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Tangled Beauty: In Conversation with Mess Esque’s Helen Franzmann & Mick Turner

We talk to the Australian duo about their second album of 2021.

Escapism music is often the best kind and Mess Esque deal exclusively in it.

Comprising of Brisbane-based artist, Helen Franzmann (also of McKisko), and Melbourne’s Mick Turner (Dirty Three), the pair form a mesmeric alliance, continuing their splendid run of form in 2021 with their second album, Mess Esque.

Following on from the striking debut released earlier this year, Dream #12, which was written for Brisbane-based label, Bedroom Suck Records, as a part of their Private Eyes series, Mess Esque, arrives via Drag City – a label Turner knows well, having facilitated the releases for both his solo works and Dirty Three.

Turner is no stranger to collaboration. As well as providing the unique, striking soundscapes for Dirty Three, he has previously worked with the likes of Chan Marshall, Will Oldham, and Bill Callahan. However, it’s Turner’s creative partnership with Franzmann that sees both artists reap the greatest reward. Turner’s tender guitar is radiant, providing the perfect bedding of sound for Franzmann’s wispy, dream state vocals.

There’s an unbridled telepathy here, with the songs from Mess Esque drifting through hallways like a gentle breeze, reaching the corners of previously unoccupied rooms. It’s the kind of album that finds beauty in the most secluded places and while Dream #12 was delivered with poise and modesty, it was hard to see Mess Esque bettering it, but better it they have.

The songs for Mess Esque were recorded during the same sessions as Dream #12 and, aesthetically, continue down the heavenly path of its predecessor. Meticulously crafted, yet impulsive, Mess Esque is a collage of the most fascinating incongruities

The rolling waves of Wake Up to Yesterday that sparkle and glow. The lonely wander of Sweet Spot, which feels like it could only have been written in the dark solitude of lockdown. Forever, which poses as an off-cut from Low and Dirty Three’s In the Fish Tank, waiting over 20 years just for Franzmann to add the necessary spark; which leads into the glorious composition, Jupiter – the song that underpins Mess Esque and, in truth, the whole idea of the band itself.

While Take It Outside is Mess Esque’s warped interpretation of something resembling a rock song, it’s the fragile closer, Beaneath the Rain, which seals the deal. The kind of reflective lament that stirs memories of the past; very much like looking at one of Turner’s striking pieces of art, evoking unique, vivid imagery of the Australian landscape.

Mess Esque is a soundtrack for the sunset. A balladeering emotional force that imbues new hope.

We caught up with Franzmann and Turner via Zoom towards the end of August to talk about Mess Esque, and various other things – including how Franzmann was unable to return to her home state of Queensland after the first Mess Esque live shows.

Playing alongside Turner’s Dirty Three bandmate, Jim White and Ed Kuepper, due to lockdown measures that continue to impinge and wreak havoc across Australia, the move left Franzmann trawling parts of northern New South Wales, which, incidentally, found the songwriter close to my small hometown which boasts a population of 12,000 people.

It’s funny how it all works out…

Mess Esque: Dream #12 – “the essence of something special”

Sun 13: How did you both come to know one another and when was the start of Mess Esque?

Mick Turner: “We were introduced by a mutual friend. A guy called Nick Huggins, who’s a producer. He’s got his own studio, and he’s done a lot of recordings I’ve been involved with. I was looking for a singer to collaborate with and I was talking to him about it. He suggested Helen and put us in contact. We worked together for probably a year, I think, before we met. Maybe even longer…”

Helen Franzmann: “Longer, I think. Yeah, a bit over a year.”

MT: “We actually started 2019 before the lockdown started and COVID happened. We started sending things back and forth a little and then kind of picked up through 2020. And then we did manage to do some shows. We met in March, Helen came down to Melbourne but then she couldn’t play because of lockdown. A kind of sudden lockdown happened, but then we managed to play some shows in May, was it?”

HF: “We did. We played a couple of shows, but then the whole city locked down. That was the Rising Festival in Melbourne, and then we came up to Brisbane to play but everything started to shut down to Victoria…” 

MT: “So we arrived in Brisbane and we went to New South Wales to play up in northern New South Wales but then Queensland’s border shut to Melbourne so I couldn’t go back to Brisbane and Helen couldn’t go back there without quarantining in a hotel for two weeks. That was the show we played. Although I have booked and cancelled about 40 shows since.”

HF: (Laughs) “We’ve played three shows together.”

MT: “Yeah.”

S13: The whole state government thing is obviously more relevant over there. It seems like it adds another layer to the whole pandemonium of it all. 

