Geoffrey O’Connor - known for his work in Melbourne band Crayon Fields - plays this year’s St Jerome's Laneway Festival as a solo artist. Heidi Pett chatted to him about his various name changes, duelling synthesisers and a dream collaboration with Elton John before he loses his marbles:
You’ve previously released solo work under ‘Sly Hats’ - what sparked the decision to use your real name this time?
Sly Hats was a name I just came up with on the spot when I got my first gig. I gradually grew to regret it more and more. I just never really liked the name and I couldn’t see myself releasing albums as Sly Hats, so I thought I’d curtail that and use the name that my mother gave me.
It’s a very personal album in terms of lyrics, did this have something to do with your decision to use your birth name? I guess I’m asking because it might be expected that people distance themselves from the more personal aspects of their own life in their work whereas you’ve gone in the opposite direction.
For this record I actually wanted to make it quite personal. All the songs are based on both experience and observation, which I guess is still all experience. Just something I’m familiar with, really.
Do you find it difficult offering up these things that you’ve created? Knowing they’ve come from somewhere close to you?
Not at all. In drawing from personal experience I admit certain things and exaggerate other things to make out that I’m a bit of a better guy. There’s still a strong resemblance between the way the stories are told in the songs and what actually happened. I guess with songcraft and that kind of licence you can make yourself out to be better than you actually were in the situations. Little bit of fantasy and exaggeration.
Do you differ in your approach when writing your solo work as opposed to what you’ve done with Crayon Fields?
I guess with my solo work I’m able to chop and change things a little more. It’s a lot easier for me to rework a song when I’m doing it all by myself. When I’m working with the band I feel like I’m wasting everybody’s time. There’s different levels of preparation involved, different ways of approaching songs. I don’t have to be wary of other people as much when I’m writing for myself.
The latest album does feature a lot of collaborations, though, so how did that work?
I’d bring the songs fully formed. Usually I’d sing their parts first and ask if they wanted to sing the duets. There were a couple of times where somebody asked me if I wanted extra vocals on my records. It worked out really well cause I get a nice variety of different voices and instruments.
How do you set up your collaborations?
I’ve never approached someone. Never made the cold call. Usually they’re friends because I really like their music and their voice. Not that that’s the way I choose my friends! But that’s often how I get to know people.
Of course. Now, your latest album has been described as having a synthy, power-ballady vibe. Was that a deliberate nod to the eighties?
It wasn’t a deliberate reference, but I can definitely see where the comparisons come from. I did consciously set out to make a record that sounds very synthetic, which I guess is always going to evoke the eighties a bit. Although, I feel like in 50 years time when synthetic instruments become more familiar to people it will just be seen as another instrument. You know folk musicians use acoustic guitars and it doesn’t really evoke a certain period anymore whereas it might have 30, 40 years ago. It wasn’t a conscious thing, you know? I’m not going to be making a music video where I’m of surrounded by people doing aerobics or anything like that.
I was going to ask about your videos, actually. You’ve collected a fair bit of praise for your previous videos, are you working on some for your solo work?
I’m making a trilogy of videos, they’re all sort of thematically linked. They’re just fun to make. A little bit morbid but vaguely humorous as well, I hope.
What can we expect from your set at Laneway?
I’m bringing my band along, which is two synthesisers and this kind of laser machine which kind of acts like a drummer. And duelling synthesisers, which I really enjoy; they kind of flank me on stage.
It sounds like a military operation!
It is, yeah. *laughs* You should see the rehearsals.
So you’re quite precise in the way that you approach your music?
Yeah, I like to be thorough in that way, I don’t like to leave things to chance.
Speaking of leaving things up to chance, Laneway is certainly a large production. How do you feel about playing in that sort of environment?
To be honest part of what appeals to me about playing festivals is the freedom you have to miss bands as much as see bands you really like. There’s something really comforting and satisfying about drinking backstage while you can hear them playing faintly in the background and knowing you might see them next week. It’s a bit perverse really!
I guess when you’ve got any number of opportunities to see them play, you lose the urgency. Is there anybody you’re particularly looking forward to seeing? Making ‘friends’ with on the basis of their musical talents?
I doubt I’d hang out with them, I never approach my idols! It’s not that I’m shy or anything it’s just not something I’m comfortable doing. I’d feel like the really corny guy.
If, in a parallel universe that was totally socially acceptable, who would you like to work with?
I’d love to collaborate with Elton John to be honest. *laughs* That would do it for me. While he’s still got half a brain it’d be great. Him and Stevie Nicks, I think that would be a great balance.
If the idea of duelling synthesisers appeals to you, then get yourself along to the St Jerome's Laneway Festival where you can catch Geoffrey O’Connor alongside the likes of Feist, The Drums, Laura Marling and Yuck. For the full lineup and for news on ticket availability, visit lanewayfestival.com.au
Interview by Heidi Pett.