MUCH of the inspiration behind the latest album by popular Melbourne indie folk band Husky came from the charming Westbury Hotel, an Edwardian-era mansion in Balaclava which was home for band members Husky Gawenda and Gideon Preiss for five years.
The spacious house was popular with musicians, writers and artists who loved its old-world charm, but in September last year the property was demolished to make way for an apartment block.
“It was like an artists’ commune where we lived, dreamt, wrote and recorded music and also painted,” said Gawenda, 40, lead singer of Husky which has been performing since 2008.
“There were lots of parties – the place had an atmosphere of magic and mystery that everyone felt as soon as they walked in the door.”
Husky’s new album, Stardust Blues, was recorded last year at Woodstock Studios, situated just around the corner from the Westbury Hotel, and released this month by Ditto Music. It’s the band’s fourth album.
“The whole album was conceived and brought to life in that little pocket of Melbourne in the bagel belt,” said Gawenda, who now lives in St Kilda.
“A lot of great creative stuff happened at Westbury Hotel. I’m glad a lot of the spirit of that place was captured on the songs and videos.”
The video for one of the singles from the album, Cut Myself Loose, was filmed last year and shows Gawenda performing inside the Westbury Hotel while an artist paints a mural at the entrance.
The songs on Stardust Blues depict a man on a 24-hour journey of exploration around Melbourne.
“It was inspired by Irish writer James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, which I was reading at the time and tells the story of Leopold Bloom on his wanderings in Dublin over 24 hours,” explained Gawenda.
“I found that inspiring and when I started writing the lyrics for the songs, after the band did the instrumentals, I noticed that there was a narrative with a character who seemed to be moving through Melbourne, meeting people and having a variety of experiences.
“Each song is a chapter, and in these chapters love is lost and found, dreams are destroyed and new ones created in their place.
“I liked the neatness of everything happening over 24 hours – all the songs relate to the character’s journey as well as his internal journey through his memories.”
Asked if the character is based on himself, Gawenda said: “He is semi-based on me, but I’m not a journalist and in the business of reporting facts, and I allowed the character to lead me wherever he wanted to go.”
Husky features Gawenda (vocals and guitar), his cousin Preiss (keyboard), Jules Pascoe (bass/guitar) and Holly Thomas (drums). In 2014 Gawenda won first prize for the Vanda and Young International Song Writing Competition for his song, Saint Joan.
Some of the songs on Stardust Blues have already been released as singles – SYWD, Cut Myself Loose, Wristwatch, Light a Cigarette and Dirty River.
“We released more singles than we would normally do because we delayed the album release due to COVID-19,” explained Gawenda, who has already started writing songs for the next album.
“Normally a big part of releasing a new album is performing the songs live in different parts of the country and the world and to meet fans, so it hurts to lose live shows and it makes it more difficult, but the songs are not in lockdown.
“In a way it is good to be releasing a new album as we need music as much as ever. At a time like this it’s great that everyone can get any music from anywhere – it’s all at your fingertips.”
Husky performed songs from the new album at the Isol-Aid online music festival.
“Live streaming events are really good given the circumstances, but nothing is a perfect substitute to being in a room with an audience and the energy that you get at a show.”
Gawenda said that Stardust Blues was recorded live in the studio to 24-track tape.
“We did not want to use a computer to digitally enhance or fix any blemishes,” he explained.
“Computers tempt you to do a lot of editing and manipulation in the recording, whereas tape forces you to strive for a good sound live.
“What you get is a more human recording – I think we got the closest that we have ever got to realising our vision.”
The last time that Gawenda and Preiss performed live in concert was with Jewish big band YID! at the Port Fairy Festival in March just before COVID-19 lockdown began.
“We had a date set to record a new YID! album, but with 22 musicians in the band, getting everyone together in a room to record is unimaginable, but it will happen one day.”
YID! was established in 2017 and recorded its debut album, Space Klezmer, in 2018.
Husky’s Stardust Blues is released by Ditto Music and is available from huskysongs.com and online music stores.