Chart and Soul
An article about Barry Palmer’s television show ‘The Hit Game’.
Author: Luke Benedictus, The Age.
Date: 25 September 2005.
If Australian Idol is about manufactured pop, new series The Hit Game promises a peek at the grittier side of the music business. Luke Benedictus reports.
Vanessa Morfea sits chain-smoking in a Brunswick Street bar, staring out at the traffic. The 21-year-old knows this area far better than most. As a teenage heroin addict, she used to live rough on the Fitzroy streets, relying on her busking to scrape by.
Now, though, she has an international record deal and is one of the stars of The Hit Game, a new ABC documentary series that takes an inside look at Australia’s indie music scene.
Not that Morfea is too impressed with the show’s cheesy title. “I really hate that name,” she says while rolling up the sleeve of her lumberjack shirt to reveal a saucy tattoo of a naked pin-up girl. “I think it’s shit.”
The Hit Game revolves around a tiny recording studio a little way up Brunswick Street. This is the lair of Bazz Palmer, the former Hunters and Collectors guitarist who now works as an independent music producer and songwriter. These days Palmer spends his days trying to develop new acts, landing record deals for his artists in return for a percentage of their signing-on fee, and often a cut of their publishing rights.
The Hit Game arose from a conversation between Palmer and his brother-in-law, Sean Cousins, an experienced documentary maker. “Bazz and I were talking about TV and the Australian Idol phenomenon, not in a critical way, but just in terms of what a powerful thing it’s become,” Cousins says. “Everyone is watching it, but it doesn’t reflect what it’s really like in the independent sector.”
Palmer was particularly bothered by the way Idol presented the music industry as a glorified popularity contest that could catapult unknown singers to overnight success.
This musical fairytale bore little relation to what he knew about the long, hard grind of trying to break a new artist. The Hit Game set out to redress the balance with a more truthful depiction of life on the bottom rungs of the music industry.
The show offers a fly-on-the wall perspective of the multiple challenges facing an unsigned act. “This is the bits they leave out (on Idol),” Cousins says.
“Like turning up for rehearsal and finding that someone else didn’t turn up. Or that you’ve only got two days in the recording studio because that’s all you can afford. Or that you have to work 20-hour days for a week to make a record. A lot of people don’t know how hard it is to break through.”
The series follows the fortunes of four acts whose careers Palmer is attempting to jump-start. Each occupies a radically different musical niche: Morfea is the punk-rock banshee; Belinda Lee-Reid is struggling to re-establish herself as a credible solo artist after getting a sniff of fame with the all-girl band Lash; Shirley Davis is a sultry dancefloor diva; and the three Wolfgramm sisters are touting their sassy brand of urban soul around Fitzroy venues like the Night Cat and the Evelyn.
As the artists work towards nailing that vital recording contract, The Hit Game illuminates aspects of the music industry that are rarely exposed on camera.
We learn of the existence of “freelance dance-music promoters”, who are employed to ensure that a new track makes it onto a DJ’s playlist. We watch Palmer wrestle with the best way to package Wolfgramm, and we witness the make-or-break decisions as A&R managers cast their judgement on new material.
But the real interest in The Hit Game lurks in the human drama, and there’s certainly no shortage of it in Morfea’s story. The turning point in her music career came when she was busted shoplifting from a Brunswick Street rockabilly store.
After pleading with the shop owner not to call the cops, the pair began chatting about music. Morfea handed over a demo tape of her songs, which found its way to Palmer.
He was overwhelmed by what he heard. “For me it was just like, ‘I’ve got to sign her to my production company right now! I want to get these songs and get them round the world’,” Palmer explains in the show.
“And sure enough, it was a really quick process. Six months later Vanessa was in the UK.”
Palmer whisked Morfea over to London and Los Angeles on a whistle-stop tour to showcase her talents. By the end of the week she’d won a British distribution deal with Instant Karma records.
Their eagerness to snap her up was understandable. Quite apart from Morfea’s obvious talent as a singer, guitarist and songwriter, her tumultuous life-story gives her serious punk cred. She isn’t a pre-packaged wild child like Avril Lavigne – Morfea is the real deal.
To record her debut album, Morfea was relocated to London and put up in a hostel in Earls Court.
But after two months everything began to disintegrate. Morfea’s manager, who’d effectively become her surrogate big sister, left the record company just as there was a temporary lull in the recording process.
Feeling increasingly isolated and unsettled, Morfea quickly fell back into old habits.
“The second two months (in London) were pretty bad,” she tells Preview.
