Nine Songs: Tim Minchin
"Fuck's sake. Asking someone to pick their top nine songs is like an act of cruelty, I could have picked 900!"
Tim Minchin starts our conversation half-joking about the task he’s been set. Yet when it came to selecting the keystone songs in his life, he approached it with the same level of devotion that he puts into his own artistry and asked for the interview to be pushed back a week to give him more time to mull over his choices.
From musical comedy, to musicals themselves and musically-driven visual art, Minchin has already proven himself to be a multifaceted artist in a way that emulates some of the greatest composers and lyricists he is so enamoured by, such as Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Bernie Taupin. He may have begun his career as that wacky-haired comedian from down under, but his musical devotion to every avenue that takes his fancy has seen him go from your quirky mates’ best kept secret to an award-winning composer and musician.
In his insatiable exploration through the avenues of music, Minchin has now arrived at the release of his debut studio album, Apart Together. Built on the bones of his trusty piano, he wears his heart on his sleeve but keeps his tongue in his cheek as he meanders through the emptiness of modern life he is sometimes left with.
"It's trying to find beauty in the meaningless shit-fire that is the universe," he explains. "I think not only the album, but the title of the album, can feel strangely resonant for people. There's a lot of stuff about absence and the search for meaning in a harsh existence."
I ask him if the whole concept of a 'Covid album' could be something more akin to what artists like Charli XCX and Arcade Fire have been working on, but Minchin tells me, "The name is merely a coincidence”. The album’s title instead comes from the necessary rootlessness of the nature of his lifestyle, which in turn created a desire to put an album together that captures the feeling of homesickness that he hopes will resonate with certain people.
"It has a better chance of having a profound influence on a few people than it has of having a broad influence on millions of people," he reckons. "I'm so didactic. My songs are like lectures. I hope people take their shit out on it. "Airport Piano" is a really bleak one on there. It's been making some people cry."
As we talk through his Nine Songs, Minchin’s wanderlust is delightfully apparent. He whirls back and forth between his piano, our conversation and a glass of red wine that his wife Sarah brings him. At one point, he plays his favourite Elton John song, before moving into a revised version of "Airport Piano" from Apart Together. Suddenly, it's clear where the observational humour built into his lyrics comes from. He finds it easier to transport himself back to these moments by playing the songs back himself.
With his infamous brand of Oceanic dry humour, Minchin has a story attached to every song that made the final cut. They're the sounds that have scored a life totally absorbed by absurdist lyricism and nuanced observations of minute moments.
"I'm not a very good fan, so I don't know much about the story behind each song, but I know I love these songs."
"I came very late to jazz and standards. We didn't listen to it growing up, but we did have a pianola that had some old show tunes. It wasn't until I decided that I wanted to study music and did this contemporary music course that I realised the best way to earn money was to be able to play standards. I crammed hard, learning these jazzy chords so I could go and sing in a piano bar.
“It was the beginning of a huge love of that music, and for some reason, I find this song absolutely beautiful. I don't actually know who wrote "At Last" before Etta sang it, a lot of these classic jazz and blues songs were written for shows, so they have this structure and form that I've inherited.
"There's a song on the new record called "Lonely Tonight" and it's very much born of that. It's a 6/8 ballad and it gets epic, you can play it in a 4/4 swing, but it works like this. I have to acknowledge my debt to all these sort of show tunes that came from jazz, they usually had a prologue that took you through the journey, and kind of like a haiku, the end refers back to the beginning.
"It was my only ex-girlfriend who introduced the song to me actually. I have sort of famously been with the same girl since I was 17, but that's not quite true. We went out for two and a half years and then broke up for two years. That was around the time I was studying music and I kind of fell in love with this other girl for a year. She was such a huge part of why I got into jazz and she introduced me to Randy Newman and lounge music. I was actually singing in a Burt Bacharach cover band at the time. It was two amazing jazz vocalists and then me smashing out the Bacharach tunes. She was the one who introduced me to Etta's version of "At Last".
"Also, Beyoncé sang it at the Obama inauguration for his second term and my God, you just want that world back. You want a world where Beyoncé is singing "At Last" at the inauguration of a black president.
“My niece is a very complex and intelligent girl who also happens to play drums. She goes to this all-girls school and I've seen footage of her standing up in her uniform at a concert and singing that song. I didn't even know she could sing, but she's got this belter of a voice. I was like, ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ She's so much less white and square than her uncle is."
"Famously, Earth, Wind & Fire did a great version of this, but The Beatles are of course, at least for me, the most important band in history in terms of musical development. These were the songs I taught myself before anything else, but this one in particular was our wedding song. "Got to Get You Into My Life" was the song that played when we walked back down the aisle at the end of the ceremony. We just wanted something joyous and it's fucking great. It's got "All You Need Is Love" bones, you know?
