21 March 2019, WAAPA, Perth, Western Australia, Australia
I am hugely grateful and more than a little embarrassed to be honoured like this. This institution puts out proper extraordinary artists. I was only here for two years, and yet my contemporaries include Graeme Blevins and Tommy O’Halloran and Ben Vanderwal and Libby Hammer and Troy Roberts and James Sandon and Grant Windsor and these incredible people who’ve found a level of craft I wouldn’t be able to approach in my wildest dreams. In this tent alone, there are artists who I swear you’ve put here just to make me feel like the hack that I am. I feel the same as I did when the jazz students used to come and watch our “commercial music” ensemble performances: mildly embarrassed and very threatened. And then the added cruelty of holding the event in a circular room full of mirrors: I’m not much good with the piano but I’m very good with subtext, you bastards, I know you’re telling me to take a good hard look at myself.
With a head like mine, you learn to try not to.
So this week I’m staying at the Crown Metropole hotel. It’s not my usual vibe, but the theatre I’m playing in is right there, and besides if I stay with my parents, the kettle wakes me up at half past six and I’m not having that. Anyway, presumably because my tour is attracting punters, the hotel management upgraded me, so I’m staying in some kind of penthouse suite thing. It’s about the size of my house, and feels like I’m living in an Italian furniture show room. There are just so many couches. I’m staying there on my own, yet I counted, and you could have 90 people comfortably sitting in my hotel room. I don’t know what it’s for. It’s a room built for the sole purpose of making Wankers feel like Legends. Trump would love it, you know.
When you first walk into a room like that, you initially feel really excited, but it is genuinely gross and quite miserable to stay there. That’s worth knowing, I guess, if your plan is to be a Rockstar or a famous actor. It’s not only lonely at the top, but populated by unnecessary chairs. Put that on a fridge magnet.
My time here at WAAPA was quite hard actually. Being an artist requires massive reserves of self-belief, and coming to a place like this is incredibly testing. Of course, I know now that the 2 years I spent here feeling unbelievably bad about myself were simply training for the subsequent 8 years where I felt even worse. Watching beautiful beautiful Graham Wood play piano and just wanting to give up… wanting to cut my fingers off and feed them to a swan, taught me… well, not to. I guess. It was the beginning of a lesson I’m still trying to learn: that comparing yourself to others, in any area of your life, is poison.
It was also hard here because I had really good friends in the acting course, and they were all wandering around in black tights and shagging each other and looking fabulously sweaty, while I was wandering around with the other pianist in my year, who was a sweet guy, but deeply depressed, and every day just reminded me how we were going to be poor for life and that there was no point.
And it was hard because – like you – I was making coffees and pouring beers to pay my rent.
But mostly, it was hard because music had always just been fun to me. Music was a thing you did at parties to pick up girls. It was something I did when I was stressed or sad. It was an escape; I could – and still can – fall asleep playing the piano, and wake up seconds later wondering how my fingers got to where they’d got. And coming here, it was work, suddenly. I had to practice. (The first year I was here remains the only year I ever actually practiced piano. Russell Holmes will confirm I certainly didn’t do any practice in second year. Somewhere a few weeks in it became clear we both preferred just hanging out and chatting.)
But I am so grateful for the two years I spent here. It is impossible to measure the value of what that diploma gave me. Much of what they were teaching me I couldn’t get at the time, but unconsciously, I put the info on some shelf in my brain to be picked up and properly examined later, when I had more time and was feeling less stubborn. I learned musical tools, performance tools, I learned to respect time, I learned to listen, I learned resilience. I learned that dominant 13th shape that is also a minor 6/9 and a dominant 7 sharp 5 sharp 9 and a major 7 sharp 11 and it’s the best shape in the world and Matilda is built on it. I never learned to read music. I don’t know whose failure that is. I’m gonna say Paul Pooley. Is he here?
I guess I’m trying to say to the students here: I know these places can be hard, but keep going. You won’t actually know what you’re really learning until years later. Just listen, keep your humility and stay tough.
Right, if this were a graduation ceremony, my role here would be to give career advice to the graduates. It’s not, but I guess I’ll try to give advice anyway, because I’m quite old now, and giving unsolicited advice is what old white guys are supposed to do. I’m gonna mansplain the arts to you.
It’s actually surprising to me how often I get asked for career advice. Young musos and actors, and parents of stagey little kids… they go, “how do you get a career like you?” And I mean, I get it. I so clearly remember in my teens and twenties thinking, what’s the trick? There must be a trick. But it still takes me aback that they ask me, because my career is so clearly such an absurd fluke. I mean, I simply got lucky. And not lucky like, I was on the bus and I got my umbrella confused with the umbrella of a guy who turned out to be the husband of a record company exec… There was no single moment of luck, nor a series of lucky events. I mean, it’s a fluke because it turned out that having my weird combination of attributes allowed me to make some stuff that happened to find an audience in a particular place and time.
