Music, for Paul Dempsey, is a way of life. It is a source of oxygen. Ever since he was tall enough to reach his grandmother’s piano he was learning and playing songs. It is a passion that has grown into the career of a lifetime. Literally.
This year marks the 20th Anniversary of Something for Kate, an achievement that front man, Paul Dempsey shares alongside fellow band members Clint Hyndman and Stephanie Ashworth. Their 2012 release, Leave Your Soul To Science is their 6th studio album and the trio shows no signs of waning energy. In fact, as Dempsey puts it, they’re even more passionate at this stage of their careers than they have ever been.
As well as fronting one of Australia’s most significant bands, Dempsey has also enjoyed a thriving solo career. Released in 2009, Everything is True was heralded as one of the best albums of the year, winning Album of the Year on iTunes. This year sees Dempsey embark on his 3 Cities tour in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, with just an acoustic guitar.
Dempsey is a champion of language. His lyrics, as a solo artist or as part of a band, are also some of the most affecting. His talent and his drive have seen him work alongside some prolific fellow musicians, such as Mike Noga of the Drones, Joss Stone and Kate Miller-Heidke. He has also stepped behind the scenes to produce, most recently for Queensland band, Mosman Alder. Dempsey is a rare individual. He relishes in the chance to experience music in all its guises, and music truly thanks him for it.
Sophie Flecknoe: You were taught to play piano by your grandmother. Is this your earliest memory of music?
Paul Dempsey: Yeah, well, she didn’t exactly teach me as much as she basically just bought a piano for the household because she played herself. So I never actually received any lessons. It was more just the fact that she put a piano in the house and my sisters played. Well, everyone in my family played, really, everyone could play the piano. So as soon as I could reach the keys I just started banging on it.
How old were you at the time?
I guess I started when I was probably 3 or something. I literally started banging on it as soon as I could reach the keys so I don’t even remember when I started. But I can remember when I was sort of 4 or 5 I could actually play a couple of things and it went on from there. Nothing very complicated, but enough to grab my interest and keep me wanting to learn more.
That’s great. So when did you first start writing your own music and lyrics?
Probably not until I was a teenager. I always just wanted to be able to play the music that I liked. I spent most of my childhood just figuring out how to play other people’s songs. I didn’t really get the urge to try and write something myself until I was probably, I don’t know, maybe 14 or 15.
Were the origins of the band in high school?
Yeah, I went to high school with Clint, our drummer. We met in high school and we started kind of messing around, playing in garage bands. I had been in different sort of… basically I went to a lot of different schools. I went to ten different schools. Pretty much every time I started at a new school, the first think you would do was meet anyone else who played an instrument and before you’d know it you’d have a band! Being able to play the guitar, I guess, it helped me socially because we moved so much and I switched schools. I was constantly being moved from one place to another and having to make new friends [but] I always had the guitar as a friend. I’d always keep myself entertained with that. But it was also a really great way to meet people and make new friends when you front up at a new school and you can play guitar then you automatically have friends!
When did you start playing guitar? How old were you?
Probably 6 or 7. I’ve got older sisters and they all play. Everyone in my family plays. My mother was a professional singer and she had a band and her band practically lived at our house as well. I just kind of grew up surrounded by people plying all different kinds of instruments so it didn’t seem that unusual for me to pick up instruments and learn how to play. I just thought that was what everybody did.
This is a question I’ve been dying to ask. You are one of the best lyricists I’ve ever come across. Your lyrics are so affecting, and they’ve been explained as like you’re laying your soul bare. So I wanted to ask, is that what it feels like for you? Do you find your lyrics difficult to perform?
Not difficult. I guess there are some that I find difficult. We’ve got a couple of songs that I rarely or never pay live for that reason. They may be just a little bit too personal. Lyrics really are the hard, difficult part of making music because like I said, I’ve been playing instruments for so long and it’s easy to write music. But lyrics come from somewhere else. And I’ve had to really… that’s something that I feel like I’m still learning how to do.
I can’t believe you would be saying that.
It’s true. Every time I sit down to write lyrics for a song the overwhelming feeling is ‘How the fuck do you do this?’ You know? Because every time you write you don’t know what to write about, and when you do finally get an idea or a feeling or a sort of episode from your life that you decide you want to write about…
Do you keep a notebook?
Yeah I have stacks of notebooks. I just keep on writing. I write and I write and I write, and 99% of it is rubbish or will never get used. You have to, I think you just have to keep writing all the time and every now and then out of thousands and thousands of words you might get one line that kind of sticks out and stays with you.
I ask because I write lyrics, and I struggle to show anyone. I just find them to be such a private thing.
Yeah absolutely. We’ve been a band for 20 years, but when we’re together or we’re rehearsing and we’ll be playing some new piece of music we wrote and Clint and Steph will be saying, ‘Come on, you’ve got all these notebooks. Just sing something into the microphone so we can hear what the vocals might sound like’, and I can’t do it. I can’t open my mouth and sing until I’m completely happy with the words I have. It takes me a really long time. It’s really not easy for me. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying that I have to work really hard at it. I love doing it because when you finally get something that you are happy with the reward is immense and you feel really good about it. But it’s a tough slog to get to that point.
