Features Interviews

Michael Plater Interview: “Writing songs is about turning the conscious mind off”

The U.K.-based Australian artist talks us through his wonderful new LP, ‘Ghost Music’.

Michael Plater’s Ghost Music has been out in the wide world for just over a month, and since the first time it met the ear, its power has failed to recede.

Now based in Essex, the Australian songwriter has seemingly thrived in his new surroundings. The sodden landscapes and iron-grey skies of a U.K. winter lending itself to the themes which adorn Ghost Music: one of the best folk albums from an Australian artist I’ve heard in years.

There’s the menacing opener, Gathering Feathers. The bone chilling Katie King. The darkest song released in 2023 so far, Your Family Ghosts, which is like a knife twisting in your heart. Plater pulls out that knife on the epic encounter, Saint John’s Eve, before rounding out Ghost Music with the whirring horror of Burning Windmills.

Ghost Music is one of those rare albums that pulls the mind towards uncomfortable places. Those dark moments that need to be lived, and Michael Plater’s bleak snapshots are the bourgeoning soundtrack to these passages of life.

During his tour of Europe last month, Plater took the time to answer some of our questions about his past, his creative ideas, and the harrowing process of Ghost Music.

Michael Plater: Ghost Music

Sun 13: First of all, can you tell us a bit about your back-story? What made you come to live in the U.K. from Australia?

Michael Plater: “Back in 2015, I was living in Melbourne and working on a PhD – Jack the Ripper, the Divided Self, and the Alien Other in Late-Victorian Culture – which examined the 1888 Whitechapel crimes from a sociological perspective, and my university gave me some funding to go and research the topic in the U.K.

“Coming over here, I really fell in love with England – the landscape, the people, the folklore, the history. It kind of took me by surprise – my parents had grown up in the U.K before moving to Australia before I was born, and so, going there, almost felt like returning home in a way. I felt a massive affinity for the place. I also started touring around, not just the U.K, but also areas like France, Italy, Berlin etc, and met lots of great musicians and like-minded people. Then, in 2018, the cult U.K label Reverb Worship put out a U.K edition of my then-current album Mythologies.

“By the end of that year, my partner, Fawnia, and I were feeling burnt out with life in Melbourne – I felt like, musically, I was treading water there, playing the same places to the same faces, so England seemed liked the way forward for us both.”

Michael Plater (photo: Amy McKenny)

S13: Ghost Music feels like an album that was meticulous in both planning and execution. Can you tell us the process behind it?

MP: “I wish that had been the case, but, unfortunately, the making of Ghost Music ended up being an incredibly difficult, heart-breaking experience, as John Hannon, who recorded and mixed the album, and played much of the beautiful instrumentation on it (violin, harmonium, harmonica, bagpipes etc), passed away when we were finishing off the album. This was completely unexpected and devastating, and for a long time I didn’t know what to do with the album, or whether it should even be released.

“But the actual recording of the album had been a really joyous, creative period. I had met the Colchester musician Stafford Glover (who has played in such bands as Extreme Noise Terror, and runs the record label I’m on, Hypostatic Union), and he invited me to guest on his solo project, Enclosed and Silent Order, which he was recording at John’s No Recording Studio in rural Essex.

“So, the three of us met up for a day of recording, and got on really well, and together we came up with the track Saint John’s Eve. We decided that, rather than being a track on Stafford’s album, it would make more sense as a ‘Michael Plater‘ release. So, we put that out as a single in 2020, just as COVID hit, and it got a great response. So then, we decided we should do an entire album together, and it was just a matter of circumventing COVID restrictions and finding these small windows of opportunity for me to travel to Essex (I was living in Cornwall at the time) to record with John and Stafford. All in all, I think we did around seven days together, and got all the tracks down really quickly.

“We had one last session planned, for John to polish up everything we had done together, when we got the news about John. When I finally did go back to the album much later, I decided that, rather than get someone in to remix and fiddle with the work we had done, I wanted to put the album out as it was, warts and all, as a tribute and testament to the wonderful work that John had done. It felt wrong to tinker with John’s work.

“There was one track – Katie King – that was unfinished, so a couple of my friends – Mark Beazley and Julian Wright – helped me bring that one to completion, but I left the other songs untouched. I got the amazing Michael Lawrence from Bladud Flies in to master the tracks, and he did a wonderful job of smoothing out the sonic imperfections and crafting the album into a cohesive body of work. So, I’m really relieved to just get the album out, and for it to be received so warmly! I see it as a tribute to the brilliance of John (and everyone else who worked on it) – even though John would hate that kind of thing!”

S13: It’s such a seamless record. I have no idea why I think this, but it feels the opening song, Gathering Feathers, might have been the first song written on the album, too. Can you talk us through that song?

