With the exception of AC/DC and maybe Rose Tattoo, the stereotype attached to the Australian music scene is that everyone looks and sounds like Kylie Minogue or INXS. I guess that’s fine if you’re a fan of those acts, but it’s not a completely or even semi-completely accurate read on what’s going on Down Under. Just listen to singer / songwriter Jen Buxton for proof.
“I feel like Australia has suffered from something of a crisis of media and tourism stereotyping, which if you’re not tanned, inarticulate and borderline racist leaves you somewhat ill at odds with the global perception of your culture,” said Buxton. “We’re a relatively young nation with a convict history, a cultural tendency to emotional suppression, an incredibly complex and unsatisfactory relationship with our indigenous population, and a tempestuous current political climate. That doesn’t sell tickets to the Gold Coast though, so I guess as an isolated nation we remain fairly insular. We have some amazing bands making music of that strange but diverse brand that we have no choice but to label ‘alternative,’ I guess. Poison City Records, Hobbledehoy, Jackknife and Resist are four Australian labels off the top of my head that are releasing the best music you haven’t heard yet. Everyone I’ve met through playing shows has been really positive about the scene over here – Chuck Ragan calls it the promised land of touring – so I guess it’s just about giving yourself the exposure.”
At least here in the States, Buxton definitely falls into the category of “best music you haven’t heard yet,” but hopefully that description will be changing sometime soon. Blessed with a hypnotic voice that requires your complete attention to her lyrics, Buxton writes of real life in a real way, which is a simple means to describe the work of a complex artist.
“I’ve always said shows are cheaper than therapy, plus you’re allowed to get drunk,” she said. “Writing the way I do requires a lot of revision and concentration and so there’s a necessary reflection in crafting them. Then at the end you get to literally empty them out of yourself, on a semi-regular basis, and have people come up to you and say they got it, they empathize. That’s a fairly unique lived experience in this world. Nobody responds like that to street preachers. Plus I’m just not a good enough writer to make stuff up yet.”
She’s lying. She is that good, and if you need a little reference point, think of Ben Nichols or Cory Branan, but with an Australian accent. And those comparisons aren’t any surprise, since she has shared the stage with Lucero’s Nichols and will do so with Branan on his upcoming Australian tour (she’s also covered his song “Crush” on youtube). Call me crazy, but I even note a hint of Johnny Cash’s swagger when she sings “I need these hands for country bands, not wedding rings” on “You and I Are Past Our Dancing Days.”
So when she digs into the depths to sing about topics other artists would either shy away from or come off as hokey in the execution of such songs, she does it in a way that hits hard, makes you think, and makes you repeat lines like “make my history a weapon and aim it at me” from “Strong-Lunged Things” and want to give up writing altogether because you know you won’t come up with anything that brilliant anytime soon. At least Buxton does admit that it takes some time to come up with such lyrics.
“I am a huge Lucero fan and Ben (Nichols) and I have talked a fair bit about songwriting as a process,” she said. “I think it’s definitely therapeutic because it allows you to collect your thoughts, but the key to keeping things effective is about aiming to rid yourself of filler. Really good songwriting for me is earnest because it’s not overstated. I talked about having a problem with verbosity before, and I definitely still have work to do on staying simple, but I do try not to put anything into a song that doesn’t need to be there. There’s nothing worse for me than listening to something that feels like a funeral march to the chorus, where the party is. I have a pretty bad social filter so it’s not really in me to shy away from being blunt anyway.”
Thank heavens for that, because on the former Like…Alaska member’s first solo album, Don’t Change Your Plans, and current EP Desperation Demos, there is no filter or filler. Each track is like a shot to the chest, and especially on the new EP, Buxton takes no prisoners with the first two songs, “Anhedonia” and “Dystymia.”
“When I was thinking about how to follow up Don’t Change Your Plans, which is itself kind of a concept record about the end of a relationship I guess, I was tinkering with ideas of writing about my relationship with my mental health,” she said. “I had this totally f**king self-indulgent plan to write a bunch of songs based on clinical indicators I had been given over ten years of seeing doctors for depression; thankfully I only got through two before I realized that was both needlessly gloomy and just shatteringly arrogant. I really like those two songs, they are some of the best stuff I think I’ve done, but the idea wouldn’t have worked how I’d planned. I think they stand alone as sort of snapshots of that self-defeating place everyone ends up in now and again. I once told someone I didn’t even like doing the things I like doing, and, well, yeah. Those songs are about that, I guess. I don’t worry about sharing the bad stuff with an audience. It’s the good things you keep for yourself.”
One of those good things was the birth of a son in 2010, a life-altering experience for anyone, and one Buxton has embraced wholeheartedly.
“A lot of the concerns and motivations I had four or five years ago seem kind of petty nowadays, mostly because they didn’t concern me being asleep,” she said. “It also makes you kind of more aware of your behavior and what you put out into the world – what my kid is gonna see when he googles me at fifteen, for example. My son is nearly three and often people ask me why I haven’t written anything about him yet; you may as well ask me to describe the color blue or what it feels like to sneeze. There are some things I’m not good enough to go near yet. I get a lot less time to write, but I feel like the perspective I have now has made what I do write of a lot higher quality. I also get the experience of raising someone with music – right now he’s real into Cory Branan and Title Fight, but when he was little he liked Bucket Full of Teeth – which is a pretty big responsibility in and of itself. I’m excited to see how he grows up and if he likes the same stuff as his old lady. He’ll probably be an accountant who listens to dance music.”
