Interview: Michael Dunstan (AUS) talks In The Grand Scheme, mental health and touring

In The Grand Scheme

WA singer-songwriter Michael Dunstan is currently on his way to South Australia, driving across the Nullarbor. He’s a handful of dates into his three month national tour in support of his debut album In The Grand Scheme. Released last week, the album is a fourteen track journey of mindfulness, good vibes and beautiful songwriting. 

We caught up with the Dunstan to find out a little bit more about the creative process behind the album, what to expect from the tour, and why a dollar from every ticket sold is going to charity. Check out the interview below and get to one of those remaining shows. It’s all for a good cause. 

What is in the inspiration behind your debut album, In The Grand Scheme?

In The Grand Scheme regards the realisation of our insignificance, and the associated freedom that comes with this realisation. This album is an exploration of what is most important in life, and a reminder that we are just a small part of something much bigger than we can really grasp.

My journey with mindfulness is still a massive inspiration for this album, for it lets you see the world for what it is, instead of the distorted reality your thoughts can portray. A few particular journey’s to natural places of large scale have also led to a few of the songs written, such as “Who Gave Us A Mirror?”.

Lastly, four or five songs regard an unexpected, abrupt end to a relationship with a dearly loved one, that was so far out of our control.

Were you reading, listening or experiencing anything that influenced the writing or recording process?

I was reading The Untethered Soul while writing a few of the songs. I’ve never read a book as powerful to date, with regards to providing a long-lasting gain in perspective on life. It’s a book that I stumbled upon whilst trying to dive a little deeper into my understanding about mindfulness. But, I was most blown away by the simple explanations in the book and its way of reassuring the reader.

“Happily Helpless” was influenced by one page in the book in particular. It suggested that every-time you hop in the car, to ground yourself, you should pause for 10 seconds and remind yourself that you are sitting in your car, on a spinning rock floating in the middle of space. If that doesn’t put your fears or worries into a more rational view, then I’m not sure what will.

In The Grand Scheme might be your debut album, but your fourth major release after your Solace, New Normal and Partly Cloudy EPs. What did you take from those earlier recording experiences and how did you incorporate that into recording your album?

Maybe the most important thing I’ve learnt over the last few EP’s is that vibe or character, is much more important than perfection. Anyone can achieve perfect studio recordings with a meticulous approach. But, being able to relate to it is much more important.

We stripped back the vocal doubles on this record compared to the recent releases. I wanted it to be more personal and intimate on the tracks. For a good portion, we focused on using less reverb than in the past. I think that comes from having more confidence in my voice now, where as the first EP Solace, I was super self-conscious about my vocals and drenched the thing in reverb.

I’ve worked with Andy Lawson of Debaser Studios a fair bit now and it just feels like recording and working with a best friend. There’s no rules with Andy sound wise, so what you hear is exactly what either of us where envisioning, which makes the whole recording process a world of fun. I’m very fortunate to work with someone I respect so much and relate with so well.

You’ve released a couple of tracks ahead of the album’s release, can you tell us a little more about those new singles: “Smoulder or Ignite” and “Parallel Universe”?

“Smoulder or Ignite” is an optimistic outlook on the end of a relationship with a dearly loved one. Realising that it’s well beyond either of our control and if it’s meant to be, it’ll be. I drove to the airport to pick that special person up, but they never came out of the terminal. The song is a song of hope and surrendering to circumstances. Love is all around you, “in the trees, in a hug from family”, a reminder to not just rely on one special person alone.

“Parallel Universe” is a bit more of a wild beast. I had a nightmare 48 hours where I had experienced the worst panic attacks I had endured for years. The song is about the isolation and disassociation one can feel at the height of extreme anxiety. It’s only happened twice. But, I didn’t recognise myself in the mirror, that’s not a place I ever want to be in again. Grass felt weird on the feet, hearing music made me panic, watching TV was enough to trigger another panic attack, everything weirded me out.

The best way I could describe it, was like being in the upside down of Stranger Things, if you’ve ever seen the show. Just a super dark, sinister version of your normal world, but you’re completely alone. I wrote the lyrics down during those 48 hours, and weeks after I wrote the song realising how crucial it is to have the belief in yourself that those intense thoughts and feelings are just fleeting and will subside.

At fourteen tracks In The Grand Scheme is perhaps on the longer side of what people expect from an album these days. Was it difficult to whittle the tracklist down to fourteen? And how did you decide on the final cut?

Before recording this album I’d really re-evaluated why I loved playing music in the first place. Which was to share with others, and to find clarity and explore the journey and meaning of life. So the reason I kept the album long was a conscious decision of wanting to share everything I had at the moment that I thought was worth sharing.

I don’t have any form of management or label to uphold. So, I’m lucky to be able to drop as many tracks as I want and then go focus on shows and the next chapter. Not everyone will want to listen to all fourteen tracks. But, this album is for the listeners who do want to dive deeper, listen closer and explore what’s within the lyrics.

There were about four tracks that didn’t make the album, but fit really well with the theme, if not better than the others. Simply put, they weren’t ready yet. My producer Andy stepped in and lightly suggested that I save them for future releases. As while they held great potential, that could risk being under-done if we recorded them last Spring. This made the final cut easy, as we just included all the songs we recorded. No recorded songs were left out.

