Back Yourself, the third solo album from revered Australian singer songwriter Ben Salter, is released today via ABC Music. It is the follow up to 2011’s The Cat and 2015’s The Stars My Destination. The album features lead single Isolationism, written by Salter with long time Gin Club collaborator Conor Macdonald, along with other key tracks The First Sign Of Madness, End Of Days and title track Back Yourself.
Back Yourself was made over a twelve-month period at locations around Tasmania and Victoria. It was predominantly recorded with producer Chris Townend (Augie March, Daniel Johns, Tim Finn, Portishead) at his White Light studio, located on the edge of Tasmania’s Huon Valley.
The album features guest appearances by well-known Australian guitarist and songwriter Jeff Lang, Peter “Blackie” Black of underground legends The Hard Ons, and Something for Kate drummer Clint Hyndman. Melbourne based jazz saxophone virtuoso Julien Wilson and his BeeforChicken Quartet act as the backing band on two tracks, The First Sign Of Madness and I Need You. Wilson has played on all three of Salter’s albums. Hi Fi Way: The Pop Chronicles spoke to Ben about his new album.
Are you feeling pretty pumped now that album number three is done and dusted?
It is nice to have it finished, the anxiety builds up and up and up the more a project like this goes on. It is nice to have it out and I can’t do anything to it now. It’s out of my hands!
Is that limbo phase always difficult to handle given that there is not much you can do?
I still think it is better than the phase where it is being made and being worried about whether you’re making the right decisions. Now, it is much easier because everything is done and I can just hope that people enjoy it and try not to listen to it too much.
Do you have a clear idea at a concept stage about where you wanted to take the album?
For this one, I have been trying to develop this way of working since the first album where I try and leave as much of the recording as I can up to chance. I like working that way as there is a bit of spontaneity. Quite often I won’t let anyone who plays on it, we don’t rehearse the songs or anything, we just go in to the studio and I play the songs to them a few weeks before. This time I tried to take it a step further as I tried to write a lot of the stuff in the studio and record it as soon as I had written it. I make the writing as part of the recording I guess. That was successful to some extent and we were working on the songs quite a lot, pulling them apart and putting them back together but still the initial studio idea of writing really spontaneously I still kept to that. The result is much harder to predict when you do things that way but I think the album is a nice eclectic mix and I’m pretty happy with it.
Is there a lot more pressure doing it that way or is it easier having that concentrated burst of creativity?
Oh no, I definitely felt the pressure this time because I did not have any songs. I had a couple of songs, even though I said to myself that I didn’t want to write anything before I went in I can’t help writing a few songs here and then. Obviously I had lyrics and a couple of ideas as well as a few music ideas floating around as well. It was definitely a lot of pressure and also because the way I planned to do it was very quickly and cheaply, low rent I guess for want of a better word using friend’s home studios and stuff like that.
Just after I had started recording it someone came onboard and said you should come and do it at my studio basically help financing it to an extent which meant I was going in to this awesome studio, with this great producer Chris, without any real songs. He was totally up for the idea as well and really in to it by coming up with stuff on the spot. Some days we would go in with studio time booked and I would be sitting there going what am I doing? Wasting money? I’ve got nothing! I’ve got no ideas and all the stuff I have done sounds shit and all those typical things but you get through that, it’s pretty natural.
Do you think you would do it that way again?
I don’t know, ideally I would like to take it one step further and have a whole band. That’s what I had anticipated doing to a certain extent with this one but it didn’t quite work. Having a whole band and committing to five days of tracking stuff and then that’s it would be interesting. It would be a lot more nerve racking but I think I will always try and incorporate and element of spontaneity in to the recordings. That’s the whole idea having these songs and taking them on tour, polish them to a fine point maybe that would be a nice approach to take as well. I get bored really easily and I think the spontaneous approach is best for me.
Were there any particular topics or themes floating around in your mind that you felt motivated to write about?
I did have a lot of lyrics written and a lot of song titles I had been saving up. I like working that way where you work backwards from the title which can be a really good way to write songs. Sometimes the title dictates the vibe of a song to an extent but a lot of the concepts and lyrical ideas I had been carrying around in notebooks for a year or so. A few of them even lyrically were written in the studio such as Isolationism was a good example where all the lyrics were written on the spot.
Did you hit a brick wall at any stage during this process?
Totally, that happens all the time, it is a pretty risky business being a musician but I was lucky that I had someone who came on board to help pay for this album and give me the recording time. That took a lot of the burden off and gave me a lot of freedom. That still doesn’t change the fact I still need to write something that someone would want to listen to. It is a bit of a conundrum and that’s how Isolationism got written. I ended up emailing a bunch of friends of mine who are songwriters asking them if they had anything I could latch on to, a chord progression or basically do you want to write a song together because I was out of ideas. Connor, a very good friend who I am standing on a beach with in Tasmania he sent me this chord progression and I’ve got this song that has no lyrics, just a title and some chords, then I gobbled that up and that became one of my favourite songs. I definitely did hit the wall.
What is it about Tasmania being a good place to be creative and record music there? Did that enhance what you came up with?
I have fallen in love with it a bit I guess, the spot I’m standing on now if I could show you will blow your mind. I’m on the south west coast with this incredible view of the moon coming up but I like the cold weather and being involved in the Mona festival down here meeting some really good friends down here who play in my band. Every time I’ve been leaving I’ve been wanting to come back. I wasn’t living here when I recorded the album and my partner and I decided to live here. Mona has allowed a lot of people to come down here and has drawn attention to Tassie as well as a lot more artistic people considering it. It still isn’t that much cheaper to live here than Melbourne or Sydney in terms of rent but if you want to settle just outside it is a really amazing place to create. It is extraordinarily beautiful place, I love it.
Interview by Rob Lyon
Catch Ben Salter in October on the following dates…