Interview: Tim Minchin (AUS) on his debut album, his idols and pursuing multiple careers

Tim Minchin

Tim Minchin is undoubtedly in the ranks of modern geniuses. Across his career, he’s excelled in nearly every artistic pursuit. He has toured his comedy internationally, composed globally-received musicals, acting on and off iconic stages and created viral political anthems.

His work has earned him numerous Edinburgh Festival Fringe Perrier Comedy Awards, multiple Olivier Awards, a Logie and had him appointed as a Member of the Order of Australia. On top of that, his works themselves are Grammy-nominated and Tony Award-winning.

Yet despite his heavy belt of accolades that would signify to others his mastery, Tim is driven to explore and redefine, as well as try his hand at new opportunities that come across his desk. And it might surprise you to hear Tim is only just now gearing up to release his debut album, Apart Together. 

We get another glimpse into the upcoming body of work with his latest single, ‘I’ll Take Lonely Tonight’, and chatted to Tim ahead of its release.

Hey Tim, how are you?

Yeah, really good. I’m sitting in the window of a high-rise building overlooking Barangaroo. It’s quite fun. I’m actually out of the house for the first time.

I was going to ask, have you been able to spend a lot more time with your family now that the worlds in disarray?

Yeah, it’s quite pleasant disarray for us. It’s obviously all very stressful on an industry-wide level, but on a personal level it’s not that different for us because we’re a boom-and-bust-family, as in we spend whole chunks apart and then whole chunks together.

Obviously having the kids home all day every day has been interesting, but I spend a lot of my life sitting in my little room writing anyway, so it just felt like a writing period. And Sarah was sort of full-time on the kids. So it’s been really functional and pleasant. We’re very, very lucky.

That is the nice part about it. Having lived a life of minimal structure, these moments in time don’t really throw you into complete turmoil.

Yeah well, it’s nice for me too, because I was on tour and although it was devastating that the tour got shut down, that’s all been rescheduled and I’ve been able to do some writing that I was wondering when I was going to be able to do it or whether I was going to be able to do it. So I’ve written a song for a film, a Netflix film, and I’m voicing a thing, and all this stuff that I… Because I’m so greedy with the different careers I want to keep sustained I’m always having to say no to stuff. So I’ve been able to say yes to some things that I was going to have to say no to, so it’s been nice.

I hear you’re also working on a biographical musical, is that right?

Yeah. I’ve got another musical in the works, but I don’t know. I mean, I’ll keep that as close to my chest as I can. I’ve got to keep writing and see if it earns itself. I feel pretty good about it.

But also the weird thing about COVID is I keep thinking I’m going to have big chunks of time and it’s just endless sh*t to do in terms of people going, “Okay, I’m doing this podcast.” And all this attempt to create content that benefits all the arts institutions that have been f**ked over by circumstance and the government. And so you end up doing a lot of little side projects and at-home recordings and stuff with Paul Kelly, and stuff for blah, blah, blah, and you end up not getting to write. So I’m not as far ahead as I had hoped I would be.

I do have to commend you on your collaboration with Briggs. I think that’s definitely one of the beauties to come out of it. I’m glad you took on that side project.

Me too, I’ve always wanted to do something with Briggs, so that was really f**king fun.

Absolutely! Let’s talk about one of your “greedy” career choices. You’ve decided to put out your first debut studio album, and that shocked me that you haven’t actually put out a full album before.

Yeah, it’s ridiculous. I guess, lots of composer lyricists for theatre don’t put out solo albums, but I don’t know if there’s anyone on the planet who’s written as much material as I have, that has been performed in as many different genres, that have never put out a record. It just keeps getting kicked down the road because I keep going, “Yes, I definitely want to make a studio album, but I’m going to make this TV show and I’m going to write this musical and I’m going to go back on tour and …”

I guess the other thing that happened is as the years rolled by, my last album, my demo album that I made in my house when I was 25, as the two decades roll by and I did more and more composing for theatre and comedy and all that, I started losing the sense of who I am as a songwriter. And it’s actually been the best thing about making this album because I was like, “I don’t know what this album’s going to be. F**k, I could do anything.” And I could write a swing album, because I’ve had to write in all these styles.

