Amanda Brown is best known for her work with The Go-Betweens, but it’s just one part of a long and distinguished career. By Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen.
Musician Amanda Brown
When I speak to Amanda Brown on Zoom, it is days before the release of her first solo album, Eight Guitars. Two decades in the making, it sees the prolific instrumentalist and composer step to the fore as a singer-songwriter.
“It’s been on the backburner for a long time,” she says from her Sydney home studio. “I think I’m quite a shy person. The role of lead singer or main artist doesn’t sit incredibly comfortably but I guess it’s just part and parcel of when you put out an album – you have to come to terms with that.”
To many, Brown is best known as a member of a band that she joined when she was barely out of her teens, and she’s aware that may be a yardstick against which this album is measured. “That association with The Go-Betweens means that there’s a very high bar in terms of songwriting to live up to, and that’s somewhat intimidating,” she says.
While she hasn’t been on the performance circuit for a while, Brown has been busy behind the scenes. For more than 20 years she has been composing music for film and television, scoring productions such as Brazen Hussies, Babyteeth and RFDS. Her intricate sonic worlds bring the drama unfolding on screen to life, while also standing alone as fascinating pieces of music.
Eight Guitars is an amalgamation of Brown’s experience in bands and writing for screen – these atmospheric songs have a cinematic sheen. Some were written for screen projects – her first single “Freedom Song”, featuring Kirin J. Callinan on guitar, was originally written for the 2003 film Floodhouse – and some as part of a daily creativity exercise, or what Brown jokingly calls “the Nick Cave thing”. What ties these songs together is the conceit of eight guest guitarists, one for each track.
“I wanted to work with different people who are not your typical guitar players,” she says. “Guitar is one of those instruments that a lot of people play but not many people play tastefully. But it’s not just about that. It’s about their own creativity and influences that they bring to bear.”
Brown is far from the only screen composer with a band background – she names Danny Elfman and Son Lux’s Ryan Lott as prominent examples. “They’re very complementary,” she says of the two mediums. “The thing I like about the influences from the contemporary music and pop world is the production techniques … You can create some really interesting music using a hybrid of those techniques with effects, with production, with the way that the whole mix sits.”
One of the album’s many highlights is a beautiful cover of The Church’s 1981 single “The Unguarded Moment”, which Brown recorded in 2022 for author Kirsten Krauth’s podcast about ’70s and ’80s Australian music, Almost a Mirror. Though songwriter and Church frontman Steve Kilbey – who co-wrote another track on the album, “Light Lingers On” – expressed his dislike of the song in 1992, Brown’s gentle rendition gives the lyrics an emancipatory perspective that’s especially moving in her own context: “Tell those friends with cameras for eyes that their hands don’t make me hang / They only make me feel like breathing in an unguarded moment.”
Kilbey’s connection with Brown and her music goes back decades. He was also once in a short-lived band, Jack Frost, with Brown’s ex-partner and former bandmate, the late Grant McLennan. Brown was playing live at a cafe in the mid-’80s when she was discovered by The Go-Betweens, and soon found herself whisked to the other side of the globe.
For the next four years she provided backing vocals and played violin, oboe, guitar and keys for the Brisbane group responsible for creating the “striped sunlight sound” that still ripples through Australian indie music today. “The offer came along to join the band and move to London,” she says. “Before that, things like that were an absolute fantasy that happened to other people. I dropped out of university and moved to London, and it was a baptism of fire.”
Brown recorded two albums with the band – 1987’s Tallulah and the band’s magnum opus, 1988’s 16 Lovers Lane. She became romantically involved with McLennan, one of the band’s two songwriters. His songs on 16 Lovers Lane are about the ecstatic early stages of falling in love, while fellow songwriter Robert Forster’s contributions reflected the breakdown of his relationship with drummer Lindy Morrison. The album presents dialectical views of the same subject, creating a fractured, beautiful whole.
“Between them, they’re really some of the greatest love songs,” Brown says. “But by the same token, I never wanted to be put into that role of a muse, which historically, for women at least, has been an empty vessel to channel the creativity of male genius.”
A condition of Brown joining the band was that she would not receive songwriting royalties, as the group was built around the core Forster-McLennan partnership. She agreed, seeing herself as an instrumentalist rather than a songwriter.
But while she and McLennan were living together in Sydney’s Bondi Junction, he wrote the band’s best-known song, the bright yet strangely melancholic “Streets of Your Town”. While singing along, Brown came up with the song’s distinctive “shine” refrain. It was a rare Go-Betweens song that Forster had not heard before it was brought to the group.
“That did particularly rankle with me, because I wrote those vocal parts and they’re part of the song – surely they’re worth 5 or 10 per cent,” she says. “The fact that Robert collects half the royalties on that song for literally doing nothing is quite a hard pill to swallow.”
