Things Of Stone & Wood's Greg Arnold On How MeToo Inspired New Album 'In The Sky'

3 November 2023 | 1:32 pm | Jeff Jenkins

“The irony of it is not lost on me that I’m singing at the top of my lungs about how I should shut up and listen...”

Greg Arnold

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One of his songs has been played at the Pentagon. More on that later. His band had two Top 10 albums, a Top 10 single and five Top 50 hits, plus a chart hit in Germany. They also won an ARIA Award, and he was proclaimed Songwriter of the Year at the APRA Awards.

But when The Music asks Greg Arnold about all of the accolades, he highlights his footy trophies – won on the other side of the world.

“I still have the ARIA, but now I’m proud to say it’s adorned with my Geneva Jets medals for various premierships and things,” he says.

Buried deep in Arnold’s Wikipedia page is the revelation that he was a star in the Switzerland AFL, playing as a key forward for the Geneva Jets. “It was a pretty rocking midlife crisis,” the singer smiles.

The Wiki page states:

“Due to his graceful elegance, and composure under pressure, Arnold is known by his teammates as ‘Dr Silk’. Arnold’s reliable set-shot and forward-line creativity has helped the Jets establish themselves as the dominant force in the Swiss Australian Football League. Arnold was a linchpin of the Jets’ 2019 Reserve and Senior twin premierships, booting three and two goals in the respective Grand Finals.”

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Arnold had four seasons with the Jets, copping a few broken fingers along the way, “but I was mad for it. It’s such a great club and such a fun thing to be a part of; Australian Rules Football starting up in Switzerland. I absolutely loved it.”

It’s been quite the trip for the Melbourne singer-songwriter. And all of the key moments in his life can be linked to his wife, Helen. She was the reason he spent eight years in Geneva – Helen was the Director of International Law and Policy at the Red Cross.

When I mention that Coming Round is my favourite song on Arnold’s new solo album, In The Sky, I ask if it was about the joy of discovering live music. “To be honest, it’s about my relationship with Helen, the addictive elements of my relationship with Helen,” he replies. “A lot of those images are epic: moving out of home, that whole era of your life. Those big life moments when you become a different person.”

Arnold made In The Sky in Geneva with his European band, The Suburban Daydreamers. It’s a sparkling trip back in time to when Arnold was embarking on his grand musical adventure – the ’80s. For Arnold, the sound is a sliding door moment. “It’s a bit of an alternative history for me. In 1989, I could have bought the Telecaster and the guitar delays and gone this way. But the simplicity and directness of acoustic music won the day, though that ’80s sound never left me.”

Check out the Tom Petty-like guitars in the title track:

In The Sky – the title track of Arnold’s fifth solo album – was inspired by the MeToo movement, and Arnold considered calling the album “Check Your Privilege”. “It’s a noble pursuit but a crap name for an album,” he laughs. “But it crops up all over the album. In The Sky is a flagship of that spirit: embrace the change. Recognise the privilege and question it.

“The irony of it is not lost on me,” Arnold adds, “that I’m singing at the top of my lungs about how I should shut up and listen.”

The second song on the album, Songs Of Sorrow, starts:

I was young, so entitled

The golden life before me on a platter

“Guys like me – middle-class white guys – we’ve had a lot of kicks to us in the goal square. I’m just saying, let’s go out and see what it’s like for other people. If you get a bit of a glimpse, maybe you won’t be so defensive about all this stuff.”

The release of In The Sky coincides with the 30th anniversary of Things Of Stone And Wood’s debut album, The Yearning. And birthdays are a big part of the story of the band who took their name from a cooking hut at the Cumberland River campground near Lorne on the Great Ocean Road. (“Is that a craft exhibition?” the Triple J announcer sniggered when the band was first mentioned on the station.)

The band’s very first gig was playing a few songs at Helen’s 21st. Arnold and bass player Mikey Allen were joined by drummer Tony Floyd and guitarist Cameron McKenzie (who went on to become a founding member of Horsehead and Mark Seymour & The Undertow). 

The following year, Arnold wrote a song for Helen’s 22nd birthday. It was a summary of their first three years together.

