“'Cavvanbah' is a cracking start to an album that covers a lot of territory ....for the most part, Tyson lets his ruined voice and lucid guitars do the talking.”
— Phil Stafford, Courier Mail
“....this album is a tour de force.....full of aural and lyrical twists, turns and delights, from one of Australia's leading contemporary songwriters.”
— Ian Dearden, Trad & Now Magazine
“....the tracks on this third solo set reveal a master song craftsman with a nuanced lyrical touch and strong melodies. There is always plenty of grit in the musical delivery here. Nothing is over-polished, these are songs that are built to last.”
— Noel Mengel, former Chief Music Writer, Courier Mail
“Steve Tyson once again delivers a compelling selection of distinctly Australian storytelling.”
— Kim Cheshire, Country Update
“...telling tales of home and family, of travel and politics, wrapped in a dark sense of humour that sets him apart from the myriad others plying a similar trade”
— Sam Fell, Rhythms Magazine
“On his latest solo venture, Steve Tyson adds his submission to the great one-person-band-album canon.”
— Martin Jones, Rhythms Magazine
Steve Tyson is best known as the guitarist/mandolin player from Rough Red, one of the better known and most travelled bands on the Australian folk scene. Rough Red has released six albums over the past two decades, toured Europe five times, but took a break in 2004, reforming in late 2009, and is now back playing the festival circuit. In amongst all that, Steve has just completed his debut solo album TEMPLE DOG, which he releases this month, and will launch at a series of shows around South East Queensland and Northern New South Wales. Trad & Now caught up with Steve to find out how the record came about…..
T&N: So, first the obvious question…. why a solo album?
ST : I’ve always been a major contributing writer in Rough Red, but the band is full of great writers. We have one of the greatest lyricists in the country, in John Fegan, and in the past, I’ve always been content to supply the tunes to marry up with John’s lyrics. But over the years, I have done a lot of travelling with my wife Karen and my family, quite apart from the many adventures The Reds have had touring Europe. Karen and I have been to India three times, Japan, Russia, Bhutan, Vietnam and a bunch of other places where the culture and stories have fascinated me. I had a notebook full of half-written lyrics, and song ideas, but I never really thought of them as potential Rough Red songs.
I turned a few of these journal entries into songs. When the Reds split, I formed a trio with Dave Parnell and John Barr from the band. We wanted to do something completely different to Rough Red, and we essentially became an electric guitar based, blues/roots type band, called the twentysevens (yes, with a small”t”, just to be arty). We spent a year in the studio before we played a gig, and recorded an album which probably sent mixed messages in a musical sense…. it certainly sent mixed messages to us! But some of those notebook songs of mine became the core of the album.
T&N: The twentysevens did some interesting things, like a UK tour supporting Status Quo?
ST: Yes, that’s right. We did a support show for Quo on the Gold Coast in early 2006, got on really well with them, and they invited us to come to the UK at the end of the year to open for them on their annual Winter Tour. We did 31 gigs in 42 days, playing theatres and arenas such as Wembley, Manchester, Birmingham. It was an incredible experience. We became very much an electric band to do that tour, and recorded a couple more albums which were a bit more focussed.
T&N: So, from the twentysevens to a solo record?
ST: Well, the defining moment for me was in early 2009. I was living in Paris with my family for a couple of months. Every day, I would go and sit in this cafe around the corner from our apartment, and pretend I was Ernest Hemingway. I joke about that, but it’s actually true. I have always had this desire to write a novel. About what I have no idea! So I really did sit there every day and try to write something, but invariably, I would turn to my notebook.
Around this time, I had also begun to collect some stories about my family history, and things that were very relevant to me in a family sense…. and the floodgates just opened and I started turning all these ideas into poems, lyrics. I realised that a few particular songs I had written for the twentysevens were the start of the process. I realised that these were going to be songs of a personal nature, including love songs, which nobody else but me could possibly sing. They weren’t Rough Red songs, they weren’t twentysevens songs, they just had to be my songs.
T&N: You began recording the songs when you came back to Australia?
ST: I had something like eighteen songs. I purposely left my guitar behind when I was living in Paris. I wanted to write a novel. So it was a really interesting process for me. Tunes would just come into my head as I wrote the lyrics. I would envisage chord shapes and jot them down. As soon as I got back to Brisbane, I started work with Dave Parnell on putting down all these ideas. I wrote and re-wrote in the studio. Over the course of the next 18 months, we came up with the final thirteen tracks.
T&N: Whilst at its heart, it is a folk album, there are some pretty diverse sounds on the record….
