An inspired project led by Brisbane songwriter Simon Munro pairs musicians with Australian poets, living and dead, to create an album of lyrical beauty By Dave Faulkner.
Simon Munro first came up with the idea for Borrowed Verse in 2012. For two years, the Brisbane songwriter had been adapting poems by Jorge Luis Borges, Pablo Neruda and Judith Wright and turning them into songs when, as he describes it, “a light bulb went off” in his head. “This is not a landscape that is really explored in pop music or folk music,” Munro said when I interviewed him two weeks ago. “I just enjoyed the process and really saw the value in it.” That was the moment he decided to expand his private project to include other songwriters. Now, six years later, Borrowed Verse is the exciting result.
Of the 12 songs that make up this album, 11 were newly composed by eight different Australian singer-songwriters, including Munro, setting to music the poems of nine different Australian poets, five of whom are still active. The single exception was “Where Corals Lie”, which was composed in 1888 by Sir Edward Elgar, from a poem written 30 years earlier by fellow Englishman Richard Garnett. Ben Salter chose the Elgar song for Borrowed Verse and he also sang his own composition, “Tracks”, an adaptation of Herb Wharton’s poem. Salter’s uncomplicated, crystal clear delivery makes the songs sound like companion pieces, somehow managing to bridge a gulf that spans centuries and cultures. This feeling of musical communion holds true for the entire album. A disparate group of artists, largely working in isolation, united their talents to create a consistent, coherent and thoroughly enjoyable album. But more than that, Borrowed Verse is a fascinating insight into the nexus between music and spoken verse.
Another songwriter who provided two tracks for the album was Glenn Richards, the lead singer of Augie March. His first, “A Strange Bird”, was based on Michael Dransfield’s short poem and it opens the album. Dransfield was a doomed genius who died in 1973 at the age of 24, having already written nearly a thousand poems. “A Strange Bird” is haiku-like in its economy, and Richards’ plaintive melody adds a touch of melancholy to the poet’s acerbic words, turning it into a lament:
it is a strange bird
whose habit is
to fight itself
whose left wing
and right wing
Comprising only 12 lines, Richards chooses to repeat several stanzas and the opening couplet becomes a haunting refrain.
His second contribution required a little more musical dexterity. Kenneth Slessor’s “Mephistopheles Perverted, or Goethe for the Times” is wordier and consequently more unwieldy, but Richards devised an inspired solution. He framed the verses in a call-and-response structure, alternating lines between the lead and backing vocals (indicated here in parentheses):
Once long ago there lived a Flea
(Who kept such a fine, fat King)
Not that he held with royalty
(But more for the appearance of the thing)
And gave his Majesty to hold
(Such pageantries are far too few)
A sword of ruby-hilted gold
(That possibly might hack a cheese in two)
But lest this glory might begin
(To prove the regency too far)
His thunderbolt they made of tin
And changed his godship for another Star.
Both of Richards’ songs could be described as dream pop though “Mephistopheles Perverted”, which he recorded with Augie March, has a touch of ’70s prog, or as Richards prefers to call it, “space rock”.
Sandwiched between “A Strange Bird” and “Mephistopheles Perverted” on the album is “Morbid Fascination”, composed and performed by Tom Cooney. This is the first of the songs based on the work of a living poet, in this case Pascalle Burton. Burton is a musician herself and she appears elsewhere on this album as a member of Brisbane’s The Stress of Leisure, who perform their quirky adaptation of “Straws” by another contemporary Queensland poet, David Stavanger. I spoke to Burton last week and she told me it was Cooney who first got her involved in Borrowed Verse. After a bit of back and forth, she said, “I sent Tom a manuscript and he picked it very quickly, and he wrote me back, saying ‘I’ve just done a song for “Morbid Fascination” ’, so it was very quick.” When I asked Burton for her reaction to Cooney’s arrangement, she replied, “It’s an electrifying feeling, actually. This is another reincarnation of that poem and it’s something I wouldn’t naturally have done.” Burton often performs her own poems using visuals and sonic landscapes. “I usually use weird things like synthesisers and circuit bent things,” she said, “You know, just more experimental things, and he’s got this kind of crooner approach in his singing and it was completely unexpected.” Cooney’s folky style may appear conventional on the surface but his astringent take on “Morbid Fascination” has a raw, minimalist edge.
Although poetry and lyrics may have a lot in common, they are not interchangeable. One of the pitfalls of adapting a fixed text is what I like to call the Spicks and Specks syndrome. The ABC’s quiz show regularly featured a game where participants sang randomly chosen passages from a book using the tune of a well-known song. In the game, the strictures of the melody often made the words nonsensical, with melodic emphasis landing on unstressed syllables and line breaks occurring at illogical points in the text. When the natural cadence of the lyric doesn’t match the cadence of the melody, the results are jarring and often absurd, proving that no one can actually sing the telephone book pleasingly.
