Damien Leith was already an accomplished musician by the time he won Australian Idol in 2006. Now, ten years into his Winner's Journey, Leith is returning to same favourite places and going to some venues for the first time on an extensive Australian tour. I had the chance to speak to him about the tour, choosing his set list ... and jogging.
You’re about to embark on a long tour and I once read that Mick Jagger used to take up jogging before a long tour, so I was wondering: have you been in training for your long tour?
I actually jog as well. I’ve done a half-marathon this year. I don’t know if it’s the same as Mick Jagger – I’m sure he does a lot more than me – but I do try to jog at least once a day.
And I would imagine that’s also good for your voice, as it helps your lung capacity.
It is. It’s fantastic. It also clears your mind a bit and I find whenever I’m in a town that I’ve never played in, it’s a good way of getting to see the town: you go out, you don’t know what direction you’re going and you just jog. I’ve seen some great places just by jogging.
You’ve written a couple of novels, you write songs – I would imagine occasionally the odd lyric or idea pops into your mind while you’re running?
Honestly, it’s the best thing for thinking and for coming up with ideas. I totally believe in that. Whenever I’m not jogging everything feels a bit stagnant. If I go out jogging all the ideas start flowing and it’s great.
Now, you have a very extensive list of places to go to on your tour – how did you choose the destinations?
We’re definitely going back to some places that we’ve been before, places where there’s a good following. But also there’s a lot of new places, a lot of new towns, where we’ve never been and that’s been the ongoing thing that I’ve wanted to do, which is really get to as many different places as possible over the years. You really want to play as much and as far wide as you possibly can. So there’s a lot of new places on this list and it’s going to be great. With a ten-year anniversary tour it’s ideal for those towns as well, because they’re going to get to hear all their favourites – I’m spanning right back to the start. So it’s great for those towns because sometimes you arrive in a new town just promoting the album that you’re promoting.
And I think it’s really important for a lot of those towns that aren’t major cities or even major regional centres, when someone like you turns up it’s great for the community because they feel acknowledged, like they haven’t been missed out. Everyone needs stories and this is a form of storytelling in their community.
A lot of the regional towns and towns that don’t get visited that often, they’re some of the best audiences, I have to say. Some of the best shows I’ve played have been in some of the more remote towns. The audiences are great and everybody’s out for a good night, going out to have fun, and I think once you get on stage with that in mind, you’re on there to entertain – that’s the idea.
You have eight albums’ worth of material to choose from for this tour. How do you choose the songs and do you plan to change the set list depending upon who’s there and what the venue is?
I’ll definitely be changing the set list. I put it out online that if anyone wants to make a request prior to the show they should jump on Facebook and let me know what it is. And I’m also going to be shouting out to the audience on the night. I’m encouraging people to shout out if there’s a song in the last ten years that they know I’ve done, I’m willing to give it a go – I know that’s a pretty risky thing to do [laughs] but I’m willing to try it anyway. They’re reliable songs, as well – they’re songs that you know people do want to hear, so I reckon half the show will be songs that people really want to hear and the other half will vary every night. It could be anything. But like I said, bottom line is that if people come out they will get to hear all their favourites.
If you’re prepared to put it out to the audience then it sounds like you’re rehearsing eight albums’ worth of material.
I am – that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’ve uploaded everything into Dropbox for the band, and even when we do an acoustic show – some of them are acoustic, some of them are full band, but even the acoustic show is still a three-piece on stage so everybody still has to know what they’re doing and have a good handle on all the songs. So it’s a lot of work but it’ll be great.
So the split of acoustic versus band shows, is that determined by the size of the venue?
It is, and it’s also determined by how many shows in a row in a certain area. To bring the whole band, it all gets very, very expensive flight wise, so normally if you’re going to fly somewhere you want a few shows in a row to justify bringing the whole band.
Apart from which you have to deal with all those personalities, which no doubt gets interesting.
I’m still with the same band I was with even before I went on Australian Idol ten years ago. We used to be a band in Sydney before I went on Idol. So we all know each other very well.
I think that says a lot about you, that you still have those same band members. But also clearly that’s a great band dynamic and you work very well as a team.
The guy are fantastic. Like I said, we all know each other very well. We all know when we’re having a good day and a bad day and all the rest, and everybody kind of works off each other. It’s like a little family.
You mentioned being there to entertain the audience – you obviously love connecting with an audience and you’re motivated by a love of story. Is that something that’s always been in you since you were young, that sense of wanting to connect stories with audience and wanting to entertain?
Yes, absolutely. Years ago when I was with my family band back in Ireland, I have always been really chatty on stage – a lot more than just saying, ‘All together now!’ If there’s a story, especially if there’s a funny story surrounding a story, something that’s light – you don’t always want to be too serious – I love to share it, get everybody else involved. It’s good from an audience point of view. I love it when I go to a show and you feel like you come out of it knowing a bit more about the person onstage rather than getting up there and just playing their album from start to end. I like to feel a bit more engaged and more connected.
It seems to me – just from casual observation – that that’s something that’s very strong in Irish culture: music, connecting with music, connecting with story. In Australia we have little pockets of it but it seems like nationally in Ireland that’s much more important.
