Tim Freedman and the musical…

Tim Freedman and the musical built around his songs.

Whitlams tunes have been turned into plot points for a musical.

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Freedman Does Nilsson tour above Melbourne Pops Orchestra

In 2014, Tim Freedman will be honouring the legacy of one of the 20th century’s great singer-songwriters – the legendary Harry Nilsson.

Harry Nilsson (credited simply as “Nilsson” in his album titles) created a body of work throughout the 60’s and 70’s that is going through a resurgence of interest at the moment. A 17 disc box set “The RCA Albums Collection” has just been released, as has a full length biography: “Nilsson – The Life of a Singer-Songwriter”.

Nilsson won two Grammys for his most recognisable performances: 1969’s “Everybody’s Talkin” (theme song for the iconic movie “Midnight Cowboy”) and 1972’s “Without You”. He penned such classics as “One” (famous in Australia from John Farnham’s version), the irrepressible cult favourite, “Coconut” and his first big pay cheque, The Monkees’ “Cuddly Toy”.

In a 1968 press conference, John Lennon and Paul McCartney famously referred to Nilsson as their “favourite American group” after Lennon had listened to his second album for 36 hours straight. Nilsson’s relationship with The Beatles was to become central to his life, and the infamous rabble rouser became best friends with Ringo Starr throughout the 70’s. John Lennon produced his 1974 album – “Pussy Cats” after their exploits during the notorious Lost Weekend and it was John who negotiated Nillson’s record deal with RCA that kept him recording long after drug and alcohol abuse had damaged his beautiful voice.

Before that in 1970, Nilsson recorded “Nilsson Sings Newman”. Never forgetting what inspired him, Nilsson recorded an album of Randy Newman’s early repertoire with little regard for fashion or chart position, even though he was near the peak of his own popularity at the time.

It is in this tradition that Tim Freedman has decided to do the same thing with “Freedman Does Nilsson”. While being a gifted studio artist, Nilsson suffered from horrific stage fright which meant he never performed his songs in concert, ever. With this tour, Freedman has decided to create a “live imagining” of what a concert of Harry Nilsson may have been like.

“Harry was either very very good, or very very bad. It’s a poignant and often hilarious story with great songs that I’ve loved putting together,” says Freedman.

Tim Freedman is one of Australia’s most accomplished contemporary songwriters. His lyrics have been described as having a “charming cynicism”, enhanced by an instinct for a poignant melody and a highly individual musical style. Like Nilsson his songs take sharp turns from the heart breaking to the whimsical, and like Nilsson his songs work wonderfully with just piano and vocal. Freedman interviewed Randy Newman for the Sydney Morning Herald in 2011, and looks forward especially to singing Freedman singing Nilsson singing Newman.

The Whitlams won ‘Best Group’ at the 1998 ARIA Awards, as well as ‘Song of the Year’ and ‘Best Independent Release’ for their third album “Eternal Nightcap”. In 2011 this album was placed 27th on the ABC’s “My Favourite Album” poll, and more recently was voted no. 17 in “JJJ’s Hottest Australian Albums of All Time”.

The Whitlams recorded output spans seven albums since 1993, and includes the double platinum “Love This City”, the No. 1 “Torch the Moon” and their “Truth, Beauty & A Picture of You – Best of the Whitlams” which sat in the Top 10 for six weeks running. More recently Tim released a solo album on Sony titled “Australian Idle”.

Tim’s solo performances are a treat for music lovers, as his intimate banter, caustic wit, honest vocals and stripped-back piano style have captivated audiences around the world, the highlights being his solo Sunday night residencies at London’s Ronnie Scotts in 2003 and 2005, and his nine year stretch of annual Christmas shows at The Basement in Sydney.

His interpretation of Nilsson classics accompanied by anecdotes of each song and of how they fit into Nilsson’s reckless life is an event not to be missed.

