Iain Shedden hears how the new album by Skipping Girl Vinegar gained a very special voice
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.’’
Mark Lang, front, and the rest of Skipping Girl Vinegar