Tim Levin­son, aka Urth­boy

Tim Levin­son, aka Urth­boy, is push­ing hip-hop’s mu­si­cal bound­aries, writes Stephen Fitz­patrick

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Urth­boy’s

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

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