It’s been a few years between drinks for Aussie musician Tuka, who returns with his first solo album in five years – Nothing In Common But Us – today.
Having risen to fame as a member of Thundamentals, Tuka unleashed his debut solo record (the fittingly-titled Will Rap For Tuka) back in 2010. However, it took two more albums and five years to make a dent on the Aussie charts, with 2015’s Life Death Time Eternal hitting number six upon its release.
Since then, he’s been kept rather busy with a prolific period (and touring schedule) with his main outfit. With Thundamentals sharing Everyone We Know and I Love Songs in 2017 and 2018 (reaching number two and number nine on the ARIA charts, respectively), the end of their busy schedule allowed him to take a look back at his solo work and get down to making another album.
Having shared a handful of singles across the last year, Tuka’s fourth album – Nothing In Common But Us – is officially released today, despite having been originally planned to be unveiled in March. However, even with a global pandemic disrupting a few plans along the way, the 35-year-old artist feels happy about the record he’s made.
Chatting to Tone Deaf ahead of the album’s release, Tuka explains how his genre-shifting record came to be, and how his focus on the concept of duality helped create the album’s powerful narrative.
Check out ‘Wish I Knew’ by Tuka:
Tone Deaf: First of all, how have you been coping with everything going on of late?
Tuka: It’s been interesting. I’ve been a songwriter full time for about six or seven years now, so I’m basically in lockdown anyway; I live on my own. But I did find that it’s taken me a couple of months to get over the writer’s block. I just got clogged up. So being locked down and not being able to work is really strange, but that unclogged and now I’m actually extremely…I’m pumping it out. So I’m okay.
I really miss getting an adrenaline hit once every two weeks from live shows – that’s definitely affected my temperament. I’m pretty introverted, but playing in front of a couple of thousand people every two or three weeks kind of brings something out in me that I do miss now. But I’m holding it down, it’s good. I’m so privileged to be able to write songs for a living; it’s just absurd.
TD: How badly did it disrupt your plans? Did you have many shows booked for the current period?
T: I was going into releasing this album, which would’ve meant that I’d be touring it, although I didn’t have the shows booked. It probably would’ve been that I’d have a 20 or 30 date tour booked right now, so I’d probably be getting ready to go on it. But that’s okay, it’s kind of a real low-key, in-your-headphones kind of album, so it’ll translate live, but it deserves to be listened to on your own, rather than in front of a big group of people.
TD: I get where you’re coming from. A lot of the album reminds me of a real late night/early morning record.
T: Yeah, although I probably would be touring it, I’m not that upset that it’ll just live in people’s headphones. That’s what it’s for. It’s a cathartic 45 minutes. It was selfish for me to make in a lot of regards, but if it finds the right people, that’ll help somewhat.
“For this particular album, I didn’t try to recreate anything, I was just being totally selfish with my creative decisions.”
TD: I’m assuming then you’d be pretty excited to get the album out in the world and to hear everyone’s opinions on it?
T: Yeah, definitely. It’s my tenth record, so I don’t get the same butterflies that I used to, but what I get more interested about… The people that listen to my music are, I don’t know, I think they’re a little alternative; they’re quite intelligent.
I’m interested to hear what they felt with it because they’ve been following me for ten years, some of them, so I get interested in what my core following thinks about it more so than the general public, because they’re kind of on the narrative that I’ve been setting up this whole time. Like, this is the new episode, you know what I mean?
TD: I understand. They’re the ones who have followed you enough to get what you’re striving at, and they’re the ones who’ll have a greater appreciation of it.
T: Yeah, and particularly, they started listening to me because of my hip-hop, and as a solo artist, I kind of slid out of that and they’re still hanging around. So I’m very loyal to them. But for this particular album, I didn’t try to recreate anything, I was just being totally selfish with my creative decisions. So that’s probably what I’m most excited about, to know that I didn’t give a fuck about what people would think. So now, let’s see what people think! [Laughs]
Check out ‘January 1st’ by Tuka:
TD: With a record coming out at this point in the year, was there any apprehension behind its release? I’m not sure if it had been pushed back or anything, but was that a worry?
