Interview and new music: Nick Payne on Old Sydney Town

Nick Payne

Nick Payne of Sydney band Dear Orphans has just released his debut single ‘Old Sydney Town’, a tale about an ill-fated convict set to uptempo bluegrass instrumentation with Jenny Shimmin on banjo and Jolyon Gray on dobro. Unpaved caught up with Nick to ask him about this song of Sydney.

What inspired you to write about Sydney?

I’m pretty passionate about our country and folk who can capture it’s essence in song. I get inspired to write by a sense of place and time. I often find myself visiting places in Australia and wondering, “what would life have been like” for someone who lived there. I like to soak myself in the history, but then imagine it from a totally ordinary person’s point of view.

The music for this particular song was inspired by a friend of mine, Richard Galluzzi, who’s one of our country’s best old-time, clawhammer banjo players. I was listening to snippets of tunes that he’d written for banjo and I wanted to try and write something in that style with it’s modal scale. Having drawn on musical inspiration from a genre from the past it seemed only sensible to write words about something from the past as well and that’s where the idea to write a convict song came from. I was more than happy to wallow in the themes of hardship conquered by determination and endurance – again, forget the privileged, what really is the common experience of life that we can all identify with.

Ironically, the lyrics for the song were written in a hut on the Swampy Plains Creek on the New South Wales side of the Murray River in the Snowy Mountains National Park – some distance from Sydney town, but a place with it’s own sense of history too.

Have you always sung in an Australian accent?

In our global world we’re constantly bombarded with the American accent, both in film and television as well as music. It’s an easy accent to pick up and it can take a conscious effort to resist, particularly if your well of inspiration is Americana music and the great American songwriters.

The seminal moment for me was listening to Bruce Springstein singing the American folk song ‘Jesse James’ on his Seeger Sessions album. I really wanted to write a song about outlaws and gunslingers that was rooted in the history of a real character like that. I decided I needed to research to find an American, western outlaw to write about so I could have a song like that.

This was the point that it dawned on me, if any country has a history of outlaws to draw stories from it’s gonna be Australia. Our recent history as a colony of criminals, deported from England and eventually becoming freed men and woman, combined with an influx of immigrants from England, Ireland, Afghanistan and many other other places makes us a nation of rebellious rascals, misfits and outcasts. If I wanted to find an outlaw to write about, I needed to be looking to our own citizenry of bushrangers. (In this instance I drew upon the 1888 novel Robbery Under Arms by Thomas Alexander Browne and it’s lead character Captain Starlight who was based on two real-life bushranges – Frank Pearson and Harry Redford).

Having made this realisation it became important to be aware of accent in order to capture an Australian “voice”. Not just the sound of one’s vowels, but in the meaning, images and stories in the songs. I don’t necessarily strive to sing in an Australian accent, but I do try to avoid an American one. Hopefully, the outcome is something that sounds real and honest, keeping well away from any hint of jingoism.

There seems to be a lot of great things happening in the folk-country, Americana area in Sydney. What can you tell us about the renewed growth of music in Sydney?

Something unexpected has happened in the last few months here in Sydney and I think it began when Chris Familton from Post To Wire  created the Waitin’ Around To Die Facebook group. It was like there was a bunch of us doing our own thing in isolation from each other and then all of a sudden we became aware of each other. I’ve been humbled by the interest that other musos have expressed in what I’m doing and pleasantly surprised by the quality of music I’ve heard from others.

I really believe that you achieve stuff in this world by working together with other like-minded people and I’m excited about the future possibilities for Americana music in Sydney. (I particularly enjoy hosting gigs for musos from interstate – hint, message me if you’re thinking about coming here to play).

About Les Thomas 26 Articles
Melbourne singer-songwriter and Unpaved editor Follow @les_thomas on Twitter