Rob Snarski has delivered a breathtakingly beautiful and varied release with Searching for The Heart Of It All, an album that pulls in a host of musical fellow-travellers and collaborators. I spoke to him about the ideas behind the album, as well as the role of place, practice and performance as a singer-songwriter.
Why has Perth – the most isolated city in the world – produced so much great music?
I guess when you have less of an interest in an outdoorsy, sporty lifestyle you find yourself attracted to other things, be it art or music or writing, and maybe a few of those people were just that. And maybe there wasn’t a lot for us to do. It’s hard for me to judge really. We were taken to sports on the weekend and stuff like that when we were kids, but we lived miles from Perth itself. I was always jealous of my friends who’d go into the city on the weekend and see a movie because that just seemed like almost an impossibility for me.
But I think writers and musicians can grow up anywhere. It’s just what they’re interested in. You might be interested in the environment around you and writing about that, but that idea of coming out of an isolated city having a wealth of musicians, I’m not sure that’s exactly true. I mean, Melbourne has so many musicians it’s overwhelming. A person who isn’t a musician is a surprise these days. [Laugh]
I wonder about the role of being bored, the need to explore the imagination.
For the creative process to take begin, you have to clear your mind and you can do that in all manner of ways; switch off everything around you; go for a walk; go for a drive in the car.
I remember reading this article about Richard Hawley, the singer-songwriter from Sheffield, and he said his process begins with walking the dog. And the fact that they go in the same direction, over the same path and see the same things clears his mind and the rhythm of his walking might stimulate a rhythm to how the words are coming into his head.
So in some way that boredom or clearance of the mind is important. I know for a fact that driving -because we do it so regularly – really helps to engage the mind and take it to other places and I’ve created songs in the car. I have a recording device on my phone which I use all the time in the car, if it’s a melodic idea or if it’s just a lyrical idea I’ll pull over and record it.
I think you’re right. There’s something about being bored or just having a clear head that starts the imagination going. So maybe there is something about the environment, but were there that many people that came out of Perth that were greater than who’ve come out of Melbourne or Sydney? I’m not sure. I don’t know. I can’t answer that.
What’s different about being a music maker now compared to previous decades?
The main difference now is how people listen to music in terms of streaming and downloading stuff for next to nothing. I think it’s a lot more difficult for someone like myself to sell CDs or albums, the fact that vinyl is so expensive and there’s such a delay in it being produced. It’s difficult financially. When we first started out, there wasn’t a youth national radio network. We used to watch Countdown and Night Shift. They were the music video shows we had in WA that we could tune into and find out what was going on. Now you have access to a worldwide library of music through Spotify, music videos through YouTube, so you’re kind of spoilt for choice in what you can listen to. In a way that’s sensational and there’s nothing wrong with that. So you really have to be at the top of your game to have any attention at all.
I’ve always been struck by the quality of your singing voice. You have such a unique sound and tone. How do you approach singing and how does your singing influence your writing?
I think my singing has certainly changed over the course of time. When I was singing songs for David McComb and Phil Kakulas [in The Blackeyed Susans] early on it was about the melodic nature of the songs and trying to sing in that way. Now, as someone who writes my own songs, I think more about the delivery of the words and how important it is to get those lines across. So your ears might prick up or you’re intrigued or drawn into the song. So that’s how I’ve changed my approach to singing. It’s how to tell how it informs how I write because I don’t think about it. It’s more about the song, really, and trying to write the most perfect song you can, that you’re going to be happy with, that sort of exceeds your expectations. I’m never happy unless something exceeds my expectations. If I’m not striving for great then what’s the point? I’ve gotta please myself first before anyone else.
Do you write as part of a daily routine?
I’ve had a really strange period since COVID. I don’t know if you’re aware of my Song Gifts project. People were commissioning me to write a song for their partners or friends, or whatever you want. I put it out there on social media and it was picked up by a few people and then some ABC personalities mentioned it on a podcast and I found myself inundated with song requests. So I really had write and write a lot. But not only that. I had to hone in on a process that was going to be fast and efficient because a lot of people were asking for songs for around about the same deadline. I was writing two to three songs a day in some cases. When I say that, I always prefaced it with “I’ll write a song. It’ll have three or four chords; it’ll be three or four minutes long”, but you still want to be satisfied with what you’re giving someone.
