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ANDREW FARRIS: THE ‘COME MIDNIGHT’ INTERVIEW


As the main songwriter and a founding member of iconic Australian pop rock band INXS, Andrew Farriss and his band mates shared the success of more than 50 million record sales, Grammy nominations and an induction into the ARIA Hall Of Fame. Outside of INXS, Andrew is revered in industry circles for his songwriting nuance, having written, produced and performed music for acts such as Yothu Yindi, Tom Jones, Tania Kernaghan and Jenny Morris to name a few. It didn’t matter what the genre, it was always about the music. This attitude saw him inducted into the Australian Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame. Andrew Farriss has now relaunched his career as a solo artist with the release of a wonderful new country music single Come Midnight, from his soon to be released debut album. Andrew recently showcased his new solo material at the iconic Bluebird Café in Nashville, and also played a coveted spot at Gympie Muster.

Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips caught up with Andrew to discuss his new music, the inspirations behind it and also to compare childhood Beatles memories.

Hi Andrew, before we chat about your new music, I just wanted to pick up on something I spotted in your press release. It says that you saw The Beatles at age five in London, do you remember much about that?
I do but what’s kind of funny about that is … it must have been right at the precipice of their career and the odds of that happening are pretty bizarre, especially when you think we came from the most isolated city in the world geographically, which is Perth. The thing that I remember more about was the television cameras, they looked like big robots. So I remember the setting of the studio and that everyone was very excited that these people were performing. Childhood memories are funny, I know from my own kids, the main feature of whatever you are looking at is not always of the greatest interest. Tim and I had been talking about it and we had asked dad, did that really happen and he said yeah and then you went and talked to them … which is even stranger. I have heard similar stories from other people about strange coincidences like that where you find yourself in these situations. Life does that, it tends to thrust you  into things whether you realise at the time that are good … or not but you end up doing them.

It is funny and the reason I brought it up was because I have a similar story myself. When I was also five, my mum and dad packed the family into the car and took us out to Essendon Airport to welcome The Beatles to Australia. A security guy tipped dad off to go around the back of the airport because they would be coming out that way, not through the front entrance. So we did and I remember there were not too many other people there. I recall the wire gates opening and and this limousine coming out and The Beatles winding down their windows and waving to us.
See isn’t that fascinating and you don’t get to meet many people who have these stories apart from people who have worked with The Beatles like George Martin and his son Giles, who is still doing background work for INXS … Giles that is … also Chris Thomas who produced three of the INXS albums. He told me the story of how when he was 19, The Beatles had been arguing during the making of the White album so George Martin got into a black cab and went up to the London Conservatorium and asked who was your brightest student? They said without a doubt it would be Chris Thomas. George asked what he was doing for the next 2 weeks and would you mind if I borrow him? They said that’s fine as long as they have him back. So he put him in a black cab, took him to The Beatles studio at Abbey Road and told them he was going to Greece for two weeks. He said this is Chris Thomas and he drove off! Can you imagine being Chris?

Fast forward to 2019. You come from one of world’s most successful pop rock bands. You have a new country music single out. Where does your love of country music stem from?
I have always been interested in country music but the first real venture into it all for me was Tania Kernaghan, when I produced her album Big Sky Country almost 20 years ago. That immersed me into a whole world of people I really didn’t know that much about. I met some people and most of them were really cool. I really like the genre, I like the instruments they play and it was a very different mind set to the people I had been working with. With INXS and the work I was doing with those guys, a lot of it was based around technology. I was using samplers, drum machines, the usual suspects, whatever I could do to get my funk and rock back then to try and make it all work. Then when I worked with these guys, I realised that their passions were different, more in a live music sense where they are proud of their abilities to perform and play their instruments exceptionally well and the instruments weren’t the same. We’re talking about mandolins and pedal steel guitars, banjoes, old world instruments  and I was very impressed.

As well as country music, your single Come Midnight also has elements of surf rock. Was surf rock an influence on you as a teen?
That’s funny cos someone else said to me that it sounds like The Shadows but it is probably because part of the guitar riff is my 1956 Strat that I have played forever, the one that I bought for 800 bucks in Chicago thirty something years ago. That’s partly why because I am playing that style of guitar but also because I wrote those riffs a long time ago when I was writing a very different style of music. I think I got to a point where I was experimenting with different things and trying not to do the same song over and over again, so I started experimenting with different ideas. With that one, Come Midnight I was thinking why not write a song where the guitar riff is as important as the actual vocals, as opposed to writing a song and the guitar riffs are fillers. I didn’t finish Come Midnight until much later on when my wife Marlina put it on her mobile phone as her wake-up call … which drove me nuts to be honest at first because I’d wake up all the time to this riff and think oh no, there it is again but then I realised that she liked it… and thought why not finish it. I mean call me slow off the mark but I thought I’d finish it and dedicate it to her because without her championing it, I would never have finished it.

