To create – alone, on the smallest of budgets, and within one year – a full-length album offering an honest, personal description of the emotional journey into love and back
The best music takes the listener on an emotional journey.
I’ve always loved concept albums – albums which are strong enough to carry a single story or theme from beginning to end.
It’s a format that allows for a deeper emotional journey, with the time and space to explore bigger ideas.
One of the most powerful emotional journeys we can undertake as human beings is the journey into love and back. It amazes me that (to the best of my knowledge) it’s journey that has never been mapped out musically.
There are countless love songs and breakup songs, of course – but there’s so much more to the journey than that. What happens between the love song and the breakup song? How does the story begin, and how does it ultimately end?
When I was a child, I loved writing poetry. While it isn’t a particularly popular thing for a boy to do, I was fortunate to have the support of my parents and teachers (and even won an award or two).
As a teenager I began writing songs and, in my early twenties, briefly wrote for a band. A lot of people know that. What few people know is, I never stopped writing songs.
I love a good challenge – so I decided to write my own concept album. I wanted to describe, lyrically, the full cycle of romantic love – the emotional journey there and back.
That was seventeen years ago.
Today, for the first time, I’d like to share the results.
One day in September 2001 – not long after the twin towers collapsed in New York – my then-partner sent me a text message which simply said:
“you are my beautiful place”
That line inspired a song, and I began to write an album around it.
The album – entitled ‘You Are My Beautiful Place’ – was written within the year. It was good, but it wasn’t great. I kept the title track, and threw the rest away.
In 2005, I wrote a second incarnation of the album, which I ultimately called ‘Hearts Don’t Break’.
The name came from a lyric that sits on the dividing line of the album, halfway between romance and heartbreak. It was intended to encapsulate the hope, love, and heartache at the core of the album.
The whole journey was there – a false start, the first meeting, the struggle between hope and hesitation, the tumble into the blissful heart of love, the gradual erosion and sudden collapse, the recriminations and self-reproach, the emptiness beyond love, and the tender hope for a new beginning.
(The only major piece missing was jealousy – which, fortunately, is something I didn’t feel sufficiently experienced to write a song about).
It’s an emotional journey that normally spans years, and I’d succeeded in boiling it down to less than an hour.
In completing the lyrics, I’d achieved my goal – so I stopped, and put the project away.
I was a songwriter, not a musician, and had no intention of becoming one. I hadn’t written the album for, or about, any particular person. I’d written it about love itself, for the sake of the challenge – that’s all.
Even if I had possessed the talent, instruments, and equipment to record the album (and I had none of those things), I would have been very reluctant to do so.
‘Hearts Don’t Break’ had its roots in some deeply personal experiences, and I’d written it in a very open, vulnerable way. As someone who prefers their privacy, I knew that sharing the album publicly would be one of the most difficult things I could ever do.
So I didn’t share it, in any form.
Nobody else knew, or even suspected, the project existed – and that was perfectly fine with me.
Twelve years passed.
In 2017, Ed Sheeran released a (very different) song called ‘Hearts Don’t Break Around Here’, which reminded me of the album I’d once written and left tucked away somewhere.
That September, after 4.5 years of intensive work on ‘The Human, Earth Project’, I finished editing our feature documentary, ‘Sisters For Sale’, and I found myself with a little free time.
Within weeks, the #metoo movement exploded across social media, and I discovered my attitude towards the album had changed.
We men are rarely encouraged to express our emotions, and particularly not in a public way. That toxic culture of emotional repression leads to dysfunctional relationships, violence and abuse, and many of the issues behind the #metoo movement.
(As a side note: I don’t agree with the term “the #metoo movement”. It has become a cute little rug for us to sweep all sorts of nasty things under. We should call it what it is – a pandemic of sexual mistreatment of women. It’s not as catchy, I know, but it doesn’t hide things nearly so well.)
As a man, it’s easy to remain silent, and most of us are – but our culture is the sum of our individual behaviours, and our silence only perpetuates a culture which harms both women and men.
