ANDREW MCMILLEN revisits our occasional “Storytellers” series, whose premise is simple: one song by one artist, discussed at length. This week it’s Gotye, the Lana Del Rey of M+N, but not for the song you might expect.
It feels a little strange to revisit what was once Gotye’s biggest hit in light of the monster that is ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’, the Melbourne-based songwriter’s 2011 collaboration with Kimbra which topped the Hottest 100 and has since clocked up more than 63-million views on YouTube since being posted last July.
Yet without that track’s runaway success, Wally de Backer might not have felt as comfortable in discussing ‘Hearts A Mess’, the third track from his 2006 album Like Drawing Blood.
When I first approached de Backer via email in May 2010 to raise the possibility of a Storytellers feature about this song, he declined, stating that, “I’ve talked about that song a lot, and I’m working on new stuff, trying not to look back at the moment.” I picked up the thread again in September 2011 and found him in a place where he seems more than happy to look back.
Between overseas trips and a 10-date Australian tour, we spoke at length over the phone about the track that charted at #77 on triple j’s Hottest 100 Of All Time countdown in 2009.
Gotye on ‘Hearts A Mess’
‘Hearts A Mess’, with apostrophe, not without, correct?
[Laughs] To be honest, I think the lack of an apostrophe was just an oversight. Which, for me – someone who’s fairly fastidious with grammar – it’s quite hilarious. It was an oversight at first, then I just decided to leave it.
Does that mean your high school English teachers are cursing your name for making such a simple mistake?
[Laughs] It’s funny. I’m actually in touch with my Year 9 high school English teacher reasonably regularly. He sends me [album] covers to sign for his friends in random places like Scotland and South Africa. He’s never mentioned that before. [Laughs]
Do you feel like you’re in a good place to reflect on this song now, after it’s been superseded by a bigger hit?
I guess so, yeah. I guess the songs are kind of related; the place in the track list on the respective records, the kind of emotional terrain, my own possible scruples while putting together this record [Like Drawing Blood], wondering whether the song ‘Hearts A Mess’ was the high watermark of what I want to achieve with my music – at least in terms of the response from people, the connection with it. So that’s been interesting to see [‘Somebody’] take off and eclipse it, from one perspective.
I believe ‘Hearts A Mess’ was two years in the making. Is that correct?
Yeah. It’s like a macro example of my whole process. It spanned the whole making of the last record.
Where do you start, with a song like that? The final product is so smooth and seemingly effortless, but I know there are so many layers going on underneath.
Well, quite specifically, I started with laboriously editing multiple snippets of Harry Belafonte’s ‘Banana Boat’ song [embedded below] into a coherent, one-bar loop of music. That was an interesting process in itself. I’ve never edited bits out of a track so extensively, to then reconstitute them into such a small amount of music; that one bar. For whatever reason, when I heard the possibility of chopping around Belafonte’s vocals to get into the backing track of that recording, and turn that into a loop to underpin a possible track … I don’t know. Right from the start, that loping groove had something for me that felt – how can I describe it? Like it had something special about it. I felt the desire to keep that specialness right to whatever the end product, whatever the song would become. That pulled me forward through the pretty extreme length of finishing the song.
It’s almost like I committed myself; in that regard, I feel like ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ is quite similar, to a lesser extent, because the little two-note guitar lines from the Brazilian guitarist Luiz Bonfá that I sampled [in ‘Somebody’] also started that song off. It didn’t necessarily have as much of a hypnotic pull for me as that bar loop that underpins ‘Hearts A Mess’. It still felt the same thing. I was like, “This has an aura about it that I can’t quite describe, and I just need to not fuck that up. And anything I add feels like it has to enhance that and feel like it stays with that initial aura that I sense, whatever it is”. In both instances, that would lead me through to the final song.
How much live instrumentation was recorded?
For ‘Hearts A Mess’? None. Oh, not true. The shakers are played by me. [Laughs]
At what point did you begin introducing lyrics to the equation?
I can’t remember whether it was before or after I had some of the “hook” figure, like the Hammond line that’s in there. I think it might have been before. I basically had that kind of loop from the ‘Banana Boat’ song, and I had some textural things like the lofty string bits that provided a sense of the chord progression over that loop. Then I started bits of the verse, and found bits of strings that would give some of the descending chord progression the turnarounds throughout the song … There’s an interim bit in the song with the lyric, “Love ain’t fair/So there you are/My love.” I had that penned as an anti-chorus for the song. The chorus was written quite late, and I had it penned as a textural piece that just had these little drops, that functioned as anti-choruses for probably the good first six months to a year of it sitting around, as a piece.
In the second verse there’s a bit of call-and-response going on between your vocals. What was the intention there? Was that the narrator arguing with himself?
Yeah, as it usually is. Possibly even more so on tracks from the new record [Making Mirrors]. There’s kind of multi-voice conversations happening in a few songs, which I think usually represents the various internal dialogues that sometimes can go on in my head, or the discussions that you sometimes have with yourself: second-guessing yourself, playing devil’s advocate.