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Inside Toby Martin’s Western Sydney Opus

Youth Group frontman finds inspiration in ethnic diversity on second solo LP and delivers a career best.

Toby Martin’s second solo outing since longtime band Youth Group announced a hiatus in 2009, Songs from Northam Avenue was conceived during back-to-back artist’s residencies in the Western Sydney suburb of Bankstown in 2013 – the album’s nine tracks coalescing in front yards, on median strips, and even out front of a milk bar.

The suburb’s celebrated ethnic diversity provided Martin with both ample inspiration for the character studies that ground the album, and an opportunity to collaborate with several talented local musicians with backgrounds in Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond – including Dang Lan on Đàn tranh (Vietnamese zither), Mohammed Lelo on qanun (Arabic zither), and Maroun Azar on mijwiz (Arabic reed pipes).

Across the record, the born-portraitist turns his unflinching eye to the mosaic lives, scenes, images and experiences that background Bankstown and its people. True to that, for every ‘lorikeet nestling in a palm tree’, there’s a ‘fucker in a bum-bag’ (“Central City Plaza”), or a child radicalised by hate – as in “Olive Tree”, a cautionary study in the radicalising influence of senseless hate and a timely meditation on the importance of tolerance, empathy and inclusion in contemporary Australia.

Sinuous and sloping songs of place (“Chapel and Dellwood”) jostle with a devastating meditation on regret, loss and imprisonment in starkly beautiful jam-stacked lay “Correctional Complex”, a migrant’s life, loves and loss in “Dreams In German” (‘I breathed deep of the garden, the tomato leaves and jasmine’), and a dose of zesty retro rock in the astute “Minto Mall” (‘the country’s up and gone, but the city hasn’t got here yet / Indian myna birds are circling around my head’).

The result is a departure from both indie-leaning solo debut Love’s Shadow (2012) and the usual stock-in-trade of world-music/fusion fare, as Martin profiles Bankstown’s locals and the characters they inspired in intimate, often heartrending detail.

There’s an interesting creation story behind Songs From Northam Avenue – I understand it was composed in people’s front yards and in a mixed business and café in Bankstown. How did these songs all come together, in that setting?
I started writing the songs in 2013. I did a songwriting residency with Urban Theatre Projects, who are a theatre company in Bankstown. They put artists in people’s front yards – visual artists and choreographers and me. The idea was to make the front yard your studio for two weeks. I was in an abandoned house, but I was across the road from this guy called David, who was my host. He looked after me while I was there! And then I did another one, another two weeks outside a milk bar/coffee shop on the corner of a busy road in Bankstown. Michael, whose shop it was, let me sit there and write songs. I had a lot of conversations with David and Michael, and customers and their families. All of those conversations kind of wove their way into the songs I was writing.

Have you been a regular or repeat visitor to Bankstown since 2013?
Yeah, absolutely. I made some good friends there. I often go back and have lunch with people. A couple of months ago we were there to make a video clip – we made the clip for [lead single] “Spring Feeling” at David’s house and hung out for a few days. But I actually live in England now, so I don’t get to Sydney as much as I want to.

The album features a raft of fantastic guest players – not even guests: they’re your band across the record. Traditional instrumentalists hailing from Iraq, Vietnam and elsewhere, and playing all kinds of instruments like Đàn tranh, qanun and mijwiz. I can’t honestly say I’ve ever heard those instruments on a recording before!
I’d never heard them, as well!

How did you go about arranging those kinds of new instruments and sounds for a Toby Martin solo album?
After I wrote the songs, I just had this idea that I wanted to record with musicians from the area, and particularly from the Arabic and Vietnamese communities. So I got in touch with people in various ways. The Vietnamese instruments are all played by a woman called Dang Lan. For a couple of months I went to Lan’s house, and we just worked on the songs. Actually, we had a bit of an exchange – I got her to play on my songs and then I learned some Vietnamese songs – that was kind of the deal! So we were both trying to learn something new, I guess. Those Vietnamese instruments, you can tune them in all sorts of ways, and I guess the way that they’re often tuned for traditional Vietnamese music didn’t really work for the Western tuning that I was using. So Lan had to change the tuning on the zither, and also on the monochord. So, through trial and error and just working together, we reached this point. Lan is also just very talented, so she was able to eventually work out what key signature to use.

With the Arabic stuff, the quanun and the oud, they have much more in common with Western music, so they fit a lot more easily. It was a matter of working out parts. I guess it was a combination of improvising – just letting people play whatever they wanted on some songs – and arranging. So, for instance, the first song on the record, “Chapel and Dellwood” is very jammy. It’s very live and everybody’s just playing whatever they feel works. But on other songs, like “Correctional Complex”, we worked much more on getting specific parts for every instrument. So that song begins with a qanun and a guitar playing the riff – that was more like getting Mohammed, who plays the qanun, to play it more like a guitar. And the mijwiz is an amazing instrument – it’s kind of like Arabic bagpipes, I suppose. The key of mijwiz – you can almost, sort of, put it over the top of any other key. So we just kind of went for it! All of the musicians were just really generous with their time and energy and knowledge.

