People And Places

24 July 2012 | 5:45 am | Michael Smith

"I guess ‘Postcard From Surfers’ is automatically ironic, ‘cause it’s the sunny beachside capital, but it’s also I think makes a lot of people immediately think of the negative, sleazy kind of unhappy side to that."

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Written in various rooms in Sydney and New York, Love's Shadow is the debut solo album for Youth Group frontman Toby Martin, something it seems he's long pondered and finally got around to making three years after the band decided to take an indefinite break after two exhausting tours of the US in 2009, and five since their last album, 2008's The Night Is Ours. It's certainly a record imbued with something of the quality of both cities.

“I'm the kind of songwriter who, I think, always has a visual picture in their mind when they're writing a song,” Martin suggests. “I don't know if everyone does that – maybe they do – but when I'm writing a song I do have a particular place in my mind, and often that is a real place, and this record? I mean, I was living in Surry Hills – some of the songs were about those streets and Darlinghurst and Kings Cross and that area. I wrote kind of the first batch of these songs when Youth Group still had a studio in Waverton in the slightly industrial part of North Sydney, where the oil tankers would come [for] a refuel, so I wrote some of the songs there, looking at the Harbour.

“There's a song, New York Misses You, and, yeah, I did write a lot of these songs in New York. I can't say I really have a string sense of connection; I mean I lived there for a year and it was fun, but I think it was just the matter of being in a new environment. It was a good place for my brain to think of things, and a lot of those songs were about thinking about Sydney, about home – and Victor Harbour, yeah, yeah, totally!” Martin name-checks the little port south of Adelaide in Happy Where I Am - “my middle-class angst song” – and then admits, “Which is a place I've actually never been to but it just fitted in really well,” he laughs. “It's part of rock mythology now.

“The songs on this record ended up being more sort of character and narrative-driven than most of Youth Group's stuff I suppose. I guess some Youth Group records were more cathartic in some ways to me, about letting some stuff out. These songs are considered and a bit more about getting into the characters, so I guess that's just what I decided to get interested in. I sort of got a bit sick of myself,” another chuckle, “maybe. Healthy.”

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Not only did Martin look beyond himself and his immediate community of friends for stories whose characters he could explore a little more expansively in song. He also turned to the odd bit of Australian literature, or more specifically the short stories of Helen Garner.

“She's got a short story called Postcard From Surfers, which I totally stole the title of for my song. I mean, it's such a good title – it's a classic, like, story and poetry title, you know, 'Postcard from' somewhere, but I guess 'Postcard From Surfers' is automatically ironic, 'cause it's the sunny beachside capital, but it's also I think makes a lot of people immediately think of the negative, sleazy kind of unhappy side to that. So I just liked it immediately, conjured up those things.

“And there's another song, which is The Curve Of The Earth, which I pretty much took the subject matter from the Helen Garner story and changed a bit to suit my needs and then that ended up being a song. Which is the first time I've really done that actually. I've always ripped things off, but never in such an obvious…”

While there's no particular theme to Love's Shadow, Martin did select those songs from the 25 or so he'd written by the time he went into the studio to record the album that were more obviously character-driven and, as he describes them, “a bit more wordy than not I suppose. That seemed to give the record shape. Songwriting for me is mostly instinct and I don't tend to change lyrics very much after writing them.”

The other important aspect of the debut solo album was the way Martin went about presenting the songs sonically. Rather than electric guitars, the core of each song is Martin playing acoustic guitar or piano and then cloaking them, more often than not, in lush yet simple string arrangements. The idea of course was to make Love's Shadow very obviously not a Youth Group record by default.

“I think that came out mostly in those production things,” Martin feels. “Youth Group could easily have put out a record which may have had the same songs on it. Some of the songs Youth Group even rehearsed, like a few years ago, but I think the way they're presented is quite different.”

So why five years before getting around to even recording anything, let alone a debut solo album, you might wonder why it took so long? Well, there's the usual “life stuff” that Martin feels is too boring to go into, which is fair enough.

“But creatively, it took a long time because I didn't really know what I wanted to do. I did want to experiment and try things out and make mistakes and start again, and so it took a long time mostly for that reason. I mean, when we went to the studio, we didn't really know. We didn't rehearse much beforehand, so we tried to leave things open. So the recording process took six months, and then other things…”

Love's Shadow might be a solo album but when Martin takes it out on tour, it'll be with a band. In the years since that last Youth Group show in Brooklyn back in '09, he's played a couple of solo residencies, in Sydney's Low Bar and New York City's The Living Room, as well as opened for Seeker Lover Keeper on their tour last year, but he's very much a band person.

“Playing solo feels kind of good for you, like having a swim in a cold ocean might feel good for you,” he explains with a chuckle, “but it's not really enjoyable in that sort way like playing in a band is. And it's nice to share it with other people.” Joining Martin on stage will be multi-instrumentalist and the album's co-producer Tim Kevin and classical music group Ensemble Offspring and Holly Throsby drummer/percussionist Bree Van Reyk, who played on the album, Youth Group guitarist Cameron Emerson-Elliott and double bassist Matthew Steffen, “and there'll be a galaxy of stars,” he assures, including theredsunband's Sarah Kelly. y rything At The Same Time and The Curve Of The Earth.