"I can't even start to talk about the number of great songs those guys wrote and the impossibility of choosing which one is your favourite. I often find myself listening to George more than the others for inspiration, "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" is a go to for me.
"In the end though, McCartney at the top of his range is just fucking great. The other song I love is "Oh Darling." When Paul is just belting, it can't be beat. He's got great pipes and he can still do it. I went to see him play two years ago for the first time, but I'd already met him at that point. I got to see him after and all that shit. I introduced my Beatles fan friends to him and that got me a lot of cred.
“It's impossible to pick one Beatles song, so it may as well be my wedding song. Take me back to that world as well, please."
"I think if someone asked ‘Who's a contemporary genius?’, you might say Miles Davis, and it's hard not to talk about Lennon and McCartney too, but Hendrix seemed like a genuine genius. And much like Lennon and McCartney, how was he writing those lyrics at 23 or 25 or even 26? There's so much wisdom in these songs.
"A slightly less cool thing is that I fell in love with "Little Wing" because of Sting's version. You know what? I'm fucking unashamed of that. Sting does a version that I really got into. [Starts playing Sting's version of "Little Wing" on the piano behind him].
"After getting into the original version, the Sting version feels so clean, but it became a song I loved because I can do a passable version of it on piano without it sucking. The thing about the way I play is that it really suits it. I feel passionate about the song and I definitely feel like I can pull it off on an instrument it probably shouldn't be played on.
"It's one of Jimi Hendrix's shortest songs but it really feels like it could go on forever. "Take anything you want from me, anything at all", what a lyric that is. It's all pretty trippy, but again, what I love about music in general is what it means to you, I guess that's what we're talking about here. The sort of hallucinogenic tones in all of his work is all myth anyway. The guy just worked his guts out on his craft. 10,000 hours in five years."
"I don't know exactly why I got into this band. The usual answer is my brother. My brother really was the main influence on my taste in music.
“He'd always be like ‘Listen to this, listen to this, listen to this", because I wasn't that interested. But recently I've realised the bands I listened to a lot were The Doors, Deep Purple, Queen, The Beatles and bands like those. It's because they were keyboard players. Jon Lord from Deep Purple is a great example of that and the reason I chose "Hush" was actually because of that groove. [Plays the melody of "Hush" on the piano].
"That B3 introductory phrase is something I learned very early and it sounded fucking cool through a distortion pedal. It allowed me to be a bit cooler. I can play all those solos from that album and I could do that from 15. That's kind of how I taught myself to play this way, by wanting to play these songs in a band with my brother. It wasn't that we were particularly massive fans of Shades of Deep Purple, we just had a Best Of.. album.
"Also, I was obsessed with Jesus Christ Superstar, and Ian Gillan, the lead singer, played Jesus in that. I think The Purps inspired Lloyd-Webber. Go and listen to "Hallelujah" by Deep Purple and then listen to Jesus Christ Superstar. It's probably the reason I've been a fan of that show longer than Deep Purple. It's all because of that organ."
"I probably should have chosen "Ruby Tuesday", but it's often the songs that I taught myself that I connect with most. All musos have their little backpack of songs they can rip out at a wedding or a party, and believe me, I've played a lot of weddings and parties.
“Obviously you're more likely to play something like "Brown Sugar" at a party but "Sympathy For The Devil" is just monstrous. It's everything that's exciting about music. It's got this roar and this mix of sounds. It's even got bongos. Somehow, it's got all that plus Mick going, "Woo! Woo!" It’s fucking hilarious rock and roll.
"It's not easy to write a song playing a character. I think that shows how great some writers are. they're putting out great albums for 30 years, so they have to mix it up. He can't just write about what it's like to be a posh middle-class Mick Jagger forever. He had to pretend he was more rock and roll than that, so he wrote from the perspective of the devil. Even the name of the song is so fantastic.
"You can connect that to Jesus Christ Superstar too - a show about what the resurrection of Jesus Christ was like from the perspective of Judas. For hundreds of years, scholars have been saying, ‘Well, if it's all part of God's ineffable plan, then Satan and all those guys are just victims of his meddling.’ It's got good academic bones behind it."
"Amusingly, people always assume that with pianists, Elton and Billy Joel were big influences, but I didn't really get into Elton until quite recently. I totally missed what an incredible voice he has. His range is absurd - really annoying actually.
“I guess it just somehow passed me by, with the exception of two songs - "Crocodile Rock" and "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road". That's because growing up we had this pianola, the pedal piano, and we had hundreds of rolls, because my great grandma collected them. On one roll, we had those two songs, so we were listening to it from a young age. [Turns around to play the introduction to "Yellow Brick Road" on his piano]. I know this is a print article, but that's just something for you.
