published: 29 /
Ben Howarth speaks to Peter Milton Walsh, the frontman with Australian alternative rock band the Apartments about his group's second 'comeback' album 'In and Out of the Light', his approach to songwriting and his plans for touring.
Once a member of the Go Betweens, Peter Milton Walsh formed the first line-up of e Apartments in Brisbane in 1978, but recorded only sporadically over the next decade – it was a seven year wait for a debut album. A more consistent run of albums came in the 1990s, when the band built up a loyal following in France. But the tragic loss of his young sun saw Milton Walsh withdraw from music making in 1999.
Though he was occasionally persuaded to resume live performing, it was not until 2015 when he next released an album. That album –‘No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal’, which deals directly with his family tragedy – is one of the most striking of recent years. Though deeply affecting, the rush of energy and melody captured in the songs made it life affirming.
As he admits below, at this point, he had no idea if there would be any more Apartments songs. But, after a regular series of live dates on the back of it showed just how much the band meant to people, Milton Walsh returned to the studio for a new set of songs.
‘In and Out of the Light’ finds Milton Walsh recreating the emotional intensity of ‘No Song…’ even while his lyrical focus shifts outwards to other characters seeking to overcome hardship. Partly recorded with his band in Sydney and partly recorded by collaborators around the globe, it combines passionate singing, delicate arrangements and occasionally anthemic crescendos. Rarely have I been so struck by a new album on first listen – it has firmly established itself as my favourite record of this unusual year.
A few weeks before the release of his album, Peter Milton Walsh sat down to answer our questions about the recording of ‘In And Out Of The Light’, his approach to songwriting and his plans for further touring.
Pennyblackmusic: This is your second 'comeback' album after a long break. The first was a very personal and often heartbreaking collection of songs (though also very tuneful!) - at the point it was released in 2015, were you planning to continue to record and release more new music or did the decision to make this new album come later?
Peter Milton Walsh: I didn’t have anything like a plan around 'In And Out Of The light'. I thought I’d just see what happened. Thinking about the future was a bit beyond me at that point. Most of the songs on that album I’d never played to anyone—until I played them to Wayne Connolly, the producer.
I have bits and pieces of songs lying around all the time, but after we released 'No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal' in 2015, what I really started on then was not so much songs, but remaking my life. We toured the album—first time I’d ever done that—then followed it up with 2016 and 2018 tours. Each tour was longer and bigger than the previous one. Touring like that was all new to me and I found I was distracted a lot.
2019 just seemed like a good year not to tour and I had some songs, so I thought I’d make a new album.
PB: I read that you had continued to write songs during your time away from recording. Are any of the songs on 'In And Out Of The Light' older songs from that time or were they all written specifically for this album?
PMW: No, these are all new. I had some songs I’d written before the album started, sometime during that year, so I demoed two of them. I was doing that so I could send them to various Apartments and they could think about what they’d bring to the songs. I found I really loved that demo process, as I usually have done with demos, because it’s the time when you are discovering the song.
But when I thought about recording more demos, I realised I wanted instead to just go in and start recording. To get the feeling that came to me laying down the songs, get that into the recording itself, not have it unheard, on the demo.
And I was attracted to the way bits and pieces seemed to come to me once recording was happening, things that were new, as I made the demos. I thought the same thing would happen in a “proper” recording.
So I ended up with most of these songs being written during the recording period. They favoured the present, the way I was thinking then, what was on my mind — the time they were coming out of. This was something new for me, and the way we were working made it possible. I was again working with a great producer, Tim Kevin. Brilliant ear, focus, gifted player of many instruments. His studio time was already heavily booked so we would work one or two days a week only. I had time to try a song — audition new material with Tim — see if it had promise, then come to it entirely freshly as we recorded it.
Sometimes there’d be four or five days in between and I’d try bits and pieces at home. Again I’d then run them past Tim at the studio the next week. If he thought they were good, we put them down. Mostly, he thought they were good. Working like this on an entire album, for me, this was a breakthrough.
PB: These songs were recorded over a series of sessions over late 2019 and early 2020 - did you begin the sessions with a clear idea of what you wanted the album to sound like or did it evolve as the recordings proceeded?
PMW: Absolutely, yes. I knew what I wanted beforehand. I learned something about myself, what I was capable of, when I was making that last album. 'No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal', the title track, was the last song I wrote for the album, the month before we recorded.
It was a good lesson to me. I could write like that, in the moment, in the studio. And that’s how I wanted to record this set of songs — create in the studio, whatever sounds, touches, splashes of melody, lines and fragments that suggested themselves there in the moment. To have the songs come out of wonder, rather than knowing.
I went into the studio for 'In and Out of the Light' with just a piano and guitar. I didn’t want to start with a bedrock of bass and drums and build on that. I wanted to work more like 'Mr Somewhere', where I didn’t know what I was going to do but just threw things at it as I felt they should be. Songs seem to float more when I work like that. But importantly, it was a different way to work. The album was made by the details that went into it. Like a painting, where each brush stoke adds to and changes the painting itself.
PB: You recorded the songs in Australia, but a lot of your bandmates are from overseas and recorded their parts remotely. How did you find that process? Were you closely involved in their recordings or was it a case of waiting to see what they sent back to you?
