Mess Esque :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Mess Esque is a collaboration between Helen Franzmann (McKisko) and guitarist Mick Turner of Dirty Three, known for incisive playing on records by Cat Power, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Kurt Vile and Courtney Barnett. On their self-titled album, recorded remotely and released in 2021 by Drag City Records, the duo generate poignant and skeletal melodies that float in a self-contained dream pop universe. They joined us to discuss tuning their approach to each other and more. | j woodbury

Aquarium Drunkard: How did you two first meet? 

Mick Turner: We were introduced by a mutual friend, Nick Huggins, who is an Australian musician and producer we had both worked with on our solo recordings.

AD: What drew you to collaborate with each other? 

Mick Turner: I’d been working on the next Dirty Three album with Nick. I was talking with him in the studio one day about how I’d been wanting to collaborate with a vocalist on some ideas. He had just finished recording Helen’s album and played me some of her songs.  I liked what I heard so I sent her an email and things went from there.

Helen Franzmann: I am a Dirty Three fan so when Mick got in touch I was very curious to hear his ideas. There was this easy way of landing melodies in Mick’s tracks. It quickly became an obsession, for both of us I think, helping each song find its way.

AD: How did these songs begin, did you trade demos or begin from scratch? 

Helen Franzmann: Mick’s tracks initially and then hundreds of demos back and forth, over and over. 

Mick Turner: I had a bunch of musical ideas, pretty bare bones. Helen would respond to those. As it progressed we tried different things. Sometimes songs would begin with acapella vocal tracks that I would play beneath. Sometimes a song would head in one direction and change when we shared the next file, there are a lot of versions of the songs. It was an inspiring process.

AD: “Study your shadow” is a beautiful lyric, and there’s very occulted, in the “hidden” sense, quality to this record. What kind of discussions about mood did you have as you shaped your respective sides? 

Mick Turner: We didn’t discuss mood when writing these songs, we hardly spoke and we didn’t know each other. The two records were completed before we met in person. Our main communication was the songs and files we were sharing. 

Helen Franzmann: Mick worked on all of the instrumentation and production, I came up with the melodies and lyrics. We left each other to it really. Mick was very positive and open so he was easy to share ideas with. It was during lockdown so the lyrics were connected to a close and quiet time at home, so yes, hidden and contemplative. Most days I’d walk along the creek beside my house with the tracks in headphones so the mystical natural world spilt into the words. The idea of the shadow self was something I was thinking about at the time, facing shadows, turning towards dark parts in order to reach the light. 

AD: You two hadn’t met when you made the record: what was meeting actually like when it happened?

Helen Franzmann: We had written two records by that stage, Dream #12 and Mess Esque. We’d been inside all of these layered and intimate songs and suddenly we were sitting in the car talking about electric cars. It was pretty odd, and lovely. Mick picked me up from the airport and I stayed with his family for a week while we figured out how to play the songs live. That was over a year ago and we’ve now toured together, travelled in America. It’s been a comfortable thing right from the beginning, luckily.

AD: Helen, the video for “Sweetspot” is really interesting. Did you come up with that concept?

Helen Franzmann: A friend Charlie Hillhouse made that video in my hometown, Brisbane. I had told him about this dream diary I’d been keeping through the writing of the records and he thought it might be good to try and catch some of the dream feel in the visual for “Sweetspot”. He showed me some footage he’d taken of a kid rolling down the hill outside his grandparent’s house at a birthday party a few days prior. We met there and I rolled down the same hill about ten times while he and some other friends wheeled down beside me on a makeshift dolly. He then came to my house and asked me to tell him some of my dreams. The story in the video is one of those dreams. The drawings were by another friend of his. Piece it all together and we had this strange but kinda beautiful thing that caught the mood without being too obviously linked to the song. The concept was all his.

AD: You mentioned “hundreds” of demo versions. How did the right version make itself known?

Helen Franzmann: It was always pretty clear, the feel of the song leading the way, an inevitable ‘I think this might be it’ from one of us. We were mostly aligned with that feeling.

AD: Mick, you’ve worked with a lot of vocalists over the years; I read that you would sometimes tune your guitar to Helen’s vocals. Is that someone you’ve done with other singers or was that a newer approach? 

Mike Turner: In that instance Helen had sent me acapela vocal melodies. The tune eventually became “Take it Outside.” She must have recorded it spontaneously because she’d pitched it in-between keys. I hadn’t worked with acapela before, it was a challenge and it was inspiring, moving and shaping the background of a melody, the bed it sits in, the chords that support it, can so alter how that piece will affect the listener, we’re planning to do more of that for sure.

AD: I love Jim White’s drums on “Jupiter.” They are so emotive. Mick, you’ve been playing with Jim for a long, long time. What makes a creative partnership like that possible after so long? 

Mick Turner: The longer you play music with someone the stronger the connection grows, there’s a lot of history there, we’ve known each other since our early 20’s. Had been playing together for seven years when Dirty Three started. We were in our early 30s and it was a profound life change for both of us living through the early successes and where that took us creatively and physically, for Warren too.  It’s probably most like a sibling relationship. We don’t always see eye to eye but there is deep respect and a lot of history there, and musically there was  an unspoken connection from the start. By unspoken I mean we don’t talk about it and also there aren’t words for it anyway that I know and you don’t need to verbalize it because it’s communicated when you play together. It is an uncommon and precious thing to find that connection.

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