[MUSIC: Interview] Jack Colwell & The Owls
Jack Colwell & The Owls
A Wise Owl
By Jenny Noyes
onducting our interview in the fluorescent-lit quiet of the fire escape at ABC studios, Jack Colwell and I are occasionally interrupted by members of the Stop The Virgens crew giving us strange looks as they make their way out of the rehearsal space. It’s a testament to his commitment to straddling Sydney’s classical and indie-pop worlds – as well as to his enthusiasm and titanic ice-breaking abilities – that Vivid LIVE has appointed the 22-year-old ex-Con (Conservatorium student, that is) to coordinate the Chorus for Karen O’s epic psycho-opera.
This blending of classical and pop sensibilities may be something of a global trend in music; it especially seems so at the moment, with Vivid LIVE’s programming showcasing a glut of classical/pop melting pots, from Karen O’s opera to Florence + The Machine playing with an orchestra, Efterklang and the Sydney Symphony, the opera-trained Zola Jesus, and the shared project of Sufjan Stevens, The National’s Bryce Dessner and composer Nico Muhly – all performing in the austere environs of Sydney Opera House.
Given Jack Colwell’s position as one of the few – if not only – musicians in Sydney who really embodies the movement, I’m a little surprised when he shrugs it off, at least in part, as a product of marketing. In an era where recorded music is highly accessible and increasingly free, he sagely opines that “to see an artist in lots of different forms – solo, small group, touring band, or orchestra – is a great way to market the artist. It shows the breadth of songwriting skill, because when you arrange a song for an orchestral performance you can see the complexity of the work… It also presents itself as a one-off showcase – it turns itself into the big pineapple or something. You know, ‘We’ve got to see Florence and the Big Pineapple because it’s our only chance!’”
For Jack, though, incorporating classical influences into his music is no passing fad or big money-making pineapple. Classical music is in his bones, and he talks about it with a measure of fatalism. “It sounds strange,” he muses “but that option [of picking up an instrument without proper training] was never really afforded to me. Before I was able to make decisions for myself I was already having lessons, and throughout my childhood I was told, ‘You will be a musician. You will be a musician, and that is what you will do.’ And yeah, that’s what ended up happening.
“I mean, obviously I have a choice now” he cackles, throwing his hands in the air. “I could phone up someone and say, ‘Fuck the album, I quit!’” He’s joking of course, but after two years, some lukewarm industry responses, and one costly false start (in the winter of 2010, Jack rented a cabin in the Blue Mountains to make a lot of recordings he’d later bin), a musician with less commitment and strength of vision might have done just that. “I put my material in the hands of people I trusted, who I don’t think really dealt with it with respect, as my project. They weren’t really supportive of the direction I wanted to take it, because it didn’t fit what they described as the ‘Australian rock’ or ‘pub rock’ genre.”
Doing his best to ignore the negativity, Jack took succour instead from the strength and success of other ambitious artists, like Joanna Newsom, Kate Bush, local lad Jack Ladder – and now, Karen O. “Stop The Virgens is Karen’s project and she has chosen people to work with who believe in her vision. With my project – I mean, of course it’s on a totally different level, but you want people who want to add to your vision, not take it away from you.” Although it battered his confidence at the time and had him seriously questioning his career path, Jack’s glad those early recordings didn’t work out. The experience forced him to re-evaluate his vision, take control of it, and make decisions that have ultimately grown him as both an artist and a person. The confidence and maturity he’s gained over the past few years is obvious, even in the way he carries himself these days – as well as in the thoughtful and measured manner with which he discusses his art. “There comes a point where you have to go, ‘How serious am I about this project, and about what I want to do with my life?’ Recording the album the second time, I picked people who really believed in my vision and I found that instead of working against it, they were there to help construct this living organism.”
The result is an intensely personal, intelligent and, regardless of what the kings of radio-land may say, yes, even catchy debut, which paints an evocative coming-of-age picture that howls with category-gothic storms and glimpses at silver linings. “When people come up, like reviewers have, and say ‘Your lyrics really affected me’ or ‘Your voice is so raw it conjured up images of crows in graveyards’, and that they had to put the new Catcall single on the next day just to make themselves feel better? To me, that shows my music is making an emotional connection with someone. Instead of singing in some kind of vapid bubble, it’s directing an emotion – and whether people like [what they’re feeling] or not, that is the intention of the work.”
What: Picture Window is out on May 29
With: Packwood, Moon Holiday, Glamour Attack DJs
Where: GoodGod Small Club
When: Wednesday June 6