Stars summon fresh sounds for ghost-town album

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Simon CollinsThe West Australian
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Musician Bernard Fanning in Cossack last year for the VAST Project.
Camera IconMusician Bernard Fanning in Cossack last year for the VAST Project. Credit: Russell Ord Photography

The two best Bernard Fanning songs since 2005’s chart-topping Tea and Sympathy can be found on Vast, an album recorded in the Pilbara ghost town of Cossack.

The first, Everything, was written with Broome legend Alan Pigram and Ngarluma man Tyson Mowarin, the indigenous musicians prompting the former Powderfinger frontman to reflect on their relationship with the natural environment.

“These are my cathedrals, these are my city squares,” Fanning sings in his unmistakable voice.

Tyson Morawin, Bernard Fanning and Alan Pigram collaborated on a song for the Vast album.
Camera IconTyson Morawin, Bernard Fanning and Alan Pigram collaborated on a song for the Vast album.

The other, Ashes and Dust, Fanning wrote with Oh Mercy frontman Alex Gow on the morning they first met in Cossack.

Those songs appear on Vast alongside contributions from Paul Dempsey, Sally Seltmann, Augie March’s Glenn Richards and Eskimo Joe frontman Kav Temperley.

Oh Mercy frontman Alex Gow enjoying the Pilbara sun in Cossack during the Vast sessions.
Camera IconOh Mercy frontman Alex Gow enjoying the Pilbara sun in Cossack during the Vast sessions. Credit: Russell Ord Photography

The latter sounds surprisingly bluesy on Sugarstone, which he recorded alone in a makeshift studio in the tiny former schoolhouse with two large lizards and a nest of hawks for company.

The ARIA Award-adorned stars were among about 40 musicians who late last year descended on Cossack, a North West port deserted since 1881 when a cyclone sent the pearling industry packing to Broome.

The City of Karratha-funded project is the brainchild of Panics frontman Jae Laffer and Roebourne music teacher Qynn Beardman, who set up a creative retreat akin to the Heidelberg School in the pindan.

The Vast project was the brainchild of Perth-raised musician Jae Laffer and Roebourne music teacher Qynn Beardman.
Camera IconThe Vast project was the brainchild of Perth-raised musician Jae Laffer and Roebourne music teacher Qynn Beardman.

Laffer says there was “no agenda” — he just wanted to create an art school vibe, using the “mystery and beauty of Australia” to inspire participants. “We gave a bit of WA desert to them,” he says, “and then they did their thing.”

Artists who heeded their call span multiple disciplines, including Perth artist Stormie Mills, sculptor Lis Johnson, designer Thalia Economo and comedian Paul McDermott, who drops his acerbic guard to contribute stirring ballad Let Go. Former Mambo artist Robert Moore, from Grafton in NSW, painted the impressionistic landscape on the cover.

Entertainer Paul McDermott utilised all his skills during the Vast project.
Camera IconEntertainer Paul McDermott utilised all his skills during the Vast project. Credit: Russell Ord Photography

Egos were put aside as collaborations proliferated.

Perth-based punk lifer Nick Sheppard even switched his electric guitar for an acoustic to help others finish their tune in the few days they rattled around the majestic stone buildings. His strumming as he wandered into the former Galbraith’s Store prompted local indigenous artist Josie Alec to invent the lyrics of poignant album closer Vast Thoughts on the spot.

Perth-based guitarist Nick Sheppard recording in the Pilbara ghost town of Cossack.
Camera IconPerth-based guitarist Nick Sheppard recording in the Pilbara ghost town of Cossack.

Sheppard also played a tasty guitar lick that drives Ashes and Dust, while a chorus sang backing vocals for Oh Mercy’s Have a Little Faith late at night after a communal dinner and a few drinks.

The Healys, three Irish brothers used to playing folk covers at West Leederville pub J.B. O’Reilly’s, served as the house band in the cavernous Customs House and Bond Store stoically overlooking Butcher Inlet.

Paul McDermott harmonising with the Healys during the Vast project sessions.
Camera IconPaul McDermott harmonising with the Healys during the Vast project sessions.

The project’s secret weapons harmonise on Tradition as a bird twitters in the rafters above.

Margaret River-raised indie folkie Rowena “R.O.” Wise — daughter of Luther Scott, who was also in Cossack making instruments — provides the swooning Overgrow.

Another stand-out is Mowarin’s honest acoustic pop-rocker Best I Can, while country star Adam Harvey’s Red Dirt Town is perhaps too literal, even for an album clearly reflecting the environment in which it was born.

WA indie-folk artist Rowena Wise recorded the swooning Overgrow on the Vast album.
Camera IconWA indie-folk artist Rowena Wise recorded the swooning Overgrow on the Vast album. Credit: Russell Ord Photography

While there was no schedule and participants went on field trips to see rock art at the Burrup Peninsula, meet local elders and go fishing, not everyone found sonic inspiration.

Olivia Bartley, who records stunning art-pop as Olympia, focused on visual art and does not have a song on Vast.

Meanwhile, Dempsey opens the 18-song collection with The Sky’s Gone Missing, a lyrically and melodically rich effort that could easily find its way on to one of his accomplished studio albums.

Something For Kate’s Paul Dempsey hard at work during a recording session for Vast.
Camera IconSomething For Kate’s Paul Dempsey hard at work during a recording session for Vast.

In May, many of the artists involved returned to perform at the opening of the Red Earth Arts Precinct, a 450-plus seat theatre, rooftop cinema, outdoor amphitheatre and state-of- the-art library space in Karratha.

In a top hat and tails, the generous McDermott served as MC.

All proceeds generated by Vast album sales will be used to advance artistic pursuits in the Pilbara region.

Laffer is unsure whether there will be Vast II but is still savouring the first, saying “The magic created by those people together was worth the effort”.

Vast is out now.

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