Husky are one of those un-wavering, dependable Australian bands. You know the ones. They don’t make music for the fame or the money or the pride, they do it simply because they must.
For the last twelve years Husky have continued to hone their craft, producing three critically acclaimed albums, toured with the likes of Neil Young, Sharon Van Etten and The Shins and, in 2011, they became the first Australian band to be signed to Sub Pop Records.
The story of their latest album, Stardust Blues, begins with a concept inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses. The songs form a narrative that follow a character over 24-hours on a personal odyssey throughout Melbourne.
Written mostly while living at the The Westbury Hotel in Balaclava, an artist commune that has since been demolished to make way for apartments, Stardust Blues is an album written about the new life that comes after the death of things, the light that comes at the end of a long night; a sentiment, it is safe to say, we all need right now.
From self-isolation, frontman Husky Gawenda tells the story of the commune, the creative process, and his appreciation for the seemingly banal moments that make up our lives.
Like most musicians and arts industry workers at the moment, Husky’s life is on hold.
“It’s very hard to make plans because no one knows how long this will last,” he says. “Every day it seems to change.”
But like almost everyone in a creative field, he and the band have already begun to adapt, recording and creating remotely from the bedroom.
“I’m always writing, but the band and I have started to send around ideas and started to work on stuff online. Thank god for the internet. I never thought I’d say that. We’ll probably end up recording another album before we even release this record that we’re meant to be releasing.”
That record, Stardust Blues, was set for a May release but has since been pushed back to August. They’ve already released the first single ‘Cut Myself Loose’ accompanied by a live video filmed in The Westbury Hotel. The song is a perfect example of what Husky have become known for: swirling piano, flawless vocals, and a delicate and rich full band sound.
The video is a simple, perfect pairing to the song. It shows the band playing live in the hotel with an artist painting on the wall in the final weeks before the inevitable demolition.
The Westbury Hotel sounds like one of those places you’d read about in a Pattie Smith memoir. It was a home for wayward artists and musicians, all constantly inspiring and nourishing each other’s creative minds, offering fresh perspectives and direction.
“It seems like a long time ago now,” Husky says. “But it was a great place for an artist to live. It was a hub. A lot of different people lived there over the five years that it existed. All sorts of musicians and painters and different artists moved through there and it was a really different, magical, creative little world.”
The myth of place and how it influences records is often talked about amongst music fans. A few that come to mind are Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago, recorded in Justin Vernon’s dad’s cabin in the woods, or Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska recorded entirely on a Tascam tape machine in his home. These records were quite solitary experiences for the artists, but Husky found that it was the people at The Westbury, more than the place, that influenced and shaped his writing.
“There were a lot of artists living there or passing through, and artists are storytellers. So I was coming into contact with stories every day. Writing these songs for Stardust Blues, I wanted to tell a story and I had access to these different stories all the time. It was very inspiring and just gave me all of these ideas.”
This kind of artistic symbiosis is a special thing. It’s often romanticised but rarely experienced. Husky says that he’s always needed the right atmosphere in which to write.
“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how a place influences your writing, but I know that I need to feel comfortable and inspired. I need quiet. And I don’t just mean sonically, I need to feel like the outside world, especially voices, can be silenced so that I can find the internal world that I can first inhabit, and then project out into the world. But the hotel was the perfect atmosphere in which to create. It had a great energy.
“Silent space is really important. You need that silence externally and internally to write. I would even say… you need some isolation. Which is pretty appropriate right now. There’s plenty of that going around.”
Another major source of inspiration for the album came from one of the classics. At the time of writing the lyrics for the album, Husky was immersed in James Joyce’s 730 page epic Ulysses.
“After trying several times over the years to read this book I’d never managed to stick with it. But this time I found my way in and I had an incredible experience.”
The book follows a character, Leopold Bloom, throughout Dublin over a 24 hour period.
“It tells all these tiny little stories of this unremarkable guy and the experiences he has and the thoughts he has. But it also tells this huge universal story through those tiny little moments of a person’s day. I loved the idea of that. So I structurally based the songs and the album on that. The album follows a character through a city, which is Melbourne, but it could be any city, apart from some names of bars and beaches, and it follows him on a journey in which he traverses the city and meets different people and falls in and out of love.”
