Michael Di Iorio and Jack Colwell explore the dreams, nightmares and fantasies that built up Swandream, Colwell’s upcoming album made with the help of Sarah Blasko, tales of transformation, and a Kate Bush song or two.
Jack Colwell has been breaking down barriers and pushing the limits of what music should and can sound like for quite some time now, and we’ve been eagerly waiting for his next project since his killer EP Only When Flooded Could I Let Go came out three years ago in 2016.
Earlier this year he’s returned with the stellar track ‘In My Dreams’, a delicate and broken ode to relationships fleeting passed their prime, only to be perfect upon one’s sweetly splendid slumbers. The track was then followed by ‘Weak’, a crumbling and harrowing gaze upon queer struggle that evolves and shifts over time.
I sat down with Jack Colwell to discuss his new album Swandream, which will be coming out early 2020, and together we explored the nature of the new project, which was carefully crafted with assistance from the unreasonably talented Sarah Blasko.
Listen to ‘In My Dreams’ by Jack Colwell below
So, the ‘In My Dreams’ video just came out, it seems so strange seeing you in the real because I’ve been watching the video all day. The song just came out with the help of Sarah Blasko who is a good friend of yours. Could you tell me about working with Sarah?
It was really amazing. For somebody like me, it was really special to work with Sarah because when I was a teenager Sarah was one of my favourite three artists of all time.
Each one of Sarah’s albums was such a big Australian album but I remember her second record was such a big release. Sarah defiantly dominated Triple J and the Australian music market, and I even remember, I was saving my school lunch money each week to buy her music.
Was that how long ago it was?
Yeah. 2006 I think the record came out. I would have been 16 when What the Sea Wants, The Sea Will Have came out and I remember going to an independent music store in Paddington to buy the record. I have this really distinct memory, they had a wall runner of Sarah’s second album and I was desperate to take the poster home and they said ‘yeah if you come back after the campaign you can take it home and put it up in your house.’ I was so excited to even have this poster and now I’m friends with her and I’ve made an album with her.
For me, it seems like a really amazing professional milestone to do. It was an amazing opportunity. It was amazing to work with Sarah. She is definitely one of the hardest working and most committed people I’ve ever met in music. I can only imagine what it’s like being a woman in the music industry. I think the conversation is definitely changing now though. Even with queer artists.
Still a long way to go
Yeah, I think there’s definitely still a long way to go for Queer artists. I definitely think Sarah’s dedication, her passion and her commitment to everything throughout the process was just amazing. It was really inspiring. With the album that’s coming out, Sarah invited me to come to her home every Wednesday for four-five months. And I would play the material that I was working on for Sarah and she would give me a really amazing, critical feedback on what she liked and didn’t like as my homework.
She made me really believe in myself and my writing and what I want to talk about on the record. The album kind of looks at my childhood and some type of trauma that I had, and I guess feelings that I have as being a queer artist and somebody that doesn’t get offered to exist in totally queer or gay spaces all the time.
Or spaces in general really. How do you find you are treated in specifically queer spaces?
I’ve found it difficult to be accepted in a lot of queer spaces. I found that I’ve always been embraced by more artistic scenes and by musicians. Working with Sarah… she really empowered me to think about what I was writing and try to be as true to myself as possible with my experiences.
I felt really empowered by Sarah’s enthusiasm and belief in my work. She really tried to strip down the elements to what she felt made me my most authentic self.
You mentioned fitting in queer spaces. Do you feel there’s any pressure when you’re making music, if you don’t make a very niche type of queer music?
No. I feel like I’ve always made my music for myself. I’ve always written music I liked, and would listen to. I started writing music when I was a teenager as a coping mechanism, as a way I could express myself emotionally and then bit by bit it became more of a serious professional thing that I did. I’m definitely not worried about writing music that appeals to certain spaces as I’ve always written music I want to listen to and if other people enjoy it then it’s great. I’m lucky that people are enjoying my music.
Australia is a tricky market for many musicians and its so wonderful to see radio and media come out and support so many queer artists now. But I definitely feel like even before my EP, four or five years ago, the culture wasn’t the same. There’s been a really drastic shift. But I could still probably count on one or two hands the amount of big queer artists.
Listen to Jack Colwell inspiration Kate Bush below
Your new tracks take some very obvious inspiration from Kate Bush. Was she a big influence on the project?
I love her, I saw her live at her 35-year show in London. That one was one of the first things that Sarah and I bonded over. Sarah loves Kate Bush. We sang together at this marriage equality concert that I helped at the end. We sang ‘Cloudbusting’, which is essentially about this boy whose dad was a cult leader in America and he invented this machine that could harvest the air in the clouds around us and the energy from peoples orgasms and place the energy in this machine to make power out of it. He became a cult leader and then was arrested. This is a real story. His son made a book about it years later and his machine was called the Cloud Buster. The song is so incredibly written.
When I was growing up, I was convinced the song was about a gay child because when I read the lyrics ‘it’s your son coming out’ but when Kate wrote the song, I think she meant that he was coming out and revealing the story. But a lot of people had this pro-LGBT mindset. It’s funny in a way. I listen to it all the time.
Kate has always been a big influence on my music, I feel nothing but happiness that people can pick up on. Her more unusual sounds, like in ‘Waking the Witch’, are things I really tried to use as inspiration for my first album. ‘In my Dreams’ is the most ‘popular’ song on my record and then it’s probably going to get darker, more confessional and a bit more surreal from there.
