As Anthonie Tonnon draws near to the pre-release of his solo album, I caught up with him over a cup of bottomless filter coffee (half cream half milk, please.)
You’re off the back of your third US tour, any on-the-road tales?
I will tell you one rest-stop story - I was on a drive from Columbia to Denver, leaving a show at 1am to get through Kansas (a state everyone makes fun of) and found I was going through the ‘flint’ hills. They are these prairie hills with short grass that naturally burn themselves. I started driving and saw a cloud on the horizon - you can practically see an hour ahead of you in Kansas - as I got closer I realized the cloud was getting higher from the ground. It basically turned into this massive fire that surrounded me on both sides, you could actually see the fire burning up new bits of grass. Everyone told me Kansas was boring, but it turned out to be the most beautiful place!
You moved to Auckland in 2010 to make headway with your music, do you ever feel the pull back home?
I like Auckland in that it never feels finished, especially in the era that I’ve been here. It’s exciting to be part of a city that is ever changing; you get to be part of building it up. But at the same time I’ve never felt the sense of romance with Auckland; Dunedin is truly different, you feel like you are living in a magical pixieland.
Your previous album was released with band Tono and the Finance Company, why the decision to go solo?
When I decided to go under my own name and build a solo show, I did it mainly so I could take it on the road to Oz and the US. I wanted to make the show feel bigger than one person, not just ‘songwriter with acoustic guitar’. But I made a rule: no loops/laptops. For me communication is what draws me to a band and technology doesn't bring this.
So how do you go about creating the bigger sound?
It’s a bit of a dark art. I looked to theatre and comedy to engage and create a bigger experience. My show is both subtle and overt, overt with songs such as such as ‘Water Underground’ - I get people to sing along, walk away from my microphone so they have to sing along. I use storytelling. Like, imagine you are stuck at the bottom of a dark well… Imagine bricks around you (get the audience to look up) - using physical activity to engage audience. These things are interventions, taking people through an experience they never expected to have.
So in terms of a songwriting process, what helped you when writing this album?
There’s an interview with Leonard Cohen – he says ‘anything helps, I will do anything to write a song’. I don’t believe in inspiration; there is a difference between setting deadlines and having a practice. Having a practice is going to a room every week, having that space and just doing something for no reason. I generally have at least one day a week where I sit in a room and have to start from nothing, and just see what comes out. But what started to emerge in the process of writing the record was a voice in the second person. Most of the record is written in second person narrative, which is unusual. There are a lot of second person songs out there written from a ‘you and I’ perspective, but these songs are like a 90’s ‘pick a path’ novel. When you listen to it you are forced to inhabit a character, which you may not like.
Does this mean that the songs take longer to finish?
I used to only write songs if they finished themselves in a couple of weeks. If they didn’t come together in a couple of weeks, I’d start the next one, but now there is no time limit. One of the last songs on ‘Up Here For Dancing’ took 6 months to finish. Allotting this time gives the song time to take twists and turns. Some of these took two years! I’ve stopped thinking about the finish line and see a finished song as no different to one in progress – I’m comfortable during each stage.
Did this influence the production of the record?
This record was done differently to how I have done records before. We normally recorded with an experienced engineer, it’s done in 11 days with lots of improvisation and quick decisions. But once you release a record and take it on tour, you start to improve on playing the songs. So the idea was to produce the record whilst on tour, touring became the way we did pre-production. Touring NZ, Australia and the US, I let playing to audiences become the test; there is subconscious feedback that you get from playing to an audience. But recording like this takes time and you can’t get a lot of it with a good engineer, so my guitarist, Jonathan Pierce, transformed himself into an analog recording engineer and recorded the record. There is a mixture of fidelities, ‘Water Underground’ has a studio sound – it’s all gone through tapes but it’s been digitally manipulated. ‘A Friend From Argentina’ (a song based on an Auckland cocaine dealer), was recorded in a studio and cut up ‘sloppy hifi’. That song was recorded live in one take into a 1960’s journalists tape recorder, you can hear a half speed Beethoven piano recital at the end of the second hand tape.
Wanna give me a hint on the focal point of the album?
Focus on character. I’m leaving the album theme vague, but I will say that these characters are from a generation that hasn’t been explored very much in music and literature.
The storytelling on this album is incredible, why the interest in it?
Songwriting has not been great at creating complicated characters, and I’m interested in trying to blur those lines. Take ‘A Friend From Argentina’, just because this guy is a dealer, doesn’t mean he is a bad family man or 100% evil person etc. The first line is, “You live in this bar and that might imply that you are lonely.” But he’s not! Actually he has a fantastic life! Just because our traditional experience of storytelling would tell us the moral of the story must be he gets some retribution for the way he’s lived his life, that’s not necessarily true.
How on earth do you come up with these lyrics, was it research into historical figures? Pure imagination?
There is no direct link between inputs and outputs in my songwriting; I start writing a character and then let it write itself. I write so much more text than what goes into the song. I have pages and pages of lyrics, musings, stories, four or five alternate versions. One big influence, however, would be long-form journalism. There is a column in the New Yorker called ‘Reporter At Large’. These reporters spend years interviewing people, getting to know their family/friends, they embed themselves in the character to tell elongated story.
So when can people get a taste of this album?
We're organising an album preview show for November, and the album itself will be released early next year.