It’s so admirable. There’s only a select few people who can write such artful and soulful lyrics.
Thank you very much.
You’re about to begin your 3 Cities tour and you’re playing with just an acoustic guitar. How does this compare to playing with a complete rock outfit? Is there a set-up you enjoy more?
I enjoy them both for different reasons. They are really different experiences. With the band it’s deafening and high energy and you’re really kind of bouncing off each other and it’s a really just a much more high volume, high-octane kind of experience. I have to belt it out with my voice just to get over the noise of the band and then when I play by myself… you’re all alone up there [and] because there’s no one else on the stage you don’t have to start or finish when you’re supposed to and you can hear yourself perfectly. You’re not competing with anything else. So I think you can sing a lot more freely and a lot more openly. There’s a lot more space to relax and spread yourself out and improvise.
How do you rehearse for a solo show like that?
I don’t! (Laughs)
Just off the cuff?
Well, that’s the way I like it, as well. You have to rehearse as a band because you have to lock in with each other. When you’re by yourself up there you can really follow your own whims and follow whatever mood you might be in and so I prefer not to rehearse and I prefer not to write a set list.
That’s so interesting. So do you just decide which song to play as it comes to you?
Well, I’ll have a list, like a master list, but I don’t have an order. I really only look at that if I can’t think or if I draw a blank. Usually I finish one song and I automatically feel like what I want to play next.
You have such an enormous repertoire of talent, being able to play piano, guitar, drums and singing. When did you first start singing? Was it self-taught?
Everything is. I haven’t had any lessons in anything. I’m self-taught in everything.
Yeah, but I didn’t do it in a year. I believe that anyone can, with enough commitment and practice. Anyone can learn anything. I’ve been doing it since I was a little kid, so I’ve had a lot of time to learn. I was terrible at everything for a really, really long time. I used to always sing to myself but I never sang in front of anybody until Something for Kate basically. Like I said before I come from a family of professional singers and they’re all much better than me.
Your sister is in a band, isn’t she?
Yes, all of them were at various stages. They’re older than me, and I was just always the little brother. I was always just afraid to sing in front of any of them because they’re all so much better than me and I just felt like I would embarrass myself so I never did it. The first time they all heard me sing was at the first Something for Kate gig.
Do you have an instrument you enjoy playing the most?
No, I enjoy all of them. I enjoy trying new instruments that I haven’t played and trying to figure that out. I bought myself a trumpet!
Have you played it yet?
Yeah, well, I’m attempting to. Again, I’m trying to teach myself and it’s a bit tricky, the way you have to use your mouth and your lips and breathing and all that stuff. It’s a whole lot trickier than just using your hands.
Yes, of course. Your covers of songs are greatly celebrated and your Shotgun Karaoke EP features covers of such a wide range of artists. How do you pick the songs you’d like to cover? What do you keep in mind when you cover somebody else’s song?
I guess, just favourites, you know? The songs that I’ve always loved, just songs that really affect me, and I guess songs that I wish I had written, because I think they’re so great. I just really love playing them. When I’m playing a cover on the one hand I’m trying to stay true to the spirit of the original but also make it my own. I always like to do them by myself on an acoustic guitar, because I guess the other thing is I’m trying to sort of show people that a really, really well written song doesn’t need anything else. A really well crafted song, you should be able to play it on one instrument and it should still be as good as it was. It shouldn’t lack or it shouldn’t miss anything. I guess, I’ve covered songs that have massive orchestras and dozens of synthesizers and really full on studio production, but you can still just play it with an acoustic guitar and they’re as good as ever and it’s just because they’re really well written.
Do you mean in terms of lyrics as well?
Yeah, lyrics and music. The absolute core of just one instrument and one voice, it should be able to convey it. There’s so much music out there that I think just doesn’t stand up if you take away all the studio tricks and the gimmicks, there’s not much there. So I guess I like to celebrate songs that are just so well written that they can stand up to the kind of harsh treatment I give them. (Laughs)
Everything Is True was a hugely celebrated album. It was Album of the Year on iTunes and Rolling Stone listed it as one of the Best Albums of 2009. It’s also one of my personal favourite albums. Were you trying to tell a story through the lyrics? And did writing alone afford you more freedom than writing in the band?
I guess I’m always trying to tell a story. It’s hard to explain. When I’m writing lyrics it’s such a process of trial and error and a lot of the time you’re not even sure what you’re writing about until you get half way there and then it starts to appear. I didn’t sit down with any particular things in mind. They all just started to flow once I would get half the thing written. But then I’d just go back and do so much drafting and redrafting that it does end up becoming a sort of story or concept. Writing that album, on the one hand it was really fun to be alone and it was fun to get to do everything my way and to completely be the boss of everything. That was fun! But at the same time there were certainly times when I was at a dead end and I wished I could bounce off my band mates. But I love doing anything different and I had never made a record before where I’d write everything and play everything and do everything my way. It was fun to play drums on a record and play all the instruments.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of Something for Kate which is such a huge achievement! Something for Kate is such an important Australian band. How does this feel? How has the band evolved since its origins?
