Felix Riebl on his songwriting process ahead of his Melbourne show

Felix Riebl is a man who has lived a whole host of musical lives. Though perhaps best known as the frontman of folk-pop powerhouse The Cat Empire, he has also released music under his own name and is gearing up to release a record via the Spinifex Gum moniker next year.

This clearly is a musician who resents having to stay still: a man who has barely finished one project before he starts gearing up for the next.
Indeed, given those musical hats – not to mention that unstoppable work ethic – you would assume that Riebl has the music-making process down to a fine, precise art. After all, when you’ve released as many studio records as the man (12 and counting), surely some part of the music process becomes mechanical; surely it becomes the kind of thing you can do with your eyes closed.
But for Riebl, quite the opposite is true: songwriting isn’t some knowable series of points to be checked off as much as it is an ever-deepening mystery. Things get tougher rather than easier over the years, and the artform makes about as much sense to him now as it did when he began.  
“I think you can never set out to do something specifically,” Riebl says of his process. “You just have to stay true to what makes sense to you artistically. And what makes sense to you artistically is never anything specific. You can look back at work that you have done and go, ‘It is clear that I was interested in that aspect of Australia at that point,’ for example, but I think it’s really important for me to respond to that which I don’t understand when I start writing songs. It’s a lot more exciting that way.”
Of course, that’s not to say that the man works in a complete bubble – he has a long history as a touring performer to draw from, and he often writes songs explicitly with the live setting in mind. “Sometimes there are contexts,” he says. “Like, The Cat Empire – when I’m writing with them, I can think of the hundreds and hundreds of festivals that we have played with that band, and conjure up something in a song that might get me back [to that] emotional place. But that’s still a very vague idea.
“Writing an album then performing it is a bit like the snake eating its own tail,” he continues. “You know, the thing is made up of the stuff that it is carrying, insofar as you write songs in order to get certain moments onstage. Like [audience members] singing back the words – that is an obvious example. When that happens, it’s a great feeling. So there’s part of me that writes music to get back to that place again.”
He also has other specific limitations that he works within too, many of which are self-imposed. Riebl argues that he writes his best songs while colouring in the lines, so to speak – while he has something to write around; to write for. “It’s good if within projects there are limitations or contexts that force you to make interesting decisions,” he says.
“For instance, with [Spinifex Gum] we used samples of all sorts of things like nature, kids throwing basketballs against the back of hoops, mining trains. We altered the sounds a lot, and we turned them into drum machines. And those limitations gave the album an atmosphere, and when an album has an atmosphere, you can write more songs in response to that. Those kinds of limitations and edges really help.”
Ultimately, such obstructions are always propped up in order to keep Riebl testing himself, and pushing himself in new, unexpected directions. That’s why no Cat Empire record sounds like a Felix Riebl record – why everything the man touches is fresh, and new. “I really try in my creative life not to fall into patterns of being me. Because that happens anyway.
“My voice is my voice: I can’t help that anymore. I just don’t want to do the same thing. I want to listen to other things and try other things and follow ideas that are outrageous, even if that outrage is expressed in a private or subtle way.”
By Joseph Earp

Felix Riebl will perform at Memo Music Hall on Saturday May 13 with nyck.