TALES FROM TWO CITIES
Jo Meares reveals the complicated process of recording his new album and how he learnt to embrace his own voice.
By Chris Familton
Over a series of albums, Jo Meares has slowly whittled away at his craft of songwriting and the delicate placement of those songs on atmospheric musical canvases. Dark and cinematic, intimate and dramatic – words that describe the kinds of places he takes his stories. There’s an Americana noir aspect to Meares’ music that leans on Cohen, Morricone, Waits and Springsteen circa Nebraska. Back To The World is his latest album, but as he explains, it wasn’t the easiest one to make.
“This was a much harder one after King Of Crystal Mountain. That was a vey specific project with three musicians, almost a live album. This was put together over a long period of time with a lot of people I’ve worked with in the past. It was also a bit odd because I spent three months in Berlin where I was getting masters sent to me to listen to for finalising the album,” explains Meares.
The album was recorded over two years, with two separate bands, one in Sydney and the other in Melbourne. Meares’ desire to utilise the talents of his musician friends and past collaborators, and their locations, was the driving force behind the twin cities approach. “With the Sydney recordings there’s a bunch of people I’ve been playing with for years – Kari Pihl, who played piano, has moved to Sweden and Justin, who played bass, was going to France. I also had my French guitar player in Australia so it was a last opportunity to work with all of them. It was really a celebration of working with them,” says Meares. “I’ve also got my other regular band in Melbourne and we were really enjoying playing together and I wanted to record with them too. When I started introducing piano, violin and Jess Cassar’s vocals I saw that lots of the themes and songs were related and so I combined the two sessions, with my voice and my writing mixed through it. The important thing is that all of the album was mixed and mastered in the same place which adds to the consistency and cohesiveness of it.”
“The title Back To The World has a lot of connotations,” reveals Meares. It is the name of a song that didn’t make the cut for the record, yet for Meares it still sums up some of the themes across the songs. “You’re turning your back to the world, you’re going back to the world, you’re hiding from the world. The stories fit all of that. ‘Isabella Rossellini’ is a song about a crazy and stunningly beautiful street girl I met in Paris. She had moments of sanity and clarity and then she was just gone. Side two has darker themes on it so it could be seen as turning away from some of the things on side one.”
Meares is based in Sydney but he has also spent time living in Melbourne, France and Berlin. His songs seem to inhabit their own character-driven worlds so one wonders how living in different places influences his music. “I’ve been really lucky in France, I’ve been there and played there a lot. I’ve learnt that people can speak no English and still enjoy the music. I always thought that if people didn’t understand my lyrics they wouldn’t get the songs. So I’ve learned a lot about melody and structure from playing overseas – that the lyrics aren’t always the only thing I have to offer,” he says humbly.
More than just the lyrics, it’s also Meares distinctive voice that draws the listener in. He possesses a weathered, half-spoken tone, halfway between a whisper and a growl – the weary narrator of his tales. He can trace the development of his style back to “the obvious ones, artists who have given me a licence, like Leonard Cohen,” he smiles, adding “you listen to his 70s music and he just sounds out of tune. Bill Callahan has a beautiful rich voice but it is pretty much spoken word. Sun Kil Moon is great, though more of a beat poet. I used to be paranoid and think I couldn’t sing so I’d throw more things on top of it but I learned around the last album that people actually want to hear my voice and that the more space I give it, and the less I try, the better it works.”