Tim Minchin November 2020 Promo Credit Damian Bennett
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Tim Minchin: The 10 Songs That Changed My Life

Aussie comedian, actor and songwriter extraordinaire Tim Minchin on musical breakthroughs, taking the piss out of Pearl Jam, and why U2 are actually cool…

Tim Minchin is a busy dude who must have a pretty big trophy cabinet. He wrote the songs for the Tony- and Olivier Award-winning musical Matilda, and got another Olivier for the stage adaptation of Groundhog Day. He won the Perrier in Edinburgh in 2005, and has not one but two honorary doctorates. He did a stint on Californication and was Friar Tuck in the very bad Jamie Foxx Robin Hood movie. He both wrote and stars in the comedy-drama series Upright, which Joss Whedon called the best show since Fleabag.

And on top of all that, he has just released his debut studio album, Apart Together. It’s an emotionally raw collection of songs dealing with distance, disappointment and the challenges of maintaining a relationship when you’re a well-liked famous guy with good hair, drunk at a party a thousand miles from your wife. 

Despite Tim’s protests that he isn’t a music fan, we had a rummage through his musical memories…

The first song that I remember hearing…

THE BEATLES – SHE’S LEAVING HOME (1967)

My mum and dad probably had about 25 records in the house when I was a kid, and the stereo was definitely not on all the time. But I remember those early records, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band just looks like a magical object to a kid. There’s all the costumes and the cut-out people, and you can look at it for ages just wondering who they all are. I think my earliest memory of a song really moving me is She’s Leaving Home. There was just something about it. It’s odd to think that of all the songs on that album, it was the most narrative one, a story with a series of events and a conclusion, that drew me in.”

The first song that I learned to play…

THE HOODOO GURUS – WHAT’S MY SCENE? (1987)

I learned piano – like so many kids do – for a few years. That was all classical, but after I quit I started figuring out how to play chord charts, and that suited me a hell of a lot better. That’s all I’ve ever done since. My brother was a guitarist and encouraged me to learn. We’d get these pamphlets called Five Of The Best By… from Zenith Music, which had five of the best songs by a particular band. We had a Hoodoo Gurus one with What’s My Scene? in it, and a Beatles one. My parents are not the demonstrative sort that say, Oh, your kids are so clever and special’ – they’d rather die than be seen to say that. But I taught myself to play Memories, from the musical Cats, and I remember my mum being really impressed, going, How did you learn to play that?’ All of this explains why I’m so uncool…”

The first song that I got really, really into…

U2 – ONE (1991)

Let’s go down the daggy road of how uncool I am. Actually, I don’t think U2 are uncool. I think people who are contemptuous of U2 are just trying to define themselves as alt – if you’re contemptuous of U2, you basically don’t understand music. They reinvented themselves sonically again and again and just wrote banger after banger after banger. Achtung Baby was the album that I got really into. It grabbed me, more so than the grunge that came after and around it, even though I got quite heavily into that – Doolittle by Pixies, and of course Nevermind [by Nirvana]. But the day that U2’s next album – [1993’s] Zooropa – was released is the only time I’ve ever been waiting at the door of the music shop when it opened. My mates and I went home and just all lay on the floor and listened to the whole record through. And I remember sort of feeling stoned by the end of it. 

It was the first time I’d really gone, I’m gonna listen to this album.’ It isn’t their best record, but I’m really inspired by it – I want people to listen to my record from beginning to end, and go on that journey. Thinking about the big formative records of my youth – and I remember this with Nevermind, or Doolittle, or The Cure, or Pearl Jam – when you listen to them the first time they sound same-ish, because if an album is well made it has production continuity. But it’s like a magic eye picture, where after a while an image emerges. Now I can listen to Achtung Baby and it doesn’t feel same-ish at all; it feels unimaginably diverse. I love that you can listen to a body of work like a suite of songs you can hardly discern between, and then their individuality comes out. It’s like meeting a bunch of white people you don’t know and then, slowly, their personalities being revealed.”

The song I took the piss out of…

PEARL JAM – JEREMY (1991)

I used to take the piss out of Pearl Jam because they were taken so seriously by my peers. I always liked uncool stuff – Sting, acid jazz and so on. My uncle was a bluegrass musician and I got really into a country rock band called The Black Sorrows. While the cool alt kids were listening to cool alt stuff, I was listening to Stevie Wonder, even through his daggy periods. So yeah, I really made my comedy career on the back of taking the piss out of myself for being too middle class to be like (Impersonates Eddie Vedder pretty perfectly), Jeremy spoke in class today.’ I did an art degree wandering around in bare feet and torn happy pants like a wanker. I was that arsehole. I quoted it in [2002 Perrier-winning show] Darkside – I can have a dark side, if you want me to.’ That was my Eddie Vedder. I literally made my career taking the piss out of the Seattle grunge seriousness of my youth.”

