Robert Irish: One-on-one with the Australian alt-country troubadour

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Robert Irish: One-on-one with the Australian alt-country troubadour

Words by Will Brewster

We sit down with the local songwriting talent for a chat about his debut EP.

Robert Irish is a true songwriter’s songwriter. Taking inspiration from the likes of Roy Orbison and Father John Misty, the Australian-born, New York-based multi-instrumentalist specialises in smokey balladry with a bittersweet tinge, with his debut EP Me & Baby exemplifying his talents in droves.

Recorded with a team of seasoned session musicians and produced by former Jeff Buckley drummer Parker Kindred, Me & Baby offers up six sun-kissed tracks that spring to life with vivid lyricism and clever instrumental arrangements. Tracks like ‘All of You’ set Irish’s baritone vocals against shoegazey feedback and rollicking acoustic guitars, while the title track and ‘Could You Learn to Love a River’ implement warm synthesisers to flesh out his songwriting in a sensational fashion.

With the EP out today, we spoke with Robert Irish to find out more about his formative influences, the talent employed on the album and where he’s looking to take his career next.

Tell us a bit about yourself as an artist. What were your formative musical moments or previous projects, and what led to you recording Me & Baby under your own name?

Hi. Well, okay. I’ve been making music, and playing the guitar forever, since I was a kid. My mother is a singer and she would play me Leonard Cohen songs on her nylon string years before I knew or cared who he was.

I remember her playing ‘Nancy’ to me when I was really small. I was only interested in punk music in high school, but those songs must have sunk in because I took a left turn and got really into country and folk, and all the great Australian “song” bands like the Triffids and the Go-Betweens. Before moving overseas my wife and I had a band called Devotional. We met at a show in 2009, doing the same bill but with different groups.

With Devotional we played with some of my favourite Australian musicians – we opened Mick Harvey’s album launch, which was a moment for me. Playing around Sydney I’d always been writing my own music, but I’d never put anything down formally, so moving to New York was an opportunity for me to do that and to get a band together behind my songs for the first time. I moved to Brooklyn in 2015 and live here with my wife Madelaine and my dog Pancho.

The new EP feels quite intimate and textural, which really took me by surprise. Tell us a bit about the recording of the EP – did you draw on any particular influences while trying to tap into the mood of the project during the production of the EP?

Thank you. The production of the record came as a surprise to me. I went into the studio with a bunch of songs and three days to get them down. I came out with a whole record, 11 fully realized songs, which I wasn’t expecting at all.

Some of them I’ve saved for future releases, some I’ll do over down the line, and the rest are the songs that make up Me & Baby. I love the Flying Burrito Brothers, I love Lee Hazlewood and Rowland S Howard, but I figured that kind sound was a pipe dream considering the limited time we had. Looking back now, I think we got pretty close.

The combination of alt-country arrangements and the atmospheric synthesisers that sit below the mix on ‘Me & Baby’ and ‘Could You Learn To Love A River’ makes for quite a striking sonic contrast. Do you write songs with these kind of sonics in mind, or are they all part of greater process when you hit the studio to complete each song?

Not at all. I play the drums, I play piano, so I can imagine how those instruments are going to sit around what I write on the guitar, and the way they will marry with my vocal melodies. Going into the studio I didn’t think there would be synths on the songs, I didn’t know that was a possibility.

I had ‘Me & Baby’ pinned as a kind of Crazy Horse type song, which I guess it still is. ‘Could You Learn To Love A River’ sounds very Twin Peaks-y to me, which I didn’t expect at all. Synths are certainly not something that I was thinking about when writing this EP, though since that time my mindset has changed and I’ve begun to allow space for more instruments in some of my arrangements.

The right synth part can have a way of making a mix seem both full and empty at once, which is a great match for alt-country because those arrangements share a similar quality of seeming complete while remaining sparse.

Your lyricism across Me & Baby is so vivid and lovelorn. Who’d you draw upon for songwriting inspiration for this EP? Are there any particular images, narratives or feelings you try to invoke in the mind of the listener while writing?

Thank you. The majority of these songs were written not long after moving overseas to the US. I was spending a lot of time on my own, I didn’t know many people here yet, and so a lot of the writing is set in the very insular world of my relationship with my wife Madelaine.

In the home, looking out from the fire escape across this enormous new city in which I’d arrived, on long walks around Brooklyn. The songs are a love letter to her and to New York in equal parts. My influence in writing comes more from individual lines in a wide range of songs and books than it does from any one particular person’s body of work. I’ve always loved that line from The Nerves song ‘Hanging On the Telephone’, “Did she go to work or just go to the store?”.

There’s a real humor and ambiguity there that I strive for in my own writing. Lee Hazlewood is such a great lyricist. The idea for the song ‘Venus De Milo’ came from reading the work of Maggie Nelson. All different things drawn in and broken up and then put back together again, to make something new that feels like it’s my own.

Introduce us to some of the musicians who featured on the EP. Who are we hearing on each track, and who else have they worked with?

I met all the musicians on the EP through my buddy Josh Werner, who plays the bass and some of the keys on different songs. Josh is one of my closest friends and has done everything from producing Ghostface Killah to touring with Coco Rosie. He is also an amazing songwriter in his own right.

Drums, percussion, and some of the guitars is Parker Kindred. Parker ended up producing the record and we spent hours together tweaking mixes and making adjustments to the sound. Parker plays with Joan As Police Woman, Amen Dunes and Cass McCombs among others and was the drummer for Jeff Buckley at the time of his death (RIP). Parker has also recently released his first single under his own name which sounds incredible.

Much of the synth work and the piano is played by Thomas Bartlett (Doveman). Thomas has made records with Yoko Ono, Lucinda Williams, Sharon Van Etten, everyone. Most recently he played on Taylor Swift’s album Folklore and the newer one too. I was so lucky to fall in with such a great group on moving here, and I am so appreciative of the time and feeling these players have put in to my songs. We’ve been working together on new music since finishing Me & Baby and I’m so, so excited to share it.

You’re currently holed up in New York. Can you fill us in on what the city’s music scene is like (under normal circumstances) and how that feeds into your own creative process?

Regularly the music scene in New York and Brooklyn is wonderful. Right, if you asked an old-school guy in the Lower East Side he’d probably tell you it ain’t what it used to be, and other people will tell you to move to Baltimore or LA, but there are so many great venues and little spots here you can go to see a show. I’ve been in the city six years now and I don’t know half of them.

I’ve been very lucky in that I have a tiny little studio in a basement a couple blocks from home where I can go everyday to write and record – that has been a real saving grace all throughout this COVID crisis. It’s been challenging seeing friends back in Australia doing shows (even under slightly different circumstances) – the collaborating, the community side of making music is what I have missed the most.

There will be a time, I hope in the not-too-distant future, when we can all get started up again, and share all of the work we’ve been making whilst hiding away for the past year. It’s going to feel great, it’s going to be exactly what we needed after a long, cold winter. It’s going to be the roaring twenties all over again.

Finally, what’s next on the agenda for Robert Irish?

Lots more music. As I mentioned I’ve been working on new recordings during the pandemic and can’t wait to get back on stages both here in the US and back in Australia to share them with you.

Me & Baby, the debut EP from Robert Irish, is out now.