Colin Lillie is a journeyman if ever there was one. Born in a small mining town near Dalkeith in Scotland, Lillie battled drugs, alcohol and life in general in an uncertain and checkered youth. After traveling through Europe with a guitar, he followed his Irish girlfriend to Australia, where he found solace in both music and Alice Springs. Earlier this year he won a Music NT award for his single Give Thanks, vindication for the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into his music. It was also a massive nod of approval from his newly adopted musician community in the NT. In September this year he released his debut album Glass Homes, a strikingly raw and honest record, which he is currently touring around Australia. Colin took some time out from travel to have an in-depth chat with Australian Musician’s Greg Phillips.
Colin, tell me about where you grew up in Scotland.
I grew up in a small village called Mayfield, The nearest town is Dalkieth and it’s about 40 minutes away from Edinburgh. I suppose it was a typical mining town. Mining was the main industry … hard working, hard men, hard women, and strong minded individuals.
So was Australia ever on your radar as a kid?
Never! To be honest, I never imagined that I would be traveling anywhere. I was a different human being there. I was lost in a world of alcohol and drugs and I had no intention, ever of traveling to see the world. It was a very foreign thing to me. I mean when I grew up there were people, like my Mum and Dad, I think London is as far as they’ve been. When I started working in Edinburgh, working at the pubs and that, I started meeting a lot of more international people. Because when I grew up, the only influence of anything ‘foreign’ were basically the people who owned stores and the doctors and the nurses. I did have an Australian maths teacher who I thought was extremely cool, for the bicentenary year but I’d never imagined traveling to Australia.
What about music … when did you get into it and who were you listening to?
I think music has always been in my life. Music has always been there, but it was a way of feeling. It was a way of escaping as a kid, as a teenager. But as for being a performer, I did a bit of singing at school and I was in a choir at school but as I said, life took me on a different avenue, and I basically switched myself off from the outside world because I was much more of an internal kind of fella. It wasn’t until I met this Irish girlfriend and she opened my mind up slightly to traveling. I decided I wanted to pick up a guitar and at that time I was listening to a lot of folk music, I was getting really deep into my roots and I was looking at bands like The Dubliners and The Fureys, all these seventies revivalists, Ewan MacColl. I was really looking at Nick Drake too. I think for me, it has always been about the song. I mean the melody has been important but it was never about finding a hook, it was always about what the words were trying to say and how the words would adapt to the feeling and the emotion. So I think that’s what music has always been.
What about Leonard Cohen, who has just died … was he on your radar?
Actually Leonard Cohen has definitely been someone that I’ve matured into and I think now, with someone like Leonard, I can’t deny where he is in my scale now. He is such a reference for me because I am that bit older. He’s such a reference for me to go and look at how I can dig deeper into who I am and find that fearlessness. Because for me Leonard Cohen was always such a fearless individual with his words. He wasn’t afraid to put words in places where you wouldn’t imagine you could put words.
I was listening to an interview with someone who knew Leonard Cohen. I think she was a biographer and a friend, and it was noted that all of his songs that had female names, were the actual names of the person. He never hid his story…
Yeah, I think as artists, we sometimes are afraid to be completely honest because there’s the idea that we might upset a current partner. He was never afraid to openly write about those people that had completely and utterly touched him, which is a glorious thing to be able to do. When you think about it, it gives me goose pimples and that rush up the back of the neck. It’s quite exciting, it’s something to aim for I suppose in a modern world now, I think.
So how the hell did you end up in Australia?
There’s two stories. The lie is that I was drinking with two Aussies and I woke up in Alice Springs! The truth is that I actually had an Irish girlfriend who had always wanted to come to Australia and I was very dependent on her. I was very fearful of the world and wherever she went, I went. So I was basically following this girlfriend at the time. When I arrived in Australia, I said I was going to give it a go. I suffer heavily from anxiety and the way I describe it is that depression is fear of the past, whereas anxiety is the fear of the future, you know? Anxiety for me is part of the reason why alcohol and drugs played such a large role in my life. I think I’ve never been afraid of the past, because the past is done and gone but I’ve always been afraid of the future because that is the unknown. So I came to Australia and I’d done a bit of travel around Europe with a guitar and I knew a couple of chords, and then when I came to here, I had the guitar with me. And by the time I came to Alice Springs, I think the drive from the Gold Coast to Alice was so mind blowing and so mind opening, it really opened me up. I think where I’m from in Scotland, it’s a very beautiful country. There’s a mountain there and a tree there and a castle there, but I think the wild space that the outback in Australia gives you, from the ocean right to the red centre is the thing. You can’t hide, you cannot hide it and I think I was prepared by the time I came to have Colin open to a possibility of something more.
Lets talk about some songs on the album. There’s a song called She, which seems to be a bit of an ode to Alice Springs, would you agree?
Yeah, I wrote She because I got to a point where I was feeling strong in who I am and realising it was because of being in Alice Springs … because of Alice Springs finding me and Alice Springs allowing me to become a better Colin … giving me the opportunity to be a better Colin.
And in the album notes that I read, the song Renegade is a song for the rebel, one who abandons the normal ways of life. Is that a song about you?
