The Jane Austen Argument musical duo talks to Dark Matter
It was a sunny afternoon in Melbourne during the Fringe Festival when I met with the Jane Austen Argument, also known as Jen Kingwell and Tom Dickins, to talk to them about their music and careers. We met at the Tram cafe outside the Speigel Tent next to the NGV, Victoria’s major public art gallery.
Even when not in costume, Jen looked very 1950s, with a leopard-print scarf over her hair, which she lowered to reveal a very controlled, stylised 50s do, leaving the scarf draped around her neck. Her oversized sunglasses added to her 50s look. Tom looked like your average hipster around town with blue jeans, a blue tee with grey print design on it, and sunglasses. Standing around a table, hiding from the sun under the umbrella, we chatted while drinking cider.
Nalini : Thank you for talking to Dark Matter.
Jen: Thank you for having us.
Nalini: When did you guys know that you wanted to be musicians?
Tom: For me, it was a really strange trajectory. I had always written music and had it as a hobby and as a diary keeping effort, really. I studied acting and focused on theatre because that’s where my roots were from my family. I did four years of study in theatre, looking for my place in the theatre. Then I discovered this world of cabaret at the Edinburgh fringe festival and I suddenly realised that was a way of marrying those dual passions in a way that strengthened both as opposed to watering down either. I’ve been writing music since I was seven years old, but I didn’t realise it could be a profession where other people wanted to listen to me until about 2008.
Nalini: When you say your roots, do you have actors in the family?
Tom: Yes. My parents infamously met playing Dorothy and scarecrow in the Wizard of Oz when they were studying theatre and education at Rosden, it was the College of the arts that no longer runs those courses. My dad is a playwright and director and my mum was a choreographer until she changed directions mid-way through life.
Nalini: What about you, Jen?
Jen: Music has always been a really central part of my life. There’s never really been a time when I hadn’t considered myself as a musician or known that it would play a really big part of my life, but it’s taken quite a few winding turns throughout the journey. I started out as a classical musician, all the way through primary school, through high school through college and then through university. Classical music was always my focus. After deciding that living in a rehearsal room for eight hours a day and trying to make it as a classical musician wasn’t really going to be the life for me, I took a detour into activism.
Jen: Yes, environmental and feminist activism. I decided that studying communication would be one way that I could make a difference. At that time I was still writing music and playing music, really just for myself, once I finished university. It wasn’t until Tom and I met a few years ago that –
Nalini: How many years ago?
Jen: Three years ago? We met now?
Tom: Yeah, I started Uni at the start of April, I think, in 2009.
Jen: Yeah, and that’s when we decided to start collaborating in cabaret. From then music has expanded to be a greater part of my life while still being integrated with the activist side of my career as well. As a true Gemini [laughter] I think it’s only fitting that I have these two strands of my life that I somehow manage to make work.
Nalini: That’s the thing about being twins, it’s kind of like you’re part of a whole.
Tom: Yeah, whereas I’m actually on the cusp of Taurus and Gemini, so I’m stubbornly indecisive [laughter]
Jen: We both are, actually.
Nalini: Did you both have music lessons as a kid or study at the Conservatory?
Jen: I studied piano from a very very early age, from about five or six years old. I remember in the lead up to my first piano lessons I was just messing around with my mother’s piano – from about the age of four – and I was convinced that I was a compositional genius.
Tom: Well, you are.
Jen: I was very disappointed to turn it to my first lesson and realise that my teacher did not hold my talents in the same esteem. So I started music lessons early on, and then studied at the Canberra School of music.
Tom: I didn’t study music until about year 11, when I decided to study music having not studied it through high school, so I don’t know any music theory. I can figure things out if I can look at the Central line of the treble or a bass cleft, I can kind of figure out what the notes are. So all the instruments I play I’m self-taught and fairly limited in what I can do.
Nalini: So you’re playing by ear?
Tom: Yeah, absolutely. I did a few singing lessons in high school, but the voice training I received as an actor and as a hobby singing, kind of got me to where I am.
Nalini: If you guys have only known each other about three years, did Tom go to Edinburgh before meeting each other?
Tom: Yes. I actually went to Edinburgh twice: I went once for 24 hours when I missed my flight there and back and had to buy extra flights. Then in 2007 – it’s worth mentioning, we’re actually doing the interview at the Spiegel tent, which my uncle owns – so I got a sweet little family hook up into doing front-of-house at the Spiegel tent as part of my honours. I was doing my honours by distance, researching the importance of theatre to different cultures which took me through Southeast Asia to America and the UK. So Edinburgh fringe was part of that. That was where I met Amanda Palmer and started to see all these Cabaret performers. That was really about a year and a bit before Jen and I met, when I’d started on this Cabaret road but I hadn’t found my cabaret soul mate.
Nalini: Was meeting Amanda part of this process? And interacting with that style?
Tom: There was quite a heavy cabaret focus on the programming at the Speigel tent that year. We had Camille O’Sullivan, Miaow Miaow, Bob Down and Amanda were the four diva headliners. I was drawn to the style of Camille O’Sullivan. I really admired both Amanda and Miaow’s work, particularly the fact that Amanda writes her own music and is able to put this theatricality into how she performs. I was far more drawn to the cabaret style of Camille and it’s been over the years of working out what my style is, what my belief is in cabaret as a genre that it’s ended up gravitating probably more towards the style that Amanda does.
