These were always going to be hard songs to live down. Not because of any inherent flaws, but rather, because of the sheer infectiousness stemming from frontperson Sam Cromack’s lyrical and vocal hooks. But Cromack and his four band mates—bass player Jennifer Boyce, keyboardist Paul Furness, guitarist Dean Hanson and drummer Daniel Hanson—have defied the odds, and then some.
The band will flex their sing-along propensity at Paul Kelly’s Making Gravy shows this December. The three-date tour begins at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl before moving to Brisbane’s Riverstage, with Ball Park Music playing the role of sous chef to Kelly’s chef de cuisine.
Ball Park Music are now more than a decade into their career, but they’re as popular as ever. Not only was ‘It’s Nice to Be Alive’ voted the 17th best song of the 2010s by triple j listeners, but the recent single, ‘Cherub’, placed fourth in the Hottest 100 of 2020.
At least some of Ball Park Music’s success can be chalked up to the band members’ sustained enthusiasm for making music. While they never let much time elapse between releases—their sixth album, last year’s Ball Park Music, came just nine years after their debut—they’ve kept well clear of self-parody.
The band’s latest single ‘Sunscreen’, a spirited guitar-pop song that rises to a Beach Boys-esque vocal climax, is a case in point. ‘Sunscreen’ arrives just 12 months after the self-titled LP, but comfortably slots in next to ‘Cherub’, ‘It’s Nice to Be Alive’, ‘Exactly How You Are’ and ‘She Only Loves Me When I’m There’ in Ball Park Music’s catalogue of hits.
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Tone Deaf spoke to Sam Cromack about writing ‘Sunscreen’, staying motivated and the Making Gravy tour.
Tone Deaf: You just released the new single ‘Sunscreen’. Lyrically, it’s quite an earnest song, touching on themes of acceptance, facing up to reality and enduring the surprises life throws at you. What are the origins of this song?
Sam Cromack: I had the opening verse for some time, that opening lyric about “a fantasy is just that; a fantasy.” I wrote it on the piano and I remember thinking, “Oh, I like this tune and this feels good, but it also feels like it could be cheesy.” I mean, just the word “fantasy” alone felt like a weird one to embrace. But I shared it with the band and they were like, “There’s definitely something here.”
I definitely am having more and more songs as I get older where I don’t sit down as much with a clear idea before I begin. I’m more just floating along and seeing what drivel comes out of my mouth and kind of waiting for the ones that resonate with me or resonate with the band.
TD: Is that how the lyrics for the chorus came together?
SC: I was actually running the bath for my daughter one time and sometimes the most mundane thoughts can end up having some kind of meaning for you. And that’s where I got the lyric, “At first the water was warm, but it went so cold, so fast.” Sometimes it’s a long time between running the bath and getting a toddler to get in the damn bath.
That’s kind of how my mind works—it’s almost like this compulsive habit of just singing every activity I’m moving through and sometimes, some of them, you’re like, “Oh fuck, that feels like it has more than one meaning.”
TD: ‘Sunscreen’ doesn’t have a linear narrative structure. The more time you’ve spent writing songs, do you think you’ve grown more comfortable sticking with certain lyrics, even when you’re not one hundred per cent sure what they mean?
SC: Since day one, one of my biggest mottos and something that we’ve valued in the band is the old saying, “Write what you know”. As I get older and maybe there’s less linear narrative to be the foundation of a song, I’m having to wait more patiently and see what things do sit well side by side and see what things do just come into your mind and strike you with some kind of meaning.
Without getting too carried away, you end up having a more spiritual approach to your songwriting, where you end up having some belief that if you do wait patiently, the right words will come and when they sit next to each other, you will know.
TD: When it comes to releasing a new single, do you think about whether you’re bettering yourselves or adding something new to the catalogue?
SC: Oh, absolutely. It’s agonising. We still have so much love for what we do. We get together on an almost full-time basis to create music, because that’s what we love doing. And we create a lot of stuff, but naturally we want to evolve and get better.
We always say we want to try to put records out where people just say, “It’s too good to be true, they’ve done it again, it’s another good record.” That’s our goal, you know? And I feel like that’s us, too, trying to fully embrace the huge privilege that this is to be in a band that’s still cracking after this long.
TD: Is ‘Sunscreen’ the first taste of Ball Park Music’s seventh album?
SC: We’re recording at the moment something that will obviously become a record at some point, but it’s far from finished and it feels scary but thrilling to have one song out. You’re like, “Fuck, we’ve got to finish this thing,” but it’s also a good kick up the arse. It’s sort of a thrill to make your music in reaction to stuff that’s already released.
TD: You’re playing the Making Gravy shows at Sidney Myer Music Bowl and Riverstage in December. You actually headlined both venues earlier this year, right?
SC: Yeah! It’s crazy, we’re really not a big enough artist to play those venues under normal circumstances, but with COVID, suddenly we found ourselves playing Sidney Myer Music Bowls and Riverstages to significantly reduced capacities, but having some awesome shows, getting to enjoy the spectacle and production of those huge venues.
TD: They’ll be closer to full capacity for these shows. Are you all Paul Kelly fans?
SC: I think for a lot of us, his music’s in our blood. Like, my parents played a tonne of Paul Kelly when I was growing up. I really understood just how much I was familiar with his music when, close to ten years ago, I was at Splendour in the Grass and my dad was there too and we went to watch Paul Kelly. And I just remember enjoying the shit out of it and being like, “Oh man, we know all these songs!” He’s got so many hits hiding under his belt.
Paul Kelly’s Christmas Train is released November 19th.
Paul Kelly ‘Making Gravy’ Tour Dates 2021
With special guests Ball Park Music, Sycco, and Emma Donovan & The Putbacks
Thursday, December 9th
Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, VIC
Thursday, December 10th NEW SHOW
Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, VIC
Saturday, December 18th
Riverstage, Brisbane, QLD
Tickets on sale now