Located in the NSW Snowy Mountains, in the sparsely populated town of Rocky Plain on the traditional lands of the Walgalu and Ngarigo people, there stands a sandstone church. Surrounded by gravestones, with Stony Creek running on either side of the road around it, The Round Plain Church has stood there since 1870.
Plain though it may be in name, it is a place of great significance for Canberra singer-songwriter Jack Biilmann; a place that holds the key to the man’s past, as well as his musical present.
I caught up with Biilmann via Zoom. Jack’s voice is pure grungy blues and rock ‘n’ roll. His CV speaks of collabs with Gibson and Maton Guitars. And now the man tops his Divided Mind tour in the ol’ stomping ground of The Street Theatre.
The two-side album of the same name neatly melds together Biilmann’s solo blues-roots-country guise with his ‘90s-tinged, blues inspired band-based rock ‘n’ roll sound. This is niftily presented in a Side A / Side B format showcasing the best of each mode.
And it comes all with an interesting story to boot. Let us return, now, to that enigmatic sandstone church.
“It’s about 45 minutes away from Cooma; my Grandfather owned the Church in 1965,” Biilmann tells. “He was a farmer up there and bought the land the church stood on. He immediately fenced the land off and donated it back to the community.”
As such, the Biilmann clan have a generations-spanning bond to the place.
“My family still visit the country there,” Biilmann says. “We’ve got a hut, two hours from civilization. It’s the most beautiful untouched landscape. When we were kids, Dad used to tell us the story of the land and our family.”
Little did wee Jack know how this unassuming area of the world would play a part in his adult music life.
“When I was a bit older, I stopped in there on the way back when I was camping,” Biilmann says. “I had a guitar, and I brought it into church.
“The acoustics were just phenomenal.
“So, I did it a few more times. It wasn’t long before I thought: ‘I wonder if I could record an album in here?’”
Wonder turned into action, and so the idea of a live church recording was birthed.
There was an immediate impediment, though. The church had no power. But via the willingness of Biilmann’s recording engineer Matt Barnes, an artsACT grant, and Jack’s gifted musical friend Sara Flint available for vocals, an album, story and once in a lifetime experience was created (all captured in documentary format. More on that later).
Recording an album is taxing feat at the best of times, let alone effectively two of them, AND with one being a live recording far removed from the amenities of a city. If anything went wrong, they had to start the whole take again. In all, they did three full recordings of each song, picked the best, and mixed it.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Biilmann admits. “Playing guitar, harmonica, stomp box and tambourine, plus singing, as well as coordinating it all with Sara…
“But I’m now so much better as a musician for it. It’s been my most successful release so far.
“Previously, I’d go back into the studio and add more layers. This time, I knew I couldn’t add anything. What was there, was there.”
Rather fittingly, in the same way Divided Mind brings together Biilmann’s two musical modes, the recording became a congregation between music and family.
“My Dad was there for the whole time, as well as my Uncle Kevin. They were basically our maintenance men,” Biilmann chirps. “The generator had to be going the whole time. Their job was to top the petrol up and then come back and ensure that everyone was dead silent while we were recording.
“We were still writing songs as we recorded the doco,” he adds. “I am super proud of it.”
Ahhh yes, the doco! Biilmann’s mini-documentary on the Divided Mind recording process is called Drink the Water Where You Come From; words from Papa Biilmann about appreciating where you are from. Giving a rare peek behind the curtain, it is well worth taking the 11 minutes to, ahem, drink it in. >>scroll down to watch>>
If nothing else, it will get you geared up for Biilmann’s crowning Divided Mind tour show in hometown Canberra.
And make no mistake about it, this is a ‘show’, rather than a gig, with the night meticulously mapped out. Both A & B sides will have their time, peppered with some back catalogue classics, then Side B gets its time to shine before Sara Flint joins and showcases Side A in a different, yet familiar setting.
“This is the first time that Sara and I have done this together live since the Church recording,” Biilmann reveals. “And it will be terrific to do it where we are. I did The Street Theatre back in 2021 for the Full Circle album, and that now has a million streams!
“That was between lockdowns,” Biilmann says, a memory being sparked. “I’d driven all the way to Queensland to play some shows only to be turned away from the border.
“That Street show was probably the best solo show I’ve ever done,” he recalls. “So coming back with Sara, and probably ten guitars, a story telling spectacle, and the last show of the tour in my hometown for once? It’s going to be really special.”
Jack Biilmann’s Divided Mind tour touches down at The Street Theatre on Saturday, 7 October at 7:30pm, where he will be joined by Sara Flint. Tickets are $35 + bf pre-sale via the venue.