ST: I have this philosophy of “whatever serves the song”. It is essentially I guess a collection of contemporary folk songs. But if we thought it needed a slightly different approach to get the song to tell its story properly, then we would go that way.
T&N: A couple of the songs are almost jazz, for example?
ST: Yeh. The song “Yesterday Was Free, Today It’s a Dollar-Fifty” is the story of a friend of mine who was living in New York at the time of 9-11. He told Karen and I this story when we met up with him in Paris. It is an incredible tale. The day after he told me what had happened to him, I wrote that song in my cafe. Because it was set in New York, my memories of that city are wandering around Greenwich Village, going from jazz club to jazz club. I just kept hearing that. So when we recorded the song, we brought in three great jazz players, young guys who used to play with my daughter in Brisbane.
I showed them how I play it acoustically in folk clubs, and said, even though this is a heart-wrenching story, I want you to interpret it your way. The song “Old Whores” (which really has nothing to do with hookers as such!) went one step further. The chords I wrote really lent themselves to a jazz approach, and when I put it down with these guys, I didn’t even bother adding my guitar, it didn’t need it, it’s just piano, double bass, and drums.
T&N: Then there are plenty of tracks which are very stripped back, just your acoustic guitar or mandolin, and cello, or accordion…..
ST: I was blessed to be able to bring in some fantastic players who made great contributions. Chrissy Euston from Stockade plays accordion and harmonica; Joe Cryle (son of Brisbane folk legend Mark) played pedal steel and dobro; a young guy Ben Hooper, a really talented singer-songwriter in his own right, played cello; Dave Lee is a violin genius; the jazz guys are Dave Spicer on piano, Lee Matthews on double bass, and Dave Cotgreave on drums; Sarah Collyer is a terrific jazz singer and songwriter, and she duets with me on one song (sort of like Billie Holliday singing with Jeff Bridges!); my old mates John Barr and Gary Meehan played bass. Another good friend James Boland helped engineer – he was our FOH guy on one of the twentysevens European tours. The constant throughout was Dave Parnell. Dave is the drummer in Rough Red, but he has developed into an amazing engineer and producer. He mixed the album, and mastered it. He has also become a very good finger picking guitar player. He is my sounding board, tells me when I’m singing flat (often!), and has great ideas.
T&N: So you are launching the album this month?
ST: Yes, I’ve put together a great little band, The Industrious Felons, to do these shows. Dave is there of course, playing drums and guitar, John Barr from Rough Red and the twentysevens plays bass, and Chrissy Euston is playing accordion, mandolin, and harmonica. In my normal shows, I just play with Dave, which really works well, but it will be great fun to get the songs out there with a band. Down the track, I’ll continue to do shows in whatever format suits the situation.
T&N: Future plans?
ST: Well we only used thirteen songs on the record. I did re-record a few of the twentysevens songs which I realised were very important to me. I still have a bunch of half recorded songs, plus some new ones I’ve written, so we’ll probably start work on the next album as soon as I get my studio set up again. We have not long ago moved permanently to Byron Bay, so my studio stuff is scattered all over the place. Plus we plan to start work on a new Rough Red album in the second half of the year.
T&N: the twentysevens?
ST: I guess it is on the back-burner for a while. The three of us are involved in the Reds and my solo project anyway, and I guess it is fair to say we prefer playing and working in the folk/roots world. Rock and roll is way too competitive!
STEVE TYSON Interview, on the release of his new solo album “green side up”, with Paul Martin, from Bay FM , Byron Bay – 19 Sep 2014
Steve Tyson’s debut solo album TEMPLE DOG, released in 2011, was a collection of eclectic folk songs, that resonated with critics in Australia. Inspired by a lifetime of extensive travels through exotic locations such as India, Japan and Russia, that set of extraordinary songs drew 4 star reviews in the national music press.
With a musical pedigree that includes playing in Chuck Berry’s touring band, supporting legendary rockers Status Quo on a 31 date tour of the UK with his electric band the twentysevens, plus six European tours and seven albums as guitarist/mandolin player with Australian folk-rock band Rough Red, Tyson has mined his well of experience to create his follow-up album GREEN SIDE UP.
Steve takes GREEN SIDE UP on the road with an extensive run of dates from September through to December, touring from far North Queensland through New South Wales and the ACT to Victoria and South Australia.
He met with Paul Martin, host of the “Crossroads” program on Byron Bay’s Bay FM, to talk about the new album.
PM: Congratulations on the new record. It’s been four years since you released “Temple Dog”, but I guess a lot has been happening since then?
ST: Sure. I toured “Temple Dog” a fair bit for a couple of years, playing festivals and the folk clubs on the east coast. Then Rough Red took priority whilst we made our new album, which we then toured during 2013, including heading back to Europe. So I’ve been recording this new album in between all that, and focused on it completely since the start of this year.