Nalini: And how about you, Jen? How have you been drawn into Cabaret?
Jen: As a teenager in Canberra I worked on quite a few musical theatre productions as assistant musical director and musical director. I was quite heavily involved and did a few small cabaret shows with some friends at the school of music, but generally the musical theatre shows were from the sidelines: in the band, in the wings, never really playing a role on stage. So while I had that experience, it wasn’t until Tom and I started playing together that Tom managed to coax me out of my shell a bit. [declaiming in a higher pitched voice and chuckling] ‘I’m just the accompanist! Don’t make me say anything!’
Nalini: How did this partnership start? How did it develop?
Tom: I did my first cabaret show with a dear friend of ours, Gemma O’Connor, who is part of a band called Dearly Wish. We did a show called Hammered and Enamoured that is about getting drunk and falling in love. It was quite a successful show. After that I wrote a 10 min cabaret piece about a terrible experience I had in a cab in Ballarat. I won a prize at the Cabaret Short and Sweet Festival, which included a professional development workshop. From this I developed a show called Where was I. I performed one season of Where was I to critical acclaim but empty audiences. But the critical acclaim was enough to book a three-week headline season at the Butterfly Club for the Melbourne Fringe. That was about the time that I started working at RMIT. And Jen was also working at RMIT as well.
Nalini: So you were working, not studying?
Tom: No, working.
Nalini: What were you doing at RMIT?
Jen: We were both working at the student union, but as staff members and not students although I was studying there. I studied my Master in Communications while working at the student union; I started work there as a student liaison officer and somehow found myself working as the admin coordinator, which is possibly the least –[chuckling]
Tom: The oddest job, for you.
Jen: Yeah. My admin skills generally leave a lot to be desired. But that’s where I was when Tom and I met and Tom came on as the club society’s officer. So we very quickly found a rapport, and often found ourselves taking cheeky and long –
Tom: Extended cigarette breaks.
Jen: And talking about music and life, and aesthetic experiences, especially travelling. One day Tom mentioned that he had this show booked in the Melbourne Fringe and he needed an accompanist. I said, ‘Well, I’m an accompanist and I’m not doing anything at the moment. Why don’t we get together and –‘
Tom: My brain broke into multiple pieces of excitement.
Jen: It was kind of sweet though when we first started talking about working together. It had this kind of very shy first date feel. ‘If it doesn’t work out for you, no pressure.’
Tom: ‘It’s fine.’
Jen: ‘We’ll just play a few songs and see if this works –’
Tom: ‘If you don’t like it or if I don’t like it, there is no commitment. No commitment. We can play with other people.’[laughter]
Jen: Yeah. We started getting together to rehearse the show. Rehearsals tended to wind up being about half an hour working on the show and about 4 to 5 hours playing each other original songs and playing each other songs of other people’s that really meant something to us.
Tom: And getting drunk and dancing to Regina Spektor’s Far album.[laughter]
Tom: It started from this point having developed this show. It was the first time I worked with an accompanist that I knew: the first guy I worked with was a complete stranger. You don’t actually need six weeks or two months – whatever – to work out what is essentially eight songs. I think that’s why we veered away from it so quickly: because you don’t want it to be so over-rehearsed that it loses its meaning. We also wanted to get our performance dynamic working really strongly before the Melbourne Fringe so we started gigging around, performing under various band names.
Jen: From ‘Tom and Jen’ to the ‘Mi Mi Mi’s.
Nalini: In one of your appearances – I think it was New Year’s Eve – you mentioned that you performed in the US as ‘Tom and Jen’ and the Americans weren’t impressed.
Tom: It wasn’t that they weren’t impressed, it’s that they didn’t come. We decided fairly soon after the Melbourne Fringe season had been quite successful, to embark on this tour, which we called the Slapdash Tour. We booked one show and then once we got to America we tried to line up as many performances as possible.
Jen: We played in people’s living rooms and a recording studio’s Christmas party.
Tom: As part of that we went to Boston and we were staying at the Cloud Club, which is where Amanda lives in Boston. She was doing this big news spectacular with the Boston Pops and we were like we want to come they said ‘We’ve already exhausted the doorlist, you’ll have to perform in the lobby.’
Nalini: Oooh, how sad [laughing]
Jen: That was a big part of the night. There was the Boston Pops concert in the main hall but beforehand – because there’s like a million lobbies in the Boston Symphony Hall – so they had roving performers and little performance installations throughout the whole venue in the hour to two hours before the actual concert began. We were asked to be a part of that. We were allocated a little installation space next to one of the bars. But it wasn’t until the day before – or the day of?
Tom: The day of.
Jen: The day of the performance that we realised that the only instruments we had to work with were one of Amanda’s ukuleles and –
Tom: Her toy piano.
Jen: Her toy piano, which she has recorded on for the Dresden dolls records. So I have a very clear memory of us sitting down in the Cloud Club, in one of the abandoned apartments to rehearse this show. It was essentially going to be the Where was I show.
Tom: But we called it Coin Operated Cabaret, where we turned it into a street performance where we would do one of the scenes and half of one of the songs and then break down and freeze until someone put more money in the hat.
Jen: I came face-to-face with his toy piano and the prospect of scoring down a show requiring all the 88 keys of the piano into about 12.