HF: “Touring at all has been tricky. And the states manage things very differently. That time I was locked out of Queensland for two weeks, but in NSW I didn’t even need to quarantine. Mick flew back to Melbourne, and I roamed. I could have visited your parents in Inverell.”

(All laugh)

S13: Were the songs off Dream #12 and Mess Esque written at the same time? 

HF: “Pretty much within the same batch, yeah. And there’s another, probably seven or eight songs from that same period of time, too. So we have another record, as well.” 

S13: Oh, wow. Was it a case of just getting in your zone and just getting it all out? 

MT: “Yeah, we kept making things up.” 

HF: “Just so bountiful, the most bountiful period of writing I’ve ever had.”

MT: “Me, too.” 

HF: “Yeah. Something about the way we kept throwing it back and forth was really great for me. I really loved that, being so free with it.”

Mess Esque - Mess Esque

S13: Being in Dirty Three, and you’ve done things over the past four decades with others, as well, but is collaboration always a thing that you’re looking to do, Mick?

MT: “Um, not always, as I’ve made a lot of solo records, too. But I think I was getting… I was writing music that I just felt I wanted to have lyrics on and wanted vocals on, and I wasn’t up to vocals  myself. I’m not a very good singer at all, so that’s what I was looking for. And also someone to write lyrics. Although I write some lyrics, but not many, and it just makes it easier. It’s more interesting, I think, collaborating with someone else. This has just worked really well, too, because we seem to click quite well with our songwriting.”

S13: With your songwriting, Helen, a lot of the lyrics that you wrote were done late at night. Was that a first for you, or is that how you worked with your solo material, as well?

HF: “For my solo stuff, it’s whenever I can find pockets of time, day or night. But with this, I’d been reading and thinking about dreams a lot before working with Mick, and I was into a bit of a dream interpretation at the time. That idea of being asleep and setting an alarm then waking up and going straight into it really appealed to me, and I think it definitely brought a different kind of lyric through at times. I never had a really clear narrative as such, [it] was often quite abstract. I was taking pieces of what I had actually been dreaming about, or just ideas from the daily notes that I’d written. I’ve got lots of these kind of thing around the place.” (shows a piece of paper containing lyrics)

S13: Nice.

HF: “Yeah. So I’d just come out of sleep at around 2am, stand up, go to the microphones and start and sometimes it would be a complete improvisation and Mick would receive a lot of rambling, and other times it would be a very clear idea, harmonies and all. That was a new way of recording for me. It was different.”

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S13: Thematically, it’s very dream state. I feel that it feeds into a lot of the artwork that Mick has done over the years; open spaces, environment, wildlife. That all seems to really feed into it. 

HF: “Yeah. It’s very similar. I hadn’t thought about that. The only outside time I was getting during that period, because a lot of it was in lockdown. I live near a creek and I would walk along the creek, and there are a lot of small animals and creatures around, so that was part of it.”

S13: I don’t know whether this is a connection or not, but on Big Old Blue, the opening song from Dream #12, it kind of centres on the moon. And then the opening song from Mess Esque, Wake Up to Yesterday, is about the sun. Is there a connection there? 

HF: “That is a coincidence (laughs). You’ve got me going through the lyrics now to try and remember what they are… Big Old Blue was the song that lyrically happened very, very clearly and quickly. I scribbled it on this (shows me the same piece of paper from earlier), which is a British paints colour card. Wake Up to Yesterday was about the daily cycles, turning inward, it took more time… more figuring out.”

S13: With Jupiter, that kind of feeds into how you were saying you wrote the lyrics. Your voice kind of floats on Micks rhythms. Do you wait until you get Micks music before thinking about applying the lyrics to the songs?

HF: “Like I said, I’ve got lots of notebooks with ideas that I write in all the time. But with Mick’s style, mostly I just walked around with headphones in listening to the music, and eventually something would start to happen melodically and then after that, generally, the lyrics would fall into place. So often the melody would come first and then lyrical ideas would piece together from there. So even though I was getting up and improvising and writing the music in the night, I would listen to it a lot during the day, so the ideas were forming before I recorded it. I wasn’t landing in it without being familiar with the tracks.”

Mess Esque (photo credit: Kishore Ryan)

S13: About the environment and wildlife, and within the dream state of your music, Take it Outside continues that. In a modern world where we’re all attached to our smart phones, since lockdown I’ve found that people have appreciated open spaces more. I don’t know whether you thought about it that much during the recordings of these songs? 

HF: “Life was very simple while we were writing it, so everything had come back into the home space, and that one hour of exercise outside and everything was reduced to these really simple daily routines. So I guess I was in that. And I was appreciating the outside more, for sure. So I do think that came through at times, yeah.“

S13: Beneath the Rain really reminds me of Brisbane, actually. There’s a real locality attached to that song. It feels like the saddest song off the record, which is interesting as it’s the final one. Were you thinking much about the track listing?