You’re about to head off on a large national tour, not your first. How do you prefer to spend your time on the road? Are you someone that finds it easy to write whilst touring?

We sure are! I’m typing the answers to these on the Nullarbor at the moment. We will cross into SA this afternoon. I’ve driven and flown with Australian tours before, but this time we are driving again. I guess I really do prefer to make it a road trip. You get to experience so much more with your friends. And you gain a massive appreciation for the destination to which you arrive as you’ve travelled so far to get there.

We spend most of our time driving, listening to music and podcasts. But, also entertain ourselves by documenting the funny side of things with a little Sony Handycam we have. We have a van full of instruments and surfboards, so when there’s a chance to relax, we will just stay put in somewhere cruisy and quiet.

I find it very easy to journal and write words down on tours, and will fill many pages while driving each day or two. That being said, I will rarely have the time to write a song both lyrically and instrumentally on a tour. When we get spare time we’ll just rest or do something fun. So I guess they’ll both happen separately when touring. But at least I can pick up from where I left off when back home. And it’s a beautiful way to reflect on the time passed travelling.

For those who haven’t already had chance to catch a Michael Dunstan show, what should audiences expect?

We’ve been touring the debut album with a three piece band. It’s an upbeat and diverse selection from the album. Expect a mix of acoustic, electric and keyboard songs. Ranging from driving and uplifting songs, to the more brooding and thought-provoking songs.

The two boys I’m performing with are great multi-instrumentalists, and we strive hard to consistently perform high quality live shows. I’ll always cherish the opportunity to chat about the context and meaning of the songs in a serious manner. But Joe (drums) and Pat (bass) will also be trying to keep it as light-hearted as possible. All of the shows so far have felt like there is a real sense of community in the room. That’s we want as we try bind together to raise money for Happy Monday Co. whilst promoting the album’s release.

A dollar from every ticket sold will be going to Happy Monday in support of tour member Daniel Hedley. Can you talk a little about the work they do and Hedley’s fundraising mission?

On almost all of my previous tours, Daniel Hedley travelled around with me and lent a massive helping hand. He is one of the most giving people I know. He had talked about riding around Australia on a penny-farthing for a while. And now to our surprise he’s actually gone and done it.

Dan is riding 6500km from Brisbane to Perth on a penny-farthing at the moment. He’s already over 1000km into the journey. His goal is to raise one million dollars for mental health organisations such as Headspace, Beyond Blue and The Kai Eardley Foundation to mention a few. You can donate to support the cause HERE

Dan and I have both opened up to each other over the years during times of severe anxiety. I’m so thankful he was there for me. Mental health is something we’re both passionate about, and I can only hope that through 3 months of touring, we can help Dan make a difference to many people’s lives. We are so proud of Dan for opening up more dialogue about mental health, embarking on such a mammoth journey to help the well-being of many Australians. He’s got our support all the way.

How important for you was it to incorporate a charitable element to the tour?

Crucial. It adds so much purpose and inspiration to the tour. We want to play as many shows as possible, to help do our bit. We’ve been inspired by Dan, and we want to do our best to give to others, and also inspire others to contribute. Some of the foundations Happy Monday Co. are fundraising for, have been resources that I have used to manage my anxiety when I was really hit hard by it three or four years back. I’ve always talked about anxiety and mindfulness on my tours, but this time feels a little more powerful and important, as we’ve turned words into measurable action.

Debut album, national tour. It’s going to be a busy first half of 2020. What’s next for you?

I’m aiming to get overseas in the latter half of 2020. Canada and Europe have been high on the priority list to visit and tour. So I’ll be aiming for one of them at least. I’ll be heading back to New Zealand without a doubt, this time hopefully with the band. Back in the studio in June for a short period of time, aiming for some new music in late 2020.

 

Michael Dunstan’s debut album In The Grand Scheme is available now. He’s currently out on tour (dates below), so head to a show and support a great cause at the same time.

Michael Dunstan In The Grand Scheme Tour Dates

Wed 4th March | Beer Garden Brewing – Port Lincoln, SA
Thu 5th March | Jive Bar – Adelaide, SA
Thu 12th March | Northcote Social Club – Northcote, VIC
Fri 13th March | The Boardwalk – Bendigo, VIC
Sat 14th | Macedon Ranges Music Fest 2020 – Gisborne, VIC
Thu 2nd April | The Factory Floor – Marrickville, NSW
Fri 3rd April | The Baroque Room – Carrington Hotel Katoomba, NSW
Sat 18th April | Byron Bay Brewery – Byron Bay, NSW
Fri 24th April | The Solbar – Maroochydore, QLD
Sat 25th April | Milk Factory Kitchen And Bar – Brisbane, QLD
Wed 13th May | The Basement – Belconnen, ACT

You can also find our review of In The Grand Scheme HERE and Michael’s guest playlist HERE

Simon Clark

Books Editor. An admirer of songs and reader of books. Simon has a PhD in English and Comparative Literature. All errant apostrophes are his own.

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