Take Something Beautiful – The Songs of Jesse Younan

by Jenny O’Keefe

In July 2008 Jesse Younan died from acute myeloid leukemia. He was 35 years old and had just released the album ‘A Good Day for a Migraine’ to critical acclaim. Jesse’s voice was strong and his words brilliant, and his death came far too early in a young man’s life.

Now, some notable independent Australian artists have teamed up with Vitamin Records to create a tribute album.

Glenn Wright, director of Vitamin Records, had a chat with Jenny O’Keefe about this release.

Can you tell me a bit about how the idea came about for Take Something Beautiful?

After Jesse passed away, for a long time we struggled with keeping his last release relevant. I found it hard to listen to the album and I think everybody felt deflated.

I gave the album to many musicians and music presenters and one in particular really pushed the songs for placement. Norman Parkhill from Source Music found music placements for Jesse’s music on East of Everything (ABC series) and Packed to the Rafters. He became a fan and suggested we put out an album celebrating Jesse’s music. Now four years on it feels far more appropriate, as many of us who were close to Jesse are returning to his albums and enjoying.

We hope through this album that more people will discover Jesse’s music, and also that it will help those artists that are involved in some way.

How did you go about selecting who would appear on the album, and which songs they would cover? Did the artists decide this amongst themselves?

These artists are all indie acts that were about the same profile as Jesse was when he passed away. They are pretty much all more established now – but back then they would have been contemporaries to Jesse.

Norman wanted the album to have continuity so we had David Symes (Missy Higgins, Sarah Blasko, Jackie Orszaczky) come on as the musical director, producer. The artists invited all had some direct association with Vitamin Records and or Source Music and some, like Lucie Thorne, knew Jesse and were fans. The songs were offered to the artists.

I was reading that you were a close friend of Jesse’s. When we lose someone in our lives the grieving process ebbs and flows over time, with different lessons emerging through the experience. What do you remember most about Jesse as a friend today?

I think we were friends – yes, but more I think we happened to be on the same path and were like-minded. I believed he could be a very accomplished artist and he had chosen my company to work with to get his music out. I really liked the guy and we had some good times – I guess that’s a friend?

What I remember most is that he had huge contradictions. He could look mean and hard yet my three-year-old and six-year-old (at the time) were totally in a spell around him. He didn’t really talk to them much – just smile and make the odd joke – but they just loved being near him. He would play his guitar and they would listen and be calm and be happy. He was staying with us so the children really did love him.

I couldn’t bring up the courage to tell my three-year-old he had died for about 12 months. Eventually she worked it out and it really was a big life lesson for her, losing somebody.

Vitamin as a record label is something quite special. All the CDs in my collection from you guys end up feeling like lovely friends. What is the ethos of the label?

That’s lovely, there is little if any ethos except one of us in the office has to love the music. Sometimes the music is really good but there is no love – so we pass. Music is very personal so I think we have passed on some very good music, but it just wasn’t for us.

Jenny also fired a few questions at some of the artists involved in Take Something Beautiful.

What does it mean to you to be involved in this album, covering the work of Jesse Younan?

“It is an honor and a fabulous privilege to be involved in this project, as I value Jesse’s songs very much, and this feels great that they are being given new life by some great unique Australian voices.” — Jordie Lane

“It’s intimidating to rework someone else’s work, especially when there’s no way for feedback from them, it’s also inspiring to place what you can of your own heart and soul onto someone’s work that has their heart and soul attached.” — M Jack Bee

“I was drawn to the album primarily because the song structure to Blowfly is so different to anything I have ever written, I found it a good challenge to interpret. It felt like a dramatic song that needed dramatic delivery. I liked the idea of keeping the tone fairly dark because it suits the themes. I didn’t know him but it seemed like a worthwhile project to be a part of because he was such a unique talent.” — Abbe May

“I felt very honoured to be asked to be involved with this project. Jesse was a great songwriter and musician and from all accounts an amazing person, so being asked to interpret one of his songs for the album was kind of nerve-wracking.” — Jai Pyne

Did you know Jesse? Can you tell me about your thoughts of him as a man and a musician?

