GETTING TO KNOW: DEN HANRAHAN

Canberra-based musician, Den Hanrahan is a published singer-songwriter, teacher and producer with a Bachelor of Contemporary Music from Southern Cross University with a Double Major in Composition and Music Theory. From his work with his band ‘Saddle Rash’ in the early 2000’s, to his solo career of 19 years he has delivered 6 albums, 2 EPs, had songs featured on radio, in films and TV series and taught guitar to over 500 students across the ACT and NSW. Considered one of Australia’s best contemporary singer-songwriters, Den’s reputation as a composer spans many different genres but all serve to highlight his love of the story song. His songs tell the tales of modern Australia – from the red dust of the land, to the loves and losses of the people that have touched his life. Woven through this rich repertoire are the stories drawn from his past, finely observed tales from his years living and working across the country which have spawned the albums Red Dust (2005), Black Swamp Road (2010) and One Horse Town (2012), amongst others. In 2014, his musical focus turned to hybrid bluegrass with band, the Rum Runners recording albums and touring. 2020 sees the release of Scars and back to a roots/country vibe.

THE STREET TALKED TO DEN DURING REHEARSALS FOR ST NICHOLAS BEFORE HIS LIVE PERFORMANCE WITH ACTOR CRAIG ALEXANDER AT THE STREET THEATRE.

DESCRIBE YOUR RELATIONSHIP WITH MUSIC.

Music has always been there for me, from when I was really small I remember my Mum and my Nan singing along with me.  It was something that was present all the time. I learned guitar and piano from a young age, year 5 I think and learning the theory got me into writing. It is a constant part of everyday, be it listening, playing or writing and at times I’ve thought divorce was inevitable. But, in the words of Keith Richards ‘We have to look after all these children we’ve created,’ and with that comes more creations. It’s also a great way to keep grounded, putting yourself out there and laying your art on the line, and keeping true to yourself through it. I think, most importantly, I don’t particularly care what people think as the music is mine and I love it.

WHAT IS YOUR CREATIVE PROCESS FOR WRITING SONGS? WORDS FIRST? MUSIC?

Well, Lyrics or music, it can depend. Sometimes it can be a sound or an instrument or listening to someone else that drives the idea. I always like to have a theme or instrument running through a record and I always have songs from around the same time so as they fit together. Sometimes they are worlds apart and don’t get a look in. It’s also a practice thing. Like playing an instrument, the more you practice the easier it is to control and songwriting is no different. I like the idea of having a story to tell by talking to people and seeing events unfold. I’ll sometimes take a scenario and write about the opposite of what I see in the story. You know, sometimes the real story needs tweaking to give it something extra.  All in all, I’m trying to find ‘the story’.

THE PANDEMIC IS IMPACTING ON HOW ARTISTS WORK. WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES WORKING IN THIS NEW WAY?

Not being in the same room makes it hard as nothing can be done in real time because of the lag online. The easing of restrictions has come at the right time. really.  Truth be know we weren’t sure if we could do the show until I was invited to do the Saltwater online Music Festival which gave us the idea to shoot St Nicholas live, online…. so long as we could all get in the room to rehearse.  The tech has been a bit of fun working out – shooting the Saltwater concert, making sure there was quality audio/visual throughout the performance has given us a warm up and a chance to iron out some of the tech bugs for the show. Mind you, it was weird not having an audience.

YOU ARE WORKING WITH ACTOR CRAIG ALEXANDER TO BRING ST NICHOLAS TO THE STAGE. WHAT HAS BEEN THE MUSICIAN-ACTOR PROCESS?

So far, it has been a conversation bouncing ideas bank and forth, discussing flow and feel of each character while trying not to step on each others toes. I get a sound or a theme happening and we mull over where that takes us and how it interacts with the section/character/mood we are working on at the time. Which bring us to the important bit… Who is right?  This is easy, that’s when Shelly comes in and makes it right. In saying that she does not interfere with what I do, it is a work in progress and is constantly changing to get the best atmosphere we can bring. Let’s face it, there is a lot of noises out there in the world, we just have to capture the ones we need.

HOW DO YOUR MUSIC COMPOSITIONS ALLOW US TO EXPERIENCE THE WORLD OF VAMPIRES?