PM: Where did you record it?
ST: The great majority of it I recorded here in my own studio in the Byron hinterland. It’s a great space and a very inspiring place to work. The drum tracks were recorded in Dave Parnell’s studio in Brisbane, and a couple of beds were actually tracked a few years ago in my old studio in Brisbane. Dave mixed and mastered it in his studio, and did an amazing job as usual.
PM: Once again, this is very much a set of story-based songs, with inspiration from your travels, but also it seems, a lot of family history?
ST: It just amazes me how many incredible stories have come from researching the family, and just sitting down talking to my folks, for example. There were things I had heard about as a kid, but they don’t mean that much to you when your main interests are kicking a football and trying to be George Harrison. It has only been later in life, when I really started to get interested in these family stories, did I realise what an incredible source of material for a songwriter they were.
PM: The opening track “Ellen”…this was your great grand-mother?
ST: Yes, Ellen Lematey. She lived with her husband Thomas and seven kids in the North Queensland town of Mossman at the turn of the century. Thomas was a blacksmith and he would head off to the mines for work. He was a good man at heart apparently, but he got distracted by gamblers and drinkers, and would lose all his money, or spend it on the drink. So no money was being sent home to Ellen, and this story of what she did to provide for her children sort of became folklore in our family.
PM: It’s a very moving song. And the surname “Lematey” was the source of another song “St Bartholomew’s Day”.
ST: Yeh, I had always thought that Lematey was a strange name for a family of Irish heritage, which is where Thomas came from. I remember asking my grandmother (Ellen’s daughter) about it one day, and the story that unfolded just mesmerised me. Lematey was a derivative of “Le Metier”, and my ancestors changed their name as they fled the Huguenot massacre in Paris in the 16th century, and bought passage on a ship to Ireland. An extraordinary story that I couldn’t leave alone.
PM: The song that floors me is “Armistice Day”, the story of your great-uncle’s imprisonment and escape during the First World War.
ST: My mother told me this story a few years ago, and I just couldn’t believe it. My great-uncle Fred Smith – that’s really his name, by the way — was a dairy farmer here in Brunswick Heads. He’d had a tough life as a kid, an orphan brought up in a church-run institution. Anyway, the song tells the story of how he and a mate escaped from a German prison camp by strangling two guards to death, and fleeing in the night in the guards’ uniforms. They travelled through enemy territory for the next four weeks, moving at night, scrounging off the land, hiding out and sleeping during the day, until they finally met up with a British patrol. They got back to the British base, crashed out, and when they woke up the next day, the war was over – it was Armistice Day. So they been through hell for months, killed these young guards with their bare hands — which I know haunted Fred for years after, it’s one thing to be shooting at your enemy across the trenches, another thing to kill a man with your hands — only for the whole war to be over the day after they were found.
PM: Incredible story. The sort of thing they make Hollywood movies out of.
PM: Then there are songs once again based on your extensive travels overseas?
ST: Yeh, travel is always an inspiring thing. I still have a note-book full of stories collected from around the world. The song “Cafes” is inspired by just sitting in those wonderful meeting places, in this case in Holland and Egypt. I love just sitting in cafes and people watching, and you can’t help but pick up snippets of conversations that may just fuel the fires of a writer.
PM: I really like the song “Lisboa”.
ST: Well in that case, the story is fiction, but it came from a dream I had about this old block of apartments we had stayed in, in Lisbon. At least I think it’s fiction, maybe what I dreamt really did happen!
PM: Tell me about “Back To The Bar”, your collaboration with Sarah Calderwood.
ST: I have always loved the Pogues’ song “Fairytale of New York”, which as you know is a very funny, but sad duet with Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl. I wanted to write something in that vein, and I was at the Neurum Creek Festival a couple of years ago, and I asked Sarah about it. Sarah, as everyone knows, is the front-person for Sunas, one of the premier celtic bands in the country, as well as a couple of other projects she is playing in (Two Crows and Red Crow). Not to mention her ARIA nomination for her solo album a couple of years ago. I just knew she was the right person to work with on such a song, and thankfully she was really keen. It was a lot of fun to record, and she did an amazing job, I just love what she brought to the song.
PM: With the song “When Heroes Turn Villains”, you make mention in the liner notes of a very long story behind that song. So, what’s the story?
