At first glance, Toby Martin may appear to be just your run-of-the-mill academic: a scruffy, wild-haired intellectual with flecks of grey beginning to spread from his temples.
He teaches music at the University of Huddersfield in the United Kingdom. But more likely, you know him as the frontman of the band Youth Group. Their cover of the Alphaville song ‘Forever Young’ featured on the soundtrack to popular TV show The O.C. in the mid-2000s – and simultaneously, became the theme song to a generation.
Now, Martin is due to release a new solo record, Songs From Northam Avenue. It’s an unusual but soulful folk album inspired by time spent in Bankstown in Sydney’s south-west.
“Limitations are extremely good for creativity,” Martin says. “We were limited. We didn’t have a big budget for Songs From Northam Avenue and we decided to spend the money on a studio for three days. So we had to do it in that time. I think if we were making an album for radio it would be different, but since we didn’t have to worry about that, we did what we wanted to.”
Martin wrote the songs as part of a collaboration with Urban Theatre Projects in 2013. The idea was for an artist to set up their equipment in the front yard of a Bankstown local’s house and devise a project. Martin’s project was music, and he developed an unusual but friendly relationship with the property owners.
“I’m still friends with them. It’s impossible not to get to know them, but I think you’ve got to be careful not to intrude too much in that situation. You get to know people like a neighbour would. You have lots of conversations with them, but there is that line you don’t really cross. I was at two houses and a lot of their anecdotes and the things we talked about made it into the music.”
Martin has close ties to Bankstown himself. His grandfather originally emigrated to Australia in the 1940s, and he sees Bankstown as a vibrant multicultural hub where it’s impossible not to encounter people from vastly different cultures and places.
“If you read the tabloids you might not get that opinion, but it’s such a nice, neighbourly place. I’ve always really liked writing about place, landscape and geography. I love the specificity of writing about real places and I think it makes songs sound real. I also like the contrast between very ordinary details, like the name of the street or the shop you go to, with some more internal emotional drama going on. That’s kind of what I was going for.”
With the inspiration for Martin’s album being the people and places around Bankstown, a problem arose. Martin’s subjects were around him every day – they would inevitably recognise themselves in his songs, and so would their friends.
“There’s a song called ‘Dreams In German’ which is based a little bit on one of my hosts,” Martin explains. “I did a little gig in a shop in Bankstown and he came along. When I played the song, his daughter was like, ‘Hey Dad, this song’s about you,’ and he was like, ‘Oh, is it? I didn’t even realise.’
“I think it’s funny. You worry about people hearing the music and not being happy about aspects of their lives being represented in song, but sometimes they go along with the whole song and don’t even think about it.”