Sweet Jean love a good juxtaposition. Alice Keath and Sime Nugent create pop-influenced folk music, but deliver it with dark, bluesy undertones. Their debut album Dear Departure is a gritty but whimsical exploration of transitions from innocence to experience. Bringing back the male/female duets, their sound is nostalgic, raw and brimming with the sounds of banjo and autoharp. But shockingly, there’s definitely no harmonica. "It was deemed to be an old man instrument and therefore was banished," says Nugent.
Were there any records in your formative years that are still informing your sound now?
AK: There were quite a few records we were listening to when we making this album. They were records that we have both loved for a long time.
SN: One’s on in the café now…
AK: Dusty Springfield! She’s a really big influence, the really big string sound, the lush old-school pop. Lou Reed, the song Perfect Day is a really good example of a songwriter who can distil quite complex ideas into quite a simple song. The lyrics are quite naïve in a way but then there’s this sadness to it as well, which is really affecting emotionally.
SN: We were listening to a lot of very old folk music when we started making music together, and then at the same time we were listening to modern music and wondering how do we get some of the depth in the production values while keeping that open, airy old school sounds. The ideas that were bigger got simpler along the way.
So you produced with John Castle, what made you choose him?
AK: He’s a good old friend of Sime’s. We had been wondering who we could work with that understands that balance of the really kind of open, old school, gritty folk music, but can bring that pop sensibility to it. We were playing a gig at the Retreat Hotel and John just happened to walk in and catch the last two songs of our set. John came up and said ‘I love what you’re doing’ and basically described that exact sound that we had been talking about. And so at three o’clock in the morning after several beers, the three of us decided to make an album. And then a week later we went into his studio, which is out the back in a shed of his parents place.
Yeah I’ve heard it been described as ‘not very rock and roll’…
AK: Yeah, you would go in there and there’s roses and Oscar the dog comes and greets you.
SN: He basically tricked us into starting to make the record. We thought we were doing a demo and we walked out of the end of the day and we had done the first single that we had released.
That was Shiver and Shake?
SN: Yeah, at the end of 2011.
AK: But just the sounds he was able to make so quickly, it was like he just instantly got it. And that’s so nice when you can work with someone creatively who you know that there’s that level of trust there to start with.
And where did the name Dear Departure come from?
SN: I think we were driving in the car near Margaret River in WA, on our way to a gig and I said "Dear departure" and Alice said "Yes!"
And that was it?
SN: Yes it was. [Laughs].That’s as complicated as it was.
AK: It ended up being a line in one of our songs, Hello Concrete. And I guess the title sort of applies to a lot of the themes that are running through the album.
SN: There’s a lot of referring to other times, whether it’s the future or the past.
Have you played in any unusual places?
AK: Very early on we played on the top of Mount Buller at a Harley Davidson rally [laughs], which was actually our very first gig where we played together. Sime had been booked for the show and he asked if I wanted to come. So we ended up playing a set together, and halfway through the set the organisers asked if we could stop playing for a minute because the dome of death was about to start up. And we were like, "What the...?"
SN: It’s a metal cage on the side of the cage, where the object of the exercise is to ride all around the inside of the cage without crashing into anyone.
AK: So this was right in the middle of our gig, on the top of Mount Buller.
SN: So the guys would do their thing then tell us to play some more banjo, on the top of this freezing cold mountain in a blizzard.
AK: But they put us up in this beautiful hotel. And then we went down the mountain and stayed at…
SN: That’s right we went down the river. It was in the crook of the river and we stayed at this hotel, who let us stay for free because we agreed to do a gig that night. But when we say gig, there were five people and they were kind of terrifying hillbillies.
AK: We were just playing in the corner with no mic or anything. I think that weekend would probably be up there with the most interesting live music experiences we’ve had.
Sime, you’re involved with Lot 19, how did that come about?
SN: My dear friend Mark Anstey bought Lot 19 ten years ago. It’s become an artists hub, it has artists studios, and a beautiful gallery and a commercial kitchen and bar. We do live music events inside the gallery, which are smaller events of about 100 people. Then every couple of years we take a big deep breath and put on an outdoor music festival.
Is there a big Castelmaine music scene or is it mainly Melbourne artists that come to Lot 19?
SN: There’s a growing Castlemaine arts scene, the town has doubled in size over the last ten years.
AK: It’s good that both of our jobs are tie in music. So the conversation is always about music. Well except when it’s about tables.
SN: Or floor coverings.
So Alice you work on radio, do you think you ask musicians different questions than a journo would?
AK: Oh yeah. Sometimes I have to actually pull myself up and say. "All right, this interview has been going on for 45 minutes, I’m going to have to edit this a lot." I just get so interested in picking their brains about the creative process or how they put this song together, or how they were working in the studio.
You interviewed Jeff Tweedy, was he a tough one?
AK: He was great, he’s such good fun. One of the things I love about my job is interviewing people like Jeff Tweedy or PJ Harvey last year, is so inspiring. I mean, how lucky to be a musician and be able to ask PJ Harvey how her brain ticks? She was so articulate and so considered.
SN: It’s just great to have access to people that are at the top of their game isn’t it? And to be able to, like you said, pick their brains about what gets them up in the morning.
AK: Yeah and I guess the point of that is that it’s really interesting to speak to people that are at the top of their game who are still striving to be better at what they do.
SN: It sort of demystifies the whole start thing a lot as well doesn’t it? I mean, it doesn’t need to be said, but they are just people, doing stuff and working hard. And the common thread seems to be people that work hard. The whole kind of genius gene or anything is a bit of a misnomer. It’s about working hard on what you love and hoping that it resonates with people.
Do you write your songs together?
SN: Yeah some of them! I don’t know how to break it down exactly; maybe a third we individually write and a third we write together. And then there’s a range of collaboration within that as well. We credit each other on all of the songs we published on this album because we wouldn’t have made it without each other. I basically tricked Alice into making the album.
And take the credit for it?
SN: The perfect crime!
AK: But there’s a lot of editing that goes on isn’t there? I know with Annabelle I was trying to lyrically over complicate it and spell it out a bit too much. Because I was drawing on all these references, it almost did turn into a first year uni essay ‘On Transition.’ But Sime was like, "Cut, cut, cut. This doesn’t need to be said; you can simplify this." So really distilling it into exactly what needed to be said and being really careful about the way it was said. I think it’s a much better song for that. Equally when we were going to the studio I was like, "It needs five-part vocal harmonies!" and it ended up sounding like Enya on crack [laughs]. And the boys were like we need to strip this down. So they stripped the whole thing down to a drumbeat and we rebuilt it from there. And again, so much better. Keeping the elements really simple.
Dear Departure is released Thu July 4.