“I did know Jesse, but not well. I remember the first time I met him many years back at The Retreat Hotel in Melbourne. We were on the bill together, and I just remember it really blowing me away. He was intimidating to see at first, but one of those people with a gentleness that overpowers that quickly. A damn good picker of the guitar, and a voice that has lived, that has suffered, that has loved.” — Jordie Lane

“I never met Jesse unfortunately. A former member of our band Tom Hespe was a friend of his and held him in very high esteem as a person, musician and songwriter so I heard a few stories about the man and was exposed to his music through Tom. We actually ended up playing at a tribute show to Jesse shortly after he passed away, we covered ‘Forever’. The songs lend themselves to different interpretations quite fluidly and they still stand up as great songs. I think good tunes will always do this: no matter how you play them – whether it be with layers of instruments or just stripping it back to guitar and vocals, they will still convey a story and Jesse’s songs certainly do this extraordinarily well.” — Jai Pyne

“I met Jesse only once at Peats Ridge Festival in 2006/07, it was brief but behind his dark exterior that day I saw a knowing humour in his eyes. Once I moved to the North Coast I started working with producer Christian Pyle who had spent the last months of Jesse’s life producing ‘A Good Day For A Migraine’. I got to know Jesse in a recorded sense, and got a lot of pretty insane stories from the process of those guys making that record.” — M Jack Bee

Can you tell me about the song you recorded for the album and its meaning?

“I find Road Long Been Travelled darkly uplifting, there’s a knowing that life is short and to forget the bullshit in a really honest way. It didn’t feel forced the way Jesse played it, so I picked up my guitar, learned it and then played it as if it were my own. That’s what the song was saying for me to do in life, so I treated it that way.” — M Jack Bee

“Dave Symes and I went back and forth on the track, the lyrics and how we were going to approach it. We tried to work it so it would suit my voice and my style and sit in with Jesse’s song. I had the track for a while and played around at home on acoustic guitar with it, just trying to get a feel for it.

“Then we just had one session for the bulk of the recording, putting down drums with Jared Underwood and Dave Symes playing bass. I played some atmospheric kinda guitars on it and tried to do the vocal as much justice as possible.

“The meaning of the song [C’est La Vie] is very heavy. My take is that it’s about coming to terms with mortality and resorting to addiction and escapism – drawing a parallel between these things and then also touching on some very intense family things. This was pretty confronting to try to encompass in my voice and our interpretation of the song, but it was really fun working on it with those guys. It was also quite touching to be able to contribute and celebrate Jesse’s song and his person. There was so much of his personality and soul in his work and it’s great to make this into a beautiful thing.” — Jai Pyne

“I was asked to cover Swing. They must have read my mind, ’cause if I had to choose my favorite song it would be that. I was very much pleased to take the direction of producer Dave Symes on the studio. We decided to keep the song fairly true to the original based around guitar and voice.

“I can’t really be the judge of its true meaning, but I do see it as a confessional about the struggle with addiction and life and love.” — Jordie Lane

Take Something Beautiful is out now through Vitamin Records, and will be performed live at Mullumbimby Music Festival 2012, Nov 22-25 

The album features covers by Abbe May, Jordie Lane, Jai Pyne (The Paper Scissors), Jen Cloher, Lucie Thorne, Emily Lubitz (Tinpan Orange), Greg J Walker (Machine Translations), Cameron Potts and Gabby Huber (Dead Letter Chorus) and M Jack Bee.


LIZ STRINGER ‘Warm in the Darkness’

Liz Stringer – ‘Warm in the Darkness’

Review by Alex Morton

Liz Stringer has always been a fiercely independent artist, intent on doing things her own way.

In 2009 she set up in a converted church with a sound engineer, a gifted 8-track recorder, 10 great songs and as many instruments, and singlehandedly played, recorded and released one of the best records of 2010, the largely acoustic Tides of Time.

So how do you ace that?  You put together a core band of longtime cohorts and talented allies – Adam May on drums, Tim Keagan on bass and Van Walker on guitars (and sick licks) – and call on an array of guests such as John Bedggood on keyboards, Matt Walker on lap steel, Suzannah Espie on harmonies, Craig Pilkington and  Adam Simmons on horns, and you head into Craig’s Audrey Studios with another batch of killer songs and make a bloody great rock record. Of course!

