A little distance can be a good thing for any songwriter. Physically or emotionally. It can also be the hardest thing to get for anyone living a creative life when punching the clock at 5pm is hard to do.
But Shane Nicholson found some distance and it has been good for him. You can hear that in the bones of Hell Breaks Loose, the sixth solo album from the Australian singer-songwriter, songs written over several years and during a period of personal change.
The distance can be traced back to his first visit to the town of Hermannsburg, south-west of Alice Springs, home of his friend, the great indigenous songwriter Warren H. Williams.
“He saw that I needed some time to be able to assess everything that was going on, and it was one of the most amazing weeks of my life,’’ Nicholson says. “You can’t help but get perspective out there, when you leave all the noise behind. I was taken in so warmly; it was a really humbling experience.’’
Nicholson hadn’t written any songs for the best part of a year, unusual for someone whose work rate has been prolific for these past 15 years. Near the end of his stay Nicholson sat beside the old mission church and songs started to pour out of him, including Hermannsburg: “That town, and Warren H. Williams, made a big difference to me in just a week”
Hell Breaks Loose is Nicholson’s first recording of original material since the breakdown of his marriage to Kasey Chambers, with whom he recorded two ARIA Award-winning alt-country duet albums, Rattlin’ Bones (2008) and Wreck & Ruin (2012).
Several songs address his new circumstances directly, including the superb ballad Single Fathers and the starting-over honesty of Secondhand Man. Others range across topics from the decline of a once-great city (Irons and Chains, about Detroit), living with depression (Weight of the World), to learning to choose which battles are worth the fight (Bury My Guns).
“Many of these songs are about self-discovery and new horizons’’ Nicholson says. “And also how that’s not always great, it can also sometimes be difficult. You can veer down a few wrong paths. It can take time to adjust. Writers will always find turmoil to write about even if there isn’t any, but the writing for this record certainly came from an authentic place, and was very cathartic.’’
So too was the recording process. Nicholson has established himself as one of the country’s most in-demand record producers but for Hell Breaks Loose Nicholson hands the reins to producer Matt Fell at his Sydney studio, Love Hz.
“I love that part of the process but because I do it every day now I can let go of producing on my own record. I didn’t touch a fader or a computer, I just played music and sang, and maybe for that reason I like Hell Breaks Loose more than any other record I’ve made.
“It meant I could get out of my studio where I had been locked up for the previous 12 months. It felt like a holiday, riding up and down the freeway each day to the studio on the motorbike, having none of the nuts and bolts stuff to worry about.
“Some records have a more specific objective but one thing we never talked about was the direction of a song. There was no thought about the way people might perceive the record or how they might react to it. This was just a bunch of songs that went where they wanted to go.’’
Nicholson’s career began as a teenager recording his own songs in his bedroom in Brisbane. He first made waves with rock band Pretty Violet Stain and released his debut solo album It’s A Movie in 2002. Since then he has explored everything from folk to country, bluegrass and rock, picking up 8 Golden Guitars, 2 APRA awards and 2 ARIA Awards along the way.
“I don’t feel compelled to prove anything. I know with Hell Breaks Loose we came up with something that I loved. That’s all that has ever mattered to me, really. The weight on your shoulders certainly feels greater when you are younger, and these days I’m just happy to be doing what I do, the way I like to do it.
“There was something relaxed and natural going on as we made this album. When that happens, you often find that something intangible gets in the grooves, and people can feel it.’’
Hell Breaks Loose is released August 7th
Through Lost Highway Australia/Universal Music