I have always, with all my recording tried to make each one have a different feel running through them.  with the latest record, SCARS, I used keyboards for the first time really,  predominantly Hammond Organ, Piano and Dobro.  The Dobro was the most fun as I just wanted to get weird sounds that I hadn’t used before. As on the Black Swamp Road record I  used hardly any Bass, instead I got my Stompbox and produced all the bottom end with that. It made the record more percussive and heaps more rootsy. also, the Saltwater Music festival gave me the opportunity to unleash a solo show using Synthesisers, loop stations samplers and some midi via Logic pro. It has changed my whole sound again and is absolutely involved in this project. I suppose, due to all the messing with different feels and sounds I have loved the St Nicholas project as it seems like the next stop in my experiment with noises and timbre. When I think about it, I have definitely been working up to it. It is all one composition, it is all done live, created on the spot and is different every show…. to a point.

WHAT HAS BEEN THE DEVELOPMENT PROCESS TO DATE WITH DIRECTOR SHELLY HIGGS?

The development has come through ‘Covidised’ concepts.  Skype conversation, email, text etc, and it was hard to get an idea of what the feel of the show was to be. This was until we needed to do show promo shots at a field in Wanniassa. I was standing in the tunnel under the road on the bike path at dusk and got a chill up my back as Shelly was taking the shots. Overcast, a bit rainy, dark, a street lamp, CREEPY. It was at that point I got it, even though I had an idea on the sounds before that, it was at that moment I felt the show. From the beginning she has had this ability to subtly show me what she wants. It has been a to and fro deal bouncing off each other with everything looked at and discussed.

TELL US ABOUT INSTRUMENT CHOICES FOR THE MUSIC?

I don’t want to give too much away but I’m using a lap steel for a portion of the show and electric guitar for the rest. The lap steel has an amazing array of sounds that combined with effecting gives a creepy vibe from the out set.  The electric guitar was one I rescued from a skip bin. It wouldn’t stay in tune and was difficult to play. I pulled it to bits and fixed some of the measurements, the harmonics and the machine heads, now it stays perfectly in tune an sounds weird. My kinda instrument. I am using a Behringer Crave and an old TriTone analog synth for drones, an Alesis QS6 digital synth to trigger sounds as well as an RC300 and RC30 loop stations to run samples. I also have some samples on my laptop via Logic Pro X with a very small amount of midi. There is no automation.

WHAT ARE YOUR VIEWS ON THE STATE OF CONTEMPORARY MUSIC IN AUSTRALIA?

There are some amazing artists around at the moment, I suppose its the same as its always been. I feel that it is failing as musicians find it harder and harder to make a living through their art.  It seems there is no value put on it. I read a great book when I first started out call making money making music and the gist of it was have as many income streams as you can and I suppose that has stuck with me. I teach, play shows, I create recordings to sell/stream online, I have a publisher, I work solo a and with a band and I work as a sideman for other artists. I like to do as many things as I can and I suppose St Nicholas is another area to work/create in.

WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU IN MUSIC?

From the first time I heard Rain Dogs by Tom Waits, I’ve been interested in sounds and how they create the feel of a record. Radiohead’s OK Computer, Nine Inch Nails Pretty Hate Machine, Leftfield’s Leftism, have all thrown me into the soup of sound. You can have all the ingredients of a bluegrass record and add 1 accordion and it all changes. A lot of electronic instruments have taken hold again lately, mainly because of the sounds you can find.  Sure, there can be a lot of ok ones but every now and again you can come across something that is awesome.  That’s not to say that all the ok ones are not useable – they all have their place – it’s the sheer variety of noise that can be generated that really fires me up. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack to Gone Girl has also guided for me in this project with the great way they process mood, it made me realise anything goes. Have a listen.

WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY READING AND WATCHING?

Well……. I’m reading the Expanse series of novels.  I watched the first 2 seasons a couple years ago loved the way the soundtrack depicted space.  I left it a while before I read the books so I could create my own soundtrack in my head without having the influence of the TV series. There was lots of sounds happening that took me ages to find on my gear which has been a godsend for this project. I have been watching the Musketeers on Stan and listening to how or if the sounds are depicting France in the early 1700’s, the Flash chasing the sci/fi sounds throughout that and going back over Game of Thrones sequences researching those sounds. Its hard to compare any of those other shows to GOT, crazy good soundscape. It’s all about analysing and comparing different themes and styles to come up with something that can stand on its own.