MP: “It wasn’t the first song written for the album, but it was definitely the song that the album was built around. It was the second track recorded – after Saint John’s Eve – and the first song we consciously recorded with an album in mind. So, it become the sonic template for the rest of the album. And I knew it had to be the opening track. It’s a song I’m really proud of – when Stafford added that wonderful piano at the end of the track, and John doubled up with the trumpet line, I got goosebumps, which rarely happens when I listen to my own songs! I had been reading accounts of the early history of Norfolk Island – an island just off Australia that became an early, and particularly brutal, penal settlement, and that inspired the lyrics.”

Michael Plater - Ghost Music

S13: With a song like Katie King, it also got me thinking. Do you write lyrics before the music or is it the other way around?

MP: “Often, I write the lyrics first, and then try to find appropriate music to match. In the case of Katie King, that was a collaboration between me and Mark Kluzak, who fronts the band The Doomed Bird of Providence. We had written a few things together, and, knowing my peccadillos, he asked me to write some lyrics about 19th century séances! So, I wrote those lyrics, based on the true story of the 19th century spirit medium Florence Cook, and sent them to him, and he came up with that beautiful piano melody for the song.”

S13: Music and song meaning can always been interpreted in different ways, of course, but Your Family Ghosts is probably one of the saddest songs I’ve heard in a while; to the point where I almost can’t listen to it! Can you shed some light on that song?

MP: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that! Your Family Ghosts was the final song recorded for the album and, for me, it somehow captures the essence of John. He plays the ghostly clarinet that runs through the track, and I feel like that was his final gift to me and Stafford, in a way. So, I find it hard to listen to as well, there’s something heartbreakingly beautiful in there, and for me that’s John.”

Rabbit Hash: Don’t Mistake My Enthusiasm for Impatience

S13: Burning Windmills seems apt for a closing track. Can you remember writing this one?

MP: “Yes, you’re right, I always saw it as the closing track of the album, as a summation of the themes and motifs of the album. It came together in a completely random way. Fawnia was learning to play autoharp at the time, and I recorded her (on my phone) at home playing a couple of chords on the autoharp, then I took what she had played, reversed it, slowed it down, and drenched it in echo, so that it sounded like lapping waves. I used that as the bedrock for the track, then had a friend, Tony Millman, play some piano over the top.

“Then I took that into the studio with John and Stafford and added the lyrics, pretty much in one take. John then added some beautiful violin – his reference point was John Cale’s playing on Nico’s The Marble Index, where it sounds like Cale is almost playing against the track, rather than along with it. Then, finally, Stafford put his bass through a tremolo pedal, and we added that to the track. It’s probably my favourite song on the album, and it was a completely different method of composition, where it was built up layer by layer as an experiment in sound.

S13: With these songs, were your surroundings at the time an influence at all?

MP: “Massively so. I was living in Cornwall at the time, and travelling around a lot, and that definitely inspired not just the lyrics, but the sound of the album as well. I was immersed in local folklore and mythology – Cornish tales of mermaids, ghosts, witchcraft, and smugglers – and that came out in the lyrics I was writing. The landscape also inspired the kind of sounds I was looking for – I wanted to make music that sounded like it had been dug up from under the earth, that had a sense of space and atmosphere. I literally wrote the lyrics to both Saint John’s Eve and Katie King the day I moved to Cornwall, so it was massively inspiring.”

Michael Plater (photo: Fawnia Mountford)

S13: With regards to your own sense of identity, do you see it as something that’s in your songs, or do you separate the two in any way?

MP: “I think the two are inseparable for me. It’s funny, I’ve definitely written more ‘confessional’ songs in the past, songs which were drawn directly from what was going on in my life, but I feel like Ghost Music is, in a way, even more personal. Because it reflects my interior world – my obsessions, the way I see the world.”

S13: In terms of your creative process, are you looking for ideas all the time? For instance, do you wake up and think ‘Okay, today I’m going to write something’?

MP: “I’ve never been able to write that way unfortunately – to write on demand. For me, if I woke up and said, ‘I’m going to write a song today’, that would almost guarantee that nothing would come! For me, writing songs is about turning the conscious mind off. It’s a kind of magic, and songs arrive for me when I stop looking for them.”

S13: You’ve been touring on the back of Ghost Music. What are the plans for the rest of the year?

MP: “I’m looking at touring Europe till July, then heading back to Australia for a while after that. I’ll be doing a Hypostatic Union label showcase mini tour in July, with my labelmates Nujumi and Weapon Eyes, we’ll be playing Colchester Arts Centre (July 20), Tea and Oranges, Southend (July 21) and the Angel Gallery, Totnes (July 22). I’m also looking at shows in London, France, Norway, Budapest, and Germany. The adventure continues!”

Ghost Music is out now via Hypostatic Union. 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.

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