Album Walkthrough: Jack Colwell breaks down his debut album, SWANDREAM
In our latest album walkthrough, Sydney musician Jack Colwell dives into the depths of his Sarah Blasko-produced debut album.
Header image by Kylie Coutts.
At the turn of May, we were very lucky to get the inside scoop on Jack Colwell's forthcoming debut album SWANDREAM, at the time being teased with the release of its Sarah Blasko-assisted single, A Spell. The full album, which arrived at the tail-end of last month, came with the promise of somewhat of a spectacle: the Sydney musician's Everest-level highs and deep lows shared with the world through the means of slow-stirring, sprawling pop that on A Spell, was reduced to its most subtle and beautiful.
"A Spell was written after struggling with a severe depressive episode that left me in hospital. It is a song, but at the same time it is also an enchantment - like songs that come from folklore or another time; a musical spell that when sung or performed unleashes some kind of power," said Colwell with its release, and you could hear every inch of that meaning in its triumph and hope; the musician's knack for storytelling - and drawing every last drop of emotion out of his stories - reaching fever pitch on the swirling month highlight.
Now, a month later, comes SWANDREAM, a collection of tracks that builds upon Jack Colwell's life and with it, brings one of the year's most intimate records thus far. It's a twelve track exploration of Colwell's life and what makes up the multi-faceted person behind the project, crafting an album rich with this emotional potency that becomes somewhat defining of the album's sound (something which becomes clear in a matter of minutes of hitting play).
From the second SWANDREAM begins, you're welcomed into the theatrical life of one of Australia's most exciting new songwriters. On Weak, a slow-stirring blend of keys and percussion builds a backbone for lyrics that on The Sound of Music is stripped down even further; an musical origami statue of delicateness that unravels with the intensity of the song's exploration of domestic abuse and abusive relationships. It's one of the many moments that sees Colwell welcome people into the most personal intricacies of his life; the drama and theatrics that go into the album's bold and exuberant sound contrasted with snapshots of lyrical heaviness and darkness.
In many ways, this contrast is synonymous with the queer community. The community's most daring and striking people are often the ones with the most struggles behind them, and the sense of 'flamboyance' often picked apart by those outside of the community simultaneously celebrates and charades the battles and struggles to get to that point, both in history - something being reminded on a broader scale, with the album's release arriving amongst the beginning of pride month - and personally, which SWANDREAM picks apart through each and every track.
To a degree, you get the feeling that the boldness of SWANDREAM - its theatrics and drama that makes it feel like its built for a musical - works in a similar, double-edged sword situation. At times, it feels like it builds into the sorrow of the album's lyrical depths, with songs like The Sound of Music having its intimacy amplified due to the musical surroundings it's set amongst. Compare that to something like Conversion Therapy - a starry-eyed, spectacular showcase of Colwell at his most musically upbeat and joyful that disguises far darker lyrics that underpin the track, which you could probably gather from the song's name.
"This is a deeply personal record about my childhood and experiences as a young queer person," says Colwell on the record. "SWANDREAM is an album about transformation, in particular the "swan story" which many queer and marginalised voices can relate to. The themes – mental health, queer identity, and a centre-piece The Sound of Music about overcoming domestic violence and abuse – are all heavy, but ultimately I believe this is a hopeful album that shares a message of strength for difficult times. Inside each of us is a swan, waiting to be born."
Below, in a track by track walkthrough dissecting the album's creations and themes one song at a time, Jack Colwell walks us through his debut album and with it, gives more insight into one of the year's most personal - yet uplifting - records:
I see SWANDREAM as being something close to a concept album, built upon a queer narrative about my childhood.
To me this record is a collection of songs that take place across a single night - they're visions and nightmares from my past that I am forced to confront while transfiguring into a grotesque version of a Swan.
The album is a story to inspire hope about dealing with trauma and mental ill health.
Let’s dive into ACT I!
Track 1: SWANDREAM
SWANDREAM serves as the prologue to the album. I went to a classical music school as a teenager and I was really into romantic operas and fairytales. I loved how they always opened with these genesis hero stories before the real story started.
I think for many young queer people the “swan story” feels very close to how they see their upbringing, with all the attendant hope that there will eventually be an “acceptance” of themselves and who they become. SWANDREAM is a bit like that. However, I discovered that once you stepped into this “true” version of yourself, you find a whole new host of traumas and experiences to confront. SWANDREAM is also the story of the second change – Saturn’s return. When I recorded the scream the end of the track I imagined a transformation taking place, but it’s also the opening of Pandora’s box.
In the audio session for the track this scream was labeled as “Phoenix rising!”
FACT: This song was going to be attached to TWO seperate film clips for the album, but both shoot days ran overtime and the extra footage was never filmed! If you mute Tchaikovsky in the opening scene of the movie Black Swan, and play SWANDREAM instead you’ll come close to seeing what I imagined.