You paint a really vivid picture of Bankstown and Western Sydney – it’s there in details like the ‘ghostly gum’, ‘Colorbond fence’, lorikeets, and palm trees of “Chapel and Dellwood”.
After spending two weeks staring at that landscape, it definitely popped up in the songs!

You delve into some of the darker and more difficult aspects of people’s lives in Greater Western Sydney – and in their lives before they came to Bankstown. Are you drawing on real people and real stories in songs like “Olive Tree” and “Correctional Complex”?
Yeah, there are some dark themes – and it’s funny, because “Spring Feeling” was the single we released [in December 2016], and it’s very much an upbeat song on the record. But a lot of the songs do have some darker stuff. “Correctional Complex” is a combination of lots of things. I kind of imagined it taking place in the neighbourhood I was writing about. “Olive Tree” is written from the point of view of a father worrying about his son. I guess that’s something that me and David and Michael all had – I was a very recent father when I started writing those songs, and Michael was older than me – but we had this in common, that we were all fathers, and we talked about family. The theme of family became quite strong in the songs I was writing, and “Olive Tree” in particular. Michael is Lebanese, so it’s written from the point of view of a migrant father worrying about their son growing up in Australia, and about racism. He’s being bullied at school and doesn’t feel like he’s part of Australia. It’s also based a little bit on current events. There’s a line in there about kissing the flag that came out of the Cronulla riots, and those stories about guys being made to kiss the Australian flag and stuff like that. I remember, actually, the Cronulla riots happened around the time Youth Group were playing the Big Day Out that summer, and I remember it was a really gross atmosphere. I think it actually happened at the Big Day Out, as well. So I was thinking back to then, as well.

In an album of great lines, one of my favourite moments is the Annandale North Public School Choir singing the line ‘I’m glad that I’m not dead yet’ – it’s one of those uncanny moments that just lands – I can’t help feeling uplifted. How did that come about?
That was Bree’s idea – Bree Van Reyk co-produced the album with me and also plays drums. These songs had their original airing at a Sydney Festival show a couple of years ago, at Bankstown, called Bankstown: Live. And I played “Spring Feeling” while this group of ballroom dancers, who were a bit older, did a dance. And I was telling Bree about that, and she kind of went, well, if it’s a dance for older people, maybe we should have really young people, as well. So we thought of a kids’ choir. And we got these kinds to sing, ‘I’m glad I’m not dead.’ And, of course, they loved it!

“The Cronulla riots happened around the time Youth Group were playing the Big Day Out that summer, and I remember it was a really gross atmosphere.”

I know you’ve worked with some fantastic Indigenous artists in recent years – Roger Knox and the Rugcutters included. Coming from, I suppose, the urban- or- indie-rock world, how do you find working with musicians from a range of different backgrounds – including the players on Northam Avenue? Are you constantly learning something new and discovering a fresh perspective, or is it perhaps the case that music is a truly universal language?
I think music is a universal language. I think music is a very good way to communicate with people who are not necessarily from the same culture as you. And it’s also just an amazing way to meet people. That’s something I’ve always loved about music, ever since forming my first band. It’s a great way to meet interesting people and to form friendships and learn about the world. Youth Group went on hiatus six years ago, and that’s when I started meeting some Indigenous country musicians like Roger Knox and doing stuff with him. Meeting Roger actually came out of some research I was doing – some academic research – I did a fellowship at the National Library of Australia. And I got in touch with Roger and we struck up a friendship and I started playing with him. I play in his band occasionally these days, and we’ve been making an album together. It’s been amazing. We do speak a common language in a lot of ways – in terms of country music! But we come from incredibly different backgrounds. It is a very interesting meeting place.

You published your first book, Yodelling Boundary Riders [a history of Australian country music] a couple of years ago, which had its genesis in your PhD thesis. How do you go about dividing your time between academia on the one hand, and performing, writing and recording music on the other?
Yeah, it’s a very good question: it’s one I ponder every day! I moved to England last year – I work at a University here, the University of Huddersfield, in Northern England. So I guess I’m a music academic now. Which is good, because I get to – making music has sort of become my research, now. I’ve just got to call writing songs research, instead of writing songs. I plan to continue making records, and also writing history. I’m just someone who’s needed to have both of those things in my life for a while now.

There’s been the odd ripple in recent months to suggest there might be some new Youth Group material in the pipeline – is that a possibility?
I hate to say definitely. But we do have, kind of, an album’s worth of new songs that we’ve roughly jammed, and we’re going to try to record them this year. We played a gig in Sydney, an acoustic gig before Christmas [in 2016], where we played some new songs.

Because I enjoyed the Bankstown residency so much – I found it a really good way to write, just having the discipline of turning up somewhere that wasn’t my house. I live in this village in England, so I did one [a residency] in this abandoned laundromat. I just got it for free from the landlord because no one was using it, and I wrote songs there for a couple of weeks last year. And they just ended up being very Youth Groupy. It was one of those classic things: I was in England, I was expecting to write these songs about living in the North of England, but in the end I just thought about Australia.