RJ Andrew shares “The Fates”, the first ‘cinematic ballad’ of his new solo project. Artist interview

I met RJ Andrew a few years ago in very non-musical circumstances. I was looking for a place to live and answered his advert. While the house-sharing arrangement didn’t work out, we had a good chat about other things that day. And we’ve kept in touch on and off ever since.

In the years I’ve followed the artist’s career, he’s mostly been taking the back seat as an instrumentalist or singer/songwriter in bands. So it really piqued my curiosity when he got in touch recently to share his new single, “The Fates”.

A ballad is probably the last thing I expected to hear. So I felt compelled to fire some questions at the artist and learn more about this new creative direction.

PART 129 OF “AM I EVER GONNA SEE YOUR FACE AGAIN?” A RANDOM COLLECTION OF UNKNOWINGLY OBVIOUS FACTS ABOUT THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC SCENE / THE SILLY & GREEN PROJECT

RJ Andrew is the solo project of Richard Andrew, a musician who – in my view – is the definition of a creative collaborator from Melbourne. He’s the drummer of the legendary Underground Lovers, and formed part of many other projects in his long-standing musical journey, amongst them Black Cab, Crow or Registered Nurse.

When I went to my “housemate interview” at his then HQs in Fitzroy North, he had a pretty cool studio set up there, too. He still runs Pharmacy Studio/Records but moved to the countryside Victoria some time ago.

Even though my tenant application was unsuccessful, it turned into a pretty rewarding music adventure. RJ Andrew was the first person to introduce me to the Melbourne music community. So it’s safe to say that if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be writing this blog today at all.

To say I was taken aback hearing the artist’s new song is an understatement. I didn’t know that gentle, nostalgic side of him.

“The Fates” is the first single from an upcoming LP which was written, recorded, mixed and produced by the muso himself. The track was shared on the artist’s Bandcamp on November 7th and officially launched at a gig a month later.

The song’s concept refers to the Celtic culture. Essentially, ‘The Fates’ are there to determine our destiny. They represent the belief that we have little or no control over how our life pans out. The singer puts it in a pensive way in the lyrics:

And they claw at your door to get in
And you wore the linoleum thin
When you sure had it all it begins
To derail

The accompanying film clip, directed by Kieran Doolan, illustrates that notion in an original way, too. It’s another of Richard’s creative ideas. A series of vintage mug shots amplifies the melancholic notes in the music. Through the eyes of the poor souls captured in the photographs, you get the sense they can’t quite believe they’ve found themselves at this desperate point in their lives. Many of us have surely been in a similar situation at least once.

Knowing RJ Andrew, there is much more to “The Fates” single than what he shared in the press release. Luckily, he granted me some of his busy creative time to answer more questions about it.

Silly McWiggles (SM): What inspired you to explore that fatalistic topic in “The Fates”? Is the Celtic culture part of your heritage?

RJ Andrew (RJA): I’ve always been fascinated by this concept. To a degree, I believe that life is pretty much a ‘ride’. And plan as we might, things turn out however they do.

I guess it is part of my heritage, being of Scottish/Irish background, and they are both known for their ‘fatalism’. I think that the concept of ‘The Fates’ goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if most cultures had some variation of the theme that some other ‘Power’ controls our destiny. 

I was on tour in Europe quite a while ago, had a few days spare in Ireland, and a good friend was showing me around town (Dublin is tiny!). We happened to pop into a little church. It was there that my friend explained to me the concept of ‘The Fates’ as they are observed in Irish Catholic culture – and the idea fascinated me ever since! It was also taken to its extreme in the Irish culture, to the point that nobody is really responsible for anything… ”T’was the fates that got me so terribly drunk last night”!… I love it!

SM: The song talks about finding yourself somewhere you’d never imagined you’d be. Have you ever pictured yourself as a singer/songwriter before? 

RJA: I’ve actually been a singer/songwriter for a long time in various bands. In fact, it was with my band Registered Nurse that I ended up in Dublin.

I think the difference between my past projects and this one is that they have usually been VERY LOUD rock bands. So in a way, I’ve always had sheer volume to hide behind. I’d also have a couple of songs that were ‘ballad-like’ in the set, just to offer some dynamics. And so the idea was born to maybe try and write a whole album of ballads… without drums and loud guitars.

SM: With the experience as an instrumentalist in many other projects, what made you finally work up the courage to want to sing and take centre stage?

RJA: It’s funny – ‘courage’ is the right word.

As I mentioned, I’ve always had volume to ‘hide’ behind, and certainly with drums, they are my first and most natural instrument.  Being quite a physical drummer, I can ‘work’ the nerves out within a couple of songs and then I’m set… it’s an absolute blast. Same with a guitar, too, as I’m not a particularly ‘natural’ guitar player, and completely self-taught. So instead of playing a sophisticated ‘noodly-noodly’ guitar solo… I’ll instead crank up the volume, find a couple of notes (often by trial and error) and use feedback and timing to achieve at the very least a unique and hopefully compelling guitar solo.

With the ballads project, I have none of that to fall back on, so it’s pretty nerve-wracking to perform it live despite outwardly appearing relatively confident.

SM: You are also a lyricist now. Was writing that little story on “The Fates” an easy task for you? 

