A Collectors of Love Songs
Great interview with Mark for the release of his Seventh Heaven Club album.
Author: Warwick McFadyen, The Age / Sydney Morning Herald.
Date: 2 March 2013.
Mark Seymour has compiled a selection of songs of emotion that speak powerfully to him.
Love is not angelic. It is not divorced from the flesh. It is carnal. Love is skin, bone, blood and fluid. It is the five senses – taste, touch, smell, hearing and sight – that form an ocean within, roaring, washing over, ebbing and flowing, rising and falling on the human tide. You can float and you can drown.
You won’t hear echoes of the angelic/heavenly choir in Mark Seymour’s voice. Not these days. The singer-songwriter has been riding on the sea of love. The result is Seventh Heaven Club, recorded with his band, the Undertow – Cameron McKenzie (guitars), John Favaro (bass) and Peter Maslen (drums).
It’s a collection of love songs but there are no silly love songs. Each is a different angle on the geometry of that emotion.
There is no sweetness and light from high. Seymour goes into the core through other songwriters’ feelings. It’s a covers album, reimagined as a concept on what love is. It wasn’t easy, Seymour says, as ”conveying something meaningful in song is incredibly difficult”, especially sexual intimacy.
It’s worth revealing the album’s line-up: Lorelei (Phil Chevron), Getting Over You (Stephen Bruton), Can’t Wait (Bob Dylan), Sorrow (Matt Berninger and Aaron Dessner), Beside You (Dave Dobbyn), Caroline (Johnette Napolitano), Late for the Sky (Jackson Browne), Counting on You (Tom Petty), Come On (Lucinda Williams, who sings on the track), Only Love Can Break Your Heart (Neil Young) and These Arms of Mine (Otis Redding).
The album’s genesis occurred when Seymour was ”courting his wife” in New Zealand years ago. In the background was the music of Petty and Dobbyn, whose songs were coming from a different trajectory in relationships.
Seymour says the two pieces were ”coughed up by this ferment of emotion coming from a place where the stakes are incredibly high, and they’re trying to grapple with that language with the tool kit they’ve got”. It’s a distillation for the listener of what they’re feeling. ”That’s the A-game to me,” he says. ”That’s where songwriting matters.”
Seymour kept adding to those two until there were about two dozen songs but he was mindful to keep the album tight conceptually. There were a couple of his own songs, too, but adding them would have been an ”indulgence”.
”It begins with Lorelei because it’s about the mythology of love,” he says, ”and each song is moving further into the complexity of sexual intimacy. It ends with Redding – he’s like, give it to me – all my intentions are completely simple. They’re the bookends. In between [the other songs] are tough stuff.”
Watch a video of Seymour and his daughter, Hannah, performing Lorelei here.
In this sense, Seymour is swimming against the tide. The love song, as a genre, is much maligned. ”With good reason,” he says. To do a song well, and he says most aren’t, it has to go to places below the surface. You have to dig deep.
”It’s very easy to slag love songs because most are shithouse. The real challenge is to grapple with high-stakes subject matter. Songwriters struggle with it. It’s very difficult to do it well – you sit on a knife edge of potential platitude, and on that edge it’s very difficult to do it well and very easy to do it badly.”
The song on Seventh Heaven Club that will stop most punters in their tracks is Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky. What? Mark Seymour, the former frontman of Hunters & Collectors, going to California? As he writes in the liner notes, he was watching the film Taxi Driver and ”I noticed Late for the Sky. It hit a nerve, the plaintive tone and that yearning guitar work. I looked it up; Jackson Browne, a bloke I would’ve shrugged at back when I moved in more fashionable circles, but now in a new context … watching De Niro kick the TV over, I heard something brutally eloquent. The song was a very powerful statement of isolation and abandonment, born of its very opposite; an insatiable need for intimacy.”
He and the Undertow’s recording of Late for the Sky illustrates the two sides of the coin about covers: is it interpretation or faithful re-creation? It’s a point of which Seymour was acutely aware. There was within the band a ”lot of dialogue”.
”Even if it didn’t sound like the original, it still had to work, musically,” Seymour says. ”Some are radically different, others very simple.”
Caroline is much changed. Late for the Sky was a ”tightly constructed ballad. You can’t muck around with it.”
One of the pieces closest to Seymour’s heart is Dobbyn’s Beside You. He had met the New Zealander in the same year – 1998 – the Hunters & Collectors ceased to be. The song left a mark. ”Dave wrote about loyalty and devotion,” Seymour writes. ”There was nothing flash here, nothing ‘erudite’. This tune was deeply felt. I had to sing it.”
And to perform it, he has to ”engage emotionally” with the song.
If love songs have a common key, it is that last point. Love is such a big emotion. If there is no connection, then all is false.
Seventh Heaven Club is out now.