How excited are you about going to Nimbin?
Very! Very excited. I haven’t been on the road for quite a while, so I will be back on the road and anything that involves a large number of independent, weird and wonderful musicians is something that is always going to get my interest, and I know it’s going to be a fun time.
I like your categorisation of ‘weird and wonderful’ – could you elaborate?
I don’t have many friends that are accountants or even tradespeople. I just find that people who dedicate their life to art are great people to be around. They may not have much stuff but they’ve lived their lives and I learn from them, and I love being around people who have lived extraordinary lives.
This is slightly off topic, perhaps, but are there people you’ve met who you would consider mentors?
Definitely. I think every musician that I’ve come to know and respect has taught me something. It might be someone who’s just starting out who’s just a mind-blowing, gifted songwriter. Rob Hirst from Midnight Oil is one of my mentors. I played in a band with him years ago – we put out an album in 2004 together – so getting to work with him was pretty amazing. James Blundell is a real mentor of mine. He’s a great friend and I recorded an album, produced an album, for him a few years ago and we’ve stayed in touch. He’s had an amazing career and so I’ve learnt a lot about the choices I make and the things I do from his experiences. Having been through all sides of the music industry from number one on the charts to down and out in the media, hunting him down, he’s really lived it. The other thing with James, having got to know him, is that he’s such an artist – he’s had an artist’s life.
Which is contrary to his public image, I think.
Well, that’s the thing – his writing, as a songwriter and artist, is amazing. He’s done such an amazing body of work. He’s known for doing the Dingoes cover ‘Way Out West’ but he’s still loved for a lot of his other work like ‘Postcards from Saigon’ and ‘Kimberley Moon’. For me, anyway – and I think that this is something that would be echoed by many of the artists who are going to be at Nimbin Roots – it’s not always about people’s public awareness of you. It’s more about finding people or letting people find you who get what you do and appreciate what you do. Because it’s art. Everyone’s different. Everyone’s got a slightly different perspective on it. What does tend to cheese me off is artists who are just focused on the publicity, on the poster and the photos and it’s not enough about the music itself, which is the most important thing.
And if you’re only focused on the poster and the photos, it can only take you so far. If the work’s not there to back it up it falls over pretty quickly.
I don’t know – you’d be surprised [laughs]. Those things as well as having a ruthless and very good manager, and a big record label, they will make you very well known and make you a lot of money. They don’t necessarily make you a great artist. A lot of the people at the Nimbin Roots Festival are not those people. But people who are that way inclined and they’re looking for some substance and they’re looking for something a bit more than just what mainstream has to offer, I think [Nimbin] is the perfect destination for them, because I can personally guarantee that anyone who goes there will walk away having discovered an artist who’s going to impact their life – someone they’re going to love and buy their albums and go to their shows.
The word you just used – ‘discovered’ – was on my mind because the thing with a big publicity machine is that it makes the artist more discoverable, and of course that is the challenge for artists who don’t have that behind them: how people hear about them when they’re less inclined to go out to shows and everyone is always nervous about new things, really. But that’s the great thing about a festival like this – Lou’s intention in putting it together is … I’m not going to say ‘pure’, because that makes it sound twee, but she’s got a real sense of mission.
She definitely has. She always has. And she’s not afraid to ruffle feathers and she’s not afraid to question the establishment – and thank god someone’s doing it. I’m happy with my career. I’ve been an ARIA finalist, I’ve toured and made a living from music for 15 or 20 years, I have a really great mob of people who love what I do and who will buy my albums and come to my shows. But people don’t know who I am – the general public doesn’t know who I am. I’ve got a past career as an Olympian and I’m a world record holder but I don’t need that to identify what I do as an artist. I’m not making any apologies or excuses for the music I make, and I want people to choose it because they like it, not because they’re told to. And this whole festival is about that – it’s about people who put their time and energy into creative pursuits, and into music, and into the craft of songwriting. And this is an ancient craft. Folk music is still alive and well – the stories people tell about the land, about their travels, about the government. Making up songs about Tinder, you know. That’s what music’s about – it’s about sharing collective experiences and connecting with each other through the music and those collective experiences.
