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Steve Kilbey: The Beauty of Simplicity

With Steve Kilbey utilising lockdown to record his latest solo album, 'Eleven Women', the acclaimed Church frontman has discovered that there's magic in a simplistic approach.

No one, especially not Steve Kilbey, thought he would be releasing a new solo album right now. In fact, as far as he was concerned, this was a year that was supposed to be filled with touring and the completion of a new album with his bandmates in The Church. Of course, we all know that life doesn’t quite always work the way we want it to.

Though 2020 began with the release of Chryse Planitia, a collaboration with Garrett Koch, and The Dangerous Age, with Sean Sennett and Kate Ceberano, the news came forth soon that The Church were in the midst of recording a new LP, with a run of international dates also set to take place.

Unfortunately, the tour – which included a stop at the almost tauntingly-prophetic Cruel World festival in Los Angeles – had to put on ice thanks to the prevalence of the global pandemic.

“I try and ignore it as much as I can,” Kilbey explains of the hysteria surrounding COVID-19, speaking from a New South Wales truck stop. “I’m sick of hearing and reading all the conspiracy theories and ‘Should you have a mask, should you not have a mask?’, the vaccines, and Bill Gates. But without that, I probably wouldn’t have made this album, because I would’ve been touring.

“I had a lot of time on my hands, and what do you do but write songs when you’re a songwriter with time on your hands? That’s what I did, so I guess without all of that, this album wouldn’t have happened. So it was an ill wind that blew nobody good.”

Like many artists forced into this unfortunate position, Kilbey was one of many who found themselves with time to spare thanks to a world on hold. With countless musicians moving their platform to the world of livestreaming, so too did Kilbey begin to broadcast live sets from the comfort of his own home.

Though fans noted that the storied artist was undoubtedly in his element during these live performances, Kilbey began to realise his enjoyment was focused more on looking ahead than revisiting the past.

“At first I was just playing random stuff and I thought, ‘Well I’ll get more people watching if I do albums in their entirety’,” he recalls. “So I did the first five Church albums in their entirety, and I found I was spending all week learning how to play these fucking albums. Then I thought it would be easier to write a new album and play it than going back and learning an old one.

“I thought it would be easier to write a new album and play it than going back and learning an old one.”

“That’s actually why I started writing songs in the first place: because I couldn’t figure out anybody else’s songs. I wanted to play songs on guitar, but when I sat down – and I’m still very bad at figuring out songs, even my own songs – it seemed easier to write a new album.”

By the time that Kilbey was almost two months into this new musical landscape, he’d emerged with a full album’s worth of songs. Performing on Instagram on May 4th, he previewed an early version of an album, tentatively titled 10 Women, from his home in Coogee, New South Wales.

The songs were somewhat in their infancy still, but what fans were witnessing was the early stages of a new record that would eventually be retitled Eleven Women, with a closing track titled “Think of You” penned just days after this performance.

Despite this new material being born out of a bad situation, its creation was an anathema to Kilbey’s standard operating practices. While another record with Koch also emerged at this time, the idea of working on new tracks while other material lay incomplete felt at odds with his desire to compartmentalise his creativity. But with standard practices unattainable at the current time, a new record was destined to arrive in this new environment the artist found himself in.

“I really hate to have unfinished [material], and if I have an unfinished song, I can’t start on the next one until that one is finished,” he explains. “I’m a painter as well, and I find that more so with paintings as well. I was doing commission portraits, and I got stuck on this one painting of a couple and couldn’t finish it. People were going, ‘Just leave that and start something else,’ but I couldn’t.

“I do like to compartmentalise things very much, but having said that The Church are three-quarters of our way through an album right now as we speak. We started an album in November of last year and it’s still thew-quarters of the way finished, but I have done three albums on my own.

“I like to finish one thing before I start the next. But that just wasn’t possible with this album, because everybody was living somewhere and we couldn’t get together or something like that. So I had to strike out on my own.”

