Jack Colwell is a renaissance man. With his band, The Owls, the classically trained singer, songwriter, musician and visual artist has been spellbinding a small but in-the-know crowd with live shows since the tender age of 18. But that’s about to change. With an east coast tour and the release of debut single “Hopechest” drawing not just equally-talented fans and collaborators but some impressive comparisons, a wider audience is falling in love with this charming and talented boy and his music. I spoke to Jack halfway through his ‘Hopechest’ tour…
Tiah: Not only are you a classically trained musician, you are also a visual artist, how does this cross-section of all things creative influence your music? Jack: I think not just being a performer but in all avenues of creativity you have to think like a visual artist. When I write music I want the music to speak for itself. But it’s hard with so much emphasis on advertising, image and performance that the idea of a traditional performer just relying on their talent doesn’t seem enough nowadays. As a visual artist I like to have a hands on approach to everything from album cover to poster art and installation and performance space, to give an audience something visually arresting. As well, I think the overall look of my work- which is other worldly, freak-folk- hints at traditional English folk and I like to play on that with anything from the venue to what I wear. There’s lots of black, cloaks or even a ruffle or two!
Your live shows are intimate yet completely engaging and energetic, is the performance aspect an art form in itself? I think performance should be an art form. I studied at the Conservatorium of Music as a classical performer and we were taught you mark down every last step and breath of your playing so that nothing shook you once you were onstage. Whether other people agree with this or not, I can’t speak for them, but I certainly have run through in my head the way I’d like a show to go. It doesn’t mean it’s always the same or doesn’t allow for a natural approach, but, I think it enhances it, makes it stronger. When you look at veteran performers like the Stones, Elton John, Carole King, Dolly Parton – They aren’t doing ‘a gig’, they’re putting on a show and they want to be flawless. One can only aim for the stars!
How do you make yourself so damn watchable? As an audience member you honestly can’t look away, you draw people in! *Laughs* What a compliment! I honestly don’t know! I guess there’s an element of performance that comes naturally? From a really young age I just loved to perform. When I first started playing shows I wanted to be Agnetha from ABBA. And then Madonna. Years later, when being Madonna was no longer an option I would watch Kate Bush and Tori Amos play the piano and I studied how they performed. In the beginning I tried to emulate a lot of their style, which wasn’t my own, but by doing that I learned to find my own feet and way of performing which, I guess, seems to be working.
You’ve also got big fans in your collaborators obviously, tell me about your work with 60’s folk legend Vashti Bunyan and Daisy M Tulley (of Bridezilla)? I’ve been very lucky. I first met Daisy after seeing a Bridezilla show, from the moment I saw her perform on her violin back in 2007 I knew she would go far; I’m a big fan of her solo work and for a while played harmonium for her. I can’t help but admire her. People often call our style of music “Dark Folk”, so I guess we had that in common. We played a show together once back in 2009, to mark the occasion we wrote a duet together to perform, thinking it would be a one time thing. But I thought it was such a good song (“Waiting For Thee”) that I asked her if I could put the duet on my debut album Picture Window and she agreed. Over this past tour we’ve performed it a couple of times together and every time it feels like magic.
Vashti Bunyan and I haven’t actually collaborated; My lead single off my debut is called “Hopechest”, which uses the melody of her 1969 track “Diamond Day”. I pretty much employed a classical technique called ‘Theme and Variation’ where I’ve used her theme to call on that traditional English folklore, and then re-interpreted it with my own lyrics and arrangement. Vashti however, has “given me her blessing” and wishes the best for “Diamond Day” to live on, because when it was released it wasn’t as critically acclaimed as it is now. Now she’s revered as the ‘Godmother of Freak Folk’ and has worked with great artists like Joanna Newsom and Devendra Banhart. Kindly enough she got me in contact with BMG in the UK who gave me the rights to use the melody. She is one of the kindest and most humble women in music and truly an icon; If she happens to see this, thank-you again!
