In 2017, Tim Minchin was in Los Angeles, working on the most high-profile project of his career – co-writing, co-directing and being the executive producer of Larrikins, a $90 million DreamWorks animated musical about an animal adventure in the Australian Outback. On board as voice actors were fellow Aussie stars Hugh Jackman, Naomi Watts and Margot Robbie. Minchin had spent four years on the project, putting his lucrative career as a touring comedian-musician on hold and turning down other TV and theater opportunities along the way. And then Universal acquired DreamWorks, and unceremoniously pulled the plug on the film.
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“I was devastated,” Minchin tells American Songwriter. “I’d come to Hollywood with a Pollyanna-ish belief that, despite all those stories about its corrupting influence, that it wouldn’t happen to me because I have an infinite amount of enthusiasm and passion. But I learned that Hollywood doesn’t work like that. Wherever art starts getting into the tens of millions, it becomes indistinguishable from commerce. I found it very hard to contextualize losing four years of work. And they said, ‘But you got paid out really well.’ I’m like, ‘I don’t give a shit. I make much more money touring. I’m here for the project. Don’t you understand that some people just make stuff because it’s a good story to tell?’ I felt so naive saying that in Hollywood. They’re like, ‘We don’t understand what language you’re speaking.’ They’re not bad people. Their job is the bottom line. Sadly, Universal has made it impossible for anyone else to ever finish the movie. I said, ‘But why?’ ”Schmuck insurance,’ they said. As in, if someone else made a success of it, they’d look like schmucks.”
Three years on, there’s no trace of bitterness in Minchin’s voice as he relates this story over a video call. With his 2020 tour cut short because of the pandemic, he’s home in Australia, promoting a new album, Apart Together, and Upright, the Sundance TV series he both conceived and stars in. Both explore what he calls “my obsession – the line between comedy and tragedy that life treads.” Wearing oversized, black-framed glasses and a hoodie, with his long hair erupting out of a knit cap, the 44-year-old polymath is candid, self-effacing and very funny. And it’s his humor that saved him.
“I try to maintain a sense of humor about everything. But for a few months, I did feel like Hollywood had destroyed my mojo. Part of my brain knew it wasn’t real. But I had this pervasive thought that I’d done a bit of an Icarus. I’d gone up and up and up and I got too ambitious and I got burned. Maybe that was my 10 years of creativity.”
Those 10 years, from 2007-2017, were definitely up and creative, with two Broadway musicals — the Tony-winning Matilda and Groundhog Day — two hit Netflix specials, YouTube videos with millions of views, and sold-out tours full of his raucously funny songs about inflatable dolls, supermarket bags, religious hypocrisy and cheese, all delivered with a mascaraed wink and sly smile.
Yet, Minchin had a nagging sense that he’d gotten sidetracked from his original dream.
“Years ago, I realized that my songs were quite silly and when I got on stage, I made people laugh,” he says. “I decided I would concentrate on my quirkier stuff and do it as part of a cabaret show, with songs, sketches and poems. I’m an actor as well, so I was doing little characters. Suddenly, I was on this path. From 2004 to 2008, I went from playing to 13 people in a little bar in Melbourne to selling out the Royal Albert Hall with a symphony orchestra.
“All along, I was like, ‘Hold on, I was meant to be making records.’ I was just putting the comedy over here so I could get back to being a singer-songwriter. All through that time, I was putting my more serious ballads like ‘White Wine in the Sun’ and ‘You Grew On Me’ in my shows. Those songs could be on the new record. Without a doubt, if I’m special at all, it’s funny-funny-wordy-wordy complex musical satire. I say that without claiming that it’s good. I’m just saying that it sets me apart. I’m probably best at that, but I’m not most interested in that. I’m not that interested in comedy as a form. I’m very interested in theater, and very interested in songwriting. For Apart Together, I deliberately turned off the comedy tap, because comedy belongs on the stage for me. It’s a live form, about timing and facial expressions and subversion of expectations. It doesn’t belong on studio albums.”
Apart Together is also his first album not connected to a TV special or musical theater production. Full of gravity-defying balladry and beautifully observed moments, it’s a song suite that explores the nature of time. “Summer Romance” is about letting go of the passing of seasons. “Absence of You” is about a couple spending time apart. And “Apart Together” is about how entropy and decay can deepen love.