So Honest, Tim Hurts

Courier Mail – Friday 28th August 2009 , Noel Mengel

Expect no holding back when The Whitlams play their entire Eternal Nightcap album in Brisbane next week, writes Noel Mengel

A letter to you on a cassette, cause we don’t write anymore . . . TAKES you back, doesn’t it? It’s the opening line from one of the biggest Australian albums of 1998, The Whitlams’ Eternal Nightcap. In love, out of love, it didn’t seem to matter. That opening song, No Aphrodisiac, was speaking straight to the listener, as Tim Freedman leaned into the microphone and sang There’s no aphrodisiac like loneliness/Truth, beauty and a picture of you. No Aphrodisiac was the song that changed everything for Freedman – the one that took his band from hard-working pub favourites to the top of the charts. But it came out of a period of turmoil that drove Freedman deep into his personal well. For those who came in late, The Whitlams were formed in Sydney’s inner-city muso central Newtown in 1992 by Freedman, guitarist Stevie Plunder and bassist Andy Lewis. Plunder fell to his death in the Blue Mountains in 1996 and Lewis committed suicide in 2000, which led Freedman to write another intensely personal song, The Curse Stops Here.

Freedman carried on the band name but now as the sole writer he had to deliver 12 songs to make an album, rather than the five or six he wrote for the band’s first two albums. He started writing honest, confessional lyrics such as No Aphrodisiac. The album’s Charlie trio of songs was clearly addressed to Stevie in particular and absent friends in general. There was no holding back. Charlie, you’re not my Charlie any more, Freedman sang on Buy Now Pay Later (Charlie No 2), You’re killing your soul with an audience looking on.

“Before those songs were released I was known more for writing flippant pop songs, songs of mine that had been on the radio like Gough and I Make Hamburgers,” Freedman says, as The Whitlams prepare to perform the Eternal Nightcap album in its entirety in Brisbane next week.

“There was a bootleg going around of our song Come On Pauline to the tune of Come On Eileen.” Freedman wasn’t prepared for the reaction to these new songs. “About two months after the album came out we were playing in a suburb on the NSW central coast, quite a rough place, and the whole crowd started singing along with Buy Now Pay Later. Triple J had been playing it and I was really taken aback that people were singing along with such a personal song.

“I think people reacted to the Charlie songs, they related them to their struggles with their own friends and they used those songs to reclaim a bit of hope that they could change their friends, even though in my song cycle it’s not a happy ending.”

Eternal Nightcap was a different kind of record, an out-of-left-field triple platinum success story, released on the band’s own Black Yak label. It won them three ARIA Awards including best group, the first band not on a major label to win that category.

“When we started playing around Sydney I was the only guy playing a piano,” Freedman recalls.

“It was all Detroit rock and Seattle grunge.

“We turned up with a piano and double bass and people immediately thought we must have been from Melbourne.

“People hadn’t heard an Australian band doing that singer-songwriter stuff for a long time. A few years later you couldn’t move for them but when we started it was: A piano?

“I was saying, the piano has been there on the best pop music ever. It’s on (David Bowie’s) Hunky Dory, it’s all over The Beatle’s White Album.”

Freedman was on a mission as he set out to make Eternal Nightcap. The previous Whitlam’s album, Undeniably, had sold about 8000 copies. Freedman thought if he could crack 10,000 this time he would get to make another album.

And he knew the band had done the miles, thousands and thousands of them.

“We weren’t known in the mainstream but we already had a big live following,” he says.

“Before the album had any airplay we did four nights in Sydney at the Harbourside Brasserie to 400 people a night to launch it.” Freedman had another bright idea. He put No Aphrodisiac on cassettes – people still had tape players then – and dropped them into the pigeon-holes at Triple J in envelopes marked A cassette letter to you. It worked.

“We had the live following and that was ignited by a bit of airplay. It set the template for what was to follow with artists such as John Butler and The Waifs cracking mainstream success from independent labels.”

Many of the songs from the album have remained favourites in the band’s live set, although Freedman has some mixed feelings about listening to the album now.

“I think it’s the album that has dated the most. The way I sang – I was so careful to enunciate everything because I wanted everyone to understand the words. Sometimes I cringe a bit because I sound like I’m singing in a musical,” he says.

“I’m not always comfortable listening to the record but I do like singing them live. With a lot of the songs I had been chipping away at them for five or six years. They weren’t just written in two months.”

And Eternal Nightcap showed there was an audience that really cared about the lyrics.

“People used to read poetry and they don’t any more.

“There is still a need for songs and phrases that make people feel that they are not alone.”