What other musical inspirations do you have?
I’ve always been inspired by the same people. I love Tori Amos. There was a period when I was in my late teens / early twenties when I just listened to Tori Amos, I was obsessed. When I had an iPod, I had 724 tracks of Tori Amos songs, bootlegs, live versions and covers. Tori is someone I am inspired by with my writing.
When I was first demoing the first album, 5/6 years ago, I had some songs that didn’t sound as much my own voice. They say when you try to do a painting for the first time, you do a copy of a painting,
I think I’ve found my own voice. Some days I love my work and would shout it from the rooftops and some days I have a complicated relationship with it. I always feel very proud of the work I’ve done. I think that my own voice is my own now and I’m excited to share that with people.
Listen to Jack Colwell inspiration Tori Amos below
What is it like performing these new songs from the album live?
I think some of the songs on the album are so personal that when I perform them live, I don’t want them to be distracted by anything else. I admire artists that can perform solo really well. That’s part of the reason why I love Tori Amos. She’s toured the entire world, even the Opera House multiple times, just playing an entire show on a grand piano and I would love to be able to work up to the point that I feel that confident as a solo artist.
I want to perform these songs with conviction and power, especially my personal songs. They are political in a queer way about very confusing feelings, how I feel about my own body and my own queerness, childhood trauma, sexual abuse and violence. And then there’s some of the normal songs about failed relationships. I want to show the power in them, and I feel ready to do that now.
From the sounds of it you need to be very prepared to revisit those topics. What’s it like going back to those mindsets?
It’s really emotional. I’m really surprised, I’ve been rehearsing for the shows. There are two songs that I sang in the studio and I haven’t been able to sing again since I went into the studio and I know I have to do them live. I’ve only been able to play them on the piano, because I feel terrified about singing these two songs in front of other people. I also feel it’s important and I have to find the courage to go through this work and this process. It will be good for me to do that.
The name of the upcoming new album is Swandream. Where did that come from?
It’s kind of a hodge-podge of a name because when I was starting to write the record, I had all these songs about the idea of working through trauma and transforming yourself. My family used to listen a wad of classical music. I really loved classical music because I loved these big stories of fantasy around the music and as soon as you get to the 19th century you get the romantic side. For the first time in history people are writing music for themselves. Not for a church or a party. Stories of love and addiction and fantasy and it helps people get into classical music a bit more if they don’t have a way in.
I was fascinated with Swan Lake and the idea that transformation could lead you to be a truer version of yourself. It got me really thinking about this idea of transformation in Queer people. A lot of Queer people struggle with the idea what they should be like and overcoming their own traumas to reach a point of who they think they are going to be. And then people get to the point and realise they have all this stuff that they haven’t really dealt with. I know that happened to me.
I guess the swan is a well-used archetype, but archetypes can do a lot of the work for you sometimes. People come to it with their own preconceived ideas. It’s a story that has some test of time measure. In my case, the swan is a nightmare creature. I don’t think my record is about becoming a beautiful swan and that everything is fine, it’s like having a dream then realising that the dream is a nightmare. There’s a track that closes out the record called ‘A Spell’ which is a song I wrote myself during a difficult time about hope. As bleak as some of the record is, it’s also hopeful to people.
Listen to ‘Weak’ by Jack Colwell
The second single from the album was ‘Weak’, how does the tune differ to ‘In My Dreams’?
It’s probably the song that’s most sonically similar to ‘In My Dreams’. It’s got a more late-night feel. it was the hardest song to finish because I had this idea for so long and when I played it to Sarah she loved the idea and pushed me to finish the song.
I felt like I didn’t understand it for so long because I had this lyric ‘you say I’m weak, you say I’m small, I’ll never be anything but a punch line…’ and for a year I tried so many versions of this song after this opening line and none of them worked. I didn’t understand the puzzle of the song. I couldn’t crack it for the longest time.
Meanwhile ‘In My Dreams’ is about a relationship, about wanting something to be reborn. It’s about a long-term relationship, about waking up after 4-5 years and looking at the unhappy parts and the destruction and thinking ‘can I continue to make this work?’, wondering if in your dreams you can make it whole again. It’s about not knowing, but also realising that in this kind of relationship, I’m both the victim and the destroyer.
I’m caught in this situation where the other person is not solely to blame for why this relationship is failing. I’m trying to say that if I could stop time and go back, I would. But I’m already on this train that’s moving at the speed of light and I don’t know how to stop this train and get back to where we were first at. We’re both too far away and moving in different directions.
To be really simple it’s about me being really drunk on a train and heading to the Blue Mountains and then waking up a couple of days later wishing I could undo the last couple of days.
What’s one song you wish you had written and why?
I couldn’t imagine writing Tory’s songs because they are so personal. Maybe I would say ‘Cloudbusting’, it’s a song I love. It can be interrupted lyrically in so many ways. It’s really special to me. If I could turn back time and be blessed with some kind of future intelligence it would be ‘Cloudbusting’.
Listen to ‘Don’t Cry Those Tears’ by Jack Colwell
Swandream by Jack Colwell will come out early 2020.
You can check out this full interview with Jack Colwell in The Brag Magazine Q4, out now.