There’s a certain calm which envelops you when experiencing a Lior recording or performance. Even when he ramps it up a notch and straps on an electric guitar, it’s a serene sway rather than a rockin’ swagger. His music is simply a manifestation of the Melbourne-based balladeer himself. Lior has just released a new album, Scattered Reflections. Once again, it is a quality collection of beautiful melodies complemented perfectly by the talented artist’s observational prose. AM’s Greg Phillips had the following conversation with Lior just prior to the album’s release.
GP: Once an album is out and you have had time to sit with it, do you ever have any regrets, wishing you’d added or subtracted anything?
L: There’s always a couple of minor things. You just hope that they are minor. I don’t actually think you can ever be perfectly happy with an album.
With your chord progressions you usually throw in a curve ball chord which takes the song away from where you thought it was going, away from the obvious. How much time do you spend searching for that chord?
I was talking to someone about this yesterday. I think that comes from the fact that I wasn’t really schooled in music theory so much. When I write, it is all intuition and where my ear wants to go. It’s always a balance, you can’t make every chord different because it then alienates the listener. So it is striking the balance between something that is sweet sounding and something that is a bit more surprising.
Whose songwriting do you admire for the way they structure their songs as opposed to their voice or lyrics?
I think Rufus Wainright’s songwriting is really great. He does that really well. He has the familiar but always some interesting changes. Obviously McCartney and James Taylor as well. There’s always enough familiarity but an element of surprise so that you’re never lulled into a false sense of knowing where they are going.
Do you find that you can generally write on the road?
No actually. It’s the worst place to write. For time reasons but also headspace. You are thinking about the show and you focus on where you need to be and you are rushing around. I generally find that with writing, it takes me two or three days of writing for my brain to switch into that gear. I have to really make time and space for that.
Have you ever found yourself writing someone else’s song that was in your head?
That happens all the time. You write progressions and you go, I like that but it reminds me of Easy by The Commodores or something, the same chord progression. As much as you love it, you just have to have the discipline to either twist it to make it yours or let it go and move on.
What about comfort chords? Is it easy to write the same song over and over and what tricks do you have to prevent yourself from gravitating to the same chords and words?
I think unless you really challenge yourself somehow, take yourself out of the comfort zone, you’ll constantly go back to the same thing. Then you’ll get really bored with it and start hating yourself and thinking you are a creative nothing. So you have to play tricks with yourself. One trick is to maybe pick up a new instrument or put the guitars in different tunings, collaborate with people who will take something you have done and twist it. With songwriting, some of it is an act of intuition but sometimes it also comes back to strike rate. The more you try things, the more you write. A small percentage of that will be gold and a large percent of it won’t be.
Over what period of time did these new songs on ‘Scattered Reflections’ come together?
I wrote the new album over a period of about two years. In parallel working with this album, I was working on a collaboration with a composer named Nigel Westlake on an orchestral piece called Compassion, which came out on an album last year and we toured that with the state orchestras. That was something completely different. That was me singing ancient text in Hebrew and Arabic about the idea of compassion and threaded it into an orchestral work. It was received really well. So I was hopping between the two projects and did about three overseas trips to try to collaborate with people and just get out of my home territory and get into that creative headspace to write this album. About half was written at home and half abroad.
How long can you sit with a song? Do you like to finish them up quickly or can they hang around for quite a while?
I’m the latter. Songs lie around. Generally I will have the music. It will be refined but generally it is there. It’s the lyric which takes me a long time. Once I start writing the lyrics and know what the song is about, it comes quickly. It is just finding a) something that is really important to me that I want to write about and b) that actually fits and has some sort of synchronicity with the music. That can take a long time.
The song ‘Caught Up’ has great reverb guitar on it. Is that from a pedal or natural reverb? It has that empty room, high ceiling vibe.
It does. No, that’s a pedal. It’s Cameron Deyell, who played a lot of the electric guitar on the album. He was living in India at the time and that’s when I went over to visit him and that’s when we started writing. He ended up being a co-writer on about half of the album, my main songwriting collaborator on this album. It wasn’t just the writing, he really did bring a new, fresh sound through his electric guitar playing as well.