The song that takes me back in time…

BOOM CRASH OPERA – ONION SKIN (1989)

That song is so late-’80s, but that band has fucking bangers. They’re really good songs. You can hear the INXS-iness. But that was my first concert, in 1989, an underage gig at the Claremont Superdrome. I went to that concert with a girl called Nanette who was very tall and pretty. It wasn’t the first time I ever kissed a girl, but it wasn’t far off. It was the first time a girl kissed me who I thought was, like, way too beautiful for me. And it was during that song or something. I remember it being way over lit, and I don’t think we ever kissed again. But that song is one of the most visceral triggers of a memory. As soon as I hear Boom Crash Opera I’m back, kissing Nanette. I guess it’s because I immediately stopped listening to them – that’s the one association I have with them. They didn’t come with me on my beautiful journey…”

The first song that made me think I could do this…

CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE/TIM MINCHIN – COME LIVE WITH ME AND BE MY LOVE (1992)

The first time I wrote songs for a musical I was 17. It was a Midnight Youth Theatre Company production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost, rewritten into a musical and incorporating some other Shakespearean sonnets and other romantic poetry of the time by people like John Donne. I wrote new music for it. It was on for three nights in the hall of the school I’d just left, and by the third night the thing was packed. People were hanging out of the rafters and crying and stuff. That was the moment really. That song was based on a Christopher Marlowe poem called The Passionate Shepherd: Come live with me and be my love / And we shall all the pleasures prove.’ That was when I thought, Yeah, maybe I’m not totally shit.’ ”

The song I’m proudest of writing…

TIM MINCHIN – I’LL TAKE LONELY TONIGHT (2020)

It changes – as I say in one song, I try to find a balance between self-loathing and pride. Some of the songs are Matilda have become embedded in certain parts of culture, and that feels special. But I’ll Take Lonely Tonight – it’s not what everyone’s listening to these days, and it goes on a bit, but structurally, I don’t reckon there’s a fuck-load of people around writing songs like that. It’s quite a jazz standard sort of structure, but the way it works through and holds the tension of the moment, of trying not to have sex with somebody you shouldn’t have sex with, and then expands outwards into this sort of myth of Jesus and Odysseus and temptation, and then it comes right back down to a hotel room where atonement has to be made with Pringles. I feel like it’s a good song.”

A song I wish I’d written…

CHARLIE RICH – I FEEL LIKE COMING HOME (1981)

I first heard this by my brother playing it to me, which is how I learned anything about music, and then I heard it covered by the Notting Hillbillies. This song sits in the same kind of area as Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen, just beautiful harmonic movement. As a godless person I’m often very moved by songs that cry out like that – Lord, I feel like coming home’ – because it’s so vulnerable, to be crying out to something that’s not there to help.”

A song I just love…

SIA – CHANDELIER (2014)

I quite often go, Hey, let’s have some music on!’ and then go, Eurgh, no, too much.’ Part of that is that I end up analysing it, part of it is that I have a lot of music in my life and enjoy silence, but also, if it’s shit, it annoys me. I’m not that judgmental, I listen to music across all genres, and I love pop. I love a good pop tune, but if it’s shit – the chorus is the same old chords, the melody is this bubblegum thing, I end up going, Fuck this!’ Like, if they’ve just applied a formula, taken another song, replaced the wrecking ball with a firework, inverted the melody and changed a chord so it doesn’t look like they’ve stolen it, I’m not a fan of that. But then you have songs like Chandelier, or Drunk In Love, or Crazy In Love, which are brilliant. I like all sorts of shit, but I also don’t like all sorts of shit.”

The song I want played at my funeral…

ANDY PRIEBOY – TOMORROW WENDY (1990)

My friend Jane and I agreed years ago that we’d both have the same song at our funerals. It’s a cover of the Concrete Blonde song Tomorrow Wendy by Andy Prieboy. [Ed’s note: Interestingly, the Andy Prieboy version is actually the original, and the Concrete Blonde version is a cover, but the Concrete Blonde version came out two months earlier. Mad!] It’s one of the songs where I realised pretty early on that if I played it late at a party it would make girls cry and they’d like me more. I’m a bit of a tear scientist – I’m obsessed with how that works, and pursue it, with some success I think. But it’s an incredible song. It’s the standard four chords, but is just beautiful. We know it in Australia because it was Number One on [radio station] Triple J’s Hottest 100 in 1990, and I didn’t realise the rest of the world didn’t know it until recently. I’d mention it and people would go, Well, I’ve never fuckin’ heard of that.’ ”

Tim Minchin’s debut studio album Apart Together is out now, and Upright comes to DVD and digital platforms on November 23.

Posted on November 23rd 2020, 2:00p.m.
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