Dave Hosking is a relieved man. At the time of our interview, it’s the first chance he’s had to discuss Boy & Bear’s second album, Harlequin Dream, outside his inner circle – label reps, family and flatmates – but at last the date has arrived to release another record unto an eager and ever-growing audience.
“If it was up to me I’d just want to release it yesterday and get on with it,” Hosking says cheerily, in spite of the recent bout of tonsillitis that’s temporarily rendered his voice husky and timid. “I love recording and I like writing, so the quicker this is out, the quicker I can emotionally move on and do something else.” Still, there’s a touch of apprehension – “probably healthy,” admits Hosking – over how Harlequin Dream might match the immense critical and popular goodwill afforded Moonfire in 2011.
“There’s a minor shock factor [to Harlequin Dream] in that it’s a little bit different, probably not as high-energy as the last record; the production values are quite different,” says the singer and founding member of the Sydney five-piece. “But I think once people are getting their head around that and starting to understand what the record’s about, they seem to be really warming to it.”
‘Warm’ is the word for it, too: on Harlequin Dream, Boy & Bear present a comforting, upright brand of throwback pop, sketched around guitar, banjo and even saxophone. Lead single ‘Southern Sun’ is the perfect gateway into the album – a rock-solid slice of hook and melody that revisits the sounds of the ’60s and ’70s; of Fleetwood Mac or Creedence.
“I started listening to a lot of old pop music again,” Hosking explains. “I had this realisation that so much of the groove on those old records and the accessibility of those songs is really fantastic, and it’s really great quality pop music – and at least personally I felt like there wasn’t a lot of people at the moment doing pop like that. I got a little bit fed up of turning on the radio and hearing indulgent, moody music, and I had a really strong urge to just go back and write stories in classic structures; in verse/chorus. And knowing what those structures generally were, [to] have fun with that – do things that were musical and had grooves and hooks, just completely embrace that without any fear of what’s cool and what’s not.”
Actually, maybe Hosking was never cool in the first place. His first musical memory – apart from his father playing guitar around the house – is “James Taylor, on repeat through my entire childhood,” he laughs. But it was to Nashville, where Taylor joined Neil Young in 1971 to record the latter’s Harvest, that Boy & Bear travelled to cut Moonfire – the debut that went on to net five ARIA awards including Album of the Year. Soon afterwards – amid an avalanche of tour dates and deafening praise for that record – Hosking started work on new material.
“Nashville was an interesting experience and at times was quite challenging… I think that in itself acted as motivation to make sure that next time we did it, we could really do it the way we wanted to do it. I figured the earlier I could start working on that, the better the record would be.”
‘Stranger’ was the first of these tunes that makes it to Harlequin Dream; a lilting ballad built on simple guitar arpeggios and vocal harmony. ‘Three Headed Woman’ came next – the rhythm section taking charge this time, boosted by the addition of new bassist David Symes. Crucially, at no stage did the band feel undue pressure to reproduce Moonfire, successful though it was.
“We were asked the same question off the back of the [With Emperor Antarctica] EP, going into the [first] record, and I think you want to just take that in your stride. If you’re going to do this as a career, that’s just part and parcel of the job, that there’s always pressure. This is our livelihood and this is what we do … if pressure is based upon the fact that your last record was successful, that’s a fairly good problem to have (laughs).”
Put together in a number of sessions over eight months at Sydney’s Alberts Studio, Harlequin Dream was as much about getting back to normality as anything else. “There was a lot of collaborative discussion around all this, and as a band we hit a great point where it all made sense to do it at home. But on a personal level, one of the things I realised was: working overseas and working with an international producer is fantastic, [but] the danger is, you don’t want to lose the personality of the band,” says Hosking. “This time round, there was an urge to drive this ourselves, and in doing that, let’s remove all romanticism from this process and just get in there … enjoy recording, and do it in a way where we didn’t feel pressured, do it in a place – don’t get me wrong, Alberts Studio is amazing, it’s a fantastic space, but it’s not ostentatious, it’s not intimidating and I think that was a really healthy step for us going into this record.”
A poignant early passage on the album is ‘Old Town Blues’, in which Hosking sings: “I want to be an old man too / I want to be a role model to my kids”. He recalls a dark period on tour in Europe. “I think we had four or five days off and we went across to Prague in between shows … I was exhausted. I hit a point where I just didn’t want to be there – and you get used to that on the road, but it really just knocked me around, and that was the song I wrote at that moment. I had this overwhelming thought of: what happens if you feel like this and you’ve got kids and a family and you can’t just sit in a hotel room with a guitar and indulge in this? So I think the end of that song, or that line, is a sense of pining … to be responsible and look after the people I need to look after.”
The album title itself, meanwhile, is lifted from the song of its same name. “The whole idea of ‘Harlequin Dream’ may have just fallen out of my mouth when I was writing that song – and I definitely had to Google ‘harlequin’ to find out what the fuck it was … but it seemed to make sense,” says Hosking. “That song is balanced between giving yourself over to what is an exciting, creative world to live in, in terms of what we do and being able to write and play music, but there’s also a slightly cynical side to it as well … and maybe the record is also a little bit about that. At times that has its highs and it’s a fantastic journey, and other times that means a lot of sacrifice and hurting people close to you because you’re never at home, or turning introverted for two weeks because you’re not talking to anyone, you’re playing guitar.”
And then you’re on stage, with thousands of people yelling your lyrics back to you – as is certain to happen on the band’s album launch tour this spring? “That’s it, yeah,” says Hosking, perking up at the thought. “It’s an interesting life we get to lead.”
BY CHRIS MARTIN