David Bridie: My Friend the Soundtrack

August 11, 2017
Since the mid ‘80s, David Bridie has made a name for himself both as a reluctant pop-star and as one of this country’s more memorable soundtrack composers.

There’s something quintessentially Melbourne about David Bridie. The kind of guy who can be sitting in front of a piano picking out a plaintive melody one minute, then cheering for his favourite footy team the next. If you saw him out, he’d probably smile and might just engage you in a conversation about politics, or the poetry reading he caught en route to the pub. He’s all cardigans and bloodstones, red wine and cigarettes. Of course most of this is conjecture. We’ve certainly no idea if he smokes, we didn’t ask, but that remarkable voice – equal parts sinful rasp and comforting purr – sure sounds like it might have benefited from a habit at some point. The rest you kind of assume from his lyrics and the stories he sometimes tells unassumingly on stage between songs.

If you first heard him via a song like 1989’s ‘Willow Tree’ (an unlikely radio fave for Triple J off Not Drowning Waving’s Claim album) then you probably weren’t surprised to find his name cropping up on the credits for film and TV soundtracks in the years that followed. In song he’s a story teller, often pricking the listener with incisive lyrics detailing both the drama and minutiae of everyday life.

“The records came first,” says Bridie. After the release of the first two Not Drowning Waving albums, Another Pond and The Little Desert, people just started approaching Bridie and NDW guitarist John Phillips, to work on soundtracks.

“There were filmmakers in similar stages of their careers as us, we hooked up and they were great collaborations, if not a little naive. The first film works were with directors such as Luigi Acquisto, David Caesar, Eva Orner, Mark Worth, Daryl Dellora, Sue Maslin, John Moore, Andrew Wiseman and the like. We appreciated the different discipline required in putting sketches of music to picture. Loved working with these human and social stories, putting music and sound to them. From there, people heard and approached us, word of mouth, though it’s all a bit of a blur now. It seemed to grow organically.”

By 1991, Bridie and co. had nailed the score for Jocelyn Moorhouse’s award-winning drama Proof starring Hugo Weaving, Geneviève Picot and Russell Crowe. The following year Bridie and Phillips scored David Caesar’s Greenkeeping. Then came What I Have Written, as well as the Judy Davis and Billy Connolly comedy The Man Who Sued God and… well the list goes on. All the while, the clips they were having made for their album tracks were being produced by filmmakers rather than those known for music videos, and all of them “were approached more as short films than band promotion film clips,” says Bridie.

“I did the same for my first solo album Act of Free Choice, with films being made by the likes of Rolf de Heer, Emma Sleath and Robby Douglas Turner. More recently for [my album] Wake, Matt Govoni made the astonishing self-immolating man film to accompany the song ‘Delegate’.

Most soundtrack work is instrumental, but your lyrics and that rich voice of yours, has been a huge part of your music’s appeal. Have you had many offers to place album tracks you’ve written into films?

“Not as many as I would have liked. There’s been some: ‘Sad’ – off Act of Free Choice – was used in a Rachel Griffiths short film, as was the Cake song ‘I like It Like This’ in Bart Freundlich’s US feature The Myth of Fingerprints. And who could forget ‘I’ve Got a Plan’ being used in Home and Away!

Do you have a view on the growing trend that sees original scores sidelined in favour of plonking pop songs into films? Obviously sometimes it’s very successful and even clever, but elsewhere it feels like dubious product placement by record companies and music publishers.

“Dubious product placement songs spoil film. The film finishes leaving you in a certain mood and then you get belted with a power ballad or a pop hip hop tune having very little relevance to the film apart from the lyric at a stretch working as a vague metaphor. Works for Shrek perhaps but is branded as a cynical ploy in others. I even heard Simple Minds placed in the end credits of The Handmaid’s Tale – jarred like all hell. Mind you, the use of Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ slowed down and combined with a string underscore [in the same series] was genius. John Cooper Clarke’s ‘Evidently Chickentown’ at the end of The Sopranos, Underworld’s ‘Born Slippy’ for Trainspotting, Harry Nilsson’s ‘Coconut’ for Reservoir Dogs, Handsome Family in True Detective were examples where a song going off on a tangent at the end worked brilliantly for me.”

