Dale Blair: I’m here with Dan Licht in the studios of 3MDR, and Dan has just produced a new album called White Soul Black Hearts under your pseudonym Samsara Sun. So tell us a bit about Samsara Sun, is it a collective, is it an individual?
Dan Licht: It’s something in between, an umbrella that I can write and record under. Whether it’s me or whether I get other people involved, but it’s not a band with a fixed line-up.
DB: I know the lyrics are integral to your story as part of the album and as an artist, but even if you take away the lyrics you’re left with this wonderful aural quality, a soundscape of music. This I think comes also from the other players on the album, they’ve added really nice tones and depth.
A philosophy of mine, is that an album has to have a consistency, a feel about them, to resonate. This album really does have that.
DL: I was definitely going for that, like the idea of the 1970’s concept album. It’s a collection of songs where the themes, sounds and the styles overlap.
DB: In regard to In The Final Hour, this really has a prog rock ballad feel about it in the latter part of that song as you get into the guitar solo. I was reminded of Kate Bush’s James and the Cold Gun,
DL: That’s interesting, I really love Kate Bush, I’m not actually familiar with that song. A lot of her best music is also very layered and textured.
DB: James and the Cold Gun was going to be the first single, but she insisted that it be Wuthering Heights.
And the other thing that comes through is your work with Dogma Free Gospel, your old gang. It’s got a little bit of that flavour, a bit of reggae and R’n’B.
DL: Yes, but it’s different too, as the DFG was a conventional band, with a conventional line up and instrumentation, but because of events that transpired, the band folded shortly after the release of the album.
DB: I feel this comes through very strongly. The tragic death of your friend Darren Jones, who was in The DFG with you.
DL: That is integral to the story. For a long time it was very difficult to talk about, not just for me but for others as well.
DB: Certainly there’s a wistfulness to some of these songs, a sadness about events, Fire On Water speaks about cultural insensitivity, which is a reoccurring theme, it comes up again in Two Worlds Two Hands.
DL: And The Boat That We Built, which is a kind of elaborate metaphor, is drenched in loss. But I also tried to get a balance, for example the last verse of If I Only Could is very positive and affirming.
DB: I described If I Only Could as gorgeous affirmation.
DL: It’s the last verse of the album, Don’t be afraid of the storm, for it brings rain to the fields at dawn, and we will reap what we have sown, in the sun. I was fully aware of the emotionally charged and heavy nature of a lot of the songs, so at the same time, out of this tragedy and all the change that has come with that, I wanted it to acknowledge there is good. This, and The Boat That We Built allude to rebirth.
DB: The Boat That We Built has a certain bleakness about it, you set off with your hopes and dreams, become marooned out on the ocean and you can’t get back to shore, you don’t know whats going on. It’s a ship of lost dreams.
DL: I had a couple of ideas overlapping there. I was dealing with my own personal grief and the changes in my life, so on one level The Boat That We Built was a metaphor for my identity and the music I created with Darren, but there was also another element which I was thinking about concurrently. My Aunty Penny lived in a place in Newcastle, in the north of England called Walls End, named as such because when the Roman’s built Hadrian’s Wall, that is where the wall ended. It was a premier ship building city for many years. When I was 9 years old we stayed there, and out of the window in the room my brother & I shared you could see a few of the cranes, but 20 years earlier it had been very much more industrious and now it doesn’t exist at all. Grief can have a strange effect on your thinking, and for whatever reason, during that period I did reflect back to being a boy and regressed to things that might be quite vague, relating to your childhood or whatever. So I suppose The Boat That We Built was an amalgam of that, drawing an analogy between my personal story with the demise of the ship building industry in the north of England.
DB: It works on all those levels, so it can be quite concrete in some ways but it can be abstract as well. Following this song, which is great choice to finish the album, is If I Only Could.
