Carus Thompson is a storyteller.
Sure, the decorated Australian musician might also be an accomplished guitarist, but more than anything else, what Thompson does is tell tales. His new record, Island, is a testament to that fact: a rich catalogue of lives lived and lost, full of the stark honesty that has long defined his work.
Indeed, the stories in Island are so well-told that one could be forgiven for assuming the album is a work of autobiography. But, as it turns out, that is far from the case.
“Actually, only three of the songs on the album are strictly personal,” Thompson explains. “The rest are all narratives. Early on I decided I wanted Island to be a kind of concept album that talked about modern Australia. I really wanted to comment and document on what I see as an incredibly uncompassionate and sad time in this country’s history, and I wanted to write small, suburban stories with characters and settings that dealt with this. That’s where the central theme of isolation comes from.”
It would be wrong to suggest that Island is a depressing listen – Thompson is too good at writing uplifting melodies for that to be the case; too ready to embrace the structure of pop music and radio hits – but it’s true that the record deals with some lofty themes, from Australia’s treatment of refugees to the stigma associated with mental illness.
As a matter of fact, the song exploring the former theme is the one of which Thompson is most proud. “‘Reza Berati’ [is] my dedication to the young Iranian asylum seeker who was murdered during the Manus Island riots in 2014,” he says. “It’s such a tragic story, yet I feel his death and the way he died sums up everything that is wrong with the way Australia is dealing with refugees. I hope this song presents what happened in a way so that even the hardest heart would feel something and perhaps ask themselves, ‘Why are we doing this?’”
Thompson also tackles other taboo topics via his song ‘Starved Myself Pretty’, a powder keg of dark melodies, powerful vocal hooks and troubling narrative twists. “The song is an imagined story of a failed X Factor contestant,” Thompson explains. “I wanted it to be a catchy, lyrically sparse pop song that expressed the darkness and sadness of that world. To me these shows take advantage of vulnerable people. They’re so intent on fame and ‘making it’ that they don’t realise that the whole thing is manipulated crap and that the prize of ‘success’ actually isn’t real.
“You’ll have a career for about five seconds. It’s the absolute antithesis of what I’m about. You have to have substance, good songs, real records and you need to learn how to perform the real way – in pubs, night after night, [in front of] small crowds, big crowds, festivals, whatever. That’s the university of live touring and that’ll give you fans that will hang around, long after the TV channel’s been changed.”
To that end, Thompson often seeks inspiration from Australia’s great songwriters, and he frequently finds himself attracted to the work of that true poet of the antipodean way of life, Paul Kelly – the man who taught him, ironically enough, how to sing your own stories in someone else’s voice.
“Think of ‘How To Make Gravy’ – the story is so vivid you’d swear he’d been to prison,” Thompson says. “Whether a song is personal or a narrative, people shouldn’t be able to tell if it’s about you or not. You should be so inside the character that it’s irrelevant.”