There are very intimate and small moments described in the lyrics on the record, Husky’s singing style feels a lot of the time like he’s telling you a secret. But, as the album name would suggest there’s also a wider, cosmic theme that runs through it. Despite this, Husky has found that it’s important that he steers clear of delving too much into the big picture.
“I studied astrophysics at uni. And in astrophysics you’re dealing with all these big picture things. And most of it is stuff that is happening either way, way, way out in space at massive magnitudes, or at a really tiny microscopic quantum level. And I actually found it was too big picture for me. I realised I needed to focus more on the day-to-day seemingly banal moments that happen in life. And actually they’re the moments that are really important, because they’re the moments that make up your life. So what I’m trying to say, in a long winded way, is that I’m trying to focus on day-to-day and hour-by-hour and live in the moment as much as possible and think as little about the big picture as I can. For my sanity.”
After five years living at The Westbury Hotel, the residents were told it was to be demolished. Although it was a shock initially, they accepted the news with grace.
“We felt like we were losing a lot when we found out,” he says. “But I guess the feeling was also that we’d had five great years there and a lot of great things have come from our time there. The hotel facilitated a lot of the music we wrote. Towards the end, when we knew time was running out we ramped everything up even more and we had a bunch of different artists come through and record stuff.”
In the final months of the hotel’s life, the residents turned it into a massive, heaving work of art. There were installations, large paintings and murals on the walls, parties and gigs. Artists like Ainslie Wills went in and did some recording and Hannah Cameron recently released a song she recorded there. Husky did a whole bunch of recording and shot a lot of live videos. It became a huge artistic blow out, a creative supernova. Like a star teeming and itching with white hot energy before the final explosion.
“Part of what the album is about is what comes after destruction and death, and that is new life,” he says. “Out of the end of love comes the space for new love. It’s the same thing with a supernova, it’s the stardust, it’s the carbon, it’s the stuff that comes after the giant explosion that creates the new stars and new solar systems and then, you know, potentially a planet like earth.”
“In the end, we kind of accepted that nothing lasts forever and that we really had made the most of our time there. We came out of that period with an album that we’re really happy with and excited for people to hear.”
The album has got a warmth and a sense of community to it, even though it is so introspective and solitary. What’s beautiful is that at the end of the album, Husky sings contently about lighting the way and changing. It’s an acceptance. There is a constant theme rebirth. Even as Stardust Blues comes to a close, it feels like it should just start again. But Husky is already moving on to what’s next.
“Maybe we’ll do a chapter two with the next record over the next few months,” he says, only just having that idea.
“At the moment we’re trying to work out a way to somehow tour sometime soon after we release the record. Obviously, we can’t know for sure. Hopefully we can do some kind of live stuff towards the end of the year, but obviously if it’s not safe to do so then we won’t. In the meantime, whatever happens we will continue to release songs over the next few months. I think it’s really important to be releasing music.”
There is no better time for content and Husky has no shortage. They recently played as a part of the new and highly successful Isol-Aid Festival. They also have a collection of live videos of songs from the record that they filmed with their producer Matt Redlich in a friend’s garden in Hepburn.
“We’ll put those out as the songs come out. I’ll keep doing a bunch of live streams. I might do a cover a week or even stream some songs that I’m working on. But other than that, I’m just going to keep writing songs. I’m learning to bake sourdough bread. I’ll probably do heaps of working out too. Which is a sentence I never thought would come out of my mouth.”
The world is truly upside down.
“It’s hard to wrap your head around. You can understand why people can’t or won’t believe it. Humans are good at denial at the best of times. But at a time like this they just don’t want to believe it. But we have got to believe it. We must listen to the doctors and the scientists. Lives depend on it.”
What we are all experiencing right now feels like the end of an era; like the whole last hundred years just came to a close. We live in a time of immense upheaval and the mass trauma and grief that comes with it. Stardust Blues was born out of a place and a time that’s no longer there. This album is an ode to change and transformation.
There’s a line in the second last song on the record, ‘Hearse on a Highway Rainbow’, where Husky sings:
I dust the starlight of my coat,
My watch says 7am
Beneath the thin veneer of sleep
I turn a giant page in the book of time
It seems he may have tapped into something there.
“Well, maybe,” he says. “That’s what we’re trying to do, right? Whenever we write, we’re just trying to tap into something.”