Tim Levinson, aka Urthboy
Tim Levinson, aka Urthboy, is pushing hip-hop’s musical boundaries, writes Stephen Fitzpatrick
THE discovery of the skeletal remains of Sydney woman Natalie Jean Wood at her home in 2011 shocked a city not always known for its compassion. Even grimmer was the fact the 86-year-old had lain dead on the floor of her bedroom for up to eight years, with no one — not even neighbours in the inner-city Surry Hills street where she lived and died — aware of what had happened.
For musician Tim Levinson, who performs as hip-hop artist Urthboy, it was a story ‘‘ you couldn’t write’’. Levinson, who is nominated for the $30,000 annual Australian Music Award, to be announced next month, for his album Smokey’s Haunt, wondered how it would be possible to fabricate the details. ‘‘ A writer would have to come up with crafty ways to explain why no real estate agents tried to buy or sell [the house], or why council didn’t send someone over to kick the door in because the rates hadn’t been paid for so long, or that the neighbours were [not] suspicious,’’ he explains. ‘‘ It’d be hard to create that fiction.’’
But songwriter he nonetheless is, with four solo albums to his name and a further six as part of hip-hop collective the Herd, and Wood’s was a tale he couldn’t let go of. Eventually he decided to tell it like it was.
‘‘ I think it really ended up being a case of trying to retell the story, and the story for me was that the only visitor she had was where each day the sun would creep through the window, and then it’d go away,’’ he says. ‘‘ But it’d come back every day — so that idea of the sunlight coming and going, and that being the only thing that visited her, was the core of the song.’’
He finally had the basis for something, but it was a subsequent writing collaboration with pop music big-gun Alex Burnett that gave wings to the piece, by now called The Big Sleep. Burnett, who has landed Australian and British hits in recent years with his solo project Sparkadia, boasts a golden voice and a sparkling pop sensibility — two things that rapper Levinson thoroughly admires in others but claims he doesn’t always see in himself.
As well as giving the song a soaring chorus that takes your breath away when it arrives, Burnett’s inspiration was to make it something that literally sings the dead woman to where she belongs: ‘‘ It’s time to get you back home/ where the sun meets the sky/ you’ll be resting tonight.’’
Levinson is in awe of what The Big Sleep became in Burnett’s hands. ‘‘ That [chorus] made the song,’’ he says. ‘‘ I set it all up — like, that was the alley-oop, and he came right along and slam dunked her. I still get goose- bumps every now and again listening to it.’’
Not that he revisits his own material too often or just for the hell of it. Levinson’s existence is too hectic for such self-indulgence. As manager of Elefant Traks, the record label he founded 15 years ago with a bunch of mates in the Herd, he describes his life as ‘‘ a turbulent one, [even if] lived at a casual pace’’. Elefant Traks is now a hive of activity in an old factory building in Marrickville, in Sydney’s inner-west, housing music studios and office space and boasting more than a dozen artists and groups on its roster. There are five people on staff, including Levinson, but there are no glamorous rock ’ n’ roll trappings here: he grins and offers the fact that each of them is paid the same amount: ‘‘ Retail wages.’’
Levinson has put together a band to perform on the Smokey’s Haunt national tour that’s about to kick off; the night we meet at the Marrickville complex they’re going through the set as part of the process of turning the highly polished studio recording into something suited to high-energy live gigs. Where many hip-hop artists work primarily with samples and pre-recorded backing tracks in their shows, he prefers the crossover approach of having a full drum-kit and keyboardist, as well as the more traditional DJ spinning vinyl to provide beats, samples and scratches.
And then there’s Jane Tyrrell, his long-time vocal and songwriting collaborator, and bandmate in the Herd. Her powerful voice is one of the revelations of contemporary Australian music — or, as Levinson gleefully puts it, ‘‘ Jane is the rock star in our group’’. Tyrrell is also an impressive visual artist, having designed some of the label’s album covers, alongside a long list of other work.
She provides valuable feedback to Levinson on song structure, too, and he thinks it’s significant that whenever he throws her the melodic line of a new piece, ‘‘ the first thing she’ll do is harmonise with it . . . she goes for the colour, the creative thing. She’s an artist in all aspects of her life.’’
This issue of melody keeps cropping up and it’s clear Levinson is eager to push the boundaries of what hip-hop is. Also on the Elefant Traks roster is dance music duo Hermitude, with whom he has worked extensively, and he says making Smokey’s Haunt was a process of negotiating the creative tension between straight-up rapping and the demands of pop and melody. Often this had to do with his songwriting and performing collaborators — Hermitude’s Angus Stuart and Luke Dubber, Melbourne producer Pip Norman, R& B star Daniel Merriweather, indigenous South Australian hip-hop artist Jimblah and others — and their strongly musical inclinations.
‘‘ Naturally I have the great flaw of not being able to sing,’’ he says, half-joking, adding by way of qualification that this is a flaw only ‘‘ if you don’t want to have singing involved in the music you’re making’’. Smokey’s Haunt, he explains, was initially going to be a very classically devised rap album — the music he grew up with, and which he has made his strength in more than two decades of performing — ‘‘ but that just felt so stifling’’ as the melodies insisted on making their way into the material he was writing.
‘‘ The simplicity of a vocal [line] and its emotional power is something that rapping has to work so hard just to even get close to,’’ he says. ‘‘ I’m magnetised by that singing side of things, like I am to the sun in summer, irrespective of how white my skin is and how quickly I burn.’’
This melodic flow is part of what makes Levinson’s material distinctive; it’s significant, too, that the Australian Music Prize shortlist — his inclusion on it this year is a third appearance — also includes the tuneful Hermitude for that duo’s album HyperParadise.
Tyrrell’s presence in the Urthboy live band goes a long way towards achieving Levinson’s melodic vision; she replicates some of the gloriously sung parts of Smokey’s Haunt, such as Burnett’s vocals on The Big Sleep, making them her own. During the rehearsal I attend, Levinson is enthusiastic about showing her some new lines he has been developing with Newcastle DJ Jay Tee to go with the 2009 Urthboy hit Hellsong; ‘‘ Oh yeah, don’t worry, I’ll pick it up,’’ Tyrrell says with a grin, and of course she instantly does, bringing to the song a swaggering voice of pure soul honey.
‘‘ You guys are the best,’’ Levinson exhales as they finish, shaking his head in admiration not just at Tyrrell’s vocal technique but at the way the whole unit clicks together. Petite drummer Lisa Permodh (Levinson has previously called her a ‘‘ pocket rocket’’) laughs quietly and they move to the next song.
If Natalie Jean Wood could see it, you’d like to think she’d be smiling too.
Tim Levinson, front, with, from left, Lisa Permodh, Alex Dawson,
Jay Tee and Jane Tyrrell