Luka Bloom has gone on record as saying that the only other country, other than Ireland, that he misses when he is away from it, is Australia. That means his forthcoming thirteenth tour of the Great Southern Land will be, yet again, a sort of homecoming for him.
Whilst his latest studio album Refuge has now been out for quite awhile – he has released a meditation album and a live recording since – the issues that inspired it are more pressing than ever.
Luka, at home in the cool climes of Ireland spoke to The Upside News on a scorching Adelaide day about the impending Oz tour, as well as his songwriting preoccupations – after a brief chat comparing our currently contrasting weather situations…
The Upside News: Well Luka, it is going to be 45 degrees here in a few days…
Luka Bloom: Oh…my…God!
The first time I ever went to Australia I went in January, and I haven’t repeated that since…
LB: When you leave Ireland in January, you’re leaving sub-zero temperatures. I can still remember my first time arriving in Sydney Airport in January 1992, I walked out into close to 40 degrees and it absolutely freaked me out. I couldn’t cope with it!
TUN: Yes, I remember my first visit to Dublin…
LB: Oh, OK!
TUN: …and I went into a record store, and it was a really sunny Dublin day, and because I have a strong Australian accent, the guy behind the counter said, ‘Are you from Australia? Then maybe you could tell me? What’s that funny, weird shiny yellow thing in the sky?’
LB: Oh, fantastic! [Laughs] Yeah, you get too much of it, and we don’t see enough.
TUN: So this is your thirteenth tour of Australia, is that right?
LB: My thirteenth tour of Australia, and this is a very important interview I’m doing with you because you’re the first interview I’m doing for the tour, and it’s always a beautiful feeling when I do my first interview with someone in Australia because it means I’m gearing up to get down there, and I’m really looking forward to it.
TUN: So what keeps you coming back to Australia so often?
LB: You know, back in the nineties, I pretty much toured all over the world, and I actually remember the day, my very first gig in Australia, at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney, and it was packed out and it was a great show. And then, within a week, I just knew this was a country I wanted to return to as often as possible.
And I really, consciously, tried to maintain a relationship with Australia more than with a lot of other countries, because I feel so much at home there.
From the very first tour I did of Australia, I don’t what it is about the Aussie people and that country, but it’s the only place in the world that, when I’m flying home at the end of a tour, I have these mixed emotions [about]. Joy at returning home to Ireland, and a lot of sadness at leaving Australia. I don’t really get that anywhere else…
TUN: That’s great.
So, after so many visits, you must have a pretty clear sense of perspective on Australia. Have you noticed any specific changes in the place, for better or worse, over the three and a half decades you have been making the pilgrimage here?
LB: Yeah! I mean, the first time I went there the Prime Minister was a guy called Paul Keating…[Laughs]
TUN: Some of us speak about Paul in revered tones…
LB: [Laughs louder] And I have seen a lot of changes in Australia – you know, the first couple of tours of Australia I did, I’d never heard of a woman called Pauline Hanson!
TUN: And now you wish you hadn’t…?
LB: [Laughs louder still] So, yeah, you can say I’ve seen some changes there – but you know you can say that about everywhere I go. To be honest with you, I don’t know anywhere in the world that has changed in the last twenty five years as much as Ireland has.
Obviously, on a more practical level, I’ve noticed Australia become a more expensive country to visit. A much more expensive country.
But I’m going to have to think about the question, because I’m assuming you mean changed politically…?
TUN: Not necessarily…
LB: Because that always fascinates me.
I’ll tell you one thing that has changed in Australia – and I may be wrong about this. I’m going to hazard a guess here, and correct me if I am wrong – one of the things, if I reflect on twenty five years ago, is I don’t really remember mainstream Australia talking openly, too much, about Aboriginal culture…
TUN: That’s true…
LB: And I think, that whatever people feel about the politics of Mr. Rudd, I just wonder if his time, and the time of the apology – whatever people felt about that – well, I just feel there was something about that time, and when I’ve gone back to Australia, over the last couple of visits, that there is a better connection, a more open dialogue and more realisation that there is a lot to be learned from indigenous Australian culture than I remember when I first went to Australia.
I just felt that Australia was just way more interested in talking about its Irish heritage and its British heritage than it was about its indigenous culture. I apologise if I’m wrong about that, but that’s the sense I had over the years.
In my more recent visits, I just feel that Aboriginal culture has come much more into the mainstream of Australian life, which I believe is a really good thing.
TUN: Couldn’t agree with you more – I think you’ve got a fairly clear handle on that issue.