“That song is so deeply embedded in me. With all its arrangement, you can understand what inspired "Airport Piano" off the new album. [Starts singing "Airport Piano"]. "Women in SUV Porsches always look miserable / I don't know why they're so sad". It's there, right?
"I was going to put "Crocodile Rock" in here, but actually I thought, ‘If I'm going to choose an Elton song, it's got to be "Yellow Brick Road.”’ It's just beautiful. Obviously, this was Bernie Taupin's lyrics, but I just loved the character Elton plays. It's about the thing that pulls you away from the city and realising the city is too much.
“There's a bunch of meaning in there that I haven't looked into as well. I resent that these people don't get the recognition they deserve. It's all about lyrics for me, so we should talk about Bernie too."
"I want to talk about my brother and his influence on my music. I wouldn't have gotten into music without him, because I gave up piano at grade 3. I was always compelled by the piano, but him constantly pointing out the chords to songs and writing his own really pulled me along.
“His bedroom was always covered in Rolling Stone Australia centrefolds and the Hoodoo Gurus album that "1000 Miles" is on, Electric Soup I believe, it was just huge. I think "What's My Scene?" and Kinky were what made them famous. That sound was so massive for us.
“Dave Faulkner's voice and that lyric are just perfect together. [Sings "1000 Miles"]. "Spend half my time in airports doing crosswords and attempting to sleep". I think I hear that lyric as often as any other in my life. Every time I'm on tour or trying to write about the feeling of disassociation and being away from my family, it comes back to me. I always want to write about this experience of my incredibly lucky, but slightly complicated life, so I always think, ‘If I could write a lyric like that one day, that'd be good.’ It's a cracking line.
“Australia loves using their songs as anthems for various things like the navy or sports. They're like ABBA. Them and a bunch of other Australian bands like Powderfinger are so incredible. INXS too, wow. Those Farriss brothers wrote amazing songs, and what an absolute genuine rock star Hutchence was."
“I jumped off the Bloukrans Bridge, which is the highest bridge in the Southern hemisphere, with a bungee cord wrapped around my legs in 1998 or something. When you go bungee jumping, especially in South Africa where everyone's pretty nuts, they've got this huge sound system under this bridge. You rock up and they're like, ‘OK bro, like what track do you wanna jump to?’
“All my friends are like, ‘Ah shit, "Killing In The Name" or something?’ The bungy people are like, ‘Great choice bro. Get up there.’ But I went last, because I was pretty fat back then, and they had to change the rope. They ask me the same question and I'm like, ‘Lou Reed's "Perfect Day”’ and they're like, ‘Lekka. Fuck yeah bro.’
“So I'm standing up there and the sun is setting. It's so high you can't see the ground down in the valley. It's on the Garden Route, near Cape Town, and it's just so beautiful. Then that introduction to the song came in and I jumped off the bridge. Of course, once you jump off, all you can hear is the air flying past you.
"The song had stuck with me before, but that experience put it in the annals of my life. I can't claim to be a massive Lou Reed fan, not just because of ignorance and not because I'm choosing not to be, but without a doubt, I think he's brilliant. I met his wife and someone who'd played with him in the last years of his life. It was this Canadian guy who'd also played for Barenaked Ladies. That's all my connections to Lou Reed.
"I've always loved that song, and again, I'd love to write a song that good one day. It's often how I think about songs - whether I could write one that good someday. It's such an incredibly beautiful piece of music.”
"I felt like I had to put something from this century into this list. There's loads of modern songs I love, like Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" and Hozier's "Take Me To Church". I've also listened to a lot of hip hop over the years because I live in L.A., but actually I think "Chandelier" is one of the great pop tunes of our time. She's got one of the best blues-pop voices and I think the music video is beautiful.
"It also just so happens that this song was co-written and produced by a friend of mine called Jesse Shatkin. He's this Californian Jewish boy who grew up to be this amazing record producer. We actually met him because we were looking for a babysitter and someone gave us a number. This girl called Anna answers the phone and she goes, ‘Hi’, and immediately we're like, ‘Are you Australian?’ And she's like, ‘Yeah.’
"As she's talking, we realise it's a Perth accent and it turns out she went to the same school as my wife Sarah, but 15 years later. So her boyfriend was this upcoming producer and six months into our babysitter relationship, her future husband drops "Chandelier."
"I got to meet Sia at Jesse and Anna's wedding and I spilled wine on her shoes. I've met her a couple times since, so it's all good. And then when we got back to Australia and we were missing L.A., we took the kids for a drive through Sydney over the Harbour Bridge. We opened the sunroof, turned the radio on and the chorus hit right when we reached the bridge.
"It was one of those perfect moments. This song really connects us to L.A. You're allowed to be proud of your contemporary Australians."