When we started out we were literally kids so we were just really excited to have a band and be playing music and we didn’t have great expectations. We thought that if we were lucky we might get a gig in a pub. That was really all we were aiming for. Everything that has happened after that was a huge surprise to us and still is, so the fact that we’re celebrating 20 years is, it’s bigger than anything I ever expected. We just feel like the luckiest people on Earth, that were still doing this and we’re actually having more fun than we’ve ever had doing it. We’re even more passionate about it now than when we started out because we’ve arrived at a point in our lives when we’re finally starting to feel like we actually know how to do this fairly well and that if we work really hard we might make an even better record. We just feel like our best is still ahead of us and we’re still kind of chasing after it.
You also made a short film to celebrate the anniversary that played live on tour earlier this year. How did the film come to be? What is it about?
Well, before the shows of the 20th Anniversary tour we wanted to kind of give people a bit of a brief history of the band. Not like a documentary, not with a voiceover, but just lots of images and footage that people wouldn’t have seen. Our friend, Callum Preston, who is a really great photographer and filmmaker and artist, we just dumped boxes and boxes of stuff on him – film stuff and photographs and posters and merchandise – and he spent weeks just sifting through it all and he put the film together and he really did such a good job.
You’ve worked with some prolific fellow musicians from Mike Noga of The Drones, to Joss Stone. You’ve also been on the other side of music and produced many albums. What have been some of your favourite collaborations? Are there any artists you would love to work with?
I love just any excuse to make music with different people and trying new things. I’ve been really lucky working with people like Mike Noga, and I produced a record recently for a band called Mosman Alder from Queensland. I love producing records, I love playing a different role where you’re not doing the writing or the performing but you help doing the recording and you’re also being an objective third party where you’re trying to help a band reach and make the album they want to make and get there, particularly when it’s their first album. They [might] not know as much about the studio and you can help them achieve what they’re trying to achieve. I love doing that. I love writing with different people. I’ve done some writing with other friends and lots of musicians in other bands. It’s just interesting to see how other people work. I just find it all really exciting. I’m just into any excuse to be creative and try stuff, you know? It’s fun.
You lived in New York during the time between your solo album’s release and the latest Something for Kate album, Leave Your Soul To Science. What was it like living in New York?
I absolutely love New York and I’ve been going there at least once a year since I was a teenager and since the band started. It was nice to finally be based there and live there for a couple of years. I have a lot of good friends over there. It was really great to make it home for a while.
How long were you there?
Two years. When you’re living somewhere for that long you feel like a local and you get into the rhythm of the place. It was really great. We sort of go back and forth now. We take any opportunity we can to go back there for a while. We may live there again in the near future. We’re still seeing what happens.
Do you find it similar to Melbourne?
Not really. It’s probably more similar to Melbourne than any other Australian city but at the same time it’s quite different.
It’s its own thing.
Yeah. Melbourne, in a lot of ways, feels bigger because it’s so much more spread out and it takes longer to get from one side of Melbourne to the other than it does to get from somewhere in Brooklyn to somewhere in Manhattan. Melbourne is a bit more of a sprawl so it’s like LA in that respect because everything is really spread out. New York is a tight little grid. You can get anywhere in ten minutes.
Is there an album or song of yours of which you are most proud, or you consider a favourite?
It changes all the time. I always feel the most proud and the closest to whatever the most recent thing was because it’s fresher and it feels more like where you’re at right now. I really feel like Leave Your Soul To Science is our best record and I feel really proud that we took a four-year break and when we got back together we came up with that record. I just feel really happy, especially after a break, that we got back together, and we’re all so happy with how that record came out.
Who or what influences you? Who are some of your musical heroes?
Good question. When we were starting out the bands that we really admired and respected were bands like Sonic Youth and Fugazi, a lot of underground, indie bands. The word ‘indie’ doesn’t really mean anything anymore but when we were starting out these bands, what we call indie bands, they were really going against the grain and really having to carve out their own niche and really avoiding the whole commercial music establishment and they really inspired us to – because they were really strange, unusual sounding bands that would never get on the radio and would probably never get offered a record deal – they inspired us to think, ‘well, if they can play music and tour, then maybe we can too’, if we sort of followed their examples. We didn’t expect anyone to ever offer us a record deal. We certainly never expected to get played on the radio. But things change and things evolve and before you know it you’re respectable! (Laughs)
Who would have known?
(Laughs) Well we certainly didn’t think it would happen!
Finally, what is your definition of beauty?
If we’re talking about natural beauty or personal beauty, I guess for me it’s two things: ideas and confidence. I guess they’re sort of related to me. If you’re someone with your own ideas then you can take confidence in that and if you’re a confident person you can be confident about the way you think and the way you approach things. I guess that’s talking about people. I guess the things I find beautiful are the things that fill me with ideas, whether that’s a person or whether that’s staring up at the night sky, but the things that fill me with ideas are the things I find beautiful.