Nalini: The classical performer wouldn’t have been very happy.
Jen: No, no. I think I banished everyone –
Tom: Into the snow.
Jen: To the cold, the freezing cold of Boston, so that I could knuckle down and figure out how the hell I was going to make this work.
Tom: Meanwhile I learnt the ukulele for the guitar songs.
Jen: So that was a bit of a trial by fire. I like to think that we came through okay.
Tom: I think where the story is kind of quite important in our development as a band is around that time we also played Amanda our cover of the Flowers, by Regina Spektor, and Bad Wine and Lemon Cake. We played it to her in one of the small gaps of time that everyone had and she liked the song so much and us performing so much that she invited us to play at the Forum in 2010. At which point we realised we actually needed a band name. We didn’t want to play at this fucking amazing venue as Tom and Jen.
Nalini: How did you choose the name?
Jen: Since we’ve known each other there’s been very little that we have disagreed on completely to start with, or that we haven’t been able to debate our way into some sort of consensus. One of those things is Jane Austen’s literary merit. For the record –
Nalini: Can I guess?
Jen: Yes, please do.
Nalini: Jen likes Jane Austen and Tom doesn’t?
Jen: Yes. I am pro-Jane. Tom operates under this misguided assumption that all of her novels are about doilies, having read –
Tom: No, no… Just a lot of chapters in a lot of the novels.
Nalini: And how many novels have you read?
Jen: This is coming from the perspective of I think half a chapter of Emma?
Tom: No, it was the first eight. I had to study Emma in high school and that’s the best way to kill a passion for any literary subject, I think, studying it for your HSC. Since then I haven’t really ventured back there.
Nalini: So you haven’t read Pride and Prejudice?
Tom: I started that one as well and I just hated it. But anyone who has been in a band or been performing in a band will agree that, when you’re trying to figure out a band name, it’s one of the most difficult processes in the world. You end up looking for inspiration everywhere. We would be the [looking and pointing at things he could see] cider-table-tram collective. You throw out so many ridiculous options. I think we spent a month trying to figure out a band name and in the middle of that we would have this big argument about Jane Austen. We were sitting at a pub near RMIT one day and we’re like: ‘Jane Austen argument? Jane Austen argument. Yes, we’ve got 10 minutes until we need to send this band name to the Forum. That’ll do. [laughing] And the rest is history.
Nalini: What about the costumes? When did they come about?
Tom: When I was working at the Spiegel Tent and discovering Cabaret, the uniform was three-piece suits, vintage three piece suits. The men who work there have to wear those and the women wear these incredible twenties dresses. When I was in the Edinburgh doing my first few shows, I was performing in my work gear and enjoyed that so much that I just kept performing in it. The wings came about at Halloween, the night that I met my fiancé, I think, or a week after. There was a big Halloween party, and I went as the Angel of Death. I wore the wings upside down as I later discovered, but then I incorporated that. So that has a very special meaning to me that I keep quite close, and I’ve been wearing them ever since.
Nalini: What about you, Jen? You have a few costumes.
Jen: I do. In which sequins feature very heavily. I think the explanation for this is that I was a calisthenics child so, after many years of spray tans and outlandishly sequinned costumes, I repressed that entire memory for quite a while. So now I’m reclaiming that love of sequins and glitter and all of those very, very girly things that I really have a passion for.
Tom: And we really are a calisthenics band.[laughter]
Jen: I guess we sort of pick things that we liked to wear. The sequinned bootie shorts do often come out, I’m quite a fan of those. And the feathers, obviously, they’ve become quite a theme for us.
Tom: I think there is quite a lot to be said for costumes. The work that we do and the writing that we do is so intensely personal, however we want to have the focus on the universal aspects of the material. There is something about putting on a costume that gets you into performance mode and enables you to separate your regular life from this quite heavily professional performance experience. But also, at least for me – there are some gloves I wear on stage sometimes and, for whatever reason, putting on those gloves makes me feel far more equipped to go far further into the pain or the sorrow or the happiness or the sex god –
Jen: Yes, there’s almost this talismanic quality that we have learnt to ascribe to our costumes. Tom is absolutely right: it’s by the ritual of finding a costume and putting it on – it’s almost like a magical armour that gives you the distance to be able to confess these incredibly personal things through song, but also to give you the strength to be able to do that at the same time.
Nalini: Rituals and talismans are so important. People undervalue them.
Jen: Yeah. I think every band comes up with their own… Drinking often features quite a bit in my rituals [laughter]
Tom: The other aspect of it is that there are so many bands in Melbourne, so if we can be the band that is wearing the most sequins and feathers it might stick out in people’s memory [chuckles]
Nalini: When you did you adopt the wings?
Tom: That would have been 2010, a couple of years ago.
Nalini: So you were ahead of the new wave. Paranormal fantasy has been around for a while, but it’s been more vampires. Then it went to zombies, and now they say angels are the new zombies.
Nalini: So you were ahead.
Tom: I’m quite happy to be the new zombies.
Jen: one of our merch items, which is designed by my partner, Adam, is a Jane Austen Argument and Zombies T-shirt, which is of course a riff on the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies novels.
Nalini: I haven’t read any of them myself but I have been told that some of them are very good.
Jen: Yeah, I haven’t read them.
Tom: I feel like, if there is ever going to be a key to get me into Jane Austen, it’s probably the addition of zombies.[laughter]
Jen: I think that works for a lot of people.