The result of this need to create was a record that was made in just three days. A far cry from the heyday of The Church, the greater sense of immediacy made itself present within the recording process, with each track the result of no more than two or three takes from the musicians involved.

“I’m going all the time, and when I was making Eleven Women, I only had a very limited amount of time, and there was no time for reflection,” he explains. “I had to slave-drive the other guys who were playing on it; there was no time for sitting around rehearsing on what we were doing at all.

“We had to just push through the limited time, but I liked it because it meant that everything was recorded on the first or second take. I make so many albums, and I’ve made albums where I’ve rocked up to LA and the album’s taken four months to make. I don’t like sitting around forever, with days where nothing happens; I like to do things quickly.”

“I don’t like sitting around forever, with days where nothing happens; I like to do things quickly.”

This fast-paced approach was one that some of the best bands have utilised in the past. As Kilbey talks, he recalls Michael “Woody” Woodmansey’s memories of the time as part of David Bowie’s Spiders From Mars backing band, in which Bowie would let the band play through a song a third time if he was feeling charitable.

This method seemed to resonate with Kilbey, who says he was searching for a sense of edginess of Eleven Women which can’t be found following countless rehearsals.

In fact, Kilbey looks towards the production of The Church’s acclaimed Starfish album for proof of this, noting how the extensive period spent in the studio saw the band performing their songs upwards of 50 times in pursuit of the perfect take. Likewise, the creative process for Gold Afternoon Fix saw the band play the songs to death, resulting in a record which, while perfect by all musical standards, lacked the passion and energy that fans truly resonate with.

“I’m really over that though, I’m more just, ‘get in there and learn the song, and play it and sing on it, and be done with it,’ these days,” he explains. “That’s sort of the philosophy behind Eleven Women.

“Something that’s had months and months poured into it, it might be perfect, but the life had been squeezed out of it. The way I did Eleven Women, there’s the immediacy [and] it comes across in the music. It gives it a freshness and a bounce that’s very had to get when you do one of those big production jobs that takes months and months.

Eleven Women is a revolution for me against all of that. It’s me in control, and I’m deciding when it’s finished, and I’ll decide if that’s a good drum take, I’ll decide if I want to sing out of tune or make a mistake in the words. It’s sort of warts and all, but for the lack of perfection – it’s not a perfect record – it makes up for it in the warmth and the spontaneity and the pleasure we had while we were making it.”

“It’s not a perfect record – it makes up for it in the warmth and the spontaneity and the pleasure we had while we were making it.”

Musically, the record is Steve Kilbey at his most uninhibited, with the free and spontaneous approach to the album allowing him to showcase his talents as one of Australia’s finest performers. From a lyrical point of view, the record is something of a concept album, with each song representing one of the titular eleven women.

Though Kilbey has approached themes within his music in the past (including on 2018’s Sydney Rococo), he notes that such an approach is a fine line between creating something truly special and compromising the maverick spirit that rock and roll should exhibit.

“I think a little bit of structure is good. When you can just do anything, you often don’t do anything; you do nothing,” he explains. “I liked having the idea before having started that each song was going to be a woman, I liked that. I liked having that general structure to the whole thing.

“It’s a fine line, having a concept. I mean, there’s some great concept albums – [The Who’s] Tommy. People ask me about that, concepts, and some concepts are really loose and you’ve got to put the concept together yourself, and other times it’s all spelled out and the concept is obvious.

“I think Pink Floyd suffered towards the end with how everything had to be a concept and everything had to fit within this concept, and I think the things I’m talking about, the joy and spontaneity go out the window when everything gets too structured.”

“I think a little bit of structure is good. When you can just do anything, you often don’t do anything.”

For Kilbey though, the concept works, and the record succeeds as a result. Between tracks such as the illuminating “Baby Poe” and the sweet closer of “Think of You”, the feminine theme appears in myriad ways, ranging from the story of evil witch “Doris McAllister”, the wistful Celtic composition that is “Josephine”, or “Birdeen”, which, a press release notes, focuses on a greedy lorikeet with a sweet tooth.

