Since releasing their self-titled debut album in 1978, Midnight Oil have become one of the most celebrated bands ever to emerge from Australia, winning numerous ARIA awards (the Australian equivalent to the Grammy awards). Their albums Diesel and Dust (1987) and Blue Sky Mining (1990) made them international superstars thanks to their melodic rock and pointed political-minded lyrics on hits such as “Beds Are Burning.” And they’re still going strong: in October, they put out The Makarrata Project EP, and they plan to release a new full length studio album in 2021.
Even with all that success, Midnight Oil’s drummer and founding member Rob Hirst (who is also one of the main songwriters in the band) admits that he still hasn’t found a sure-fire formula for writing a hit. “Oh, it’s a complete mystery, isn’t it?” he says with a laugh, calling from his home in Sydney. “There’s so much alchemy involved. So much chemistry comes into play.”
Still, Hirst does offer some practical advice to aspiring songwriters: “Of course, the best thing is to just keep doing it. If you’re lucky, one in fifty songs – or one in a hundred songs – might have just that right combination of poetry and intent, instrumentation, arrangement, production, mixing, mastering…all the things that go into making a great song,” he says.
This type of prolific output is easier, Hirst says, if you consistently pay attention to potential sources of inspiration: “Continue to make notes of what people say, of what you read, of what you hear, so when it comes time to write songs, you’ve actually got a host of stuff to draw from, rather than just looking at a blank page.”
Hirst says another trick to spark ideas is switching instruments – even if you’re not as skilled at playing that way: “I’m a very inexpert guitar player, but I’ve got a lovely old Martin guitar. Because it’s such a beautiful old instrument, I love picking it up and fiddling around all the time,” he says. “Sometimes, it’s the mistakes I make which are the most compelling and most interesting things that I do from a songwriting point of view.
“Songwriting still remains this marvelous mystery,” Hirst continues. “It’s still something I try to do almost every day: sit down with that old Martin guitar and my [writing] pad and see what comes along. It’s the thing that intrigues me most. And I think it’s the thing that’s most often forgotten – I think a lot of people don’t really know the hard graft and the long haul that it takes to get really great songs out.”
More information about Midnight Oil’s latest release, The Makarrata Project, is available at https://www.midnightoil.com/the-makarrata-project-out-now/