T: We were meant to release it in March, so, that was weird. I just had to sit and wait.
TD: One upside though is that with more people locked down and everything, they’ll have the chance to appreciate it a bit more since there’s nothing else to do but put it in the headphones and listen to it.
T: I mean, I hope a lot of people check it out [laughs]. That’s what you want! I get what you mean though, I think this album does suit a lockdown.
TD: Looking at the album’s creation, your last solo album was in 2015, but when did you start working towards a new solo record?
T: Probably about eight to ten months ago. I wrote two records with my other band, Thundamentals, back to back, so that took up about three-and-a-half years. So once that wrapped up, I started tinkering with my own solo stuff again, because I still had a record left on my contract with EMI.
It probably took me about eight months to write it, finished it – ‘January 1st’ was the last song – by the end of January, then it was off to mastering, and now here we are.
“I’ve been trying to build my career to this moment.”
TD: When you actually started making the album, was there always a solid idea of what you had in mind for it? Were you always planning to be a bit more selfish with this one, as you said earlier?
T: Yeah, to be honest, I’ve been trying to build my career to this moment. A lot of the work that I’ve done with Thundamentals is what I would regard as ‘pop’, and stuff that I’ve done solo I would regard as ‘pop’. There’s a lot of pop elements on this album too, but I wasn’t concerned much with making things sound happy or bubbly because I knew they would get me more streams. I’ve learnt that if you write happy or lighthearted songs with humour, you get more popular.
But I wanted to explore the life and death of a relationship on this album, because I feel like the relationship I’m talking about on the record, I actually learnt a lot more from after it was over, and I found that really interesting. And I felt like it was valid to write about, especially while I was feeling like that.
TD: I saw in a press release it was described by yourself as a “‘nonlinear’ relationship arc”. Was this the first time you’d tried utilising a thread like this throughout an album?
T: Kind of. I played with it on Thundamentals’ last record, I Love Songs. Incidentally, it was about the same person. Then I kind of carried… I mean, to be honest, if you talk to me and you say something interesting, that’ll find its way into a song. My peripherals are always on, looking for song lyrics or concepts; it’s how I get my money, kind of farming my personal experiences and relationships.
I kind of muse a lot of people in my work and often, I’ll be having a conversation with a taxi driver or something and who knows, maybe I’ll just write it on my phone. Then maybe when I’m playing with some chords and lyrics and I don’t know what I’m talking about, I’ll look at that and then off we trot.
Check out ‘Trailer Trash’ by Tuka:
TD: I guess that’s a pretty good indicator of a good artist like yourself, in that you’re always open to new ideas coming in from any avenue.
T: That’s definitely a taught, conscious thing I do. When I first started, I was a hip-hop artist. I mean, I still am, but when I first started, that was all was; just a rapper. I moved from the Blue Mountains to Sydney and I found that I was listening to Wu-Tang Clan and A Tribe Called Quest and all this New York rap, and I consciously put on ‘hip-hop goggles’, and I tried to see things in a more edgy way. That meant that i was looking for things that were more edgy to talk about, to observe those things.
I’m a skater as well and I used to do graffiti, and they’re definitely looking at society differently to everyone else. Like, as a skater, you’re looking at a curve or a set of stairs totally different to 99% of the population, and I just applied that to songwriting. You just kind of look at everything through a prism.
TD: I found it interesting you said the last Thundamentals album was written about the same person, because listening to this new album, it feels like a little bit of a follow-up to I Love Songs.
T: I can’t honestly say that any one love song is about one person. It’s about my experience with relationships, and that’s what this album is about. So even when I am talking to or about someone on this record, I could very well be talking about myself. I kind of made it so, in my mind at least, the “us” component of the relationship – the unity of both parties – is actually the main character. So when I’m talking about someone else’s shortcomings, I could very well be talking about my own, just angling it to make the song sound more cohesive.
TD: With that in mind, I’ll probably go back and listen to the record with a new mindset and a new way of looking at it now.
