Reinventing his songs with orchestras, working with Australian legends and the inevitable growing apart from Triple J, The Whitlams’ TIM FREEDMAN has a lot on his mind, as ANDY HAZEL discovers.
Despite fronting one of the Australia’s most beloved independent bands of the last twenty years, singer and songwriter Tim Freedman is not content to leave his songs as finished products to sit high in Triple J ‘…of all time’ polls. Reinterpreting them with Australia’s most notable orchestras, he welcomes a chance to perform with the comparatively smaller Melbourne Pops Orchestra; ‘a leaner hungrier beast,’ he describes with a grin, as we discuss the origins of their show, sitting in a busy cupcake café.
“It was actually [Australian Chamber Orchestra (ACO) leader] Richard Tongetti’s idea,’ Freedman explains receiving a cup of green tea. “He likes to do strange collaborations. He got [drummer] Terepai [Richmond] and I to do a tour and arranged about nine songs. Then the West Australian Symphony Orchestra asked us to do a whole concert with a four-piece band and a symphony orchestra and they commissioned a lot of arrangements,” he pauses. “It surprised us that it worked, so we commissioned more songs over the next four years and did shows all around the country. It just grew organically, and now we’re at this stage where we’ve spent so long polishing the arrangements and the repertoire we can do it reasonably easily. The charts are all in order, musicians can come in for three hours, everything is there for them just to sight-read, and we know how to shut up and let them shine,” he says smiling, sipping his tea. “That’s the secret.”
The experience of rearranging and relearning has brought Freedman into contact with the cream of Australian classical composers, whose breadth of influences he welcomes. “Working with different composers is a blast. Sitting down with Peter Sculthorpe and listening to him compose something on an old beaten up piano; it’s a privilege. He’s one of the giants of Australian modernism. Brett Dean is a world-class composer as well. He just did one song, Buy Now Pay Later, but it’s the most challenging and discordant song in our repertoire. It took me a while to get used to it, but it’s genius. He’s always willing to push it further than you imagine in terms of sonic strangeness. That’s one of the reasons the concert is so interesting I think, because there isn’t just one style of arrangement. There are eight different composers so the orchestras are playing in a different style and configuration every ten minutes. It’s quite playful for the ears.”
The balance of honouring the often very personal subject of songs (“They’re not precious. They’re just songs,’ he laughs dismissively) and keeping things interesting for the those familiar with them is something that the Whitlams have become masters at doing, while still acting as a conduit to a certain era for the audience. “They’re remembering a time in their life, I’m doing the same,’ he says matter-of-factly. “Quite a few of the songs are from the 2006 album [Little Cloud], and some are from the 1993 album [Introducing the Whitlams], so it’s those 13 years. When I’m not playing my new album or playing solo, I’m fulfilling a role that has a nostalgic streak. I don’t mind that, as long as I’m playing it for the people that have come often, and they think it’s changing. Always different songs, different formats, different stories between songs. As long as I don’t feel like I’m sitting still with it.” Unsurprisingly, Freedman is grateful for the work done by the composers for keeping things fresh. “The composers add a lot of melody lines, so in a song like You Sound Like Louis Burdett we got a lot of great Dixie land brass lines coming through, but now I try to pick them out on the piano when I’m playing in the four-piece because I feel like they’re part of the song. Similarly, Sculthorpe added this beautiful solo violin part and it’s part of the song now. He added this kind of sultry Duke Ellington melody on the violin; they’ve improved the songs; made them richer at least.”
Amidst all this looking back and reinvention, Freedman admits that there are other things occupying his mind besides writing new songs. “I won’t lie, I haven’t got many plans,” he says with a chuckle. “I’m a single dad and I made some exotic investments that went wrong. I’m just belting my way through the jungle, because you’ve got to have simplicity again, you need a simple life to write songs I guess,” he pauses before smiling ruefully. “I don’t think a song has ever been written about the land and environment court, which is where I spent half of last year but they’re my trials and I’ll get through them.”
While current financial issues may not be presenting him with inspiration, challenges of a different nature recently resulted in a solo show entitled How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Triple J.
“It was really just a catchy title,” he says happily, “there’s no hatred there. I told some stories about how you get songs on the radio and how that’s sometimes down to who you know. When I turn it on now it’s so in-your-face that I can only handle ten minutes whereas I used to be able to handle an hour, I don’t know whether it’s because I’m old and grumpy or because they’re playing fewer songs. I tend to listen to FBI in Sydney, it’s a bit more eccentric and all-over-the-shop as opposed to focused and in-your-face. Triple J was so important to me; I wouldn’t have a career without them. They were the only station that played me and I certainly acknowledge that.”
The power of the Js to impress Freedman isn’t gone however as he explains after draining his cup. “I started getting texts one day last year from friends saying ‘The Whitlams are on Triple J’, and I was like ‘bullshit’, because we hadn’t been for ten years, so it was a real surprise to turn on and hear these album tracks. I thought someone had dropped acid in my drink but they were playing a whole album because we were like number 17 or something in the Best Aussie Albums of All Time list. That was really sweet surprise, and it was nice for MGM to ring up and say ‘man we just sold 120 of your albums on iTunes last night!’ he laughs. “It’s always nice to be on the radio. It’s not somewhere I’ve been lately, but you live with it.”