Could Come Midnight have ever been an INXS song?
I don’t think so. I didn’t hear it at the time and I don’t really hear that now. It was just some quirky thing but I had always tended to … I am a bit of a tinkerer like that. When I write I don’t always pull out the same formula and keep writing the same song, I tend to tinker with an idea and play with things because sometimes you stumble across things you would never have thought of otherwise.

You were talking about your wife using the song as her alarm and you getting sick of hearing it. Is there a danger that if you work on a song for too long that you’ll get tired of it?
I think that is very true.  Although if I could just separate … when you say work on a song, if you are talking about songwriting, sometimes I have written songs within less than five minutes and been really happy with them. Other times, I would have finished a song after a ridiculously long amount of time and it makes no sense at all. I don’t really understand that process and I am not trying to anymore … I just know it exists, where I could come up with a lyric idea years ago that meant nothing to me and then pull it out one day and think, hmm I really like this and I don’t even know why and then I will finish it. When you are talking about recording and working on it too much in a studio, which I think is what you were saying, that is where I agree with you. What I have learned over the years is that the writing of a song is far more important than the recording of it. I don’t mean technically, of course it is important to technically record something as well as you can but if I can take it back to an earlier time, say the 1950’s, early 60s, where you had 4 tracks to mess around with, you really had to have it all worked out before recording otherwise it wouldn’t sound very good. I think that is where I am really on the same planet as you, is that to record something really well I find that I get really excited when it happens quickly. If I can record it quickly, I am usually feeling really good about it.

Do you have a lot of unfinished songs archived?
It’s funny that you should mention that because finally being comfortable with Come Midnight after all of these years, I have gone back and looked at things I have done earlier and some of it is kind of funny to see what I was messing around with. Some of it was feeling almost like Mariachi stuff, silly things. Not that Mariachi is silly and actually, there might be a little bit of that on my new record believe it or not, it’s more that there are styles I was experimenting with that had absolutely nothing to do with what I was doing with INXS. I was just trying stuff outside the square and I have always done that and I think I always will. I don’t like doing the same thing over and over again.

Where are you at with the album?
I’m in a pretty good place, looking at a release in January 2020 and more than likely in Tamworth. I had the great opportunity to write with some really talented people and I am feeling good about my songs and the recordings. I have pulled them apart and had a good look at them and I think i have done the best I can.

You’ve been travelling between Nashville and your home studio. What is it about Nashville that lures people like you and so many other amazing songwriters and session musicians?
That’s an interesting thing in itself, a cultural thing. I think what it is … it has sort of been a mecca if you like for people who really do love to play live music and love the art of songwriting. They have all found each other in that city and it’s not just the writers and players, it’s the support people. .. the families, the road crews, they have all gone there for the music and it is a nice place to live. It’s a cool environment and they all think the same. Whereas for example, there are lots of things I like about other places in the United States for various reasons but for me Los Angeles is about the film or television industry, it’s not about music per se. Other big cities are about big business whereas Nashville is all about music. Where do I fit in? I think it has more to do with meeting some of the songwriters I had heard so much about and I wanted to work and learn from them but also just to meet people who were like-minded and different ages and backgrounds. Also my wife’s family are from Dayton, Ohio, which is about a 5 hour drive from Nashville and so that has been great because I can meet our family and they can come to Nashville and visit us there.

There’s another thing here too, it’s not just about working in my home studio in Australia out of my farm or Nashville, it is actually a bigger story again where I think my real journey was and where the light turned on on how I wanted to make my album. My wife and I wanted to go horse riding but we didn’t want to go to a big dude ranch that had big swimming pools, bikinis and tequila shots, we didn’t want that, we wanted to do a more cultural thing and learn about some of the geography that wasn’t in the big cities. So we went down along the Mexican border and rode horses and became good friends with a couple who owned a ranch in the Chiricahua mountains. I didn’t see this coming at first but I got immersed in that whole area of Highway 80 which is near Tombstone, the old cowboy history. The Mexicans were fighting the Apaches, the Apaches were fighting the US cavalry and I began to ride horses through these national monument areas. I know where Geronimo surrendered and I rode up to where Cochise’s stronghold was. From a horse I could see through the gap in the mountains where they could see the US cavalry riding towards them. You realise the strategic military advantage the Apaches had and all of this stuff is a bit nebulous if you read about it but if you physically go and do it, it is incredible. It takes on a whole different form. There are very few fast food outlets down there, it hasn’t been developed and the whole area is pretty much untouched. You can ride along and find deserted silver mines and that’s when the light went on in my mind, it wasn’t so much with Nashville but Arizona. I thought … now I know what I can do with all of this, I’m going to write about … partly being here … nearly 2020 in the 21st century, that’s fine, I will write about the world right now but I will also write songs about that period because that period is fascinating to me. I didn’t learn that in Nashville, I learned that from getting out in the world.