Track 2: IN MY DREAMS
In My Dreams was a hastily written song originally called ‘Jackie’s Dream’. When Sarah Blasko and I originally began working on this album we spent every Wednesday for a few months at her house, aka Blaskovich Studios, playing around with the arrangements and structure of the songs. A month in I was kind of unsure if I had enough material to finish, and Sarah sent me an email saying I needed to “dig deep” to produce the work. To be honest, I was worried that maybe I wasn’t good enough and my inner saboteur started to take over and I’d lose this amazing opportunity.
A few days after our e-mail exchange, my teen idol, UK folk icon Patrick Wolf came to Australia to perform for the Commonwealth Games and invited me to join him in the Blue Mountains to do some recording for his next release. I had been fighting with my partner and it seemed as though everything was on the brink of destruction. So I packed up my guitar for the recording and fled deep into the mountains for a few days, and while travelling on the midnight train there I drank myself to sleep and imagined myself in this gothic fantasy where I destroyed myself and my partner in order for us to be whole again.
It was dramatic to say the least. But when I came to, I got to a piano and basically wrote that whole song in one 30 minute sitting. I came back to Sydney the next week and played the demo to Sarah, and we agreed straight away that it should be on the record, although we did think the song might need a different name than ‘Jackie’s Dream’ as cute as that might sound.
The film clip was a reenactment of my dream, with some references from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Nights Dream to please my inner drama student.
FACT: The original title of ‘Jackie’s Dream’ was a reference to the Nick Cave album, Henry’s Dream. A nod to the master!
Track 3: WEAK
Weak was the longest song to finish on the album. For about two years before the record was made I had the opening chords (a play around with 7ths for the music nerds at home!) and the lines: “You say I’m weak / you say I’m small / I’ll never be anything but a punchline”.
I didn’t know how to finish the song for so long, but I really liked the opening idea - and Sarah really pushed me to finish it. It was a bit of a slog - but I really love what we landed on.
I kept imagining Alicia Keys playing this song really late in a piano bar, with Beck playing drums in a wide cowboy hat. And I think the film clip matches the song SO WELL! I just adore it.
Track 4. DON’T CRY THOSE TEARS
Don’t Cry Those Tears was the song that put me on to a different road. This was the song that everyone seemed to love off my 2016 EP, Only When Flooded Could I Let Go, and I felt like it deserved to be on my debut album. (Original clip and recording here). So, ta da! Here it is, re-recorded with a shiny new paint job!
FACT: The original song was recorded off a giant old 70s organ that I found on the side of the road as a teenager (someone was throwing it out!). It was so heavy it could obviously not travel in a normal car, so I waited next to it for hours while a family friend came and got it with a ute. So much of the song is to do with that great old sound, so if I hadn’t of been patient enough to wait, it might never have happened!
5. The Sound of Music
cw: domestic violence
The Sound of Music is a song about my personal experience with domestic violence. I don’t want to say too much, because I feel I’ve said everything I need in the song. But I want people to know that if you have experienced what I have experienced, then this song is for you. And I see you, and I hear you. x
FACT: The piano part in the middle of the song reminds me of Danny Elfman’s Ice Dance - from Edward Scissor hands. A beautiful film x
Track 6: Conversion Therapy
Conversion Therapy was a difficult song to write. To be clear this is not something I have ever experienced myself, but this harmful practice is an incredibly traumatic process and was something I spent a long time reading about and watching programs on. It horrifies me to this day that these sorts of practices are allowed to take place in parts of the world.
This song is sung from the perspective of a person who is convinced they’re evil because of their sexuality, and is willing to try anything to “clean” and “free themselves” of what they see as their sin. The last section of the song, an improvisation between myself, Donny Benet and Laurence Pike is meant to sonically represent their inner torment.
FACT: The screaming at the end of the song is a one take.
Track 7: I WILL NOT CHANGE MY WAYS
This track is more of a mantra, or a traditional folk song. I imagine it sung to the sky from an open field, staring out into the world with resilience. To me these words hold a lot of power, and I call on this power as an artist at times when I need. I love the many voices in this song, it was recorded using Polyphony Choir as the backing. And their voices were all recorded together as a group in a church, which felt almost sacrilegious to perform this song in, but I think it added a sense of strength to the track.
In my visions a piano broke open at the end of the song, and cracked in two, and what you hear at the end is the pedal being slammed and manipulated into the sound. A forceful mark left upon the earth.
FACT: There is an alternate version of this song, which I made and recorded with Owen Pallett while I was in Toronto in 2019. Owen helped me reimagine the song as a queer protest ballad in the style of Nick Drake. It’s very beautiful and totally different in tone, with Owen playing on finger style guitar, and adding some beautifully arranged strings. It’s probably one of the works I’m most proud of ever being involved in and I’m so grateful to have worked with Owen on the alternate version.