The Whitlams play Eternal Nightcap and other favourites, The Tivoli, August 14, and Mackay Entertainment Centre, August 15

The Whitlams, The Bloodpoets The Tivoli, Brisbane (14/8/09)

by Tian265

The Bloodpoets begin the night with a crowd-pleasing set of pop-rock numbers. They show off their musicality with some good instrumental jams and fine cowbell and trumpet action. However, I feel that the vocals are a bit too forced and their tunes lack some of the depth that is necessary for the brand of alternative pop they’re trying to present. Nevertheless, Tom Murphy does very well in engaging the audience and I do catch a lot of smiling faces and some head-bopping moments in the crowd.

The clock has barely struck nine when The Whitlams appear onstage. It’s a very early start but it’s still going to be a late night, with the band playing their career defining album Eternal Nightcap from start to finish, followed by a selection of their other songs. As the first chords of No Aphrodisiac sound, the crowd erupts and joins in on the first lines: “A letter to you on a cassette/’Cause we don’t write anymore.” Sung twelve years later, the lyrics are simultaneously fresh, yet ironically old-fashioned. There are smiles all round as we reminisce. A significant proportion of the crowd have clearly been following this band for many years and probably remember The Whitlams’ first Brisbane shows, while youngsters like myself remember singing No Aphrodisiac in the school playground. Buy Now Pay Later (Charlie No. 2) also tugs on our heartstrings, as we all sing along to the chorus.

Following is a rarely-played tune from The Whitlams’ repertoire, Love Is Everywhere. Tim Freedman explains that he has no idea what the lyrics mean, something which I have been curious about for years. Notwithstanding the ridiculous lyrics, it’s a very fun song and gets everyone dancing. No momentum is lost as the band moves onto crowd favourite, You Sound Like Louis Burdett, which is usually played towards the end of their set to a drunker, rowdier crowd. With the two livelier tracks of the album over, the set takes on a more mellow feel. Regardless, Freedman is as chatty and cheerful as I’ve ever seen him, and a lot more sober, probably owing to the early start. Towards the end of the first set, Jak Housden lets loose a brilliant guitar solo in Laugh In Their Faces. The band is particularly tight in Up Against The Wall; the song’s intensity is accentuated by Freedman pounding away on the piano. Band On Every Corner, which was, ironically, written about how the band wouldn’t make it, rounds off the Eternal Nightcap set.

Freedman wastes no time in launching straight into The Curse Stops Here, as the rest of the band goes for a break. This haunting song is particularly pertinent tonight, as it was written about the two original Whitlams members, both of whom passed away. The band proceed with a plethora of Whitlams favourites: I Will Not Go Quietly and Gough get the crowd moving again, we all sing along to Blow Up The Pokies and I Make Hamburgers, while Thank You appropriately finishes off the second set.

The band comes back for an encore of Made Me Hard and Royal In The Afternoon before going offstage. The insatiable crowd still want more, and I wonder what the band could possibly play for a second encore. They come back on to do Happy Days from their very first album, followed by Year Of The Rat from their latest.

While I prefer the intimacy of their Zoo gigs from past years, The Whitlams put on a superb performance at the Tivoli tonight. Years of touring have meant that their shows are immensely polished and professional yet still remain personal and light-hearted. They certainly showed why they have been such a long-standing force in the Australian music scene and I look forward to what they have in store for us in the future – perhaps a performance of the album Love This City in its entirety?

The Whitlams with the MSO Hammer Hall
by Goat

When The Whitlams took the stage with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday night – the first of three performances – there was an immediate air of intrigue that soon turned to amazement. The orchestra sat in wait as Tim FreedmanWarwick HornbyJak Housden and Terepai Richmond joined them across the front of the stage, closely followed by conductor, Benjamin Northey. It’s hard to put into words the power that an orchestra backed rock band has over an audience, though the opening number Leave The Light On was a truly hair-raising moment. Freedman’s honest vocals were lifted tremendously by a vast array of strings that comprised a large majority of the orchestra ensemble for the evening and within seconds, the quality of the music that was to follow in the next two hours was already ensured.

