Tim Minchin: Make your songs sound as good as you can – why overthink it?

Aussie actor, comedian, musician and composer Tim Minchin tells Kerri-Ann Roper about lockdown and the differences in his approach to writing music for theatre and for his forthcoming album

Tim Minchin who is releasing his first studio solo album Apart Together in November. Picture by Damian Bennett

TIM Minchin has penned two hit musicals – Matilda The Musical and Groundhog Day – flexed his acting muscles, most recently in TV drama series Upright, and now he's about to notch up his first studio album release too. But the 44-year-old composer, actor, writer and comedian is all modesty.

Speaking via Zoom from Sydney, he says upcoming album Apart Together has been a project “that's been on pause for 20 years”.

“I guess the short answer is this: I'm a singer-songwriter and this is what I've always done, and actually just writing songs with interesting lyrics is the thing that connects everything I do. I guess now with Upright I've pushed out into acting a bit… but you know, it's not a diversion for me to make a studio album, it's a return.”

He explains: “Just like writing Matilda was a return to writing theatre… I'd written 12 scores for theatre between the ages of 17 and 27 so actually the digression was comedy, I suppose, which I love.

“I had the best time and it means I got to do these big concerts and I still get to do big concerts, but I guess since I got known as a comedian I've been pretty obsessed with trying to break down the boundaries of that pigeon hole, and everything I've done since my Orchestra tour in 2010 has been about divesting people of their assumptions about my limitations I guess.”

While he has continued to release live and comedy albums since 2005's Darkside, he has never made a studio album.

Due for release in November, the album features 11 tracks, among them the title track (Apart Together) and the already released single I'll Take Lonely Tonight, which details the temptations he faces as a touring musician and comedian, and the strength he finds to remain faithful to his wife.

Asked about going down the album route now, he says: “The main thing that happened is I signed a record deal. I sort of do everything independently but I thought, well, I should get some support to try and make this more than just a vanity project. And BMG really liked what my demo sounded like…”

He goes on to explain that its release was “pushed back to try and launch it at a big festival, and then Covid came and it got pushed back and back so, none of that has made me particularly anxious”.

But with a November release date in the diary, he says: “I'm just glad that people are taking it seriously as a piece of work and it's a tough time to be making anything, but making a slightly meditative album that is really about the passage of time, to be released as a full-length album, and really designed to be sat down and listened to, it feels like, oh well, if you've got to make something, that feels like the right thing to make somehow.”

Reflecting on the process of writing for an album, he draws on his experience writing comedy and musical scores.

“I love it all you know,” he muses. “I love the brutal honesty of the comedy. My habit of being honest about things was developed during my comedy years because that was my sense of humour – brutal assessment of other people's ideas but also brutal assessment of myself.

“Then writing from the points of view of other people, I love it, so it's really interesting and a huge challenge. Writing music for musical theatre, it's so easy for it to be a bit s***, it's really hard to move from story to song and back again and to make sure your themes are universal, but not cliched, and to make sure your melodies are catchy, but not cliched, and so on.”

And clearly it's something he's mastered, with Matilda The Musical, based on the Roald Dahl book, having over the years been nominated for Olivier and Tony Awards, as well as a Grammy nomination.

The album writing, he says, has “been a bit of a having to take a long hard look at myself, because making this record it's been like, OK who am I now, what is my songwriting style, because I spent so long writing for other stories, and writing for comedy and writing for punchlines…”

His UK fans will have seen him perform recently at the Bafta TV Awards, which were broadcast from behind closed doors on BBC One due to the coronavirus pandemic.

He opened the show with a bespoke song about the coronavirus's impact on the screen industry before closing with Carry You from Upright.

Asked about the last few months and lockdown, he says: “We're struggling a bit like everyone is. Obviously I had to shut my tour down, and a lot of the people who rely on me, all the people who rely on my work to live, crews and cast of Matilda all over the world, my band and my crew for touring, that doesn't feel good, because it's a significant source of pride for me – the fact that my work generates work for artists and practitioners is a source of pride for me…”

As is the new album, but asked if he's a harsh self-critic, he explains: “What surprised me is how big it is, like [album songs] Summer Romance and The Absence Of You. I can't help it. I'm a kid of the 90s, I grew up listening to U2 and Pearl Jam and just a lot of big stuff, and so I don't discard a lot really simply because often the stuff I hate, other people love.

“So why overthink it? Write the songs, make them sound as good as you can, make sure the lyrics are never lazy, make sure you're getting the most out of every word, and press record.”

:: The song Apart Together is out now while the album is out on November 20.

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