They dreamed up an arrangement that would imbue the EP tracks plus new material with sumptuous orchestral life, with Lawson conducting. How did they get around the lack of a beat? By bringing Lawrence’s regular collaborator Rino Darusman aka Goldnoir – a producer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter himself – along for the ride.
Lawson says Darusman’s input was vital. “We don’t have a drum kit, but Rino’s playing keyboard providing us with that groove, so he’s the engine room.”
Lawson, a VCA graduate, wrote his thesis on English singer-songwriter Patrick Wolf, renowned for combining electronic samples with classical instrumentation, so he’s across both the possibilities and the challenges. “For me, the strength of Patrick’s music is the meeting point of pop vibes and the classical form, instrumental colour and the approach to electronics as a colouristic effect.”
Forest Collective, including Ali Fyffe on saxophone, William Elm on the accordion, Trea Hindley on trombone and Helen Bower on violin, are dab hands at picking up the pop vibe.
“We’ve worked with dance, theatre and filmmakers, so bringing contemporary art music to new spaces is at the core of what we do,” Lawson says. “Max’s music is opulent and orchestral with a sophisticated harmonic language, so it fits very well.
“We’re used to notated music, so while Max had some of that already, it was mostly just chords and a melody. So Alex Morris and Matt Hirst have taken the songs and brought them out in the arrangements.”
That involved listening to them, “umpty-do times … then you’ve got to have an intellectual discussion with yourself about how you can represent that with the instruments you’ve got. Whether you represent what they’ve created, or go in a completely new direction.”
Lawrence had to be comfortable with that direction. “You’re putting a musician who’s unused to being in an ensemble in a situation where they have to really be conducted and structurally sound,” Lawson notes. “Within a pop music context, that isn’t always the intention. So you have to create a framework to be fluid, expressive and improvisatorial, which can still happen, but we need to have discussions about when and how.”
Rehearsing at the Abbotsford Convent, Forest Collective’s home for the last six years, was a trip for Lawrence. “I’ve always imagined my music played by a classical orchestra. So for Evan, who is also queer, to come to me wanting to work together and bring that forward in an organic, classical space was so exciting. I was over the moon.”
His soulful debut EP Chlorophyll, released last year boasts an expansive electro sound punctuated by his swooping falsetto and plaintive introspection. “It’s all about healing, growing out of a state of numbness and apathy towards being connected again,” Lawrence says. “I was really depressed. When I learned about mindfulness and meditation, just being able to watch a tree blow in the wind and try to have no thoughts in your head was the most inspiring thing. So I wanted to write music to cultivate that stillness for other people.”
He hopes audiences will find that stillness when the ensemble performs at the convent. “To sing in that space with a beautiful harp, accordion, strings and the woodwinds, I got a bit emotional.”
Chlorophyll is at the Abbotsford Convent as part of Midsumma Festival February 7-9. For more info, go to midsumma.org.au