Liz’s songwriting gets stronger with each new release – she’s an intriguing lyricist, often leaving as much to the imagination as she gives away – and a great storyteller. Some of her best songs have the feel of mini-novellas or short stories. And her vocals make it all sound true and believable – and she really stretches out on this album, alternately tough and tender, often yearning and always soulful. Things open strongly with In Anybody’s Language, an angry diatribe about recent events in our not so lucky country. In fact there’s not a weak spot on the album – Colourblind sounds like some bastard child of Exile on Main St. and Bob Dylan’s Shot of Love, all fat horns and Matt Walker’s lap steel behind Liz’s tough vocals, and Heart’s Been Trembling sounds like they roped in Keith Richards and Bobby Keys to help out. But things are also sweetened by the southern soul feel of Love Love Love, with its deep soul horn lines, courtesy of Craig Pilkington, and Liz’s harmonizing. And the gorgeous Stay With Me Here could be the greatest ballad that Bonnie Raitt never wrote, featuring a superb, yearning vocal  and Matt Walker’s dobro. Angela and High Open Hills are both classic Stringer, ..Hills especially a perfect crash-course in narrative songwriting, and great examples of Liz’s innate musicality. As is the mysterious Glutton, one of my favourite tracks on a record full of favourites. The title track winds things up in great style, with the band echoing The E-Street Band and reminding us, like all great rock albums, of the redemptive power of rock and roll.

So – many influences at work here, but the aptly titled Warm In The Darkness is all about inspiration rather than imitation, and a major achievement from one of our true originals. And if you want to hear how good this album really sounds, crank it up and play it loud. Loud and proud!

(If you haven’t heard all or any of Liz Stringer’s previous 3 albums you should, as the man says, do yourself a favour. There’s not a dud moment on any of ‘em and they’re all available from her website or any independent record store worth its salt.)

Reviewed and endorsed by Alex Morton!

The Melbourne album launch takes place
Sunday 10th June – Corner Hotel
Tix available here


Back on deck at the good ship Upstream!

Things have been a bit quiet here in the Upstream camp this year; we’ve all been super flat out with other commitments. There have been a load of requests for us to keep spreading the word of what’s kickin’ around this musically rich city. So, we are back with some exciting reviews and features to come.

We are also putting  the word out for contributors. Anyone out there who loves getting out to gigs or is up with the scene and keen to write up a few reviews, please get in touch! upstreamwhispers(at)gmail.com

Interview: Sweet Jean

You’re about to release your first single, Shiver and Shake. Can you tell us a bit about the recording process behind the tune?

We are having a lot of fun in the studio. The whole thing has been really natural, low-key and enjoyable. After running into producer John Castle (Bamboos, Washington) at the pub and deciding that we should work together, we went over to his studio and messed around for an afternoon with some songs and some sounds. The first song we recorded was Shiver & Shake. We thought we were making a demo, and as it happens it’s our first single! We really love how it’s turned out.

Any plans for a full-length album?

Yes! We will be releasing our debut album “Dear Departure” in March 2012.  

You are known for your haunting storytelling; from where do you draw your inspiration?

Shiver & Shake is based on a Grimm’s fairy tale about a boy who went out into the world to learn what fear is. Like a lot of Grimm’s fairy tales, there doesn’t seem to be any moral to the story; a whole lot of strange things happen, people die, the hero gets the girl…The End. We really love some of the language and imagery in this story. The main character is an archetypical fool, so we decided to set the song in the happy-go-lucky tropical key of ‘D6’. As songwriters, we often look to stories and themes with a dark undercurrent, and find new ways to tell them.

What else has been happening lately in the Sweet Jean camp?

Things have been pretty busy lately, and in-between making an album, playing a couple of festivals, and moving house, we’ve just finished a video clip for Shiver & Shake. We shot it at this amazingly strange place in Anachie, and the clip is “Svankmajer” meets “Funniest Home Videos”. We’re not sure if it’s “high-lowbrow”, or “low-highbrow”. Either way, it was a lot of fun to make and it’s coming together really well.

 When and where is the single launch?

Sunday December 4 at The Toff in Town, with the Heel Toe Express kicking things off, and DJ Lance Ferguson (Bamboos) closing the show with a 60’s exotica DJ set.

We strongly urge you to get down to the Toff on Sunday.
If you can’t make it, buy the single Shiver and Shake and join them on facebook!


A huge lineup, including Liz Stringer, Jen Cloher, Suzannah Espie, Pete Ewing, Ruth Lindsey, Lisa Miller, Sherry Rich and Rick Plant, are appearing in a very special Dolly Parton tribute show this Sunday at Yah Yahs’s in Fitzroy.

The Iron Butterfly herself will hit Melbourne for three shows at Rod Laver Arena later this month, and this gig is sure to get you in the mood. And at only $10, the organisers have pointed out that it’s about $369 cheaper than the good seats at Dolly’s show.

Melbourne’s finest women and cross-dressing men will turn Yah Yah’s into Dollywood, and we’ve been promised the big hits like ‘9 To 5’, ‘Here You Come Again’, ‘Jolene’ and ‘Islands in the Stream’.