PMW: That’s right. Antoine, who played guitar and arranged and recorded some strings at his studio, lives in Tours, South-West of Paris. Natasha who sings and plays keyboards lives up north in Lilles, near the Belgian border. And Nick who drums and plays percussion lives in London. They’re all better musicians than me, which helps. So it wasn’t too much of a problem. I’d record the track here, with vocal, upload it for them and they’d record their parts against that and send something back. Sometimes I’d suggest things, but they’re all imaginative and I like what they do themselves.
The other players — like Chris Abrahams from the Necks, Miro the flugelhorn and trumpet player, Eliot who sings and plays bass — they were all in Sydney, so you can be in the room with them at the same time. Much easier!
PB: At what point did you arrive at the title of the album. Did you write the lyrics with this title and theme in mind?
PMW: No, the title came to me somewhere along the way. Near the end, I thought, but later on I found out that it was not as spontaneous as I thought, because when we had finished mixes and mastering, I went back through my diary to find the date we began recording. I found I’d posted this: “Today, a Tuesday morning in winter, we begin recording a new Apartments album. Like Bob le Flambeur with his beautiful belief that there's always one last score, that the next hand dealt could change everything, in and out of the light I go.”
Of course that’s what happens to a lot of people in the songs as well, they keep moving —we all do —in and out of the light.
PB: In the description of the album, you say that the songs all feature different characters - but there are various lines that seem to be autobiographical (in particular on 'Butterfly Kiss', with its the references to going "singing through the summer") - do you consider the characters and narrators of these songs to be fictional, or is it a mix of both fiction and real-life?
PMW: I have believed my entire life that songs are never just one person’s story, that people see themselves reflected in the songs. And I know that’s true of my songs. But the guy in that song, the one who should have worked instead of singing through the summer, that could be me.
I got that line came from a conversation I had a long time ago with another singer who worked hard all the time. And he’d said to me that instead of working through the summer —like he did, and the ants did —to prepare for the coming Winter, I was like the grasshopper who instead sang through the summer. Who wasted his life running from pleasure to pleasure, drifting, instead of working — and when the winter set in, the grasshopper was in all kinds of trouble.
And when I last saw the guy a few years ago, I spoke to him about it, the ant and the grasshopper line, telling him how significant it had been. How it had in some way both haunted and fabled my life. And he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about, had forgotten it completely! Chance as much as choice had determined so much of my life and this seemed to be just another example. Why did I choose to remember that?
As for my characters, you have to look at these songs not as linear stories but as fragments and impressions. They come to life from out of a constellation of conversations, memories, lines. The characters may have made the same mistakes, had the same experiences, been in the same situations a lot of us have.
Some might reflect my own memories or feelings — I’m definitely the type to count the springs and autumns too — but there are a thousand sources and the characters are like all us — there are several characters inside us all. And these ones occasionally can’t help but reflect the people whose lives I’ve been in and out of, the people who’ve been in and out of mine. They like to show up in other songs sometimes too, to go visiting the other characters. They move around a bit.
PB: You continue to have a big following in France and now record for a French label - which is fairly unusual for an Australian band. Can you tell us how the big following you have in France first came about and why you think you've kept this big connection to French music fans through your career?
PMW: That’s a question that interests me mainly because I don't know the answer. Maybe a French person would have a better idea.
The good thing is that often you get surprised when you release music and where it takes hold. We saw that recently with 'Pocketful of Sunshine'. In the first week, the top 5 streaming cities were Paris, Stockholm, Berlin, Turin and Lisbon. I have found my people — and they’re all in the wine countries!
I’m very fond of Talitres. It’s French, yes, but it’s got a lot in common with other labels and the people who ran them that, at certain periods in their existence, also released albums by the Apartments. Like Twin Tone in the States when they had the Replacements, Rough Trade in England when they had the Smiths, Torn and Frayed in Australia when they had the Dirty Three. Captured Tracks. How we ended up on these labels I never really thought to question. That they all heard something by the Apartments they wanted to release was enough for me.
PB: Do you have any plans to tour when you are able to? And, if so, are you hoping this will be with the musicians you made the album with?
PMW: Yes, definitely with the band — Eliot, Nick, Natasha and Antoine. At this stage we are looking at October 2021 for the tour for this album.
We were working towards a September 2020 tour to promote the album. COVID cancelled that. Then we had another European tour set up, February/March 2021. But the Australian government will not allow us to leave the country — COVID killed that too. And Qantas cancelled all its international flights until July 2021.
Yet, I recognise that this is nothing by contrast to the cascade of losses others have experienced. A stress avalanche came down on the lives of so many friends of mine — loss of work, loss of cash, loss of hope, loss of certainty about how to pay for food and rent.
I have plenty of other things going on besides touring, so I dodged that particular set of losses, the sense that others had that they were alive, but not alive because they’d lost their world. We’re not broke, not in danger, not sick —we just can’t tour —and that’s nothing to complain about when you see how badly this has hit so many other people.
PB: Final question - you put the finishing touches on 'In and Out of the Light' immediately before the 'lockdown' started. Have you been writing any new songs since the sessions finished or has this been a break from music for you?
PMW: Yes, there are some new songs. I stopped once I hit eight, because I like that as an album number, and I was happy with those eight. But a couple of weeks later, there I was, sitting at the piano again. I’ll try and get back into the studio this year. I’m always writing something — and sometimes it’s even worth keeping!
PB: Thank you.
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