And that’s the short and long of my advice really: there is no trick. You can’t have a career like mine. It’s mine. You have to have your career.
To expand upon that platitude, I’ll tell you three things I reckon are important if you’re serious about a career in music or theatre or dance or film. All three of these are total clichés, but perhaps worth reiterating.
Firstly: you have to get good. Get really good. No short-cut, no business technique, no amount of self-promotion or nice business cards, none of it means anything, really. You just have to be really, really good at what you do. Ideally, be the best. And that takes hours and hours and hours. Time when your mates are taking pills or smoking cones, time when other people are having holidays. You don’t get to have a good work-life balance. It means being a bit obsessed. And if you’re lucky, it won’t suck because you love it. And if you don’t love it, stop now. Don’t do it as a job. There are many more important jobs than being a muso or an actor, or at least as important, get one of those and play music as a hobby.
But if you’re going to do it, you simply have to spend all your time and all your energy and all your money getting good. Sorry.
There is however, a little loophole in this advice. Which is that how you define ‘what you do’ is up to you. I am the best in the world at what I do. Without a doubt. And I can say that confidently, because the number of people I’m competing with is zero. The thing I am best in the world at, is being a science-obsessed, uber-rhymey polemicist pianist singer satirist wanker. I am really, really good at that job. I am the king of Minchinland, population: this idiot.
So be really, really good at what you do. And figuring out what that is also takes hours and hours and hours. I’m sorry.
And this is related to my second bit of advice, which is:
You have to be authentic. Actors, you might authentically look like a Hemsworth and authentically love going to the gym. But I promise, as someone who has been involved in casting on both sides of the couch: all anyone wants to see is you. We want to see how you play the character, how you bring you into a character.
My career began in my late twenties when I finally stopped trying to be what I thought other people wanted from me. I was trying to get acting agents, getting headshots and cutting my hair, changing my name to Timothy, as if that crap ever changed anything. I was trying to get the silliness out of my songs in the hope that I could get a record deal. I was separating all the things I am, because I had identified what I thought was the marketplace available to me, and was trying to be various products that might be consumable. The minute, the minute, I stuck everything I am on the stage… the moment I wore what I wanted, said what I wanted, put together a show that had me doing weird poems and monologues and playing jazz and pop and rock, the moment I got authentic, my life changed.
I’m an odd example, obviously, because I’ve always been obsessed by trying to do lots of different things. But the lesson stands anyway. Your career, whether you wanna be a triple threat on the west end, or a film actor, or a session percussionist: don’t make the mistake of thinking that little old you is not interesting to the world. You have lived a unique life, consumed a unique suite of ideas, marinated in a unique combination of songs and artists and influences. You will have something that no one else has, and identifying that is your key to a beautiful career. And that career might mean you are dirt poor your whole life, or it might mean you get to be a massive star. But it won’t matter, because you won’t be trying to be something that you’re not.
And the third bit of advice: Be kind. Just be kind. To everyone. Always. (Actually you don’t have to always be kind upwards. You’ll come across people above you – a director or producer, a studio boss, an A&R dude – who are arseholes. You’re allowed to tell them to f-off.) But basically you should always be kind. It seems so obvious, but it’s amazing how many people fail to understand its importance. Be kind to the monitor guys, be kind to the fly-mech, be kind to the ushers and the merch people, the gaffers, the make-up artists, be kind to your fellow performers. Whatever happens. Even if there is feedback screaming in your in-ears, even if the air-con doesn’t work in your trailer and you’re freezing, even if you’re under huge pressure and you’re under-slept and working days and gigging nights and you haven’t written a speech you have to write and you’re starving and all you want is some poached eggs and a flat white delivered to your furniture store hotel room but you’ve accidentally left your “do not disturb” sign on the door so the waiter just doesn’t deliver your breakfast for an hour and then when he does, he spills your flat white onto your poached eggs… even then, be kind. If in doubt, double down and be kinder. Not only will it make your life better, but it is really good career advice. The musicians I’m working with on this tour are some of the best players in the country, but that’s only half the reason we sought them out. They are just really, really lovely people. So just be kind. It will bite you on the ass if you’re not. And yes, there are successful arseholes – I’ve worked with a couple of the most famous of them – but, who wants to be one of them? It’s gross.
Music is not magic to me. Being a musician is not particularly romantic. Songwriting is a craft you get better at by doing it over and over again, just like cooking or surgery or painting or sex or handstands. Our ability to make art that resonates correlates very closely to our experience in life. I’m back at authenticity now. We carry our scars and our defeats and victories into how we express ourself. We bring all our experience, all our hours, all our self-loathing and self-love into our craft. At least we should.
Thank you so much for having me.