ACCEPTING THE CHAOS
Something for Kate’s Paul Dempsey tells Iain Shedden why he’s happy to celebrate the mess of life
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.”
TALK ABOUT DISCOVERING THE REAL YOU … JUST ALL REEKS OF DEFERRING REALITY
is released through EMI on Friday