that doesn’t mean what that person gets out of it isn’t just as valid, because if it meant something to them then it has done its job, it’s worked as a song on that particular level.
Do you get upset about people’s misinterpretations of your lyrics?
A song of mine that I wrote when I was very young called The Boys Light Up, a lot of people thought it was about smoking weed but it’s got nothing to do with it, but that didn’t upset me, it just amused me, and I thought that’s great. It got banned I think because that’s what people thought it was about and I thought, that’s just fantastic, that really amused me.
The song Burning Books feels like a warning to ourselves as humans. Is that something you were intending?
I think we’re all aware of the problems that exist and we’re all aware of what should be intrinsic and important to us as humankind on this Earth is not really a priority. I think that was best summed up when I read a line somewhere like “In 2035, there will be no more tigers”. It was as simple a statement as that and I thought, well I assumed that but holy crap.
So I was interested in seeing how far I could push this disparity between what we know we should care about and what we end up actually caring about, and so the verses deal with things like endangered species while the chorus is filled with the silly, kind of shallow things, you know, like paparazzi watching some celebrity on a beach striding from the surf, a guy who is all leaned, ripped and rippling and on the cover of magazines or these conversations that people have like “you’ve got to go to this artisanal market” or “look at this fireworks display”. I’ve always made the joke that if you’ve been to any market or any fireworks display you’ve pretty much seen them all. Like if someone says “there’s this amazing market” I ask “what was different about it?”, I mean they’re all full of crap made out of buttons that no one really needs while in reality there’s more serious things going on.
What we think is important in this culture is completely ridiculous, and that informs a lot of what I write about, so I’m trying to get a little part of this across in my own pop-song, ballad-y kind of way. And we have had warnings, examples from history, of what not to do or perhaps things we should try to avoid, so once you get to the point where they’re burning books, we’re screwed. We’ve all seen that happen before, we all know what that means, yet we don’t seem to learn and what it truly signals, if we burn books then we lose the chance to learn from history and actually improve ourselves as we head into the future.