Punters are invited to dress the part – think wigs, rhinestones, tassels, heels and hats. The Upstream Whispers crew are planning to hit the op shops this afternoon to find that perfect suede fringe twin-set.

The backing band for the night – the Dolly All-Bras – includes some of Melbourne’s finest musicians, with Matt Green (guitars), Brendan McMahon (keys), Stevie Smiles (tubs), Tim McCormack (bass) and Jeb Cardwell (more guitars).


THE STETSON FAMILY ‘The Devil in His Sunday Best’

Reviewed by Alex Morton

Damn but I love good handclaps. And banjos. And Nad Budge’s voice. So when I stuck the brand new Stetson Family album in the player and all of the above came flying out of the speakers, one after the other, I got a bit excited. And around 38 minutes and 11 great songs later I was grinning like a fool.

The Stetsons play progressive bluegrass with a healthy dose of country and folk-influenced music, and like Pennsylvanians Jim and Jennie & The Pinetops, they maintain a respect for the traditions of the genre without being constrained by them.

Anchored by Nadine Budge’s vocals, dobro, and considerable songwriting talents, the Stetson Family also features John Bartholomeusz , who contributes several great songs and on-the-button acoustic guitar leads; Colin Swan and Andrew Carswell play banjo and mandolin respectively, and Luke Richardson holds it all down with the bull-fiddle.

One of the real strengths of this album is the strength of the songs – all originals with the exception of Jean Ritchie’s classic tale of economics catching up with traditional mining – “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” (nicely juxtaposed by John and Colin’s narrative “Smokey Valley”) and Nad’s old partner-in- crime Marni Sheehan’s gorgeous and heartfelt “Devil Call Your Name”. Highlights include “Oh Winding River”, an elegiac classic with guest vocals by co-writer Tracey McNeil, a reminder of what a great singer (and writer) she truly is. And harmonies? Listen to the outro, with the whole band and  guests singing loud and proud, all air and breath, perfect unison –it’s a great moment. And Nadine proves herself the equal of anyone when it comes to heartbreaking honesty with “Traces Of You” – “there’s traces of you in every corner I turn/And you’re there in the ashes of every bridge that I’ve burned.” It sounds like the best song that Mary Gauthier never wrote. And like a true mandolin player, Andrew Carswell nails “Every Dusty Road.” “Old Black Canoe” keeps coming back to haunt me – is it the six white horses, or the long black Cadillac, the harbingers of our time on this earth? Whatever, it’s a great and very affecting song! And of course Nadine takes it out in irreverent style with “Dirty Rotten Lowdown Cheatin’ Sonofabitch”.

So there’s no flashy trends or fancy hats here (some very nice shirts though!) – just a great set of songs played with great feel and great honesty by a bunch of people who are obviously joined by the sheer joy and love of making good music together.

The Stetson Family album launch is this Sunday 23rd October at the Penny Black, Brunswick 4pm $10

SNOOKS LA VIE ‘Another Place In Time’

Reviewed by Jenny O’Keefe

On first listen to this new independent offering out of Adelaide, I got that itchy brain feeling. Where have I heard this dude before? Turns out in another life a decade ago, Snooks La Vie headed up a rootsy soul band The Hiptones, as well as The Deliverymen. Heaps of gongs, awards and success have enriched La Vie’s sound and placed him on a slightly different folky alt-country path. He’s even sporting a grouse flannie and straw hat on the cover. Authentico!

Rhythmically sweet and vocally compelling, “Another Place In Time” is a worthy addition to lovers of the genre. The album was produced by Northside music royalty Charles Jenkins, who also guests on a few tracks, adding some flavour to a well-balanced solo effort.  Included in this lovely collection of eleven tunes is a tribute to the storytelling prowess of Townes Van Zandt, with all tunes penned by La Vie. The labour of love feeling oozes from every note, and pleasingly so.

File under: Confidently delivered yearning and ace blues harp.

Check them out here

Melbourne shows coming up…

Wed Nov 9

The Standard Hotel
293 Fitzroy Street, Fitzroy
(Duo) with Nik Kipridis
Free Entry.

Friday Nov 11
The Penny Black
420 Sydney Road, Brunswick
Snooks La Vie & The Backwoods Creatures + support Tracy
McNeil & Luke Sinclair
Free Entry.

Saturday Nov 12
Oscar’s Alehouse
7 Bayview Road, Belgrave
(Duo) with Nik Kipridis
Free Entry.

Sunday Nov 13
The Drunken Poet
65 Peel Street, West Melbourne
(Duo) with Nik Kipridis
Free Entry.