In today’s climate you don’t need to look far to find musicians branching out into other mediums. Since the release of Are We There Sharon Van Etten has, aside from occasional soundtrack work, focused on acting roles. Not to be outdone, Carrie Brownstein has dovetailed the return of Sleater-Kinney with a start turn as a writer – both memoir and screen – as well as, via Portlandia, a show creator and actress.
Another to follow in the same vein has been Australian songwriter Laura Imbruglia, who’s created Amateur Hour, the hidden gem of a webseries shortly due to launch its second series showcasing the country’s musical and comedy talents. Coming from a musical family (she can count Natalie as a sibling, though she’s consciously steered away from playing on the fact), Imbruglia has released three well-received albums culminating in the countryfied power pop of 2013’s What A Treat before embarking on the project that she described on her initial callout for assistance as “like a cross between Wayne’s World, [1990s Australian music show] Recovery and Saturday Night Live”.
“I could see a big hole in the Australian market, and an opportunity to do something better with the great stuff that’s been going around,” she adds when we meet in a café just off Melbourne’s Sydney Road one lunchtime shortly before she embarked on an afternoon of editing ahead of the new series. “It seems crazy that we’ve got King Gizzard and Courtney [Barnett] and Tame Impala making it big overseas and yet there’s nothing to showcase them at home.” But as a longtime performing musician, had it been difficult decision to put her own career on ice in order to create the show? “It wasn’t difficult at all,” she says candidly, with a shrug. “There’s no buzz about me; I’ve been playing since 2001 and it’s a pretty small audience. I reached a point where playing shows was bumming me out and there were just boxes of CDs in storage under my house. It got so stale that I needed to step away from it.” Not that she’s done with music entirely: she’ll later recall how a fan bought the $2,000 studio package offered as a perk during the crowdfunding campaign to fund the forthcoming series, and promptly gifted it back to her to make her next record. She intends to recommence songwriting come September.
With the seeds of her idea very firmly planted, Imbruglia too to social media to issue a call to arms outlining her vision for the project and asking if anyone wanted to be involved. She admits to having been overwhelmed with the level of both response and luck – an attendee at her music trivia night proved to be a fully-kitted boom operator, the music producer (who’s recorded all the bands for the musical segments) was one of Imbruglia’s travelling partners. She openly details some of her own naivety during the process, citing how she underestimated the time it would take – she “originally gave a timeframe of between December and March and I just thought it would be done and dusted within three months and would be a lot easier to pull off than it was” – and hadn’t even considered certain roles such as boom operators, but you get a sense that she’s proud of how the crew has developed as a tight unit. She details how the two main camera techs have been able to flesh out their portfolios and use their experience on the show as a knowledge-sharing exercise, and how the boom operator has become the show’s main editor and has gotten work on a feature film.
“I’m glad that the show has helped everyone be less amateur,” she says, swiftly clarifying that “I think we were the only ones calling it amateur. Anyone who engaged with the show questioned why we called it that, because to them it seemed anything but. But at the time I thought I was going to be filming it on my phone, I didn’t know it was going to turn out as it has done.” Not that she’s stood still either, as she adds that “I’d like to think that the show’s quality is a bit more consistent in season two – we got a sponsorship for our sound equipment and made a conscious decision to only use a certain type of camera across the board. It’s was a bit patchy and all over the shop on that front during that initial series. That’s how the show has changed, and I’ve got a bit more confidence as a director and writer.” On paper at least the process could be compared to that of a solo artist – using other people’s talents to flesh out an initial idea. As someone who’s now done both, is that the case? “It’s not been dissimilar in that I’m the boss and if I don’t like something then it doesn’t happen. People are given space to be creative but ultimately I’m directing the direction the show takes and I’m creative directing. It’s pretty similar, I’d say.”
A variety show in the most literal of senses, Amateur Hour packs a lot into its half-hour episodes which act as a rocket ride rocket ride through the Australian creative landscape. Take one solitary episode (S1E4) as an example, which features, in no particular order (deep breath): an opening skit depicting a suburban kerbside dance-off, two band sessions and attendant interviews, multiple Q&A segments with comedian Neil Hamburger, illustrated reminiscences with Ray Ahn and lifestyle tips from musician Laura Jean (both of which are regular features), spotlight featurettes on designer Dale Hardiman and a local Lebanese bakery, and a surrealist cartoon. With so much going on it’s unsurprising that Imbruglia admits the shows can be difficult to piece together, but she’s well aware of the balancing act she has to perform, and has developed a system to try and ensure the episodes gel. “I don’t plan them out until the end of production,” she explains. “I have an Illustrator file with a different colour for the bands and the comedy skits and LJ’s guide. They’re all represented and then I try and switch things around so something like the feature interview might appeal to the audience tuning in for the comedy, or vice versa. I try and arrange the bands so they’re complimentary in the hope that fans of one might discover a new band they’ve not heard before. It’s pretty tricky and I don’t give the bands any parameters. So if I book a band who play a six-minute songs then I’ve not got the choice of which comedy sketch to use – it’s got to be short to balance it out.”
