AN EXCESS OF SUCCESS
COMPOSER PROFILE Debbie Kruger
Consider Australias greatest songwriting duos and who comes to mind? After the enduring team of Vanda and Young, one thinks of Farriss and Hutchence, whose international achievements with INXS forged new paths on which many Australians, including Savage Gardens Hayes and Jones, have since travelled.
The seemingly inexorable partnership of Andrew Farriss and Michael Hutchence ended four years ago, but by then Farriss had been simultaneously forging his own path as a songwriter collaborating with other artists, and as a producer. Hutchence was perhaps the most influential figure to come through Farrisss life creatively speaking to date, and his premature departure quite naturally rocked the foundations of Farrisss and his INXS bandmates existence. But life and songwriting go on.
Having recently moved back to Sydney after five years in London, Farriss is keen. His production and co-writing work with Yothu Yindi and, most recently, Tania Kernaghan has reignited his creativity. To the point where he has started writing songs for INXS again, but with the awareness that he is a changed person writing for a changed band.
I suppose I spent the first part of my career trying to write for one very narrow conduit, to funnel all these ideas into this target point, he says. Well Im almost imagining the next part of my life could be about going in completely the opposite direction. Trying many different things with many different cultures and many different types of people. And whatever I can do, whatever style of music.
Back in the 1970s in Sydney there was no particular target point for the young Andrew Farriss. His influences were diverse, ranging from Rolf Harris, whose songs and production values he greatly admired, to the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan. I think I probably started toying around with songwriting as a teenager without really realising I was doing it, he says. He studied piano but abandoned classical training early on. I got interested in trying to play other peoples songs, especially pop songs and whatever commercial songs were on radio of the day. And then more interestingly for me trying to figure out how they were constructed. Id get peoples song books and Id rearrange the chords. I didnt even know what I was doing; I was just messing around with it. I didnt think about it too much, thats the funny thing. I didnt ever set out going, Im going to be a songwriter.
His early acquaintance with schoolmate Michael Hutchence began unremarkably. My friendship with him at that stage was actually very sporadic, says Farriss. I used to jam with my brothers or other kids I knew; I didnt really have a friendship with Michael on a musical level at that point. We were just kids in a school situation.
Hutchence was reading books by Herman Hesse and Kahlil Gibran and writing poetry. And I was playing footy and was interested in how to fix my dads car, Farriss recounts. I was really preoccupied with normal teenager things. Girls, cars, you know. And I think music was just part of that culture. He and brothers Tim and Jon joined with Hutchence, Garry Beers and Kirk Pengilly to form the Farriss Brothers in 1977, playing their first gig for a party of surfing film makers at Whale Beach on August 16, the day Elvis Presley died. Their performance was a major success.
We were a bit in shock; we didnt realise that we just put something together that was important. And then I began to realise I was going to have to write songs for commercial purposes. From 1977 to 1979, that period in the pubs, I was starting to write, if you like, a soundtrack for whatever we wanted to be. Id try to think, were are we going? What are we doing? What are we?
By then Farriss and Hutchence were writing together regularly. The songs and the success came fast for the band, renamed INXS. Early albums featured more writing collaboration with all band members, songs often germinating in rehearsals and studio situations. Dont Change was a song that came together when we were jamming very much a straight out rock pub thing, Farriss recalls. We were jamming around with a riff. And I think in those days Michael and I were very insecure about standing up for whatever it was we were doing artistically. Everything was about the band; individual achievement didnt seem terribly important.
The conscious decision to push INXS as an international act was made in 1982. The moment we decided to do that, those early pub years that we spent as a group, and the way we originally wrote, it tried to linger on, but it never really worked for us internationally. It doesnt translate that well. The really big success we had came when, ironically enough, we became more conscious of how to marry simple phrases and simple ideas to simple pieces of music, which anyone around the world can relate to.
As Farriss/Hutchence songs like Original Sin dealing with racial tensions in Americas south and What You Need became worldwide hits, a new reality set in. I remember sitting at home and actually feeling a little bit overwhelmed. Everyone was calling me going, Isnt this incredible, isnt this amazing, its fantastic! And I remember hanging up the phone going, What am I getting into here? What is this? Realising that youre sending messages to people, its all becoming bigger and bigger.
The responsibility Farriss felt as songwriter to his band and to the public receiving his messages took him to new levels when writing for the 1987 Kick album. Everything else got excluded. Probably to the detriment of everything in my life, as in health, my personal life, everything. I just literally didnt do anything, I just wrote music for a while. So that we wouldnt be yet another story of Yes youve had a couple of nice big hits overseas, now be good little boys and go home again. I said to Michael, Lets really sit down and nail this thing. So we did. I remember ripping the phone out of the wall at home, literally, and just living in my pyjamas for two weeks, and writing for that record.
Its easy to laugh at the image of Farriss a la Brian Wilson, cut off from the rest of the world. But he was and still is in earnest about what it takes to succeed. Ultimately you really cant be fooled by anyones calm and cool exterior. Anyone that comes up with any music that really lasts a long time, they go through a lot to come out with that stuff. Some songs are like pulling teeth and some songs come out so naturally that you dont even understand what happened. But I think the magic of the songwriting experience is to be able to know when something is good and perhaps worth keeping, and when its not.