HF: “We talked about it a lot and shuffled them quite a bit, didn’t we, Mick?”

MT: “Yeah, I think that was always at the end. It kind of stands out. It’s different from the other songs, really, just in texture. It’s hard to put it amongst other things, so at the end, that’s a good spot.” 

HF: “That was one of the first songs that Mick had sent me. That piece of music existed as it does in the record, so I remember receiving that, listening to it and just loving it, and really not wanting to intrude too much. I was so careful about not being the intruder (laughs). Because it was so lovely as it was, I tried to kind of land very subtly in it. I think the last three lines of the song we talked about a lot though, Mick and I. That was one time when we talked about a lyric many times. I came up with about twenty different versions for those last three lines.”

S13: Do you often talk to Mick about the lyrics? 

HF: “No, not really. Do you remember, Mick?” 

MT: “On a couple of songs, maybe. That one we worked on for a while, just the end of it.”

HF: “Yeah. Then I think it ended up being one of the earlier ideas anyway. So much time spent on so many different versions….” 

S13: Both the recordings seem… not live. It doesn’t feel like you’ve had many takes on these. Like… first thought best thought scenario. I don’t know whether that was the case, but it kind  of translates that way, and I think it makes the music feel more real. 

HF:“That’s good to hear.”

MT: “It sounds like we’re in the same room.”

S13: Absolutely. With your artwork Mick, do you have an idea about the paintings before or after writing the music?

MT: “No, I usually just grab something that I’ve done. Like, I’ll grab a few things and choose between [them]. But usually they’ve all been from the same time. So I guess the same things were going around my head when I made the music and when I made the paintings often.”

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S13: From both of your respective disciplines as songwriter and painter, are you working on things every day? 

MT: “I have a studio and I go in and I’ve got an art space next to the music space. I just go between them, so yeah; I’m lucky enough to be able to do that. Even in lockdown, because I’m the only one there.”

HF: “Yeah, all the time, but it varies. I might have one or two sentences a day, and then some days I might fill some pages.”

S13: I guess with Mess Esque it’s kind of less is more in some circumstances, as well?

MT: “When we made these records, it was very dense. Like, all my time was filled up with working on these records for months on end. And then this year, we haven’t done much at all. We were prepared to play live when we finished off the records. Last year, when we were writing so much stuff, it was all compacted into… it wasn’t a short time, it was probably nine months, or something.” 

HF: “It was pretty consuming. I didn’t feel very present to anyone in my life.” (laughs) 

MT: “It’s pretty time consuming, putting these songs together. It took a lot of hours. As simple as they might appear; it was a lot of work. We made, really, three albums worth of material over those nine months. It was crammed in and now we’ve kind of stepped back from it for a while. But I look forward to going back in and finishing off the third record. We’ve got a lot of material to work on, still.” 

Mess Esque

S13: Obviously working with Drag City, too. Such a prominent label. I mean, you’ve done stuff with Dirty Three…

MT: “They’ve done my solo records, too.” 

S13: Of course, Don’t Tell the Driver. Moth, too? 

MT: “Yeah, they’ve done all my solo records. Four or five? Quite obscure records. But they’re there somewhere. But of course you get everything on download now.” 

S13: Because both of you have been in that world where physical product dominated, now you’ve got streaming and downloads. How is it economically viable for an artist? 

MT: “They survive from live music, I think. That’s why every band that ever was is out playing shows again. Well, when they can. Like all the bands from the ’70s and ’80s kind of got back together. They’ve run out of money because the gravy boat sank.” (laughs)

S13: Having made music for a long time now, the arts funding in Australia has always been a constant battle. What is the motivation to keep creating?

HF: “Oh, I know what it is for me. Because I don’t think anything else gives me the same feeling. It’s such a buzz to be inside the making of something. When that moment exists where you’re surprising yourself, it’s lovely. There’s nothing like it. So that’s what it is for me, and I think that’s even becoming more of a thing than performing now. The actual making of the songs is really exciting for me.”

MT: “Yeah, it’s just like, you wake up and it’s, ‘What will I make today?’ It’s like my favourite thing in the world to do. Always. And it’s been really great collaborating with someone, with Helen. It’s great to work with a singer who can sing so well. It’s been so exciting to make these records.” 

Mess Esque is out now via Drag City. Purchase from Bandcamp.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

4 replies on “Tangled Beauty: In Conversation with Mess Esque’s Helen Franzmann & Mick Turner”

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