A Whitlams favourite No Aphrodisiac followed and Freedman’s remarks about the band huddling back stage and promising “to play at 85 per cent” were completely put to rest as the Hamer Hall crowd sat in awe. The violin section took over on The Ease of the Midnight Visit, with first violinist Peter Edwards working some magic on his speedy arrangement. The amazing quality of Hamer Hall itself couldn’t have complemented The Whitlams more as another soft number, Her Floor Is My Ceiling followed, before everyone on stage began to increase their pace considerably.

Melbourne and Met My Match saw a sudden vibrancy arise from the MSO and Freedman could be seen clearly enjoying himself. “Now you’ve got a taste for the brass,” the excited front man proclaimed before he quickly introduced the pop-fueled Thank You For Loving Me At My Worst, which didn’t relent in letting the brass hijack the chorus from the band completely. The first half seemed to pass quickly, as Freedman encouraged all those of age to utilise the bar facilities to make them sound better. The self deprecating remark was completely redundant though, as the first half conclusion, Fondness Makes the Heart Grow Absentproved they sounded amazing, with the MSO building mini-climaxes with tempo and volume between each verse.

The Whitlams continued on with their hits as they returned after intermission, with Torch the Moon leading things off. The harmonies provided by Housden and Hornby for the track were impressive enough, but the addition of strings creeping up and taking those harmonies well beyond vocal ability was incredible. The lullaby, Breathing You In followed before Buy Now, Pay Later gave the MSO their first significant centre stage moment. Freedman confessed that the arrangement – composed by Brett Dean – was one of his favourites, and warned that many people often thought they were hearing wrong notes, but it was just because it was a modern composition. The band cleared the stage as the orchestra took over for an extended interlude during the track. It was then time for “lots of strings with some unadulterated rock,” according to Freedman as Housden delivered some much rockier guitar material on Out the Back alongside the orchestra, who included a “flock of seagulls”, thanks to a scratching of the vertical bass strings.

When Ben Folds played with the MSO, he described concerts such as these as wet t-shirt night for the orchestra. The inclusion of Whitlams numbers like Year of the Rat and You Sound Like Louis Burdett – in which Freedman semi-censored his bad language by singing away from the microphone – only proved Folds to be quite correct. Like the true professionals they are though, the orchestra played the more raucous material, showing an impressive display of the compositional ingenuity.

The set list was rounded off with the tracks Best Work and Blow Up The Pokies, before Freedman returned to the stage without the rest of his usual quartet to perform The Curse Stops Here. Finally, after the more serious moments had passed, all four of The Whitlams returned to centre stage for a shout out to their namesake, with a joyous delivery of Gough, complete with the return of the upbeat brass. A standing ovation ensued, which was more than deserving for the magnificent and beautiful display of musicianship that had been on show. If only more bands could perform in this setting, with such an amazing state orchestra.

Revisiting the Darkness

The Age
by Andrew Murfett

In their 17 years the Whitlams have endured high and lows of an operatic scale. So bring on the orchestra. Andrew Murfett reports.

FOUR years ago, Tim Freedman did something as surreptitious as it was unexpected: he became a father.

The 43-year-old nonchalantly let the details slip last month in Sydney while promoting the Whitlams’ new greatest-hits album,Truth, Beauty and a Picture of You.

One recent Wednesday morning, having dropped off three-and-a-half-year-old Alice at kindy, Freedman is in his cluttered kitchen in Sydney’s Newtown, fixing himself a cup of tea, talking giddily about kindergarten appointments and parental duties.

How did he keep being a dad secret for so long? “I don’t think people really care, as long as I put an album out every two years.”

When I suggest that perhaps most music journalists were too timid to ask, owing to his prickly reputation, he smirks.

“That’s good, too. It’s good to put out a grumpy interview now and then, it makes people more careful.”

The Whitlams, a band celebrated as one of Australia’s most enduring for its funny-sweet, booze-soaked lyrics and dreamy melodies, has a dark history that to this day often overshadows Freedman, the sole surviving member of the original line-up.

Freedman was conscious that by releasing a “best of”‘, he was ostensibly agreeing to revisit the darkness and triumph of the past 17 years. And enough years had passed, he reasoned, for him to identify to EG the mystery muses of his most popular songs.

