Vast Various Artists EMI Music In September last year, more than two dozen musicians, writers and visual artists from around the country flocked to Cossack, a deserted settlement in Western Australia’s dry and sparsely populated Pilbara region. The idea was to convene a creative hub that draws inspiration from the open landscape and historic buildings — something that Panics frontman Jae Laffer had experienced first-hand on his own past trips there. He and musician Qynn Beardman instigated the council-funded project Vast, where creative souls from different backgrounds could react individually to the place.
Such spontaneous energy is certainly captured on this compilation of 18 songs resulting from the project. Free of their usual songwriting habits and constraints, the assembled artists mingle and experiment. Powderfinger’s Bernard Fanning winds up collaborating on two tracks: Everything, cowritten with Alan Pigram and Aboriginal filmmaker Tyson Mowarin, and Ashes & Dust, co-written with Oh Mercy’s Alexander Gow shortly after those two first met. Whether reacting to the spectre of the region’s mining and pearling industry or to the deep spiritual quality of the ancient land itself, the songwriters each manage to carve out their own individual territory. Paul Dempsey gazes up at the impossibly clear expanse overhead to pen The Sky’s Gone Missing, while Sally Seltmann reflects on wattle trees and the wilful path of water on River River. Other contributions are just as specific, such as Adam Harvey’s passionate Red Dirt Town — which would sound right at home on modern country radio — and Perth native Ian Campbell’s alt-country dust-up Ghost Town.
Yet other tracks zoom out a bit more: Oh Mercy’s Have a Little Faith traffics in wry social commentary and priceless rhymes such as, “I could live on rice and beans / Or go full bourgeoisie”. It’s no surprise that many of these songs feel uncommonly intimate, from the earthy blues of Eskimo Joe frontman Kav Temperley’s Sugarstone to the brushed drums and lullaby warmth of Tradition by The Healys; or that acclaimed songwriters such as Laffer and Augie March’s Glenn Richards turn in especially fine work. Other artists do surprise: despite his past in comedy projects including the Doug Anthony All Stars, Paul McDermott is perfectly earnest on the folkie Let Go, while Nick Sheppard ends You Get What You Give with a layered singalong.
The only qualm is that more women could have been involved, but that’s not to discount memorable contributions by Melbourne folkie Rowena Wise, Pilbara musician and businesswoman Josie Alec and songwriter Aimee Chapman, one of the hardworking producers behind the project. As Chapman says in a short film documenting the unique undertaking: when one steps foot in these awe-inspiring surroundings, “I think you have to make art”.