THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE HOMELESS
"Before it was just a low-key thing in a little pub with friends… I’m so grateful that people keep coming to see it. I just want it to be good, to keep people coming back.” It was towards the end of our interview that DARREN HANLON showed his nerves. He was talking about his upcoming Christmas tour, now a popular annual tradition. He laughs. “It’s become a monster.”
Before our interview I knew a little about Hanlon but not enough. I knew he was short, for instance, and that he wrote indie ditties that toed the line between cogent and cute. My first stop for research was PirateBay, a dead end. If they had ever been alive, torrents of Hanlon’s music weren’t anymore. I went to his website. It says he’s a country boy from Gympie, Queensland. He’s worked a decade as a musician and toured with Billy Bragg and The Magnetic Fields. He’s hung out with Eli Wallach, the actor best known as the Ugly in Sergio Leone’s masterpiece, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. And he writes his own biographies. “Hi,” it says. “Well who else is gonna do it?” Finally, I read Hanlon’s press release. It proudly declares him homeless.
“It’s the necessity of a touring musician,” explains Hanlon. “I did have a house I was paying rent on in Sydney but… I put an ad in the paper to get a sub-letter. I got this British guy… I came back to get something one day and he had five other Brits living in my room on mattresses, so I gave up on that idea.”
Years ago, I had seen Hanlon play the first Corinbank Festival. There had been technical difficulties and he had played unplugged on the lawns in front of the stage, handing out tambourines to hippies adjacent. He had made a good impression and he was doing it again. I was glad. With a YouTube playlist of Hanlon’s music in the background, I had been picking away at his website the previous day when I stumbled on his blog/travel diary, Friends & Fables. I damned selective research and read it end to end. It’s completely engrossing. I asked him why he writes it so diligently.
“It’s an antidote to songwriting,” he explains. “I can’t write songs all the time because I need to live life… Songs, I don’t really understand – it’s still a mystery where they come from. It’s such a joy when you finish one. They take a lot more staring at the wall, a lot more pain.”
In 2010, Hanlon released what most agree is his finest album, I Will Love You At All. Though he has no career arc in mind (“if the songs keep coming and the albums keep coming and the people keep coming, I’ll keep doing it, I guess”), Hanlon does plan to spend next year alone, a writing/recording year. This could make the upcoming Christmas shows the last chance to see him for a while. It’s understandable that Hanlon would want a break. His touring is built on hitchhiking, long car rides, tequila and old friends.
His blog captures it in photos that have the beautiful tinge of the SLR. “I have bad luck with cameras,” Hanlon reveals. “Three years ago now I toured through Norway and Europe, but I’d had my camera serviced before we went away and they’d put in one of the mirrors back to front so everything was just one stop out of focus. I had all these photos of touring with Daniel Johnston, I had photos of Sufjan Stevens in Norway, these great lakes, portraits I’d taken of people, and they were all ruined. It broke my heart... but if I get one classic photo out of a roll I feel like it’s worth it.”
I’d never heard that he toured with Johnston (see film: The Devil and Daniel Johnston). “It was hell,” he summarises. “I was invited to play in this [supergroup] and the bass player from Yo La Tengo... I got there to play and he said I wasn’t famous enough to be onstage with him.” There is no bitterness in Hanlon’s voice, either, just a coy curiosity. And for every trial there is an occasion that Hanlon warms to remember.
“It still feels like it was all made up,” he says of meeting the legendary Eli Wallach. “Every time I go to New York I call him. Last time he pulled out his scripts, like his script for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. I got to see these scripts with Sergio Leone’s margin notes. Tennessee Williams had written in some of them.” My jealous wonderment was causing me pain. Hanlon threw me a bone. “He thinks I’m a lot more famous than I actually am. Every time we’re out somewhere and we talk to someone he always says,” Hanlon affects a hoarse whisper, “‘He plays to thousands of people!’”
Lacking my own, I asked Hanlon to choose a term that best describes him now that he sports a decade of work. “I don’t know... It’s such an abstract lifestyle, this writing about your life and passing through other people’s. I mean, everyone’s life’s weird but this is a really weird one.” I laughed. Hanlon was encouraged. “I mean, when you think about it, life’s weird, isn’t it?” I couldn’t disagree, and suddenly felt lucky that life had been weird enough to give me 20 minutes on the phone with him.
BMA Magazine Presents Darren Hanlon at The Street Theatre on Wednesday December 14 with support from David Dondero (USA). Tickets are, as per ushe for a Darren Canberra gig, sold out.