What has been your favourite film or TV project to work on over the years?

“Scores that give you the room to be creative, that allow you to follow your nose, that make you reach. [When] the way the film is shot and the back story inspire you and take you places you may not have gone to. In A Savage Land allowed me to soak in the Trobriand Islands’ culture and stay in a beach shack for eight weeks recording anything that moved and learning about a fascinating part of the world. It was dark, cultural and layered and challenging and I had free reign. Gone by Ringan Ledwidge was great in a similar way: out west of Longreach, recording sounds in this arid wasteland. The desert is a great landscape to compose to. Tempted led me to the swamps of New Orleans, Putuparri and the Rainmakers led me to the Kurtal dreaming songs of the people recovering from Canning Stock Route injustices and allowed a score that created a mood. Proof and The Man Who Sued God also.”

Do you prefer writing for a screen or album project? Obviously there’s a freedom in the second, whereas scoring is often far more restricted and dictated by the edit. 

“They are both very different process wise and it would depend on which day of the week I was asked as to what preference I would give. I like the team aspects of working on film. There is often a hundred people employed on a feature or in a series and everyone is working towards making it the best it can be. This special relationship only works obviously if everybody buys in, but when it does, it’s a great feeling. The primary relationship for the composer is with the director, the editor and the creative producers and fortunately they have mostly been positive ones in the projects I have worked on, though, like all composers, I’ve got stories. Creatively you are clearly in the director’s house and it’s at its worst when it feels like jingle writing with some Reality-TV-loving exec paying the bills. But at its best there are those projects with a heart or an edge that you believe in and a creative director and artistic DOP allowing for creative hours in the studio creating. I see myself as a songwriter/recording and performing artist before I see myself as a screen composer. It makes me feel in control of my destiny. But I need score work constantly to fund the Wantok Musik Foundation, which I have a big responsibility towards and [which] I don’t draw a wage from.

You described the new My Friend The Chocolate Cake album The Revival Meeting as “a collection of songs in which the protagonist… is trying to find their place in an increasingly mad world…”. Protagonist is a term used a lot in plays, films, novels, but less so in songwriting. Maybe it’s because songs are often written in the first person and are all about the songwriter, whereas films, novels and plays are often about people other than the writer, whether fictitious or not. Your songs/lyrics on the other hand often seem to be written from the aspect of someone else. Why? Is it just more interesting/challenging trying to get into someone else’s head, or are you just very private when it comes to songwriting?

“That’s an interesting observation. I think experience has a universal aspect to it and all art is put out there hoping to connect in some way. We, also, as human beings, have a commonality of experience. As a songwriter, you put it out there with the hope that the listener in their own way will find something in the song that relates to their experience. Albums, though perhaps a dying form, work a little bit like a book of short stories. All the songs related in some way though separate entities. The more you listen to the album the more you find the relationships between them. So, the perspective shifts from tune to tune maybe as a way of enlightening the subject matter in different ways.

DAVID BRIDIE’s FAVOURITE AUSTRALIAN SOUNDTRACKS

  1. The Tracker score by Graeme Tardif featuring Archie Roach was like an Australian Paris, Texas. It worked with our landscape, our flawed campaign. It didn’t gild the lily. David Gulpilil shines through the Flinders Ranges.
  2. Elizabeth Drake’s score for Japanese Story was elegiac and beautiful and suited what I thought was a wonderful film.
  3. Mad Bastards’ score that Alan and Stephen Pigram did with Alex Lloyd was a wonderful collaboration even though I’m not sure the film was entirely successful. The Pigrams capture that Broome sound, it reminds me of Melanesian string-band music in a lot of ways.
  4. I loved Praise and what the Dirty Three did in it.

My Friend The Chocolate Cake’s album The Revival Meeting is out now, check http://www.mftcc.com

Bridie and his band continue their current tour with the following dates:

Friday, August 11 – Blue Mountains Theatre, NSW
Saturday, August 12 – Street Theatre, Canberra ACT
Friday, August 18 – Theatre Royal, Castlemaine VIC
Saturday, August 19 – Wagga Wagga Civic Theatre NSW
Sunday, August 20 – Griffith Regional Theatre, NSW

 

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