Well I would say it also works for a lot of people that I’ve met but yeah definitely. I had to make change in my life, which meant I had to remove myself from what people would class as normal behaviour. For me it was no longer normal how I was thinking and how I was behaving. You know … the white picket fence, that you have to have this and you must have this job … if you’ve got children … your responsibilities, you must throw away dreams and you must give up this, you must give up that. You know that mainstream way of how a middle aged man, a man coming in to his middle age years should behave. I’ve met so many people who have given up so much and I just didn’t want my son to be sitting at a table with a man who was all if’s, but’s and could-be’s. And because I had made such a change in my life, I knew that I had to … well, basically everything I was doing wasn’t just for me, it was also an example for my kids. So I think Renegade is definitely that thing that is like nobody tying me down just because of your perception.
Why did Glass Homes become the title track?
I was brought up that you have to be careful in what you say to because people … you know, in glass homes, don’t throw stones. But then, it’s like we look at our politicians and we look at our world and how we are supposed to behave and were supposed to have this level of transparency and honesty, and truth, especially when we have children. I think the album itself, that is what I have done. I have opened myself up completely and said look, this album … this is it … this is who I am. Glass Homes is about those people. How dare you stand there and tell me what I’m doing wrong, and then when I look at what you’re doing, you’re doing completely the opposite. You know, change the goal posts, do as I say and not what I do, that whole attitude and the world is a bit like that at the moment.
The track Blood Knuckles features Leanne Tenant. When did you first meet Leanne?
I met Leanne when we were recording up in Cairns. Graham from Foot Stomp Music suggested Leanne to me. I was sending him the songs and he said that would make a great duet or have a female voice there and he said I’ve just got the lady for you. He put me in touch with Leanne and we met up in Cairns. When I heard Leanne sing I just went Oh my god, wow, what an incredible, incredible voice and what a beautiful woman she is as well. She is just this incredible human being. I’m a fan every time I see her. I’m a complete fan.
Eden Mulholland is another talented artist that has helped you out. How did you hook up with Eden?
Again that was Graham. He said you need a clip, there’s a couple of people and Eden was the one who was straight in there. He heard Give Thanks and he went, “I want to do it”. It was an instant friendship. I think if I have to be 100% honest about how I feel about that. I feel that people … and this is going to sound a bit spiritual but it’s the truth. We meet people we are meant to meet. I don’t believe in coincidence. I believe that behaviour and things that we do cause an action and a reaction and because of that things happen. I was meant to meet Eden and we were meant to build a friendship and we were meant to do the things that we’ve done. That’s the way I go through life I suppose now. I think with having anxiety you lose a lot of opportunity and friends because of fear. And I think we meet fearless people like Leanne Tenant and Graham Ashton and Eden Mulholland, that rubs off on you a bit.
Apart from a few of the rockier tracks on the album, most of the songs have a fairly understated instrumentation behind them, yet I don’t think there’s any combination of instruments that’s repeated. Each track has its own instrumental personality. Was that a conscious thing?
I think that’s why, for me each song is like a child. Each song is love and each song might have a similar work or something running though it like a genetic thread going through it but each song has its own individual character. And for me that was what the songs are all about, the individual character who I am and the individual character differences of my life and the things that have happened through my life, so if I was to make each song similar, it would be contrived. I wouldn’t have been trying hard enough to get that song through and giving it to the world. I think for me, each song is an individual. And individuality is what makes us all unique and I was trying to make each of the songs unique to themselves but at the same time have that thread, which was me, and a life story coming through the album.
Your main guitar … is that the same one you took around Europe.
No no, that’s gone back to Ireland that one. The guitar I have is a Cole Clark Fat Lady 2, which I use for performing. We were using a Gibson, one of Mark Myers (producer) Gibson guitars in the studio. We used a couple of his electric as well in the studio which I didn’t make a note of. He had this really cheesy plastic thing from Japan, which we loved.
Have you been performing these songs mainly solo or with a band?
We performed at Big Sound with a full five piece band, which was fantastic. I’ve done a couple of gigs with a three piece and then I’ve done a solo one, so basically it’s been a mix. The touring itself is going to be generally either a three piece or myself, so it’s a good mix. Ideally you’d love to have the full string section and the backing section for a few songs. But you know, I think what’s been great is that I’ve been able to showcase the diversity of the album and how it can be heard with a full band, with a three piece, with a solo, with a duet and that has been exciting me because I can change the arrangements.
Whats the grand plan?
I think the plan for me is to basically grow and just continually become a better songwriter, continually become a better man, a better human being. I think that’s it … just to basically become a better songwriter and get out there and perform, record more and just be. Be the Colin Lillie I’m supposed to be and not the contrived Colin Lillie that some people think I should be. But just be the Colin Lillie I’m meant to be and that is to perform and record. And also we’re talking about getting to Canadian Music Week next year as well. And you know, record as much as I can, and perform as much as I can, and see what comes from that and that is the grand plan. Then world domination! If Donald Trump can do it, I can do it. Anything is possible.
Colin’s Facebook page
Catch Colin at Wesley Ann Melbourne on Saturday November 26.