How a Songwriter (and ex-minor Rock Star) made an Album with no Lead Singer, Identifiable Sound, Image, or Act

Eighteen months ago songwriter, producer and former Boom Crash Opera band member, Peter Farnan, embarked on a new recording project where 12 guest vocalists sing songs written and recorded by him.

Farnan’s guests included Paul Kelly, Deborah Conway, Tim Rogers (You Am I), Rebecca Barnard, Sean Kelly (The Models), Sarah Ward (aka Yana Alana), Paul Capsis, Ali Barter, Charles Jenkins, Emily Lubitz (Tinpan Orange), Simon Burke (Lost Ragas and The Meltdown) and Dan Tobias (aka Otto Rot from Die Roten Punkte). 

Twelve songs, 12 singers; an album of songs with a different singer on every song. Pesky Bones Volume One is now completed. But is this mash up of performers and styles commercial/artistic suicide or the way forward?

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I remember how big the first two Portishead records were in the ‘90s. They earned a niche in the ’90s zeitgeist with their wonderfully grainy texture and their consistent and sustained vinyl-inflected ambience. I sat through many dinner parties where that music was elegantly situated in the background, with its instantly recognisable retro lo-fi aesthetic.

As I came through the music industry ranks the golden rule was ‘create a clearly defined sound, image, ethos and visual iconography and then tour and market it until exhausted’. Think of the Stones, The Who, James Taylor, Carole King, Kraftwerk, Van Halen, Nirvana, the Strokes, PJ Harvey and Muse and you can conjure an instantaneous sonic and visual image in your mind. The Cure recently toured our shores. Although there is texture and variety in their magnificent oeuvre, squint (literally and metaphorically) and you see a goth-haystack hairdo, eyeliner and lippy, dirgey-strummed guitars and nihilist lyrics (‘it’s always the same ….again and again and again’).

I think of the Pixies and I hear the scream, the loud and soft, the non-sequitur lyrics that take me out of myself, Bon Iver; heart-on-the-sleeve melding into abstracted folk electronica, Regina Spektor; beautiful, whimsical, tangential, scaling twittery melodic heights. Elton John, pianos, Neil Young, guitars, Julianne Newsom, harps.

We like our artists to be consistent; to represent a sound and set of values that we can easily make a decision about.

There have certainly been great artists who have attempted to buck the industry’s implicit gravitational impulsion towards compression and focus of sound and imagery (including many of the artists I’ve already listed). David Bowie and Prince are prominent examples. Joni Mitchell most famously created and popularised the trope of the female confessional singer-songwriter but refused to be limited or defined by it, moving through any number of expressive and exploratory phases, led by her muse. Because of this artistic wilfulness she never fully achieved the commercial or critical prominence that I (and dare I say, she) think(s) she richly deserves. If Dylan is god then Joni is god with better music (leave your comments at the end).

Not only has the music industry required consistency. Sometimes we like our artists to be consistent; to represent a sound and set of values that we can easily apprehend and make a decision about. Do I identify with that package? Do I want to go there? Is this the right fever for Saturday Night before going out or Sunday morning coming down? What gets me going in the morning or distracts me from the humdrum? Who expresses what I really feel or who I would like to be if I wasn’t me?

Pesky Bones has no lead singer, no identifiable sound, no image, no act.

Given this imperative how would a middle-aged, ex-minor rock star approach making an album? With my big selling records in the distant past, no industry push behind me, no budget and no distinctive singing voice I decided to make an album that explored what it felt like to be my age, in this place and time. I have no consistent sound, and to make matters worse, I have chosen a different singer for every song. I gave the project a band name – Pesky Bones. I can hide behind this monicker and substitute in any singer or musician I want. Pesky Bones has no lead singer, no identifiable sound, no image, no act.

I didn’t want the music to be ‘Adult-Oriented Rock (ie dull, defeated, mature). Instead I wanted it to be enlivened, full of the energy, adventure and provocation of youth. I’ve spent the last two Australia Days listening to the Hottest 100 and writing about it for the Daily Review. With some exceptions I was impressed. But I need lyrics I can identify with and the kids can’t provide that.

