Carus Thompson is a compassionate babe and deeply loved songwriter. Amber Fresh spoke with him about… pretty much everything, and his new album, Island.
A: Hello how you going?
C: Good good, just driving in to do a songwriting workshop.
A: Oh, who are the workshops for?
C: A company called the Australian Children's Music Foundation. They put music into marginalised schools, where kids are on the outskirts, and to juvenile justice centres. I'm on my way today to Moorditj Noongar College. It's good working with young kids, getting them into music and song.
A: Are there any kids you're teaching at the moment who are already better than you at writing songs?
A: Or are gonna be stars?
C: Well these kids are up to year six so thankfully not, but - especially at the Noongar school - I've been really impressed with their ability to own their own story, tell their perspective. As soon as you start talking about politics and pride in culture they're just right onto it. We wrote some really cool rap songs about who they are, where they come from. Pride in themselves and their culture.
Rap's a great vehicle for that cause it was originally a political genre, and as a storytelling style of music. And these kids have got a story to tell.
I think everyone has a story to tell. With my songwriting workshops I just try to make people realise how easy that is to do in a song. If people feel they can express themselves and their story a bit easier then there's power in that.
A: Do you feel pride at the moment in where you come from? In your culture?
C: Our culture?
C: What, Australian culture?
C: Ah, definitely not! [laughs] I think it could be great. I mean that's sort of what 'Island', the album, is about. I really wanted to write a record that said something about modern Australia and what I see around me. All the stories on 'Island' are quite small suburban stories that everyone can relate to, but I've tried to make the themes quite epic.
I was really getting into a lot of Springsteen and that's what he does in an American way; I tried to do it in an Australian way. To use all these small suburban stories and make some comment on where we are.
I see us being at a real crossroads you know: there's two paths - and you really saw it the Australia Day weekend in Perth. In Freo we had this inclusive, different Australia Day. We didn't really celebrate it, because obviously for indigenous people it's a really intense day, January 26th.
They did this wonderful day on the 28th where there was a smoking ceremony in the morning, and then in the evening there was a great concert with John Butler and Dan Sultan, and it was just packed with all different people. Heaps of Muslim people there, heaps of Noongar people everywhere, heaps of white people and it was sort of like "wow". I just had this vision of the sort of multicultural Australia that's a bit more in touch with our indigenous history and our indigenous identity, and I went "This would be a great future, this is a great path."
And then the other way is you know, status quo, stick to as we are, have our massive Australia Day celebration on a day that is full of pain for indigenous people. Look at America - you've got Trump, like, that's the other way we can go. We can just keep cutting services to vulnerable people and we can just privatise everything, continue with this path we're on, our attitude towards refugees. It's a path of cruelty, is what I see.
C: We can either go the kinder, inclusive way, or we can just be assholes. So that's what the record's about.
I'm definitely proud of this record… it's not like I'm anti-Australian. I describe my music as "I'm an Australian singer-songwriter" because the way I write songs is very Australian. There's a particular approach I think Australian songwriters have. If you look at Paul Kelly and others, it's very emotive, very direct. We don't mess around, we just really pull people in. I'm proud of that. But in terms of the country at the moment I think we're at a real crossroads. Part of the role of being an artist is you comment on that, and you try with the songs to get a bit of debate.
A: I watched the film clip for 'Beach Fires'. That song was very heavy...
A: It seemed like that was a story very close to you. Is that very much from personal experience or just what's going on at the moment here?
C: It was inspired by a conversation after a gig with someone in a place called Phillip Island in Victoria and I just said to him, "How are things since the desalination plant?" And he told me this story which is really common, all around Australia at the moment in regional towns, you know, "Everything's changed since the crystal meth came to town." It's a common story in WA - as they say, even the sharks are on meth here.
A: I haven't heard that one.
C: You haven't?
A: Nah. I can't laugh at it, I could only get a tear.
C: Yes, it's a big issue in Australia at the moment, I wanted to write about it. That's great that you… I think with a song if you're singing it directly and delivering it right, people shouldn't know whether it's you or not. I think a song's always more true if you can confuse it with some of your own life. Like we all do, I've known plenty of people who have gone down that path - and the first line is about myself, when I was whatever 25 or something - but yeah it's definitely more of a narrative. Telling a story.
A: The line about people's dead eyes seemed to come from someone who had seen those dead eyes. Because I've seen them too!
C: Yeah. Well I definitely think if you wanted to write a song about drugs or crystal meth and you had no experience with drugs or crystal meth it just wouldn't ring true.
I think the thing with that style of songwriting is that to make something real you have to have lived it a little bit. That's why as a songwriter if you just sit in a room and don't do anything, don't meet anyone, don't go out into the world, well you're not going to have much to write about. Every person you meet, every conversation you have with someone, every experience, that grows you as a person, but also it grows you as a writer. If you have no experience then it's pretty hard to find anything to write about. Yourself: that gets boring after a while.
