Track By Track: Joe McKee ‘Burning Boy’
Songs about bushfires, pink sunsets and an emu named Tya – JOE MCKEE leads us through his debut solo album, ‘Burning Boy’, his first post-Snowman release.
I was sitting in my flat in London when that opening passage of music appeared out of nowhere. I think I’d been humming it in the shower and it must’ve gradually materialised over a few weeks. That shifting scale is pretty unsettling and from that feeling the words were born.
Snowman had disbanded and I was scrambling around frantically trying to find something to fill the void. Eventually I rediscovered why I make music. These songs rose from the wreckage I suppose. Particularly this one. There was an amazing pink sunset in London (a pretty rare sight) when I had that minor epiphany, so this song always looks all swirling pink to me. I’ve always had this niggling fear that I’m losing my mind a little bit. Making music is such an internal trip, you can get lost in that inner space if you’re not careful. This song explores that idea.
My friend Rachael Dease plays the omnichord on this one, beautiful cosmic flourishes throughout. There’s also a high-pitch drone threading the piece together. A constant reminder of something, just in the back of the mind. Something I can’t escape. It’s a communication to myself as a kid. It takes about seven years for every cell in our body to be renewed, so we’re not really the same creature that we once were. That explains a lot to me. I’m trying to get through to the person that I once was, to get some answers about myself.
That little opening phrase is one of my favourite melodies on the album I think. I was on the tube [in London] reading about some serious bushfires back in Perth. My childhood hills were burning. It’s funny how disconnected you become when you don’t have any visual reminders. It’s scary how much you forget. So this song is basically about me sifting through memories of my childhood in those hills to try and teleport back there. I felt a serious longing for that landscape, so I suppose I was trying to rebuild it in my head for some comfort. Eventually those places started popping up in my dreams again. I thought that was pretty poignant.
‘An Open Mine’
Perth has changed quite dramatically in the past four years. When I returned I hardly recognised the place. This song is about packing everything up to go and find fortune in the mines. I’m quite fond of the outro. A strange, dizzying pop song rears it head for a moment.
This was the first song I wrote for the album. It’s a few years old now but it helped me build a world to write within. It set up the parameters for the other songs – they all somehow relate to this one. I need obstacles in place when I’m writing otherwise the options seem infinite. It helps me narrow things down and find a focal point. This song helped me do that. It’s about seeing something beautiful in an otherwise ugly situation.
This song is based on a dreamtime story about the emu, Tya, who became the keeper of the land. She flew down from Orion’s Belt with her sisters. But her sisters left her on earth, clipped her wings and said “guard this joint while we go back home”. The emu became angry and tried to build a tower to get back to the stars, but she left it in the hands of the termite woman who munched the thing down. This toing and froing went on for a while. Tya would build the tower and the termite woman would destroy it; each crumbled tower would form something different on the Australian landscape. I can kind of relate to that stupid emu. I learn things the hard way sometimes, through perpetual trial and error, but ultimately, from all of my efforts and failures there tends to be something to show for it. I’ve written my own ending to this story.
‘An Unborn Spark’
This song has been lurking around for a while. I think it was the second one I wrote for the album. I was still well and truly immersed in writing for Snowman at that stage – channeling all of my energy into that beast – so this song was something that was purely escapist for me. Something for me to sit down and stare off into the middle distance, too. The whole album kind of has that quality to me. It’s me escaping into inner-space. I was considering this song to be on the final Snowman album [Absence], but I decided at some point that it had to be saved for something else. It was in a different space. It has a great sadness to it this one. It’s a bit weighty, sorry about that. It’s about not being able to rebuild a burning bridge.
This one is probably the most ambitious on the album and probably my favourite song in some ways. It has various movements to it. Some of my favourite string arrangements are on here. I wrote most of the arrangements on the album, but my dear friend Tristen Parr came up with some really stunning passages. Particularly on this song and on ‘Flightless Bird’. I met a lovely English chap in London (funny that) named Matthew Gest. He happened to be in Perth visiting his sister at the time that I was recording, so he came along and tickled the ivory on a few songs and proceeded to blow my mind. He listened to this song once and played it through start to finish and that first take is the one we kept. This song is really about selective blindness.
‘A Double Life’
I wrote this song last. I found an interesting modal tuning that I would drift off to. After hours in that transcendental kind of state it eventually wrote itself. I don’t have a lot of memory about how this one came about. It’s difficult to remember how some songs are written. It’s about getting back home. Back to the trees and the creeks and the bushes and lakes, too purify yourself, to reset the clock and start afresh.
This one stands out from the other songs to me. I think that’s why it’s the last song on the album. It couldn’t have fit anywhere else. I wasn’t even going to include it at all. In fact, the take that makes the album is a rough first attempt at playing the thing start to finish. Upon listening back, there seemed to be something special about it. It’s about a relapse of sorts.