In an industry where expression collides with business, how do you keep the passion to play/write music alive?
To be brutally honest, it’s a constantly changing environment, that is really tough to manage on your own… but I find managing and booking my own shows myself creates more freedom for me. This includes managing the deals and contracts, and after a few hard lessons, I’ve learnt how to read with a lawyer-like eye. You need to. If you think it’s just about the music these days you’re naive.
You also need someone who doesn’t want anything from you to help you with details sometimes, but they are hard to find. Like with any business there’s the good and the bad. People change around money and fame.
I have learnt if you don’t do it yourself, or don’t have awareness, you don’t get the results you desire. I don’t dwell on the bad experiences but I have had my fair share.
How I see it is that usually when you are dealing with people that aren’t aligned with your vision, business can seem like a rat-eat-rat world. It can be ruthless and unemotional to some who aren’t equipped for it. It can seem unkind when faced with negotiations etc.
Music, art, the creative side is entirely emotional for me; it has to be on the edge of something raw and challenging. Creative life is so far removed from a lot of reality. The triumph is in blending or pairing the two together with people, or a model where you feel safe and respected.
I’ve come to learn passion is all about having faith… You can’t just hope and pray. Wild faith is for the people that have enough courage to keep their passion alive, take risks and stand up for themselves creatively as well as personally. Sacrifice is essential in mastering any one thing.
The industry is changing as quickly as technology is evolving. The model has changed and we are constantly questioning where it’s going. Being an artist/musician these days is about creating your own stand-alone industry. YOU are the industry. You can then have the faith that you will pursue a creative exciting career/life without the promise of anything but mastering yourself and your own unique craft, and doing something meaningful to you. But where the challenge lies, is to become an entrepreneur. Others will follow if you are willing to bare your soul. Music/art isn’t what you do; it’s who you are.
I keep my passion alive by having different creative endeavours happening at the same time. I hold songwriting workshops, I love producing and stepping outside my comfort zone. I write from memories and nostalgia. I listen to all different genres of music. I’m very easily influenced by all types of music, from rock and folk to hip-hop, jazz, soul and classical.
I love to play with words and paint pictures with the sounds… I need space and time to allow things to come to me.
Have you ever come close to leaving music? If so, what prompted it and what inspired you to stay?
Yes, but it’s my identity. If I start to complain, I usually write a song about how frustrated I am. It’s one of the hardest gigs to dedicate your life to, but you get what you put into it.
I stopped music without even knowing a few years ago. I was living in Sydney and had realised I hadn’t written a song or created anything I was proud of for a very long time… I was numb. I eventually created a new music project called Buffalo Tales. I found myself as an independent artist again, and I felt I had to name the project a new name to make it stand apart from everything else I had released. It was me evolving as an artist again.
I did find it hard to live up to expectations after becoming famous and under the spotlight. Thinking that I’d have to live up to other people’s visions of who they wanted me to be. To be really honest with myself, those expectations were and are my own very high expectations I had set out for myself when I was really young. It’s easy to blame others. It’s impossible to live up to the deals we make with ourselves when we are young.
We all change daily and you have to relinquish control of one’s self to enable the flow of life to carry you. Learning to let go is a big lesson for some. Steven Spielberg says, “Your dream isn’t something you dream and then it happens, the dream is something you never knew was going to come into your life, it always whispers and it never shouts… So you have to everyday of your life, be ready to hear what whispers in your ear”. [It’s] so true.
I believe that if you give your raw truth you’ll only get it back from others, and through my music I am my most honest. I had a ball creating the Buffalo Tales Roadtrip Confessions record, and having one of my best mates Stu Hunter produce it was magic. It was just Stu and myself in a studio at his house recording music I had written over years. It ignited my flame for music again and it gave me a creative freedom and a new license. I had been exhausted with myself and a fresh creative outlook gave me some time to breathe, a chance to re-group and do it another way.
My work is still evolving today as I am starting to feel free again within my music. Right now, I’m inspired again like I was when I started writing at 12. No expectations, just the pure art of creating. It’s like I’ve come full circle experiencing it all, only to end up returning back to how I started – simple and true. I’m running my own ship and doing things on my terms. It will always be a rollercoaster and a constant hustle but you have to do it. You’re always learning.
How do you stay true to your vision, in an industry that is filled with opinion?
Whenever my vision becomes blurred I have to remember to quiet my mind through meditation and that usually helps the essence of my vision come back to the forefront of my mind. Intention is the biggest asset you have. Remembering the why is essential.
When I was 14, the most successful manager on the Aussie music scene from he last 20 years or so said to me, “Wes, the only thing you need to learn to say in this industry is ‘no’”.
He was right. Everything’s a compromise but it’s the things you cannot live without that you cannot trade. Fuck opinions – they only confuse you and lead you down an empty path. Listen and observe and do what you feel.
I have learnt that you do need a sounding board – someone you trust in your corner to make things make sense. If you try and do it all on your own it can sometimes spiral out of control; it becomes too big for one person, only for the artist and the idea to self-combust.