ST: Honestly, it would take up half your program to tell you the whole story! But the premise of the song is how you feel when one of your idols turns out to be not so fantastic after all. The short version is, I played in a pick-up band for Chuck Berry during an Australian tour many years ago, and Chuck was a hero of mine, the inventor of that timeless rock& roll guitar riff. But let’s just say his behaviour that night certainly coloured my thinking a bit. If anyone comes along to a show, I will tell the whole story on stage! I can tell you the finale was Chuck and me sharing my guitar…see, it’s just too hard to tell the whole story here!
PM: There are a few songs on the album that are almost, how can I say…… spiritual?
ST: Well, as you would know Paul, it’s very hard to live in a place like Byron Bay, and not be touched in some way spiritually. I don’t mean that in a wanky, preaching type manner. But there is definitely something about living here that enhances those senses. “Sand Thief” came to me while I was walking on Belongil Beach one morning, the day after I had received a card from a little girl we sponsor in Africa. To be honest, I don’t really know what the song is about, just that it was inspired by those two separate things. “The House of Seven Dreams” I wrote after listening to a man of Native American heritage on Bay FM one day, talking about vision quests.
PM: And “Tangled Vines”……?
ST: Hmmm……self-discovery, the power of love maybe. Again, it’s one of those songs that people can interpret any way they like.
PM: Musically, I remember you saying in relation to your first album, that you adopted the philosophy of “whatever serves the song”, and so you had no fear of stepping away from say folk music and bringing in jazz players to interpret a song if that’s what you thought it needed. It seems like you have taken that approach again?
ST: For sure. Look, at its heart, the record is a set of contemporary folk songs, that swirl around in that Americana / roots world, many of them story-based, some with that spiritual theme, if you like. But if I needed to get the best out of a song, and I thought it needed a completely different way to deliver it, then I wasn’t going to be restricted by labels.
PM: “In the Middle” is big band jazz almost……?
ST: The inspiration for that song was purely musical. Travelling through the southern states of the US several years ago, I was planning on visiting all the music icons, like Sun Studios, Grand Ole Opry, Gracelands. But the family got really sick, so the itinerary was slashed, and I can remember hearing this amazing music through the window of my hotel room in New Orleans, and dragging myself out of bed to see this 40’s style big band just playing in the street, with this very hot dobro player sitting in with them. The sound was incredible. I don’t know who they were, and I was too sick to go find out, but I promised myself I would write a tune one day inspired by that experience.
PM: The song “Emerald Eyes” is almost Beatle-esque?
ST: George Harrison is the reason I picked up a guitar in the first place. To me, there has never been a greater band or better songwriters than Lennon-McCartney. I confess I was listening to “Abbey Road” just before writing that song. But the beauty of northern France, where I was at the time, also was part of the inspiration, as was my wife Karen, she with the emerald eyes.
PM: Finally, I’ve got to ask you about the song “Stoned Again”. Your tongue is quite obviously planted firmly in your cheek with this one?
ST: Ha! Funnily enough, that’s one of the oldest songs I’ve ever written. I wrote it when I was at Uni many, many years ago. We used to play it in Rough Red, and in fact there is a live version of it on one of our early albums. But I’ve never recorded it properly, and I’d started playing it live in my shows, and it was going over a treat, so I thought I would include it.
PM: In the liner notes, you actually say you’ve never done drugs?
ST: It’s true, really! I had one joint at Uni and threw up. My friends reckon it might have been because of the dozen or so beers I’d had, but I blame the dope. I tried it again several years later just before a gig at the insistence of a guitar player I greatly admired, and I totally blew the gig. So that was it for me. I saw the great Kevin Bennett at a show not long ago, and he told a similar story. He said people would come up to him for years, saying “try this man, it makes the music amazing”, and Kevin would say “music is already amazing, I don’t need drugs to tell me that”. And exactly the same thing has happened to me, and my response is exactly the same.
I have absolutely no problem with anyone taking whatever they like, it’s just not for me. But hey, it didn’t stop me writing a song about it!
PM: Your vocal approach seems a lot more assured on this album, compared to “Temple Dog”.
ST: I’ve become a lot more comfortable with singing over the past couple of years. With “Temple Dog”, I was really just coming to terms with the whole idea of singing. I mean, I was one of three singers in the twentysevens, but I was certainly not used to the idea of being a front-person. In the studio with “Temple Dog”, I would think, now how should I approach this song? I was actually trying to change the sound of my voice to sort of suit the song. But I have come to fully realise my limitations as a singer from playing live, and have worked out what works best, and that’s just to let it happen naturally. You can’t force your voice to sound a certain way – well I certainly can’t anyway. I was a bit embarrassed in the studio with Sarah, to be singing with someone with such an amazing voice. But she was the one who said to me, you know what, your sort of gravelly natural voice has become your trademark, just embrace it and go with it. And the majority of these songs are very personal, family stories ……it just wouldn’t work, the songs would lose their integrity, if I got someone else to sing them.
