You can tell Jack Colwell and Marcus Whale have known each other for years. They’re finishing each other’s sentences in this interview at the Sydney Opera House. In two weeks they’ll both perform here – along with Miles Brown – as part of Colwell’s national tour.
It’s not an immediately obvious pairing. Colwell’s debut solo EP, Only When Flooded Could I Let Go, is filled with sweeping melodrama and orchestral arrangements, while Whale deals in electronic pop – whether that be with his bands Collarbones and BV, or the more experimental solo album, Inland Sea. But then Colwell approached Whale to reinterpret his track Far From View, which now disintegrates into a post-classical nightmare complete with gunshot beats. It’s one of six songs on Colwell’s recently released “remake” EP, When the World Explodes.
Besides a mutual love of Tori Amos, Colwell and Whale share a focus on energetic performances and an appreciation for classical instruments and arrangements – Colwell studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music high school, while Marcus studied there at a tertiary level.
Broadsheet: At the Opera House you’ll be rearranging your music for grand piano and voice with some accompaniments – Jack, with a string quartet and live band, and Marcus, with a double bass. Yet you work in different genres. How is your music complementary?
Marcus Whale: I’ll go on a bit of a tangent here. I’m so taken with Jack’s music because it feels like it’s at the edge. I love how the whole world is what’s being experienced in the song – it’s almost desperate. That sort of feeling of wholeheartedness that I hear in it is what I aim for as well. I just have no time for music anymore that isn’t all-in.
BS: How does that all-in feeling translate live?
Jack Colwell: Well, we’ve talked together about how we really love when a performer is immersed in that performance. If you’ve seen Marcus or myself perform – well, it’s been described as a physical experience.
MW: It’s very physical. Jack does so much from behind a piano.
JC: And Marcus often performs with really brutal beats. It’s aggressive, but in a positive way. Marcus [in his dancing] claims his own power on stage. He’s saying, “This is a space where you can feel angry or emotional and that’s okay, it’s a safe space to do that in.” [I think] performance is actually casting a spell, where people go on a journey with you, where people go in to experience witchcraft.
MW: That’s so good.
JC: Maybe I’ve thought about it a bit too much. Traditional songs, like early madrigals or folklore tales of warning… why can’t modern song be that too? Can an album be played at home and a spell be cast for those 40 minutes? And, somehow, that spell activates something and changes you.
MW: Yeah, I want to be transformed when I listen to music.
JC: Me too.
MW: I want every cell in my body to change.
JC: And if it doesn’t I’m going to return it. I’m going to take that receipt and take it to JB Hi-Fi. Reason: I was not transformed!
BS: Jack, your When the World Explodes EP sees your tracks remixed by electronic artists including HEALTH, Fennesz and, of course, Marcus. It’s a far cry from your usual music, isn’t it?
JC: Something I find interesting with the EP is that the producers mined it to draw [the emotions] really out. I love the Roly Porter remix [of Coat] – it’s like the colour is being sucked out of it really slowly.
MW: Quite abject, like this is the end. THE END!
BS: Rather like the title, When the World Explodes.
JC: Yeah, and the original is Only When Flooded Could I Let Go. They’re both about destroying yourself in different ways – a beautiful destruction. More like rebirth. In order to come through you have to walk through fire, and as queer people, that’s something that we can relate to.
MW: I think rebirth is so strongly figured in queer identity because it’s something…
JC: … We have to accept and do and constantly reassess.
BS: How do you feel about being called an “openly gay artist”? A lot of artists have issues with the term.
JC: It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. On one side, I don’t see myself as a “gay artist”, though I may talk about some of those themes in my work. It diminishes my work to some people and says it’s for only…
MW: “This is gay work.”
JC: Yeah, this is gay work, for a certain type of audience, and I don’t like that. On the other hand, as a teenager I would have loved to have artists that I could look up to that I knew identified in the same way as me. And I understand it can help people.
MW: The term “openly gay” is also voyeuristic, like, “What? They’re openly gay?” And there’s a hetero gaze and it makes you instantly othered. That’s why it’s double edged. Visibility is good but then you’re put in a little box. And there’s also the perversion of being marketed through your sexuality.
JC: It’s a woolly conversation.
BS: Here’s a less woolly topic: you both sound really excited about the Opera House performance.
JC: It’s a real undertaking. There’s a lot of musicianship and craftsmanship that goes into recreating what you’ve already invented. I love to see people enjoy and share in that experience. And Marcus’s recrafting is even more radical, some might say.
MW: Yeah, behind all the drums and electronics and the horns and stuff, what I’m singing in my songs is usually pretty tender and vulnerable, so this is a nice setting to show that side. Where I’m just playing piano and singing.
JC: In some ways, there’s even more strength in this setting.
MW: Strength in vulnerability.
JC: Yeah, there’s strength in being stripped back, like that great Christina Aguilera album, Stripped. One of my favourites. But yeah, there’s power in being vulnerable, or tender and fragile. I don’t think that should be underestimated.
Sat October 1 – The Tote
Fri October 7 – Milk Factory
Sat October 8 – Producers Bar
Fri October 14 – Opera House Studio
Sat October 15 – Smith's Alternative