Tucked away in the contemporary music block at Southern Cross University is a piece of music history: one of the world’s first digital sampling synthesiser units used exclusively in the 1980s by the frontman of iconic Australian band Icehouse, Iva Davies.
Two decades ago Iva gifted his retired Fairlight to the University during an industry visit to students of the contemporary music program in Lismore. He retraced those footsteps in July to reacquaint himself with the music machine before presenting an APRA Songwriters’ Workshop in Studio One29. Iva’s Icehouse hits include ‘Crazy’, ‘Hey Little Girl’, ‘Great Southern Land’ and ‘Electric Blue’.
Purchased in 1982 for $32,000 – “which was a huge amount of money back then, more than half the cost of a house,” Iva said – the Fairlight was the central writing tool and work station for Icehouse and his solo work during the 80s.
Iva said it was used for almost the entire score of the Razorback movie soundtrack, then for Icehouse’s third, fourth and fifth albums (Sidewalk, Measure for Measure, Man of Colours), as well as a ballet.
“The Fairlight went on tours with the band and we worked with it until the late 1980s. Along the way Sydney Dance Company artistic director Graeme Murphy commissioned me to develop the music for his new production of Boxes in 1985 and so the Fairlight was built into the stage set at the Sydney Opera House.”
The Fairlight CMI (Computer Musical Instrument) is an Australian invention that was developed and refined during the 70s and 80s. Today every sampler, digital synthesizer, sequencer and audio workstation can trace its lineage back to the Fairlight.
Iva said while it might look ‘old skool’, the Fairlight was ahead of its time.
“It was innovative. It had a light pen stylus that you used to touch the screen to make selections. It’s remarkable on any number of levels that machine, and a real luxury, too,” he said.
Iva said Icehouse “re-booted two years ago” after a two decade hiatus and late last year completed a national tour.
He said he regards lyrics as crucial to any song, a point he emphasised to contemporary music students at the APRA Songwriters’ Workshop where he began by dissecting Joni Mitchell’s ‘A case of you’.
“Lyrics are a neglected and highly underrated area. It’s where a lot of young songwriters betray themselves as novices,” he said.
Five contemporary music students were selected to send their original work to Iva ahead of time and during the Workshop he critiqued their work.
Ami Peluchetti, a third-year performance and education major, wrote and produced the song ‘If ever’.
She said Iva’s feedback was direct and valuable.
“One of the best things he talked about was having imagery in your lyrics; for the listener to be able to feel, touch and see the words. Every line paints a picture, so make it count.
“I was calling the song ‘If ever’, but he retitled it ‘Sweet music’, which is the hook. That was helpful. The song is about if ever I am going to die tomorrow I will be playing music.”
Ami included the reworked ‘Sweet music’, with its funky folk arrangement, in her recent music performance exam.
“I changed my phrasing to express the lyrics more clearly and I added a few bars and rearranged the whole song based on some of his feedback. The melody improved because I wasn’t rushing through the lyrics. His advice is really useful for more songs that I compose in the future,” she said.
Iva said it was great to be able to workshop his ideas with the young songwriters.
“Even if they choose not to use any of those ideas at least I offered them,” he said.
“Ultimately they are all going to have to deal with the fact that they need to pin down who their audience is. Their job is to produce music that other people like.
“The business model of the Australian music industry has changed completely from the days when CDs dominated and record companies were quite actively artist-and-repertoire geared. These days record companies are more focused on marketing than developing acts.”
In June this year, Iva was named a Member (AM) of the Order Of Australia for ‘significant service to the music and entertainment industry as a songwriter and performer, and to the community’.
He said he is ready to start writing again and is installing a new Pro Tools system (digital audio workstation) in his Sydney home studio.
“I’ve always used technology as a toolbox. The Fairlight was a new toy when I started using it in 1982. Linndrum, the first digital drum machine, was the spine of the album Primitive Man and the song Great Southern Land,” said Iva.
“Making mistakes can become the catalyst for new pieces of music. For me, the process of learning how to run the new Pro Tools system and all the soft synthesisers and other attachments, will be the means by which new things come out.”
About the APRA Songwriters’ Workshops at Southern Cross University
The Australasian Performing Right Association (APRA), the peak body representing songwriters in Australia and Asia, has provided funding to the School of Arts and Social Sciences since 2006 to enhance the learning experience of Southern Cross University’s contemporary music students. This funding has enabled the School to organise an annual series of songwriters’ workshops that has brought in a steady stream of outstanding and prominent talent. Leigh Carriage, a lecturer in the SCU Contemporary Music program, is the APRA Songwriters’ Workshop Co-ordinator.