Memory is a devilishly unreliable recording device, one that’s prone to exaggeration, embellishment and flights of fancy. It can hold onto insignificant moments like a vice while others float away – a fickle judge of what’s worth keeping.
“I have vivid recollections of watching an old movie on a laptop with my partner, and us talking about how everyone on that screen is dead,” Geoffrey O’Connor recalls to NME. “It’s kind of embarrassing when I think about it, how much that affected me… I can’t remember what movie it was.”
It’s a small, blurry memory, but one that forms the backbone of the Sui Zhen-featuring song ‘What A Scene’, from his new album of duets, ‘For As Long As I Can Remember’. Other guests on the album include June Jones, Jess Ribeiro, Jonnine Standish (HTRK), Laura Jean and Sarah Mary Chadwick.
The flexibility and romanticism of memory is at the thematic heart of O’Connor’s new album, his first collection of new material since his band The Crayon Fields’ 2015 album ‘No One Deserves You’ (and first solo album since 2014’s ‘Fan Fiction’). Sonically, though, it’s more akin to his 2011 solo outing ‘Vanity Is Forever’, with analog drum machines and synthesisers, including a Roland Juno-6, evoking the ’80s but avoiding pastiche. It feels like observing the decade’s pink neon and glimmering surfaces through delicate chiffon.
“I like singing about rather mundane details that can have some significance extracted from them”
NME meets O’Connor at the bar, cinema and band room LongPlay – the site of countless music video, single and album launches. It’s mostly staffed by musicians, too, including owner Tim Richmond; its bartenders are Tim McNeil of Nope Records and Gold Class singer Adam Curley, and Sarah Mary Chadwick is a cook in the kitchen.
It’s a fitting place to meet O’Connor, who has remained part of Melbourne’s musical fabric behind the mic, camera and mixing desk. Between albums he’s directed and produced music videos for the likes of RVG, Gold Class and Chadwick. O’Connor has recorded and mixed six albums alone for Chadwick, who appears on two tracks on ‘…Remember’. (During his lull in releases, O’Connor recorded albums for June Jones and Stephanie Crase too, both of whom show up on his new record.)
O’Connor offers NME a tour of his flat, which is above LongPlay, heading past the venue’s prep kitchen and into his tiny studio, glowing crimson from a red overhead bulb. A small bowl of nuts is offered.
Everything in O’Connor’s living room appears to have been arranged with extraordinary care. A chrome drinks trolley carries a discerning spirits selection; luscious, well-tended pot plants crown tiny Greco-Roman columns; and the delicate glass rose pictured in ‘…Remember’’s cover art crests a large, black, ’70s Yamaha CP70 electric baby grand piano. Much like his new album, the room is a collection of small curiosities given weight by the precision of their placement.
“I like singing about rather mundane details that can have some significance extracted from them,” says O’Connor. “If someone’s telling you a small detail about their life… it reveals both something about them that they’re fascinated by… but also often something that they’re not necessarily trying to reveal.”
The room’s careful curation also reveals plenty about the songwriter himself, who says he can agonise over his work, both for himself and others, and takes “an embarrassing amount of time” to write his songs.
The wait for ‘…Remember’ has felt particularly long considering the prolific first phase of O’Connor’s career: three albums of jangly, detailed pop with The Crayon Fields plus three solo albums over nine years.
The new album’s been gestating in one form or another since 2015, with one 2017 iteration focusing on creating harmonies with guest vocalists living interstate or internationally, rather than the current batch of equally weighted duets. The earlier songs, O’Connor says, lacked the intimacy and immediacy of hearing two people together in the same room, an approach he pursued where possible on the new album.
“It’s such a huge part of the atmosphere of a [successful] duet,” says O’Connor. For the new album, he provided each singer with an initial vocal guide but encouraged them to find what felt melodically comfortable. “I wrote [the songs]. But I see them as being very much collaborations as well.”
Some singers he already had in mind at the time of writing certain songs, like ‘What A Scene’ guest Sui Zhen aka Becky Freeman. The song has a sparse arrangement featuring the previously mentioned Juno-6, bass guitar, O’Connor’s finger snaps recorded in a stairwell, kick drum and snare. O’Connor sits in a lower register on the track, while Freeman glides through its upper atmosphere.
“That song has a lot more space than the others. I feel like one aspect of Becky’s music that I really love is the way [it occupies] space,” says O’Connor. “It’s not singing behind the instruments at all, it’s very much upfront.”
“I feel incredibly lucky to be making music, that’s huge to me. And I remember there’s definitely a time I totally took that for granted.”
Across the record O’Connor upends that dynamic, like on ‘Foolish Enough’, one of the album’s more upbeat tracks (partly thanks to Donny Benét’s bass parts), in which he and Laura Jean trade vocal registers across verse and chorus. O’Connor says a connective tissue between many of the record’s collaborators is what he calls a “warm” detachment, a kind of effortless immediacy.
“It’s not some icy cold thing where they don’t care. They can make songs sound like they’re incredibly comfortable, singing almost like the way they would speak,” he says. “Becky definitely has that, she’s able to present often very intricate, complex melodic lines and it just sounds like a normal mode of speaking. It doesn’t sound too contrived, too laboured, but clearly there’s a lot of thought behind it.”
O’Connor speaks easily about collaboration, but sitting across from him, on one of just two chairs at his table, it’s easier to imagine him happy in his own company, quietly enjoying his books and instruments. Much of the album is in fact a reflection on solitude, although from a much earlier time: a period of five or so years after the recording of ‘Vanity Is Forever’ during which O’Connor went through one of several long stretches of singlehood.
After that period, O’Connor “just had no sense” of what it was like to be close to someone. “It was neither a bad or good feeling,” he says. The romantic relationships he’d had before that time “feel kind of laced with elements of fiction… they’ve maybe been photocopied a few times, and you’re just kind of finding new ways to preserve them.”
For that reason, many of the songs on the album are memories of significant platonic friendships, or self-reflections on what our memories say about the people we become – or wish we were.
“[I imagined] my life now would be really active, amazing and fun; living in a little place surrounded by books and a piano, having nice conversations with people every night over wine,” says O’Connor. “As much as I buy the books and the piano and we’re having a great conversation… it’s not really a reflection of my everyday life, at all.
“I’m quite happy with my life,” he qualifies. “I feel incredibly lucky to be making music, that’s huge to me. And I remember there’s definitely a time I totally took that for granted.”
People talk about the “ebb and flow” of time. But time is a constant, really, it’s just our memory of it that warps to fill chronological gaps. As much as ‘For As Long As I Can Remember’ is about the past, it’s a subtle reminder of the future, too. Listening to the closeness of its voices, that of O’Connor and his old friends and collaborators, one can’t help but think of the small moments, memories and friendships that are still to come.
Geoffrey O’Connor’s ‘For As Long As I Can Remember’ is out now via Chapter Music