To mark the release, Freedman and his three current bandmates – Terepai Richmond, Jak Housden and Warwick Hornby – are making their way around the country for a tour in which they will play refined theatres, accompanied by each city’s most accomplished classical musicians.

Next week, the band begins rehearsals with 65 members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in preparation for a three-night stand at Hamer Hall later this month.

However, this is no novelty for Freedman. His dalliances with classical musicians began in 2004, when he was approached by the Western Australia Symphony Orchestra to perform a set of shows with them. Since then, the Whitlams have played a range of gigs with orchestras including the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Sydney Symphony.

The MSO’s director of artistic planning, Huw Humphreys, says the orchestra always looks forward to collaborating with non-classical acts, having performed with performers ranging from Kiss to John Farnham.

“The (Whitlams’) songs have been superbly orchestrated by some of the best compositional talent in Australia,” says Humphreys. “To work with an iconic Australian band, after working with Elton John, Stevie Nicks and Ben Folds, was really important to us.”

Freedman says he invited the MSO to “throw the whole orchestra” at the music. “This show works because the orchestra is not token,” says Freedman. “The strings have a beautiful movement within the song. It becomes a bit of an education for people who aren’t used to seeing orchestras.”

The cavernous spaces of concert halls are a far cry from Freedman’s usual stomping grounds and musical roots. He has spent the past two decades living on a narrow inner-west street in Sydney, a stone’s throw from Newtown’s King Street strip. He used to live in the smaller house next to the two-storey terrace he purchased last year. It was there he and his mates would drink all night, play poker, sit out the back telling stories to the stars and spotting planes.

Those days earned Freedman a reputation as a tomcat, a label he believes was undeserved.

“It’s something one journalist wrote once, with no evidence, that’s been constantly repeated,” he says.

“I haven’t always been single, but no woman has ever said I’m running around two-timing people. I’ve never been photographed with famous girls or on red carpets. I’ve kept my nose completely clean. This thing’s got a life of its own.”

Pictures and mementoes of daughter Alice are scattered throughout his cosy living room, which boasts a pump organ and fireplace. Freedman and Alice’s mother are not together; the blonde preschooler divides her time between Newtown and mum’s place in Sydney’s north.

Along with Alice, the glory days are well represented throughout Freedman’s home. One living room shot has his brother Nick, three years his junior, pictured with Sunnyboys frontman Jeremy Oxley.

Oxley was key to Freedman’s development as a band leader. The two were close; both Freedmans played with Oxley in the Sunnyboys, with Tim spending six weeks on a national tour in 1986. Standing at the back of the stage in the Sunnyboys, he watched Oxley surrender his prodigious talent to alcohol (and later, schizophrenia).

“In rehearsals, Jeremy was a cross between Stevie Ray Vaughan and Roy Orbison,” Freedman says, examining a picture of Oxley and Nick on a bookshelf. “But with three drinks in him, he was capable of ruining a gig.”

The experience prompted Freedman to give thought to fronting his own band. In 1987, he met guitarist Stevie Plunder, having hired him to support his then band the Olive Branch, for a gig in Glebe. Freedman and Plunder soon became drinking buddies and, eventually, musical partners in a scrappy acoustic outfit called the Whitlams, which was rounded out to a trio with bassist Andy Lewis.

It is one of several tragedies in the Whitlams’ story that Plunder did not live to see the band become a success. He was found dead in January, 1996. Freedman dedicated Eternal Nightcap, the Whitlams’ classic breakthrough album and multiple ARIA award winner, to Plunder upon its release later that year.

“The truth was, ever since Stevie died in 1996, things have gone really well,” Freedman admits. “When he died we’d sold 6000 records; we’ve sold 500,000 since. It’s like I’d had a guardian angel. Stevie helped form the attitude of the band.”

That year, Lewis left the band. Freedman wrote Blow up the Pokies, about Lewis’ gambling addiction. Perversely, it would become the Whitlams’ biggest radio hit.

It was while overseas working on a record in 2000 that Freedman received the news that Lewis had committed suicide.

“I was really upset, especially since Andy and I hadn’t been getting on,” he says. “I was unsure if he’d heard Blow up the Pokies and been offended by it.”

From that grief, however, came arguably one of Freedman’s best songs, The Curse Stops Here.