Just looking at your Facebook page, there’s a lesson you’ve learned about coming to Australia which is to get here early for a tour and not to complain to your audience about suffering from jet lag. I loved that. There’s nothing worse when you see so many artists tour here and then complain about their jet lag, making us feel like its a real imposition for them to come here…
LB: Again, getting back to your first question about why I keep coming back – when I made that decision, during that first tour, that this was a country that was going to be important for me because I felt that instant connection the very first time I came – not just at my gigs, but with people generally – and that this was a country I wanted to return to again and again, I was trying to get a sense of what was important. And one of the things I felt was important was that I noticed, on one or two nights off on that first tour, when I’d go and see other performers and I’d hear a guy from America – or wherever – complaining about jet lag.
And I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow! If I’d bought a ticket for this concert as an Australian citizen and I had to sit and listen to some guy moaning about jet lag…’
I don’t mind if the guy’s sick or he’s got a chest infection, or the flu or something, but there’s something, to me, ultimately disappointing, and even just a bit disrespectful [about doing that].
So I said to myself, ‘If I’m going to be true to my feelings about this country then I’ve got to have respect for the people who choose to buy a ticket to see me and to have that respect from the very first show.’
The only way to do that was to come to Australia a week early, and every tour that I do now I always do make sure I come a week early and that I’m talking to Australian people on a daily basis in the week before I do my first gig. So then I really feel, by the time I do my first show, that I’ve really landed, and I’m really here – that I’m completely present, and I’m not somewhere across the ocean.
TUN: So then, where will you be spending your initial acclimitisation period once you arrive here?
TUN: Good choice. One of your favourite spots?
LB: Yeah, I’ve got two friends who live in Bondi and I love to visit them and I’ll probably be doing some kind of media event while I’m there. There’ll be a little bit of that carry on, but mostly just talking to people, drinking coffee and going down to the beach and acclimatising in a nice way! [Laughs]
Then up to Noosa for the first show…
TUN: Sounds fantastic. So, talking about the tour. Is it purely you doing a solo show or are you bringing any other musicians with you?
LB: Oh no, I always come to Australia solo. It’s my favourite way to tour. You know, the best thing about travelling solo, is that people feel less intimidated. People are quite intimidated about hanging out with people in bands because a band is very much a joined crew.
I just like travelling alone, and I like that feeling of the challenge of connecting with an audience alone. It’s how it works for me. It’s a very different kind of a gig and it’s the way I like to do it – it’s how I connect with people.
TUN: I am assuming that your last studio album, Refuge, will form the core of your show. What other treats will you be including in your Australian setlist?
LB: To be honest with you, I don’t really think like that anymore. I mean, I’ve recorded over twenty albums now, and though Refuge is my latest album and I’m really happy to come to Australia with Refuge, at this stage of the game I dig deep into the old repertoire. Who knows when I’ll get to come back to Australia again, and I don’t want to disappoint people. I know there are people who come to the gigs and they want to hear songs from The Acoustic Motorbike, or whatever, as they first introduced them to me.
And the other thing is, I just don’t make out a setlist. That’s the other advantage of being a solo artist – I never make out a setlist. I just walk out on stage and try and keep the show fresh every night.
TUN: That sounds great.
You covered Mark Seymour’s Throw Your Arms Around Me a few years back on your covers album. Are there any other Australian songs you love and possibly play?
LB: I used to love that great old Midnight Oil song, Blue Sky Mining. That’s a great song…
TUN: Have you ever played that live?
LB: No. I’ve never covered another Australian song…although I did do a version of the classic Australian folk song, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head! [Bursts into laughter]
TUN: Kylie would be proud!
LB: The great Australian folk artist! [Laughs]
TUN: [Laughs] So what drives a musician, apart from the obvious answer of financial livelihood, to keep going out on the road so often?
LB: I’m sixty-three now and I’ve been writing songs and singing since I was about sixteen. And I know how privileged I am to have this job. I know people who have had jobs that they really don’t love, and that they really have those jobs just to bring home money for their family. So I really know how privileged and blessed I am. And maybe I know it more now than I did when I first went to Australia.
I’m so grateful for the fact that at sixty-three years of age there are still some people in the world who are prepared to buy a ticket to come and see me. I think I’m more grateful than I’ve been, and more excited about performing than I’ve ever been. I actually think that the sound I have at the moment is also better than it’s ever been. I just really, really, really love my job.
TUN: There’s that lived-in wisdom that tempers a voice as you get older…
LB: Maybe there is a bit of that, but I tend to be wary of using words around things like ‘wisdom’, because I don’t think that getting older necessarily means you are wiser.
I think the thing, about getting older, is that you get to that certain age where you kind of have to get over yourself, and stop being so anxious about your work and accept the fact that if people are choosing to come back and hear you again that they are not idiots – that they have actually figured it out and that they’ve got a good reason for coming back.
