John Dowler's Vanity Project - Splendid Isolation (Half a Cow)

Ian McFarlane

I wrote this originally for Sounds of the City (Issue #3) which is yet to be published.

Melbourne singer/songwriter John Dowler is a pop classicist in the mould of an Alex Chilton, a Gene Clark or a Brian Wilson. Obviously not as well known internationally – or even in Australia, for that matter – but his attention to song detail and presentation is such that the comparison stands.

Splendid Isolation is his latest statement and it’s a thing of genuine beauty. With his plaintive, sorrow-laden voice gliding effortlessly over an enticing run of songs he’s crafted an album brimming with jangle pop chime, folk rock melodies and rawer power pop moves.

Dowler may be the front man but it’s a band effort. The ironically named John Dowler’s Vanity Project comprises Dowler, guitarists Justin Bowd and Mark McCartney, bassist Julien Chick and drummer Michael Stranges. Dowler will be remembered for his time with two of the classic Aussie power pop bands, Young Modern and The Zimmermen. The other guys are younger players but they bring a refreshing maturity, strength of purpose and cleanness of playing to the whole deal.

Dowler contributes two songs (‘Off The Coast Of Me’, ‘My Face’) and four co-writes with ex-Zimmermen members, ‘I Blame You’ (with Chris Langman), ‘The Spoken Word’ (with Chris Malherbe) plus ‘Dark Is The Night’ and ‘Something Good’ (with Michael Holmes). Another Zimmermen alumni, the late Peter Tulloch, is present in spirit with ‘Sentimental’. In addition to that, Bowd proves himself with three engaging songs, ‘Unsolved Mystery’, ‘The Untouchable’ and ‘Oakleigh’. Lastly there are versions of Lowell George’s ‘I’ve Been The One’ and Terence Boylan’s ‘Don’t Blame It On Your Wife’.

And the songs are the key attraction here. Each can draw you in with a finely crafted arrangement, an alluring melody, a delicate mesh of guitar lines or a literate turn of phrase. It’s not all grace and tact, however; when the musicians get wound up they can really rock out and there’s the occasional lyric that reveals a darker side or delivers a slashing cut to the heart. It helps define the natural flow of this splendid album.

In conversation with John Dowler

Congratulations on the album John. How did you come up with such a great sounding record?
It was recorded by Roger Bergodez at Tender Trap Studios, Northcote. Mark McCartney knew Roger and he was terrific and gave us lots of time. He had a really good ear himself and knew what he was doing. We recorded it over a period of about two weeks with the band playing live, complete with the occasional mistake. We did a few overdubs, such as the vocals in an afternoon. We spent a couple of days mixing it and it was done. I’m pretty pleased with the result.

You’re a songwriter in your own right, not necessarily a prolific songwriter, but it seems that you’ve been very generous in sharing around the song credits. Did you consciously pick the tracks on that basis?
When we first started, I didn’t really have any new material so I looked back through various songs I’d written over the years. The ones with Mick Holmes are Zimmermen tracks that probably would have ended up on the third album, if we’d stayed together. And the same for the Peter Tulloch track. Unfortunately Peter died about 10 years ago but I’d always loved that song. I thought it was too good to waste so we started playing that live. Actually, all these songs we were playing live and it just seemed natural to include them. In a way for me it was sort of like a clearing house, I had all these various songs lying around that nothing had ever happened to. And Justin gave me a tape of demos he’d made and those three songs I just thought were great, you know.

You’ve included Lowell George’s ‘I’ve Been The One’; what is it about a band such as Little Feat that you like?
That’s from Little Feat’s first album which is my favourite. I just found that album fascinating. I bought it as an import when it first came out, it was a very idiosyncratic record. I’ve been wanting to do that song since... I came across a folder when I was clearing out the garage a while ago and I had a whole lot of these song lyrics typed up, from 1970, and that was one of the songs. So I’ve actually had it in mind to do that song for 45 years.

The cover art displays the track listing as if it were an LP record, divided into the two sides. What was your approach to that; do you still yearn for the LP record configuration in this digital age?
No, I’m not nostalgic for LP records at all. I’m bemused by the fact that they’ve become fetishistic again, that people have become crazy for vinyl again. I’ve never looked back, once I found CDs. Michael the drummer took care of the CD art and then I had a few ideas that I told him about and he designed that configuration and I thought, well that’s fine. And I’d put all the sort of hard rock, guitar solo songs on the second half and that’s just the way it turned out. I like the look of the package, and if you look closely at the front cover you can see all my CDs behind me anyway.

Do you have any particular favourite tracks on the album?
I think ‘Off The Coast Of Me’ came out really well. And that’s a reasonably old song that I updated a little and we jammed on it and I think it turned out really well. It’s a little bit unusual for me, it’s not the usual power pop or straightforward song. We stretched out on that, it’s quite long. I think a couple of Justin’s songs are really good. ‘Oakleigh’ is a great piece of social commentary; people north of the river talking about people south of the river, you know. ‘The Untouchable’ is good; it seems like it’s a stalking song.