Tim Freedman talks writing reading but no rithmatic

by Sharon Kennedy

Plays piano, reads a lot, writes songs with narrative structure and likes lots of the new Aussie music: that’s Tim Freedman of the Whitlams.

“We didn’t even have the money to put it out as a single. We just gave it to Triple J and suddenly, we had a gold record within five weeks. ”

The single was No aphrodisiac and the band The Whitlams. The year was 1997 and Seattle grunge was the in thing, remembers front man and lyricist Tim Freedman. Not many people were into narrative development in song. No Aphrodisiac stood out like the proverbial.

The song also was surprising within itself, thinks Tim, starting as it does with slurp of sentimentality and ending in a jokey fashion. Fast forward ten years and Tim doesn’t feel so alone in the laudable lyric stakes. He’s more often surprised by music, he says and buys it regularly. The mp3 player has a constant turnover of new and interesting stuff.

So who’s caught his ear? Jackie Marshall “very poetic”, Augie March, the Drones, Sarah Blasko. As a judge of the Australian Music prize, Tim has an early intro to what’s up and coming. The AMP is important he feels because it’s judged by musicians and critics who do listen to the entries unlike the Arias where the sheer volume makes it impossible to do so.

“Practitioners tend to come up with different choices than the more commercial Arias,” he feels.

Tim is a reader. “I read more than I write,” he says. Modern fiction – Martin Amis, John Banville. “I know a lot of writers who don’t read much when they’re writing,” he says. The reason being that they’re afraid of being influenced. “I always pity them.” To Tim’s way of thinking, not to read is to deny enjoyment of the craft.

As a song writer, he says, he tries not to fall into the trap of worrying about influence. “I just read it for enjoyment and only steal the occasional phrase.”

He’s joking. He often does.

The Whitlams may have a good line in slow, sad, melancholy songs but that’s only half the story. “I’m not going to fall into a morass of depression,” says Tim. “I’m a pretty happy fellow.” He adds, “There’s a happy song for every sad.”

There’s also the political side to Tim Freedman. “There’s always the connection between those with imagination and those who land on the left of politics because landing on the left of politics is about imagining other people’s hardship.” How active is he politically? “I’m concerned with my polis,” he says.

In that he’s prepared advocate, to animate, to persuade, but not to be a card carrier or to run for office. “I think that’s only the bare minimum that a citizen should be concerned with in society,” he says, talking of the willingness to air a point of view.

Yet Tim’s not convinced that his efforts will necessarily make a difference. As he points out, the decade in which he’s been afforded an audience and a forum have been the years of a Liberal prime ministership.

Lately, he’s been a doing a lot of work for the Mick Young Foundation and in the course of that has had more contact with the band’s namesake. “I was just a little star-stuck groupie when I first met Gough and Margaret.” They are “funny, sharp and a great couple,” he says. Now that that natural, initial awkwardness is over, that connection is “a great joy for me”, says Tim.

As for the future of Australian political leadership, Tim’s got Kevin Rudd at $2.20 and has staked the house on it.

Back to the writing, there isn’t any. Not yet. “Until I put my mind to it, they won’t come out.” Tim has a trip to Berlin planned for May and June and he’ll come back with the album written. He’s confident about the process because that’s what happened the last trip away. “I went to New York feeling pretty empty and I came back with this last album (Little Cloud).”

“Sit at the piano, doodle, get into a half trance, make mistakes,” is how Tim describes his writing routine. “Sometimes you can have an unfruitful three hours but if you keep doing it every day, after two weeks, the wheels start getting oiled and everything starts coming out. You just can’t get frustrated at the start. It’s like any muscle; it takes a little bit of time to start working again.”

The Whitlams play at the Nannup Music Festival and then Tim heads off to Berlin. Later in the year, the band will again team up with the symphony orchestras including the WASO on November 9th and 11th.

Of that first joint concert in Kings Park, Perth, Tim recalls the experience as better than he had anticipated. The WASO had done all the arrangements and the first time the band heard them was at the first combined rehearsal. He need not have worried. They were “marvellous, imaginative, not based on the records”, he says.

“It was stirring experience to be playing in the midst of 80 other musicians.”

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