He took his sweet time with it, but late last year Sydney songwriter Michael P Cullen released his second solo LP,True Believer– a whopping 13 years after his first solo album,Love Transmitter.
A lot of things changed in Cullen’s life along the way, but the two releases possess a range of shared qualities. For instance, both albums were recorded and produced by Tim Powles, drummer and occasional vocalist for The Church. The songs still revolve around Cullen’s baritone vocals and dark, figurative lyricism, and his songwriting still gives a nod to such iconic performers as Nick Cave, Rowland S. Howard, Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, The Go-Betweens and The Smiths.
Despite being deeply fascinated with several of the aforementioned artists since a young age, Cullen’s creative motivation has a more primal origin. “I think that urge comes from the need to say something, it comes from within,” he says. “But when it comes, the influences you have absorbed over the years have some bearing on how you express yourself.
“So the fact that The Go-Betweens’ Before Hollywood was on high rotation in my basement flat in Bondi Junction in 1983 – alongside Treeless Plain by The Triffids and Seance by The Church – means that some of that will come out. And as albums like [Leonard Cohen’s] Songs From A Room, [AC/DC’s] Let There Be Rock, [David Bowie’s] Hunky Dory, [Elvis Costello’s] This Year’s Model and The Beatles’ Blue Album have all meant a lot to me over the years, you are going to get some of that too. We are all products of our influences up to a point, I think.”
Cullen clearly has a solid foundation of influences and musical knowledge to invoke whenever his creative practice hits a wall. One thing’s for certain, though – he’s not trying to align himself with many contemporary songwriters.
“It doesn’t seem like much I have heard in the last 20 years has had much influence on my writing, even if I have enjoyed it a lot,” Cullen says. “I am not sure if that is a comment on me or on music from the last 20 years. I have taken an interest in a lot of things, but for me, and with regard to contemporary rock and pop music, it has seemed like the law of diminishing returns. Of course, I just may not be able to tell yet if, say for example, Radiohead has had any influence on me.”
Prior to emerging as a solo performer, Cullen played in various Sydney post-punk bands, including The Hardheads and Watershed. But these days, any lucrative career ambitions have receded and songwriting fulfils a fairly critical emotional outlet. However, the significance of the feelings explored in his music isn’t always immediately apparent.
“I have found that the songs express my life, but with no respect to the rules of time and no concession to my current state of mind,” he says. “They may be historical or they may be predictive, and I may not actually know which is actually the case when I am writing them. Then years later it all starts to make sense.”
Given the massive distance between his two solo releases, one wonders whether Cullen’s songwriting proclivity has slowed down in recent years. “I feel that the reservoir is always fermenting inside you as you go about the business of life,” he says, “and then when a deadline is applied – for example, ‘We are going to start recording this album in three months’ – I get to work converting the pipeline into songs. I do not know when I will run out of things to say, but when I do it will be very easy to be quiet.”
For the time being, however, Cullen is getting ready to make some noise. 12 months on from True Believer’s release, he is set to premiere the material live at a one-off Sydney show next weekend. He’ll be re-presenting the album alongside backing band The Soul Searchers and his long-time accomplice, Powles.
“Tim put The Soul Searchers together with some guys he met on the road in America. It’s like this amazing unknown band, these guys walking the back roads carrying their guitars in battered old cases. I was always waiting for them to arrive – I just didn’t know when they would get here. And now they have.”
In terms of Cullen’s vocal delivery and the relatively stripped-back arrangements, True Believer and Love Transmitter are somewhat raw recordings. However, they’re both the product of much care and attention to detail. It’s been a long stage absence for Cullen, and he’s seizing the opportunity to bring new life to these songs.
“Turning what was created in open-ended recording sessions over a number of years into something that can be recreated onstage by a five-piece band in a one-and-a-half-hour set is a bit of work, to be sure. But it’s the best kind of work and The Soul Searchers are pushing me and making me think. They bring their own energy and life’s experience to a set of songs about life’s twists and turns. So it’s fresh and exciting for me and I hope it will be a truly memorable experience for everyone on the night.”