The songs on Borrowed Verse betray no sign of this syndrome, although there were one or two close calls, and all of the songwriters must be applauded for this. Angie Hart is just one whose contributions are flawless. Her settings of “The Bee Hut” and “Not the Same” are masterpieces of understatement, giving Dorothy Porter’s exquisite words gossamer wings. Porter wrote both poems after undergoing surgery for breast cancer, an intervention that ultimately proved futile. “The Bee Hut” is playful and joyous, revelling in wonder, and Hart’s music amplifies those emotions. “Not the Same” is more sombre, almost religious in tone, but Hart’s delicate melody and the hushed jazz trio accompaniment transform Porter’s words into a tender torch song, with a palpable sense of spiritual awakening despite the gathering darkness.
In every instance, the songwriters on Borrowed Verse have shown enormous respect towards their chosen poems. When I remarked to Hart that she hadn’t altered the texts in the slightest, she laughed. “I wouldn’t dare,” she said. “It’s not my territory to be deciding how somebody should have said things differently, and a beautiful challenge to decide how the music can work around what they created.”
Unfortunately for Jessie L. Warren, she only discovered she had inadvertently altered a significant word of Maria Zajkowski’s “Dear John” just prior to final mastering, when it was too late to change. Warren was beside herself when she realised. “I totally lost my mind for an afternoon,” she told me. When she finally got through to Zajkowski to tell her about the mistake, the author herself was philosophical. “She was just kinda like, ‘Well, I guess that’s the way it was supposed to be.’ ”
Zajkowski has every reason to be satisfied with Warren’s adaptation. To my mind, Warren captures the intention of the original poem perfectly. She softly intones the irregular verses over simple acoustic guitar chords, repeating phrases like a mantra, as if turning them over in her mind to tease out nuance. Voices, clarinets, percussion and indeterminate, ambient sounds gently swirl in the background, but the overall effect is one of spaciousness. “I like space more than I like sound,” Warren says. “I’m very visual, so I asked [Zajkowski] to describe where she was when she wrote some of the lyrics, what the weather was like or what the colour of the sky was that day, that kind of thing.” Zajkowski told Warren that she wrote the poem over a period of time in different places, and the songwriter tried to capture a sense of that in her music. “So when I wrote the song I wanted it to feel like you were moving between places as you were listening to it.” Warren’s melody floats free, untethered to any formal song structure, borne aloft by the currents of the language. Zajkowski couldn’t have asked for a more sympathetic collaborator.
The poetry of Michael Dransfield appears a second time on the album, this time in the hands of Paul Bonetti. Classically trained, Bonetti turns “Midwinter” into a dreamy rhapsody.
so newly cold
spring summer autumn lie in drifts under the trees
the dreamtime has come
a fire in a clearing
in the forest
with, overhead, the stars.
Clouds of breath, heads are planets
the newness of finding answers
making a shelter from the rain
A quintet of trombones brings a mellow richness to the arrangement, as if warding off the winter chill with a warm blast of home and hearth. Earworms are plentiful throughout Borrowed Verse but Bonetti’s tune for “Midwinter” is the one I find popping into my head throughout the day.
Melodies don’t always need to be ravishing to be memorable or effective. Emily Lubitz’s simple melody for “Today You Asked Me If I Remember What You Told Me About Love” by Oscar Schwartz almost disappears behind the words, its plainness making her song sound more observational than sentimental. “I just like that it was this beautiful, kind of impression of this awkward moment with a new girlfriend or something,” Lubitz told me. “I felt like I knew those feelings… and I could authentically sing it as opposed to some of the other poems that were just a bit more of another world.”
Judith Wright’s poetry is very much of this world, particularly for Australians, but her prodigious talent was definitely otherworldly. She was and always will be one of our greatest writers and it is fitting that her poem “Silence” is the closing track here. It’s even more appropriate that it is Simon Munro himself who has adapted and performed it, under his Nausicaa nom de plume. Munro has risen to the challenge of Wright’s evocative words admirably, writing a song that sounds equal parts Paul Simon and Nick Drake. It’s wonderful, beautiful, and a perfect conclusion to the album.
It’s obvious Borrowed Verse has been a labour of love for all concerned. Principally funded via a Pozible campaign, the album was recorded on the proverbial smell of an oily rag. Without the generosity of fellow musicians, studio engineers and lovers of the arts, this project would have never got off the ground and that would have been an enormous loss.
Poetry is imbued with a kind of silent melody; it sings without need of music. Similarly, music has never required words to explore the depths of the human soul. When both forms are combined together well, as they are here, the results can be truly powerful.
MUSIC Low-Light Festival
Venues throughout Queenscliff, Victoria, June 22 – July 14
MULTIMEDIA The Women of River Country
Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney, June 20 – September 20
City Recital Hall, Sydney, June 21-26
Arts Centre, Melbourne, June 21-30
MUSIC Sol / Stories in the Dark
Home of the Arts, Gold Coast, June 20-21
BALLET St Petersberg Ballet Theatre – Swan Lake
Princess Theatre, Melbourne, June 20-26
CABARET Katya: The Minx from Minsk
Chapel Off Chapel, Melbourne, June 20-21
CLASSICAL ACO in Darwin
Darwin Entertainment Centre, June 16
VISUAL ART Diane Arbus: American Portraits
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, June 17
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 16, 2018 as "Verse chorus".
A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.
Letters & Editorial