At the tail end of 2020, we had the opportunity to sit down (virtually) with the folksy, whimsical and ever-eloquent front man of the Bush Chooks, Jack Davies as part of our Western Australian artists feature.
What was intended as a snappy Q&A quickly evolved into a warm, effusive dedication to the community of bands that make up Perth’s small but electric music scene, delving to the depths of mentorship, communal success and the experience of an entire state being detached from the mainstream industry of a country whose mainstream industry isn’t all that big anyway.
As he joined us in a bright pink Stella Donnelly shirt in honour of Aus Music T-shirt day, he jokes about layering on every WA band t-shirt and slowly take them off throughout the day so “everyone could have equal exposure” - welcome Jack.
Insight into detachment from the industry.
Jack noted that there is a real sense of having to scrabble a bit harder if you are from WA, from financial strain, industry recognition and management time differences.
“When you are wanting to go on tour, it punches you in the knee a bit, because it’s so f**king expensive leaving the state. We are West of the middle of nowhere, so even though Australia’s music industry isn’t huge by itself, we’re on the fringe of the nowhere.
“We don’t have a huge team but all of our PR and management is over east. We aren’t able to meet our team in person very often – the distance, the time difference and delay does slow us down a little bit.”
He pointed out that industry institutions are, on a whole, based on the east coast, and that their focus in terms of awards, contracts and larger scale gigs are thus naturally inclined towards their home area, in the thick of things.
“I can’t comment generally on WA artists as a whole, only for myself and the band specifically, but I do think incidents like Spacey Jane getting a bit snaked for ARIA nominations highlights the difference,” he said
“It’s likely down to the fact that the important people have all of their offices and meetings and the big gigs on the east coast and that sort of directs the industry to focus more towards itself.
“The lesser focus on states like WA and South Australia and the Northern Territory could definitely lead to nominations not being made where they might have been if the artist was based somewhere closer to them.
“The east coast naturally has a one-up because they’re in the thick of it, where things are happening, so there is a sense of detachment from the main industry in WA.
“It’s not a huge difference but it’s big enough that we all notice it.”
Less pressure, more playful.
Despite the disadvantages of being an artist living and working in WA, Jack says there are infinitely more positives than there are negatives.
“It’s an advantage living where we do as the amount of additional support and reception you get being a band in a smaller, tight-knit city is unmatched. In WA you can work on your craft, play shows, meet fans and really get to know who you are as an artist with very little pressure.
“You can spend time developing your sound without worrying about industry pressure to be likeable or create something that ‘works’.”
Jack reports hearing from artists living in more metropolitan cities with bigger industry feeling nervous whilst writing, recording and performing due to the heavy sense of competition.
“You will be recording an album and know that there’s a bigger band down the road or in the next room and it’s competitive and nerve racking. It sounds like you have influence coming from all angles.”
In comparison, WA appears to be a bit more chilled out.
“It’s just a bit more playful for us over here and it never feels very serious, like this is our career. It feels like something we are really passionate about and there's just people who happen to like us and support us.
“We don’t have big labels or big agents rocking up at gigs, so for the most part it is just us having fun and not worrying too much about the bigger picture.”
Sharing is caring: the music scene is a tight-knit community
In terms of what it’s like to be a working artist in WA, (apart from being one of the only places in the world you CAN be a working artist right now), Jack says the best thing by far is the relationships other bands and musicians have with each other.
“There is a very real sense of community and genuinely fun comradery that we have in the WA music scene and I’m pretty sure is similar in other Australian cities. We aren’t in competition with other artists, we are friends.
“Because Perth is a smaller place, we don’t have the pressure to stand out, and it’s easier to feel accepted by your friends and colleagues. We can just play the music we want to play and do your own thing without being judged for it.”
Band members are also thread linking the community together, with many musicians playing in several bands at once.
“There's not a huge amount of working musicians, so we have a lot of crossovers. Our band by itself currently has two sub-bands - George is in a band called Violet the Flea and Hector is in Hec.
Bands freely offer support to one another, with an ongoing theme of older acts taking younger ones under their wing.
“The support and kindness is ridiculous. Bands that have gained traction never really change their attitude, they are just so willing to help everyone else – bands like Spacey Jane that have just exploded are so lovely– they really give back to the music scene in WA with thoughtful advice and kind words.
“Pretty much everyone is helping each other out and sharing advice because it has that sense that someone else's success is your success.”
“Seeing other WA artists do well, it really lifts up the whole scene.”
The youngsters are doing ok
Jack says he’d love to be in the position to return the favour and support offered to him.
“I’d love to be able to help and mentor the younger crew but at the moment I definitely don't have the confidence to be telling other people what they should be doing – I barely know what I should be doing. If they want my advice I’ll give it, but we have no shortage of brilliant, more successful artists that can speak better to experience than I can.”
Apparently, the WA music scene is at no risk of slowing down in the future, with Jack reporting the crop of youngsters are bursting at the seams with talent.