Nalini: What music has influenced you?
Tom: We’ve mentioned Regina Spektor. Right from the beginning we bonded over a love of Nick Cave. My biggest song writing heroes are Rufus Wainwright and Fiona Apple. And, obviously, Amanda’s work I find incredibly moving. Band wise, I’ve actually always been more into singer/songwriters or solo artists that then perform with a band, so all the bands I really enjoy are quite new-found additions that have come from being in a band.
Jen: I couldn’t deny that Tory Amos has been a huge inspiration for me since I was a teenager. Tom Waites, in particular, I love his work. As someone who started out as a classical musician, Rachmaninoff is also a composer that I greatly admire. As a band, definitely Regina Spektor and Nick Cave are definitely the two touchstones that have inspired us both.
Nalini: You have a bit of overlap in the music, you just can’t agree on literature.
Tom: Yep. Yeah, well, I’m all for being called the Dan Brown debate but, you know…[laughter]
Jen: Maybe a side project could be the Bruce Willis agreement.
Nalini: [smiling] I just don’t think that Dan Brown has quite the universal appeal.
Tom: No. That might be our pop exploration.
Nalini: How would you characterise your own music?
Tom: We call it Indie Cabaret: that’s been a title that we’ve consistently returned to. I think a lot of musicians really struggle with trying to put themselves into a genre. Also to escape from being pigeonholed by media. The dangers of media misunderstanding what we do, male/female duo, writing deeply personal and emotional music, is that we could get categorised in a way that means that people could get turned off before they’ve even heard it. But Indie Cabaret is kind of this perfect meeting point between the independent musician mentality and the way that we go about our business and the Cabaret aspect that has informed the theatricality behind our performance.
Jen: We’re lucky enough to be creating music and creating cabaret at a time when the genre is incredibly diverse and we have the benefit of learning from others like Camille O’Sullivan, Amanda Palmer, Meow Meow and Tiger Lilies. Cabaret is so diverse, such a massive umbrella for so many things. It doesn’t just mean doing songs in German of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. It means that you can play a really rocky Tom Waits cover or Radiohead’s Creep on Ukelele, which I really hope that people will stop doing. It’s everywhere. I think it’s a fantastic concept maybe the first 10 times that it happened.
Tom: I think with that comes a danger, because Cabaret is in this excellent explosion that we are happy to see – There was a fantastic symposium that in Edinburgh last year, which was about the term Cabaret, involving all the people who were performing the Fringe under that genre. The danger using that label is it raises in people’s minds bad burlesque, bad musical theatre or comedy with an instrument. So you have to be very careful about how you apply the term to your music because you don’t want to turn people off before they’ve had a chance to engage with it. Cabaret is a double-edged sword.
Nalini: Melbourne has this cultural explosion as far as I can see. Being fairly new to Melbourne I’m not sure my perception is correct, but it certainly feels like there is this amazing cultural explosion in lots of different areas at the moment. Would that be true for music? Is it a good place for you to be?
Tom: I think Melbourne has been way ahead of the other capital cities in the way it’s supported and developed music. Particularly the punk and the rock scenes of Melbourne, and the indie underground kind of scenes, have been very well supported. This means that it’s a fantastic place in terms of the venues that are on offer and the other inspiring art that you can go and see. The difficulty is: how do you stand out? If you’re looking at booking a show on a Friday and if you do a quick Google of that date and there are 100 other things that are on offer –
Jen: It can be a double-edged sword. It is such a rich culture of music in Melbourne and such an amazing support from so many music lovers in Melbourne. But you are still competing with a lot of other very very talented musicians and bands.
Nalini: You tell stories set to music. We’ve already touched on this briefly, but I’d like to hear more about how you go about it.
Tom: I think song-writing is one of the oldest traditions in storytelling; you look at the surviving songs of the last thousand years. They’re about imparting morals or talking about dangers, helping to advise and guide people. In a way what we do is not new at all, it’s just got a bit of a contemporary framework where it’s about telling the personal to try and –
Jen: Bridge the universal.
Nalini: Plan B?
Jen: I’ll leave that to Tom. [giggling]
Tom: Is that the question?
Nalini: Well, kind of; that’s an example of one of your songs where you’re giving advice among other things.
Tom: It’s a really interesting thing. The whole Fuck Plan B thing was, in the first instance, advice Amanda had given me when I was saying I’m considering quitting my job and seeing what can be made from being an independent artist. I want to put my money where my mouth is, and show that it is possible. Whether or not it is possible the jury is still out, but I think that the song you’re referring to is actually a song that Jen wrote, which has a speech that I made the day that I quit on the recording. I actually listened to that the other day when I was rehearsing for our album launch. It was interesting hearing my words of advice from this quite naive point of view. I had this security blanket and then I was going into nothing. Now I’m really struggling to make ends meet and having to make a decision between working or working even harder at trying to make a living out of this creative lifestyle. It still remains incredibly relevant: it was kind of like reading a diary entry of yourself and actually, that’s why I did it, that’s right, it’s for these reasons that I continue to fight this bizarre battle.
Nalini: Sometimes I think a diary entry is really good you’ve got to recap why you’re doing what you’re doing.
