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Interview: Tim Rogers on songwriting, his new book and heading to the theatre

From thrashing about onstage with You Am I to performing intimate solo gigs, Tim Rogers’ musical dexterity has continually defied the rock n’ roll stereotype. Though You Am I has been a constant throughout his career, Rogers always seems to have a new card up his sleeve. Recently, he has played several new hands, being involved in a theatrical adaptation of his first solo album and releasing his first book – a memoir of sorts that he jokes is a heartbreaking work of staggering genius.

Rogers’ journey began when You Am I formed in 1989. Ten years later he released his first solo album, which he wrote from a windowless apartment in Melbourne. Now, after recently turning 48, the musical maverick admits he is just as comfortable in the spotlight as he is performing in the shadows.

Ahead of the upcoming season of What Rhymes With Cars and Girls and his other Brisbane appearances, we spoke with Rogers about the process of being involved in theatre, his new book and what’s next.

What Rhymes With Cars and Girls was your first solo album – what made you decide to go solo?

I always knew that the band would be there, but we just needed a little break. We had been on the road a lot and we said, ‘We just need to get off the road for a little while.’ I was down in Melbourne with a lot of folk and country musicians at the time and drinking with them.

It wasn’t a ‘I need to go solo’, because with You Am I I have so much room to move and they’re my best friends. I thought, ‘Well I am a musician and what do musicians do – they play.’ And I was starting to regard myself as a songwriter and I didn’t have a whole lot of other hobbies.

It wasn’t a big decision – I thought, ‘I might just do something with a little less volume.’

And before starting You Am I, you didn’t have a lot of songwriting experience …

No – it was just that no-one else in the band was writing songs and we couldn’t play covers. I thought, ‘I’ll start writing some riffs and some lyrics to go with it.’ Then after a while I thought, ‘Well, I am going to give this a crack and try to write things that are a bit more coherent and the lyrics can be heard.’

Now you are regarded for creating character-driven songs. Did you ever imagine your work would lend itself to theatre?

Not then. And when Aidan who wrote the play came to me, I couldn’t see that there was a narrative there at all. So I said ‘no’ and he said ‘well I’ll buy you drink’ and I said ‘yes’ and we went to a bar and he read it to me. I thought, ‘wow, I never could have imagined this’, and went for it.

I sat back and offered my opinions but really I was asked to do a job and I love being given work. I had absolutely no involvement in the script and when I figured out that Aidan wasn’t writing anything that was supposed to be me at 28, then that was fine – I could stand back and look at it objectively.

So your involvement in the show has largely been musically?  

Yes, I was given a job as Musical Director. And one of the lead actors, John, I don’t think would regard himself as a singer. He can sing the balls of stuff and he is wonderful, but he is more of an actor and so my job was to loosen him up. We would sing together – get loaded and sing, have cups of tea and sing and just talk about it.

He doesn’t need to know anything about me because his character is completely different to me at any stage of my life, and so I can stand back and admire his craft and when he wants to talk about songs, we do.

I think when I get asked to do jobs like this, part of it is, ‘Can you come and be that Tim Rogers guy who has been on the road his whole life?’ You know, the old uncle in the corner who says, ‘Let me tell you about the ’97 tour of Asia and let me tell you about the Southern American tour in ’98.’ And I like that job.

What’s the difference between being onstage in What Rhymes with Cars and Girls and performing your music?

Being onstage for What Rhymes With Cars and Girls, I am not ‘the guy’. It’s absolutely being in the background and being part of the working family that wants to get this production to the heights that it can get to every night, and that’s wonderful. But when I am onstage in a show of mine or a show of the band’s, I have got to amp it up a little and I relish the difference.

I love being in the shadows – I’ve always wanted to be in the shadows, it’s just that no-one else grabbed the mic 30 years ago and I was the idiot who grabbed it.

This year you have released a new album, An Actor Repairs, which is about a retiring actor. How did that narrative come about?

Largely from a novel by Joseph O’Connor called Ghost Light that I read four or five years ago. And then since then I had been drinking with actors and they are an interesting bunch – all very, very different. I was listening and watching the way they approached each day and each performance, it’s something I don’t fully understand but I admire and it unnerves me, and this character kind of grew on me. (I think he might actually be living in my spare room.)

There has been speculation about how much of this album was drawn from your own experience of progressing through your career – are there any parallels?

I am not that skilled a writer to write pure fiction yet – I’ll extricate myself from the narrative at some stage, but I’m just not that skilled yet. And there are still parts of myself that interest me and so I am in there somewhere.

The job from now on is to kick myself out of the production.

You’ve just released Detours – a collection of essays about your life. What can readers expect from the book?

I enjoy reading when it doesn’t feel like the writer is trying to prove something – that they’re fun or they’re a better person than they might be perceived or a lesser person.

I have been asked to write for about 15 years and three years ago I said to my agent, ‘I’m not going to write an autobiography.’ And she said, ‘Well I am not interested in your autobiography, I want you to write different pieces.’ We swapped essays and memoirs back and forth and I took it on as a job. I just hope I did a good job.

By the end of this year you will have released an album and a book, toured both and also performed this season of What Rhymes with Cars and Girls. What’s in store for next year?

I might get a haircut … I am writing for some ballet and still working on some fiction and I want to do a record with You Am I really soon and we are going away with You Am I early next year and I’m learning tango and fishing.

UPCOMING SHOWS

What Rhymes with Cars and Girls
25 October to 4 November at Brisbane Powerhouse

Tim Rogers in Conversation With Paul Barclay
30 October at Brisbane Powerhouse

Detour-ing Tour
17 November at The Old Museum

Image by Luke Henery

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