My first days back and I was rolling around the town/Saying stay away from edges and from ropes if you can/’Cause I am the last one and the curse stops here.

“It wasn’t a song written dispassionately six months later,” he says. “I was saying Andy was going to go up there and poison my relationship with the guardian angel. I was unsure, guilty and in pain. It’s real.”

Freedman’s ability to encapsulate people, places and situations in his songs is his songwriting strength. His songs are conversational, with a distinct sense of time and place. Yet he was a late bloomer. An epiphany of sorts was writing Buy Now Pay Later in the late 1980s, about a bloke he knew “who was on smack”. It would become Eternal Nightcap’s centrepiece as part of the “Charlie” trilogy.

By age 27, the songs started falling out. The “Charlie” trilogy, previously thought to be about Plunder, was in fact about three separate friends: Charlie No. 1 (former Machine Gun Fellatio frontman Pinky Beecroft), Charlie No. 2 (Melbourne guitarist Charlie Owen) and Charlie No. 3 (Plunder).

“People think it was Stevie, but it came from 10 years of friendships.”

Almost a decade on, many of the subjects of Freedman’s songs from this boozy era are successes in their fields. Life’s a Beachand Fall for You, for instance, were written for Libby Blakey, who now heads ARIA’s copyright board. Alannah Russack, of Sydney indie-pop act the Hummingbirds (Freedman was briefly a touring member), received Where is She as a letter on a cassette when she was on tour in the US.

Author Martine Murray, the girlfriend to whom No Aphrodisiac was a musical love letter, is also the subject of Melbourne and Royal in the Afternoon.

And what of Louis Burdett, he of the eponymous song?

“Louis is a performer I shared a flat with in Tempe,” Freedman says. “He doesn’t like that the song’s better known than him. I’d asked him when it came out if he minded. He’s learned to regret the answer: ‘Any press is good press.’ ”

Freedman knows the power of the media. He has been reluctant to speak of his “private life” since the 1998 murder of Sydney freelance journalist Jennifer Smith, who was a friend of the singer’s and had visited his home on the night of her death (Freedman was swiftly discounted as a suspect by police). The fallout ensured he has since kept his private and work lives separate.

“Ever since then, when the tabloids wanted me to be involved in it, and intimated that I was, even though the cops knew that I had no opportunity or possibility to be involved, I decided I would only do public things when it was involved in music,” he says. “You have to have thick skin. Most people would end up in bed in a foetal position if they had to deal with the things I’ve read about myself. But you move on.”

And move on he has. The band’s current line-up is its most settled yet, unchanged since 2000; a far cry from the old days.

“I was ruthless. I’d learned you had to service the art, not old friendships. It was trial and error early on. But I’ve had no reason to change line-ups since.”

Still, another Whitlams record appears some time off. Freedman is writing from scratch; the song cupboard is bare. Perhaps fatherhood offers some new material?

“I tend to write about the moments that touch me.”

Truth, Beauty & A Picture Of You – Review

The Drum Media
by Ross Clelland

The Whtilams remain an interesting case study. Of the dozens of bands that rose and fell between the barstools of the old Sandringham Hotel in the ’90s, you probably wouldn’t have picked them as the one to be performing with symphony orchestras a decade later. There’s also the feeling for many (as the cover suggests) that Tim Freedman is The Whitlams. Which, as far as the brandsname’s mainstream success is concerned, is pretty much the case. So, it’s to the piano-player’s credit that this compilation does feature songs from their more rollicking, early ragged-sleeved era. Like I Make Hamburgers, a template for Freedman’s cynical romantic persona. There’s also Stevie Plunder’s dark-edged whimsy, such as Following My Own Tracks, so sad in hindsight.
Some were suprised the band survived, let alone flourished, after Plunder’s death – and with songs that were not the typical stuff of commercial success: Blow Up The Pokies’ anti-gampling diatribe and No Aphrodisiac’s odd mix of longing and fuck-seeking classifides. Freedman even saw fit to address the various tragedies surrounding the band with the pugnacious The Curse Stops Here.
The music – and maybe even the singer thereof – has matured over their career and there are some differing moods herein, from Melbourne’s long-distance relationship to the wry confessional of Thank You (For Loving Me At My Worst).You can still raise a glass to them, though these days it’s probably more likely a good Shiraz than a schooner of Reschs.
Tim co-hosts the conversation hour on 774 Melbourne

ABC Melbourne
by Tim Freedman, Kevin Hiller and Peter Smith

The Conversation Hour

The Whitlams Years

Herald Sun
by James Wigney

TIM Freedman is proud of his work, but admits not all the songs have come up trumps, James Wigney writes.