What does the day of a gig right up until stepping on stage look like?
Depends on travel – sometimes it’s a long drive and sometimes it’s a flight. If I’m flying I like to get in to the city in the morning so I can rest during the afternoon. If it’s a drive I listen to podcasts, or music really loud.
I like to be alone a few hours before the show. I hate small talk, I like loads of tea, some meditation practice…
I play music that inspires me. I jam on my guitar and even write a song to get in the mood. Sound checks are the best time for songwriting – I always write some great stuff in sound checks.
[I do] Vocal warm ups and push ups to get into my body, pump myself up and feel in control.
What tips do you have in balancing family with music life?
There are no tips to be honest! It’s organised chaos most of the time. When I’m creative, I get lonely. Creative life can be a very lonely road.
I’m a workaholic when I’m writing so if anything, family life balances me out. When you are busy, you are on the go all of the time… It never really stops – if you stop, everything stops. There is no one there to have your back. It’s all on you. This is where my spiritual practices come into play. I need to have something constant to remind me to stay on my path.
I have to remember that stepping outside of the studio when writing is the best thing I can do. Taking it slow wins – which is hard when you’re in a personal race. I struggle with demons on my back telling me I’m wasting time. As a father I feel the pressure even more. My family is my sanctuary and I owe everything to them.
Music is nothing compared to a big hug from my son. He’s getting to an age (4-years-old) where I’m starting to understand who he is as a person. I learn from him every day, he’s my greatest teacher and my greatest, incredible, challenge.
What do you do to stay physically and mentally balanced? (on and off the road if you are a touring artist)
Lately I’ve been training at F45. It’s a non-negotiable of mine to train physically. The demons love to come out to play when I don’t move my body. Mentally it’s meditation or just many mindful practices I’ve studied over the years. I use a holistic approach where I can.
I’ve read a lot of spiritual books and continue to go over and over them. I’ve studied and continue to study basic human needs psychology through the Tony Robbins school and have been to many a place in India. I do all this in an attempt to expand my outlook and learn more about human nature and myself. When faced with certain life challenges, we tend to dig deeper and wonder why, only to realise it’s never external, the answer is within yourself and you have to arrive there yourself. Nobody has the golden answers and there is no definitive answer.
I heard a story somewhere once about a guy who was so fearful about catching a plane, he would never fly anywhere. Until one day a swami said to him, “What makes you think you are so important that the plane will crash if you board it”. Perspective is an amazing thing.
How do you carry out the roles of a performing artist/writer during times when you’re feeling sub-par? Be it unwell or emotionally unstable.
Performing is like a certain kind of possession; it’s a natural high. I get into a state when I’m on stage, it’s like I’m not my body in the moment. I have been so sick off the stage but once I’m on, I feel invincible… everything disappears. I’ve only had a handful of times on stage where I was conscious of my problems off the stage, which only happens when I need a break and I’m on the verge of burning out or I’m at the wrong gig.
I’ve toured with pneumonia before. I remember listening to Ryan Adams in the back of a Hiace van in 2006, watching the streetlights roll by and coughing up a lung, [and] I could hardly speak. Sound check was in an hour and then the show was at 9. Somehow my voice just miraculously came out from somewhere.
There has only been one time where I was coming off stage and not feeling excited at all, it felt like a grind. I learnt a lot from that tour, it was a gift. I can safely say that won’t happen again. You need to feel those butterflies in your stomach, you need that adrenaline, and you need to feel it in your soul in order to reach other people’s hearts and souls. There’s nothing quite like performing, it’s a certain kind of magic.
What epiphany(s) has altered your approach to music/life?
When you get attention for what you are doing, remember your true essence – who, what, when, why and how. As soon as some people get a lot of attention, it fills a void for them…
[People] start to change to accommodate other people’s unrealistic expectations, and they lose sight of their own pure creative needs. I did this a lot in my time of working out who the hell I was… I’m still working out who I am really.
For me, it’s a yearning to be loved, seen and ultimately a genuine fear of ‘normal’ life. I need to remember to stop chasing success and experience pleasure. Always find/feel the perfection in the imperfection.
Being an artist you tend to experience a life of financial uncertainty whereas being an accountant etc., you tend to experience a life of financial certainty… But what really is certain these days?
Have you ever experienced anxiety/depression/nervousness around a tour? If so, what are (were) the triggers and how do (did) you manage it?
Yes I have experienced all these things… Being away as a touring musician these days is hard with a family. It’s so important for me to be around physically for my son. A few years ago I had very extreme bouts of anxiety and depression. I got off an international flight taxing out, ready for take off… It made the front page of the telegraph and national news.
These days on tour it depends on the type of environment and the show. I LOVE coming back to the hotel, having a cuppa or a quiet beer and watching some late night TV, maybe eat some room service – I like to be alone to process it all. Though, sometimes I love to be around the crew I’m touring with or my band having a drink and feeling that sense of community with the ones you’re touring with.
