Australian singer Amy Shark poses for a portrait in Darlinghurst, Sydney. Picture: Brett Costello
Australian singer Amy Shark poses for a portrait in Darlinghurst, Sydney. Picture: Brett Costello

How the ARIAs have gone from pub to pop

AT the 1988 ARIA Awards, the highest selling album award belonged to Icehouse's Man of Colours while that evergreen pop princess Kylie Minogue picked up her first-ever gong for moving mega quantities of her debut single Locomotion.

Only the second year of the annual awards and pop music was outstripping its pub rock rivals.

Fast forward three decades and the only Album of the Year nominee you would tag with a rock label would be Courtney Barnett for her lyrical indie record Tell Me How You Really Feel.

Certainly it deserves to also be up for Best Rock Album, among her nine nominations this year.

And her visceral and consummate live performance challenges any band brandishing guitars in this era of bedroom bangers and song-by-committee studio productions.

Courtney Barnett is the new sound of Australian rock music with an indie pop edge. Picture: Supplied.
Courtney Barnett is the new sound of Australian rock music with an indie pop edge. Picture: Supplied.

But the kind of rock she does - alongside the vast array of Australian artists who fashion their songs with guitars - is a very different sonic beast from that which dominated Australia's pub rock scene from the 1970s to 1990s.

Back then, when admitting you liked Kylie or Tina Arena or Savage Garden over a beer in a hotel would have you mocked mercilessly by the cool police, the ghosts of pub rock and its punk and grunge progeny still loomed large.

Radio and television stations dismissed homegrown pop as amateurish when compared with the big budget releases coming out of America, the UK and Europe, and our music videos would never look as Hollywood as the MTV playlist dominated by international artists.

Amy Shark has captured the world’s attention with her brand of alt-pop. Picture: Brett Costello
Amy Shark has captured the world’s attention with her brand of alt-pop. Picture: Brett Costello

Now, technology has levelled the playing field and thanks to the pop inroads paved by Sia and Gotye, in particular over the past decade, Australian artists are punching well above their weight on the world stage.

The nominations for the 2018 ARIA Awards not only reflect the scale of pop's dominance in Australia but the dizzying diversity of the genre which captures everything from gospel soul to dance, from indie rock to hip hop under its gigantic umbrella.

Amy Shark and her electro-acoustic altpop has nine nominations. Gurrumul's classical meets dreaming stories has seven nominations, as do infectious electropop pioneers PNAU.

The Peking Duk lads have produced world-class dance pop songs. Picture: AAP Image/Claudia Baxter.
The Peking Duk lads have produced world-class dance pop songs. Picture: AAP Image/Claudia Baxter.

The ambitious, genre-bending soundscapes of multi-instrumentalist Tash Sultana's debut album Flow State picked up six nominations while the platinum-plated consistency of dance party boys with heart Peking Duk won them five nominations.

And then there's the globally-embraced slick pop rock of 5 Seconds Of Summer and boldly confessional and unashamedly sexy sounds of Troye Sivan both picking up four nominations.

And then there's the raft of idiosyncratic newcomers including Jack River, Ruel, Odette, Alex Lahey and Mojo Juju, all nominated for Breakthrough Artist.

Teen soul sensation Ruel has blown up globally in just the past six months. Picture: Tim Hunter.
Teen soul sensation Ruel has blown up globally in just the past six months. Picture: Tim Hunter.

The Australian artists spearheading our musical renaissance on the world stages and airwaves welcome being branded as pop protagonists.

As the nominations were announced, all of those artists were missing from the ARIA Awards nominations event in Sydney because they were playing sold-out shows in North America - Shark in Philadelphia, Barnett in Vancouver and Sivan at Radio City Music Hall in New York.

"I feel like all of us have waited out this sh … y era of watered-down crap; the universe was ready for real stuff," Shark says.

"It's been a while since we've had good, honest songs and people doing it for no other reason beyond loving music and making it.

"And kids don't need things spelt out to them now, they understand what's real at a much earlier age.

"When I heard Lorde's album, I remember thinking here are songs she wrote when she was 12, these super-heavy, clever songs, big pop songs that people could believe in rather than some (generic) song put together by 15 people in a studio in LA."

Mutli-instrumentalist music wizard Tash Sultana is doing everything her own way. Picture: Supplied /  Dara Munnis
Mutli-instrumentalist music wizard Tash Sultana is doing everything her own way. Picture: Supplied / Dara Munnis

Barnett, who is also nominated for an ARIA for her Lotta Sea Lice collaboration with American songwriter Kurt Vile, suggests one of the influences behind the post-millennial pop explosion is artistic freedom.

Major labels once held their artists in a creative stranglehold, dictating their musical lane which, more often that not, was a pale imitation of whatever the chart-topping stars of the US and UK were doing.

Fully and fiercely independent artists such as Barnett, who also runs her own label M!lk Records with partner Jen Cloher, have no overlords trying to tell them what music to make.

"I just like making lots of different things," Barnett says.

"It keeps you on your toes and flexing your creative muscles to work with different people."

PNAU frontman Nick Littlemore, whose resume also includes work with Cirque Du Soleil, Elton John, Empire of the Sun and Vera Blue, said technology has freed up artists to push the boundaries of what pop music can be.

Dance pop pioneers PNAU believe technology has leveled the pop playing field. Picture:  Mark Nolan/Getty Images.
Dance pop pioneers PNAU believe technology has leveled the pop playing field. Picture: Mark Nolan/Getty Images.

"Now it's all about ideas because we all have the same gear," he says.

"Our pop music is global as we have shaken off that Australian cultural cringe about pop and everyone is making music on laptops in airport lounges hungover with two many coffees and bellyaches.

"Savage Garden in my youth lead the way and now you have artists like Flume in recent years crossing over onto the pop charts."

Littlemore believes the pioneering spirit of the new Australian pop sound is also deeply rooted in our isolation and natural beauty even as it is created in darkened, semi-soundproofed suburban bedrooms.

But it is our willingness to speak our mind in song which is striking the deepest connection with fans here and abroad.

"Australians have always had a lot to say and it is relevant. Our pop isn't disposable because we are not disposable people. We are making intellectual pop music for an audience who wants to feel something when they dance."

The 2018 ARIA Awards will be announced at The Star in Sydney on November 28 and broadcast on Nine.



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