An Aquatic Interview with Max Sharam

Who said good things never come out of ropey TV talent shows? Max Sharam's winning performance on one such show resulted in a record deal that's just delivered its first results in the form of the stunning "Coma" EP. ANTHONY HORAN had an aquatic chat with Max...

If there's such a thing as interview heaven, this is a prime candidate for it. What started out as a neat bit of scene-setting on the part of Max Sharam's label Warner Music - taking the day's interviews out of the usual hotel suite or boardroom and instead using the lush surrounds of the Fairfield Park boathouse - resulted in something somewhat more unusual once Max laid eyes on the assembled collection of rowboats there for hire to tourists who want to get up close and personal with the decidedly murky Yarra River. The location may have been chosen as a promotional device, but somehow interviewing Max Sharam on a small boat surrounded by native plant life and assorted ducks made perfect sense.

Later that day, Max's live-to-air on Triple R left the attendant audience stunned. Equipped only with a guitar and her voice, she displayed another side of her work, one masked somewhat by the defiantly Big Production on some of the EP tracks. Imagine a voice that can shift from Liz Phair to Diamanda Galas in a heartbeat, with lyrical savvy and a perfectly obscure sense of humour, and you're halfway there.

Originally from the Ballarat area, Max now resides in Sydney, where she spent some time in various bands (including techno-house band Fleshworld) before taking the solo path, the initial result of which is the "Coma" EP, her debut release. A five track EP, it's a remarkable piece of work that sounds quite unlike anything else you'll hear this year. While the title track, courtesy of a very radio-friendly mix, has just been added to the playlists of chart-fodder radio stations after a large amount of play on Triple J, there's a lot more to Max than meets the eye. The EP's brief journey takes in everything from twisted jazz-pop to searing acoustic emotion to very, very strange and rather wonderful operatic experimentation; it's a decidedly tasty preview of Max's full-length album, due out in January. It promises to be a phenomenal album indeed.

"I didn't consciously start a music career," says Max, "I think it just evolved. I always had the feeling that I was going to record my songs. I did a TV spot on New Faces - I did that to make a statement, because I thought it was fucking mad all this mediocre stuff that goes on on television. I thought, why doesn't anybody get up and represent my generation, that side of Australia that's so readily ignored? That compelled me to get on New Faces. All the phones started ringing after that - I was really lucky."

The first label to show interest was Sony, who called on Max to do a showcase performance for them; while that went down well musically, her musical manifesto - incorporating classical instruments, opera, and a melting pot of other musical styles into her music - left the assembled delegation confused. A lengthy period spent juggling other offers followed before Warner stepped in offering the musical freedom Max needed.

"Because I have a good picture of how I want to present myself, I've made sure that it's not all in other people's hands. That's why I've always been such an independent person. All my life, it's been one of my philosophies. I'm quite a perfectionist, and I always get so disappointed when I ask people to do things for me that I end up just doing it myself. That was one of the reasons I went solo - you just can't reply on other people. I designed my own sleeve for my album, for example. I'm a bit scared of putting things in other people's hands."

Respected producers Daniel Denholm and Nick Mainsbridge were the hands Max entrusted the recording of the EP to, their respect for individual artists' techniques and styles resulting in an end product that is decidedly different yet, especially in the case of the title track, simultaneously digestible to the increasingly conservative radio market. The album format is much more open to the kind of experimentation shown on the remainder of the EP, in particular closing track "Crash Landing", which Max produced herself.

"I want to remix 'Coma', actually. If you take off all the layers, which we'll do when we do a remix of it, it's actually got this fantastic funky beat underneath the chorus. It has been mixed to be a little bit more radio-friendly, but I think it could be just as commercial with the opera louder and with the more spartan, funky chorus. But a song's not dead because you record it once. You can still turn it upside down and inside out, and come up with something completely different."

Copyright © Anthony Horan ( June 1994