Can you trace your current successes back to any big risks or leaps? If so, what were they?
Winning Australian Idol in 2008 was a big thing in my life… It’s something that not many people can say they have done and experienced. It was a big risk to enter that show. I am grateful I did it. Before that, I had been in the industry since I was 14, playing little bars and clubs around Sydney, Kings Cross, Newtown, and Glebe. I grew up in Adelaide and at 14 moved to Sydney to live with my Dad. I started getting serious about my songwriting then. I found myself working with Andrew Farris from INXS one day and Don Walker from Cold Chisel the next.
Music executives I would meet in the music industry would tell me I was too young to be singing my own songs. I wrote about my life and the things I was exposed to at a very young age. I’d wag school and ring around music venues and try and hustle gigs during the day.
Australian Idol was very different compared to being out in the ‘wild’ at that age, playing in smoky bars at 11pm and singing my heart out to people who didn’t really seem to give a fuck. Sometimes it was only the bar staff listening, and it’s where I learnt my craft. I learnt how to be streetwise. I took it all in. I learnt how to entertain and get the people that weren’t interested, interested. I saw myself as that kid that Neil Young sung about [in ‘Out On The Weekend’], “See the lonely boy, out on the weekend, tryna’ make it pay”. I resonated with that song.
My favourite song from that time in my life is Paul Kelly’s ‘You Can Put Your Shoes Under My Bed’. The song was saying to me, ‘everything is going to be ok’. I resonated with that song so much because at the time I felt as if I was just blowing around in the same cathartic manner as the saxophone solo that ends that song.
Later I would live on my friend’s living room floors or couches or whoever would let me crash for a night. I had nothing but my music. I wrote a song called ‘Lost’ about this time of my life. I took it to Don Walker and he added his genius. It explains my life at that time, and when Cold Chisel released it in 2015 as a single, it was a surreal moment. I grew up in Elizabeth in Adelaide where Cold Chisel were formed – so it was a BIG deal! Don is my biggest mentor in songwriting and we both work extremely well together. All we have are risks, and risks shape us, but persistence is key.
When I entered Australian Idol in 2008, I felt that I had kissed my creative bohemian life goodbye – but that’s all bullshit. I have looked back on that time, a few times now in my life and have been super grateful I did it and lived that experience.
I was younger and there’s plenty of time to grow… I feel as if I’m just starting a new now. We all grow so fast when you think about it. Australian Idol was essential for my growth as a person and an artist. It gave me the opportunity to see the world and travel and experience many things most don’t. Life is all about change; trying to make everything better. There’s always so much more to come on the horizon if you just keep looking with an open heart.
I’ve put myself through so much guilt and torture over the years. Trying to “make it the right way”, but there is no right way. Stand by your choices. Be bold and brave. The people that bagged my decision to enter Australian Idol back then have all congratulated me since… My ultimate journey will be to believe them as it takes me ages to digest a single compliment.
Help those who are falling and relay an experience you’ve had that landed you flat on your face.
I can’t actually legally answer that question. What I have learnt though [is that] it’s good to fall. You learn quickly. If you don’t, you won’t know what it’s like to get back up. The fire will burn out fast if there is no contrast… and it’s a gift.
Just know that your bad experiences lead you somewhere magical. It truly does. I’ve faced some tough times and the aftermath always has an amazing lesson at the end.
Some tips to remember as an artist: Make sure your deals are always in writing, follow up a call with an email, find a great lawyer and business advisor (accountants aren’t necessarily financial advisors), read the fine print, ask questions and have the courage to say no. Personally, be bold, be brave, be aware, but not scared and keep your heart open always.
Someone said to me once, “There are more planets in the universe that might be habitable with life than there are grains of sand on Earth”, so I think of that these days and try and see some perspective. As Rumi wrote,“raise your words not your voice”.
What is your philosophy on fear? How do you deal with it?
You can’t be fearful if you’re grateful, so be grateful. You have a choice to train your mind – your mind is a muscle that you need to prime everyday. Some days it can seem impossible, fear can take over in an instant if you let it. You can fall down the rabbit hole, and then, for some people like myself, it can be a battle of the wits to get back ‘home’ again.
I learnt from studying basic human needs from Tony Robbins that, “Pain is a fact of life, but suffering is an option… In order to understand human behaviour we need to understand which need we are trying to meet… Is it – certainty, variety, significance, connection/love, growth or contribution?”… Self-awareness is the key to everything… We need to understand ourselves, and make sure we grow… If we don’t grow we die, or worse become fearful of everything.
I have done a lot of looking within myself over time with the help of Transcendental Meditation. Meditation is one of the best ways to compartmentalise your mind chatter and learn about yourself.
If you were to wave a magic wand, how would you like to spend your time in the future?
At peace with a music studio in nature somewhere. I love 24 to 26 degree days with the autumn sun, after the summers heat subsides… [with] tea and dark chocolate, nourishing food and great wine, my family, a dog and the freedom to do what we want and have what we need.
Are there any other wisdoms you’d like to share?