As I like to say, country music – which is a large umbrella – is our storytelling in song. There’s no other genre – if I include all those genres related to country – that’s providing that. I can’t think of any rock song that makes me say, ‘That’s a story I had to have.’
Exactly. There’s these stories in these little pockets of Australian history that are being captured by people and they’re probably not even aware of it – that’s not what they’re trying to do, necessarily. It’s just their passion and their way of expressing. What would you rather have: a multi-trillionaire what you need to know or someone you’ve never heard of who just makes up songs because they like it? Who would you rather trust? We’re all making our own history and musicians and songwriters are documenting it.
Yes, and they have a really direct channel to the audience. In live performance your audience is right there, which harks back to how stories were originally told – sitting around a fire, telling a story.
That’s it. It is a very pure and very honest form. I think the fewer people you have between that artist who’s telling the story and the audience that’s making their own decision about whether they like it or not, the better. Because music is an industry – it’s a multi-billion-dollar industry – and really statistically very few people get a majority of the cut of the pie, but it doesn’t necessarily invalidate people who aren’t. In fact, I think sometimes they’re more valid. They’re sometimes people you’ve never heard of. Nick Drake is a great example of someone who didn’t make lots of money when he was alive. Wasn’t really acknowledged for what he did. However, he has influenced musicians for a couple of generations now and will continue to. That’s success: someone who influences their peers and inspires people to keep going and keep creating music. The paradigm of being rich and everybody knowing your name as ‘successful’ is false.
Every time I go to Tamworth I see how engaged the audience is, whether it’s listening to someone they’ve never heard of on Peel Street or in a pub, or it’s a big show. You can see on their faces how much it means to them that those people are there and they’re performing for them and telling stories for them. And it’s really moving, actually.
The experience of live music itself is still so powerful. From touring for years, getting to know people in a town and come back six months later and play again. And this happens over 10 years, so I’ve got whole crews of friends who are in places like Warracknabeal, Goodna and Perth, Fremantle. Some of the little pubs and things I used to travel to, after being there a few time and playing at the bar with an acoustic, they’d ask me to play unplugged. I wouldn’t even set up a PA, I’d just sit at the bar and play and tell stories. The less you can get between the music and the listener, the better. At the same time, not everyone who’s undiscovered is amazing. There are some amazing people who are undiscovered but there’s a lot of shit out there too [laughs].
Given that you have travelled extensively, I imagine you’ve played in the Nimbin area if not in Nimbin itself in the past.
I don’t actually think I’ve ever played in Nimbin before. I’ve played around. I’ve played in Uki, I’ve played Byron, I’ve played Ballina and Tweed and I played Murwillumbah Country Roots Fest last year.
How was that?
That was brilliant. Having been doing this for a long time and still having the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I’m watching other artists perform, I’m grateful for that. I’m so glad I’m not bitter and jaded and sick of the whole thing. There’s many people are who have been doing their job for twenty years. I still love it and I’m still grateful for every opportunity to play my music.
Of course Lou [Bradley] was the artistic director of that festival too. Did you have to make a submission to be in the festival?
I did. But I’ve known Lou for coming up to ten years now. I live down the south coast of New South Wales and when she’d come down here I’d help her find some shows and get gigs down here, and she’s done the same for me. And she’s moved up now and organising festivals, as I am as well – I’m booking festivals and booking events round near where I live as well. But she always comes to my gigs and her kids come to my gigs. She gets that I’ve been doing it independently as well and trying to stay clear of the bullshit, and just trying to make good music and do it honestly and organically and play it to people. And not everyone loves it but just be there for those who do and you try to make good records.
Are there any artists in particular who you’re looking forward to seeing play in Nimbin?