DL: It was an afterthought actually, I had the other nine songs, and I went away to Gembrook Retreat with my partner Emma, where there’s no electricity and we cooked on the fire. I was just sitting there playing my mandolin, singing some songs and I thought it might be nice to finish the record with a little mandolin song. I remembered an old song I’d written, If I Only Could. The original demo had quite a dirge like piano, but I picked up the tempo just a little and adapted it to mandolin, then sang the song in duet with my old singing partner from The DFG, Neesy Smith, and also added additional harmonies. Then my brother, Josh Licht, added the evocative Irish low whistle. It’s like the rest of the album takes you on a journey because it’s very layered and textured, but If I Only Could, being a simple folky, gospel type song, it has this rural bucolic feeling, that brings you back into your body.
DB: That comes up in some other the other songs on the album, Natural World and In The Final Hour, both of which talk about the idea that modernity has made us lose our way a little bit. Then with the reference to passing through the storm, and coming out the other end with hope and we reap what we sow, so the songs on the album hang together really well.
DL: I’ve put a lot of time and thought into the songs that I eventually chose for the album as well as the running order. I wrote and recorded a whole bunch of other stuff concurrently and since, but sonically and thematically, the songs had to fit a certain mold to make it onto this record.
DB: From inception to here, how long has it taken to put the album together?
DL: It’s taken nearly 7 years to write and record, although not consecutively, there were two years in the middle when I didn’t even listen to it. Some crazy shit happened, and I just wasn’t in the frame of mind to keep working on it at that point. So it’s had a long and somewhat difficult gestation period.
DB: Part of that difficulty would be losing friends like Darren Jones and Heath King, both of whom you’ve played music with, and Heath King actually features on this album.
DL: That’s exactly right, these things are sent to test us. For a while I just didn’t want to be reminded of it, I needed to let go.
DB: Do you feel, in those personal terms, that the album was cathartic and allows you to move on?
DL: Yeah, I think so now.
DB: Music For A Film Part 1, track 6 on the album, is an instrumental song with voice used as an instrument. What would the film be?
DL: That’s a good question! To me it sounds like it could be preceding a battle scene or something, it’s a mixture of the cinematic and bombastic.
DB: Two Worlds Two Hands spoke to me as a progression of Fire on Water, which is only 4 songs before it, although it’s also open in terms of how you would interpret that song. What is it actually about?
DL: Fire on Water alluded to a few different things and was perhaps more general, which I thought was more befitting of the opening track. Two Worlds Two Hands zooms in. It is the story of Jandamarra. He was a Bunuba man from the Kimberley in Western Australia. Paul Kelly also wrote a song about Jandamarra, and in his book How To Make Gravy he talks about how even though The Bunuba Resistance and The Kelly Gang were historically almost contemporaneous, everyone knows the story of Ned Kelly, but hardly anyone knows the story of Jandamarra and the Bunuba people. He was an aboriginal resistance fighter who’d moved between two worlds, he was a brilliant marksman and horseman, and had lived and assimilated into the white mans world. But events transpired where he turned back to his people. He had a road to Damascus moment. So it’s basically his story. Although in the end the lyrics came out much more ambiguous.
DB: You don’t even mention his name in the song, so the story is inferred.
DL: In the end I was happier with that ambiguity, as there are issues of cultural sensitivity. Being a white fella, I could allude to it, without being specific about it. It can also become broader in its meaning, but that was what it’s about.
DB: Let’s finish by talking about the title track, White Soul Black Heart, it bespeaks of a very personal battle with finding oneself and place after trauma.
DL: Very much so, and I didn’t so much as write it rather spewed it out. I put the music together with the view of putting a melody and lyrics over it. It was sitting round for a couple of months, so I just had the backing music, and nothing had really grabbed me and then one night, I think it was a New Year’s Eve actually, and I was feeling quite lonely and something earlier in the week had upset me, and I really wan’t travelling very well, as you can probably tell from the mood of the song, and I just had this idea, I wanted to get the spontaneity and urgency like a Pentecostal preacher, devoid of any religious connotations, but that really strident vocal. I thought if I wrote something down that would probably ruin it, so I had this backing track and I literally just plugged a microphone into the four track recorder and gave it a little bit of reverb, which was originally going to be a guide vocal and i pretty much didn’t change it. This might be the only song where I’ve never written down any of the lyrics. I only wrote them out the other night to put on the website, after listening to it. It just came off the top of my head.
Dale Blair is an Australian author & broadcaster.