Let's not forget last night

How we drove along the Yarra

How we sang harmonies to Carole King

These three years now just gone

They are the legends of my mind

“The drive along the Yarra is all true,” Arnold explains. “We’d been at Agapi, a Greek restaurant in Richmond, and we were driving back to Helen’s family’s place in Eltham.”

Many people mistakenly thought the line, “We kissed on the bridge that fell down”, was about the Westgate, “but it was actually London Bridge on the Great Ocean Road”. Then the song relocates to India (“while we held hands at the Taj”) and the Princess Margaret Rose Cave at the South Australian border (“We’ve been stuck in a cave with a bloke that says ‘Oi am’”). “The tour guide had this great schtick: saying ‘Oi am’ was one of his big gags.”

The song’s final stop is Nepal before returning to Melbourne: “We ate the bread on the lake and yearned for seasons.” “We were at Lake Pokhara in Nepal and were homesick, thinking of the Melbourne seasons.”

Happy Birthday Helen has followed Greg and Helen around the world. When Helen was giving a briefing at the Pentagon, as part of her work for the Red Cross, a song started playing through the speakers …

Happy Birthday Helen.

“Someone had done their research,” Arnold laughs. “It crops up in the funniest of places. It’s had such a beautiful place in our lives.

“Talking to other songwriters, they start to resent the big one. I understand it – I’ve got other songs – but I just don’t feel that way about Happy Birthday Helen. I still love the feeling of it. It’s been an amazing thing, not just for me and the band but also for my life with Helen.”

The song’s success still surprises Arnold: he never thought it would be a hit. Indeed, he didn’t plan to record it. “The song was just a gift for Helen, but when I played it to Mikey, he said, ‘This is a ripper, we’ve got to do this song.’”

Happy Birthday Helen was still in the charts when the couple got married, and they were on their honeymoon when Things Of Stone And Wood won an ARIA for Best New Talent (beating Rick Price, Tiddas, Girlfriend and Caligula).

Both Happy Birthday Helen and The Yearning hit the Top 10. It was a whirlwind. A little folk-pop band was suddenly one of the biggest bands in the land. They were even parodied on The Late Show, with The D-Generation renaming Happy Birthday Helen ‘(Got No More) Melbourne Clichés’. “Frente’s manager tipped us off and told us we were next in line,” Arnold recalls. “I got worried, but it was all quite flattering. Their video is hilarious.” 

It’s now one of The Late Show’s most-viewed clips.

Arnold looks back fondly at The Yearning. “It’s a classic first album in that we just threw everything at it. It’s a real snapshot of that time. I still have lovely feelings about the album – all those hippy party-starters, which is how the band was back then. And a lot of my favourite songs are on that album – Beg, In Our Home, Rain Fell Down …”

But Things Of Stone And Wood discovered that the laws of gravity also apply to showbiz. “I had a major meltdown,” Arnold revealed in his book, What Was I Thinking?, which was written for his PhD studies at the University of Tasmania. “I was irreconcilably conflicted by our success. I loved being recognised when walking down the street, and I hated it as well. I was uncomfortable with celebrity but was resentful whenever it was not duly noted.”

Arnold says he was “racked with self-loathing”.

Things Of Stone And Wood were struck by the dreaded sophomore jinx when it came to their second album, Junk Theatre. It was the epitome of the Difficult Second Album. “I now find the strange self-destructive rage unknowable [and] I dragged the band down with me,” Arnold says.

Sony was expecting a blockbuster follow-up to The Yearning. But, like the band, the label was going through a crisis of confidence. Daryl Braithwaite’s third Sony album, Taste The Salt, had stiffed, and the label wanted sure-fire radio hits. And when they heard the TOSAW album, it was as if Tom Petty was providing the soundtrack:

Their A&R man said, ‘I don’t hear a single …’” 

“It was expressed to me [the need to write a hit single], and I definitely felt that pressure,” Arnold remembers. “But to be honest, I didn’t really care. I was in that funny space on this artistic trip, which probably wasn’t a very constructive place to be.”

Arnold has mixed feelings when he looks back at the ill-fated second album. “If you’d told me that I was going to sign to Columbia and have a hit record, that’s exactly what I wanted to do all my life. But exactly when that happened, there was a new indie spirit going around, and you saw it play out all over – people’s uncomfortable relationship with the business side of music.

