The Music Next Door: Talking with the Lucksmiths


By Matt Gonzales

I kicked off my conversation with Lucksmiths guitarist and songwriter Marty Donald like a dopey, overzealous fan.

“Before we get started,” I blurted, “I want you to know I’m a big fan. I first got into you guys a few years ago when I heard a few songs from Happy Secret. I loved ‘Abdication!’”

“Oh, really?” Donald sounded surprised. “Wow—that’s an interesting one to have picked out. I really like that song, but it’s one that seems to have disappeared into the back catalog somewhere over the years.”

“And I also love ‘Southernmost,’” I hastily added. “And, um, what’s the other one? Oh, ‘Pin Cushion.’ All the mopey ones, I guess.”

“That’s nice,” Donald said. “I guess that by their nature, those are songs that are easily overlooked, but they tend to be the ones I like, too.”

The Lucksmiths, like their slower songs, tend to be easily overlooked. Though the Australian indie-pop trio has been making remarkably clever and hummable pop gems for twelve years, they’re still a little-known act with a small but devoted following. Why? Probably because Donald, bassist Mark Monnone, and percussionist/singer Tali White are cute, but not exactly sexy. They have regular haircuts. They smile. And their pleasingly melodic guitar pop is never suggestive of sex, drugs, or death. But the Lucksmiths are more than just a delightful but unexceptional twee band, and what most distinguishes them from their peers are their stunningly well-written lyrics.

The most obvious and often made comparison is Belle & Sebastian, which is accurate, except that the Lucksmiths are more consistent than B & S. And probably more accessible. And definitely more fun. We’re talking about a band who writes songs with titles like “Music to Hold Hands To” and “T-Shirt Weather.” But they aren’t just sunny-day song-peddlers—they can also pen a devastating break-up song (see “Abdication!”). Furthermore, the above-mentioned “Music to Hold Hands To” ends with this wry couplet: “My friends live in renovators’ dreams / It’s as euphemistic as it seems.”

Still, Marty Donald readily admits that he doesn’t find much inspiration in the darker places.

“It’s funny—I have this book called Songwriters on Songwriting,” he said, “and one question that the interviewer asked everyone in the book was ‘Do you feel like you need an element of instability in your life to be able to write?’ And a lot of them were like, ‘Yeah, I just can’t write songs when I’m happy and sitting at home.’”

“But I’m by nature pretty happy and contented,” he continued. “I’m certainly not someone who seeks turmoil. I’m never happier than when I’m at home with my girlfriend cooking dinner. There are only so many songs you can get out of that. I’ve tried. I’ve gotten about as many as I could.”

Although Donald confesses that his songwriting has gotten more personal over the years, he says that he rarely writes autobiographical songs, a fact that has disappointed fans in the past.

“I did an interview with a woman in Australia a couple of years ago, and she asked me how ‘true’ my songs were,” Donald recounted. “And I was like, ‘They’re pretty much made-up. Most of the things in the songs didn’t actually happen to me.’ And she was just heartbroken, like she felt really cheated or something, and I found myself almost apologizing. So I suppose I would like to draw a distinction between ‘truth’ and ‘honesty.’ I tend to invent things that are based on things that I have experienced.”

“Fiction”, the final song on the Lucksmiths’ new album, the bright and buoyant Warmer Corners, addresses this issue directly.

“Theoretically, that song was going to be ‘Nonfiction,’” Donald explained. “For once, I wasn’t going to fiddle with the truth at all. But I had to abandon that when I got six months into it, and hadn’t got past the second verse. But that song is kind of about the whole idea of making things up.”

“So though I leave you little option,” goes “Fiction”‘s final verse, “But to take me at my word, I assure you, dearest listener, that it happened as you’ve heard.” As the song comes to a close, lead singer Tali White slyly implores the listener, “Oh why would I lie to you? Why would I lie?”

“I feel that as long as people think they could be true, then I’m doing my job properly,” Donald said of his songs. That’s when I asked him why he thought Lucksmiths fans tend to be such a rabidly devoted bunch.

“I have no idea. It’s an incredibly flattering thing, because I obviously have bands that I feel the same way about,” he said. “To think that other people hold us in that regard is lovely. I suppose there is that element of discovery about it, which is probably the small upside of having an extremely low profile. People do feel more of a sense of ownership. It’s nice. I’m always very pleased by it.”

When the Lucksmiths released 2003’s Naturaliste, some of those fans were disappointed with its uncharacteristically downcast sound. The songs were slower, and aside from the cheekily titled “There Is a Boy That Never Goes Out,” the puns and plays-on-words were few and far between. Warmer Corners, on the other hand, is the fullest-sounding Lucksmiths album to date, due in no small part to the addition of new guitarist Louis Richter, as well as a generous amount of horn and string arrangements. Songs like “Sunlight in a Jar” and “The Chapter in Your Life Entitled San Francisco” find the band back in top lyric-writing form. I asked Donald if this was a reaction to fans’ reception of the previous record.

“I was surprised by how melancholy people seemed to think Naturaliste was,” he said. “I thought it was a bit more subdued than most of our previous records, but it’s not like we went into Warmer Corners thinking ‘Let’s give the kids what they want.’ We’ve always thought that if we are pleasing ourselves, that’s the best thing to go by. I think it’s likely to be pretty futile to sit around and try to second guess your fans. I’m sure there are people who prefer our early stuff. But it doesn’t seem to me like we’ve lost too many fans. I don’t think we’ve sold out. We’re always going to sound like the Lucksmiths.”

Which means, of course, that they’ll always be known as that tuneful Aussie group who sings clever songs about bike rides, break-ups, and, of course, cooking dinner with one’s girlfriend. Does the band mind being thought of as “twee” by critics?

“I don’t know—I’m not one of these musicians who rails against being pigeonholed,” he said. “It’s inevitable that people describe you in some way, and I’m so bad at describing us myself that I don’t feel entitled to take umbrage at someone else’s description. The concern is that words like ‘twee’ tend to imply a lack of substance, which I hope is not there.”

“I hope that people can listen to us over and over,” he went on, “and continue to discover different things.” With it being autumn in Australia, and spring in America, the weather is perfect in both places to give that very thing a try.

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