PM: You had a stellar team of players on the album?
ST: Absolutely. Once again I feel privileged and blessed to have had these amazing musicians bring their talents to my songs. My longtime band mates from Rough Red were at the core – John Barr (bass guitar), Dave Parnell (drums), and Peter Harvey (piano, accordion, harmonica). Steve Cook plays some great fiddle/violin and mandolin. Sarah of course, also adding backing vocals to another track, as well as the lead vocals and flute on “Back To The Bar”. Thierry Fossemalle, a Byron local, came in to play double bass. Steve Case dropped by to add some backing vocals on a track. My wife Karen plays some piano and percussion. And then on “In The Middle”, I brought in the three jazz players, the same guys I used for a couple of tracks on “Temple Dog”. That’s Dave Spicer on piano, Lee Matthews on double bass, and Dave Cotgreave on drums.
PM: You have a pretty extensive tour coming up?
ST: Yes, I’m touring pretty constantly from early September through to mid December, taking in Queensland, including three festivals (Neurum Creek, Majors Creek and Tablelands), then dates in NSW, South Australia, Victoria and the ACT. I’ll be playing with a few different line-ups. The Rough Red lads will be with me for some shows, then Andy Kirkcaldie, an old mate from Sydney, is sitting on drums and Dave Johnson, another old friend from the UK, on bass for some other gigs. Steve Cook is going to slot in when his busy schedule allows, and hopefully Sarah will be able to make an appearance along the way so we can do the duet live.
PM: Best of luck with it.
ST: Cheers Paul
Steve’s tour dates are listed on his web site www.stevetyson.com.au
GREEN SIDE UP is available now via the web site, or most good record shops (Red Music / MGM Distribution)
Paul Martin hosts “Crossroads” on Thursdays from 6pm to 8pm on Bay FM 99.9, Byron Bay.
“TEMPLE DOG” Steve Tyson While Steve Tyson has been a regular fixture around the Brisbane music scene for many years, he is probably best known to us folkies as the guitarist, mandolin player and songwriter with local hero’s Rough Red. This is his first solo album and the songs represent to the listener a series of postcards from a life well spent. Thirteen songs that, in his own words, encapsulate Steve’s extensive travels through exotic locations like India, Russia, Japan, Bhutan and Vietnam interspersed with tales of post 9-11 trauma, family skeletons, caustic political satire, and matters of the heart. It all started in 2009 when Steve and his wife Karen spent an idyllic few months living in Paris. Every day Steve would disappear to a little cafe around the corner, hoping to draw on the inspiration of this beautiful city and the great Ernest Hemingway and write a novel. However, the notebooks soon became full of poems and stories and journal entries that became the foundation of the songs on this album.
With the help of some fantastic Brisbane musicians, Chrissy Euston on accordion and harmonica, Joe Cryle on pedal steel and dobro; Ben Hooper on cello, Dave Lee on violin, Dave Spicer on piano, Lee Matthews on double bass, and Dave Cotgreave on drums and Sarah Collyer duets with Steve on one song. Former Rough Red band mates John Barr and Dave Parnell played bass and drums and Dave also engineered and produced this album. The quality of Steve’s voice as the opening track ‘Road’ begins is a surprise. It’s breathy, almost fragile quality draws the listener in like an intimate embrace. Track highlights for me are ‘War Torn’, a song about wars, from WW2 to Vietnam to the recent wars including Pakistan and the emotional scars that result. Bluesy, distorted guitars and wailing harp punctuate the succinct, poignant lyrics. My favourite is the tale of lost love ‘To Be There’. Pedal steel, mandolin and cello combine in a lilting wistful reverie.
‘Old Whores’ was inspired by a trip to Russia where Steve saw the headquarters for the KGB. It is a sultry jazz track with sparse piano, double bass and drum accompaniment. Steve trades vocals with Sarah Collyer to create a very mellow groove. ‘The Great Divide’ has a happy country feel with some fantastic fiddling and pedal steel. Just as the subjects are as vast as their locations around the globe, so are the musical styles on this album. Each track moves seamlessly from blues, rock, jazz and even country. Just when you think you have a handle on the groove, the next track will catch you unawares. Steve is performing around town with The Industrious Felons featuring regular collaborator Dave Parnell on drums and guitar, John Barr on bass, and Chrissy Euston (from Stockade) on accordion, mandolin, and harmonica. As the great Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “Life is a journey, not a destination…” I’d hazard a guess that if this album represents his recent journey’s, he’ll be hoping he doesn’t arrive at his destination any time soon.
By Cathy Bell