Tim Freedman Of The Whitlams
And Alessandro Sorbello At ABC Studios.
“The [new] album is about New York, fancy lovers and a rodent ... It’s a simple, tasteful album that goes back to The Whitlams of Eternal Nightcap. There’s a strong thread of piano porch music.” - Tim Freedman, on Little Cloud
If you were looking for Tim Freedman in the early months of 2004 you might have found him doing a few strange things.
He was in New York City in the freezing months of winter, casting shadows in the steam rising from the subways. He was watching an American eagle hitch a ride on an ice drift down the Hudson River. And more peculiarly, he was walking into bars, touching the back wall and walking back out the front without stopping to order a drink.
“New York is my Mecca. But it was a strange place to try and get healthy again,” he admits, adding that all the touring for The Whitlams’ last album and DVD had left him a little flat and needing to “recalibrate”.
He rented a loft between the East Village and Chinatown for three months, spending his time seeing bands (“great piano players”), reading books (“Rilke’s good when you’re reassessing”) and talking with friends (“people in New York don’t drink as much as Australians do, they’re too busy talking about the city”).
In New York, he also spent hours listening to music from what he calls “the new acoustic movement”(Iron and Wine etc) and walking into clubs and cafes on speculation to be surprised by great unknowns. And he started to think “I want to write something intimate and heartfelt and uncomplicated.”
The result is The Whitlams’ new double album Little Cloud, the Sydney band’s sixth studio album after Love this City (1999) and Torch the Moon (2002), the two platinum follow ups to the huge independent hit Eternal Nightcap which won them three ARIAs in 1998. It’s a return to the piano and voice, story-telling style Freedman and The Whitlams fans love.
“It’s mostly music for the porch,” he says. “The last two albums were a bit lairy with orchestras and choirs. This one actually sounds like it was written alone in a room on my piano. Some of the lyrics are a bit blue but I was enjoying myself too, mostly keeping to myself at nights, wandering around Broadway, looking at the city.”
The album is broken into two discs. The first, “Little Cloud”, is about returning to Sydney with mixed feelings of love and disillusion in an election year. The second, “Apple’s Eye”, is set in New York, and is about slowly getting strong and well “under a tapestry of stone hung from the sky”. It’s short for a double album - each side is approximately 28 minutes long - and that’s how Freedman wanted it. “16 songs is too long for a single album and the short double format allowed us to arrange it thematically and deliver it in 2 shots”.
“The songs came slowly at first because I was exhausted, but as my mood lifted they poured out. ‘Fondness Makes the Heart Grow Absent’ is a miniature of the New York months in that I start out disconnected and finish the day revived in Balthazar (his favourite restaurant), ripping at a bread roll and making a little private toast.” And then there are songs about fancy lovers. “It wouldn’t be The Whitlams if there wasn’t trouble with girls.”
“The album is about New York, fancy lovers and a rodent.”
The album has been produced by J. Walker of Machine Translations, the Melbourne indie music master who made it his job to put immediacy and intimacy back into the songs, and the piano back up to the front. The result is classic Whitlams.
“I’ve always been a huge fan of J’s stuff. I’ve loved all his albums. He’s the master of off-beat moments that don’t take over the song but make it sound original,” Freedman says. “He added a lot of quirky textures and chordal twists that still tweak my ears”.
The pair rented a house in Broken Head (near Byron Bay) to finish a number of songs and J. Walker has six co-writing credits on the album.
“He filled in a lot of gaps for me,” says Freedman. “He’s also one of those infuriating fellows who can play everyone’s instrument, so if things ever bogged down he’d jump on in. I was very happy to let his musical personality onto the record. I like to let the producer do his thing and just trust that my choice was right. I think J. was perfect for the project.”
“My starting point for this record was hearing Tim play the songs on the piano and I’ve kept that in my head,” Walker told the Sydney Morning Herald during the recording sessions in 2005. “My focus was on making Tim’s vocals and piano playing the dominant personality. He’s a storyteller and when there’s a danger of overproducing him that can get glossed over. We kind of felt it was important to personalise this record - not have the kitchen sink thrown in.”
Recorded at the new Electric Avenue in the inner Sydney suburb of Camperdown (“I like to be able to walk home after work”, says Freedman), Little Cloud features the same personnel as the last two Whitlams albums: piano-playing frontman Tim Freedman, Terepai Richmond on drums, Warwick Hornby on bass and the scene-stealing Jak Housden on guitar.
“We’ve been the same band for the last seven years,” says Freedman. “We’ve been together longer than the original Whitlams line-up now. We’re really tight and we used that to record a lot of the songs as an ensemble with very little cutting up of performances”.
“Compared to the last few albums I’d say we spent more time writing the songs, and less time recording them. In keeping with the less perfectionist ethos in the tracking was the decision not to record with click tracks, so you’ll hear the tempos and consequently the songs breathing”.
On a personal note Freedman is still living (alone) in Sydney’s Newtown. “I won’t be home much this year anyhow. I can’t wait to get out there and tour again”.
Freedman’s 2006 calendar is already looking very full, dominated by an extensive tour of Australia with three trips to England and Ireland supporting the release of Little Cloud over there.
“They have a tradition of literate pop – people get it there,” he says. “The crowds are down to 60% Australian now and it’s dropping every tour.”
“This year, I plan to play 200 gigs, drink moderate quantities of fine red wine and spend my time moving between Sydney and London - with all of Australia in-between.”