There had to be a moment in the song that I was a little bit chuffed about, a clever line, a great melodic piece or a bit of guitar playing that was special. So that really changed the way I wrote. And, in terms of how I write now, I still wait for ideas to come and that is a mystery because to be inspired to write a song can be a waiting game. It is a bit like fishing, waiting for something to land in your lap. And that’s what happens. These ideas curl through the air and land in your lap.
Because Song Gifts is still continuing to this day – it’s been two years – people still ask and I still sit down at the table and try and be creative and find different ways of writing songs.
I take it that external prompt gives you a reason to exercise your songwriting muscles in a way you wouldn’t if you were waiting for inspiration.
Exactly right. So you’re forced into the situation; you’re forced to write a song and you have a deadline. So you have to have a process. I then found a way of writing songs that I’d never had before. It was a matter of writing as much as possible and then editing and whittling away. And Phil Kakulas would say, when I had that book out a few years ago, Crumbs from the Cake, that that changed the way I wrote songs as well.
It was very much a matter of trying to get as much information from people, but also finding a way in yourself. So it wasn’t just for them, but there was a tiny sense of ownership for yourself. They were possibly the more successful songs in my mind because it wasn’t so personal.
Did you think that project aided the songs on the current album?
Yeah, absolutely. In fact there’s a few late song gifts that made it to the record, and songs that I reshaped Song Gifts, so they could be reclaimed and either sung by me or someone else. Rebecca Barnard’s song Feeling Kind of Blue, for example, was an amalgamation of a couple of Song Gift lyrical ideas and I kept the chorus. It absolutely helped; it’s been crucial.
There’s a lot of great songs on this album, but a stand out for me is Standing Next to David, about David McComb.
That was a late song gift from a chap called Mike Brown in the UK. He was asking for a song for his wife. In the email he sent me, he spoke a lot about his adoration of David McComb and falling in love with Born Sandy Devotional and then trying to find The Triffids in the UK. By the time he did, they’d moved on to Calenture, their follow up album, and they weren’t performing those songs, so he felt a little heartbroken. But he travelled around the place seeing them. In his email, he was asking for a song about his wife Angie, but three-quarters of the email was about his love of The Triffids and I was wondering ‘How and I going to do this? How am I going to write a song about his wife and not include this incredible love he has of music?’
So I thought, I’m simply going to segue from one to the other. Three verses are about the love he had for music and a band, and two verses are about his wife and their meeting and their dream of following in the footsteps of The Triffids and coming to see Perth and driving the Nullabor Plain.
The album is full of beautiful arrangements. How do you work out arrangements?
With this record especially I wanted to make it more musical and less focused on the lyrical idea; just make sure there were different textures and melodic ideas coming from different instruments. I knew that I wanted to have Jack Howard involved in having flugelhorn and trumpet. Whenever I had a melodic idea, I would simply record it and make sure it wasn’t lost. Sometimes I didn’t know where they would fit in, but I found mays of fitting them into the ends of songs or a melodic line to break up a verse. I was very much aware that many of my previous records didn’t have those moments and I really wanted it to be more interesting musically and have those different textures and sounds; filled to the brim with melodies.
This album is billed as Rob Snarski and His So-Called Friends, four of whom you’ve asked to sing guest vocals. What were your thoughts around sharing singing duties?
I thought it was important to try and make an album that was different to the one before and the one before that. I also wanted to mimic the way we listen to music these days. So I was trying to create a playlist of sorts, I guess, a compilation. And to be able to do that with any success, not only did I have to ask a wide variety of musicians, but also vocalists too. I thought it was important to have some guests and people who I could hear singing some of these songs. For example, Gareth Liddiard I thought was perfect for Give the Man A Coin. It took a long time for that to eventuate, but it was well worth the wait. Romy Vager; we met in Sydney as part of the 16 Lovers Lane Go-Betweens show at The Sydney Festival. It must have been 2016 or something like. Romy struck me as the sort of person who can cut through chaos; she’s got this magnificent way of delivering words where it can be quite graceful, but she also has a fair amount of gusto, so I thought Romy was important. I could hear her voice in My Friend Too, and that worked well.