Tim Freedman’s appraisal of his career when compiling The Best of the Whitlams collection was much like the man – frank and unsentimental.

As the sole surviving founding member of one of the country’s most successful and reliable bands, Freedman has good reason to bask in the glory of six albums and a string of hits such as No Aphrodisiac, Blow Up the Pokies and Fall For You.

But proud as he is of the 20 tracks on the compilation, and plenty that didn’t make it, the singer/songwriter/pianist admits there are a good few stinkers in the back catalogue as well.

“There are always one or two songs on an album that are misfires,” he says.

“The third track on Eternal Nightcap is a shocker. It’s called Love is Everywhere and I can’t believe that album did so well when it had such a stinking piece of failed pop on it.

“I’m not a huge fan of my stuff – I think I have had my moments – I think I have had some great phrases, but I haven’t reinvented the wheel musically.”

The Whitlams formed in 1992 when Freedman met guitarist Stevie Plunder, both stalwarts of the Sydney music scene, at the Big Day Out.

After recruiting bass player Andy Lewis, the trio started out playing for drinks at an inner-city hotel.

Back then Freedman’s ambitions were modest – to be a working musician and make records. Even before releasing the breakout album, 1997’s Eternal Nightcap, his expectations were low.

“I remember when I released Eternal Nightcap, I wanted to sell 10,000 records and be able to do two nights at the Annandale Hotel, which was about the equivalent of the Evelyn,” Freedman recalls.

The album, driven by the success of the dark and compelling single No Aphrodisiac, sold more than 10 times that number, scoring three ARIA awards.

But trouble has never been too far from the Whitlams. After touring relentlessly in the early years, neither Plunder nor Lewis shared the band’s glory days.

Long having struggled with drugs and alcohol, Plunder was found dead in 1996 at the bottom of a cliff in the Blue Mountains – whether he fell by accident was never established.

Lewis left the band in 1995 and hanged himself in 2000 after battling a gambling problem.

Freedman, who included two of Plunder’s songs on the collection, speaks fondly of his fallen comrades, emphasising how unusual the piano/guitar/bass format was at the time and that their different songwriting approach and love of the likes of Bob Dylan were perfect foils for his poppier instincts and penchant for Randy Newman.

“I don’t get too sad because much time has passed and I just remember the good times. I acknowledge how lucky I was to meet them.”

Freedman was in the US, coincidentally recording the song devoted to Lewis, Blow Up the Pokies, when he heard of the bass player’s death.

Though Freedman’s songs are often autobiographical, he says they are rarely cathartic to write.

The Curse Stops Here, a lush orchestral version of which is included on the best-of, was an exception and was written in a few hours after hearing the tragic news.

“I think when you write something in the month or two after losing someone or when you are in the grieving process it is like going to a therapist really, you just have to get it out,” Freedman says.

“I don’t think one necessarily needs to get it out with a song, you just need to talk to friends, share stories, lie in fetal position for four weeks or sing a song.”

Freedman gives the impression that he has stared down the precipice and taken a few steps back.

Always fond of a tipple, now – at the age of 43 – he has realised his body can’t take what it once did and that if he wants to be around for a long time, he needs to slow down, work less and drink less.

‘These days I am consciously trying to pedal a bit slower,” he says. “I still love what I am doing and I intend to do it for a long time, but I intend to do it a bit less.

“Having to do 150 shows a year where as soon as you walk into the job there are 24 beers, two bottles of wine and a bottle of vodka – your job is to artificially create adrenalin in yourself so you are in the same state as the audience, who are having their one night out in three weeks. It wears you out.

“Luckily I decided to be a little bit careful before it got too late.”

