Well friends, it’s been six years since our last correspondence. You might ask “Where the hell have you been, Les?” My best recollection is that I started the Unpaved website back in 2011. I had a rush of blood to the head, inspired by all the local country-folk and Americana taking off around me here in Melbourne. With experience in music journalism and a desire to promote the music I loved I started publishing regular reviews and interviews. Music media wasn’t giving me want I felt I needed as a fan, let alone as an artist, so I started doing it myself based on the DIY punk rock methodology of my teens and 20s.
Pretty soon publicists caught on and I got to interview some of the artists I looked up to the most in the world, names like Steve Earle, Jason Isbell, David Rawlings and many others. The last thing I posted was an interview with one of my heroes: Kev Carmody, co-writer with Paul Kelly of From Little Things Big Things Grow among many other amazing songs.
It was January 2016 and I had spent many months of the preceding year campaigning – online and on the streets – against the closure of remote Aboriginal communities. The revelation of my Indigenous matrilineal connection after my grandmother’s death in 2010 set me on a steep learning path. Archie Roach gave me a signature and handwritten note at the Port Fairy Folk Festival in 2014 saying: “You are beginning a journey I have already taken. Take strength and pride in who you are!”
Those treasured words now hang up in my hallway and I often stop to read them. If anyone knows about surviving adversity and the search for understanding of one’s identity in this country, it’s Archie Roach and through his music and deep generosity he has helped countless people like me.
These lessons forced me to readjust my focus. I was part of a bigger community with more urgent needs. When the horrors of the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre were made public I was tipped over the edge psychologically. I suffered what they call “vicarious trauma” and had to take a long period of time out to focus on my basic well being while holding down a job and trying to keep my family together.
Writing music, as always, was part of my processing and healing. I turned to my guitar and piano churning out many new songs, but barely playing live. My producer at the time told me “if you have seven hours to cut down a tree, spend the first six sharpening the axe”.
Looking back now, I feel like I should have been less hesitant with my output, but there are a number of singles I released between 2013 and now that I’m happy with.
Unpaved was always a labour of love. Other people might have removed the website altogether, but I made sure it still stayed up, knowing that there may be a time I’d return to it in some form.
Covid hit in 2020 and it was hard to watch so many of my musician friends struggling mentally and financially. The cancellations were brutal and I only got a small taste of that with the Songs for Justin Townes Earle fundraisers that were rescheduled twice.
I struck up a friendship with singer-songwriter Stephen Grady who came highly recommended from Justin Townes Earle’s Australian publicist Chris O’Hearn to perform in those shows. He was getting into music production and keen to do some recording. Unfortunately he’d broken a foot playing Touch Football, so we’ve been making use of a lot of his time on crutches to record my forthcoming second album: ‘All My Friends Are Superstars’.
Earlier this year, my workmates gave me online access to the Guy Clark documentary “Without Getting Killed or Caught” as a birthday present. As well as Guy Clark, of course it featured a lot of the artists I most admire including Townes Van Zandt, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle. What struck me about it was the importance of a community of songwriters in inspiring great work. They were consciously setting out to create a high level of art and poetry. Melbourne had something of this, too. I experienced it around our Unpaved Songwriter Sessions. Covid made these things pretty much impossible, but I thought this is the kind of thing that could help our community rebuild when the time was right.
Things were starting to get closer to normal on Friday the 4th of March this year when a bunch of my friends were playing as part of Sing a Song of Sixpence at POME (The Palace of Magnificent Experiences), Richmond. It was great to be out in a new artistic space. I quickly noticed they did table service, just like at the Bluebird Café in Nashville. Very interesting. I met the artistic director Bernie Clifford: a charming and genuine lover of music and culture. He had a certain glint of excitement in his eye as he showed me around the place and I thought to myself ‘This is the kind of enthusiastic person I’d like to work with.’
Partway through the show our host Delsinki surprisingly gave me a name check, saying that my original Unpaved Songwriter Sessions at The Old Bar in Fitzroy, that he took part in, had inspired to start up a similar series called Song In the South. A lot of people have told me how much they missed those sessions over the years and Delsinki said I should consider firing them back up at POME. ‘Maybe now is the time to start thinking about that’ I thought.
When it came to Delsinki’s last song, he stopped and said “This part of the show is called Throw them Under the Bus, were I ask someone from the audience to come up and play. I’d like to invite Les Thomas to take my place on my last song.”
Woah! I didn’t expect that. Nerves started to take hold, but I was genuinely flattered that he’d make that gesture and it wouldn’t be right to say no. I took my spot and played a song I’d written following the first JTE cancellation. It was especially relevant to my friends Joyce Prescher and Lachlan Bryan I was shared this set with as they’d been part of the JTE shows. The main refrain includes the words “You and I are still here when the circus has moved on.”
Yes, we had been through some difficult shit together, but at least we shared it and we will go on, was the general sentiment and it seemed to go over well.
Since that night, I’ve been putting together a plan for bringing back a revitalized version of the Unpaved Songwriter Sessions, a weekly night that will give our music community and audiences a much needed shot in the arm. I know there’s a lot of good will out there and it makes sense to publish interviews and news again letting people know about great local artists.
These are some of the experiences that have nudged me along back to the Unpaved path. Habits change. Perspectives change, but there’s still so much to celebrate and enjoy here. One of the most common pieces of advice given to writers is write about what you know. I guess that’s the advice I intend to follow and I hope you can stay tuned for that. So keep your eyes and ears peeled for forthcoming announcements and expect more life to come flowing back to the pages of Unpaved. Thanks to everyone who’s been a part of this story so far. There are a lot of great things to look forward to.