Felix Riebl is, first and foremost, a songwriter. While The Cat Empire frontman and now solo artist has the ability to enchant and energise a crowd onstage, there is a kind of magic associated with the quiet of returning to the piano that propels him forward.
“The experience of writing music is a real mystery to me a lot of the time, and it’s also a great preoccupation,” says Riebl. “I wake up in the morning and often go and write songs. Music is one of the most essential forms of movement that I can imagine, and I do a lot of travelling and perform a lot, and as a way of processing that, songs seem to be a great way of continuing that cycle.”
Whether Riebl is working on The Cat Empire or his solo project, his intention is to continue his life as a songwriter. He doesn’t see going solo as a way of making a grand departure from the band that made his name, but rather as an avenue to explore new sounds and techniques in audience engagement. Although his solo performances might be perceived as more personal than the lively festival atmosphere of a Cat Empire show, Riebl makes an important distinction between the two.
“They’re both very emotional experiences for me. The Cat Empire is exuberance and a lot of colour and sweat and that kind of thing, and this … is often more impersonal in a way, less emotional, but more kind of powerful in a closer space, so I can really listen to my voice and the way it works in a much quieter kind of atmosphere.”
Since Riebl first went it alone with the release of his album Into The Rain in 2011, he has been able to take his creativity in a new direction, and he’s done the same again with his new EP, Lonely Truth. Now, he explains going from “railing against” his own voice – and even being embarrassed by it at times – to embracing the unique ways he can shape and phrase his instrument. Lonely Truth sees Riebl strive to create natural, heartfelt songs with simple storytelling – as in the track ‘Crocodiles’, which is something of a travel diary from a recent trip to East Timor.
“When I was there, I couldn’t make sense of much, to be honest,” he says. “It was really just one set of images after the next. I met some wonderful people but I couldn’t really place myself there, but as soon as I came back, I could remember a lot more and make something of those disparate things that had happened.”
Riebl is no stranger to travelling, having toured all over the world and drawn musical influence from destinations as far and wide as South America and Europe. But his East Timor visit made him question the real purpose of travelling to distant places with the band, and whether he’s now reliant on going to new locations to write.
“It made me think of all of the travelling I do as a band in The Cat Empire – so much of it is mindless travel, getting from one place to the next. We see a lot of places, but really the true travelling happens onstage once you begin a song. I really associate performing with kind of a movement, and that’s the point when all of the travelling makes sense, when things come into focus.”
2016 will certainly be a busy year for Riebl, with both a Cat Empire album and a new solo record to share. He expects that his forthcoming effort will take his sound in a new direction again, as he’s found himself writing about some unusual topics.
“It’s probably more layered than what I’ve done in the past in terms of an album. I’ve been very dedicated to natural sounds before now, but I’m really excited about this one – it feels unexpected, and to be surprised in your work is one of the best things, I think.”
In the meantime, he’s preparing a band and some special guest musicians for his upcoming EP launch show at The Basement. For those who are accustomed to the high-energy antics of The Cat Empire and unsure of what to expect, Riebl’s passion for songwriting and sharp self-awareness would suggest you’re in for a treat.
“The Cat Empire is an outward band – it has horns, a lot of rhythm, and a lot of combustion onstage, and there’s all those contrasts. With my show and my voice in this context, it’s really about doing the opposite. It’s very intimate and it’s very close – it draws the space differently. It brings people in as opposed to battering them out.”