Mikelangelo And The Tin Star
The fact that Mikelangelo – singer, guitarist, performer and eponymous front man of Mikelangelo And The Tin Star – grew up in the notionally staid pseudo-city of Canberra might be seen as incongruous. After all, Canberra doesn’t exactly have a reputation for cultural vibrancy. “It’s actually quite the opposite,” Mikelangelo counters. “I can understand why people passing through there might think that, but there’s this whole subterranean life going on there. It’s definitely a hard place to stay, but as a place to grow up in, it was fantastic. So many artists are from regional towns that don’t seem very exciting, but you have to look past the fence sittings – and Canberra is a bit like that.”
Mikelangelo grew up in Canberra in the 1970s and 1980s, listening to his parents’ music collection. “I think one of the reasons I like Tom Waits is because of the grounding I had listening to music when I grew up,” he says. “Mum used to sing me these old gunfighter songs – which isn’t far from what I do now!” Mikelangelo said, laughing. By the early 1980s Mikelangelo, though only in his early teens, was already checking out the local Canberra band scene; eventually he made his way to Sydney to see the various local and international bands on offer. “I remember seeing The Cramps in Sydney and thinking ‘That’s the man!’,” Mikelangelo recalls.
Having already made the decision to become a musician and performer, Mikelangelo eventually formed the theatrical musical act the Black Sea Gentlemen, touring across Australia and into Europe. It was while playing the Edinburgh Festival with the Black Sea Gentlemen about seven years ago that Mikelangelo first crossed paths with Amanda Palmer, lead singer with the Dresden Dolls. It was a meeting that would subsequently lead to a tour, and on-stage collaborations at both the Sydney Opera House and at the Old Bar in Fitzroy. “She was in the audience at a Black Sea Gentlemen show at the Edinburgh Festival, and she absolutely loved it,” Mikelangelo says. “I remember seeing this woman in the front row and thinking ‘she’s really enjoying the show’. After the show she came up and said we should do some shows together. We ended up doing our first tour together in 2010. She’s a very dynamic person, and both of us highly value spontaneity,” he says.
It’s that sense of spontaneity that Mikelangelo says is at the heart of his own personal enjoyment of music, both as a performer and as a member of the audience. “For the audience, that sense of spontaneity is fantastic,” he says. “So often there’s a lack of spontaneity in what’s being performed. Rock’n’roll should always have some of that excitement - in some ways, having that openness and vulnerability is the opposite of self-indulgence.”
A few years ago Mikelangelo decided to introduce another string to his performance bow, when he returned to another critical ingredient in his musical upbringing, the distinctive tremolo guitar sounds of surf and western music. While there’s a consistent musical edge to surf and western music, culturally they’re a mile apart – unless, of course, if you consider surfers to be the cowboys of the beach. It’s an association Mikelangelo hasn’t contemplated before, but which seems to resonate. “I’ve never thought of it that way!” he says. “And they’re out on the prairies of the waves! But for me it’s a musical link – it’s that twangy guitar, and the tremolo drenched guitar sound of the late '50s that’s common to both styles of music. I find that style both spooky and exciting at the same time. But it’s melancholy at the same time. Between that breakneck excitement and lonesome tunes, that suits my personality,” Mikelangelo laughs.
Recently Mikelangelo decided to indulge other elements of his musical education, when he played a Wednesday night residency at Old Bar in Fitzroy, playing albums by Tom Waits (Frank’s Wild Years), Leonard Cohen (Songs of Love and Hate), Nick Cave (Your Funeral, My Trial) and Johnny Cash (American Recordings) in their entirety. While the opportunity to play some of his favourite albums, and formative influences, was exciting, it was also a heavy experience. “With Leonard Cohen, doing those songs was a bitter pill – some of them are very bleak,” Mikelangelo says. “And even with Nick Cave, that’s a very personal album. Doing the whole album was like going into Nick Cave’s dirty laundry and putting it all on!,” he laughs.
This week Mikelangelo and the Tin Star play the Northcote Theatre, as part of that venue’s 100th anniversary celebrations. “I’ve been asked to play there a few times, but this is the first time it’s all worked out,” Mikelangelo says. Joining Mikelangelo on the night will be St Clare, JP Shilo, Jack Howard (Hunters and Collectors) and Miles Brown (Night Terrors). “We’re also off to Europe soon, so it’ll be my bon voyage show. It’s a great spot, and a great room, and I think we can make it work.”
Mikelangelo is one of relatively few musicians who’ve managed to make music a full-time career. It’s a challenge, and occasionally tough to manage. “I’m lucky that I do a lot of different things – MCing, theatrical performance, rock’n’roll,” Mikelangelo says. “I don’t expect everyone to like everything I’m doing, though I’d love it if they did. I’m my own artist, and that’s what I do. I bite off more than I can chew – that’s just my nature!” he laughs.
BY PATRICK EMERY
Mikelangelo And The Tin Star play Northcote Theatre on Friday July 20.