Jen: Mmm. But it’s interesting then that the recording of that song worked out the way that it did. As Tom said, it’s sort of his diary entry from his perspective of what’s going on. The song, I guess, is my – I would like to say love letter, but I think that could be a bit misconstrued – my platonic love letter to Tom, seeing him making these decisions and going through these experiences as an outsider and as a creative partner. That song was a surprise for Tom, performed for the first time at the Fuck Plan B party as a sort of congratulation song and a birthday present. We were too poor to buy each other presents.
Nalini: You touched on this before, a lot of your song-writing is about you, where you’ve been and you’re sharing from a really personal place as well as finding the words and writing the music to put together to perform: how hard is that?
Tom: Song writing as a craft, at least in my experience, is a very odd thing. I very rarely set out to write a song knowing what it’s going to be. It’s often that I’ll be brewing on some subjects and go to the piano and improvise for an hour and then emerge with 90% of the song finished. So I think a lot of it operates on a subconscious level. The difficulty writing about personal experiences is when you’re ridiculously busy or ridiculously happy, the circumstances to create really unique individual songs don’t present themselves as frequently. But I’ve never been that good at trying to write about something I haven’t experienced. A lot of writers do with incredible success, but I don’t think that is my strength at all.
Nalini: What about your song-writing, Jen?
Jen: Tom and my processes are in some ways quite similar but are nonetheless very very different. I would generally approach song-writing with maybe just a snippet of a line or a concept. Like Tom, I’ll sit down at the piano and improvise. Often I find that I may start either with a snippet of a lyric or a musical theme first, which really varies from song to song. Then it’s just about giving yourself space to let the song come to you through entering the space of improvising –
Tom: And stream of consciousness in a way.
Jen: Yeah. Letting it emerge in its own time. Tom is very good at sitting down and working out a song very quickly; my song-writing process generally takes more time. I might sit down and come up with a verse or a chorus, let that sit for a while and then come back and write a bridge, and then come back and work out how it all linked together. What we found is with the songs that we each write, we sort of learnt to leave enough of the song to then take to the other. Then it’s often only completed once the two of us have worked on it together.
Nalini: I was wondering if you both work together. If I read a co-authored book, and authors are taking alternate chapters, I can tell you which author wrote which chapters, but your music isn’t like that.
Jen: Really, the only song that we sort of explicitly co-wrote was Holes with Neil Gaiman. Tom wrote the verses and I wrote the music for the chorus. But everything else is very heavily skewed towards one or the other for 80 to 90% of the song and then working out the remanding percentage as a collaboration.
Tom: We’ve been such close friends for the last three years, even if it is about the death of my grandfather or a relationship that didn’t work out – whatever – we’ve been such an integral part of each other figuring out the life element of that, they are shared experiences regardless. There is that level of cohesion, in how they come together.
Nalini: You made the comment earlier about being each other’s performing soul mates.
Tom: Yep, I stand by that. I don’t think I could summarise that better.
Jen: Just back to how we collaborate as songwriters. Generally how it works is that I would generally work up the piano arrangements for songs. I think the best example of that is Under the Rainbow; Tom wrote the song but we –
Tom: It became something very different when we worked it together. It became a song.
Jen: It was a song.
Tom: It was a skeleton.
Nalini: Your song, End of the World, could be described as speculative fiction. How do you feel about that?
Tom: I’m happy for any of the songs to be described in any of the ways. I think one of the beauties of being a songwriter is once it’s released out there, either by performance or in recordings, the meaning making is 50% yours and 50% the audience. I’m quite happy for it to be called that.
Nalini: Did you set out to send a moral message or a message of social justice?
Tom: For me the way that song came about was that I was writing a cabaret show called Fuck Plan B, tracing my journey to making that decision. I go for a walk at the start of every day before I try to do anything, whether it’s administrative or creative. I was on a walk by a railroad track when that first little bit came to my head. It was while there was all this coverage in the media of the rapture and all of this mania and people on the other side of the world quitting their jobs because they believed this end of the world scenario. I was doing a bit of analysis of a lot of my songs recently, and I realised that, apart from love and heartbreak, the relationship between people and their spirituality and what they believe in, is quite a common theme in what I write about. It is a fascination of mine, whether it’s people of faith, people of science, or people who walk the line in the middle. I like that it can be interpreted that way, but I can’t say that it is steadfastly set out to be a moral endeavour on my behalf.
Jen: I absolutely agree with the idea that once you’ve released the song into the wilds, you don’t own the concepts within that any more. That’s a really beautiful thing, to see what other people make of the music that we make.
Tom: I think a lot of the song writers that have inspired us would say that their works are quite oblique in their meaning and that someone’s come up to them and said, ‘this meant this to me and I can’t believe you wrote about this specific thing.’ They’re like, ‘Er, that’s not really what I was getting at but you go for it,’ kind of thing.
Nalini: That’s a very post-modern attitude. You wrote a song with Neil Gaiman: what was that like?
Tom: It was a really strange experience. As Jen mentioned earlier, it was the first song that we have co-written, but also the words were given to us. So the amount of tweaking you can do is completely different, because it’s someone else’s words.
Jen: Especially when it’s someone like Neil Gaiman. How can we tweak this? Do we have the RIGHT to mess with the words of Neil Gaiman?
