For a performer who has a sizeable influence on the music scene in Ballarat, Marc Oswin doesn’t make a great deal of talking about his talent.
The frontman of Mark with the Sea and one-half of the team responsible for Heart Of The Rat records has won a slot at the upcoming Grampians Music Festival courtesy of the GMF and The Push, a not-for-profit youth music organisation now in its 30th year.
He’s also recently released his debut solo album as A Miner. Titled As Water Fills My Lungs, it’s an examination of melancholy and the rise of artificial intelligence. Born of Oswin’s experimentation with a vocal harmoniser, it is not an easy album, demanding of the listener a willingness to embrace the dark and difficult lyrics and sounds he has conjured.
Marc Oswin spoke to Caleb Cluff.
Congratulations on the slot you’ve won at the Grampians Music Festival. You have been doing great work lately and it certainly gives you some deserved exposure.
It’s a huge surprise as well. I put the entry in and didn’t think too much more about it, and then one night I was contacted and given the good news. It was very surprising.
And you’ve won that slot largely on the back of your latest album, As Water Fills My Lungs?
Yes. It’s very different to anything I’ve done ever before; it’s a big change. I have a sort of big checklist of different directions that I want to tick off, and the electronic thing was one of those; it forced its way to the top of the list a couple of years ago.
I guess it was more out of needing to have the actual music recorded, if I wanted to use the backing for any live performances. It was ‘get the album recorded before playing the live show’; so yes it forced its way to the top.
Tell me about using the vocal harmonizer.
That really set me off in the direction it’s gone; the hard tuning of the vocals lends itself more to the electronic direction.
It’s very sombre. I’ve been reading what you've written about it on the Heart Of The Rat Records site; that it comes with a warning - ‘this is not an easy album’. Where does it spring from?
Lyrically, right throughout my songwriting, it tends to steer that direction anyway. But I think with the sounds that accompanied the vocals for this record, I think that sent me more into that direction, and then it became a persona of sorts. It was kind of like, ‘well just how far can I take it in that melancholic direction?’
It's certainly nothing… look I'm sure there are parts that lie beneath; that subconsciously there might be some ties there. But for the most part it’s taking on a persona. It’s storytelling; it certainly doesn't reflect on my life.
How have people reacted when they’ve heard it? Your colleagues and other people in the industry.
I think the first part is that people have to get over the fact that it's a lot different to anything that I've ever done before. The hard vocals and the autotune are really prevalent at the moment. A lot of the music like Kanye West and a lot of soundcloud rappers at the moment are using it.
But when I started doing this, probably three or four years ago, with just a really basic live show, there wasn’t a lot of autotune around. It wasn't as prevalent, and I think it's a big step to some people to actually process that and realise it's not a direct clean vocal.
But I think once they get over that, particularly with a lot of shows at the moment, I’ve been getting a lot of a great feedback.
Can we talk a bit about your background in music? You’re known for Mark with the Sea of course, but you’re also half of Heart of the Rat records which is an amazing resource generally for people in Ballarat and much loved. What what brought you into music in the first place? Was it your parents' love of music? Was it school?
No, I was very late to music, I guess.
So many kids pick up instruments when they are eight or ten-years-old and stick with it; by the time they start to mature into a songwriter and start to look at things lyrically they are quite proficient on instruments.
I didn’t start playing guitar until I was 19, and initially it was more singing that interested me, funnily enough. I think my passion for it really started one night; I went out to the Robin Hood (Hotel) for karaoke, and I really liked the feeling of performing and the reaction.
Getting a bit of feedback that your voice isn't terrible set me off in that direction, and then I started my first band when I was 19 with no intention really of playing an instrument. I just fulfilled the need for some bass guitar in the band, and from there moved over to guitar and songwriting and just really enjoyed that.
Tell me about Heart of the Rat Records. When did you begin that?
It began late in 2014. Predominantly the reason for that was Mark with the Sea had just finished recording our first album as a band. Previously I'd had a couple of releases, solo projects, and Aaron Matthews, the co-founder of the label, said we really should be starting our own label to put out our releases. Because he was in the band Matheson as well as Swhat at the time, we thought this would be a great vehicle to put out albums by friends of ours who were recording.
And it's just grown from there. Now we have Heads in Germany and artists like Brendan Welch. We’ve signed another artist from Brisbane now for a release later this year and we are in talks with a few of the young acts from Ballarat as well.
While we really focus on Ballarat, we’re open to collaborating with artists from outside the area as well.
Now you'll headlining on the Friday night at the Grampians Music festival, which is a a pretty good spot to have. And you're playing alongside people like Sampa the Great, Slum Sociable and Wafia. Who else are you keen to see?
Angie McMahon is the biggest one. I saw her support Father John Misty either last year or the year before and she just floored me, playing solo at the Recital Centre.
After she walked offstage I sent her a message and said, ‘Look, I'm not sure where you are with your career, with recordings or anything; I’ve got this record label Heart of the Rat Records and we’d love to put something out?’
She was on my radar from then, and I probably should have known at the time that she was destined for massive things.
I see that she's going to be supporting The Pixies in the States; that's amazing to get a chance to see her when she’s on the Sunday with a full band.
But yes, other bands like Jade Imagine and Sampa the Great. I hadn’t heard a lot of Sampa the Great and then she programmed Rage a few weeks ago; she’s amazing. When I finally looked at the lineup, there's some fantastic stuff that I'm sitting alongside of there.
And the other great thing about this particular festival is the strong representation of women. It's just great to see so many women headlining.
It's incredible. I was surprised to get this slot as well because… not to put myself down but they could have gone with some great, young electronic producers; there are so many great female artists around, even in Ballarat at the moment.
I’ve been playing with Flock. I'm not sure if you’re aware of her work; she’s already great, but she's just going to develop and mature and get even better.
There’s Arian Lane, who’s in the Honey Hunters and is playing Mark with the Sea at the Main Bar next month. Amazing songwriter, great voice. Nervous Pedestrians; they’ve got a mix of a couple of guys and girls, the girls up front, they’re killing it. It's really exciting.
The festival, they seem to have that great blend of keeping it the right size: small; using the one stage so there are no clashes, and then and then just having that representation of great female acts. It’s brilliant.
It’s been a long time since Ballarat had some really strong venues, but at the moment you’ve got the Main Bar, you’ve got The Eastern; Lost Ones, of course Karova. We’ve lost Sutton's but there’s the Cabaret Club. It’s hopeful isn’t it, that there’s a resurgence in the music scene in Ballarat?
Yeah it is. It’s amazing all of sudden – it does go in cycles, but you can have 12 months where you might not get asked to have a show. I'm not super-active with Mark with the Sea chasing shows, but as soon as you get this pick up in the venues, all of a sudden I’m being asked to play shows again; you get rejuvenated and you want to write songs and you want to record songs and you want to set up shows, and that's a really good place for music to be. And it really is driven by those venues.