FREEDMAN has a better reason to take care of himself now, a three-year-old daughter. Still a confirmed bachelor who lives alone, Freedman nevertheless says his daughter has given him a new “joie de vivre” and is surprised by how much she makes him laugh.

“If you wait until you are around 40 until you have a kid, you have laughed at everything in the world by then and suddenly this thing arrives that makes you laugh in very different ways,” he says.

He adds that he will accompany her in her first public performance at her kindergarten this week. Not that he has gone completely domestic.

“I have a good balance,” he says. “I still live on my own and still have fun and still like getting with the gang and going around the country – and we don’t drink cups of tea backstage.

“But as in anything, it’s all about balance and you just have to treat everything with moderation and still be able to get up at 7am midweek when the daughter is staying.”

The Whitlams have been an established unit for some time now, with Jak Housden on guitar, Warwick Hornby on bass guitar and Terepai Richmond on drums.

As well as touring extensively as a quartet, they have teamed with various symphony orchestras to play classical arrangements of their songs.

Freedman is also friends with Richard Tognetti, violinist and leader of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, and Australian composer Richard Sculthorpe, both of whom contributed to the 2002 song Out the Back.

The pop pianist made a brief foray into the classical world, struggling through a tricky Avro Part piece with the ACO and declaring at the end “thank God that’s over”.

ONE newspaper critic agreed and Freedman has no desire to go back. That misstep aside, he feels comfortable in that world.

“They are musicians after all and generally pretty relaxed people and they like a drink,” Freedman says.

“They are in showbiz – we are all carnie folk, so I am not as uncomfortable in an orchestra’s presence as I imagined I would be.

But I haven’t worked with the MSO yet – apparently they are the real deal, so I may just have to doff my hat, keep to myself and try not to make any mistakes.”

The Mellowing of Tim Freedman

Sydney Morning Herald
by Keith Austin

THE WHITLAMS frontman Tim Freedman has a bit of a reputation as a boozer and a prickly interview. He is, as one reviewer described him, the “poet of contemporary urban Sydney, a left-wing, wine-happy, street-level egalitarian with firm Newtown roots”.

And, of course, at 43, he has been all these things. He’s also something else, something important, something defined by the empty picture frame on a bookcase in his Newtown terrace. As a life metaphor it’s hard to go past but we will. For now.

For now we’re talking about the Whitlams’ Best Of album, Truth, Beauty And A Picture Of You, and Freedman’s gigs next month at the State Theatre backed by the Symphonie Des Femmes, a 35-piece, all-female orchestra.

Freedman opens the door, tall, thin and a little haggard, fighting off a cold and hobbling around three weeks after knee surgery on an old soccer injury. The front door of the modest terrace house he bought last year after 20 years living next door opens into a lounge where a large rowing machine (exercise for the knee) sits next to a leather sofa. Beyond that there’s a piano. In between them, a single-bed mattress and blankets. The walls are covered in neatly parsed bookshelves but it’s a comfortably dishevelled space.

“Cup of tea?” Freedman asks, and then sees my gaze. “The bed’s not normally down here, in case you were wondering, it’s because of the knee surgery.”

Tea made, we settle down on the sofa in front of a fire. The floor-to-ceiling bookshelves are an arm’s length away and there are several pending piles – the “holding tank”, as he calls them. Norman Mailer’s The Castle In The Forest is among them. Well, that’s something we have in common. Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories is another. We discover a mutual fondness for John Banville.

But, pleasantries over, he doesn’t seem at ease, fidgeting, playing with that famously errant hair. So the interview process doesn’t get any more pleasant?

“Usually, you know, I get interviewed at a restaurant and they all end up, like, ‘Tim orders a bottle of red, starts having a drink, blah blah blah,’ it’s all very dull. So when you suggested to come over to my place I thought it was probably time, because we’ll end up talking about different stuff, you know.”

So why a Best Of album – and what’s the go with the Symphonie Des Femmes?

“Well, a bank hired us to sing in front of a big female orchestra and so I booked them, they played wonderfully and we all had a great time in the green room so when the [State Theatre] gigs came up I wanted to do something that would remind people of the Sydney Symphony shows we did last year.” And then, deadpan, he adds: “It’s a very pleasant working environment, and it means I not only get to cruise the audience but I can cruise the stage as well.

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