Interview by Katherine Yeske Taylor
As the main composer and keyboardist for INXS, Andrew Farriss is the man to thank for such hits as “Never Tear Us Apart,” “Devil Inside,” “New Sensation,” “What You Need,” “The One Thing,” “Original Sin”…really, too many to list. Farriss wrote or co-wrote (with lead singer and lyricist Michael Hutchence) nearly every hit song that made the Australian band one of the most successful acts of the 1980s and 1990s (60 million albums sold worldwide).
After Hutchence’s death in 1997, INXS soldiered on with other singers (including one selected via a weird reality show, Rock Star: INXS) but called it quits in 2012. Farriss has since reinvented himself as a country singer. He has released two singles so far (2019’s “Come Midnight” and this year’s “Good Momma Bad”) and has a full album ready to go. Calling from his home in New South Wales, Australia, Farriss comes across as a serious deep-thinker who is content with his life, legacy and current career.
Living in a rather remote area, are you able to dodge all the madness that’s happening in the world right now?
Pretty turbulent time for the world, isn’t it? My wife and I live in a remote area in the Australian country. I’ve been involved with agriculture for about 28 years out here. That was the main reason I came out here, because I’ve lived so much of my life out of hotels and planes — things that move. I wanted to be somewhere, when I’m not doing that, where I feel really at ease and comfortable. Plus, I enjoy the challenges that it creates.
We came out of three years of very serious drought in Australia, some horrific bushfires. If you’d asked me the same question a year ago in the middle of the drought, I would have said, “To be honest, it’s terrible. It’s a dust bowl.” But at the moment, it’s rained some and so we feel really grateful for that. With all the craziness going on, that was a blessing we didn’t see coming. But we’re so fortunate. I suppose Bob Dylan summed it all up with, “The Times They Are A-Changing,” huh? They sort of change and they sort of don’t. A hundred years ago, they were facing the Spanish Flu, and it just goes to show you, with all our technology and all our development, we can’t solve some basic issues.
At least all the technology means that you can still put out music from wherever you are — even from rural Australia, you could record and release a song today.
I agree, that is really good. Platforms that are available to us are fantastic compared to what was available 20 years ago. with people able to self-release product. But with a pandemic, it’s been complicated. My album was due to be released in the middle of May, but when the pandemic really hit, people shut down everything. So it just seems crazy to put the album up because it wouldn’t get promotion. It would have been a waste of time and energy. So I switched gears and will release more of my solo music soon-ish. Not the album. That will come out a bit later on now. I just hope to God that it all comes back to some sense of normal flow again for people. Not just the music industry, but in every industry.
People can be ingenious when they need to be: look at what you did in Australia, with the School of the Air [a service that began in 1951, via radio, to teach children in Australia’s rural areas, now delivered via Internet].
Yeah, because the tyranny of distance meant we couldn’t communicate unless we did stuff like that. When I was a little kid in Perth, someone came into class and asked the teacher, “I need someone to read on the School of the Air radio.” And the teacher said, “Well, why doesn’t Andrew go on and read it?” So I ended up on the radio when I was a little kid, doing school work, [talking] to other little kids. It didn’t occur to me that it was a really big deal. Isn’t that bizarre, given the career I have now?
Now you’ve had plenty of time being broadcast on the radio as an adult, too…
With INXS, yeah. I was a major part of the songwriting of that band, along with Michael [Hutchence]. I wrote quite a lot of them on my own, and I wrote quite a lot with Michael. We probably wrote 300 songs together.
How do you feel about releasing things now, as a solo artist?
It’s very different to me, releasing my solo music as opposed to doing the work with INXS, because it’s not a group of people. I’m kind of paranoid about it because I have to make sure the checks and balances make sense to people, and how I come across and what I’m trying to say. I think a lot about it. Maybe I think too much about it!
Embarking on this solo stuff, I’m deliberately doing things that are quite different than a lot of that [INXS] music. I know how to replicate that kind of stuff, but I don’t want to. I’m trying to do things that I haven’t done with INXS.
What made you switch to writing country music?
I’ve always loved it. I started going to Nashville, and I had a reputation as a songwriter, so people wanted to write songs with me. I was writing with all kinds of people — really well-known writers, famous writers, and then other people who aren’t known. I just worked with people because I like them.
I started thinking, “This is cool because I take a different slant on a song than I would normally have approached it.” I’m open-minded to what people suggest and [willing to go] down that road. For me as a songwriter, the light came on for me really bright [when] my wife and I went down to the Mexican border in the US and rode from the corner of where Arizona and New Mexico and Mexico fuse. I began to see for the first time for myself, not from a Hollywood movie, what it must have been like for people roundabout 1880 up to 1920. A lot of it is still wild down there. Not tamed completely. Careful what you do or the vultures will get you. And as an Australian, I can relate to that.
All this affected me. I went back to Nashville and started working with people and they said, ‘What do you want to write about?” I told them, “I want to write about the Old West,” and they stared at me like I’m nuts because that’s the past, who’s going to care about that? I’m like, “There’d be no future if those people hadn’t been there in the first place and done what they did.” Those people in those times influenced a lot of what is going on now. We still see some of those things in action today. And with music, all the early country musicians like Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, they all wanted to be cowboys. Willie Nelson wanted to be a cowboy — he even says that.