While many of the songs are rooted in fiction, Kilbey notes that like much of his music, there’s rarely a set inspiration from which these songs are born, with each and every one the product of the creative genius that lies within his mind.

“It’s like shaking up the contents of my head and letting it all roll out,” he explains with a chuckle. “Some of it’s completely true and some of it’s completely fiction. It’s like just letting everything happen at once.

“It can come from a conversation you had on that particular day when you wrote that song. You quote that conversation, and then you can’t even remember the conversation or you had it with. Then the song sort of takes over, and the art becomes reality, and the reality that inspires the art becomes forgotten. The whole album is a combination of up-close reality and far-fetched.”

While Eleven Women may have emerged out of a need to create while faced with a world gone mad, the end result is one of the most refreshing records ever made by Kilbey, who himself notes that the album is completely different to any method he’s used previously.

“I’ve never made a record like this before,” he admits. “I wrote all the songs on an acoustic guitar. Normally I’d been writing by jamming with other musicians, so the songs are a jam, and afterwards I’d put the vocals on. But these songs were all written with me sitting down with an acoustic guitar, going, ‘I’m going to write a song’.

“It’s almost the opposite of the way I’ve been working, which is sort of creating music in a pointillistic manner, where you get bits and pieces and you put it all together and then when that’s created, you put a vocal over the top. This is the opposite of that, this was sitting down in the old school way, just with an acoustic guitar and a vocal, and everybody playing along with that. So the song was at the core of the whole thing.”

“I’m definitely going to make another record like this.”

Even back in the days of recording The Church’s Starfish album, Kilbey notes that these songs were all recorded as instrumentals, with the music – rather than the song itself – driving the creative process along. However, with Eleven Women providing an entirely new way of creating an album, Kilbey explains that such a method is definitely one that he’ll visit in the future, and likely one that will again bear fruit.

“I think however you can create music is valid,” he notes. “If you can make it up bit by bit by bit, or if you have the whole vision of the thing, or anywhere in between. I’m definitely going to make another record like this.

“It’s a relief to do it like this and not, y’know, the way The Church does it, which is a long-winded, much slower process, where you take four bars, repeat it, add onto that, and everything getting moved around in a computer…

“I definitely will continue with this. I hadn’t thought to make records like this, but I really enjoyed the process and the quickness of it, and I think the feeling on the record is something you can’t get with agonising over it.”

With the new record out though, the question remains as to what the rest of the year holds for not only Kilbey himself, but the music industry as a whole. Though he’s performed a handful of socially-distanced gigs of late, he admits they’re nowhere near as fun as live shows in the traditional sense.

However, while history dictates that he’ll likely have more music on the way in the near future, it appears as though Kilbey’s next venture is set to be on the screen.

“At the moment, I’m involved in a really weird adventure,” he explains. “I’m going up to Broken Hill with a bunch of people on a bus and we’re making a movie as we go along.”

Though few details are sparse at the current time, the film looks set to feature Kilbey playing a composite character that is an amalgamation of both himself, and late Scottish-born painter Ian Fairweather.

“I didn’t know about him until I started making this, but the director wants me to be half me and half him,” Kilbey notes. “He was this old eccentric, famous Australian artist from around the ’60s, so we’re driving along on this bus with all these people, and we’re going to make this movie on the fly, kind of like the album, I guess.

“Instead of that long drawn-out process of normally making a movie, which certainly do yield results, and I certainly wouldn’t say they don’t, but not everything has to be drawn out. You don’t have to have everything planned, you don’t have to have a cast of millions of people; there are faster ways to do things.”

While it’s impossible to deny that a long, laboured process can indeed result in something amazing, it’s the sparse, immediate approach that delivers something not only true to the artist, but something that the listener can resonate with.

As both Kilbey and his listeners have discovered, Eleven Women proves there is a beauty that lies within the simplicity, and it seems many more beautiful things are still to come.

Steve Kilbey’s Eleven Women is available now via Foghorn/MGM.