Andy Bull may well be one of Australia’s greatest contemporary songwriters, and after speaking to him only briefly, it becomes clear how he got so good. He is incredibly incisive and articulate, almost bordering on academic at times, and it’s clear he has a thorough understanding of himself and his craft. This July saw the release Sea of Approval, his first record since 2010’s Phantom Pains EP. A markedly synthier sound, heralded by singles ‘Keep On Running’, ‘Baby I Am Nobody Now’ and ‘Talk Too Much’, has been met with widespread acclaim from critics and fans alike. Trying (and failing) to suppress my awe for the man, I started to chat with him about his favourite records, but things took a turn for the profound, as we covered the importance of self-acceptance and the meaning of life itself.
Could you tell me about your musical influences?
That’s a big question. There’s been so many over the years… It’s really hard to pick a few. I think that’s part of the challenge, if you’re like me, in that you have obsessed over lots of music that’s philosophically totally different—like stuff that’s really grand and layered, and then stuff that’s really punky and sparse—you have to let it all sink in. [You also have to] find a way to out-run the influences as well—they have, by osmosis, their effect on you, but then you have to let them go and try to do your own thing without being unduly influenced by any person in particular. It’s definitely a hard question.
What if I ask you a slightly different question—are there any albums you’ve listened to or shows you’ve been to lately that you’ve really liked?
I guess over the course of working on my album, which I did over about 12 months, I tried as much as possible, insofar as it was possible, to avoid staying too abreast of current trends. Not because there isn’t amazing stuff currently happening, but because I think if you’re staying too abreast of what’s hot, there’s potentially a danger that you start to second-guess your audience and assuming you’ll know what they wanna hear. It’s understandable to end up doing that, but it’s not a very happy or productive path to go down. So I tried to avoid anything too current, so if I listened to anything while I was working, it was personal favourites, like Low by David Bowie, I was listening to, and “Heroes”. The Dirty Projectors album called Swing Lo Magellan is a real personal favourite of mine, [and the] Metronomy record[s] called The English Riviera, and Nights Out… and Todd Rundgren… and Kanye West as well. I have always loved these things… They’re stuff that reminds you why you do music, because you love it and it’s inspiring.
You’ve got such a unique voice. People talk about that a lot and I’m sure it gets annoying. But was it ever something you ever second-guessed or questioned when you were starting out in music?
I would say… I have had moments when I have second-guessed everything… Even stuff like why did I decide to be a keyboard player and not a guitar player when I was a kid? Why do I have a voice like this? Why does my ear like certain chord progressions? In the end, I don’t think it even matters. You have to accept that you are who you are, and then roll with it. Anything else is futile. Obviously you work on yourself —you’ve gotta work on having a stronger voice and all this kinda shit, just so that you have the tools to play music and feel fluid. But as far as second-guessing or questioning the particulars, like why does my voice sound the way it does—like, it’s okay to ask that question from time to time, but if you get stuck on it, then it’s a problem because it just stops you from being able to make music. So it’s totally understandable to have doubts and having doubts is actually a normal and healthy part of doing anything, but if you get stuck at the doubt, then you’re fucked, because you can’t do anything. So yes, I have second-guessed it, and then the karmic challenge is self-acceptance. And then if you can just go, “Well, my voice is a bit like this… but I’m just gonna sing ’cause I don’t have a fucking choice in the matter, that’s just the voice I have”. That’s when you can actually do the good stuff.
Having said that, it doesn’t stop other people from making comments as well… You know what? Your voice is like the way you look. Some people are gonna not like the way you look. If you walk into a pub, some people are gonna take a look at you, and go, “I don’t like that guy,” and they’re gonna try and start a fight with you, just based on the way you look. You’ve gotta just accept that. You can’t go around hiding your face or whatever. So it’s exactly the same thing in my mind—you’ve gotta learn to accept and love what you have, regardless of the madness around you.
It’s almost a fatalistic approach, like, “Well, this is how it is, so I’ve gotta deal with it.”
I like to contextualise it karmically. You go, “This was inevitable, that I look and sound this way; if it weren’t inevitable, it wouldn’t be, so this is inevitable, this is my cross to bear, this is how I’ve come into the world and this is how I’m going out of the world, so you’ve gotta find a way to deal with it when things get uncomfortable.
I’ve read a lot of people describing your new album as a ‘step-up’ or a ‘change of direction’. Is that something you’d agree with?
