Second Home

13 June 2012 | 1:17 pm | Samson McDougall

Ned Collette likes “all the little mysteries of living in a new city” and his latest release with Wirewalker reveals some delicate delights of its own.

The first thing that strikes you about Ned Collette & Wirewalker's latest release, fairly unimaginatively titled 2, is the beautiful cover art. Close inspection of the liner notes reveals it is in fact a detail of the main action from Vuelo de Brujas (Witches In The Air) from 1797, a painting by none other than the last of the Old Masters, Francisco de Goya. “A friend of mine gave it to me on a postcard a few years ago and it's just been sitting on my wall next to my desk for ages,” says Ned Collette of the choice, down the phone line from his home in Berlin. “[Wirewalker percussionist] Joe [Talia] and I were talking about using an old painting as the cover because there are certain moments in the record that suggested that to us – I don't know, a kind of Middle Ages austere religious painting. We were thinking authors do it with books all the time, you always see reproductions of old stuff. So we were looking at all this stuff and nothing really fit until I got back to Berlin and realised it was quite literally staring me in the face.”

It could be argued that the bleakness of much of de Goya's subject matter is in line with Collette's darker, more introspective musings, but 2 has a sparsity about it, brought about by the lack of reliance on electric guitar sounds – Collette's usual instrument of choice. The delicate brushstrokes of the outer art seem an incongruous match for the stripped lyrical and musical loopings that are largely found inside and, as Collette explains, this was born through solitude. “Because [2] came together slowly and from demos I was making at home it wasn't like we all went into a studio and all played our instruments. It wasn't me playing guitar and Ben [Bourke] playing bass and Joe playing drums, so I guess what happened was the album was pieced together from a whole bunch of different stuff and some of those things just didn't have guitar on them yet, it wasn't a conscious decision.”

This unconscious step away from electric guitar allows any existent guitar passages to shine beneath trademark drone-like vocal lines and some creepy-as-hell keys. “Some of [the songs] were based around nylon-stringed guitar, which is what I've been playing live a lot, and that as an instrument doesn't take the front and centre as much,” he says. “So I think because I was kind of making the songs myself to begin with before Joe came in I was happy to kind of go with whatever the original instrumentation in my head was.”

Overwhelmingly, 2 is an album that follows a sonic path. Each song drips from the last notes of the previous and you're left feeling like Collette has told you a story. While he contends that there isn't any real lyrical narrative, he admits there was a lot of attention paid to the sonic thrust of the album. “In a way we had two albums' worth of material but when we finally decided which songs were going on this album and what sort of album it would be, that would definitely be determined by a kind of sonic narrative, the way the songs fit together,” he explains. “We were trying to combine a lot more of the experimental sound with the songs and it was tricky to get the balance. Originally we meant for more of the experimental stuff to be in there but when we did that it kind of blew apart the structure. In a way we still tried to make it a coherent pop album with as much of the other stuff in there as possible.”

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It's not until the exceptional fourth track How To Change A City (featuring guest vocals from Laura Jean and Biddy Connor) that you get a taste of what most would refer to as 'pop'. Through the spare-ness of the instrumentation, however, there is complexity generated in the contrast of rising and falling intricate lyrical passages amongst the instrumental breaths – of which there are plenty. Overall this is an album of delicacies, small rewards for those willing to step out of their comfort zones… something Collette is familiar with. “I felt like I could see the next ten years of my life if I had've stayed in Melbourne,” he says of his decision to move to Berlin. “It wouldn't have necessarily been a bad thing but it felt a bit strange that I could see how things were gonna [be] year in year out. I wasn't really searching for a feeling here or a sound here or any sort of link to the very well documented musical history here. I still like all the little mysteries of living in a new city much more than trying to connect with a narrow-minded mythology.”

His decision came at an important time in new band Wirewalker's development of sound. For listeners who'd made the adjustment to Collette's solo work being backed by bass and drums, it seemed like an odd choice of timing for the songwriter to seemingly abandon all they had worked so hard to achieve. “It was a weird one,” Collette considers, “it was like that band had just started to settle and be consistently good in that last summer before I left. That was really hard to leave, especially because it took us a couple of years to get a good solid sound, so that was hard. But I wouldn't say it was a risk. I always knew I'd continue to write and record music and I knew that Joe would be here at least once a year… We always make time to make sure these projects actually happen. It was just a bit sad really to leave that band, but at the same time I'm really really happy with this album because it does feel like a change of direction that was engendered by getting a bit of space from, not so much the band, but the scene and my regular life up until that point.

“The simplest kind of way to put it is just the time and space that it's really afforded me, particularly in that first year when a lot of the stuff was being written and committed to recording. I really had a lot of time on my hands 'cause I wasn't that busy with gigs and we'd done a band tour here. There was this really great period of six months where I'd just moved into a new place and I didn't know that many people and I just worked a lot. Aside from that, whatever kind of influence a city can have is hard to determine or understand, 'cause it's really a subconscious thing. I certainly felt freer working on my own and for example thinking, 'I'm gonna base this song around a drum loop and a droning organ because I don't have a drummer and a bass player and a rock set-up here.' But that was really fantastic, it was the best thing about moving here in that first couple of years was just the space I had to follow those ideas.”

Collette also found freedom in the opportunities to gig more frequently that living in a large European city allows. Separating himself from the comfort zone of the Melbourne live-music realm, his reach has greatly increased. “The good thing here is that you can play a lot,” he continues. “I can play every week here, because if you play in a different area, people pretty much stick to their areas and a lot of venues have a built-in crowd that go to the venue. You're constantly playing to new audiences. And I suppose what we don't have in Melbourne is people always coming through the city – tourists and people working here, people from all over the world – so your audience is constantly changing so you don't get that thing where people get bored of you, which is quite understandable.

“Melbourne's extraordinary and has a really great music scene, but it is really scene-based. By that I mean you do see all the same people and the bands are all interconnected and the audience is fairly static, it seems to me. And all that is really good in terms of growing music and seeing interesting local music. But here it's the complete opposite; the audiences are never the same. It always shifts and I think one thing is that the local scene doesn't thrive as much, but as a musician working here you get to play to different people all the time.”