And that’s actually my thing, is like, with comedy I’m like, “This sounds like a classical waltz, and this sounds like a swing tune, and this sounds like an epic rock thing,” and that’s the job, right? And so I totally didn’t know what it was going to be, and one of the things I’m happiest with is that it’s actually a cohesive collection of songs, and I’ve actually kind of written myself into a kind of happy place of realising what sort of songwriter I am, and that rather than like, “Okay, I’m trying to avoid comedy because I’m trying to write a serious record,” it’s like, “No, that…” I just don’t need punchlines. I can still write my quirky angle on things. Even ‘[I’ll Take] Lonely [Tonight]’, even the single that’s coming out, it’s not funny but it’s definitely not lyrically like most pop songs, or musically like most pop songs. I mean it’s…

A six minute ballad there!

Six and a half minutes long! And it reads, structurally, a bit like an old standard. I mean, it could be like, there was an old standard called [singing], “Do nothing till you hear from me / Pay no attention to what’s said”. It’s another infidelity song, but it’s got that A A B A format. And actually, ‘Lonely’ is like a massive old standard. And it’s in 6/8, like [singing], “I’m afraid this masquerade is over.”

A bit more swingy.

It’s really influenced by that, but it doesn’t sound like that. And lyrically it’s got all these twists and turns, right? You keep thinking, “Oh, maybe he’s going to f**k her, and then maybe …” And so it’s got this narrative theatricality, which appeals to me. And a lot of my songs on this record, basically, they’re not all six and a half minutes and they’re not all about fidelity, but they have in common. They have in common a storytelling thing.

And I have given up on trying to write three-minute pop songs because it just doesn’t suit me. When I try and write three and a half minute radio-friendly pop songs, they just sound like I’m a guy from the nineties trying to write a pop song for the kids, and they’re just sh*t. And so I sort of let myself off the hook and I’m just writing these tunes and then suddenly BMG come onboard and they’re like, “We love this stuff,” and I’m like, “Okay, let’s see how it goes.”

I think that’s a classic case of throwing sh*t at the wall and seeing what sticks, but for some reason the sh*t you throw away seems to turn to gold.

Well, I’m obsessed about doing whatever I do, thoroughly. I mean, not to sound like a wanker, but like my …

You give a hundred percent, there’s no point in giving less.

Yeah! And I’m not a kid having a crack and smoking cones, I’m a 45-year-old man with a career behind me. There’s absolutely no point in putting out a half-assed effort, so I’ve just done my best, you know? And I’ve got Daniel Denholm on board to produce and he’s done a beautiful job at helping me find a sound. I don’t know who’ll listen to it, but I certainly don’t think I will judge this work by radio plays or anything. I know how I feel about it. I feel like it’s a good solid offer of a songwriter who writes a bit theatrically and is in his forties. I’m not trying to be something I’m not, I guess.

And that’s important for a lot of artists, that they shouldn’t judge their work’s value off of numbers because at the end of the day, art isn’t about numbers, it’s about impact.

Yeah. And also, if you looked at my musical, Groundhog Day, and my musical, Matilda, you would say that Matilda‘s a much, much more successful and therefore better musical than Groundhog Day, and it’s just not, even though one lost a bunch of money and one won a global thing, you know? It’s just your audience. Sometimes you land on an audience and sometimes you don’t, and sometimes you write something that is incredibly intricate and maybe people don’t notice its intricacy, or… I guess I’m lucky because of Matilda because I had that big thing that means I’m a bit secure and I just, I don’t ever need something to be as big a hit as that. It just doesn’t bother me.

That’s fair enough. Speaking of your variety of projects, is there an area that you’re wanting to test yourself in more?

I really, really loved making Upright, my TV show, and so I think Upright‘s really going to push me toward making more film and TV as a writer, producer, director, actor. And I’m very keen that that doesn’t take over from my touring and my songwriting, but I really loved the collaborative nature of it, and the wide reach, obviously. If you make a TV show, millions of people can see it in a very short space of time.

But my obsession is balance. My obsession is that I get to do it all, and I need to keep doing it all. I’m not trying to phase anything out, and I’m not trying to lean particularly on any one thing. I literally want to make a TV show, then go on tour, then make an album, then write a musical, then make a film, and just keep doing that till I die. Which might be quite soon given how much of it I do!

As a young creative who’s much the same in that I love multidisciplinary pursuits, how did you carve out a career over multiple different facets? How did you get people to say yes to that and take a gamble?

