There’s a song by Graeme Connors called “What If”. It’s a typically well crafted, insightful song – a love song – but towards the end there’s a simple observation that on one hand is not about Connors – and yet is totally about the Australian lyricist and singer.
“What if Randy Newman finally got some airplay. What if John Prine was still delivering mail.”
Connors has much in common with the two songwriters that he cites as major influences. All three write in a way that is deceptively simple. All three cut subtly to the very core of their subject matter. All three can raise hairs on your arms and neck with their insights. All three exist outside the mainstream of popular music. And for the most part they don’t give a damn about that.
Graeme Connors began making country/songwriter records when the world’s musical landscape was being forever changed by bands like the Sex Pistols, the Clash and The Ramones. A fine musical traditionalist, Connors was already under the spell of Newman and Prine, along with other inspired lyrical craftsmen such as Kris Kristofferson who heard Connors when the young singer opened for one of his Australian tours and was so impressed he produced Connors’ debut album, And When Morning Comes, way back in 1976.
Over the next decade Connors did what his heroes did – quietly created sublime songs with heart and soul. Slim Dusty recorded no less than 12 of those songs. That’s what song writers do. They write songs. Lots of them. Often people other than their creator record them. Some of the best known songs by Prine and Newman are via other artists recordings of those songs.
In 1988 Connors released an album called North. It was his songs and his voice. People liked it. A lot of people.
These people who became Graeme Connors fans weren’t hipster tastemakers. They’re not the cool kids. They’re people who appreciate and luxuriate in finely crafted songs delivered with heart. They’re a loyal bunch. They’re a little like a Paul Kelly audience. They’re growing old with his songs in the same way that Connors audience have grown with him. His lyrical concerns are mirrored in their own life journey. It’s a journey that Connors has documented in a regular stream of albums, eighteen in all.
A large part of that creative output was released by ABC Music, but for the last decade Connors has existed happily in the zone of the totally independent artist. That’s what he wanted. The way he liked things. One songwriter. One singer. Everything under his own roof.
But great artists rarely stand still. They frequently change course in mid stream and such is the case with Connors.
During 2014, with Connors edging towards his 60th birthday, he began to wonder about his future in the music and songwriting caper. He ruminated on the questions many artists ask. Was the audience still there? What did they want from him? Did he have things to say to them? Hell, did they even listen to and buy music?
Connors decided to find out. He did something he’d never done and booked a show at the prestigious Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) in Brisbane and caste fate to the wind. Would people turn up or could this be his swan song?
The worry was unnecessary. The show sold out and Connors embarked on another extensive national tour with his regular touring band in tow. With that came a revelation. Many of the fans coming to the shows on this tour weren’t aware of a whole host of songs and records that Connors had written, recorded and released in the past decade. These were people who hadn’t embraced iTunes, streaming, digital music and the internet. They wanted CDs. Objects with lyrics, music credits, photos. And as an independent artist Connors had struggled with getting his music to many of the traditional bricks and mortar shops around the country, both the major chains and the small outlets in regional areas.
Light bulb moment. These songs had been written and recorded as an independent artist – but maybe they needed a bigger structure to get them to a mainstream audience. By his own admission Connors wasn’t exactly a marketing giant when it came to mailing copies of his albums to radio, newspapers and magazines. He had songs to write.
So why not strike up a new arrangement with ABC Music? Why not put together a gorgeously audacious double album package containing highlights from his long career, skewed somewhat towards albums released in the past decade but also including re-mixes of some earlier material and brand new songs? Why not indeed? What about putting together the career retrospective you do when you’re not really doing a career retrospective? And what about calling one of the new songs “60 Summers” and also celebrating that life milestone with your fans? What wasn’t to like about this idea?
The result is ’60 Summers: The Ultimate Collection’, a mixture of 37 songs from the very beginning through such landmark albums as ‘The Return’, ‘The Road Less Travelled’, ‘This Is Life’, ‘The Moment’ and ‘Still Walking’.
There’s also re-mixed and re-mastered selections from ‘North’ and ‘South Of These Days’. Connors, having been invigorated to return to the original master tapes with producer Matt Fell, has given them a 2016 perspective without actually adding anything that wasn’t lurking on the original tapes. It’s a process Connors intends to continue with.
And of course there are new songs, including the title track where Connors says that he’s now “right smack dab where I wanna be.” He’s seen sixty summers and still he wants more. Sixty summers and he ain’t done yet.
They’re reflective but forward thinking observations that bear comparison with Connors’ greatest inspirations. Randy Newman has flourished as a songwriter and composer despite absolutely no mainstream radio play. John Prine is acknowledged as the songwriters songwriter and thankfully no longer delivering mail. And Graeme Connors has realised that he has both a magnificent legacy of songs and recordings – and so many more to write and sing.