Some­thing for Kate’s Paul Dempsey tells Iain Shed­den why he’s happy to cel­e­brate the mess of life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Strange Loop

If there’s one thing Paul Dempsey is sure about it’s that he doesn’t know who he is. Not com­pletely, any­way. That’s how he likes it. The Mel­bourne-based singer is aware that he is the core of Some­thing For Kate, one of Aus­tralia’s most revered melodic rock bands of the past 20 years. Also not in dis­pute is his sta­tus as a solo artist, as a record pro­ducer and as a song­writer who pours his heart and soul into ev­ery­thing he does. The iden­tity that lies be­yond and be­neath those cer­tain­ties, in the mind … he’s happy to leave bits of that alone.

“Do you ever re­ally know who you are?” he asks. Dempsey, 39, is sit­ting in a bed­room that acts as a record­ing stu­dio in the house he shares with his wife, Stephanie Ash­worth, SFK’s bass player, and their two young chil­dren. In this room Dempsey crafted songs such as The True Sea, Blindspot and Id­iot Or­a­cle that make up his new solo record­ing, Stran­gle Loop, a ti­tle taken from a book he read 10 years ago on the na­ture of iden­tity and con­scious­ness. “What’s so good about be­ing un­der­stood?” he sings on that ti­tle song. It’s a ques­tion Dempsey spent a lot of time pon­der­ing, un­til he came up with an an­swer and put it to mu­sic.

“Maybe it’s best just to ac­cept the chaos,” he says, “and that the in­side of your skull is al­ways go­ing to be a bit of a mess. There are al­ways a mil­lion voices in there and you’re al­ways cu­rat­ing what is go­ing on. There’s al­ways talk about dis­cov­er­ing the real you … dis­cov­er­ing your true self, that you’re on a jour­ney, all that kind of stuff. That just all reeks of de­fer­ring real­ity to some later date to me. I guess I have a slightly more min­i­mal­ist or bru­tal­ist ap­proach to those kinds of ideas.”

It’s that cel­e­bra­tion of the mess, as he calls it, that forms the hub of Strange Loop, Dempsey’s fol­low-up to his solo de­but, 2009’s Ev­ery­thing is True — that’s if you don’t in­clude his al­bum of acous­tic cover ver­sions, Shot­gun Karaoke, in which he gave a Dempsey pol­ish to works by INXS ( Never Tear Us Apart), Wilco ( Je­sus Etc) and You Am I ( Ber­lin Chair) among oth­ers, in 2013.

The new one bears sim­i­lar­i­ties to that 2009 de­but, not least that Dempsey wrote all of the ma­te­rial and plays most of the in­stru­ments, as well as singing. The chief point of dif­fer­ence this time is that he went to Chicago to record it with pro­ducer, mixer and en­gi­neer Tom Schick, an Amer­i­can Dempsey holds in high re­gard for his work with Wilco, Beck, Ru­fus Wain­wright and many oth­ers.

There was also the bonus of work­ing Wilco’s Loft Stu­dio, which Schick now runs.

“The one thing I didn’t want to do was pro­duce it my­self,” he says. Dempsey made ini­tial demo record­ings in the home stu­dio, “to within an inch of their lives”, he says, “but I didn’t want to record it without it hav­ing an­other pair of ears. I’d al­ways wanted to work with Tom. I loved some of the records he has made with Low and Wilco. He had al­ways been New York­based so I thought I’d go to New York. Then he con­tacted me and said he was mov­ing to Chicago.”

Dempsey and his co-pro­ducer were able to use a rich swag of record­ing gear and in­stru­ments that Wilco, which was on tour at the time, has amassed through the years. “I didn’t have to take any­thing,” says Dempsey.

The re­sult is an al­bum with much broader scope than its folk-tinged pre­de­ces­sor. It veers from the bom­bas­tic ( Morn­ing­less) to sparse, dy­namic pop ( The True Sea) to more re­strained con­tem­pla­tion ( Life­time Sup­ply), all of it col- in oured by Dempsey’s fluc­tu­at­ing vo­cal style and an as­sort­ment of daz­zling gui­tar riffs and sounds. Hold­ing it to­gether is Dempsey’s lyri­cal vi­sion.

“If there is one theme on this al­bum it is iden­tity,” he says. “It’s not a con­cept al­bum by any stretch, but it’s some­thing that comes up a lot.”

