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Album Focus: Paul Dempsey

4 May 2016 | 5:56 pm | Bob Gordon

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Over two decades fronting beloved Melbourne trio, Something For Kate, Paul Dempsey has long been one of Australia's most intriguing songwriters.

It's a characteristic that showcased a different hue when he released his debut solo album, Everything Is True, back in 2009. Dempsey always planned to record another solo album but it took somewhat longer than he imagined and here we are, some seven years later, toasting the release of his second solo LP, Strange Loop - co-produced by Tom Schick (Wilco, Ryan Adams) at Wilco's The Loft Studio in Chicago - which drops on Friday, May 13.

Quite literally toasting it. This X-Press Interview took place on a sunny Thursday afternoon several weeks ago at the Brisbane Hotel. Not only is Dempsey an intriguing songwriter, he's quite the beer aficionado. Here's cheers.

When does it come apparent to you about when to do a solo album. Is it logistics or logic or is it just the right time?

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It's more of the latter. There’s definitely no logic and hardly any logistics so it must be the latter. Yeah, I knew after the first one that I wanted to make another solo record but I knew I wanted to make another Something for Kate record first.

So there are all these things that I know are going to happen at some point. I know there's going to be another Something For Kate record but I don’t know if its going to in the next year or the year after, I just don’t know. It depends on what else comes up in the meantime and what kind of pace I'm writing, or what I'm writing. You can give yourself a deadline but they never work, not for me anyway. I give myself false deadlines, but I know they’re false deadlines.

It’s very hard to trick yourself.

Yeah it is. I mean, I started writing this record in 2013 thinking that maybe I’d make it in 2014.

Where you writing the record or were you just writing?

I was just writing songs; I’m never writing a record. I don’t think you're writing a record until you've written six songs. Then when you’ve written six songs its like, 'hey, four more and this is a record'. But to start out with you’re just writing songs. Maybe you know in some secret part of your brain that you're writing a record but you won’t admit that to yourself because that would be too much pressure or something.

But yeah, I started writing these songs in 2013 and then in 2014 we were like, 'hey, Something For Kate has been together for 20 years, we should do a tour'. So then it was like, 'this solo thing is going on the backburner for a while'.

But you were still writing on that 20th Anniversary Tour weren’t you?

I was trying to, but it was a pretty hectic year. In late 2015, Steph (Ashworth, Dempsey's wife and SFK bassist) got pregnant and we had another kid on the way so then it was a lot of different things happening. Early in 2015 was when I was like, halfway through the record and knuckling down a bit more, I had all the music. All the music was done. I was sitting on an album's worth of music for all this time and I just needed to write the lyrics which is the hardest part for me, it takes the longest.

Are the music or the songs or the instrumentals - as they are at that point - searching for themes or have they maybe suggested themselves by the mood or the tone?

Yeah, both. Some of them suggest themselves. Like Morningless is one of those songs where the music suggest the lyrics. It's this driving intense thing with this kind of desperate atmosphere to it, and that definitely influenced the lyrics; the way the chorus drops away. Instead of being a big chorus, It’s a lulling chorus. I think that’s, possibly, more than anything that I've done before, something that the lyrics and the music are really in sync with each other in terms of their moods and themes. Most of the songs on the record had their music almost as you hear it and was really just waiting for words. It's not the easy part for me, words are just not the easy part. It's a challenge. Every time I sit down to write lyrics I go, 'how do you do this again? What am I writing, why am I writing? How do I write I don’t know?' You feel like you’ve never done it before.

Some writers are typically 'I'll-write-it-on-the-back-of-a-napkin-just-give-me-15 minutes' or somesuch, which implies a pretty lassez faire attitude re the commitment to that side of things...

It depends what you want out of it, you know? Like if you can write something on the back of a napkin it could become the greatest thing ever and it will be exactly what that piece of music needed. You'll be able to shake your hips all night long and enjoy that. That’s absolutely fine. It's not really where I'm coming from for me.

Music and lyrics and the marriage of those two things are the reason I do it. I'm obviously not trying to make people dance, it's more like I'm trying to articulate something, express something, trying to, I don’t know... get out of my head.

In my listening sense of your music, it can be almost bleak, but there's also always a bit of an earworm in there. It gets in there, but it's not ever obvious.

No it's not. Look, I get that the music Something For Kate and the music that I do… it's not hooky, it's not pop.

But it’s strangely hooky...

Maybe, which if it is, it’s a happy accident. We love making music, we love playing music, but we're not out to try and make people dance or make people fall in love with us. It's more about trying to just… there's a certain energy and a certain mindset, a certain view and a certain perspective that I am trying to present as a lyricist and that we as a band try and create musically. Its almost about wanting to undermine the listener.

Look, its just an instinct. We just do what comes naturally to us according to our instincts and our instincts are informed by a whole lot of obscure ‘80s, American, indie, punk, hardcore, baroque, weird art rock. But lyrically, I guess I'm sort of trying to take a part of my head and make it available to people, and to also just get it out my head. It's like I'm removing something and at the same time inviting people to ask themselves if they’ve considered the same things.

Where is the gap between what you hear in your head and what you physically put down these days?

It's narrower. I guess that’s the feeling of progress to me, that I've narrowed that gap between what I want to do in my head and what I can actually achieve on the final thing. Yeah, I feel like I'm narrowing that gap which is a good thing. You know, I’ve made some records where I’ve been shooting for one thing and I've ended with a vague approximation where I've gotten close but I've not quite gotten there. With this record I feel like I've gotten closer to articulating my sort of strange skewed view of the world and the universe where we are strange creatures on a rock and we're all completely aware of our impending death, surrounded by so much beauty and we're capable of so much stuff, and we're also capable of the most moronic shit.

There's comedy, and awe and wonder. Hopefully more of the comedy made it on to this record. I think that’s one thing that has always surprised me is that I've always found my lyrics funny and then I've always been continually surprised at how people didn’t find it funny and I only have myself to blame. But maybe with this record. When you get older you relax more. There's more of me in this record than, I think, the previous ones.

Originally published in X-Press Magazine