It is, it’s a real cultural thing. Even if you think of a lot of the folk songs that have been written in Ireland, they’re all stories themselves. A lot of the really famous Irish songs stems from some story – unfortunately a lot of them from heartaches, things that have happened. But they’re normally very true stories. I think it carries on right through into the performing of it, and talking. So many Irish acts that I’ve seen over the years, I find they do the same – they get up there and there could be a five-minute story before the song, you know [laughs]. But I’ve got to say, a lot of them are funny.
Because this tour is about the first ten years since Idol, if I were to ask you to describe your journey in one word, what would it be?
Well … ‘amazing’. It has, it’s been amazing. I’ve got to say I’ve been really lucky; for the most part it’s been really, really positive.
And what’s been the biggest joy of these first ten years?
I think the biggest joy is right now, ten years later, to still be doing it. I can think of so many great occasions, great things that have happened along the way, but the fact it’s been ten years in a pretty crazy business – and this business is crazy, and it’s totally and utterly unreliable in so many ways. You just don’t know what’s around the corner. To be doing it ten years later and to be out there playing shows, that’s a real joy.
Have there been any difficulties?
Not difficulties really. I think one of the hardest things is if you’ve worked very hard at an album and maybe the album hasn’t done as well as you want it to do – they’re tough moments. You have to wear them on the chin a little bit. So there’s been times like that when a labour of love just didn’t pay off the way you thought it would. But, again, that’s the nature of the business. You really just don’t know what’s going to connect and what won’t connect, and sometimes you’ve just got to go with it.
What are you most looking forward to about the tour?
The biggest part for me will be visiting those towns that I’ve never been to before. I love travelling. Anyone who knows me knows I travel a lot – I’m in Canberra at the moment. So to go to a new town, I love that. And I think the other joy will be playing songs that I haven’t played for a while. The Winner’s Journey album, the one straight after Idol – there were some great songs on that album and I very rarely play those songs. So to go back and revisit all of those, that’s going to be great.
A lot of people who go to see music performed might wonder how the artist plays the same song they played ten years ago or a song they’ve played over and over again – how do you find that your interpretation of songs changes? Is it an organic thing? Or do they not change?
I think it is an organic thing. Things happen along the way – let’s say a song like ‘Hallelujah’. I’ve been playing ‘Hallelujah’ now for about sixteen years, very much at every show, so even prior to Idol it was a regular song for me anyway. And that song has evolved as the years have gone on. There have been nights when I’ve changed the ending or I’ve done something a little bit different in the middle section, and then you walk away and think, I like that –I’m going to do that from now on. Then gradually that becomes the new version of that song. But when you’re playing a song you have played a lot, it comes down to the song itself. A song like ‘Hallelujah’ that I’ve played so many times, I’ve never got tired of that song, ever. There’s just something about it – the way that it’s written. It’s a magical sort of song that just has all the right lifts and dips to carry it through every single time.
And with that one song in particular, because Leonard Cohen has a very singular singing style – or non-singing style – and that song’s been interpreted by Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright, amongst others. So in finding your own interpretation of it, do you listen to other people’s versions of it and, if you do, how do you come to the core of what you want to do?
Years ago I used to listen to a lot of other songs and a lot of other people’s takes on songs, but I actually don’t at all and I haven’t done for a long time. I try to just get a song, if it’s something new I listen to the original, and I put it away pretty fast. Once I have the chords and I have a rough idea of it I normally sit down and then I’ll try to just work it to whatever sounds best with my voice. If a singer has a massive high voice I won’t screech and push to try to hit those notes or anything like that. I always try to find where it sits best with my voice and then work from there. And even my version of ‘Hallelujah’, it’s different again – it’s got a completely different ending to all the other versions – so it’s got its own place as well.
No doubt for your fans it’s their favourite version, so they’ll be looking forward to hearing it. My last question is: what are you looking forward to about the next ten years?
Things have changed for me over the last while. I’m still actively touring, obviously, and I’m still recording all my own music, which is great and I’m excited about. But I built a studio a while ago and I’ve found recently I’m mentoring a lot, I’m working with newer acts, and I’m kind of developing their songs and helping them in the industry. And I think in the next ten years all of that is going to become a much bigger part for me, which I’m pretty excited by, because I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping other people in the industry. There’s a lot to learn, and the more you can share definitely the better. If I knew some of the things that I know now when I first started, I would have avoided some of the pitfalls.
So this suggests that you might also move into producing some of those people you’re mentoring.
And I have actually, already. I’ve got quite a few different songs that are in the works, and some that have been released and have done very well. I did a song with Bella Ferrara – she was on X Factor a couple of years ago. Her single is released and it’s had millions of hits on Youtube, which is great. What’s really, really cool with all that sort of stuff is you’re kind of away from it as well – you’re behind the scenes, which is a nice way to be. Sometimes when you release your own songs you’re so embedded in it and everything surrounded it, and it becomes really personal and you become really attached to it. When you’re working with somebody else’s songs you do your best and then you can let it go and move on to the next project, and you just hope for the best, and there’s a nice feeling about that.
For the complete tour schedule, visit damienleith.com.au