“I was scared to write these songs, because a lot of the topics are challenging,” starts Chasing Ghosts founder, frontman and chief songwriter Jimmy Kyle. “But that’s how I knew I was onto something. It made me feel nervous.”
On one level, those topics draw on the harsh realities of life that can impact anyone. “Busted Lung”, for example, was inspired by the resilient and stoic survival of one of Kyle’s friends, who was bashed in a sickening hate-crime; the suicide of a mate who returned home after fighting in Afghanistan lies at the heart of “Wear My Medals”; and the emotional wreckage caused by young parents splitting informs “Kids Raise Kids”.
Tracks such as “Dig”, “Summer” and “Hometown Strangers in An Urban Dreaming”, however, are delivered from a uniquely Indigenous perspective. It’s through these songs that Kyle, a proud Koori who grew up on the Thungutti traditional lands on the mid-north coast of Australia, confronts the past, present and future challenges that face Australia’s First Nations people. And while he acknowledges the incendiary nature of such topics, Kyle approaches them in the hope of facilitating reconciliation.
“I wanted to deliver them in a way that asked more questions and wasn’t a slight on people, a personal attack on White Australia, but is a way to confront stuff that either people are not aware of or have not been educated about,” Kyle explains.
To that point, “Dig” tackles white Australia’s ignorance about Aboriginal affairs and heritage, Kyle fighting against assumed opinions and ill-informed judgments. “Only having a little knowledge is dangerous,” he says.
“Summer”, meanwhile, finds Kyle singing in English and, for the first time ever, his native tongue as he explores the horrors of the 1856 Towel Creek massacre. The singer-guitarist delivers the song through the eyes of a grieving Aboriginal Elder who, as a baby, was the lone survivor of the tragedy – incredibly, through a schoolyard incident when he was younger Kyle learned of a close family link to that Elder.
“The song explores white nationalism, colonisation, assimilation and ultimately reconciliation,” offers Kyle. “It asks the question of white Australia to come and reconcile the true history of the country and invites non-Indigenous Australians to see themselves as an extension of Aboriginal people.”
Mid-paced rocker “Hometown Strangers in An Urban Dreaming” tells the story of two childhood friends growing up in a rural town, one non-Indigenous and the other Koori. “Their lives are going on very different paths until a chance encounter in Collingwood near the Grace Darling Hotel,” says Kyle. “This personal account is used as a metaphor for the gap in knowledge and true understanding of Aboriginal Australia.”
Key to Kyle’s delivery is his talent for storytelling, a central tenet of Chasing Ghosts ever since the former metalcore musician founded it as an acoustic solo project in 2011.
“I was really into the idea of trying to find really good stories, and not having an agenda other than to do really good storytelling,” he explains. “Back then I was probably embracing metaphors, and I’m being more literal now.”
Chasing Ghosts’ debut LP, 2011’s Confessions From a Phone Booth, was a bare-bones acoustic outing that Kyle toured throughout New Zealand, South East Asia, the UK and Europe. (He chuckles when recalling the time he was walking along a street in Indonesia and a local called out, “Hey! Mr Chasing Ghosts!”) Its 2017 follow-up, I Am Jimmy Kyle, was a more full-blooded affair, with Chasing Ghosts having swollen to a six-piece. When it came time to write these new songs, Kyle found himself at something of a crossroads – would they, he wondered, have to represent a similar sonic leap?
“It was like, I’ve backed myself into a corner here,” he says. “What can I offer in a new way?”
To find the answer he lent on his bandmates: Josh Burgan (guitar/vocals), Aaron Schultz (guitar/vocals), Jake Dargaville (drums), Chris O’Neill (keys/vocals) and Rohan Welsh (bass). Together they breathed weight and volume into Kyle’s compositions, staying true to the core organic elements that define Chasing Ghosts – no autotune, only real instruments – while willingly following their chief songwriter into new musical territory.
“I decided there were no rules I was going to follow on this,” says Kyle, pointing to the fact that “Dig” and “Kids Raise Kids” approach the six-minute mark. “I’ve never written songs like that in my life! Who do I think I am? Queen?”
Kyle challenged his bandmates to pinpoint the elements of Chasing Ghosts they liked most, and together they focused on creating more of those moments. It explains why the album is rich in bluesy guitar licks, vocal harmonies and lavish Hammond B3, all presented in a package that stays true to each member’s punk rock roots. At times rousing (the Replacements-esque rock’n’roll of “Busted Lung”), contemplative (“Dig”), urgent (“Summer”), sombre (“Wear My Medals”) and laced with regret (“Kids Raise Kids”), this is a collection of music that traverses myriad moods but is unmistakably the work of one band. And it’s work that Kyle stands proudly behind, both musically and lyrically.
“I know people are going to come after me with some of these songs,” he says. “But I know in my heart that telling these stories is right and telling them in the way I do is the right thing to do. I know my audience is predominantly non-Indigenous, so I have to engage them in a way that engages their heart. Because that way they’re not going to be judged, but they can put themselves in an empathetic position to go on the journey.
“At the same time,” he adds, “when I have kids I want them to see that I confronted the things that were challenging and did it in a way that never broke my integrity. That’s what it’s all about.”