So you’ve just got to acknowledge the fact that people want to hear you and try and live up to their expectations. Certainly, I try to live up to my own, but every time I walk out on stage I’m going to give people the best performance that I possibly can.
TUN: Can we talk about songwriting in general now? You often hear artists saying they’ve been too busy touring to write and record any new material. For you, does travel stimulate or repress your songwriting urge?
LB: If I’m completely honest, no, I don’t write songs when I’m on tour. I just don’t do it.
I mean, every now and then I get an idea for a song when I’m on tour and I stow it away, but I’m not one of those people who spends his time alone in a dressing room, or in a hotel room, working on the material for the next album. I do see a danger in that, and the danger is – and I’ve seen people do this – that you run the risk that you’re writing songs when you’re on tour about writing songs about being on the road. And why anyone would want to listen to anyone singing songs about being on fucking tour is a complete mystery to me!
The most important thing for me to do if I want to write songs is to go nowhere and to be focussed. I like to really focus on whatever job I’m doing.
When I’m on tour in Australia, I’m on tour in Australia. That means meeting people, that means connecting with people and it means that I’m in the best possible shape to do the best possible show.
When I’m not on tour in Australia, I come home and that’s when I get to think about my writing.
I don’t need to be on tour to be inspired. Actually one of the things I try to be inspired by is just being still.
TUN: I assume, though, song ideas emerge at the most impractical of times. So when you say you can stow away ideas when you get them, do you do that mentally, to be developed later, or do you have to stop what you’re doing and jot something down? Do you keep a journal, or notebook, with you at all times?
LB: Well, it’s one of the advantages of having the old smartphone with me. If I get a musical idea I will probably whack it into the smartphone straightaway and return to it when I get home.
But I always carry a notebook with me. I even keep a notebook beside the bed because sometimes before I’m fully awake something will come into my mind that is worth paying attention to, or its worth storing away.
You’re right – it’s quite a random process. The inspirational part of the process is the part that’s random. The rest of it comes down to hard work and discipline.
The most important part of writing for me is not the moment of inspiration, it’s the time I’ve set aside to do the hard graft, which is what needs to be done.
TUN: The title of your last studio album, and the sentiment in a song such as Dear Gods, for instance, along with your consistent involvement at home in Ireland in causes trying to counter homelessness, suggests that one of your primary concerns at present is that the level of human displacement around the world has moved beyond a critical point. What do you think needs to change globally to alleviate that?
LB: Wow! What do I think globally need to be done…?
Do you mean specifically ‘homelessness’ or refugees?
TUN: Well, refugees are homeless by definition aren’t they?
LB: Yeah but what do you mean specifically about that subject when you talk about global change?
TUN: I’m thinking of both of them as interlinked, and that obviously you personally have felt the need to get up off your behind and go out and walk the streets to protest against homelessness as a local issue, but globally it is happening everywhere. Do you sense there has been a shift…
LB: I tend to always look at these issues from the perspective of being an Irishman.
You know, Australia’s a really good example of a country that made it possible for Irish people to have a life when things back at home in Ireland were just unbearable. Australia is one of the countries that hosted my culture, and hosted my people, and offered my people opportunity to live lives and to be productive and to be fruitful.
What really upsets me about the world is how quick people are to forget history. That’s one of the things I’d love to see changing in the world – education, and that people would remember their history.
The real tragedy of the world today is that we see other people as ‘the other’. To me, there’s only one race in this world, and that’s the human race. I just really get saddened by this culture of difference. Whether it’s to do with religion or skin colour, or whatever it is, there’s this fear of ‘the other’, people of other cultures are deemed to be somehow less. If we could realise that we are literally all in this together, well, it’s as simple as that.
I guess it comes down to a couple of things. It comes down to education and it comes down to compassion.
I even think that the whole issue of climate change is connected to all of this, you know?
We’re distracted by our differences – that’s the thing I’m trying to say. There are so many really big issues in the world, but what we’re really distracted by is our differences and if we could stop focussing on the differences in our cultures and be aware that we just have this one planet that is so precious and so delicate. It’s fragile, like life itself.
The only hope we have of literally having an Earth that we can enjoy is if we come together, forget about the distraction of our differences, see that we are one human race, and that this is our one and only home.
These are serious changes we have to make on the Earth.
I get frustrated when I see how impassioned people are about religious differences, racial differences, gender differences…
Sooner or later we’ve got to come back to some simplicity for life on this planet and do the best we can to do make the changes we need so we can all live together on Earth.
TUN: Amen to that! Thanks Luka. I have really appreciated your willingness to chat so freely with me.
Good luck with the tour – and see you in April!
LB: I’ve really enjoyed the conversation, and if you’re around on the night at The Gov come and say hello!
Luka Bloom will perform at The Gov on Wednesday 3 April.
Tickets are available here: Luka Bloom