In his 18th century image The Sleep Of Reason Produces Monsters, the artist Francisco Goya is pictured asleep among his tools, surrounded by a flock of nocturnal animals that represent the horrors that prove simpler to ignore during daylight, but that are stirred awake by the unconscious mind.
Sydney-based singer and composer Jack Colwell found himself returning to the Goya etching while writing his debut album, ‘Swandream’, released last Friday: “I imagined myself as the sleeping student, and all these traumas and problems that I’d been ignoring were building up around me when I slept.”
‘Swandream’ is a story of transformation and change told in two acts. In the first, Colwell confronts, in stark terms, the traumatic events of his life. On ‘Weak’, a familiar suburban horror plays out: a sweet kid, reduced to “just a lisp with flailing wrists”. People see in him the thing they fear resides in themselves: weakness, smallness, queerness. They prod and push him to breaking point.
Then, on ‘Swandream’’s centrepiece ‘The Sound Of Music’, Colwell addresses his father directly while scoring the colours of the bruise that bloomed on his young face, and recounting the night his family fled the home where domestic abuse occurred behind the veneer of normalcy.
“When I started experiencing really traumatic events in my life as a teenager, I began songwriting as a way to process that and to work through it,” he tells NME. “And that has always been the case. I mean, that’s why I’ve always written songs: as a way to unpack emotional events for myself. Songwriting has always been a way for me to re-find myself and to make sense of my trauma.”
The conclusion of Act One is ‘Conversion Therapy’, the only song drawn from experiences outside Colwell’s own. “I tried to write that one from the perspective of someone who feels they have been driven to point emotionally where they feel they have to take that change.” His voice, which is often grounded and tender, morphs into a distorted growl, a grotesque thing unable to be restrained or controlled.
Treating his voice as an instrument he could play, a tool with sonic properties and potential, was a new direction for Colwell. He spent his early musical life studying at the Sydney Conservatorium Of Music – a period that gave him both the classical education his music would emerge out of, and a rigid structure to rebel against.
“When I was first recording, I always listened to my voice and thought, ‘Do I sound like a singer?’ Like, when I hear my voice back on the record, am I sounding like a great singer?” he recalls. “But as I began writing more songs, I was interested in the texture of my voice and the different things that it could do: the voice can whisper, it can scream, it can shriek.”
“Songwriting has always been a way for me to re-find myself and to make sense of my trauma”
And on his debut record, Colwell does it all. The title track and driving sentiment of the record grew out of his love of mythology and fairy tales – plus his appreciation for Tchaikovsky. “One day soon / I’ll wake and be a swan / Like when I was a child and danced for my reflection / I’ll grow two wings / You’ll never see / The frightened child that I used to be,” he sings, before surrendering to the carnal fears inside. Shrieks become howls. The piano turns manic.
The video for ‘In My Dreams’ brings ‘Swandream’’s intention to life. Colwell lays down for a Goyan sleep in the wild, and awakes in his pitch-black subconscious as a delicate, prancing spectre. He is a swan in frills, plagued by ghouls in nature and his mind.
A psychic twin of Orville Peck’s ‘Winds Change’, the song exists in a universe where the masked cowboy’s grand visions of a queer Americana are instead directed by Baz Luhrmann, the rolling tumbleweeds replaced by the billboards of Sydney’s Kings Cross. The setting of Australia – and Sydney, specifically – is intrinsic to Colwell’s writing, but the song’s sentiment is universal.
“I think lots of queer people can identify with that swan story: they hope that they would grow into this beautiful swan once they have gone through this checklist of things that they need to change about themselves or become. That is almost, in a way, what happened to me,” he says.
“But when you change into that final form, you realise that the hallway is longer; there’s a whole host of other things that you still need to deal with.” A simple transformation, Colwell says, is an illusion or false promise: “When you get there [to the end point], you realise, ‘Oh, I’ve got so much longer to go’.”
The roads Colwell had to travel were internal, and they stretch out before him in ‘Swandream’’s second act. Resolve and acceptance are more complicated than merely deciding to rise above; the aftershocks of breaking free are messy and rarely easy to handle. Songs like ‘PTSD’ and ‘No Mercy’ make that very clear.
“There ain’t nothing to see here / Except the scars on my face / And my hands / And my legs,” he spits on the brawling and tense ‘PTSD’. Besides expanding the powerful possibilities in his voice, the song led Colwell to consider how the emotions of illness manifest in the body.
“Uncomfortable things happen in life. It’s important to know how to sit and endure and respect those situations”
“I’m trying to inhabit these different, like, Jekyll and Hyde-type characters that are trying to take me over inside of my body. It’s got a raw energy to it. I think when people are suffering from some kind of mental trauma, there is a rawness to that and there is a brashness and a harshness that is really confronting for people to see sometimes.”
“I wanted the song to have a confronting energy,” he adds. “I hoped that moment would make [the listener] uncomfortable and that they would sit in that ‘uncomfortability’ a little bit. I know that ‘Swandream’ is a bit of a hard listen at some points, but I also think that it’s an important listen. Life is uncomfortable, and uncomfortable things happen in life. It’s important to know how to sit and endure and respect those situations.”
The record ends on a magical note. After Colwell endures and “transform[s] into a grotesque version of a swan”, the night ends, the sun comes up, and he and Sarah Blasko – who produced ‘Swandream’ – recite ‘A Spell’, an incantation and totem of strength.
Blasko first summoned Colwell to tour with her after hearing his single ‘Don’t Cry Those Tears’ and deeming it “one of the best songs she’d heard written in the last 10 years” (“I don’t know if I should say that about myself,” he laughs, recounting the story). At Blasko’s upright piano, Colwell worked through the songs of ‘Swandream’; the cover of her 2006 album ‘What The Sea Wants, The Sea Will Have’ sat above his own piano during his late teens. That she would go on to produce his debut record is a true full-circle moment.
The record they made together sits alongside those of Colwell’s idols – like Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, The Smashing Pumpkins and Beth Gibbons – whose invariably intense, wretched, revealing and comforting concept records provided the blueprint for Colwell’s work and life.
If we didn’t know better, it would appear that his swan-like journey of transformation was complete.
Jack Colwell’s album ‘Swandream’ is out now.