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Byron Shire
February 28, 2021

Beauty shines through tragedy

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This year’s Mullum Music Festival sees the launch of Take Something Beautiful, where five of Australia’s finest independent singer-songwriters, a full band and a string section take to the stage to launch their stunning new album, a tribute to the songs of Jesse Younan who died of leukaemia at just 35.

Mandy Nolan spoke with Glenn Wright, festival director of MMF and Jesse’s longtime friend.

Tell me a little about the story of how you found the music of Jesse Younan?

I was living in Bondi and had a meeting with Jesse and his manager Matt. Jesse was really reserved and didn’t say much. He was dark in looks and mood, not confronting but definitely sussing me out. I went to a gig and knew immediately he was something special. Back then he was a really timid performer but it was easy to tell he had something. The label I own, Vitamin, released an album and then we worked on a second. As I got to know him I realised Jesse was one of the truly great musicians I would work with, a rare original. I moved up north to Mullum and we planned a recording up this way with Christian Pyle at Christian’s local recording studio. The album A Good day For a Migraine is, I believe one, of the most important albums we have released.

What kind of person would you describe him as? Do you think this comes out in his work?

He was full of contradictions, shy yet confident. He dressed dark and looked tough yet was actually a gentle guy. He was really generous with those he liked. He had a way of using old phrases and sayings, even biblical quotes, yet combining them with the language of the street. He quoted old proverbs while talking about drugs and alcohol, prostitutes and whores. He was loved dearly by children – probably because he was so calm. Both my children adored him. Both my 4-year-old and 6-year-old girls sang all his songs all the time. It was rather embarrassing when the girls sang in public:

Well I’ve got this disease, this dirty disease.
It’s taken me for a ride.
There’s only one way and its all the way down
just want to get high.

What were the qualities in him that you most admired?

I think he was one of the rare individuals that had a very clear vision of right and wrong, who he liked and didn’t like and who he wanted to be. He also had this wonderful sense of humour that he shared with those he liked.

What were the qualities in him that frightened you?

You can’t listen to a Jesse Younan song without acknowledging the obvious references to drugs. In hindsight everything about the recording of the album and subsequent decline in his health is frightening. The lyrics in many of the songs spell out the place Jesse was in. Somehow he always managed to insert some humour into what are bleak outlooks and that is what really makes these songs special. Ultimately Jesse didn’t want to die and was positive, which makes his passing all the more difficult.

Did you two become friends instantly, or was it a relationship that developed over time?

It took some time and I guess sometimes the best friendships do. Foremost Jesse was the artist and I was the owner of the label. We had similar outlooks in many ways, although the intensity of someone like Jesse is hard to maintain. Songs like [the ones] he wrote come from a place that you can’t visit for too long without getting scarred. In Jesse’s case it could be argued it took his life.

Jesse’s last album, recorded in the hills behind Mullum, was ironically titled A Good Day for a Migraine. He was clearly very unwell, yet he used how he was feeling as part of the approach… was that typical of Jesse – to just push through?

Jesse I think was an artist in that classic sense, experiencing what he was writing about. He was unwell throughout the recording of Migraine but we didn’t realise. It’s very hard to tell [if] somebody who lives hard is unwell. To be honest they just never look too good in the mornings. Jesse was very unwell and although he was living at my place for much of the recording, the last few weeks he spent at the Middle Pub in Mullum. He later told me he was too unwell to live with my children and didn’t want to be a burden. That last weekend before the last recording session he was clearly unwell and made an appointment to see a doctor in two weeks’ time. He wrote Mercy that Saturday afternoon and finished Whatever Floats. The Monday we talked him into going to the doctor and he was rushed to hospital. He never got out after that.

As a music promoter did you perceive great things ahead for Jesse?

Yes, he would have been, and possibly is, one of our great songwriters. Music is an art and it’s all a matter of opinion, but for me he is on another planet from most we are presented [with].

How did Jesse deal with his illness?

With humour for the most part. He really wanted to promote the album, which at times was difficult from a hospital bed. He did many interviews – you can find them online. You can hear him coughing and laughing and trying to keep things moving. He really wasn’t ready for what went down. There is a saying – be careful what you wish for! I don’t think Jesse wished to die but he certainly walked a tightrope on the subject. Ultimately he was 35, had a really good career in music ahead of him, a great new album and wanted to move to Melbourne.

It was the first MMF where there was a spontaneous tribute to Jesse; was that the inspiration for the album?

When I ask people what they have liked most about the music festivals so far many of them mention the Tribute to Jesse in 2008. I was approached by Norman Parkhill to do a tribute to Jesse’s music to keep it alive. It’s not so much that it’s a good idea – it’s really the only way to keep these songs alive as Jesse can’t do it himself.

The artists we chose are all about the profile that I feel Jesse would [have] if alive today. Their careers are taking off and I think they were the best to handle these songs. The songs have been arranged for small orchestra and there is a continuity to their delivery. Jesse was an amazing vocalist and very good guitarist with a distinctive style. We tried to steer away from just redoing his songs the way he did. They wouldn’t have been as good anyway. The only performer that did a reasonably true performance of Jesse was Jordie Lane. He sings Swing and it’s similar – and both have their merits. I like Jordie’s version and if I had to listen to anybody other than Jesse sing this song then Jordie is the guy.

Do you think Jesse was, as Bernard Zuel from SMH says, a Nick Drake diamond … discovered by a bigger audience sadly after his death?

I think it’s an uphill battle in this country to get recognition for the really great artists; to get recognition for a dead artist is really asking too much. Maybe, just maybe, through this album or similar projects, some producer will fall in love with Jesse’s music for an international film release or something. That would do it. Anything less is less than the songs deserve. I have always imagined Jesse’s music as a soundtrack to a Coen Brothers film. Regardless, it probably doesn’t matter as much to Jesse anymore as it does to his fans. Jesse would probably just be happy they get an airing.

As Jesse’s friend, owning his longtime label and being a believer in his music, what would you like to see happen with Take Something Beautiful?

It was his wish to keep the music alive. Take Something Beautiful is a cool project as it gives Jesse’s music an airing, hopefully to new audiences each time, and profiles some great artists performing some great Australian music. More than having a hit Jesse had commented to me a number of times that he wanted other musicians to respect his songs. I think there was a sense of acknowledgement that he would have enjoyed. To be totally honest I think it would actually mean more to Jesse that Lucie Thorne or Jen Cloher were recording his music, than it would be that he picked up a fan or two.

What should we expect for the show at MMF?

The songs from Take Something Beautiful – the Music of Jesse Younan, performed by the musicians on the album with songs by Jordie Lane, Jen Cloher, Greg Walker (Machine Translations), Emily Lubitz, (Tinpan Orange) and M Jack Bee. Strings from Coda Strings.

Premiere live performance Friday 23 November at the Mullumbimby Civic Hall.

More program info on www.mullummusicfestival.com.

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