The songs are fairly sparse but there are some really nice features which colour the album. The start of ‘Help Me Up’, that staccato effect, was that your idea?
Again, that’s the sound world that Cameron inhabits. He has these very trademark sounds. You’re spot on. One is the beginning of Help Me Up and the other is in Caught Up. It’s a real trademark of his guitar playing. I was really drawn to that and drawn to having it as a new soundscape I guess, as part of the album. That was the big reason why I chose to spend time with him and collaborate. Yes, a few of the songs have those flavours.
The first part of ‘My Grandfather’ is sung without instrumentation and when it does come in, it’s minimal. Were the lyrics extra important on that one that you wanted the story to be the focus?
Yeah. That’s one of those examples that we were talking about before. I had one of those sea shanty type melodies floating around for ages and I knew I wanted to write a song about my grandfather. He was a very influential person in my life. The lyrics just wouldn’t come. I didn’t even know how to tell the story and then when they came, they came very quickly. I never really knew what kind of life that song would have, whether it was just something I wrote for myself, or whether I would ever perform it. I decided I’d give it a run at the Edinburgh Festival when I was doing a season last year. I found that song had a really strong resonance with the crowds, maybe more so than any other song I have written. It just seemed to sit on the barest thread it could sit on. I think that’s where it gained its power. We resisted the temptation. We talked about putting some accordion on or some flavours on it but felt no, let’s just make it all about the lyric.
The tracks that follow, ‘Bells of Montreal’ and ‘Scattered Reflections’ are the opposite, and probably have the most instrumentation on the album. Was that sequence of songs on purpose for that reason? Do you agonise over song order?
Song order is a tricky one and can change the listening experience. I saw the album as two pretty distinct halves. Half of it was very acoustic and lyrical which is familiar to a lot of people who may listen to my stuff. Then half had this new sound shaped by Cam and our collaboration and having a new band to perform with as well. I kind of had to make that decision on whether to have it like a record in two halves or to have it weaving in and out. I always like listening to an album that has an element of surprise with a real dynamic shift between the songs so that you can listen to the whole album without getting bored or feeling like you know… I get what this album is about. Finding a balance of that weaving in and out without being too clunky, that took a bit of moving around.
What’s the organ on ‘Bells of Montreal’, it’s a great sound.
Yep, that’s one of Cam’s trademark sounds. I’ m not sure what pedal he used on that. I think it might have been a Moog pedal
When last we spoke, you were about to do both the They Will Have Their Way tour, playing songs of the Finn brothers. What are your memories of that tour?
That was great fun and a really nice change from the pressure of doing albums and tours. Just being part of a group and doing two or three songs a night and having a good time. It was also where I met most of my new band. Bree (Van Reyk) and Evan (Mannell) who are playing the drums, because that show had two drummers. I remember how after almost every show, people would come up to me and say how amazing the two drummers were. I thought it would be great to have those guys in my band, so I poached them and they recorded with me, and they’re doing the major city shows as well.
You were also doing a European release, putting out a compilation from your previous 3 albums. Did that go well?
That happened and went great. It came out as an album called 3,2,1 and I did some touring, a lot of it in Holland where I had a lot of radio play. It was a bit of a spinout really. It was almost like Groudhog Day. It happened in a very similar way that it happened here, radio and then word of mouth and doing shows and building an organic following. I did that on and off for a couple of years and then the time came to work on some new projects. As I mentioned, I knuckled down and started working on the new album and Compassion in parallel.
When think of your life touring the world making music, what memories are most prominent?
I think the emotive shows stay in my mind more than necessarily the biggest ones. Touring with this new piece, Compassion was definitely a career highlight. I just performed it in Melbourne at the Myer Music Bowl. That piece has had a really strong connection with audiences. Even though I am singing in non-English, it’s a very powerful piece and there’s a whole back-story there of how Nigel and I came to work together. So I think you remember the shows where you affect the audience in a powerful way. I guess it’s your purpose as a songwriter to connect with people through your songs and stories.
Any extra curricular projects this year?
I think Compassion still has a life overseas, and I’ll be touring this album. I hope to take Compassion and play it at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic! Why not? You gotta aim high!
Scattered Reflections is out now. www.lior.com.au