I’m late for Church. Not actual church, a conversation with Steve Kilbey, front man of the legendary post punk band that – when I was 20 – were the benchmark of cool. I apologise and Kilbey quips ‘You’re ten minutes late. In the old days, if someone calls anywhere around the eleventh minute it’s okay.’
I instantly like his sense of humour, his quick retort. I love interviewing people that are a bit off script. Kilbey is a creative powerhouse. He is a prolific songwriter, and along with his work with The Church, has an astounding 22 solo studio albums to his name. So how does a man with the quickening cope with the quietening of COVID-19?
‘It’s a terrible thing to say,’ says Steve, ‘but covid has been good to me. I got breathing space. The Church were booked, and would have been touring overseas through Europe, so I had a lot of time on my hands. I started playing gigs on Instagram – I didn’t realise I was starting something. It was 2–3 days into the lockdown, I switched it on and started playing. I spent a lot of time with my guitar writing songs and making albums.’
For a busy touring artist like Kilbey the long stretches of home time were precious and productive. While many were distracting themselves by going to Bunnings or making sourdough, Steve used lockdown to record his latest solo album Eleven Women.
‘When I am touring, the last thing I want to do is write a song’, says Steve. ‘I am so knackered!’
Eleven Women is an idea Kilbey had long ago but had forgotten.
‘I once said “Wouldn’t it be great to have an album and call it ten women? [Where] each one was a portrait, like in a gallery?”.’
He had forgotten, when a friend reminded him. And so began the process of writing this elegantly crafted exhibition of songs that find fragile resonance in the sensitive way he draws the women out. Oh, and he wrote eleven songs. So it’s Eleven Women.
And just to show his contrary nature, ‘Woman Number 9’ is the second song.
While Steve is a gun at writing new songs, he laughs that he’s not always across remembering his old songs. Which isn’t surprising – there are just so many!
‘I am not good at figuring out old songs. I have to go back and learn all these Church songs!’
It doesn’t help when you keep writing new stuff. Eleven Women wasn’t his only album in 2020, he released Songs from Another Life: Music of Antiquity in May of that year. He certainly doesn’t procrastinate.
‘I said on Instagram: “Next week I will have an album”. So then you have to do it. If I don’t make a deadline, I don’t get around to it. So I smoke a joint, pick up the guitar and the songs come.’
I suggest to Steve that my observation about marijuana is there are two types of people who smoke: those who go the couch, and those who become extremely creative. I, like Steve always found myself engaged in projects. Mainly painting. Oh, did I mention Steve is an impressive artist? Late to the tools, his work has a vibrancy that has been describe as ‘folk art on acid’.
‘Therein lies the problem with marijuana’, Steve reflects, ‘you have to resist eating a loaf and watching TV. You have to take up tools and start working. It has never failed me. Once, The Church were in a recording session in New York and they had everything under the sun – booze and cocaine and everything – except marijuana. We didn’t write one note. And then at three in the morning a guy came in with a tiny joint, and we wrote five songs!’
Kilbey is at one with his creative process. He isn’t prolific by accident. He knows how to ‘get out of the way’.
‘You have to get yourself out of the way and let your inner artist do the work’, says Kilbey. ‘I saw this interesting painting by Alex Gray – an American artist. He is in the painting, painting a picture, and in the background in shadowy forms are Picasso and Rembrandt and all the great painters coming through him. I think I have always been able to get in touch with that. I’ve worked out how to get out of the way and let the song come.’
Kilbey admits he does well in adversity. ‘My mum and dad didn’t think I was wonderful and talented, but somehow I fostered an incredible self-belief. I turned every knockback into something that made me stronger. I had a real feeling of manifest destiny. I knew I was going to do this; that I was going to write songs that people love.’
And that he has. ‘Under the Milky Way’ wasn’t a huge hit at the time, but it’s one of those songs that leaches its way under your skin so that when you hear it you start to wonder why it’s not the national anthem.
The Church are coming to play Bluesfest. With their European tour knocked out of the water, this will be their first gig in two years. Don’t miss seeing one of this country’s best and most enduring recording and touring acts.
The Church play Friday 2 April at Bluesfest. Don’t miss this incredible program of Australian artists, a true testament to the depth of talent in this country.
Tix and program info on bluesfest.com.au