If, in some small way, I could help to change that culture by sharing my own personal thoughts and feelings, I felt I had a responsibility to do so, regardless of how personally difficult it might be.
Sixteen years after the project first began, I decided to record and release ‘Hearts Don’t Break’.
It was easier said than done.
I had the lyrics and had roughed out some of the chords on guitar, but I still needed to write most of the music, and to record and mix the album.
‘Sisters For Sale’ has been a very public project, and has involved the coordination of countless people from all over the world. The production of ‘Hearts Don’t Break’ was to be the polar opposite – I would do it entirely alone, without telling anyone.
As much as I enjoy a challenge, this one seemed nearly impossible. I couldn’t sing, and had only the most rudimentary guitar and piano skills. I had few instruments, and no budget (for the past four years, I’d taken only a small stipend to cover my basic living costs) – and there I was, planning to record and produce an entire concept album singlehandedly.
I had to do all of the artwork (and this little website) myself, too.
The idea of releasing the album publicly terrified me, and I knew I would delay that moment (consciously or otherwise) for as long as possible.
As if production of the album wasn’t going to be challenging enough already, I set a hard deadline to force myself to finish it. It had already been sixteen years since I’d begun the project. I gave myself exactly one year to finish it.
It wasn’t as though I had a full year to dedicate to the album, either. All I’d have was whatever time I could scrounge around my other (often very demanding) commitments with ‘The Human, Earth Project’ – we were working on the ‘Sisters For Sale’ documentary, soundtrack, podcast, and book simultaneously.
With that kind of workload, it didn’t seem that the addition of an album would really make much difference – and so I set to work.
I don’t care much for New Year’s resolutions, but the day of my decision happened to be 30th December 2017. Despite all of the obvious difficulties – despite even myself – I was determined to finish and release ‘Hearts Don’t Break’ in 2018.
So, here we are.
The nuts and bolts
Fortunately, from my work on ‘Sisters For Sale’, I already had the recording equipment and mixing software I needed.
Between them, my friends and family had a reasonable collection of musical instruments which I was able to borrow or otherwise access. Other instruments I had already, or was able to buy second-hand.
Altogether, there were three guitars (two electric, one acoustic), a piano, a 45-year-old electric organ, a 130-year-old concertina, a harmonica, a toy xylophone, and various percussion instruments (a drum kit, castanets, a tambourine, and some bells).
I had a bedroom in a secluded location where I could record most of the album. (As you can imagine, it has since become rather crowded with instruments).
There’s a huge amount of production work that goes into an album – but nowhere near as much as a feature film. After ‘Sisters For Sale’, this was a stroll in the park.
It’s been everything a creative project should be – fun, challenging, and rewarding, with only occasional moments of doubting my own sanity.
Not only did I succeed in finishing the album on time, in secret, and for a grand total of AU$69 (US$50 – yes, you read that correctly), but I’m really very proud of what I’ve been able to accomplish. ‘Hearts Don’t Break’ is everything I’d hoped it would be and more.
I want to thank everyone who unwittingly assisted in its production, especially those of you who helped with instruments. (That includes you, Mum – I was using your piano while you were out of town).
The creative process
‘Hearts Don’t Break’ is an eleven-track, 53-minute album, and it’s a very unusual one.
A professional musician has expectations to fulfil, commercial obligations to meet, and wants to ensure their music can be easily reproduced in a live venue.
‘Hearts Don’t Break’ has been created without any of those pressures. I didn’t need to please a crowd, only to create something that satisfied me artistically, which left me free to reimagine what an album might be.
You might be familiar with the music of Queen – stadium-sized, foot-stomping singalongs powered by epic guitars, monster drums, and Freddie Mercury’s phenomenal set of lungs.
‘Hearts Don’t Break’ is the exact opposite of all that.
I’ve had plenty of amazing musical experiences at pubs and clubs, concerts and festivals – but most of my adult life has been spent living and travelling around the world, where my headphones helped provide a little home-away-from-home for me.