Rebecca [Barnard], I’ve known her for a long time, and Feeling Kind of Blue was coming from a female perspective, so I gifted that song to her and persuaded her to sing that.
To be honest, Peter Milton Walsh really should have sung You’ll See the Moon, because it’s my little tribute to one of my favourite Australian bands The Apartments, which Peter is the singer. It was a tip of the hate to them, but I was selfish in that respect and wanted to keep it for myself to sing. So I gave him a song called Sweet Edie, which is about my partner’s aunty who was a single mother in the ‘60s and she hid her pregnancy from her entire family under a tram conductor’s winter coat and no one knew she was pregnant until the day she gave birth. It’s quite an extraordinary family tale.
There’s something about Peter’s voice. Not only is he an eloquent person and really interesting as a writer, he’s not afraid to be emotive when he sings. There’s a lot of gravitas to his voice, which I adore, and I can understand why the French love him. They’re one of those bands that can sell tens of thousands of albums in France and barely make a dent into radio play in Australia. It’s just phenomenal how that happens.
So that was the idea. Let’s make something with sonic surprises, so each track is varied. It’s like, “Where the hell is this guy going?”
Let’s just try and throw as much colour into this album as possible, and just be a bit more ambitious than “Ok, here’s my songs. I’m going in the studio again with the same guys and gals and creating another album.”
I don’t know. I think we need to be a bit more inventive than that these days. As I said, you really need to push yourself to be heard, or have a different idea, even. Let’s try and stretch it out a bit more.
You’ve already had the opportunity to present these songs at Memo Music Hall recently. How have they translated into the live experience?
I thought it worked really well. It was great to have some of the guest singers there. It’s obviously not going to be the case all the time. Some people are overseas; some people are living in other parts of Australia. So it’s not easy, but it was great to have the musicians who played on the tracks: Jack Howard [horns], ‘Evil’ Graham Lee [pedal steel], Kiernan Box [keys]. There was ten people on stage through the night performing these songs, so I was strutting around like a rooster. [Laughs]
It was quite incredible. I was thinking ‘Wow! These people are playing my songs. How phenomenal. I just felt so relaxed and confident that I didn’t really cared what happened. Sure, I did a bit, but the sound check and the rehearsals had gone so well that I was just happy. The little grey cloud that sits above my head had disappeared and I was just ecstatic to have these songs arranged and played so beautifully, it was a really wonderful experience for me and I was on Cloud Nine for several days afterwards.
That sounds wonderful. I feel like the live experience is so important and you get things out of it you can’t necessarily get from a recording. I love well-recorded music, obviously, but what are your thoughts about the significance of presenting live (after all we’ve been through)?
I just think, if you like a record, it’s so great to hear those songs performed live. There’s always something you might miss; you might not always be focused on the recording, whether you be making dinner, or having friends over, or however you listen to your music, you can be distracted. And sometimes in a live performance you can get something you haven’t noticed before and I love those moments.
I feel like it’s important to create intentional listening environments. I think about the classic in Melbourne is The Continental. What a loss.
Well, everyone misses that place, because it was like you were performing in a goldfish bowl. You could see the stage from everywhere in that room. They had an exquisite PA; it was so beautifully run. […]
I love POME because Bernie cares and people are focused on the performers, because that’s all there is to do. It’s such a small intimate space, and I like it. I like that guy a lot.
I reckon we should talk about your upcoming show at The Thornbury Theatre.
We were struggling to find a show North of the river and I thought ‘Well, let’s go back to a place that I know and loved’ and that’s The Thornbury Theatre. It’s an old gem, an institution. There’s tables and chairs. Everyone of my vintage likes to be seated and be able to focus on the music, so that seemed to be the perfect venue for us. And after playing The Memo, the ensemble decided we should at least do one more show. This is ridiculous, to have made the record, rehearsed up a seat and that’s it?! It was so unsatisfying for them to know that we’re not going to be playing again, so as soon as that show was finished, and because it was so successful we decided we have to play.