RJA: Lyrics rarely come together easily. The music side for me is a breeze – but the lyrics are really hard work. It’s relatively easy to take a chord and change it in a way that makes it unique, but with the lyrics, it’s the ‘triple whammy’ of trying to tell a story or create a scene, have it more or less rhyme… AND try and write something that isn’t obvious.

I’ve got quite a few songs half-completed where I’m really happy with the music, but I’m still struggling with the lyrics. For me, lyrics can’t be ‘half-arsed’ and I’ll wait until I’m happy with them before saying the song is finished.

“The Fates” came together relatively easily, though, and it flowed pretty quickly after coming up with the first line “And the fates are all rushing in”. I think I’m happiest with the line “With a smile that you hide your weapons in”. That one just popped out of the universe!

SM: You call “The Fates” a ‘cinematic ballad’. Why is the combination of sound and image inseparable in this project? 

RJA: I think intentionally or not, most of what I write, particularly for this project, has a cinematic quality. I can almost see the film that they are for – it just hasn’t been made yet. 

I’ve been working hard over the past year or so to get back into composing music for film. I had a degree of success many years ago, won Best Original Score for a short film at Tropfest, and have had a fair bit of music in films and TV over the years.

I dunno, it’s just something that comes really naturally to me. The plan is to keep making film clips for quite a few tracks over the next year or so as the whole album feels to me like a soundtrack to a film. 

SM: You decided to use a series of vintage mug shots for the music video. Can you walk me through this idea? 

RJA: Once again, I can thank the universe (or ‘The Fates’!) for this.

The idea came out of nowhere while I was listening to the song. It was one of those blind inspiration moments. I’ve long been fascinated with mug shots as they have a raw, real intensity. Often, I can see the tragedy and bewilderment behind their eyes which I find absolutely compelling. Of course, there are bad people… but there is always a reason even for them as to how they ended up that way.

I think the song focuses more on those who are essentially ‘good’ people, but life has dealt them a hand that has led them to this terrible point in their lives.

SM: What was your creative process in this project like? Was it the story/lyrics that came first? Or did having a chord progression or vocal melody take priority?

RJA: It’s always the music that comes first. Hence, all the ‘orphan’ songs still waiting for lyrics!

From there, it’s a matter of working out what the songs want… I’ve always said that ‘the song’ is king. The music will hopefully suggest something – a theme – to then work from there.

It’s not uncommon for me to get most of the way through the lyrics only to come up with a line that I’m super happy with, but that doesn’t fit with the original lyric idea. So then, it’s a matter of re-writing the thing to suit the new lyric. I’m often more comfortable when this happens because it then tends to flow more naturally. I just can’t sing a line that I don’t believe in.

SM: “The Fates” is yours from start to finish (in terms of the lyrics, music, instruments, recording, mixing etc.). Why did you want to keep the creative control in-house every step of the way?

RJA: To be honest, it was partly by design and partly by accident.

It was actually mostly to do with the fact that we were in lockdown on and off for almost 18 months, and there was no practical way of collaborating with anyone else. I think, despite that, I probably would have approached this the same way anyway. 

I’m lucky to have my own studio and can play (for better or worse) most instruments, so there is a really delicate balance in this album that, really, only I can hear. I know it sounds all ‘Leo’, but I wanted complete control of this record. I needed to be ‘brutal’ as to what was kept and what was thrown out. There were countless hours spent recording parts, only to discard them as I felt they got in the way of the song. It was a constant process of ‘less is more’.

SM: In the times when everybody goes digital, you opted to use the analogue process with an old 24-track tape machine and vintage valve recording equipment. How do you think it has influenced the sound and general song vibe?

RJA: It made a world of difference! 

I think I was trying to capture the sounds from my childhood, where my father would play Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan on vinyl on our big old stereo. It was almost like the music was in 3D – the sound had such depth and warmth that you can really only get with analogue recordings on vinyl.

I’ve never been a huge fan of my voice, but the way it sits in the mix and sounds on vinyl is pretty much the first time I’ve been truly happy with the way it sounds. 

It also changes the process, whereby it’s much more of a performance when recording to tape. You don’t really have the luxury of dropping in a word or a line like you do with digital recording, so you simply have to get it right. Not so much in having it pitch-perfect, but much more in conveying the emotion of the song and the lyrics.

I must have done 40 takes of the opening track of the album, “Darling Please”, for instance. I was singing in key, but I just couldn’t nail the emotion I was trying to convey – but when I got it… I knew it.

SM: You launched “The Fates” officially at the Merri Creek Tavern in Westgarth on December 2nd. How did it feel to stand at the front of the stage? Do you enjoy being in the spotlight?

RJA: I ‘think’ I enjoy being in the spotlight.

When I’m up there on stage, there is definitely a part of me thinking “I can’t believe I’m doing this”. In that, I’m miles out of my comfort zone. I’m only two live shows in, but already I can see it really starting to have an impact on people. 

It may sound trite, but I really like the songs. And if others do as well, then that’s a real bonus.

I’m also wildly fortunate in having assembled an amazing live band, who – aside from being incredibly talented (and totally wonderful people) – also understand that the songs are fragile and need their own space to breathe. It’s incredibly satisfying and moving when it all comes together live and I can feel the emotional impact of the song flowing from the stage.

That makes it all worthwhile!

RJ Andrew’s solo album Black River is set for release on February 27th, 2023. So save the date because it sounds like it’s going to be a real treat.


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