Episode 28: Tim Levinson (Urthboy)

Tim Levinson is a songwriter and musician.

Penmanship podcast episode 28: Tim Levinson (Urthboy), interviewed by Andrew McMillen, 2016Within the Australian hip-hop scene, he’s better known by his stage name, Urthboy, under which he performs as a solo artist and as a member of the eight-piece band The Herd. I’ve watched and listened to his music closely for more than a decade, and I’ve interviewed Tim several times, including for my book Talking Smack. When he visited Brisbane on a Saturday in early June while touring for his latest album, The Past Beats Inside Me Like A Second Heartbeat, I met at his hotel room during the afternoon, where his band and manager were relaxing soon after arriving from a show on the Sunshine Coast the previous night.

Our conversation touches on how his songwriting style has changed over the years to reflect a broader range of perspectives and emotions; the handful of times in his career where he has felt like he’s truly nailed a song’s execution; the members of the inner circle of people who he feels comfortable showing early drafts of his work to; why he decided to write a song about his mother for his newest album, and his father for his last album; and the creative breakthroughs that can emerge while writing lyrics alone at 3.00am.

Tim Levinson, otherwise known as Urthboy, is an award-winning Australian hip-hop artist based in Sydney. His second solo album The Signal was hailed as ‘a classic’ by Rolling Stone, received numerous award nominations and was shortlisted in the 2007 Australian Music Prize. He is one of the main songwriters in eight-piece band The Herd, and also manages Elefant Traks, an independent record label which includes artists such as Hermitude and Horrorshow. Celebrating the government’s apology to the Stolen Generations in 2008, Urthboy worked with GetUp to re-imagine the song ‘From Little Things Big Things Grow‘, at Paul Kelly’s personal request. The song helped raise over $100,000 for Indigenous run health and education programs. Urthboy has released five solo albums, the most recent of which is 2016’s The Past Beats Inside Me Like A Second Heartbeat.

Tim Levinson on Twitter: @Urthboy

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3.00 When we meet, Tim and the band are midway through the tour; they’ve done four shows, with tonight’s Brisbane show being the fifth

4.30 When it came to designing setlists in the past, Tim used to spend a lot of time preoccupied by second-guessing what’s going to work live, and what’s not; this time around, he’s tried to avoid this approach

7.00 “That’s really everything, trying to write something that’s truly going to resonate […] You know when people genuinely do engage with something, they really want it, then it’s had some sort of effect on their life”

9.30 On Urthboy’s debut album, Distant Sense of Random Menace, one of the songs, ‘Sink In‘ – which was about being a white Australian tackling the subject of our colonial history – marked the first time he had attempted to write from a different perspective

12.30 “I never think of my songs as a success; I think it’s one little factor in a holistic picture. Creatively, you can go, ‘I really feel like I got it on that one’, but I don’t think about it in terms of ‘success'”

14.30 Tim feels like he nailed ‘Long Loud Hours‘, a love song about a woman hijacking a helicopter to break her partner out of jail, because he never got sick of hearing it the hundreds of times he heard it prior to release

16.00 He found the story behind ‘Long Loud Hours’ while studying at the National Film and Sound Archive, looking at Australian tales and thinking, “This story is so absurd. I just wanted to do a song about it”

17.00 Tim had written the song’s lyrics to another beat, written by Hermitude, “struggling and failing to be an ode to the first two years of Countdown; trying to capture the energy of that [show]”

18.00 While writing, it didn’t cross Tim’s mind that he was writing the verses from the female’s perspective, and the chorus from the male’s perspective; “I don’t have to be any gender to tell a story”

20.00 “I’m always taking the self-deprecating path with this stuff; I never want to allude to me having some sort of expectation of this being a great song or not. I just know when I have that reaction to a song, I think, ‘That’s gonna stick around'”

22.30 “To me, being able to look at this event and see something about our humanity; that dwarfs all the literal considerations for it”

24.30 Tim also thinks that ‘We Get Around‘ and ‘No Other‘ were songs that he nailed; he gets “constant requests” to play the latter song at weddings, as it’s a song that many couples share

26.00 ‘No Other’ was a song that Tim wrote for his wife, Anna: “I had no skills for writing a universal song; I didn’t know how to do that”

27.30 ‘We Get Around’ was recorded in the Blue Mountains with El Gusto (aka Angus Stuart of Hermitude); Tim recalls the elated moment of recording the vocals, followed by the harmony, and looking at each other in amazement

29.00 Tim can’t recall how Anna first reacted to hearing ‘No Other’ for the first time; “My wife has the worst case of ‘demo-itis’, as most partners do”

30.00 When it comes to showing drafts of his songwriting, Tim has an inner circle of people who can provide different kinds of “intel”; these include Anna, his manager Todd, longtime songwriter/producer Pip Norman, and Hermitude

36.00 “With all these people around me, [I] try and weigh up their ears versus yours”

