Mid­night Oil front­man and for­mer fed­eral politi­cian Peter Gar­rett ex­plains to Iain Shed­den why now is the per­fect time for a come­back

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

No one has ever looked more re­laxed and com­fort­able. Sit­ting on a sofa sip­ping tea, he is a for­mi­da­ble, fa­mil­iar fig­ure, hap­pily tak­ing stock of his life against the back­drop of a Syd­ney record­ing stu­dio. In this cham­ber there is no op­po­si­tion to shout him down, no poli­cies on a knife edge, no Kevin Rudd. All that could cause a com­mo­tion here are the am­pli­fiers, the mi­cro­phones, the mix­ing desk and, of course, the man him­self. Peter Gar­rett has come home.

Come­backs by 63-year-old mu­si­cians are rare, not least by ones who ditched their rock ’n’ roll ca­reer to en­ter fed­eral pol­i­tics, as Gar­rett did on the La­bor ticket in 2004. That was two years af­ter the singer said good­bye to the band that had oc­cu­pied most of his adult life, Mid­night Oil.

Now, in the space of just a few weeks, the singer has risen again, not once but twice, with the news that the Oils will tour in­ter­na­tion­ally next year and that their front­man is about to re­lease a solo al­bum, A Ver­sion of Now, in July.

“No one is more sur­prised than me,” says Garett, more in the con­text of his solo out­ing than the Oils’ im­mi­nent re­turn. Spec­u­la­tion on that has been rife since be­fore he quit pol­i­tics in 2013.

To­day the singer is hold­ing court in Her­cules Stu­dios in Syd­ney’s Surry Hills, a state-of-theart record­ing fa­cil­ity owned by vet­eran pro­ducer and for­mer Easy­beat Harry Vanda. It was here sev­eral months ago that Gar­rett, aided by mu­si­cians in­clud­ing Oils gui­tarist Martin Rot­sey, brought to life a batch of nine songs that ger­mi­nated while he was writ­ing his mem­oir, Big Blue Sky.

That au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, pub­lished and re­viewed favourably late last year, was the con­duit to the songs that make up A Ver­sion of Now. As with the book, the al­bum, in its own way, doc­u­ments salient points in the singer’s life, not least his tran­si­tion from rock mu­sic to mat­ters of state.

Gar­rett topped and tailed his mem­oir with lines from two of the songs on the al­bum, Kan­ga­roo Tail and I’d Do It Again. The lat­ter, as he de­scribes it, is an exit song, a commentary on his with­drawal from the po­lit­i­cal play­ing field.

“I saw the best of men and I saw the worst / I saw the best of women too, from gover­nor to nurse / I straight­ened up and turned my cheek lonely in the night / You only get one chance at things to try and do what’s right.”

Gar­rett at the helm of the Oils try­ing to do the right thing dur­ing their 26-year ten­ure was a pow­er­ful po­lit­i­cal voice. Through songs such as Beds are Burn­ing, US Forces and Blue Sky Mine, the Oils ad­dressed the big is­sues of land rights, Amer­i­can mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion over­seas and the en­vi­ron­ment, among oth­ers, in a force­ful, en­gag­ing and un­com­pro­mis­ing way.

When Gar­rett made the leap to par­lia­ment and then to the front­bench, first as min­is­ter for en­vi­ron­ment pro­tec­tion, her­itage and the arts (2007-10) and then as min­is­ter for school ed­u­ca­tion, early child­hood and youth (2010-13), some ques­tioned whether he could be as ef­fec­tive in gov­ern­ment as he was from the pul­pit of the stage and record­ing stu­dio. He’s cool with that.

“I went in there a sen­tient be­ing with my eyes wide open,” he says. “I had strong con­nec­tions to pol­i­tics for many years in dif­fer­ent guises and it was in some ways a nat­u­ral step to take, if the op­por­tu­nity came up, which it did. You lose some con­trol over your own des­tiny when you do that. You sur­ren­der your­self to the vi­cis­si­tudes of fate and events. That wasn’t the point. The point was I wanted to go and do it and I have ab­so­lutely no re­grets about it.”

The first al­bum un­der his own name has only vague traces of Gar­rett’s Oils out­put, aside from the dis­tinc­tive gravel-and-dust, semi-spo­ken vo­cals. The singer co-wrote much of the ma­te­rial on the Oils’ 11 stu­dio al­bums, but this is his first pro­ject where the bulk of the ma­te­rial is from his pen alone. Pro­duced by the much-in­de­mand Burke Reid, whose many cred­its in­clude al­bums by the Drones, Sarah Blasko and last year’s Court­ney Bar­nett award-win­ning al­bum de­but, Some­times I Sit and Think and Some­times I Just Sit, A Ver­sion of Now tends to­wards sparse, melodic rock, coloured by Rot­sey’s rich gui­tar stylings and a rhythm sec­tion of bassist Mark Wil­son (Jet) and drum­mer Peter Lus­combe. Also mak­ing ap­pear­ances are the Jez­abels’ Heather Shan­non, Blue­bot­tle Kiss’s Jamie Hutch­ings and Gar­rett’s three daugh­ters, Emily, Grace and May.

The idea of mak­ing a solo record never oc­curred to him be­fore, says Gar­rett. There was never enough time. “My take on it is,” he says, “be­cause I’ve been busy, be­cause I’ve been fo­cused on pol­i­tics, be­cause I’d done a bunch of other things and had a ca­reer in a rock band that went at it pretty hard, I’d never re­ally had the sit­u­a­tion where there was a lot of space — in my head, enough space in the day for other things that you can tend to, to wa­ter them.”

As his mem­oir un­folded, how­ever, song­writ­ing space emerged. “I had writ­ten a few lit­tle things I’d been play­ing around with over time that I thought might fit in the book,” he says. “Then I thought I might have more than that. It



was free-range po­etry. Then as I was fin­ish­ing chap­ters or edit­ing, in the af­ter­noon … there was an old gui­tar in the cor­ner of the room say­ing ‘C’mon, pick me up’, which is what I ended up do­ing, just fid­dling around. And then they came to­gether as songs.”

The seeds of the solo pro­ject be­gan to blos­som fully when Gar­rett, Rot­sey and didgeri­doo player Charlie McMa­hon em­barked on a road trip across the west­ern desert last year.

“I’d gone there on a bit of a check-see on some of the things I’d been in­volved with when I was in gov­ern­ment,” says Gar­rett. “I wanted to see some of the things that were still go­ing, just as a ci­ti­zen. Martin had brought his gui­tar and at night we’d just sit around play­ing mu­sic.

“I said I had a song or two. That was a sur­prise out of the sky and he said I’d bet­ter play them. So I did. Then I thought I might as well record them. Then they kept on com­ing. It was more by ac­ci­dent as by any­thing else. I thought there was the pos­si­bil­ity that the Oils might re­con­vene at some stage, if we could get every­body to­gether, but I didn’t ex­pect this to hap­pen at all. Once songs have a bit of a life you have to keep go­ing with them.”

Other songs on the al­bum fo­cus on his fam­ily life ( No Placebo, Only One, Home­com­ing), his re­turn to the rock busi­ness ( Tall Trees) and an al­len­com­pass­ing foray into rap, the clos­ing It Still Mat­ters. Clearly rock ’n’ roll still mat­ters to Garett. He makes that very clear on Tall Trees, the open­ing song.

“I’m rolling back, like a monk that’s taken holy vows / I’ve jumped aboard the here and now I’m back / Like a Boe­ing safely landed, a ves­sel that’s been stranded, I’m back.”

Peter Gar­rett singing with Mid­night Oil at WaveAid in Syd­ney in 2005

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