Mon­key busi­ness

Iain Shed­den hears how the new al­bum by Skip­ping Girl Vine­gar gained a very spe­cial voice

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Music -

APIECE of good for­tune pre­ceded what Skip­ping Girl Vine­gar singer and song­writer Mark Lang de­scribes as ‘‘ the most amaz­ing two weeks of my life’’.

The front­man for the Mel­bourne root­srock five-piece was in a stu­dio in Nashville in Fe­bru­ary, pre­par­ing to put the fin­ish­ing touches on the band’s sec­ond al­bum, Keep Calm Carry the Mon­key.

The first song he and en­gi­neer Brad Jones worked on was the clos­ing track, Heart Does Ache, a slow-burn­ing and deeply per­sonal bal­lad Lang wrote about the pass­ing of his grand­par­ents.

‘‘ The last thing my grand­mother said to my grand­fa­ther be­fore she passed away was: ‘ Thank you for lov­ing me,’ ’’ Lang says. ‘‘ It’s a very per­sonal song, but for some rea­son I couldn’t get it to work.’’

That’s when fate stepped in. In 2008, dur­ing his Aus­tralian tour, the mem­bers of SGV be­came friends with Cana­dian singer and song­writer Ron Sex­smith. He be­came a fan af­ter they gave him a copy of their first al­bum, Sift the Noise.

Three years on, Jones let slip that Sex­smith was per­form­ing in Nashville the next day. A few calls were made and emails sent and within 24 hours Skip­ping Girl Vine­gar had a har­mony vo­cal from Sex­smith on Heart Does Ache that fi­nally gave the song what it needed.

‘‘ It’s such a haunt­ing har­mony,’’ says Lang. ‘‘ It felt like my grand­par­ents were some­how in­volved in the whole thing. It was hum­bling for him to com­pli­ment my song­writ­ing, too. He’s such an awe­some song­writer.’’

That chance meet­ing was just one of sev­eral great mo­ments that pep­pered Lang’s visit to Ten­nessee. ‘‘ Nashville is a buzz town,’’ he says. ‘‘ Ev­ery­one thinks it’s a coun­try town, but it has be­come such a hub for in­die rock. Jack White was work­ing next door to where we were. There’s a whole com­mu­nity of rock peo­ple there.’’

Buoyed by the Nashville fac­tor, Lang went on to com­plete the re­main­ing 11 songs on the al­bum, which was re­leased in Aus­tralia three weeks ago. It’s an al­bum that boasts the sen­si­tive side of Lang’s char­ac­ter with the more bom­bas­tic folkie ex­plo­sions he and his band are ca­pa­ble of cre­at­ing. Lang, his bassist sis­ter Sare, drum­mer Chris Helm, vi­o­lin­ist Kelly Lane and key­boards player Aman­thi Lynch first came to pub­lic at­ten­tion in 2007 with their song One Chance, a pop­folk an­them that at­tracted ra­dio play and fans. Friends since child­hood, the five are more than a band; they’re a col­lec­tive that has cho­sen to re­lease its ma­te­rial in­de­pen­dently and thus main­tain more con­trol over its des­tiny.

‘‘ We de­cided to go down an in­de­pen­dent path be­cause we wanted to be­come a ca­reer band,’’ Lang says. ‘‘ We hope this al­bum takes us a step fur­ther to be­com­ing self­sus­tain­ing artists.’’ The al­bum ti­tle takes its inspiration from the old wartime phrase ‘‘ keep calm, carry on’’. The play­ful adap­ta­tion re­flects the band’s mu­si­cal mix of light and shade. At their most bom­bas­tic there are el­e­ments of the manic Pogues at work, while Lang’s in­tro­spec­tive side takes them into equally melan­choly ter­rain.

Lang be­gan song­writ­ing when he was four and has been study­ing the form as well as prac­tis­ing it since.

‘‘ My grandma, one sum­mer hol­i­day, sat down with me at the piano and wrote the notes of my song down for me,’’ he says. ‘‘ There was an amaz­ing mo­ment when I saw my idea on pa­per. A light turned on for me then about be­ing able to make mu­sic.’’

With that seed planted at such an early age, Lang is more com­fort­able with his own ma­te­rial or songs co-writ­ten with his band­mates than with cov­er­ing other peo­ple’s work, ‘‘ so I’m not the best per­son to have around a camp­fire’’.

He played in high school bands and at univer­sity be­fore team­ing up with the re­main­ing mem­bers of SGV, all of whom were play­ing in other out­fits across Mel­bourne. ‘‘ We went through this huge process of grow­ing up as song­writ­ers that took four years,’’ he says. ‘‘ There are lots of dif­fer­ent tech­niques for writers. I’m mas­sively in­flu­enced by melody and pop hooks. I love clever lyrics and sound­scapes.

‘‘ I also have an idea in the back­ground about mak­ing mu­sic for short films and con­tem­po­rary dance . . . weird whacked-out things that are very dif­fer­ent to Vine­gar.’’

There is noth­ing too weird on Keep Calm Carry the Mon­key, but there are con­trasts, from the more se­date Heart Does Ache and Cas­tle Full of Storms to the full-tilt folk swag­ger of Wasted and One Long Week.

All five mem­bers con­trib­ute to the song­writ­ing, in var­i­ous com­bi­na­tions, but Lang is the con­sis­tent pres­ence. His ap­proach and that of his col­leagues has moved on a lit­tle from the for­mula of their ground­break­ing de­but.

‘‘ I’d al­ways write songs on the gui­tar and we’d add the drums and ev­ery­thing else later,’’ Lang says. ‘‘ Now I might write to beats. The re­la­tion­ship with where the kick drum sits with the vo­cal pat­tern is far more crit­i­cal than peo­ple re­alise.

‘‘ For me it’s about what’s hap­pen­ing be­tween the bass, the kick drum and the vo­cal. If you can get those three things to sing, that ac­tu­ally gives an ex­tra dy­namic and you can look at adding other parts around that.’’

The next dy­namic Skip­ping Girl Vine­gar has to con­tend with is live per­for­mance, with a na­tional tour that be­gins in Mel­bourne to­day.

Says Lang, ‘‘ We’re look­ing for­ward to see­ing how these new songs con­nect with an au­di­ence.’’

STU­ART MCEVOY

Mark Lang, front, and the rest of Skip­ping Girl Vine­gar

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