Well, it took a long time for anyone to take any notice of me in any way, and so when I eventually got some attention at the age of 30 doing cabaret, basically, I had spent so many years failing. And growing up in Perth, you just get kind of left alone. I think a huge advantage for me, in hindsight, is I would be in Perth doing what I’m doing now: I would write songs for a Pro-Am theatre show or a kid’s theatre show and be musical director of that, and then I’d go and do a jazz piano gig, and then I’d go play in my wedding band. And then I’d go work on my original band, and then I’d play Hamlet in a little version of Shakespeare, and then I’d do a Shakespeare in the Park.

And so everything I’m doing now, I was always doing. And all through my twenties, my mum was like, “You have to decide what you’re doing and specialise,” and I went, “Eh.” And in the end I just stuck it all together on stage and started doing cabaret and turned it into comedy because people laughed more than I realised. And by the time I started getting attention and then wrote Matilda, I had chops, you know? I had some skills because I had not had enough success just in any one area to stop doing it all.

And I had this unusual thing where by the time the Royal Shakespeare Company came to me and said, “We’ve seen your comedy show, have you ever thought about writing theatre?” I was able to go, “Oh, here’s eight CDs of scores I’ve written,” because I first started writing for theatre when I was 17. And then off the back of that, when Lloyd Webber was looking for a Judas and he was like, “Could you sing this role?” I’m like, “Well I understudied it twice in amateur productions in Perth, and now I’ve done gigs in front of thousands of people and my voice is stronger, so I think I can do it.” So suddenly it was like … Oh, you remember Slumdog Millionaire?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. With Dev Patel.

That film where he knows all the answers to all the questions because of experiences he had? It kind of worked out like that. It’s like, “Oh yeah, actually I have done that before.” And it’s all because no one took any notice of me for 10 years, 12 years.

Your hermit lifestyle in Perth really fed itself. Who do you look up to?

I look up to smart people. The people I really admire are great speakers and great authors and brilliant physicists, much more than other entertainers. But then again, I’ve got to meet and watch incredible… I look up to anyone who’s brilliant at their job in any field, to be honest. I really do. I just think there are so many people I go, “F**k, how do you be that smart at that thing?” You know? I’m not very good at answering the question.

I look up to McCartney. I would look up to Lennon if he was alive, you know? And I look up to Brian May and Roger Taylor, and I look up to all those old guys. I look up to Eddie Perfect and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Stephen Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber and, I don’t know, anyone. Lots of people. But the people that blow my mind when I get to meet them are like, I had dinner with Ian McEwan and Zadie Smith once. And I had dinner with Tom Stoppard once. They’re the ones that I get shaky in the boots about. The genuine giants of intellectual giants.

I appreciate that you too get shaky in your boots about people.

Well, f**k, there’s some scary smart people out there. I’ve had dinner with Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins as well. F**k.
And the thing is, even though I’m shaking in my boots, I don’t actually feel threatened. I’m like, “F**k yeah. I’m going to have a chat with Richard Dawkins and Steven Fry about freewill.” I’m well up for that stuff.

One hundred percent, you take the opportunity and deserve a seat at that table. Before I let you go, let’s loop back to your upcoming album, Apart Together.

Yeah, sorry, I’m terrible at promoting these sorts of things!

That’s okay. Apart Together. What are people currently defining it as by genre?

I don’t know. I mean, BMG are calling it bent pop. I mean, it’s sort of got pop elements, but there’s swing in it and there’s the proper, big epic … There’s rock and roll, old-school rock and roll vibes in it. Sort of epic stadium rock vibes in it. It is multi-genre, except it’s all pulled together by this story-telling, lyric-driven, personal, hyper-honest account. And it’s a bit narcissistic. It’s very much about me and my state of mind and some observations I have, but yeah, I have no idea. You’d have to ask someone else. Because I’m really f**king bad at knowing what… It’s just like my annoying sh*t as a genre, I would say.

“It’s my brain, but in music form.”

Yeah, exactly.

That’s a damn good sell. Tim, thank you so much for speaking with me And best of luck with the album!

Tim Minchin’s latest single ‘I’ll Take Lonely Tonight’ is out now via BMG.

Head to Tim Minchin’s website to stream the release and stay up to date his upcoming album, Apart Together.

Main Image Credit: Damian Bennett

Tait McGregor