“In terms of who I think will blow up next, it’s hard to tell because there are so many brilliant kids out there – once they get all their releases together they will smash it, no doubt,” he said. There’s loads of 17,18,19-year-olds that are getting out of the under-18 shows and moving to bigger gigs and are certainly going to take off soon.
“The youth are at the ready.”
Initiatives like Girls Rock and Rock Scholars serve as great sources to excite young people and open up a healthy environment for new artists to emerge.
“I’m worried, they're gonna come for me, and I’ll be toast. I’m 21 but I have terrible anxiety that I’ll be stagnant – to me my future is cloudy, but I can see it bright and clear for this younger crew. These teenagers deserve to be touring the whole world, they just need someone to give them a start.”
Time to learn your own sound
“Being in WA, it does feel like we have more time to prepare so when we debut it’s more polished and we’re more together,” he said.
It’s worth waiting to be ‘discovered’ he says– you find your sound that you can explain and lean into well.
“We did have two trips to the east coast planned to the major cities, but since everything with COVID happened, we had to cancel. We have released so much more new music than we had before – it would've been about five songs we had to play for those shows and now we’ve got loads to choose from.
“I will say, when we get to that point of needing to focus more on serious career stuff, we might go into the east coast and play but I don’t think it’s a necessity. Personally I’ve got a huge case of wanderlust and want to move and travel a lot but as a band we’re ok right now. In WA we feel really stable and sure of ourselves, but on the east coast and elsewhere, we’re still sort of gaining a following, and it feels a bit more like untested waters.
“I hope through music we can travel around the world but this is home.”
Coronavirus induced anxiety
Though WA was incredibly lucky to be able to play live shows so soon, it did come with pitfalls.
“It was pretty cool to be able to play live gigs again. Our first was Clancy’s (Fish Pub) and it was a rush job organising within two weeks because restrictions eased so quickly.
“It was also one of my least favourite gigs. We had had such a long break and I wasn’t in a good mental space. I was having a bit of an anxiety episode about playing in front of people. Everyone else said we played great and the gig was good but I was having an awful time.
“My brain isn't great at dealing with lots of stress and going from being locked down for a while by myself then immediately having to be very expressive and vulnerable and emotive in front of a crowd was very hard and overwhelming.
“It's a very weird sense of introspection knowing that we were so lucky being able to play and I was not enjoying it at all.
"Isolation does very weird things to your brain but now I’m back to normal and playing live is great again.
“I wouldn't say there was guilt in knowing we were some of the only people in the world to be able to play live gigs, but it was a definitive sense of empathy and sympathy for other musicians. For me, it really just felt like my entire life was stopped, it just paused for 6 months. If it was hard for us it would be 100 times worse for people with longer lockdown.
“It was mainly a huge sense of luck to be living where we are. I still can't believe how lucky we are. There was also a sense that the show must go on so we had to let it since we could.”
Characters of Perth
Perth is notorious for people with wild, fascinating or moving stories willing to spurt them out on the street with little to no prompting.
Jack’s devastating ballad 'Michael', a retelling of an interaction he had with a stranger in Fremantle, was based on one such character.
“The interaction with the guy happened organically and kind of weaved itself into a story and lyrics. I was walking home and bumped into this guy. Initially i didn't want to write about it because it felt so personal. Then six months later it just sort of flowed out of me, so I was like ‘oh I guess this is what we’re doing’. I didn't want to embellish it, I wanted to leave it sort of broken, and messy and authentic.
“Perth seems to have a lot of interesting characters, and people who are quite willing to share their stories. None are quite as burned into my brain as that one because it was so intense but there are a few. There’s a lot more comical ones rather than emotional. I’m sure you’ll meet a few during my songs.”
Not an Aussie band, a music band.
Australian bands, especially those that play with their natural accent like Jack does, are sometimes shoehorned into the broad category of “Australian band”, (which accounts for everything from Crowded House and Tame Impala to Kerser and the Chats), and not judged by their own merit. Jack is hopeful their sound will work in places other than home.
“I don't think we will have trouble translating to other countries. Wishful thinking for me, but I think we could work quite well overseas. I wouldn't ever want to define ourselves as an “Aussie band” and nothing else. People always mean it in an endearing, nice way but I've never thought that about us.
“Once we develop and grow, we can enter into our own ground and our music can be defined more as my stories and our sounds that are unique to us rather than uniquely Australian.
“I think it would be more that I sing with my own accent , which I really enjoy. It’s the same as singers like Courtney Barnett because it feels really natural and honest. We’re more of a music band, than an Aussie music band. “
Listen to Jack Davies and the Bush Chooks' single 'Half Frozen Beer'
Jack Davies and the Bush Chooks
Wednesday 24 March
Low 302, Sydney, NSW
Friday 26 March
Northern Republic, Euroa, VIC
Saturday 27 March
Euroa Music Festival, Euroa, VIC
Sunday 28 March
The Corner Hotel, Melbourne, VIC