Tim Minchin is worried he’s said too much.
It’s 8.45pm in Sydney, Australia, and while the day is just starting here in the UK, as night falls on the other side of the world he’s had some wine and is winding down. “Merlot Mondays”, as he calls it on Twitter.
There’s a track on his new album Apart Together called Talked Too Much, Stayed Too Long, which he brings up at the end of our conversation. “This is where I need to shut up,” he laughs.
The problem is, Minchin is “tired of the shouting” that has dominated headlines in recent years and, well, “you don’t want to attract hate when you’re putting out a lovely album” – and it is a lovely album, of songs about life and love, about loneliness, fidelity, failure and honesty. But then, when talking about America, he also feels it’s his “moral duty to be absolutely unmitigated in my scorn” for Donald Trump. It’s everyone’s moral duty, he says.
Now back at home in his native Australia, Minchin relocated to Los Angeles in 2014 and lived there for several years. The soon to be former US president comes up when I ask if he has felt relieved not to be there as the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded. In Australia, there have been fewer than 1,000 deaths, and they “basically live normal lives” now after early intervention, he says; in the US, almost 260,000 people have died of the virus.
“I’m glad we’re not there, selfishly, because of the pandemic, but also I think America, their system somehow allowed – I mean, democracy does allow for complete liars and cheats to become leaders. I’m not talking about run-of-the mill lying politicians, I’m talking about [how] absolutely amoral, sociopathic idiots like Trump can get into power because there’s no systematic way of stopping him lying and there’s no systematic way of stopping people believing him.”
Another song on the album, Leaving LA, is a “sort of love-letter” to the city Minchin couldn’t be with anymore.
“America [has] so many different people and businesses and it’s full of incredibly kind, moral, caring, philanthropic, altruistic people,” he says. “However, there’s a kind of ruthless side to business in the entertainment industry anyway that I find difficult.
“I’m a pretty ambitious guy, I work really hard, and I’ll do a lot to make sure what I make is good. But there’s a sort of… [it] feels to me like part of what the American dream is, is a kind of like scrabbling to the top, you know, and Trump being the worst possible version of that. ‘Look at me, I live in a golden tower’… It doesn’t mean you’re clever or good at business or anything, it just means you’re greedy and tasteless.”
Minchin realises we’ve strayed into Trump territory again. “You know, my record is very deliberately not the way I’m being in this conversation… I am tired of the shouting, or at least I have needed for myself, a break from polemic, from invective, from confrontation, because I’ve done plenty of that, plenty of entering the political fray…
“That’s not who I am, it’s not my life. I’m a songwriter and I wanted to write some songs. So there’s very little on the record that is confrontational in any way.”
In fact, he says, we all need to be better at listening to each other.
“I loved our time in LA and I love that country. The whole world has all sorts of different people in it and we all need to learn to get along. I think all of us should be unmitigating in our criticism of untruthful leadership, but I also think we all need to do better at not just screaming at the people we disagree with. We must scream about Trump, but we shouldn’t be screaming at the people who are being sucked in by him.”
After some 20 years in the entertainment industry, Minchin has had worldwide success as a composer and lyricist, as an actor, writer, director and comedian. As well as the comedic songwriting he is perhaps best known for in the UK, last year, he wrote and starred in the Sky Atlantic / Foxtel Aussie road-trip comedy Upright.
He has also played Judas in the touring version of Jesus Christ Superstar, and wrote the music and lyrics for the stage adaptation of Roald Dahl’s much-loved classic Matilda, which won a record seven Olivier awards and five Tony awards, and received a Grammy nomination.
After years of releasing live records, Apart Together is his debut studio album. While it may seem like a new direction to some, it is not a “corner-turn”, he says. This is always who he has been.
“Even during my comedy shows, in inverted commas, you know, at the Royal Albert Hall – which was kind of the peak of my so-called comedy career – that included Not Perfect, White Wine In The Sun, Beauty Is A Harlot, The Fence [and] Rock ‘n’ Roll Nerd is barely a comedy song, it’s just a fun song.
“I mean, punch line songs are a minority of what I’ve done. So I know from the outside in I might seem like a musical comedian, but from the inside out I’m just a songwriter who writes about different stuff.”
Despite the title, the album – and its title track, about love as we age – were written before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020.
“It’s sort of a nice coincidence because the whole album actually has come to feel different because of what’s happened this year,” he says. “This record was written between 2017 and the end of last year and recorded before COVID ever made itself such a pain in our arses.
“It was an album about being away from people… It’s not a whingey album but I’ve spent a lot of time travelling and I’ve written a bit about that and about love and loss and all those things that happen when you get to my age, and then this year happened and suddenly the whole record has a different sort of colour shed on it.”
Minchin jokes: “I’m tempted to admit that I seeded this pandemic simply to promote my album, that I created it in a lab. It’s possible – there’s a new conspiracy theory.” Or maybe not. “Yeah, you think it’s a joke and then someone will believe it.”
As something of an industry veteran, Minchin says it has been hard seeing friends in the industry struggle this year and only being able to do so much to help.
“I think that’s really tough because when you become an artist, you know it’s a gamble. I certainly never had any expectation that I would be able to make a good living out of it – I hoped, but I didn’t expect it. A million things can knock you off your course, you can get rejections and whatever, bad reviews, but this feels so unfair, doesn’t it?
“And not just the arts, for anyone who had just opened their small business or anyone who’d just started getting going, even people who’d just decided to get fit, and let alone people who have sick family members and all that stuff.
“I feel hugely sympathetic to those people, and I’m very, very lucky I’m a bit more established. And the only way I know how to react to that feeling of worrying about [it] is just to try and create work.”
Last week, Minchin held a global livestream event, performing all 11 tracks from Apart Together with an expanded band with brass and string section, plus a special guest appearance from one of his heroes, Ben Folds.
“All the Matilda productions all over the world have shut down and that’s hundreds of people who have jobs because of that musical, and I can’t do anything about,” he says. “But I can try and keep my band working… and keep making music videos and try and generate as much work in my tiny little corner of our tiny little business.”
Continuing on the theme of all the people out of work in the industry, Minchin adds: “I get that art is not necessary in the same way that food is, but we live in a world absolutely soaked in art, in architecture and visual art and music and culture and television and film and dance and theatre. It’s everywhere.
“Not only that, but the way we define ourselves, the very stories we tell ourselves about our nationhood, about our political leanings, about our race, about our gender, all these hot political topics… these stories are told by art.”
This all “sounds esoteric and a load of ****”, Minchin admits. “I totally get that.”
However, “to make a TV show or a theatre show or a dance, a ballet or a live-streaming concert or an album, requires engineers, electronic engineers, grips and lighting designers and carpenters, you know, chippies and sparkies.
“It generates billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands, millions of jobs. It is simply a trade. And it’s one that not only gives the economy and everything what it needs, but also gives our internal narratives shape, and we forget that at our cost. Cultures forget that at their cost.
“So this pandemic is… I don’t think we’re going to understand what it’s done until years hence. Hopefully we’ll look back and go, that was that time just before that massive explosion of creativity that came out of all that trappedness and introspection. I feel optimistic about that. But let’s hope governments keep our theatres from falling down in the meantime.”
Tim Minchin’s debut album Apart Together is out now via BMG
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