A: One of my friends Pete (Bibby), has a song called 'I'm Not Your Material' and it's -
A: .. it's him telling the story of a guy he met at the pub who tells Pete all about his life. Like, the song's about the guy, and in the end the guy says, you know "I'm not your material" but that becomes the chorus of the song.
C: Haha! Yeah you've gotta be careful. With that kind of narrative songwriting there's a responsibility that comes with it. The 'Island' album ends with a song called 'Gone But Not Forgotten' which is about a rough sleeper in Melbourne who was murdered, quite a famous guy, Mouse. He was murdered a couple of years ago near Flinders Street and the song is about rough sleepers and the homeless. You gotta be careful if you're writing a song about a real person because obviously they've got family… But what I do is just only use the facts. You just present what really happened, and when the story's strong enough the facts are enough.
A: Yeah I think it can be hard sometimes if you're a compassionate artist, knowing when you're using stories in a good way or going into that realm where it's like -
A: Yeah exploiting the saddest version of the saddest story.
C: Yeah. I wrote a song on my last album called 'Fifteen' and it was written about a young man by the name of Tyler Cassidy who was murdered. He was shot by Victorian police. He was fifteen years old. I wrote a song about him and his mother actually ended up hearing it. Then I met her and spoke to her and she just said "Thank you for the song." And that was the same thing, all I did was just take the pure facts of what happened and presented them.
These days, especially in WA where you've got one newspaper, you know mainstream media is just not recording everything. Lots of these stories out on the edges just don't get out there. That's one thing about being a songwriter - you can document these stories.
C: You write a song about them and that song's there forever and it doesn't matter how famous you are or how much you get out there, but it's there. It's a document of something that's important.
A: I wrote a song a few weeks ago about the Beeliar Wetlands.
C: Oh yeah, there you go, classic example.
A: I've made good friends with one of the workmen so one day maybe I can play it to him.
A: I've been going down there a lot and that's my way of doing things, just trying to talk to people.
C: Yeah, you gotta find your role in everything. People have different ways of accomplishing things. For me at the moment my way of involving myself in this whole debate about who we are as a country and what's our identity is to write a record and to create these songs.
The great thing about a song like that one you wrote about Beeliar is obviously with Beeliar you've got the people who are on-side - if they're on-side, you don't need to win them over. It's the same with politics, the people who are on-side with refugees and a lot of the things I'm singing about on 'Island', I don't need to win them over. But songs and music can be so great because everyone loves music; you know, hippies, to full bogans, right wingers, you know, fully conservative people. Music is a human thing, and what you can do with a song is reach more of the middle ground.
The undecided people that never think about refugees from a personal, human perspective, they just think of it as this big thing, "No, stop the boats!" "Close the borders!" bang bang bang, but if you write the right song - there's a song on my album called 'Reza Berati' about a young man who died in the Manus Island riots… - If you really drill down and make it a really personal, human story, everyone can relate to it.
Everyone's got a brother a sister a mother a lover. If you can make the big issue small, sometimes some of those people in the middle ground will empathise, then they might think about it slightly differently.
A: Yep. You seem to be someone music-wise and what you look like who might be able to (haha) connect...
C: With bogans?
A: Yeah! with the bogans.
C: Yeah I mean I'm a huge Chisel fan and Paul Kelly is obviously a big influence. The pub rock thing is really a big influence on me, and I'm a huge Springsteen fan. I can talk to blokes, I can talk about football and I've been a labourer and I can dig holes, all that sort of blokier less sort of musician-y kind of stuff. It's something I've always had with my music. Guys have always dug me, girls connect with music that's about feelings, but because there is that pub rock element to it it's always reached out to guys as well. And also the "middle ground".
I've never been a fan of preaching at people, yelling at them, "You're wrong!" "You're an asshole, that's the wrong idea!" I think you gotta be much smarter than that. And the way to do it is with telling stories and involving them emotionally and intellectually.
A: Yep. One more question. So obviously, leaving Bruce Springsteen as the overall boss...
A: Who would you like to be the boss of Australia? Political boss.
C: I was always a massive massive fan of Bob Brown. In terms of policies that I think are more inclusive and progressive, I'm a fan of the Greens in that sense. Richard Di Natali I think is a really good guy, so...
A: He seems like a good guy, but Bob's better.
C: Bob's really cool, you can't (lol) beat that guy. I just want to see someone that's… ... You know at the moment we've got two major parties and they just keep swapping the power, but a lot doesn't really seem to change. I still was so disappointed in Labor with their refugee policy.
I just want to see more debate, and more creative ideas, and just more empathy. What's happened in Australia is our national conscience has been thrown out the window. I just want to see more feeling, and the details, that can be worked out. I just want to see someone be more compassionate.
A: Me too.
C: The deficit and all that bullshit, I mean, whatever. You know, that's the idea of a budget, you spend it. Sometimes you spend more of it sometimes you spend less of it. How bout the fact that the rest of the world thinks you're a bunch of assholes? Can you do something about that please? Cause they do!
A: Yep. Well, keep fighting the good fight.
C: You too. …
You can catch Carus Thompson this Friday at Mojo's Bar, tickets are still available at the Mojo's website.