“Most of the record company people were just great people working their guts out trying to sell your record. But I was filled with this left-wing dogma about all this stuff. It was a messy conflict – this left-wing person trying to deal with where art meets commerce, which is never a comfortable relationship.”

Arnold was also paranoid about how people were perceiving the band. He knew they were a good live band, but “in my mind, there was an army of sinister hipsters thinking we were uncool”. He laughs. “I was probably over-thinking it.”

The irony is Junk Theatre was filled with fine singles – indeed, the first track pulled from the record, Wildflowers, became one of the year’s most-played radio songs, despite its references to Nazis. 

Wildflowers still resonates. “I get no pleasure from saying it,” Arnold notes, “but I think Wildflowers was a little prescient, which is very sad – I would much rather have an irrelevant song.”

Reflecting on the dark days of Junk Theatre, which ended the band’s relationship with Sony, Arnold says: “I probably still feel a bit funny looking back at it, but I sort of see it as part of the story now: the inevitable consequence of what happened to us, with my personal politics interacting with all this stuff … and I didn’t cope with it.”

In the “shell-shocked aftermath”, Arnold wrote one of the happiest songs of all time, Blink, “a great big optimism pill”. It’s a lost pop classic. “I was just sick of all things earnest,” he says, “particularly myself.” 

Arnold enjoys revisiting Things Of Stone And Wood, who were working on a new album, The Final Forest, when Covid struck in 2020. They released a single If You Go Down The River, but the album is not yet finished. “We’ve got a lot of songs there, and they’ve got a very Things Of Stone And Wood feeling, so I’m still keen to get it all done.”

But for now, Arnold is focused on his new solo album and Australian tour, with his band featuring his niece, nephew and nephew-in-law. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

The album even includes a song that Arnold calls “Happy Birthday Helen Mark 2”, Tick Tock (Running Down The Clock). “It’s filled with all these in-references that really only Helen and I know what’s going on.

“Both of our kids finished high school and we watched them go off and have a gap year. We thought, ‘That’s a good idea, why don’t we have a gap year?’ So the song is a documentary of that – a bizarre road trip, all round France to Mallacoota and southern Tasmania.

“An endless road trip. It was awesome.”

In The Sky confirms that Greg Arnold remains a masterful songwriter. In fact, he actually has a PhD in songwriting. Yes, Dr Silk on the footy field is Dr Greg in the songwriting world.

“I was actually nervous about studying songwriting in the first place,” he confides. “I had a very hippy, magical view of the art of songwriting: don’t look at it too closely in case the magic disappeared.” 

But the new album shows that Greg Arnold has not lost his knack for crafting magical melodies – even when he’s cranking the big-hearted guitars of the ’80s. “I loved that sound,” he smiles. “It had a huge feeling. It was occasionally histrionic and bombastic, and I loved it. It was all about the epic.”

And writing a song is still magic. “One minute there’s not a song, you’re just mucking around on the guitar, and then suddenly you get hit by something, and you’ve got a song. It’s a really great feeling. I would never want that to stop.”

In The Sky is out now. You can catch Greg Arnold on tour, which starts tonight.

Greg Arnold

In the Sky Album Launch Tour


Fri 3 Nov – Lyrics Lane, Perth WA

Sat 4 Nov – Freo Folk Festival, Fremantle WA

Sun 5 Nov – The River, Margaret River WA Free Entry 

Thur 16 Nov – Republic Bar, Hobart TAS

Fri 17 Nov – Royal Oak, Launceston TAS

Sat 18 & Sun 19 Nov – Mount Roland Folk Festival, Sheffield TAS

Sun 3 Dec – Northcote Social Club, Melbourne VIC

Sat 9 Dec – The Junk Bar, Brisbane 

Fri 2 Feb – The Wheatsheaf, Adelaide SA 

Thu 8 Feb – Lizottes NSW 

Fri 9 Feb – Butchers Brew Sydney NSW

Sat 10  Feb – Smith Alternative Canberra, NSW

Sun 11 Feb – Brass Monkey Cronulla, NSW

Tickets are available via Greg Arnold’s website.