Tom: When I was first working on the melodies of the verses, I’d gotten home from work and it was just like I really wanted to start to get something down here. I think I went through about 10 different versions. The words are quite tender, for the most part of that song, and so my instinct was made to make this tender ballad love song. But I couldn’t make that fit with the ending, which is quite comic: it is basically a sex joke at the end of the song. Then suddenly this quite jazzy melody came to me. It was really different to what I imagined when I first read the lyrics as prose. Then when we came to work it together, we played it a couple of times, it wasn’t quite working. Then, when we were in Edinburgh, staying with Neil and Amanda, we actually got to spend an afternoon with Neil saying ‘This is where we’re coming at it, what would you like to change? He was like: ‘what do you need me to change so it scans properly?’
Jen: But it definitely works because the outcome of that was an almost Vaudevillian song, which really does work with that rather crude ending. That was a big departure for us from the work that we usually do.
Tom: I think so for Neil as well, because we’ve been friends with Neil through Amanda since that first tour of the US.
Nalini: What year was that?
Tom: That was 2009. And he’s a great admirer of our work and our song writing. But I think it was probably odd for him to come, because he’s just written this prose and sent it off in an e-mail, and to see what two different creative minds then bring to the table meant that it was an interesting process for all of us.
Nalini: What’s it been like to work with Neil and Amanda?
Tom: They’re such beautiful wonderfully supportive people. They have just been so incredible to us. When we were on tour with them in the States – when Amanda first approached us to do the Dresden dolls tour, my initial response was: we didn’t want to ask you about that tour because you’ve given so much. Her immediate response was I haven’t given you something, it’s because I believe in your work and believe that my fans will share in that belief of your work. For me, that was a real turning of the corner instead of feeling indebted to someone on any level. It was more: I can contribute to your show, we can help make the magic of your show happen as equals and not as friends. I mean we are friends, but I didn’t feel that there was any weird power discrepancy after that conversation.
Nalini: You’re professionals working together.
Tom and Jen: Yeah.
Jen: But it has been such an incredible learning experience, working with them and touring with them. Seeing how the two of them have their own circles of influence, seeing that overlap and how they really nurture that and nurture the community of sharing creatively in their friendships with people. I think the time that really came to the fore was in Edinburgh when we stayed with them for part of our time at the Edinburgh fringe festival last year, in this incredible mansion they’d rented for the entirety of the fringe festival. It was just this amazing household of revolving musicians and burlesque performers and writers and visual artists…
Tom: That’s actually where we met Mark Buckingham who does the artworks for Fables and some of the Sandman books but he also did the outward for our whole single, which was a lovely way of rounding out that collaboration.
Nalini: So that would have been a really thriving, really energetic time.
Tom: It was super energetic but also super stressful, because everyone had either speaking engagements, or shows on, or exhibitions on…
Jen: Everyone had completely odd hours of the day. We would be getting home from our shows at about one o’clock in the morning and then doing interviews and other little performing spots at other parts of the festival. It was quite manic, actually, but everyone still managed to be really respectful of each other’s space and really lovely. There were these new collaborations born through that.
Tom: I think what you would expect for it to being creatively fertile as a house, it was the friendships and relationships developed that led to things once the madness of the fringe festival was over, as opposed to everyone being this house of art love just going ‘Fuck yeah, let’s make a masterpiece.’
Nalini: You can perform outside or you can be creative inside. I would imagine, in a situation like that, it is a choice: you can’t do both.
Jen: You still managed to write a song.
Tom: Yeah, actually, there’s a song that’s one of my solo EP’s called Calton Hill, which I wrote outside on the lawn while Amanda was upstairs writing her ukulele anthem. We met in the kitchen and we were both like: ‘I wrote a new so- You what? What?!’ And then we played them for each other. That was nice.
Nalini: You can honestly say you heard it before everyone else.
Nalini: On your album, you talked about how, at University, you were told that most people wouldn’t succeed. You talk about different definitions of success: what do different definitions of success mean to you?
Tom: I think success is this really broad term that we can either see as a huge source of opportunity or this far-off thing that we can’t reach. I think that’s a real danger, because you get to set the goal posts. No-one can tell you what is success. If you’ve got a family that you need to provide for and a job that you enjoy but you’re a brilliant painter, getting one painting in an exhibition in a community hall can be the hugest success. But I think, particularly people at acting schools and art schools get taught this very narrow definition of success where it’s: you either make it as an A-list celebrity –
Nalini: You’re a Mel Gibson or a Nicole Kidman –
Tom: Or you’re in the gutter. Yeah. Which is a really dangerous bull-shit idea that people invest far too much belief in.
Nalini: You’ve both been in the situation where you’ve held down day jobs and worked as musicians. At the moment Tom is trying to focus more on the music but is still trying to earn money to pay the bills: how difficult is it to manage both?
Jen: It really depends on the situation. I still have a day job. I work for the Domestic Violence Resource Centre of Victoria, managing their online communications, websites and social media.
Nalini: So this is part of being an environmental feminist activist?
Jen: Exactly. Like Tom said it’s really hard to swim against a tide of that idea of success being aimed at a multi-millionaire living in Hollywood with your own recording studio and your own personal vineyard. I really struggle with wanting to do all the things all the time: having a passion for community work and for activism while wanting to be an independent musician. These goals often cannot simply coexist. I am incredibly fortunate and consider myself to be quite successful for what I want out of life, because three days a week I get to put on my feminist social justice hat while also utilising my skills and passion for social media and media technology. I have an incredibly supportive workplace that doesn’t just tolerate the fact that I also have a very busy creative life. They really support that through buying our CDs and coming to our shows, giving me the flexibility that I need, because they know it will be repaid with hard work and passion for what I do there. I realise that that is a very luxurious position.
