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Interview: Michael James Keane Talks About New Album 'Wandering Bull'

Interview: Michael James Keane Talks About New Album 'Wandering Bull'

Chris Cudby / Tuesday 22nd March, 2022 10:14AM

Te Whanganui-a-Tara songwriter Michael James Keane (formerly of So Laid Back Country China) launched his second album Wandering Bull earlier this month, celebrated with a stripped back live performance at Meow. While officially a solo release, Keane brought a team of long-term friends and collaborators on board, including producer James Goldsmith, who worked closely with the artist on the record's beautiful and darkly cinematic instrumentation. Written while Keane was a trainee stonemason in the Wairarapa, Wandering Bull is a moving and poetic rumination on times of personal turmoil, described in a recent conversation with RNZ's Music 101 as "living recklessly in the city... as a cowboy." Keane kindly spared the time to answer my questions around the making of the album, his relationship with autobiography, plans for future shows, the lifestyle spectrum of a contemporary cowboy and more...

Chris Cudby: You've spoken about how Wandering Bull is a reflection on life in the city, written while you were away for a year working as a trainee stonemason in Kakariki, in the Wairarapa. Did your training impact at all on how you approached crafting your new album? Do you detect a tangible shift between Wandering Bull and your first album The Cascade?

Michael James Keane: There is a real simplicity to stone work, it is rhythmic and full of unique patterns and layers. It also leaves you with a lot of time to think and reflect, particularly when picking stones — that's the process of walking on the floodplain and selecting stones that you will later build with. That simplicity and reflection certainly influenced my song writing at the time, while all that time to reflect drove the themes and lyrics to Wandering Bull. Once I was back in the city and working on the album with James Goldsmith we made the arrangement decisions that informed the instrumentation of the album. I believe it shifts from The Cascade in this respect in one major way; we didn't set ourselves any real 'rules'. With The Cascade I wanted to avoid a lot of the tools that So Laid Back Country China used so well — vocal harmonies, electric guitar and big drum sounds. That wasn't the case with Wandering Bull, and we used the full spectrum of instrumentation to create the tracks.

There's an emotional intensity to your music that you've said draws upon personal experience. How much distance do you feel in relation to the narratives on Wandering Bull? Do you introduce fictive elements into your songs, or do you see them as primarily autobiographical (or somewhere in between)?

I sometimes create different worlds in my songs that better capture a feeling that can't be put so bluntly, but I see them as autobiographical. Every song brings up people and places for me. I recognise myself in the songs, but it's a different man in many ways. I think that the main reason I am driven to write is to separate myself from feelings I find overwhelming, to remove and examine those feelings as you might with a therapist. It gives me a sense of ownership and control over the feelings. I always struggle a lot to play a new song to someone, I spend a long time with just the song and I.

Wandering Bull is a beautifully realised album. What was it like working with James Goldsmith on instrumental arrangements and production? Who else plays on the record?

Thank you, that's very kind. James and I have a very natural and productive working relationship, this is the fifth record we have done together. I benefit greatly from his trust in the songs, especially when they are very raw and include just two guitar chords and some words. He can see, often better than me, where the song will sit within larger arrangements. I think we both push each other out of our comfort zones and that produces something really special. The album features Callum Gay playing the drum kit, who also played on The Cascade. He very impressively followed James' lead on the drum arrangements, and we managed to knock them out in a pretty short session. Symon Palmer also joined on bass, also from The Cascade band. Harriet Ferry and Julia Catherine-Parr sing the harmonies, it was a great session of just exploring ideas, they are both such natural and beautiful singers. Sofii Matthews, Grant Baker and Ruby Solly made up the string section and performed James' and my scores. Lastly, Daniel Cuzens played the lap steel and ambient guitar. He is such a huge talent, and him and I are currently doing a two piece live show together and working on the next album.

Your videos for 'Ceramic Tide' and 'Inside' by Sigrid and Frankie Berge are artworks in themselves. How hands-on are you with the video making process?

For all the imagery in my head around the songs, I am not a very visual person. My ideal video involves working with someone who likes the song, has a vision and is driven to execute it. That is Frankie and Sigi. I always like being around for the shoots, but I am almost always hands-off.

How was your launch event at Meow? With borders opening up, do you envision touring Wandering Bull overseas in the near future?

We had a beautiful and low key show at Meow to celebrate the release of the album. It was just myself accompanied by Daniel on the lap steel. I figure now is not the time to get a big band together and to be ambitious about big shows, but I love our stripped back set that really highlights the songs. Overseas, I feel I have at least one fan in a lot of countries based on my IG and Bandcamp messages, so perhaps it would be fair to travel and give them a show.

Do you still feel like you're "living recklessly in the city... as a cowboy," or have things settled in your world?

No, I'm not so reckless nowadays. However, the cowboy lifestyle exists on a spectrum. One end might be drunken, fist-fighting gambler, but the other end is someone happy in nature, keeping well on the trail of life, enjoying black coffee and a song every now and then. I am much more on that end of the spectrum these days.

'Wandering Bull' is out now on major streaming services via the Meow label.


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