“I was a mess towards the end of it. I was just using a lot of heroin and I had to come back (to Australia) and sort myself out, I couldn’t do it there. It felt like the music was on hold and I guess the drugs were the only thing I had.”
Morfea persuaded Palmer to let her return to Melbourne to get clean. It was only meant to be a brief visit, but it ended up stretching into an 18-month stay.
Having successfully completed rehab, Morfea was left in limbo as the music label refused to confirm when she could return to London.
Demoralised by the uncertainty and adjusting to life without the drug habit she’d had on and off since the age of 13, Morfea ended up piling on 25 kilograms.
“I began to think, ‘Shit it’s over, it’s ruined’,” she says of that period. “I was really depressed. Not knowing what was going on was horrible. This (music) is my dream and my passion and to think that you’ve blown such a great opportunity just sucks.”
Morfea’s episode of The Hit Game culminates in genuine edge-of-the-seat TV. She returns to London to salvage her album deal, but the label is visibly shocked by her weight gain.
Her sudden return to Australia has left her relationship with the company fractured and hanging in the balance. Morfea’s future with the label hinges on a single live gig in which she must convince a roomful of industry executives that she really can justify their investment. (We won’t spoil it here.)
In fact, all four of The Hit Game’s episodes are essentially tales of plucky determination. Despite Palmer’s valiant efforts and the artists’ hard work, the fickle nature of the music business means there is never any guarantee of success. “Just because you think you’re good and you deserve a chance doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get one,” says Kelly Wolfgramm.
“There are so many other factors, like who else the record companies have on their roster. Plus, because there’s less money in the industry at the moment, people are less inclined to sign something on an impulse.”
When he embarked on the 18-month project, Cousins acknowledges that the only thing he was sure of was that he would be documenting stories of rugged perseverance and self-belief.
“Most people in the independent music sector struggle and work really hard,” he says. “They have a passion, they’re creative and they stick at it doggedly despite the odds and despite the overwhelming knockbacks.”
Shirley Davis’ story is a prime example. Driven by her long-standing ambition to make it in the music business, the 31-year-old single mother has spent years grinding out a modest living as a soul singer. Davis plays regular gigs at the Rainbow in Fitzroy and also fronts cover bands for corporate functions. “I’ve sung for my supper for years not doing anything else,” she says. “I’ve been that gung-ho about it for a while.”
Davis eloped to Australia when she was just 16. She was growing up in London when she struck up a correspondence with a pen-pal from Melbourne. “He’d just started university,” she remembers. “We kept writing and writing; soon I started to really like him.”
When her pen-pal came to visit her in Wembley, the pair decided to get hitched. “I ran away to Scotland because you could get married up there at 16 without your parents’ consent,” she says. “Then we moved here. I never went home.”
Although the couple had a daughter together, the marriage dissolved seven years later. Despite her family’s appeals, Davis refused to return to London, having set her heart on becoming a singer. But as she struggled to break through on the club circuit, she began having serious doubts.
“I was getting a bit fazed and a bit scared,” she says. “I’d been true to myself, but there are a lot of singers in Melbourne. Here I am on the other side of the world with just one other family member. I kept waking up every morning trying to rehearse, trying to record, but because you can’t see the end of the road, it’s difficult to maintain that motivation.”
Then Davis was invited to join Deepface, a Melbourne house outfit consisting of Chris Corby and Fran Power. Corby, a guitarist and sound engineer, was occupying the next-door studio to Palmer when he overheard Been Good, an upbeat pop song that his neighbour was developing. After persuading Palmer to let him adapt the tune for the dancefloor, Corby drafted Davis to supply vocals.
Been Good helped Deepface clinch a deal with Fly Music and entered the ARIA club charts at No.5. Distribution deals in Britain and America quickly followed, with the track becoming a summer hit across Europe. The single is now about to be re-released for a proper assault on Australia’s national charts and the future for Deepface looks bright. “I didn’t always get that confidence from people around me,” Davis says. “But I always had that confidence in myself.”
While Davis is chatting to Preview at that same Brunswick Street cafe, Hit Game director Cousins comes barrelling around the corner. “I have news,” he says to her with a broad grin. “You’re going to the ARIAs. You’ve been nominated for best dance act in Australia.”
As she digests the information, Davis is momentarily silent. Then her eyes widen with delight and she breaks into whoops of hysterical laughter. “Don’t say that! Are you serious? Oh my God! That’s huge, that’s rocking!”
Soon the tears are streaming down her face. “That’s such good news,” she says quietly. “I’ve just had so much support from people and I never expected all that. I’m just so glad. Wait till my daughter hears this.”
The Hit Game, ABC, Tuesdays at 8pm to October 18