Nalini: You’re very privileged.
Jen: I am extremely privileged. It has come about through following the strands of my life passions which I’ve been fortuitous enough to be able to weave together. Although what that really means is a lot of hard work and competing stresses sometimes.
Tom: I think that’s actually one of the oddest and most frequent things that I’ve encountered, as a student, as a worker, and more recently making a living out of cabaret music performance, is this belief that you are doing it because of luck. The reality is, without trying to sound defensive, I am in more debt than I’ve ever been in. I’ve got like a $25,000 bank loan to bankroll this lifestyle. I’m currently on Centrelink (social security benefits) and barely making rent. If I do make rent, it’s like two weeks late. But to go back to your question about success: I still feel incredibly successful because I have somehow managed to string together these various projects, mainly the Jane Austen Argument, but directing work and solo performance work and recording. And selling naked pictures of myself online.[laughter]
Nalini: Did you really?
Jen: You’d better clarify that.
Tom: When we got back from tour, I had no shows booked. We needed a break from doing Jane Austen Argument shows because we’d been touring, touring, touring for four months. I got back and I couldn’t make rent. I ended up selling a lot of my belongings online in a virtual garage sale. People like, ‘you’re selling your stuff online?! This is terrible.’ I actually found it quite empowering and quite creative. One of the things I sold was a photo of me surrounded by the items I was selling, wearing nothing else.
Nalini: Do you have copies of that? Some people might want to buy them.
Tom: I think it’s still on my solo website, so you can still see it.
Nalini: So you don’t have multiple copies for people to buy?
Tom: I’ll print them out. As I was saying, I feel incredibly successful and privileged to have made it work somehow, through hard work, creativity, belief and defying normal economic logic.
Nalini: You’re doing what you love.
Nalini: And you’re investing it, and hopefully somewhere along the line the money is going to come back and you’re going to be able to pay off the loan and pay off the rent.
Tom: Hopefully so, but even if I have to go back into full-time work tomorrow, the 10 months or 11 months since I quit my job has been filled with travelling around the world, meeting amazing people, being able to focus solely on the act of being a musician. So it a tremendous source of success by my own definition of success.
Nalini: Yes. They say when you’re old and you look back on your life at the things you regret, that won’t be one of the things you regret.
Tom: Yeah, unless I am still on the dole as a sixty-year-old, no retirement prospects, a gammy leg and still going: [in a quavering voice imitating an elderly person] ‘Have you heard my new song?’ [laughter]
Jen: It’ll be the hit of the nursing home. [Laughing]
Nalini: These days there are lots of rockers in their 50s and 60s, don’t knock it!
Tom: Very true.
Nalini: You recently recorded and launched a new album, Somewhere Under the Rainbow: what would you like tell me about this process?
Tom: [starts out somewhat dolefully but ends sounding much more upbeat while Jen just laughs] It was long and hard, expensive and brilliant.
Nalini: Especially the brilliant bit, we’ll push that.
Jen: It was all of those things. It also took us halfway around the world. It was our first venture into crowd funding in which we successfully managed to raise the $10,000 to make the record. We ended up recording in Seattle at London Bridge Studios. It’s something that we’ve been working up to ever since we started playing together. I feel like I’ve just had a bit of a brain freeze about this: it just seems so hard to drag my brain back into the process of making the album, it was so long.
Tom: The process of recording was really quite new to us. Although we’ve recorded before, this was in a proper studio with a producer who was looking after a lot of the logistic elements in the production of the record. We were doing it all with no real roadmap, because no-one makes their first album on the other side of the planet.
Nalini: Yes. Why?
Tom: Blake Bickel, our producer, has mastered all of our previous releases. He produced my first solo. Out of almost everyone we’ve worked with, he has the keenest insight and understanding of our music and our technical proficiency. He was able to tailor the recording process and the sorts of musicians we worked with, to the way that we work and to our material. That’s why we were really drawn to work with him.
Nalini: So it was a creative decision. You knew that you could trust him and he’d make the most of your music.
Jen: Yes, definitely that element of trust was a huge factor in deciding to work with him.
Tom: The whole process of recording was very new. The way that he worked and the way that we ended up recording this album is very new. Interestingly the session musicians who worked on the album, who were fucking incredible, have now informed the line-up of our full band when we do our full band rock shows. We worked with a cellist on the recording and now we have a cellist. We worked with a drummer on the recording and now we have a drummer. Blake played the bass, and Jen’s partner, Adam, plays the bass. As everything that we do, it did not follow the road more frequently travelled. [chuckling]
Nalini: Are there any particular stories worthy of being shared?
Tom: We got really sick beforehand, just before we hit the studios.
Jen: Getting to Seattle came right off the back of our Edinburgh fringe season. This was the first time we performed at the Edinburgh fringe, which was incredibly –
Jen: Yeah. Taxing experience. We did something like 28 shows in 25 nights, and then we did a European tour with Amanda and her new band. Then we arrived in Seattle and ended up on Blake and his wife Karly’s floor –
Jen: There was this lounge room full of sick Australians, in this tiny tiny apartment.