That Farriss was locked away on his own yet collaborating with Hutchence was key to the creative partnership. In the early years the two would sit together in a room with Farriss on a guitar, and they would put chords and lyrics together. Over the years the line was drawn more clearly between Farrisss music and Hutchences lyrics, and they worked separately. Michael and I often wrote our most potent songs in that way, where wed never write together in the same room. Ever. The most potent songs we wrote, all the really big hits, I wrote the music in a separate space, even a separate country sometimes, and then him writing the lyric. And then wed get together and work it out.
Jenny Morris has described the Farriss/Hutchence songwriting partnership as complicated, intense, emotionally deep and at times fierce. There were certainly divergences of intent. Explains Farriss, On the album we did after Kick, Michael wanted to try and write lyrics that were a little bit more self-analytical and not so commercial
even a little bit more confronting for people. He started wandering off on to lyrics like Suicide Blonde. And I was a little bit like, where are we heading with this? But I think he felt he needed to do that. And so I went down that path.
Farriss contributed more lyrically after that. On the following album, Welcome To Wherever You Are, I just had the birth of my first daughter, Grace, and I was very much realising that life had changed for me dramatically because I became a parent and Id just gone that next step in my life. I was writing lyrics like Baby Dont Cry and Beautiful Girl and lyrics just about how wonderful it is to have something else in your life besides yourself to worry about and think about. So I began to have some interesting conversations with Michael, where he was still interested in writing fairly dark introspective lyrics, and I was trying to write very positive happy songs at a point in my life.
When Hutchence later became a father, his lyrical mood swung in sync with Farrisss, and their last album, Elegantly Wasted, was a more harmonious writing experience. Im glad that the two of us sat down together like we had done before, and saw eye to eye on most of that record.
Ultimately, Farriss had a pragmatic view of his working relationship with Hutchence and their respective roles in INXS. I probably looked at myself as being a support structure for Michael. I didnt really think of us as being competition for centre stage. I remember him saying to me once, Look, the reason we have such a good friendship is because you dont compete with me, you dont want the same things that I want. He was very much an enigmatic front man of what we were as a group, and I saw myself more as being able to design the right songs to help that.
Contrasting with the intensity of his partnership with Hutchence was Farrisss collaborative work with Jenny Morris in the 1980s and 1990s. After writing her hit Youre Gonna Get Hurt, he produced and co-wrote for her albums Shiver, Honeychild and Salvation Jane.
Jenny and I tend to work from the ground up, and build ideas. She can play guitar, so we were able to talk music. Music for musics sake, as opposed to just marrying lyrics and music. And also Jennys lyrics and the way she approaches her writing is a little bit more like the way I prefer to write and approach lyrics. Most of her lyrics are pretty positive.
In the 1990s Farriss began working with Mandawuy Yunupingu and members of Yothu Yindi, first with the song My Generation on the Freedom album, and then with production and writing on Wild Honey. I was intrigued with them as people more than anything, and the music as well, the way Mandawuy thinks as a writer, too, hes very poetic and hes very focused about what he wants to achieve. Hes very positive a lot of his lyrics have always got positive messages or at least theyre descriptive and animated, too. And obviously knowing the man like I do, hes not big on fiction. He likes telling it how it is.
Yothu Yindis last album, Garma, was again produced and co-written by Farriss, and his latest project is the production of Tania Kernaghans new album, Big Sky Country, on which he co-wrote with Tania, her sister Fiona Kernaghan and Colin Buchanan.
I can guarantee you that coming from writing with someone like Michael for many years, whos not afraid to explore lets say the darker areas of life, then writing with country people, its like visiting Mars. The country fraternity and some of the characters involved in that particular area are very cut and dry about what they will and wont sing about. A bit like flower arrangements they wont mix waratahs with roses.
Farriss greatly admires some of Australian country musics tunesmiths, but feels the genre should be less an American offshoot and more integral to Australias culture. And he was not prepared to step into the ring unconditionally. I did say to Tania right from the outset that I didnt want to make a record for her that sounded like something someone else could do. I wanted to make a record that sounded like she had become more self-aware of her own abilities, to change and to accept some change and to try some new things. And I in turn had to accept some new things. I learned a lot from working in the country music field.
There has been a lot of learning in the four years since Hutchences death. Immediately after the tragedy, Farriss channelled his grief into instrumental writing, finding popular, commercial music too difficult to work on. The music I did around that time, its not necessarily dark, its just very dreamlike and, well, obviously sombre. Thats how I was feeling at the time, reflective. But Ive moved on a lot since that particular period. I found working both on Tania and the Yothu Yindi album, Garma, was fantastic, reigniting for me of the creative process. I thank Yothu Yindi and Mandawuy for that, for getting me to write with them. Im really glad they did that for me. That was a good thing for me.
Stepping out of the shadow of Hutchences enigma was also a good thing. I just wanted to be a writer and I liked what came of that. I was very lucky to have that. And he was very lucky to have someone like me helping to create who he wanted to be. So I guess when Michael died, and for some time afterwards, I had to re-evaluate who I was and what my next thing was going to be all about. Im still processing that even now, Im still learning now.
Feeling unpressured about INXSs future, Farriss is content with continuing to redefine himself creatively and seeking new outlets for that creativity. Writing is second nature, but not necessarily his only nature.
I was at the Olympics Closing Ceremony and I was talking to Slim Dusty, a man who I respect enormously, and I said to him, What have you been up to? Have you been writing many songs recently? Im not sure he even knows who I am or what I do, he may, I dont know. Anyway, he said, Oh, yeah, I dont mind writing songs, but Ive got other things I want to do at my age right now. And I thought that was quite sweet, because I could imagine thats exactly how youd probably feel. Its just as exciting to go do many other things.