It’s just one part of the knotty interpersonal history of the band, which is well-documented but largely one-sided. The title of Forster’s 2016 memoir, Grant & I, encapsulates what’s commonly remembered and celebrated about the band. A 2017 documentary, The Go-Betweens: Right Here, almost didn’t include Brown and Morrison at all. They discovered that there had been a directive from the band’s management to exclude references to them on the official website.
Forster and McLennan famously informed Brown and Morrison of their plans to disband The Go-Betweens at the same premeditated moment in 1989. They reformed the group in 2000 without the women, recording and touring under the name until McLennan’s sudden death in 2006.
“Both of us refused to be defined as the girlfriends and that’s what they did when they dumped us,” Morrison says in the documentary. “They treated us like ex-wives, and that was the greatest insult.”
“For many years after the band broke up, Lindy and I felt quite excluded from the history,” says Brown. “We were very conscious of the way women’s roles were diminished by whoever writes the histories, which for the most part in the music industry is men.
“Robert’s book reinforced the idea that the band was just the two of them and everybody else was transitory and peripheral. Yes, they were great songwriters, there’s no denying that – but I also am a strong believer that a band has a particular chemistry and sound, and band members bring their own influences to creating the sound.”
My Rock ’n’ Roll Friend, a 2021 book by Everything But the Girl frontwoman Tracey Thorn about her friendship with Lindy Morrison, sought to redress the issue. “I think the truth is somewhere in the middle between the two books,” Brown says.
Old wounds aside, Brown’s time in The Go-Betweens was formative. With Morrison, bassist John Willsteed and a host of guest musicians and vocalists – Forster declined to be involved – she performed 16 Lovers Lane concerts at the Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney festivals in 2017 and 2018. Those concerts marked the first time some Go-Betweens songs, such as “The Devil’s Eye” and “You Can’t Say No Forever”, had ever been performed live. “In the end, it’s the songs that will remain and they’re beautiful testaments to a really intense, incredible time,” Brown says.
The Go-Betweens’ legacy lives on. I tell Brown that 16 Lovers Lane was released the year I was born, and that it came into my life in 2013 when my housemate, a girl from Queensland a couple of years younger than me, insisted that I listen. Our ramshackle Melbourne sharehouse thrummed with its jangly sounds. “That makes me so happy to hear that people who weren’t even born like it,” says Brown, beaming.
But she puts it into perspective, too: she spent four years in the band and has now spent more than two decades composing for screen. After the dissolution of The Go-Betweens, Brown and Morrison briefly formed a new band, Cleopatra Wong. Brown recalls how working in a band and family life were seen as incompatible, but only for mothers: “I remember one tabloid newspaper at the time pretty much said that the record company had wasted their money signing Cleopatra Wong because I was pregnant.”
Widespread industry sexism, and how disposably she was treated in The Go-Betweens, became a driving factor for Brown in her independent career. “It fuelled my determination to succeed at my own thing,” she says. “That anger and resentment and whatever other negative emotions were generated could be just channelled into really dedicated hard work and, in the end, that was a really great motivator.”
She enrolled in the Australian Film Television and Radio School and fell in love with film. “The whole thing just seemed to be a synergy of all the things that I’d always liked: the moving image, the visuals, the music, the storytelling,” she says. In the early days, before this work became a full-time career, Brown continued to play sessions or tour with other bands. She was notably a touring member of R.E.M. in the mid-’90s; other credits include recording or touring with The Vines, Youth Group and Toni Collette’s band, The Finish.
Screen composition is a full-on gig, she says, sometimes requiring 12-hour days, seven days a week to meet deadlines. “The one good thing I can say about it taking so long to get established as a screen music composer is that by the time it happened, my son had grown up and so I was free to devote the time that needs to be devoted to delivering film music,” she says.
After several decades in both the film and music worlds, Brown – who is a board member for songwriting representative body APRA – has witnessed a shift in how women are perceived. But she says there’s still a need for further support. “APRA membership is still hovering around only the 25 per cent mark for women. We know that 50 per cent of music graduates in tertiary institutions are women, but it’s not translating to songwriting, composition or music performed in concert halls,” she says. “There’s still a long way to go, but I’m seeing women playing instruments in bands now, and that was never commonplace in the days of The Go-Betweens.”
One solution, Brown says, is mentoring – she’s taken several young composers under her wing. And there are small but sure signs of progress all around. While all the featured guitarists on Eight Guitars are men – “it wasn’t for a lack of trying,” she says – the album had a rare all-female engineering team.
Now that the album is out in the world, it’s back to business as usual. There are minimal bells and whistles linked to the release – Brown will play a single show at Sydney’s City Recital Hall, supported by SnarskiCircusLindyBand, on June 30. Otherwise, she’s knuckling down with her screen work again, back to relative anonymity.
But the process of making an album under her own name, on her own terms, has been uniquely rewarding. “It’s been a joy making music for music’s sake, art for art’s sake,” she says. “I think I will do more of it, but it might take another 10 or 20 years.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 1, 2023 as "Flying solo".
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