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Perfect harmony two decades in the making

Culture

Brisbane singer-songwriter Sean Sennett is no stranger to musical collaborations, having previously written and recorded with the likes of Ross Wilson, David Bridie, Katie Noonan and Midnight Oil’s Rob Hirst, to name but a few.

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But his latest collaborative effort with Kate Ceberano, and Steve Kilbey from iconic Australian rock band The Church, The Dangerous Age, is arguably his highest-profile partnership yet, and has been garnering considerable acclaim since its release earlier this month.

Sennett told InQueenland the project had its genesis two decades ago when Ceberano reached out to collaborate on some material.

“About 20 years ago I had a little indie record out through a local label in Brisbane and Kate heard that and said ‘we should do some writing together’,” he said.

“So, we wrote a couple of songs and then she moved to Los Angeles and it kind of went on the back-burner and I did other musical things and then a few years ago we started talking again and she said, ‘oh, we should do some more writing’, and I said I’d love to.

Sennett met Kilbey a few years ago when he interviewed him for a Brisbane Writers Festival event, after which the pair quickly struck up a friendship. The Church frontman offered to contribute lyrics to a project Sennett was working on called I Left My Heart in Highgate Hill, a ten-song cycle that involved a variety of Queensland female singers.

When Sennett heard the results, though, he had other ideas, and the resulting composition, ‘All Tied Up’, ended up becoming the song that brought the three together – creatively, if not geographically.

“I got the lyrics and I thought, you know what, this would be really interesting to flick to Kate Ceberano and not tell her Steve is involved, so she’s getting a different set of lyrics that aren’t all me, there’s another voice in there but she’s not thinking ‘Oh, gee, well this is Steve Kilbey, I’d better try to write a certain kind of thing’.

“The song came back and it was really good, so I said to Steve, ‘do you want to do it again?’  So, he did it again, and eventually I had let Kate know Steve was involved, and she said they’d never met [previously], which I thought was crazy.”

“The thing kept growing and I said to Steve, do you want to sing, and he said ‘oh, I don’t want to do that, let Kate do it, she’s the best singer’.  There’s no doubt she’s the best singer, but he has such a wonderful character to his voice.  So eventually we both put our voices on it with Kate’s – to a much lesser degree, obviously – and that’s how it evolved.”

Ceberano recorded the album with her co-producer Rod Bustos in Melbourne, where the pair worked meticulously on the tracks over several months, and Kilbey and Sennett added their parts in Sydney and Brisbane respectively, with the album mixed by Jason Millhouse in Brisbane.

“For The Dangerous Age, I was writing for two men,” Ceberano said, “both long-distance, both with different contexts for me … meaning ‘two worlds apart’, it was a fascinating construct from the get-go. What did I want to say in music about their poetry and sketches? I wanted to express my admiration, my affection for their idiosyncratic verse.”

The resulting album is an eclectic yet unified affair, from ‘Monument City Lights, 1973’, which recalls mid-’70s David Bowie to the piano-led pop balladry or ‘On Love’ and harmonised vocals of tracks such as ‘Shot From Memory’.

Sennett has cited the track ‘My Restless Heart’ as one of his highlights, but said Ceberano’s versatility never ceased to amaze him.

“That song was Kate and I together, and writing music and seeing her bring a melody of mine to life was an amazing thing,” he said.

“She’s a bit of a chameleon, she’s one of these singers that’s very true to the song, first.  She’ll find an emotional spot in the song that she can hit, and I’ve seen her do it – she’ll become a character, become a persona and then deliver it like that.

“She really surprised me a lot of times when she sent things back that I didn’t see going a particular way.  Another highlight for me is ‘Not the Loving Kind’, which in my head was going to be a little minor-key ballad, and she turned it into something like a Bruno Mars song and it was kind of like, ‘wow, how did she do that?’  She’s such a clever, clever woman.”

Kilbey was equally impressed with Ceberano’s contributions and said her approach blew away any preconceived notions he had for the lyrics he submitted.

“When I write lyrics without music I have a dummy melody or song going through my head that I draw on,” Kilbey said.

“I write lyrics to that and create something that makes some sense. That technique is like a holding structure that helps a rocket take off. But the moment I heard what Kate had done with the lyrics, the dummy song is banished. The structure collapses and the rocket takes off.”

The trio have only played together live once, at a somewhat impromptu gig at a West End art gallery, but despite their busy schedules, Sennett said he hoped they would be able to share a stage again, at some stage.

“Maybe towards the second half of the year,” he said. “I know Steve has a Church tour soon, and Kate has a whole bunch of things lined up for at least three months, then [after that] hopefully we can do a gig somewhere …  I’d love to do anything, really, it would be wonderful.”

The Dangerous Age, by Kate Ceberano, Steve Kilbey and Sean Sennett, is out now.

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