Not likely, as Buxton is certainly providing her son with plenty of good listening material, including Fences, though she may not be playing him the song she covered on Desperation Demos, “Girls With Accents,” just yet. Strangely enough, even with its less than airplay ready chorus, it’s one of Buxton’s most accessible tracks, and one that this particular listener believes is the definitive version of the song, though Buxton isn’t too sure about that.
“I am going to open by respectfully disagreeing with you about its status compared to the original,” she said. “Chris Mansfield is an incredible writer who can create really succinct moments and moods, and that song is just so simple and perfectly stated. I have a real problem with verbosity and that song encapsulates that endless bummer vibe for me; you couldn’t add anything to that song. I can’t think of a better song about realizing you are the conscious orchestrator of your own failure. So I guess that one went on there because I am a Fences fangirl mostly, but also because I had been corresponding with Chris and he said it would be okay. I do not have enough cash to get sued right now.”
That may be one benefit of still being in the “struggling artist” stage of your career, but that shouldn’t last long for Buxton if she gets the right push behind her. Yet while she likely wouldn’t turn down a life-altering battleship of money and an offer to tour the world, she isn’t holding her breath at the moment. And at this moment, she’s content with the way things are going.
“I have kind of a lackadaisical approach to my PR,” she admits. “I don’t have a manager or anything like that; I have an awesome label boss who will look after me and act as a go-between with people who are trying to find me, but we have no contracts and I’m pretty much left to my own devices. I was born in 1989 so I don’t really know any other way than the internet-focused age of music distribution, but it has really worked for me – someone who plays because they love it, but has a straight job and a three year old and very few delusions of grandeur. I consider myself pretty accessible through my completely unprofessional use of sites like Facebook and Twitter, and I am grateful for everyone who makes an effort to tell me they enjoy what I’m doing or to support me in any way, however minor. The decision to release the latest stuff on bandcamp was the greatest indicator to me of how passionate people can be and how amazing the internet can be for word of mouth. I never expect to do more than play every now and then to a few friends, and anything more than that is just cream on the humble pie as far as I’m concerned.”
The Desperation Demos EP should get that word of mouth going even louder, and a September EP with Lincoln Le Fevre will keep Buxton gigging and staying on everyone’s CD, record, or MP3 player through the rest of the year.
“I recorded a split 7” EP with the fantastic Lincoln Le Fevre in April this year, when I was down in Tasmania playing some shows,” said Buxton. “Linc is a Hobart institution and an incredible contributor to local music, not to mention being a bulls**t talented songwriter and recording engineer. We did two brand new tracks each in his studio and the record is coming out in early September – folks can preorder from the Poison City Records website if they are interested. I can’t recommend his stuff enough; it’s an excellent start for anyone wishing to expand their koala-friendly misery playlist.”
As odd as that may sound, adding to a “koala-friendly misery playlist” is an inviting prospect, especially since it opens doors to the Australia that isn’t seen in the tour brochures. And not surprisingly, with the exception of Something for Kate, most of Buxton’s musical influences come from a 20-hour plane ride away.
“Ani DiFranco was the first female guitarist I was introduced to real young, probably eleven or twelve, and she blew my mind,” she said. “Her songs have this really powerful honesty and imagery in the lyrics and it opened up an entire new world for me. Up until then I’d been basically listening to radio music – you know, the s**t you listen to when you don’t listen to music – and it revolutionized the way I thought about lyrics. I had never heard someone say the word “tampon” in a song, you know? As I got more into folk and punk music I listened to a lot of Bright Eyes and Lucero, Tim Kasher’s work in all its incarnations, Something for Kate, Elliott Smith, Jawbreaker. I realized that for me, while I can love and enjoy a wide range of music, the stuff that really speaks to me personally is the sad bastard shit, and I guess I kind of felt I had a debt to pay. I wanted to connect with people the way I felt connected with at 3am; when you’ve run out of wine and you’re listening to (Lucero’s) Tennessee for the eighth time in a row and you feel so bad you can taste it in the back of your throat. I wanted to be the person in the room with you while you’re under the kitchen table, so you don’t feel so alone. That was like eight years ago now, and you can’t teach an old killjoy new tricks.”
That’s a good thing. So when are we seeing Jen Buxton in the United States?
“I would love to cash in a few drunken offers and head over to the states,” she said. “Being a mama makes things a little difficult – I’ve often joked about getting a tour bus with a crèche (a nursery) – but it is hopefully on the horizon one day. I’ve been lucky enough to play with some amazing and supportive folks from over the pond who I will hopefully keep in touch with and arrange a US trip sometime soon. Like the pretty lady said, it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.”
Jen Buxton’s Desperation Demos are available at http://jenbuxton.bandcamp.com/album/desperation-demos