“It’s just a middle-class, middle-aged crisis about the passage of time,” Minchin says with a smile. “It all holds together with a sense of absence and love and loss, and my incredible discomfort with realizing how fast time is passing me by. Which is something people our age realize. You look up in your 40s and 50s, and you’re like, ‘Shit, I’ve been heading towards something and now it’s behind me.’ It’s a bit dated probably. I like to say it’s a timeless record about time.”
At the heart of the album are two stunning songs that address his messy breakup with Hollywood — “Airport Piano” and “Leaving L.A.” The latter, a four-minute movie, captures Tinseltown in such finely-drawn lyrics as:
And the actors at Gratitude drinking undrinkable juice
And the agents taking 10 percent in their sneakers and suits
And the writers in their Teslas trying to punch up Act One
Driving home on the 101 in the relentless fucking sun
And the needy and the greedy and the homeless and horny
And the deals done on treadmills at 10 to 6 in the morning
“I’ve let my inner Randy Newman out,” Minchin says with a laugh. “Listening to Randy, I thought, ‘Oh, you’re allowed to write theatrical, storytelling songs.’ Interestingly, Randy has written a lot for theater and film. Once I’d written that song and ‘I’ll Take Lonely Tonight,’ which are built on old standard-y jazz kind of movement, I kind of found this place where I was allowed to be a mature songwriter.”
Getting to that place helped him refocus on his main goal as a songwriter. “I’m interested in a beautiful turn of phrase that arrests you with simplicity,” Minchin says. “Not so much a bon mot or a fridge magnet. It’s not the expression that everyone knows. The job of the artist is to illuminate universal or at least common things in a simple way that no one has ever done it before.”
As an example, in “I’ll Take Lonely Tonight,” a ballad about successfully resisting the temptation of an affair on the road, Minchin illuminates his choice with a beautifully mundane image of ending the night alone on a hotel bed, “with only the wrappers of Pringles and Snickers for which to atone.”
“That’s my favorite line on the entire album, because it just tumbles over itself very nicely,” Minchin says. “It manages to be a little bit clever, with a very formal syntax. It has a half-internal rhyme, with ‘the wrappers of Pringles and Snickers.’ Up against the gods who resisted temptation that I list earlier in the song, Odysseus and Jesus, it’s so mundane. You feel like you need to atone for the snacks you’ve eaten. But it’s in contrast to the thing that you’d have to atone for if you’d cheated or fucked up your marriage. That feels like a good lyric to me. That’s what I’m really aiming for as a writer.”
Minchin admits that following his theatrical instincts and inner Randy Newman may keep him out of sync with today’s mainstream pop. “It’s a really nice thing to be 40-something and having written hundreds of songs and I don’t need this album to sell millions of copies or go on the radio to put food on my table,” he says. “At some point, we were talking about, ‘How am I going to get my songs on the radio? Surely, I’m a good enough songwriter and I have a big enough audience that I can do that.’ And I started trying to whittle my songs down to under three and a half minutes. Then I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m going to do the opposite, because if I chase radio, I’m going to destroy what’s good about my work.’”
As a companion piece to Apart Together, his TV series Upright beautifully walks that tightrope between comedy and tragedy. It’s the story of two misfits thrown together by chance in the Australian desert, trying to transport a precious upright piano across the country. “It’s probably the thing I’m proudest of making ever,” says Minchin. “It’s about the bad decisions you make being the seeds of future good things. It has a lot of sadness and homecoming and disconnection and disassociation. It’s about teetering on either side of the knife edge, and somehow finding beauty in what is the pathos of the fact that life isn’t either tragic or comic. It’s both, often in the same breath. I’m very lucky, because I can explore these ideas and I have a fan base that for years has understood that I want them to come with me wherever I go.”
So where will he go next? Though he’s pared down his quadruple-threat status to singer-songwriter and actor for the moment, Minchin remains curious, ever-restless and open to all possibilities.
“I feel like I’m one of the lucky people in the world, to have a vocation,” Minchin says. “My work is incredibly important to me. I was on my way, doing 8,000-to-10,000-seaters as a comedian, and I literally just stopped for eight years. Basically retired. The musical theater thing came along. I definitely could just push in that direction and chase Lin-Manuel (Miranda)’s tail. And even after losing Larrikins, I’m still interested in film. But for now, I’m really enjoying writing and acting on telly, and I could push that way. What I really hope, more than anything, I can do is be at peace. All the studies show that success-chasing doesn’t make you happy. Ambition doesn’t make you happy. What makes you happy is a walk in the woods and hanging out with your kids. So, though I’m wired to be that ambitious guy, I’m constantly trying to mitigate it. I want to be the exception to the rule. I want to be excessive but balanced.”