Track 8. HOME AGAIN
Sometimes when I write a song I imagine myself as a different singer in order to finish the writing, or even get into the right headspace to begin with. I think this song came about because Tori Amos’s Father Lucifer went for a walk and became friends with Love Is by Stevie Nicks from The Trouble in Shangri-la. It’s an unlikely friendship, but those girls make it work! It’s full of wisdom.
Tori loves The Beatles, so I had to have a visit from Father Mckenzie of Eleanor Rigby in the song. He just showed up so unexpectedly one day when I was writing! He helped me understand that this song was about loneliness, and calling out for someone who has moved on, and hoping that the emptiness answers you back. It’s also about what happens that when someone is gone - if they’ve been meaningful to you there will be a part of them stuck to you forever, like gum in your hair that you suddenly find at 3am in the morning.
When I sing the chorus I imagine I am Stevie Nicks singing these words, because they’re so simple really, but when Stevie sings she draws from this great self referential mythology of dreams, crystals, natural events and she references and re-references things about herself and her past in very simple language that carries this great weight to it. I mean, I am not Stevie, but I’d like to think that although the chorus is simple, these words carry significance. I think that’s true of relationships too because relationships can just seem so overcomplicated at times but really when you sift through the layers the answers as to how they work, come together and dissolve they are often very simple.
FACT: As you’ve probably figured out by now I’m really big into visualising the worlds of these songs. Some of them contain entire universes in the few minutes they span for! Anyway, the house in the song is what I imagine Ms Bartolozzi’s house to look like, if you know then you will know!
Track 9. PTSD
This is a grunge song! And although it’s about my mental health, and about having PTSD, I actually find this song extremely fun to perform and sing because it allows me to really inhabit this certain space of violence, that occurs a few times on the record. Performing and songwriting can be great for that because often you can become this other character that you would not otherwise be, and this can actually really help in order to work through very difficult emotional trauma. It helps to be at a remove.
The album version is really wild and punishing. Largely, I think this has to do with the great mixing job of Collin Dupuis who did some records for The Black Keys, Angel Olsen and Lana Del Rey, all of which I can most hear in his mixing work on SWANDREAM.
I think vocally this character is a shapeshifter, a real Jekyll and Hyde type. I also really wanted to write a “riff” in the style of PJ Harvey or Nirvana, which is a surprisingly complicated thing to write. Sometimes a song lives or dies by a successful riff.
FACT: We purposefully tried to make the drums as sloppy as possible on this recording! First teenage band was the reference used if I recall correctly!
Track 10. NO MERCY
No Mercy is a battlecry about reclaiming your queerness. Too often minorities are made to feel afraid for being different, and are brought up to hide or assimilate their differences in order to “fit in”, and at an extreme ,violence and verbal abuse are used to punish people just for existing and being who they are. This song aims to turn that question around, and asks at the end, “now who do you see?”
FACT: The great ethereal guitar lines were courtesy of Sam Lockwood of the Jezabels! Thanks, Sam! x
Track 11. I AM A DOG
True to the title of the album, many of these songs came from dreams I had. I Am A Dog is quite literally about being this half human-half dog creature, I guess almost like a werewolf, which was birthed out of this demon alien mother. The creature is hedonistic and bacchanalian and crawls from the underworld into a suburban village and begins defiling the town, while the local townspeople watch on in horror. But the creature is misunderstood and grows to have a sense of empathy, and eventually the town explodes after some kind of atomic bomb is dropped and the creature is left battling for its life.
I had this dream many times and I think that all of us have the potential to be this creature inside of us.
FACT: The backing vocals were created by Sarah and I walking around the vocal booth in the pitch black dark, whispering and snarling at the microphone.
Track 12. A SPELL
A Spell was written after struggling with a severe depressive episode that left me in hospital. It is a song, but at the same time it is also like an enchantment – a song that comes from folklore or another time, and a musical spell that when sung or performed unleashes some kind of power.
To me, that is the power of protection. This song showed itself to me as a message of hope during a dark time. It was written for my own comfort, and I hope that the song’s message offers it in turn to the listener. It was pure joy and an absolute honour to sing this song with Sarah Blasko. Her voice on the song is like a guiding light of hope, reaching and pulling the listener out of the darkness. I imagine her voice and presence in the song like a watchful, omnipresent figure , guiding lost souls from a distance to greener pastures.
The song has been my own talisman, and a reminder to keep going, even when you can't see through the darkening mist. It is my parting words of hope to close the record.
FACT: I think the accompanying animation by Todd Fuller couldn't be more fitting, balancing so delicately on the line between desperation and childlike wonder. It is just so beautiful and I am in awe of Todd’s amazing clip for the song.
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