Paul Dempsey on the challenges of songwriting and the long-awaited Strange Loop

Paul Dempsey is one of those figures in Australian music who has been able to not only successfully maintain a solo career alongside that of a beloved and well-respected band, but it would seem that he’s been able to dictate just when and how his public presence will be felt.

The release of his debut solo album Everything is True back in 2012 proved Dempsey’s skill as a songwriter and had him on the road consistently off the back of the material until Something For Kate would ultimately return to the writing and recording of Leave Your Soul to Science. And while the opportunity just to see Dempsey perform onstage, whether solo or with the band, is one that few followers would be likely to pass up, we did have to wonder if and when the follow up to Everything is True would come.

As of today, we don’t have to wait anymore. Dempsey’s sophomore album Strange Loop is officially out and, as I mentioned in my review of the record, it features some of his best writing yet. Speaking with Dempsey earlier in the week, I’d come to the interview off the back of listening to the album on repeat for about two days and nights. I had to rein it in.

“It’s a little bit strange, right now.” He admits, after being hit with an embarrassing amount of praise so early in our chat. “I finished it about six months ago and I’ve just been living with it like my little secret, in a bubble. That’s really the only time I ever do listen to my records, the time between them being finished and them coming out – anywhere between three to six months. That’s where I can actually enjoy the record, because nobody else has heard it yet. It’s a little strange, starting to do interviews and actually talking about it with people who have now listened to it. It’s a period of letting go; it belongs to other people now.”

While fans have waited seven years for Strange Loop, Dempsey’s already looking ahead. With a whole new tour cycle to sink his teeth into, ideas of new music have already begun to swirl.

“Just sitting in this room right now looking at instruments, the other part of letting go of this record is that I’m now able to think about new music. I think I’ll be using whatever down time I have to just get started on the broad strokes of some new things.”

“I’m dying to go play these songs live now,” he enthuses. “As frequently as possible. They feel really good. We played a couple of shows in February with a really great band that I love playing with and the new songs feel great. Also, it feels great to play the songs off Everything is True with a band again because I haven’t done that in a few years.”

With a career that has spanned over 20 years and that has spawned such an impressive body of work and accolades to accompany, Dempsey admits that even he still struggles with certain aspects of his musicianship. In Strange Loop, we see Dempsey continue to wear his heart on sleeve while crafting some gorgeous narratives throughout, though for him, lyricism has always posed a challenge.

“The music always comes easily,” he admits. “I’m sitting in my room right now and there are instruments and recording gear around… I can pretty easily come up with music in here. It all happens quite quickly. When it comes to writing lyrics, that’s just always hard work for me. It’s just a commitment. I have to sit down at a desk and put in eight hours of writing every day until I’m there. That can take six months, it can take 12 months.”

Dempsey at The Loft (Photo: Maclay Heriot)
Dempsey at The Loft (Photo: Maclay Heriot)

“I wrote “Be Somebody” and “Strange Loop” quite a while ago,” Dempsey remembers. “Everything else was pretty much written in the first half of last year. I just really had to knuckle down and it was just a bit of banging my head against a wall. I write lots and lots and lots of words, most of it is just rubbish. It takes me a long time to get happy enough to commit to something, but in the end, I’m really happy and I’m extremely happy with these lyrics. I’m not going to say they’re the best, I hate comparing, but I’m really happy with them.”

We turn the focus to “Idiot Oracle”, which stood out early as an album highlight, a late addition to Strange Loop.

“That was definitely the last song written,” he confirms. “I think I wrote it the week we went to Chicago. That’s not a surprise, really. I never stop writing until I’ve left the studio. You just never know what’s going to happen. You may go over there with a collection of songs, but you’ve still constantly got your antennas up, because the last thing you write might be the best thing. That often happens.”

“On the last Something For Kate album, I wrote “Star-Crossed Citizens”, which is one of my favourite songs on that record, the day before we flew to Dallas to record the album. It happens a lot. “Déjà Vu” was written last minute too. You just never know when songs are going to keep coming. I don’t switch off that part of my brain until the last day in the studio, when you’re wrapping up.”

Dempsey at The Loft (Photo: Maclay Heriot)
Dempsey at The Loft (Photo: Maclay Heriot)

Leaving Melbourne to record Strange Loop in Chicago brought Dempsey to Wilco’s studio, The Loft, where he would spend three weeks bringing his demos to fruition in their final form with acclaimed producer Tom Schick. Of his time in the city, Dempsey remembers the process of putting the record together as being somewhat of a whirlwind.

“The whole album was recorded and mixed in about 15 days.” He says. “I went over there with a very clear blueprint. I basically went over there and re-recorded my demos. My demos were virtually what you hear on the record; everything was there, everything was formulated and arranged and written. I went over there and re-recorded everything with a better engineer and better equipment.”

“It was quite methodical: I arrived and I had one day to acclimatise and then I was just in The Loft every day, knocking out a whole song per day. We took a couple of days to mix and then I was just gone. I didn’t get a lot of time to hang out and enjoy Chicago. I’ve been there a bunch of times before and I love it, it’s a great city, but on this occasion it was just about getting down to business and getting all this stuff out of my head and on to tape.”

Although he’s mentioned feeling slightly strange about talking to people, namely journalists, who’ve been able to absorb this new piece of work he’s been sitting with for some time now, the excitement around the idea of new fans coming on board with Strange Loop is undeniable for Dempsey.

It’s safe to say that there is always going to be a percentage of his fan base who were already going to be loving the album before any singles even saw release – that’s simply the esteem writers and performers like Dempsey have cultivated and held over the years. But, if Strange Loop is as much an avenue for newcomers to go and explore Dempsey’s previous work, as it is a long-awaited sophomore release, he’s happy for that to be the case.

“Whilst I’m very grateful for the audience that we have,” he says. “You don’t want to feel like you’re always preaching to the converted, you know? You don’t feel like you’re challenging yourself unless you’re constantly reaching new people who are listening to you with fresh ears. The way I work though, is by avoiding anything that feels too familiar to me. Hopefully every record does end up sounding quite different, because I just try not to do anything that feels like anything I’ve done before.”

Strange Loop is out now through EMI Music Australia.

Paul Dempsey will be touring the album nationally over the below tour dates!

PAUL DEMPSEY AUSTRALIAN TOUR DATES
**Solo Show

August 6th | Theatre Royal, CASTLEMAINE | TICKETS
August 12th | The Triffid, BRISBANE | TICKETS
August 19th | Metro Theatre, SYDNEY | TICKETS
August 25th | The Gov, ADELAIDE | TICKETS
August 26th | Astor Theatre, PERTH | TICKETS
September 2nd | Corner Hotel, MELBOURNE | TICKETS
**September 8th | Workers Club, GEELONG | TICKETS 
September 9th | Grand Hotel, MORNINGTON | TICKETS
**September 10th | Meeniyan Town Hall, MEENIYAN | TICKETS
October 2nd | Caloundra Festival, CALOUNDRA | TICKETS

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