THE NEW ALBUM FROM JAMIE HUTCHINGS: AVALON CASSETTES
Letters and thoughts and emails about Avalon Cassettes
Like a letter from a long-lost friend, the CD arrived in the mail. Unexpected. Unheralded. 10 tracks with hand-written song titles and album title Avalon Cassettes. It was accompanied by a short, friendly note in Jamie Hutchings’ familiar scrawl. The package filled me with mystery and intrigue. I had to pick up my daughter Anna from somewhere, which was perfect. I love listening to music in the car, un- interrupted. I had only got through three and a half songs by the time I got to my destination … and I was floating. I drove around the block and snuck in the rest of the evocative ‘Ned Kelly Indoors’. Anna jumped in the car and immediately switched the stereo to a commercial radio network and I was plucked out of my dream-state, into the real world. I couldn’t explain to her all of the beauty and colour and warmth I was immediately hearing/feeling in these tracks – they actually sounded like stories/ sounds written and meant for an old friend, intimate and personal they made me lean in and listen. I wanted to play Anna Track 1 ‘Invisible Coat’ and tell her about how the part at 2.31, where Jamie’s repeats and riffs the line ‘I’m swimming with sharks’ for 37 seconds mesmerises me with it’s blend of rapture and repetition . I wanted to point out how Track 2 ‘Slack Magic’ references streets in Sydney’s inner-city and the actor Geoffrey Rush (playing an idiot-savant) and how rich this was, how the way Jamie again uses repetition (‘to you or me/to you or me/to you or me/to you or me’ and ‘give me a quote/give me a quote/give me a quote/give me a quote’) and how it again inspires rapture. I would love to have been able to play her the intro to Track 4 ‘Ned Kelly Indoors’ and then play her Bluebottle Kiss’ ‘Now’ or ‘Stained Mouth’ and show her why I fell for Jamie’s songs and voice in the first place… But Anna’s too young, too impatient. I keep listening over the next two or three weeks (it’s a listening-required album). The mystery, the intrigue only grows.
I email Jamie, telling him I heard some Astral Weeks in there, wondering if the ‘Avalon’ in the album’s title was referring to the legendary island from Arthurian legend that has captured/haunted Van Morrison…But I was wrong, it was a more grounded reference to the Sydney beach suburb where Jamie and friends/family recorded the bulk of the album. Jamie writes back, saying Astral Weeks is definitely a good reference “and perhaps (Big Star’s) Third/ Sister Lovers too. The brevity and semi impro nature of the sessions gives it that hazy, loose feel that’s similar to way those albums feel… The title comes from the where and how of the recording which had a very strong impact on the end result. It was recorded in a run-down shack out the front of a property in Avalon that was lent to us. Thus the bleeding, spilly haphazard non studio quality. Secondly, it was all recorded mostly live to an 8 track cassette recorder by my friend Chris Colquhoun… It does sound kind of evocative and fantastic-like too though so I think it’s apt. I like it’s unanchored ‘private reverie’ kind of feel”. I email Jamie asking him about the albums strong sense of place, of Australia (particularly on tracks like ‘Ned Kelly Indoors’ ; ‘Smoky Dawson’; ‘Cicada Symphony’). He writes back: “I think there’s some of that fetid balminess you get from Sydney summers, especially on ‘Cicada Symphony’. Heat, moisture, insects etc. Kind of open and claustrophobic at the same time. That’s probably the main ‘Australian’ thing really. It’s not something I’ve thought about too much, it just finds its way into the way it sounds in the same way the beach shack did… I have a habit of taking characters and displacing them and watching what happens. I saw a Sidney Nolan retrospective which featured a lot of his Ned Kelly series paintings and learnt how it was a way for him to express his post war isolation via an outlaw. He’d come back from the war to normal family life and felt extremely estranged from everything. A lot of the situations/characters on the album are similar in that respect. Ordinary people finding themselves in an extraordinary situation or recovering from one. Same with ‘Smoky Dawson’ in a way. I read his eulogy in the paper and was thinking about his attitude and life in a modern day context. How sweet and foreign it read.”
I signed Jamie’s band Bluebottle Kiss to their first record deal, to the murmur label, through Sony Music back in 1994. I was naive. I thought Jamie’s brilliant, poetic songs (which were, by turn, beautiful and explosive), the band’s powerful dynamics and Jamie’s matinee idol good-looks were an undeniable formula. But the band’s musical wanderlust and unpredictability (which were always there and I didn’t yet appreciate or understand that) couldn’t be hemmed-in, contained and controlled. For a million reasons it was a mistake to sign them to an impatient major, but it is a mistake I would immediately make again today if I had my time over again.
Jamie’s musical journey, twisting through Bluebottle Kiss’ albums Higher Up The Firetrails (1995), Fear of Girls (1996), Patient (1999), Revenge Is Slow (2002), Come Across (2003) and the double-CD master- piece Doubt Seeds (2006), their countless EPs and his solo albums The Golden Coach (2002) and His Imaginary Choir (2008) is one the most interesting, passionate and singular musical odysseys in Australian music… In an email I remark to Jamie that having lived with the album it really has a strong, singular sonic identity, “heavy mellow” is how I described it. Jamie writes back: “I always wanted it to be beautiful and ominous at the same time. Heavy mellow, like you say. I’d tried to get rid of that heaviness on the last album for something different but now I wanted to let it back in but in more of a simmering, subliminal way as it’s a pretty intrinsic part of what I make. It just happens. Like a summer storm or something. I’d initially wanted to make it super bare but with alien sounds falling in and out with lots of space for them to reverberate. It did change once we all started playing together particularly with Scott and Jared both on traditional and found percussion. I rehearsed a lot with Reuben on bass but for everyone else it was like I was leading them through a dark tunnel with a torch. The others mightn’t agree but I don’t feel I over prepared them compared to usual so there’s an intuitive ‘playing by the seat of one’s pants’ feel to it and this feeling very much informed and guided the recording. There were 14 songs recorded but I culled it to 10.”
After some more written to-ing and fro-ing, Jamie concludes: “I think the main points are the format and circumstances of the recording. That it has a kind of ‘fever dream’ ‘heavy mellow’ feeling to it. I think I’ve let the tension of my previous work with Bluebottle etc seep under the skin of the songs in a way, the lyrical themes: the everyman taken out of his comfort zone and thrust into alien terrain.”