Sweet Jean is Sime Nugent and Alice Keath. Since forming as a duo in late 2010, they’ve built a reputation for evocative songwriting, razor-sharp harmonies, and stirring live performances. Their debut album Dear Departure is a collection of songs about life, longing, misadventure and mortality. Sweet Jean have toured widely as a duo in Australia and Overseas and next year they’ll be hitting the road with their full band. Before then, you can catch Sweet Jean and their band as part of AWME (Australasian Worldwide Music Expo) with The Orbweavers and Maya Kamaty on Thursday 14 November at the Toff in Town.
Earlier this year you released your acclaimed debut record, Dear Departure. Being your first album, do you feel it’s a sound representation of who you are as a duo?
When we started recording the album, a big question for us was how to combine our love of dark, raw, stripped back folk music with the sonic depth of our favourite newer records. Our producer John Castle really understood that balance and helped us achieve the sound we were after and we’re really happy with where it landed.
How did you two approach the songwriting process?
We had a few songs each to begin with and realised that there were common themes running through them, which we continued to sit with and think about when we started writing new songs specifically for the album. At first, the songs were pretty much all about sex and death, but that eventually broadened to themes like loss, longing, innocence, experience, and misadventure. Some of them were straight co-writes with a particular story or angle in mind, and other songs were written individually and edited or arranged together. We wrote one song on the autoharp in the car driving from Adelaide to Melbourne, and other songs we worked on casually over several months in the backyard or at the kitchen table. The first song on the album was the last one we wrote.
It’s been met with unanimously glowing reviews. What is it like to receive such positive validation from the industry?
It’s encouraging to strike such a chord with people. We’re thrilled with the response.
You began Sweet Jean after meeting at a “murderers and rockstars” party, right? Could you give me a flashback to the moment you met and decided to join together?
It was election night and earlier in the evening Alice had been at an ‘Australiana’ party so she was dressed as a Ken Done painting. Sime hadn’t really read the invite, so he was dressed as himself. At some point during the evening we got talking about Dock Boggs (who didn’t actually kill anyone, but he did like to beat people up), and that conversation led to a jam session where we played Elvis on the banjo ‘til dawn. We didn’t decide until we’d had a few more sober jam sessions that didn’t involve any Elvis songs to actually start working together as a duo.
Sime you’re a furniture maker and carpenter, and Alice you’re a trained composer and radio producer. How do you balance your musical careers with your other pursuits?
In the carpentry workshop Sime has a sign on the wall that says “straight cuts and fingers on”. Alice is around music and musicians all the time for her work so the conversation about songs is an ongoing one. It’s nice.
Because you bonded on your similar music tastes, who are some artists you both admire?
We were listening to a fair bit of Dock Boggs, Karen Dalton, Feist, Lou Reed, Dusty Springfield, PJ Harvey, and Camera Obscura when we were making this album and they came up in a lot of conversations in the studio. We also bonded early on over a shared deep distain for Salvador Dali.
A huge talking point of your 2013 is your recent European tour. Have you got any highlight stories from on the road?
Spain was grand. The hospitality is amazing, and the audiences were really attentive and interested everywhere we played. We played a gig in a small town in the mountains and then watched a mariachi ska band entertain the locals until the wee hours of the morning (noise restrictions clearly aren’t a problem in Urretxu). We also played a show overlooking the ocean and a Roman colosseum, which doesn’t happen much in Brunswick. A week later we played a gig to a room full of very smart people next to Lac Leman in Geneva and tried our best to remember all the clever literary references in our music. As well as performing in that stately Conservatorium Hall, we also played our first ever show in a room with a bunk bed during the tour. We’re looking forward to heading back next year.
You embarked on a full national tour earlier in the year, too. Did you notice any difference between Australian and international crowds?
As an Australian you’re exotic in Europe, except Berlin where you’re exotic if you’re not from Melbourne.
We like finding out about people’s first ever gigs, and I’ve read that yours was quite special. You played on top of Mt Buller, right?
Ha, yeah we did. When we first started playing together Sime had a gig booked at a Biker Rally on the top of Mount Buller. We decided to both play the show… in a blizzard… on the top of the mountain… beside what was affectionately called the ‘Dome of Death’. Half way through the gig we were told to stop playing while guys got into this metal cage on motorcycles and tried to…survive. Then the MC threw back to us to keep playing…..and so on.
What should the uninitiated expect from your upcoming show at The Toff In Town as part of AWME on November 14? How does the average Sweet Jean gig play out?
Unfortunately there won’t be a “Dome of Death” but we will be sharing the stage with two really great acts – The Orbweavers and Maya Kamaty. We’ll be playing music from our album with our full band, and a couple of duo tracks from a stripped back acoustic EP that we’ll be releasing next year.
Gazing into the crystal ball, what have you got up your sleeves for the rest of the year and 2014?
We’re releasing a video for our song Annabelle this week (previewed on Tone Deaf this Friday), which was shot by a very talented friend of ours called Alex Cardy. Next year we’ll be releasing our acoustic EP, which is a collection of our own songs and some covers in duo mode. We’ve got some exciting festivals and tour plans on the way, and we’re hoping those plans will also include our first headline tour with our full band.
Sweet Jean play AWME 2013 with The Orbweavers & Maya Kamaty (Reunion Island)
Thursday 14 November 2013
7.30pm – 11.00pm
The Toff in Town, 2FL Curtin House, 252 Swanston Street, Melbourne
Bookings: 1300 438 849 or www.thetoffintown.com
Listen to Dear Departure here