Similarly, some thought has to go into the pairing of the bands, not only stylistically (the episode used above as an example the fantastically-named local heavyweight heroes of Dead and Batpiss), but in terms of audience and standing. Other episodes have featured the likes of Teeth And Tongue, Darren Hanlon and Sarah Blasko, all of whom are artists with with both a reputation and a following in Australia. With the show in relative infancy the question exists as to whether to utilise more well-known artists to boost the show’s profile, or try to balance it alongside giving less well known bands an opportunity and continue, as Imbruglia describes it, “ batting for the underdog”. She sees it as a necessary balancing act, and that bringing in the larger acts in turn helps the smaller ones too. “You need a well-known artist to bring the audience,” she says. “That said, it needs to be said that I’ve never booked an artist whose music I didn’t like, and booked them just out of popularity. I won’t put anyone on that I don’t like just because they have an audience. The lesser-known bands are treated in the same way as the other artists and it gives them a platform, but if you just have lesser-known bands then you don’t get the audience watching so it doesn’t do them any good.”
“I’m hoping that younger people are watching the show and realising that there’s a lot of women involved in music…that there’s a supportive community in place.”
While she doesn’t view appearing on the show as a dealbreaker by any means (“I don’t think it’s at the level where it’ll make or break them”) she describes the experience of appearing on Amateur Hour as one which “gives them a bit of exposure, and if they’re not a well known band it gives them material they can use to get a booking agent or a manager or an overseas tour. It gives them something that’s well shot, sounds good, presents them well…it comes across way better than shitty phone footage and enables them to show people what they sound like live on an Australian music show. It shows that they have an audience and have been given a shot on a TV show.” Not that it always goes smoothly: she displays visible annoyance as she describes how “it pisses me off when we spend a day recording a band and whatever and then they don’t even let people know that they’re on the show. Every now and again you book a band and it’s almost as if they’re too cool to be letting people know about it. It’s incredibly frustrating because it’s such a production to put on, so I try and choose bands who I’ve observed working hard to build their audience while also making great music.”
When not trying to juggle the show’s content and musical direction, Imbruglia has also been careful to maintain gender equality. She details how she strives for a 50/50 gender split throughout the series, something which appears to have resonated, with one of the show’s early hits being the ‘gender reversed guitar shopping’ comedy sketch, starring Imbruglia herself – as in many of the comedy segments – alongside established musical personalities such as Jen Cloher and Jen Sholakis. “You don’t see it,” she says of the equal gender split, “and there’s still gigs that you go to where there aren’t any women on stage at all. I’m hoping that younger people are watching the show and realising that there’s a lot of women involved in music, that it’s not a scary thing to get involved with and that there’s a supportive community in place.”
She details how the initial plan had been for the show to travel to and document the local scenes in Brisbane and Adelaide, only for funding issues to get in the way (“I contacted the Brisbane funding body to see if I could get funding for that part of it but I wasn’t eligible to apply for some reason”). As a result the show focusses exclusively on the Melbourne and Sydney scenes, in part to keep the series manageable and in part because Imbruglia has lived in both cities and has a support network to help keep costs down. She’s made no secret of the financial backing required to keep the show going, launching a crowdfunding campaign ahead of the second series that took its cues from The Simpsons’ ‘Sending Our Love Down The Well’ (changed to “Amateur Hour needs your help”) and starred Tim Rogers. “I don’t even know if the show will go beyond these two seasons,” she admits. “I need a lot more money and it’s not sustainable at this point.”
This is despite income from the crowdfunding campaign – something she’s grateful for remains whilst well aware that there’s a limit on how often that can be used – and state-level arts funding from the Victorian government. “We’ve got a very supportive arts funding body who have more money than other places,” she says of the latter. “Sydney doesn’t have its own state-level funding body, they have Australia Council who are based there but fund nationwide. So they’re competing for the same put of money the rest of the country’s gunning for, so I’m lucky I live in Victoria and have the infrastructure that we have available here. There’s a lot of people trying for that [state-level] money, but there’s a lot of money to go around.”
If there’s uncertainty about the funding going forward, the story’s the same about where the show goes from here. The logical step would be TV syndication (and indeed, certain segments are available on the on-demand service of broadcaster ABC), but despite Imbruglia’s best efforts it’s seeming like an unlikely event. “I don’t whether Australia makes a lot of money off reality TV or if there’s just a massive demand for it but they’re not interested in trying anything different – something works and they just run with it” she explains. “They don’t care that we have entire parts of human life not being represented, and it’s It’s all reality TV and sports. It’s very frustrating, and the screen funding bodies won’t fund a variety show because they feel it should be something paid for by big networks because it’s fairly expensive to make. It’s quite difficult to keep going with the knowledge that that’s what people think.” She admits to considering an altered version of the show in future, focusing on the comedy side that has proven to be among the best-received aspects of the show and one which “far less stressful to run. So if I continue it might be more along the comedy route, and try and and gain a new audience that way.”
Whatever the future holds for Amateur Hour, the snippets of the forthcoming series that have surfaced so far – including a wanton piss-take of hipster bar culture and a window into the travails of house-hunting – show it to be as sharp and whipsmart as ever. When the new season lands, treasure it for what it is: the result of continued hard work by a crew of individuals who’ve grown together into a crack team, a paean to the joys of the variety show, and a celebration of the Australian creative community, and the wealth of talent contained within it.