Nalini: So you were just exhausted and rundown and your bodies went ‘Blergh!’
Tom: Yeah, about two weeks before we hit the studio. Against all likelihood, the process of recording in Seattle, where we had the small frame of time, the process of mixing via Skype and e-mail feedback, which is a terrifying, terrifying, terrifying way to do it. But against all of the possible negative things that could come out of it, we ended up with a record that is 10 times what I was imagining when we embarked upon it, in terms of the quality and what it means to me, and how much I actually enjoy listening to it. I never listen to our music usually.
Jen: Yeah. I find it incredibly difficult to listen back to recordings, but I think it was the night before we had to get it sent off to be printed – because we’ve never been very good at negotiating timelines that don’t involve us going ‘Fuuuuuuck!’ at the last minute – but the night before we had to send it off to print, finally got the final mastered version back, and I just spent an hour sitting on my lounge floor with my eyes closed, my headphones on, listening back to it. It was just the most amazing thing, to hear the months or even years of work that had gone into the making of this record and to finally hear what I could possibly hope of our music, how it sounds when you’re writing the songs, the symphony in your head, to finally hear that through the headphones was just the most rewarding experience.
Nalini: The tone of your voice – it’s a pity that text cannot convey the strength of emotion.
Tom: But what does carry that strength of emotion is that people click the URL link and listen to the album [laughing]
Nalini: Absolutely! Do you have any funny stories?
Tom: Let me censor my brain.
Jen: Yeah, are there any fit for print? [Laughter] I’m not sure.
Nalini: Well, if something comes to you …. What does the future hold?
Tom: Unending promise and not much plans.
Nalini: The world is your oyster?
Jen: I think on top of continuing to promote and tour this record, both of us are taking time to work on some solo and outside projects. This is quite common for us: when we’ve gone through a period of time where we work together very closely, I think we just get so inspired and slightly sick of each other that we have to go and do our own thing for a little while.
Tom: You work so intensively on one project… What we have found together and as a band is one very strong central part of our passion for the arts, but there are so many other things. After spending three months solid on a project you go: ‘I’ve neglected this other thing that I really care about and want to explore.’
Jen: Absolutely. I think it’s part of our growth as musicians, we always want to push the bar a little higher. I don’t actually ever get sick of Tom; that wasn’t true.
Nalini: To be able to spread the wings, pardon the pun, and maybe to do something that’s a little bit different can be energising.
Jen: Definitely. So we’re both working on some solo projects. As well as Adam designing T-shirts and playing bass in our band, he and I have another band called Neon Bogart, which is basically a post-apocalyptic jazz soul, um…
Jen: Funk or punk?
Tom: Funk punk.
Jen: Yeah… funk punk collaboration, which we’re very, very excited about. He plays Neon Bogart, I am Lauren Recall. That’s a bit of a juxtaposition of sounds from the Twentieth and 23rd centuries. I’m doing some solo work as well.
Tom: I started a much more extensive solo career, which is much more folky, a middle point between folk and anti-folk, what’s that? Anti-pro folk?
Tom: Shows that are very much conversational and confessional, with much more of a focus on the spoken elements and eliciting responses from the audience and tailoring the show toward where that conversation is heading.
Nalini: Is it a kind of like that number you do where you tell the worst breakup stories?
Tom: There are elements of that and – dare I say it – a sing-along. At the moment one of the projects I’m working towards is about reaching out with a very short timeframe to other musicians potentially who either know my work or who don’t know me at all, meeting and rehearsing for a day, and putting a show together.
Nalini: So it’s almost improv music.
Tom: It will still be quite tightly formed, but there is a real emphasis on creating these new communities. That’s what I’m going to be working on as a solo career, but on top of that, the main bulk of the work is going to be on organising and booking a tour to support the album for the band. Trying to experiment with the more radio and TV possibilities; there’s a whole heap of shit to do.
Nalini: Keep me informed and post anything to the page as well. Is there anything you’d like to say to fans?
Tom: Thank you, sorry for the wait, you’re awesome.
Nalini: Sorry for the wait?
Tom: Particularly for the people who trusted in us, who pledged to our crowd sourcing and had to wait. From the moment of their pledge it was the better part of eight months before they received something for it. There are still a few parts of the Pozible reward program that we’re still rolling out. Everyone has been so gracious, both in their initial support and also in their patience and understanding that we are still learning and they are part of this learning process. There will be plenty more coming.
Jen: Absolutely. Thank you so much for the support, which is deep and ongoing. It’s a constant source of strength and wonder that people, some of whom we’ve never met, some of whom haven’t even seen us perform live…
Tom: People in Finland.
Jen: Yeah, Go Finland! It’s incredibly humbling to be at the receiving end of that support. It doesn’t go unnoticed or un-thanked at any stage.
Tom: I think the other real key message that is important to send is: because we’re an independent band, because we sit on the fringes of mainstream genres, we rely heavily on people promoting our wares via Facebook and Twitter, joining our mailing list and using these new methods of communication to engage with our music and with our plans. I highly encourage people who are into our music to make sure they are engaging with those methods of communication because that’s how you find out first about the new projects we’re embarking upon and can be a part of things and access exclusive things that not everyone gets to.
Nalini: Facebook, YouTube, Twitter – they’re all great means of communication. Thank you very much for talking to Dark Matter.