Midnight Oil frontman and former federal politician Peter Garrett explains to Iain Shedden why now is the perfect time for a comeback
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
THERE WAS AN OLD GUITAR IN THE CORNER SAYING ‘C’MON, PICK ME UP’
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