Up close with Tim Freedman

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It has been over a decade since The Whitlams told us to Blow Up The Pokies ­– at a time when they were famously known as the ‘hardest working band in Australia’. Now, with the torching of poker machines more relevant than ever, Whitlams front-man Tim Freedman has come out with a solo album that seems to break away from his band’s hardworking image: entitled Australian Idle. Indeed, Freedman admits he hadn’t written a song for three years. “I certainly did relax a lot more than I used to. I sort of gave myself long service leave,” he tells Cream.

The album cover image – a close-up of Freedman lounging in a crystal-clear pool, looking very much the ‘idle’ rock star – makes us question whether he is having a go at the glitz and glamour lifestyle propagated by certain reality television and talent shows.  But Freedman explains the pun is intended to be light-hearted: “It’s more to do with that suburban dream of having a pool – that great Aussie dream of having somewhere of your own to swim,” he says. Asking him how he feels about the Idol television series proves that its part in the pun is a small one: “I always think the kids are great singers. I don’t think it’s on anymore, I think it’s called X Factor…”

Freedman’s solo album is full of his signature storytelling charm. However, this time around the stories are decidedly not based on his own experiences, but on the lives of others. Twenty years in the spotlight has taught him that opening your whole world to the public is not always desirable.

“I think that as you get better known around the joint, you feel like revealing less of yourself, because privacy is a good thing,” he says. “I reckon the best lives are lived under the radar.”

On Australian Idle there are problem drinkers and ageing romantics, there are fathers and daughters and ex-girlfriends. There are also characters that are very much real and remain close to Tim’s heart – such as an old friend who has been recovering from cancer “in lots of places”, and a wedding speech from Tim’s best friend from kindergarten.

“Most of the people I write songs about I’ve known for years and years and years, so it takes a while for me to know enough about them,” he explains. “I mean, on the album in the first five songs there’s Ken and Max and Peter Brown, and I’ve known these guys for 20 years, so you know, it’s good to put them down into stone.”

Idle clearly features a strong sense of reflection on the past, but Tim is reluctant to call the album ‘nostalgic’. “Nostalgia, they say, is the pain of returning – and I’m not having any pain,” he says. But he also admits there are darker elements to the album: “The sounds are happy, but the lyrics are adult, and they do talk about it all – the journey through life – so it’s not all peaches and apples. But I’m not depressed, I’m just telling a story about some brave people.”

Along with the storytelling gems, Freedman covers three songs on the album: a folk song he fell in love with in a New York bar, a Matraca Berg classic about growing old but staying beautiful, and Billy Fields’ 1979 hit “You Weren’t In Love With Me”. The entire album is soaked in the sounds of the late 1970s and early ’80s: a decade of influence that Freedman is happy to acknowledge. “It’s when I was a teenager, you know? And the music you listen to as a teenager is the stuff that really gets into your bones. And so I thought I’d have fun trying to play music that was influenced by the stuff I loved when I was 14.”

Driving from Brisbane to Toowoomba for his first show as Tim Freedman: solo artist, it is clear that he is happy to be back on the road. With a new band and a new set of material, the artist feels that even after 20 years of playing shows, “it’s all a fresh challenge”. And surely he is relieved to be able to refuse a request to play Blow Up The Pokies for the millionth time? “Yeah, but it’s so topical, I might actually throw it in for once!” Tim laughs.

‘Australian Idle’ is out now through Sony Music Australia. Click on the album art below for a link to the ‘You Weren’t In Love With Me’ video.