Outside a record store on Johnston Street, a group of young men with beards are laughing and eating what is either a late breakfast or an early lunch out of paper bags. “Are you here to see Ben?” they ask, immediately friendly. “He’s in his room. C’mon, we’ll take you.”
Walking into the building tucked behind Dutch Vinyl Record Store, it would be easy to mistake it for just another creative, inner-north sharehouse. But this place has a name, and a lot of expensive studio equipment. The Aviary opened in 2012, and it’s where many of Melbourne’s top young artists come to record their albums.
Inside Oscar Dawson, of band Holy Holy, and singer-songwriter Ben Wright Smith sit on old couches, absentmindedly cradling their instruments and bantering. Wright Smith has just finished recording his latest album, The Great Divorce, which Dawson produced.
Dawson explains that most of Wright Smith’s album was recorded in this very room. “We did drums right here,” he says, gesturing to one of the many red Oriental rugs that cover the floors of the studio. “We had a week where we were all crammed into this little room together. We were getting a bit of cabin fever,” he laughs. “We might have stunk the place out a bit.”
“It’s kind of like my little home away from home,” Wright Smith says.
Given this environment, it’s not surprising that the Aviary, run by Nick Edin and Fraser Montgomery, attracts some of the country’s top music talent, with singers and bands such as Ali Barter, Nick Murphy (Chet Faker) and Tim Rogers of You Am I all recording here.
Two years ago, Wright Smith won a major music scholarship that took him to Nashville, Tennessee, to work with Mark Moffatt, a renowned Australian producer who worked with The Saints, Yothu Yindi, Slim Dusty and the Divinyls.
“We were so excited to meet Mark, because he’s obviously a bit of a legend,” says Wright Smith. “When we were in Nashville … we had massive ideas of where we wanted to record. We were like, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll go record at the RCAT studio’, where Elvis recorded. But we tried it out and after a couple of tries, we ended up settling at a place where [Moffatt] had a similar set-up to The Aviary. There, you could just relax and take your time.”
For Wright Smith, bigger studios mean more pressure and less inspiration.
“You’re kind of just renting a studio for the day, but you don’t really feel at ease,” he says.
Although Wright Smith is for all intents and purposes a one-man act, he almost exclusively uses the pronoun “we” when he talks about the time he’s spent recording at The Aviary.
“It fulfills all of the various requirements,” explains Dawson. “It’s not a home studio, but it’s different to recording in a big, expensive studio.”
“To me, that’s really important,” adds Wright Smith. “I think before we recorded No One at The Aviary, there wasn’t necessarily an end goal or anything like that.” No One was Wright Smith’s breakout single in 2015 – an infectious, Americana-style indie rock song – followed up by the more jubilant, summery, psych-inflected Sand Grabber last year. “It was just writing, and recording, and seeing what we were coming up with. But nothing ever felt like a collection of songs that could make a proper record. After we recorded No One with everyone back here, it felt like the right family to put it together.”
In fact when he returned to Melbourne, he scrapped almost the entire of body of work he’d produced in Nashville.
“But that’s good; that’s part of the process of modern recording,” he says.
“It’s not as disruptive as it sounds,” adds Dawson. “Except, perhaps, to our emotions.”
Eventually, we head upstairs as other musicians filter in to use the studio. Up a set of narrow wooden stairs there’s another suite of recording studios – all of which look like the re-purposed rooms of a log cabin.
Like downstairs, the floor is covered in an assortment of rugs, and the walls are made of what looks like hand-assembled timber planks. A boar’s head mounted on the wall wouldn’t be out of place here (instead, it’s hanging guitars). “Before, this used to be the rumpus room. We used to play pool and eat pizza in here,” Wright Smith says.
As we explore the rest of the rooms, he lists off the various Melbourne musicians who have previously recorded here: Ali Barter, Alex Lahey and Gretta Ray, among others.
“They’ve been making new additions and renovating since we came here two years ago,” he says as we meander through the building. “Nick and Fraser built a lot of this stuff by hand. They were putting these walls up, even as we were recording.”
Ben Wright Smith’s debut LP, The Great Divorce, is out now. He goes on a national tour with Pete Murray beginning July 9 and ending September 9. He plays in Melbourne at the Forum on August 25. Holy Holy's new album Paint is out now.