“I’m a songwriter. Above all, that’s what I am. Everything else – musician or bass player or singer – is just necessary because of that,” says Steve Kilbey during an early morning call from his home in New South Wales, Australia.
Kilbey has certainly proven his songwriting skills during his lengthy and prolific career. In 1980, he co-founded the alternative rock band The Church, and has since served as their singer/bassist through 25 studio albums. He co-wrote their smash international hit single “Under the Milky Way” (1988), which continues as a cultural touchstone to this day. He’s also been a producer, as well as a member of a long list of side projects. As a solo artist, he has a dozen solo EPs and albums, including Eleven Women, his latest full-length album, which he released on September 4.
Even at this stage of his career, Kilbey is still seeking ways to shake things up with his craft, though. “I announced to the world I was going to write an album in a week,” he says of Eleven Women’s creation earlier this year. “That was on a Monday. By Thursday, I hadn’t done anything. A friend of mine said, ‘Shouldn’t you do something? You’ve got to write more than two songs a day now.’ So I smoked a joint and I picked up my guitar and bang bang bang – I wrote three songs like that.” He kept up this pace for the rest of the week, meeting his self-imposed deadline with ease.
Kilbey says this frenetic writing style has been the norm for him throughout his career – and in fact, he can often find it difficult to capture his ideas quickly enough. “I want to get that melody down because the whole thing is very fragile, and comes incredibly fast.,” he says. “Whatever it is that’s dictating the words is always three or four steps ahead of me, and I can become really viciously angry if someone interrupts me. If someone goes, ‘Hey, you want a coffee?’ I’ll go, ‘Don’t interrupt me now!’ It’s incredibly delicate.
Kilbey says he’s not sure what it is that enables him to write like this. “Sometimes I think it’s like an angel. Sometimes I think it’s just my own mind, my own subconscious. Sometimes I think it’s the collective human subconscious. It just gives me everything I want, and I rarely struggle.”
This is not to say Kilbey hasn’t worked hard at perfecting his art. As a teenager, he admired The Beatles, Marc Bolan, David Bowie and Bob Dylan – but he discovered that it was not going to be easy to create his own music that was on the same level as what those artists did.
“I wanted to be a songwriter – I was so frustrated,” Kilbey says. “I felt like, ‘Why can’t I do this? What is it that’s stopping me?’ Unfortunately for me, I had to put a lot of work in. I had to work and work and work at it. And then eventually, in my mid-twenties, I broke through to the gift that had been waiting for me all along.”
As for what kept Kilbey going through that decade-long songwriting apprenticeship, he says it was “Stubbornness. Perseverance.” When asked to elaborate, he says, “Imagine I’m a young man and I see a girl on the street and I go up and give her a bunch of flowers and say, ‘Would you go out with me?’ She says no. Then I see her the next day. She says no. After ten years, one day I give her a bunch of flowers and she says, ‘All right, I will go out now because I admire your persistence.’ Then I can show her everything that I have. I think [songwriting] was like that for me. I was just stupidly, obstinately, stubbornly persistent and I kept going.”
Shortly after this breakthrough, in 1980, Kilbey formed The Church in Sydney, Australia, and they released their debut album, Of Skins and Heart, the following year. By their fourth album, Heyday (1985), they were established as one of the most popular bands in their homeland, lauded for their evocative, cinematic music, as well as Kilbey’s velvet baritone and beautifully poetic lyrics. Their 1988 album Starfish, containing the shimmering single “Under the Milky Way,” became the breakthrough they needed, with certified gold album sales in the U.S. Since then, they have continued to achieve success, particularly in Australia, where they were inducted into that country’s prestigious ARIA Hall of Fame in 2010.
Kilbey’s solo career has run concurrent with his work with The Church: he released his first solo album, Unearthed, in 1986. With this work, he explores more esoteric musical territory. Eleven Women, for example, focuses on a different female theme with each track – but these aren’t all standard love songs; many contain unexpected, imaginative twists, such as “Birdeen,” which is about “a greedy lorikeet with a sweet tooth.”
As with the quick way in which Kilbey wrote these new songs, he also didn’t let his backing band linger for long on their parts, either. “I make them work fast,” he says. “They’re not going to sit in the studio for hours and hours pontificating and playing pinball and waiting for pizzas to be delivered. It’s like, ‘You’re up: go in there and do it.’ I usually take the first or second take.” He does this, he says, because “there’s an incredible joy about not knowing something all the way.”
Conversely, Kilbey says, “There’s an incredibly sludgy, boring feeling that comes in with a piece of music when you played it five million times. This is what happened when The Church recorded Starfish. We were in a room for a month before we even got near the studio, drilling the songs over and over and over. What was the point in that? By the time we got in there, we hated the songs. We were dreading making a mistake and having to do it all over again. And then I had to sing them and sing them.” He sighs at the memory.
But Kilbey brightens when he returns to discussing his latest release. “Eleven Women is the best album I’ve ever made with anybody,” he says. “With The Church, with any of my collaborators. If I met someone who said, ‘I don’t know who you are, I don’t know what you do – just give me one record [of yours] to listen to,’ I’d give them that and say, ‘Here is all the best things I can do.’”
Still, Kilbey admits, he knows this satisfaction won’t last for long before he feels the urge to create the next thing. “Every time I do it, a voice says, ‘Well, you did that one, but can you do another one?’” he says of songwriting. “So I’m still challenging myself all the time. I’m curious what else is in my mind. And also, I’m getting pretty old – I’m 66 – so I very well could drop off my perch at any moment, so I want to get it all out there before I go. Get all the songs out of my head and leave them behind. I made this my life’s work.”