T: Yeah, if you look at the front cover as well, I’m just trying to balance everything. Inside the eye is the sun, and inside the sun is the moon. And it’s very subtle, and obviously the brain and heart opposite. And I’m Piscean, so I put the Piscean sign of two fish swimming in opposite directions. It’s a different way of saying yin and yang.
Same with my last record, Life Death Time Eternal, it was a different way of saying yin yang, as I really believe in that. Even the more vulgar elements of society are just as valid and need to be addressed as much as the positive and enjoyable ones. That’s really what Nothing In Common But Us is all about, just honouring the mistakes and the faults in you to fill your cup and make you whole.
TD: I just want to take a look at a couple of tracks on the album here. Firstly, the acoustic intro of ‘How To Fly’ really sets the pace of that song. Is that acoustic guitar sort of inspired by ‘Tears In Heaven’? Because it has a really heartbreaking quality to it it.
T: I’m a bigger fan of Bill Withers. It was more that kind of soul/R&B era that i was trying to harness and do my own thing with. I’m really proud of that song. I enjoy Eric Clapton, but I think it would have to be the Bill Withers influence that made that one.
TD: There’s a number of interludes on the record as well. Can you explain what their purpose is in the record? What role do they serve in the record’s narrative?
T: I was hoping someone would ask this question. Again, going back to the yin and yang concept, which is the balancing act, I wanted female energy – or presence – on the record, but I didn’t want to litter every chorus with a female hook because it’s kind of cliché. So I found this poet who actually coined the phrase “nothing in common but us” at an open mic/spoken word night, and she was lovely.
The purpose of those two poems is that, the first one is kind of setting up an idealistic, utopian concept of what western society considers a healthy relationship; nuclear family and whatnot. But even within that construct, I go into the beauty of appreciating the smaller things in your life. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s basically the lighter side of the coin to the album, describing like, what something could be.
If you invest in this it could be this beautiful, almost imaginary, unattainable thing that we all strive for in our relationships. Then ‘Wildness’ is obviously the other side of that, the idea of what happens when all that is lost, or when you strive so hard for something and didn’t get what you expected.
And what are you left with when they go? I would argue that in some cases, but not all, when you’re so associated with someone and they leave, they actually leave something with you that makes you question yourself so much that you grow. So I just found all that, the concept of making a mistake and viewing it as a win – the idea that if you grow from it, you can reap the rewards of that loss – and teaching people that that can be a state of mind, and that’s the state of mind that I try to live my life by, because it’s inevitable that I’m going to fuck up and get things wrong.
Rather than punish myself for that; absorbing it, and filling my cup. I guess it’s a little deep, but that’s a lot of intention and meaning behind the record and those two songs that illustrate the two sides of the album. You might notice that after ‘Wildness’ comes in, the songs get very dark, and I get very reflective. I say indulgent, but I start getting pretty dark [laughs]. That’s why at the end, I finish the record with a song called ‘You Don’t Know’, because basically I came to the conclusion that the more you know, the less you know anyway.
So ‘How To Fly’ is diving in and knowing you’re probably going to fuck up, but that’s a beautiful way to learn, and going through the album is going through the process of the life and death of a relationship and ‘You Don’t Know’ is coming out the other end and going, “Yeah, cool, still don’t know. I’m a better position than I was, but obviously I still have more questions than I started with.”
Check out ‘Nothing Ever Happens In The Burbs’ by Tuka:
TD: ‘January 1st’ has references to a number of political matters. As a artist, do you feel it’s important to use your platform for social change or to provide a comment on things like that?
T: Yeah, but it’s not obligatory. So the purpose of ‘January 1st’ is that I was being opportunistic, because the fires were coming through and I wanted to comment on a current event as it was happening. And that was ‘fun’ for me. Not that the situation was fun, but like, I was drawn to it, and I wanted to write about it. But it also plays a bigger role in that it comes right after ‘Nothing Ever Happens In The Burbs’, and the fires happened in the ‘burbs. All these people, nuclear families had their lives torn apart. So that was again, to show another side of the coins.
As soon as that finishes, I introduce a fire sample and an ambulance, and I start going into me hanging out with my girlfriend watching the world end, basically. And then it just went worse to just what we have in 2020; it’s just crazy. I feel like this record really encapsulates a lot, and just by accident, it’s so political if you really want to pull it apart.