Being able to play, compose, sing – pretty much create every aspect of a song from scratch – where do you start? What’s your inspiration? You always seem to have great stories behind the songs too, like the one about what someone said to you the morning after a one-night stand? I think most artists create something from seemingly nothing. I mean, if I found my my morning English Breakfast tea really inspirational then I’d write a song about that. I try to write about collective experiences rather than one in particular, so rather than just a song about one bad break up, it would be my thoughts on say two or three. Except in the case of “Pigeons & Peacocks”, the ballad that closes my album where during a one night stand the other person said to me that while the moment was right now, in the daylight we were two different things: a pigeon (me) and a peacock (them). I think sometimes people can relate to that from both sides of the story. For a long time all I played was classical piano pieces [Colwell was a member of the SBS television orchestra] so generally I have more of a ‘compositional’ approach to writing. I write down all the melodies on manuscript and play around with adding words later. I find it hard to live by ‘less is more’ in terms of arrangements but maybe I could follow (Coco) Chanel’s advice and take one thing off before my songs leave the house!
You’ve drawn comparisons to some really great artists, in the crowd at last night’s Sydney show I heard an audience member describe you as ‘Patrick Wolf and Nick Cave’s lovechild’ which is impossibly hilarious but pretty apt! How would you describe your music to a Jack & The Owls virgin? I’d like to say that’s fairly spot on! Hahaha! There’s a lot of piano and acoustic instruments in the live show. When I was 17 I released an EP [White Noise] which used electronics with classical instrumentation, but I’ve ditched the electronics for now and returned to what I know best. When recording “Picture Window” (at Studio Ripple with producer Chris Rollans- Lanie Lane, Cloud Control, Belles Will Ring) we used a great old Steinway that was over 100 years old, such history ran through that beast of an instrument and were lucky enough to have a small string orchestra and choir. I’d say it evokes a vintage feeling from what I consider to be the ‘Golden Age of Songwriting’- the 60’s and 70’s- but definitely with an indie twist.
So I’ve mentioned that inspite of the grand scale of your music, part of the charm lies in how personal your shows feel, how have you translated this to the “Hopechest” single and more importantly, how are you going to keep doing that when you hit the big-time?! The big time hey… Gosh! I haven’t even thought that far. To be honest my mother gives me the best advice and she always says just to put one foot in front of the other and see how you go; and with parents who named you after a Rolling Stones song with the middle name ‘Wolfgang’ (after Mum’s favourite composer) I’d say their advice is pretty cool to take. My music is definitely more introspective than extroverted and I think the intimacy also comes from the fact that I employed musicians and people I trusted to help flesh out the record. Composers & Instrumentalists Hayden Woolf, Miles Horler and rising Comedienne star Genevieve Fricker have all been good friends of mine for years who know me very well, both the good and the bad, and act like my sounding boards to all my ideas – I know without them, that these recordings wouldn’t be as strong as they were able to lock into my vision. During the Hopechest Tour I sought venues like Low Bar in Sydney and The Empress in Melbourne that helped enhance my music in that intense small space… but who knows – it would be nice if The Metro (or the Opera House) was on the horizon. The Conservatorium of Music has invited me back to perform my album with a chamber orchestra for which I’ll be working with composer/arranger Hayden Woolf, who recently had his own work recorded by the ABC. Owls are wise hunters who go after the prey they want, silently and in the dark.
Jack Colwell and The Owls single “Hopechest” is available as a free download for a limited time. The final stop on the Hopechest Tour is 2nd December at World Bar in Sydney.
Words by Tiah Eckhardt, a model, writer, wife and mother, and one time presenter for Pedestrian. The question she gets asked most is “Who colours your hair?” The answer: “My colourist is Kay Filce at Headcase Hair in Paddington, Sydney.” She blogs here, tweets here and looks flawless everywhere.
All Photos Provided by Jack Colwell and The Owls