Jack Colwell’s music is gutsy for a relatively new artist on the Australian indie scene. With a penchant for classical orchestration, elaborate piano work and past flirtations with medieval sounds, electronic distortion and fairytales, he’s certainly not run-of-the-mill.
Colwell’s deep, resounding voice which – on tape – echoes Nick Cave or Patrick Wolf, isn’t quite so booming over the phone, taking more of a nasal quality, which is very endearing. “I’ve been teaching lots of holiday classes and that sort of stuff [lately],” explains the self-taught Colwell, who was trained in double bass and studied at the Conservatorium Of Music in Sydney but taught himself piano, singing and songwriting as well as guitar and ukulele.
“I’ve been covering for teachers who have gone away and stuff like that. I have two ukulele classes (three adults and five kids) and then I teach bass guitar too.”
It’s unsurprising once you see Colwell perform. The sheer breadth of his musicality is impressive – his virtuosic piano performances and complex, lush arrangements combine with some ye olde worlde lyrical explorations to really create an experience not of this time… or world.
“Shows have been going pretty well in Sydney, but I’ve taken a break from shows from November onwards because I was recording my first album at Studio Ripple,” explains Colwell, who will embark on his first Melbourne tour shortly. “It’s a studio on King Street in the city in Sydney where they do a lot of classical recording.
“Half of the studio is run by a classical composer/classical music expert and the other half is run by Chris Rollans, who works with all the rock and pop sort of instruments. They used to do lots of orchestral scoring and string recording there, like for Baz Luhrmann’s Australia but recently they’ve recorded artists like Lanie Lane, Cloud Control – who we shared the studio with at the time – Tim Rogers and Boy & Bear. So they’ve started to move into more of a pop/rock feel as well as their classical roots.”
The story of the studio isn’t unlike Colwell’s personal story. Beginning with a very strong and overpowering classical sound, his music has evolved over the past year to really take on a new flavour, with echoes of the music of his childhood – mainly ‘60s music – taking the place of the chamber music sounds that drove his earlier work.
“I used to listen to a lot of Tori Amos and PJ Harvey and that sort of thing and when I wanted to learn how to write what I felt was really good music, music with a groove, I went back to ‘60s music that I grew up with,” Colwell explains. “And not just folk stuff like Peter Paul & Mary – I was listening to a lot of Skeeter Davis and I kept listening to a song, This Old Heart Of Mine (by The Isley Brothers in 1966).
“I really liked how those old records were produced and recorded because everyone is playing at once – that’s the feel I was going for when I was recording my album: group vocals around one mic and we tried to have as much stuff played live as possible to get more of a feel of the record. I guess in terms of contemporary stuff I like how Feist’s The Reminder was produced…” he trails off. “I’ve got my own harmonium now so I’ve been playing a lot with the tracking, which changes the songwriting a lot,” he finishes, obliquely.
But that’s kind of how Colwell’s brain just works – flitting from one idea to the next, the creativity is palpable. Noticeably, a lot of the artists – vocalists, particularly – that he references are female. Colwell agrees. “I don’t tend to listen to male artists as much as female artists. I’ve always really liked Nick Cave and Patrick Wolf and to some degree I like Rufus Wainwright... I think just in terms of my own personal tastes I prefer a female sound, which is funny, but I think that maybe that comes across in the music that I write which does seem kind of feminine in a way. It’s just something that kind of happens, I guess,” he ponders.
His forthcoming Pigeons And Peacocks Melbourne tour with Sydney pianist friend Brendan Maclean teams him up with another ivory-tinkling boy, who Colwell says he’s got a history with.
“Brendan and I used to hate each other, when we first met,” he laughs. “We met for a magazine article and he hated me and I had a crush on him and I was sort of spurned so I ended up hating him anyway. It took a couple of years for us to work out that we were sort of appealing to the same audience so we have decided to combine our powers like Captain Planet and work together... We were talking about releasing a featured single together later on in the year when we have time to get together and record it properly. We’re both interested in the idea of a duet of two guys but not in a gay way – just two guys singing together. We’re going to try to make it not in a gay way. Maybe I’ll use a different name.”
Good luck with that, Jack. Nevertheless, it’s worth checking these two young musical masterminds out when they head down to our windy city – in a way, Colwell’s music is a welcome refresher from your basic indie rock, and a beautiful one at that.
JACK COLWELL & THE OWLS and Brendan Maclean are in Melbourne this week, with Jack debuting songs from his upcoming debut album, Picture Window , to be released in April. Pigeons & Peacocks is Jack ’ s first show in Melbourne to be performed at the lovely little vintage venue, The Butterfly Club, this Tuesday February 1. Tickets and info from butterflyclub.com.