But to answer you question, I tend to prefer to live in the psychology of politics in your own head rather than the macro stuff, because I feel that the epidemic is happening in our own mind on an individual level, and if we can address that, then we’ll have more healthy conversations with each other when conflict does play out. I think we should, that artists should reflect society, and it shouldn’t necessarily be obligatory what elements you reflect. I kind of feel I’m just a conduit of my own sensitivity and whatever I’m drawn to, I’ll write about.
TD: ‘Trailer Trash’ has some real mumble rap vibes to it, but showcases your skills really quite expertly. I guess you’re not someone known for the mumble rap genre, so is there a particular influence you had on this one?
T: Australian rap artists like ChillinIt, Wombat, Huskii, Nerve, Shadow, they’ve all been pushing this energy through the scene, and it was quite inspiring because when I was starting out, I was a lot more lyrical in my approach. Then garnering such success from it made me feel like the Australian public was maybe ready for some heavier, really technical rhymes again, so I went down that route again.
When I was doing the trap song ‘Trailer Trash’ though, I just wanted to honour the fact that I was a white dude doing it. To kind of acknowledge and wear that fact because of the climate at the moment, it’s like, what, is trap and grime going to be another thing that I appropriate? All the songs that I draw influence from black music for, I really do try to approach it from my heritage or, I don’t know how to put it, my white experience and try to own that. When you do that, something beautiful happens that’s original. I don’t think ‘Fuck You Pay Me’ sounds like a UK grime song, and I don’t really feel like ‘Trailer Trash’ sounds like an Atlanta trap song. Like, it’s this other thing, and I guess that was the draw card to it.
Other than ‘January 1st’, really, there’s nothing on the album that’s like my old stuff. It’s all experimental in genre, and that was a big thing I wanted to do with the record – to not be bound down by labels and just do what I wanted. I feel like it’s a selfish record in that regard, but people will have to come along for the journey, rather than go, “Oh, this is a Tuka or a Thundamentals style record.” Nah, it’s not, it’s pretty weird.
Check out ‘Fuck You Pay Me’ by Tuka:
TD: What was the inspiration behind ‘Fuck You Pay Me’. It feels like it comes from a real place of passion?
T: I guess I just feel like the artist at the end of the whole formula puts so much into their art – so much of their own money into their art. Even when you sign a contract, you still have to pay all that money back. Even with Instagram, YouTube, and Facebook, they’re all on algorithms that make it harder for the artist to operate. I just kind of feel like the entire system is negatively geared, and makes it hard to be an artist, and it’s… incredible. Every facet of the industry is kind of geared for you to fail, so ‘Fuck You Pay Me’ represents that aggressive nature I have in my personality that kind of rises to that challenge.
And that challenge is a mistake of society, so I look at it in the context of the album that if that’s a mistake, then I’m going to make the best of that mistake and succeed in that. You kind of need that energy sometimes, and I was trying to make a well-rounded album and ‘Fuck You Pay Me’ fulfils this heavier, or more aggressive element that I have in my personality. So if the record is about wearing these hidden elements of your personality, just wear it.
I guess there’s some lyrics in there that I’m particularly quite fond of. After doing some pretty extensive touring with Thundas, I was able to scrounge enough money together to help my mum build a house. And so, rappers always talk about buying their mama a house and shit, so I felt like I could get away with it. And again, that’s a success of the mistake of the music industry about how they make it so hard for an artist to function. Like, I’ve overcome that and have been able to contribute to help my mum build a house. I’m more proud of that than anything.
So thank God it was so hard, because it made that so much fulfilling. Hip-hop was born out of that; people having the entire world against them. I never had copious amounts of drugs, or there’s never been any kind of racial thing that’s held me up in my growth, so hip-hop came from a way less privileged standpoint. It’s almost like the formula is, the harsher you’ve got it, the more room you have to grow. It’s an interesting way…it’s something I kind of embody, because it’s the formula that works for me.
Tuka’s Nothing In Common But Us is out today via EMI.