The strolling, acous­tic Iris Black, for ex­am­ple, tells the tale of an old wo­man cop­ing with de­men­tia (“ev­ery day some­thing takes my breath away, but some­thing brings it back again”). “It’s a song about some­one whose fac­ul­ties are leav­ing them,” Dempsey says. “It’s sup­posed to be a cel­e­bra­tion, wav­ing a hanky at your fac­ul­ties.”

Dempsey, who has suf­fered de­pres­sion and strug­gled with writer’s block dur­ing his ca­reer, ap­pear to have found a sta­ble and pro­duc­tive rou­tine, one made up of fam­ily, his solo ca­reer, the on­go­ing Some­thing For Kate and what­ever pro­duc­tion jobs come along. Since his first solo al­bum he has pro­duced al­bums for Bris­bane band Mos­man Alder and for­mer Drones drum­mer Mike Noga.

It’s 17 years since Some­thing For Kate — Dempsey, Ash­worth and drum­mer Clint Hyn­d­man — re­leased their break­through sec­ond al­bum, Beau­ti­ful Sharks, which paved the way for a suc­ces­sion of suc­cess­ful al­bums and tours, lo­cally and over­seas. The band, which played at the Spec­trum Now Fes­ti­val in Syd­ney in March, is still an en­tity. A new al­bum is planned for when Dempsey is fin­ished spruik­ing his own.

There is a dis­tinc­tion to be made be­tween SFK songs and Dempsey ones, ac­cord­ing to the per­son who writes all of them.

“When I’m writ­ing for Some­thing For Kate I al­ways feel there are two other peo­ple in that band and what­ever I’m singing rep­re­sents them as well. There’s more of a col­lec­tive sense in my head. On my own I can be as bit­ing as I want.”

Per­haps for that rea­son he doesn’t run any­thing past his wife when he’s work­ing on his own songs. “She hears very lit­tle,” he says. “She doesn’t come up here much. She’s aware that there’s Kate and there’s me. She and Clint are crit­i­cal af­ter­wards, though; bru­tally so. Some­thing For Kate is an agree­ment be­tween three peo­ple. In that band I open my­self up to Stephanie and Clint tear­ing it apart. They get right in there and say if that bit sucks, ‘do some­thing dif­fer­ent’. We have these de­bates. The rea­son I do the solo stuff is to be able to write without that. I en­joy both things. By the time I’ve fin­ished do­ing one thing, I’m ready for the other one.”

Dempsey is plan­ning to go out on the road with his new songs in Au­gust. He’s a bit of a road war­rior these days, fol­low­ing an ex­tended stay in the US a few years ago, where he reck­ons he did more shows in two years than SFK had ‘I en­joy both things. By the time I’ve fin­ished do­ing one … I’m ready for the other’: Paul Dempsey, solo, and with Some­thing for Kate’s Clint Hyn­d­man and Stephanie Ash­worth in the early noughties done in the pre­vi­ous 10. The move to New York with Ash­worth, who has Amer­i­can roots, was a game changer for the singer, who had to start from scratch, play­ing to small au­di­ences who had no idea who he was.

He also got to work with a steady stream of mu­si­cians, a con­trast to hav­ing worked with just two for most of his ca­reer.

“It was just in­vig­o­rat­ing,” he says. “I went back to play­ing to no­body, do­ing a cou­ple of nights a week in singer-song­writer clubs. I re­ally en­joyed it. It was ex­cit­ing to have to win over a crowd, to try and win over 20 or 30 peo­ple. You have to re­ally work hard to get peo­ple to pay at­ten­tion. I turned half­way into a stand-up comic be­cause it’s hard to cut through. It made me a bet­ter singer and per­former in terms of be­ing able to com­mu­ni­cate.”

That ex­pe­ri­ence, work­ing with dif­fer­ent mu­si­cians, pro­duc­ing other artists, as well as mov­ing back to Mel­bourne and be­ing a par­ent twice over — all of those things have changed Dempsey for the bet­ter, he be­lieves.

“As I’ve got­ten older I’ve be­come a bet­ter ed­i­tor of my­self and I have a bet­ter idea of what it is I want to ex­press,” he says. “As I’ve got­ten more con­fi­dent with that I’ve been able to use a bit more hu­mour. I guess it’s just a clearer dis­til­la­tion of what I’m think­ing.”



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