That’s what I’ve worked to create here. ‘Hearts Don’t Break’ is not intended as entertainment, but as an intimate personal connection. It’s a familiar space you can return to at any time, wherever you might be.
Readily-available technology means that anyone can now make pitch-perfect music timed with millisecond precision. While many musicians take full advantage of that fact, I wanted a sound that was more real and human.
Most music follows highly predictable patterns, and it needs to – so that the band can play together, and others can dance. Both of those things were irrelevant here.
Rather than relying on more predictable rhythms, I made the unusual decision to incorporate a storyteller’s sense of structure and timing into the music.
Drums – which form the backbone of most music – have been used very judiciously. Instead, the album revolves around the guitar and, occasionally, the piano.
The tracks are mostly slow and understated (though, as in any romantic relationship, there are a few dramatic moments). I worked hard to give each track its own distinctive sound and character, while retaining a sense of the album as a whole.
There are some very unusual and surprising stories behind this album. The events that inspired these songs include some of the highest, lowest, and strangest moments of my life.
At some point I’ll write and share those stories with you. For now, you can hear the album itself.
For the longest time, this album has been mine alone, and I’ve been perfectly happy that way. It’s not an easy thing for me to share, but we’ve come this far, and I can hardly change my mind now, can I?
(There’s a part of me still saying YES).
If you’re an analyse-the-guitar-solos kind of person, this is not the album for you. If you’re a listen-to-the-lyrics kind of person, I think you’ll find it a fascinating journey.
We’re used to hearing radio-friendly songs whose levels are constantly pushed to the limits, demanding minimal engagement from the listener.
‘Hearts Don’t Break’ is different: it’s an album for the podcast generation, and has been mixed for headphones. It will sound lousy through speakers, and if you try to listen to it somewhere noisy, you’ll be missing out.
You can listen to the entire album here. I’ve put together a 52-page booklet of lyrics and photography to go with it. If you like the music, I hope you’ll consider buying a copy.
I’m fortunate to count amongst my friends an amazing human being named Fausto De Poi, who has just cycled all the way to Kathmandu from his village in the mountains of northern Italy, to raise funds for post-earthquake reconstruction in Nepal.
Fausto doesn’t know it yet, but he’ll be getting half of all proceeds from the album this month.
Only one of these songs has ever been performed live, only once, and for only one person – and that was over a decade ago.
I have no intention of promoting or performing this album anywhere. If you like it, please tell your friends – that’s the only way anyone will hear about it.
Thanks for listening,
6th December 2018
Update: 12th December 2018
Since sharing this project last week, I’ve received some really beautiful messages of support and praise for the music and the project itself, and I want to thank you.
Because the album was produced in secret, I didn’t have any feedback until after it was released. While it was never intended to be mixed conventionally, I’ve now realised that the vocals (which in many ways are the core of the album) aren’t always as clear and easy to follow as I’d thought.
When I have a little time (hopefully in the next week or so), I’ll adjust the mix to fix that up. In the meantime, I’ve left the current version online, and will let you know when the new version is available.
Thank you to those who gave their unwitting assistance:
Melissa Adams, Katie Carriero, Judith Cooper, Luciano Formicola, Jerry Geraldi, Geoffrey Hindmarsh, Astrid Hofer, J, Keith Randall, Susan Randall, Laura Rodriguez Jarillo, Andrew Sheldon, Karina Thomson, and Benjamin Warren.
This album owes a debt of gratitude to the work and ideas of:
Merrilyn Bajelis, the Beatles, David Bowie, Kimya Dawson, Craig Finn, Mark Hogancamp, Kerry Negline, Conor Oberst, Kaitlin Prest, Bob Thompson, and Roger Waters.
Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below – I’ll be curious to hear what your favourite track is 🙂
(Criticism is fine, but anything I consider abusive or hurtful will be removed)
(‘Hearts Don’t Break’ is not actually associated in any way with ‘The Human, Earth Project’ – it’s just at the same web address for the moment because that was the simplest place to put it!)