Jack Colwell has arrived – interview

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Liam Casey talks to Sydney-based musician Jack Colwell about his upcoming co-headlining tour with former Killing Heidi frontwoman Ella Hooper:

Jack Colwell has arrived at the Redfern café where we’d arranged to meet, but he’s also arrived in the sense that years of hard work have finally paid off. He’s released a new single, Far From View, and is earning applause from people who used to just give him a shrug.

Far From View is part-lovelorn folk ballad, part-brooding Gothic melodrama. It’s aided in no small part by a gorgeous video, produced and directed by Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston.

“I feel so lucky to have met Brian and Karl,” gushes Colwell. “They approached me after they heard the song, and they said that they wanted to take a more serious foray into filmmaking. I guess we all took a gamble together to create this clip, to create something that we felt had a real artistic vision.”

“On the first night we met, we spoke about our visual influences. We were really influenced by David Lynch, Sofia Coppola, the photographs of Gregory Crewdson, who has this nightmare vision of American suburbia. I felt like their visual representation only ever supported the meaning of the song. There wasn’t a moment where I was hesitant about their direction.”

Colwell is launching the single on a co-headlining tour with Ella Hooper, the former Killing Heidi frontwoman who is launching her single Low High. “It’s quite funny, meeting Ella and separating her from her Killing Heidi past,” says Colwell, who was ten-years-old when Killing Heidi were hot property.

jack colwell tour“I remember going to Big W to buy Killing Heidi’s first album, Reflector,” he says. “When I started learning the bass guitar, Weir and Mascara were two of the first songs I learned.

“Now, I definitely see Ella as a friend. We have a mutual appreciation for each other’s music, and there’s a sense of companionship that binds us together. But I often forget that she had an album that spent seven weeks on top of the ARIA albums chart. She’s probably the most successful friend I have, but she’s learned from her past experience that it’s not a competition. It’s better to form a friendship and an alliance with people.” Colwell namechecks Sydney acts like Bridezilla, Cabins and Post Paint as members of his own artistic community.

While Hooper may have learned from early success, Colwell has learned from early missteps. He released his debut EP, White Noise, while still a teen in 2008. It’s a record of the brief moment when folktronica – that blend of folk music with elements of electronica – enjoyed its time in the sun. The full-length Picture Window followed in 2012, a more expansive affair that received strong reviews but still left Colwell feeling unsatisfied.

“I don’t think I was in a very good place emotionally or artistically after Picture Window,” he says. “I’ve had enough time now to look back on my earlier work, as any creative person does, and see the pitfalls and things that you I would’ve done differently now. I put a lot of time and effort into my debut album, but the eventual product didn’t leave me feeling like I wanted to continue searching as an artist. I became really depressed and disheartened, but I had to force myself to look at it as a learning experience for me to regain my confidence.”

For much of the early portion of his career, Colwell felt pulled between two worlds: the world of classical music (he attended high school at Sydney’s prestigious Conservatorium of Music) and the world of rock.

“When you’re at the Con[servatorium], you have it drummed into you that classical music is this elitist, fine art,” he explains. “And then you’re working in a music world where people are highly successful even if they don’t have any formal theory training. It can be quite frustrating. Why are they succeeding and you’re not, when you’ve studied for so long? It’s something that you have to accept – that’s just what happens. There’s a quality in music that has nothing to do with training, nothing to do with theory – it’s just there, an inexplicable something.”

He credits Far From View as the track that restarted his creative engine, and pulled him back from trying too hard to fulfil anyone’s expectations of him as a classically-trained pop artist.

“It shifted how I view myself as an artist,” he says. “It went through two or three different incarnations. When I first wrote the song, it was more of a soft acoustic ballad, because I was still largely writing in the style of Picture Window.”

A cursory listen shows how much the song changed, as it’s now dramatically draped in strings and choirs, and propped up by a bassline straight out of Twin Peaks.

“When we think about writing a song and the conventions of popular music, Far From View isn’t necessarily a single: the video goes for five minutes, the track itself has an odd structure, with a minute and a half of instrumental introduction,” says Colwell. “The song never set out to be a single. It was to find my feet in the studio again as a musician and a songwriter and see if that was something I still wanted to do.”

Nevertheless, it gave Colwell a new appreciation of his strengths as an artist, and helped him reach a new audience.

“What is really interesting and pleasing is that people have responded to the song in a really personal way,” he says. “As a songwriter, nobody doesn’t want their song to get good radio play, to gain success which will allow them to do more as an artist. But really, at the core of it, for people to relate to the song emotionally is a big gift in itself.”

Jack Colwell and the Owls perform at Sydney’s Vanguard on Saturday 29 March and at Melbourne’s Northcote Social Club on Friday 4 April. Find tickets here.

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Interview by Liam Casey.