Tell me about some of the instruments that you are enjoying playing in the studio at the moment.
For me I have always played keyboards, guitar and harmonica, I have always played those and a bit of bass but I am singing now for the first time. I’m going to really need to get my act together with that. That’s been a huge learning curve for me and I am learning fast. I bought an 8 string mandolin when I was in Chile some years ago and I have started to use that. That journey made me want to experiment more with instruments that are from more earlier times than the 20th century. A lot of what we hear is electronic or has been perfected to the point where they lost the imperfection in the sound of the instrument. For example one of the interesting things about a pedal steel guitar is that the person playing it is constantly checking pitch while they are playing it. It may not be in perfect pitch but I am starting to realise as I am doing more recording with these interesting instruments, that the pitching is not everything and a lot of it is the attitude and expression.  We have this bewildering ability in the 21st century to perfect everything with technology but I am not convinced that is always the best way to go.

You have just played the Gympie Muster. How was that and what was your stage set up?
I had a fantastic band. I had far too many people on stage, I was spoilt. I had Mitch Farmer on drums, Dario Bortolin on bass, who I had worked with before. I had Travis New on lead guitar and Ashleigh Leef on backing vocals, Lauren Azar on vocals also and keyboards, as well as the Davidson Brothers, Hamish and Lachie. Those guys are awesome at the bluegrass instruments, mandolin, banjo, fiddle, all those older school instruments. Lawrie Minson joined me on pedal steel and harmonica and guitars, he’s unbelievable and an old mate John Michael Kirk or Trev as I call him, who played some trumpet and vocals. The band was far too large but I wanted to do that, not just for my own comfort level but also because I wanted to try and start off in an old school way and not use much technology and just play stuff. I really enjoyed it and I was very fortunate to have those people on stage with me.

How does it feel to be a front man and having to think about things like stage banter?
You hit the nail on the head, that’s a very good point. I think sometimes you have to choose the moment, you have to know when to engage and when to shut up. Sometimes you’ve just got to use instinct. One thing I have to keep reminding myself, as I am doing it is one, my pitching when I am singing and remembering lyrics and basic things like that but also to engage with people and let them know that you are enjoying yourself and they are allowed to enjoy themselves too. I am entertaining people, I am an entertainer and I am enjoying that experience. I was always a support person, whether I was writing songs for a band or being a record producer … whatever … I was always supporting someone else’s dream if you like. This time I suppose I am being a bit selfish but I am just enjoying being me, whatever that is!

You also recently played the famous Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. Tell me about that experience.
That was just me. It has a huge reputation and I was pretty nervous before I walked in, I have to be honest. It tests your mettle a bit. You don’t have a lot of crutches there to hold you up, you are on your own. A couple of really good things I found about it is … everyone who is there wants to be there and secondly, it was a songwriter in the round thing and there was Tim Hicks, a Canadian songwriter I had never seen before, I had heard about him. Also Phil Barton, an Australian songwriter who is a Nashville resident that I have worked with before and Bruce Wallace, an American who I admire very much. I’d do a song and then throw the next song to Phil and he’d do one and so on. Phil is a great entertainer, I think he did a lot of children’s shows, that kind of work. The one thing I did notice was that I didn’t see coming was how close everyone is physically to you. If you can imagine having a cappuccino and there is someone sitting less than a yard away as you are playing. It felt like I was in a room with family and friends, it didn’t feel like I was on stage.

In an ideal world where would you like to see this project going?
That’s a really good question. People have said what are you doing, why are you doing this? I think what it is, is that I have a vision of what I’d like to do musically and I am doing it. I know what I want to do and I want to explore folk music. The more I looked at what I was doing, the more I began to realise if I try to chase a train that has already left the station, why would I do that? I would rather do what comes more naturally to me and be a bit of an explorer. I go looking for things I haven’t found yet.  That’s part of my journey and what I am doing with this. I am trying things and looking for things and going down some roads a little less travelled and hopefully find other people who can put up with me along the way.

Andrew Farriss’ debut single Come Midnight is out now. The album is due for release in January 2020.

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