“I’m on a mission to lower everyone’s expectations about the arts scene in Australia,” says Justin Heazlewood on the launch of his grand anti-tourbook, The Bedroom Philosopher Diaries.
After asking a lone bagpiper to move from a park up the road, he’s just returned home and is feeling a bit guilty.
“I’ve never seen anyone look so disappointed,” adds The Bedroom Philosopher, who’d been filming a clip for a future album with Sydney electro producer, Spod. In his darkening Melbourne lounge, even the intermittent swish of the 86 tram is washed out by the drumming of afternoon showers.
Telling people to keep it down isn’t an especially surprising move from the self-deprecating Diaries author, who weaves tales of fierce hipster-bogan duels in between requests to turn the music down in his brutally revealing memoir, which Neil Gaiman dubbed as “what all the great rock and roll touring books would have been like, if the people who wrote them had been honest to the point of embarrassment”.
For Heazlewood, part of this honesty means knocking sleep from the eyes of both dreamy-lidded performers and deluded audiences.
“I like the idea of another artist reading [the Diaries] and going, ‘yeah, shit’s hard’, and feeling a bit more connected. I think people appreciate a self-deprecating tour diary, because you don’t often expect that.”
With the Diaries (and its eBook counterpart) released to enthused reviews from Benjamin Law, Dave Graney, and Tony Martin, The Bedroom Philosopher seems on fire; having just completed a well-received run at the Forum Theatre for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and with an Aria-nominated album under his belt for Songs from the 86 Tram, Heazlewood has already achieved some lofty heights since his first Triple J radio play twelve years ago.
But he won’t let you believe any of it.
“When asked about the Australian arts scene it’s a bit like asking someone about how fun surfing is when they’ve nearly drowned.”
“I’ve spent most of my career spending a lot of money on publicists to give the impression that I’m kicking arse, which is what you do in music and comedy,” he says, glancing up from his trademark spectacles. A droll flicker marks his lagoon eyes. “But I’m not – like I lost heaps of money on [the Forum Theatre] show because I’m insane, and the show had 20 people in it, and the Forum Theatre cost $16,000 to hire for 10 shows, so I’m not going to make any money.”
“The arts scene is extremely rewarding, but there’s a dark side that perhaps not enough people talk about. The truth is it’s extremely hard to make a consistent living, especially if you’re a bit ‘outside the mainstream’. If you’re a cult artist like me in the UK or the US and you appeal to 5% of the crowd, that’s still a couple of hundred thousand people. Here, it’s five thousand, and it just isn’t enough.”
For Heazlewood, who began Triple R’s still-running sketch show Lime Champions in 2009, comedy is a way to “cut through all the bullshit”. By exposing, ridiculing and reviewing his social awkwardness, The Bedroom Philosopher makes the anxieties of everyone else just a little bit more bearable.
“Everyone’s feeling really sorry for themselves, when in fact we’re all in a very similar situation – we’re all, apart from the top one per cent, just sort of battling our way from one week to the next,” says Heazlewood.
“I guess it could be a lot worse – we could be in Africa dying from starvation, which is happening right at the moment. So you’ve got to put it in some sort of perspective. I can still afford blueberries for my cereal, so [what] do I really have to complain about?”
But it’s the idea of self-consciousness that Heazlewood keeps returning to – not only in the Diaries’ beautifully candid depictions of “doe eyed” university students and spars with lippy audience members, but in the semi-deliberate awkwardness of his own performances. For Heazlewood, who has published self-revealing columns in Frankie magazine since 2007 and in his e-zine, LapTopping (much of which has made it into the Diaries) since 2003, writing with humour on these moments is an invaluable and inexhaustible fuel for catharsis.
“You spend a lot of time trying to entertain the audience, but I guess you just get fabulously bored and frustrated by the process of it all, so you have to do something to entertain yourself, like reviewing the audience, which is what I kind of do. I review my life.”
There’s a lull as Heazlewood, perhaps, ponders his next project. It’s a pretty dreary, bleachy kind of day – no wonder Heazlewood attributes some of the “passivity” of Melbourne audiences to their tendency to stay indoors.
“Melbourne audiences are the hardest to please in the world, probably,” he says. “The way Melbourne’s designed, we’re just a very self-conscious, insular city. You go to a Melbourne music gig, and you can just feel the tension of the self-consciousness.”
However, Heazlewood says he’s done his bit critiquing Melbourne audiences with his satire on hipster scenesters in the viral ‘Northcote (So Hungover)‘ video, which won a bunch of awards and ranked number 3 in Rage’s Top 50 Videos for 2010. He says ‘Northcote’ “was going way beyond the call of duty on giving feedback to the scene”.
On a Wednesday night in Melbourne, a clutter of people are confused in Readings bookstore in Carlton. After fighting an unsound guitar amp and reciting a few sexually awkward anecdotes from the Diaries to his astonished audience, Heazlewood decides to end his book launch with a recitation of Ted Prior’s beloved children’s book, Grug and the Rainbow.
“Hey, it looks like Melbourne!” Heazlewood exclaims as he points to the jumbled land of Grug. Page turn. “Oh, it is Melbourne,” he sighs (the page shows some rain). Heazlewood eventually pinpoints Grug’s exact location to the inner-city suburb Preston (Grug builds a fire), before jumping offstage. There’s another confused moment before people remember to clap.
“The problem with my act is I act hesitant and standoffish which embraces how vulnerable I’m feeling, at once making a caricature of it as a satire on the upbeat comedian norm,” elaborates Heazlewood in the The Bedroom Philosopher Diaries.
Heazlewood, who has been described by The Age as “one of the few artists making a genuine attempt to explore the oddness of our age”, admits his approach to performance can backfire when audiences instead “assume I’m a bit crap”. He’d much prefer his audience be attentive, laughing, and ideally “showing signs of awe”.
“If only awe had a sound, like a low growl,” he adds. “I’d like people to relate and feel inspired and perhaps breathe a little easier knowing everyone is lonely and weird, not just them.
“Mostly I want them to buy merch as awe doesn’t pay for my organic maple syrup.”
Struggling, like Grug, with the ephemeral nature of rainbows in wintry Melbourne, Heazlewood admits the next step in his career is just as elusive.
“Everyone’s just so distracted – how will they even latch onto your thing for very long? […] I’ve got a great adventure ahead of me, trying to figure out how the hell things work – again.”
Heazlewood hopes part of this adventure will expose audiences to the neurotic underbelly of the Australian arts scene.
“I want to write a really personal book about what it’s like to be an artist in Australia. I like the idea of some artist sitting at home in their bedroom feeling like no one loves them, [and] being able to read a book from me, who they probably think is kicking arse and rolling in money and groupies, and just hear me, you know, Monday morning trotting off to a Centrelink appointment at thirty-one to stay on the dole so I can pay my rent this week.”
Heazlewood says the magnitude of struggling mid-level performers in Australia is, “just an amazing situation”.
“You’re likely to get a lot more support when you’re emerging […] but once you start succeeding a bit you’re a lot harder to like. Once you kick a few goals or get some songs on Triple J it’s like you don’t need as much support.”
“By all means bet everything and ride the dole and live and breathe it all day every day and don’t take no shit from the man telling you to settle down … at the same time you may not want to run up too much debt on your credit cards.”
Justin Heazlewood will perform as The Bedroom Philosopher at the Wesley Anne in Melbourne on Thursdays in July. Supporting him will be a range of spoken word artists including Emilie Zoey Baker, Sean M Whelan, and GDS editor Geoff Lemon.
For more info go to bedroomphilosopher.com
First posted at artsHub