I find it intriguing that people don’t pick up on that a little bit more, that they’re not really saying, “I want to be a pop idol,” they’re saying, “I like that culture of freedom, being able to get out on the road and explore the world and play music.” There is kind of a cowboy thing to that. That’s why I got caught up in that idea in my own solo career.
Were you nervous delving into that genre for the first time?
Yeah, I’m like, “What the hell am I doing?” But then people said, “Can you keep making this stuff?” Outlaw country music, they like that, because there’s a rebel aspect to it that people really enjoy. Also, I wanted to work with other people who were like-minded as much as possible. That’s been a journey for me, too, working with a very different group of people than I’ve ever worked with. I’m very fortunate.
Was it hard becoming a lead singer?
Yeah, that’s been testing me, definitely. I have to keep reminding myself, especially onstage. I was so used to being part of a band. Suddenly, everyone’s staring at me. That’s one of the big things: everyone’s looking at you. That’s one thing I’m still getting used to. But I’m having some fun with it.
It seems like people are paying more attention to your older work again…
Yeah, interestingly enough, a lot of younger people have said to me that what was interesting about the INXS stuff is that you hear it on the radio and it’s [still] quite contemporary sounding. I think it was because back in the day, we [INXS] weren’t a fan of some of the things that other people were doing around us. We weren’t necessarily doing the same style of music that everybody else did. I give that credit to the other guys in INXS. They all had a hand in that, not just me, it was everybody. And the managers as well. We were all a team. We would be pretty open with each other. We talked about things we were seeing and say, “Do we want to be a part of that? No, we don’t,” or, “Yeah, we think this is cool.” I think that was important. We were conscious of having some control over what we were putting out. We fought for that artistic freedom, which we were very fortunate to have had.
Where did you get the confidence to stand up for yourselves?
Look, everyone has a belief system. I definitely believe in God and believe that some things are predestined and you’ve got to follow your instincts or you get in trouble. I’ve always used my instincts as much as possible in situations, both artistically and in life.
What led you to become a musician?
The first band I saw as a kid was the Beatles. We’d gone by ship from Perth in Western Australia for three weeks so my father could see his parents in London. When we got there, we were invited to a television show, and the Beatles walked out and started playing. I thought, “This is pretty cool,” but we didn’t know how important they were. It was 1964. It was before they really even broke huge. [Ed. note: Farriss was born in 1959, so he would have been all of five at the time. Chances are he saw the filming of Around the Beatles TV special at IBC Studios in April. They were pretty huge already.] It’s funny, right? I replay it in my head all these years later. Like, what are the random chances of that happening?
Yeah, it could have been a puppet show or something!
Exactly! Punch and Judy. But these things, especially with children, have a huge effect on your mind. For me, it was a really big thing. Plus, we had an upright piano in our family home. When I saw the Beatles, it made me want to play it more. I started messing around, learning scales and little classical pieces. As I went along, I got bored with it. My mother said, “What happened to the piano?” And I said, “I’d rather play football.” She said, “Would you think about playing it more? You’re pretty good at it.” I said, “But I’m performing music other people have written. I want to put my own music.” My mother had a teacher come [and] I’d say, “Can you teach me about how harmony works?” I asked her questions and she’d show me the answers on the piano. I begin to replicate what she was showing me. Then I began to realize the chord structures that I was messing around with, there’s no rule book. There’s no page 85 that says, “You can’t do that.” You can do whatever you like. If people don’t like it, that’s tough. Just enjoy what you’re doing.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
It might have been a song called “River.” But I wrote pieces of music before I even knew I was writing a song. I’d put these pieces of music together and someone said, “What are you playing?” I said, “I don’t know what it’s called. I just make it up.”
But how did you know this was going to be your career and not just a hobby? Because even with talent and conviction, the music business is tough.
I had other jobs. Kentucky Fried Chicken when I was a teenager. I worked in a gardening center, and I worked as a laborer moving stuff around for people. I worked for a car dealership, cleaning up cars. I was also involved in university, funnily enough, not studying music but business. But I always gravitated toward music. Music just seemed to be the thing that kept calling me toward it. I didn’t really fully understand it. And I still don’t, really.
What do you think it is about your music that connects so strongly with people?
With the songs that I wrote with Michael, his genius as a lyricist was to say a lot with very [few] words, in that sense of almost like a Japanese haiku. He had this brilliant way of delivering it vocally. And because he wasn’t trained — he didn’t play an instrument, his instrument was his voice — he didn’t care where he would place a vocal melody or an idea. Another musician, if they’ve been schooled musically, tend to go down similar roads [because of knowing] theoretically what you should or shouldn’t be doing with harmony or whatever. [Michael] could do whatever he wanted to do because he didn’t have a rule book. I liked the wild card of that. I think that’s something that’s helped a lot of my songwriting that I did with Michael get out in the world, because people can hear something in it that is a little different, that’s not the same as everybody else’s. It’s not better or worse, it’s different. The way we constructed it was different.
To the credit of the people around us in the band and producers and the record companies, they were brave enough to record it and put it out. And I think it’s what I’m doing now, with my own work, I don’t know exactly what things are going to take. I’m already beginning to find it interesting that people are starting to ask me more about what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, and I just say, “I’m enjoying doing it. I don’t have another huge reason.” I’m just enjoying playing music and I feel fortunate that people like any of it.