37.00 On previous albums, singer/songwriter Jane Tyrrell was “instrumental in sending all this energy into the process, which I felt was really galvanising”

40.00 Bertie Blackman recorded the vocals for ‘Long Loud Hours’ in a couple of hours; it was originally intended as a backup vocal, “but she ended up being a feature”

41.00 Tim and Jane had a conversation ahead of the release of her debut solo album, Echoes In The Aviary, about ending their long period of collaboration while Tim was writing Second Heartbeat

42.00 “[Jane] is so generous in her support; she expresses nothing but love. It’s a bit bittersweet not having her there”

43.00 Tim was recently interviewed for a feature on the ABC TV program 7.30 about his song ‘Daughter of the Light‘, which he wrote about his mother, who is nearly 70, mostly blind, and “definitely the most important and formative in my life”

45.00 Being blind, Tim’s mother would have a guide dog; when they’d go out for a family dinner, about half of the restaurants would refuse them entry, despite the fact that she was legally allowed to enter with a working dog

47.00 “We, as kids, could feel [ourselves] getting tense at the weird version of injustice; but it’s her life, and she doesn’t have a choice”

49.30 Even until the album was released, Tim wondered if he could have written the song in a better way; perhaps by exploring the fact that the family was raised Christian, and his mother remains religious, but her children are not

51.00 After the first gig of the tour, Tim learned that his aunt had tried to find the young boy that his mother saved from drowning when she was around 11 years old; the aunt found him, and they’re planning to get together for a coffee, more than 50 years after she saved his life

53.00 Tim had a similar experience in early 2006, when his grandmother died; a few months earlier, Tim had collected all the letters and mementos from her father’s experience in the war, put them into a book, and gave it to her as a gift

54.00 “It was just one of those things; I could never have known that within a month, cancer would have spread all over her body, and she would pass away”

56.00 Tim says that Sampa The Great‘s verse in ‘Second Heartbeat’ was written in such a “light-hearted way, breaking down quite deep concepts into really easily palatable phrases that I thought, ‘Fuck, I wish I could write like that!'”

57.30 “I never want to be that kind of old, jaded, ‘this is the way it is’ kind of person. You can’t just do that yourself; you need people to steer you off into other places, and you need to be open-minded to hear that”

58.00 The final lines of ‘Daughter of the Light’ were added late in the songwriting process, almost as an afterthought; the song begins with her as a baby, then ends with her with Tim’s daughter, Jetta, showing the process beginning again

62.00 There’s a link between ‘Daughter of the Light’ and ‘Glimpses‘, from Smokey’s Haunt, which is about Tim’s father, who has been estranged for most of his life after leaving while Tim was aged 9 or so

63.00 “I did have that moment every now and then where I’d look in the mirror and see a glimpse of my dad; growing up, I didn’t want to be reminded of him. I’ve got his surname; I didn’t want to see that person who had caused this trauma in our family’s life in myself”

64.00 ‘Glimpses’ runs into ‘Calling Cards‘, which is a song he wrote at around 3.00am: Tim found himself welling up while writing, because it’s about someone very close; it’s based on the idea of writing from the perspective of imagining a person’s death

70.00 It’s not often that Tim finds himself writing emotional lyrics at 3.00am, but “any story has to have a few little bits of organic honesty about it, in order to make the rest of it feel real”

7269.00 Tim has noticed that his preference for writing about family, love and personal topics is treated as something of an anomaly among other Australian hip-hop artists

74.30 “Vulnerability only really comes from time to time; you’ve got to look out for it”

75.00 Tim loves the recent Hilltop Hoods track ‘Through The Dark‘, where [MC] Pressure writes about his son’s cancer diagnosis: “It’s a phenomenal song, one of the best they’ve ever written […] That, to me, is where they broke ground”

76.30 “I don’t really care about having that great level of success; I just want to hear artists do those things that are unconventional, that expose them, ’cause that’s way more interesting”

78.30 Before writing Second Heartbeat as an album, Tim conceived of writing four EPs that each represented different sounds and stories from different decades of Australian history

81.00 “I was very driven by not just conforming to the weird way we have of packaging music, which is that it’s either a single, an EP or an album”

83.30 “I reached the point with that idea where it felt unnatural to separate these songs into little, bite-sized pieces; it started to make more sense to more harshly remove the songs that weren’t working”

87.30 Tim’s reading diet is mostly confined to scrolling through his phone as he lies in bed, while his daughter sleeps in the same room with the light off

91.00 When I draw loose comparison between the songwriting of Gareth Liddiard (The Drones) and Tim’s music, he demurs: “I don’t think I’m anywhere near where he’s at”

92.00 Tim recently wrote a spoken word piece for a performance at TEDxSydney, which he enjoyed having to meet a creative deadline again; this verse leads into ‘Long Loud Hours’, performed with Bertie Blackman

93.30 “You’ve gotta feel like you’re doing something different; you’ve gotta find yourself in some different spots”


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