SONGS FROM THE BROKEN RADIO
“I was nominated for best new talent and I was in my 40s and everyone else was in their 20s so I was the oldest new guy in country music which was nice.” That’s singer/songwriter Michael Waugh discussing his nomination for Best New Talent at the 2017 Golden Guitar Awards. It is one of the many accolades he’s received for his first two albums, the latest of which is the poetic and unflinching The Asphalt & The Oval.
By his own confession, Waugh doesn’t see himself as a musician per sae, such is his focus on his lyrics and crafting stories and honest critiques of cultural issues, from his own experience and observations growing up in a small Victorian town. “It’s more about telling stories and connecting with people. I grew up writing and taught myself to play guitar. Every year I asked for another musical instrument and every year I got another piece of sporting equipment. One year I got really excited about a guitar shape in the Santa sack but it was a tennis racquet,” he laughs.
In order to bring his stories to life as recordings, Waugh again worked with Shane Nicholson, a producer who he gives credit to for playing most of the instruments and shaping his large volume of songs into a cohesive album. “Everyone on the record is Shane. He’s in the most beautiful way a freak. His studio at his house reminds me of my pa’s shed with tools all over the walls. He could pick them up and craft things out of them and Shane’s the same. There are instruments there that I’d never seen before,” he describes. “On the first album he picked up a horse brush and started scrubbing the floor with it and recorded and looped it and it’s one of the textures in the background of one of the songs!” Waugh marvels.
“I bring in these demos of me playing guitar and then it’s like he teaches my own songs back. He understands groove and harmony and counter-melody in a way that I hear but I can’t make,” confesses Waugh. “I’ve found this person who has challenged me and crafted these beautiful little homes for my songs and we’ve developed a really special relationship. It has meant that people who aren’t ready to listen to just a guy and a guitar, and prefer a full band sound, can still connect to my words. Shane has provided that bridge for me.”
One of the standout features of Waugh’s writing is his ability to present his stories in song form without sacrificing their truths, emotional impact and cultural identity. “I’m one of those people with a broken radio inside my head and songs rattling around all the time. I came into the recording process with around 40 songs but the songs that we kept coming back to centred around themes of gender and the central image of football. Obviously in the title of the record there’s the image of the school being divided into the asphalt part where the girls played and the football oval where the boys had to play. That was how it was at the primary school I went to when I was growing up,” Waugh reflects. “I became a dad when I was very young and I also became a grandad when I was very young too. My granddaughter is the first little girl in the family and I became acutely aware of how unfair the world is for girls and I want it to be different for this person who is just so pure and precious and deserves better than what we as a society give them.”
Truth, honesty and speaking from one’s own vernacular are songwriting values that Waugh holds dearly and not just in the world of country and folk music. “One of my other real joys is listening to Australian hip hop. I think there’s such integrity in what some of those guys are doing, talking with an Australian accent about the textures of our lands and our cities and that’s more true and real than what many of our songwriters are doing.”