As I started writing, sometimes with singers in mind, sometimes without, I was all over the musical map. I feared that this album would not be a ‘Portishead-at-dinner-parties’ hit. I wrote a song for Tim Rogers to sing; Get Me To A Churchhas touch of bright Beach Boys pop to it. The protagonist testily laments the dissolution of his marriage, his estrangement from his kids, his regrets and, as mortality grimly encroaches, his desire to to continue burning brightly right up to the end.

Let’s make our pesky bones dance. Oh boy, the music industry cash registers just slammed shut at the thought of that.

My theme (or themes) were emerging; memory, regret, sex, mortality, do not go gentle yada yada; in short, the complexity of life in the middle ages. We’re not satisfied. We’re still making mistakes. The end is coming. Let’s make our pesky bones dance. Oh boy, the music industry cash registers just slammed shut at the thought of that.

The next song was in a completely different style – a downcast and ruminating country space waltz – but it picked up on themes from its predecessor. In Now That Our Babies Have Grown Paul Kelly and Rebecca Barnard are an empty-nester couple, with a sombre double bass and downcast guitar accompaniment. The musical style was threatening to spill all over the place, the dinner party disrupted.

At that point I just went ‘what the heck’. If I felt things were getting too dour I banged out a rocker. If I thought things were getting too serious I went for dark humour. I love pop so I popped. I was writing and recording as I went. Before a song was finished (sometimes in an effort to ‘find’ the song) I would purposefully start recording it before I knew what it was. I plugged my guitar into strange boxes and made it sound like a synth. I fired up my 40 year old Casio keyboard and made it sound like a guitar.

I’d like to say that I felt joyously liberated. In fact I was lost; lost in a maelstrom of stylistic confusion, expressive ambition and the desire to ‘get it all out of me.’ It was like a fearful and fantastic purging of a life of accumulated influences and musical love affairs. I couldn’t hear a cohesive album for the stylistic static. I doubted I’d ever finish an album. As soon as a musical thread offered itself I would abandon it because a particular distorted sound had taken my fancy.

There was no tidy ending. I just kept going. There’s a lot to be said for just keeping going.

How long can a person spend examining the texture of snare drums, or questioning the aesthetic of one direction over another? Richard Pleasance, my old band mate from Boom Crash Opera who plays upright bass on Babies, said ‘stop second guessing yourself – you’ll never get anything done”. Was this just a string of unrelated songs? The dinner party was looking like a disaster. ‘What is this rubbish? Have you got any Portishead?’

Insert happy ending paragraph here. There was no tidy ending. I just kept going. There’s a lot to be said for just keeping going. In the end I whittled it down to 15 songs. Deborah Conway, who sings on the album, said 15 is too many so now it’s 12; 12 singers, 12 songs in diverse styles looking at the themes elucidated above from a variety of viewpoints and perspectives. I’ve tried it at dinner parties – it sounds like a record because, after initial compliments, everybody ignored it because the food, wine, company and conversation was good; all that effort just to be ignored. If you don’t do the work a record won’t have a soul. If you do the work then it will ascend to the heights of sinking into the background. In fact its diversity makes it sound like a personal music player on shuffle. How 21st century. That ‘Portishead consistency’ is so last century.

You can hear the Paul Kelly/Rebecca Barnard duet, Now That Our Babies Have Grown here.

You can find out more about Pesky Bones Volume One – interviews and videos and pre-order the albumhere. It will be released in October.

In addition to performing, song writing and producing recordings for other artists and bands, Peter Farnan has a research Masters in popular song structuring. He will be conducting a Daily Review Songwriting Masterclass on Saturday, September 10 from 1pm to 5pm at the Australian Institute of Music (AIM) 120 King Street, Melbourne.

The cost for the practical, hands-on, four hour session costs $178 includes GST,  refreshments, and booking charges and an earlybird discount price of $158 will also apply. The class will be strictly limited to 20 participants of all skill levels and ages. Booking details will be announced on Daily Review this week but you can register your interest or send any inquiries about the Masterclass to: info@dailyreview.com.au