I think people are comparing it to stuff that I’d done like four or five years ago, so it is a change of direction, but it’s a change of direction that for me has happened gradually. I first started changing my direction, or using different sounds or whatever, four years ago, on the last EP… so people are hearing the outcome of [a] slow and considered change in trajectory. But it’s all part of the one stream. What I’m doing now is a continuation of, or a reaction against, what’s came before, so it’s not completely separate. But the biggest change, I would say is that I worked on this album mostly alone. [I was] the producer and songwriter and performer and I played most of the instruments—for me, that’s the biggest change, ’cause it had the most tangible effect on the process—whereas in the past I’ve worked with other people and a producer and the process was quite different. So for me the thing that’s changed is the process, not the outcome.
How did working solo compare to the more collaborative stuff you’ve done in the past?
I think one of the biggest things is that you’re working on a different time schedule. I think time is a really potent factor in the process. Some ideas take time, and you have to work on them… intermittently. It’s very hard to account for that, and when you’re working with other people, there’s a required level of accountability. You’ve got a certain time to work with other people; you’re on their schedule. When you’re on your own, you can work in whatever time you want, you can work as randomly as you want… without the complexities of having another person involved.
The other thing is, you’ve got freedom to fail. There are songs I might have worked on for two weeks, that at the end of the two weeks, I went, “This one isn’t working now,” and I would leave it. But if you worked on it for two weeks with someone else, and at the end of it, you went, “I can’t see this working,” there would be a cataclysmic emotional outcome. The other person would be offended, or like, “I’ve wasted my time, what were we doing this for?”—all this excess stuff that has nothing to do with the song. So when you’re on your own, you can go, “Oh, that hasn’t worked, that’s okay, I’ll start something else tomorrow”. Being on your own, you’ve got space to reflect on events without fear of judgement… so you can make mistakes and try things that don’t work and explore and do things that are kind of awkward, without undue fear of judgement from others. And also premature judgement, ’cause when you’re with others, people expect ideas to come out perfectly first go, but it rarely works that way. When you’re on your own, you can just muck around for ages until it clicks.
It sounds like there are a lot of advantages.
But there are a lot of difficulties as well. Because when you take everyone else out of the process, you then have to become everyone else. You become the technician, the engineer, all the stuff that would be done by other people, you have to do, which can slow the process… It can be very confusing ’cause you’re changing hats all the time. It’s equally liberating and challenging, and definitely I would not say it’s always the way to do it. I mean, there’s no right or wrong way to record, but in this instance, working alone presented the kind of freedom and the kind of challenges that I wanted this time.
From interviews with you that I’ve read and some of the posts on your Facebook page, and of course talking to you now, I get the impression you’ve thought really long and hard about songwriting.
Yeah, I do enjoy that. I dunno, I don’t see any other way. I think the more you’re willing to think about things and get into them, the more you’re able to enjoy them.
Maybe this is a clumsy example, but I used to live with a guy who loved Formula One racing, right? And I had never thought about it. I just looked at it and thought, “This is so boring, it’s just cars going round a track. How could anyone give a shit about this?” Until one day I sat down with him, and he explained to me in depth what was going on—the strategies, the players, the people in it, why people were doing what they were doing… He’d thought really deeply about it, and obviously lots and lots of people thought really really deeply about it. And this suddenly went from this thing that seemed so dumb and shallow to me to being really rich. And I then really enjoyed watching Formula One with him.
Thinking is a way of engaging with something, and the more you can engage with something, the more meaning it has, and the more value it potentially has to you. So I think about [music] a lot, because it’s my life… and I love it—I love to think about it. It’s symbolic, it’s valuable, it’s got so much to teach. I think to not engage deeply with it might be an opportunity missed. And after all, part of the challenge of life is to make our lives meaningful, ’cause otherwise, what are we doing here, why the fuck are we born? Who knows… But if you can think deeply about things, then at least you can go some way to finding meaning and making this meaningful, whatever this is. So I think if I were a doctor or a football player or an accountant for that matter, I think the more you think about it, the more enjoyable it becomes. It’s passion, you know? I have meetings with my accountant, and he’s passionate about accounting, and I find it infectious, when he talks about accounting. He talks about money and systems and processes—it’s very inspiring, and it’s a guy talking about fucking accounting, for God’s sake. The more you think about something, the more happiness you can potentially derive from it.