Jodi Martin – she is an amazing songwriter and she’s been travelling and doing the hard yards for a really long time. She’s from Ceduna, out back of South Australia. She is a magnificent writer so I’m looking forward to seeing what new material she does. She’s one of those people who’ll get up on stage and say, ‘Oh, I wrote this one this morning and I’m going to play it now.’ Just so unaware of her brilliance. She doesn’t walk around like a rock star – she’s mostly walking around going, ‘What am I doing here?’ It’s just who she is and she does it so well, so I always look forward to seeing her perform. And I haven’t studied the programme because my favourite way to discover new artists is to just wander around and bump into stuff, or just follow my ears – if I hear something that sounds good I’ll just go and look at it. I’m sure that I’ll walk away from this festival with another dozen or so favourite artists and a bunch of new CDs to listen to on the drive on the way home.
Which is so exciting. And something you said just a few minutes ago, that you haven’t become jaded – it is so easy to shut your brain off to new things and I think that spirit of enquiry and constantly looking for and enjoying new material is terrific.
I think a lot of people have got the wrong idea of wealth. They’ve been hoodwinked into thinking that having a lot of things is wealth, but I think having good life experiences is what wealth is about. Having a wealth of experiences. If you cut yourself off to those new experiences or to trying new things … I love watching TV as much as the next person, but it’s not going to bring you any wealth of experience, is it? [laughs] A great movie is another thing. Great film is an art form just like great performers and songwriters. So [Nimbin] is one of those opportunities to look behind the screen and see something that’s without the hype and is a real snapshot of roots music, folk music and country music in Australia at this time.
Are you still doing some producing?
Yes. I choose my projects carefully. I’m producing an album for Spy V Spy – I sing in Spy V Spy, I’ve been with that band for a few years. They called me in – they were looking for a singer and asked me to do it and I happened to be a huge fan. A bit of a theme of anti-establishment songwriting – Spy V Spy fits straight into that. I’ve been recording with them and helping them release a new album. And I’ve got my studio set up, I’ve been recording – the last collaboration has been with a mechanic who’s a poet and he just had all these lyrics. He came to me and said, ‘I want to make these into songs’, so I put the music to them and we recorded them, and he’s done a whole album. That’s been amazing, working with someone who’s just a pure artist – so pure an artist they don’t even know they’re an artist. [I’m also] co-writing with different people and working on some of my own stuff when I get a chance.
So my last question is: I saw something on your website about a fake Paul Greene. There’s someone going around saying he’s Paul Greene and he’s not.
[Laughs] There’s a guy whose name’s Joe Zammit. He naturalised as an Australian citizen in 1980-something and he gave himself the name Paul Greene He performs under both names, but he’s been recently contacting venues in my local area. I’m not quite sure what he says but the venues seem to think it’s me. So I’m playing at this pub up the road that booked this other guy and he was terrible, apparently, and they said they’d never have him back and I said, ‘I’m sorry that the other Paul Greene got there first but I’d be happy to come and play for you, and we’ll play on this spin that this guy’s been hijacking my name’. I think he must get a better fee.
It really sucks. I imagine the people who haven’t been to one of my shows see this guy playing, turn up, they don’t know it’s not me and they walk away saying, ‘That was horrible.’ He plays to midi files, apparently. I’ve confronted this guy and said, ‘It’s not good for me and ultimately it’s not good for you’ – because I actually registered Paul Greene as a trademark so no one else can perform as a musician under that name legally. But the other side of the coin, I think the guy must be really desperate if he’s wanting to use my name. Why doesn’t he use Michael Jackson or John Lennon or Bob Dylan?
He probably really likes your music – he might have seen you play and thought, I want to be that guy!
In a sense I pity the guy that that’s the best option he got, using my name. He must have had a pretty dismal career and he must really need the help.
And as the saying goes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
That is true, and there is the side of me that goes, ‘Poor guy, just give him a break – let him be Paul Greene for a couple of hours. If he has to do that, the rest of his life can’t be all that fabulous.’