A plane drifts above Federation Square, from which a parachute containing the form of Tim Levinson – better known as Urthboy – floats down to land on the side of a stage; as the familiar red-headed figure emerges a dramatic burst of fireworks erupt, and the crowd goes wild!
Okay, so that isn’t exactly how Urthboy’s performance at AMP Alive tonight is going to go down – but not for lack of trying.
“It’s in my rider,” the Aussie hip hop mainstay jokes in a deadpan tone. “It’s a bit over budget. I did ask for it but they didn’t approve it,” he adds wrly.
Parachutes or no, a free show in the middle of Melbourne with some of Australia’s best – Urthboy, Hermitude, Grand Salvo, and Jess Ribeiro & The Bone Collectors – plus a “special guest”, all hosted by the gorgeous Clare Bowditch and Jebediah/Bob Evans frontman Kevin Mitchell, is hardly something to turn up your nose at.
The event is a showcase of the Australian Music Prize (AMP) nominees, of whom Urthboy is the only artist to have been nominated three times.
The album for which he has most recently been awarded the honour, 2012’s Smokey’s Haunt, is potentially his best yet; full of haunting inner-city tragedies (‘The Big Sleep’), calls for a republic (‘Empire Tags’), and groove-infused dance anthems (‘Knee-Length Socks,’ ‘Naïve Bravado’).
It’s an album of classic storytelling, all wrapped up in the context of the fictional “Smokey’s Haunt,” a conceptual setting where, as Levinson puts it, “life happens.”
“I was thinking of this gathering place, this meeting place where people come together, and in my music I think of it as a meeting place,” he explains, unwrapping his thoughts as he goes.
“People come to the gigs and we share an experience, and music accompanies so much of our lives. A meeting place is somewhere that good and bad happens,” he continues. “Love, falling out of love, humour, darkness…”
“There’s just all these different paths that life takes, and are allowed to unravel,” he adds.
It is true that despite the broad variety of subject matter tackled on the record, it does have a sense of continuity. Maybe it’s the constant presence of Australia, and even more so, Sydney, in the background of tales that would otherwise be quite dissimilar.
Or maybe it could be the mixture of hope and nostalgic melancholy that each track is able to conjure.
Whatever it is, the idea of Smokey’s Haunt, the meeting place for life, ably ties the varying threads of Urthboy’s sprawling fourth album together.
Way before his AMP nominations, or even the existence of the prize itself however, Levinson’s first incarnation in the Australian music scene was in rap trio Explanetary, alongside the two electronic artists that would go on to form his labelmates Hermitude.
Levinson is also the boss of that same homegrown label, Elefant Traks, which saw him taking out the inaugural Best Independent Label category at last year’s AIR awards ceremony.
He’s also been a part of political powerhouse The Herd, and several once-off collaborations. So over 15 years and countless original songs later, how does he keep things exciting for the fans?
“I think the challenge… is to keep forcibly moving yourself into new environments and challenging yourself to rethink how you go about things. So that you don’t have that repetition,” he decides. “You just constantly have to keep asking that question – what can we do differently this time?”
“We want to completely change the context of what we’re doing,” he adds, “because maybe that will provoke our brain to think laterally and think in different ways and start writing songs that people don’t expect.”
It’s a good theory for success, and one almost directly at odds with the one hammered into the youth since they first enter the education system. Levinson is arguing strongly for thinking outside the box, when most of us are conditioned to stay inside it.
It’s a common occurrence to find 17 and 18 year olds stressing over a number on a piece of paper at the end of the school year, but Levinson suggests that there are plenty of other possibilities for kids if they aren’t reaching their potential in a regimented system.
Namely, “finding through trial and error what it is that really speaks to someone, what they’re passionate about” is what he recommends.
“Sometimes those things don’t reveal themselves for a long time and you need to have some extra patience to be able to manage that in between time. Hopefully you can be productive with it,” he adds encouragingly.
“It’s a necessary evil having HSCs (Higher School Certificate, NSW’s examination system) and these tests that measure the potential of everybody,” he continues. “You need it because you need to have ways of shaping society but you forget that there are a lot of people that don’t fit that little box.”
When he posted a similar message on his Facebook Page last December, the status was flooded with grateful messages from fans, and affirmations from those who found their passion after bombing at school; from business owners, to students about to finish their degrees.
Levinson himself is a public example of succeeding in spite of his education. As he himself says, “I always think, if I can go and find something that I like, having failed my HSC, then pretty much anyone can.”
If anyone doesn’t believe him, they can argue with his AMP nominations, his role at the head of Elefant Traks, and, of course, his many musical accomplishments.
Urthboy plays the Coopers Amp Alive event tonight at Federation Square, and heads out on a national tour in February. Dates and details below.
The Coopers Amp Presents: Amp Alive
Friday 1st February, 2013 - Federation Square, Free Entry, 6pm
Hosted by Clare Bowditch and Kevin Mitchell.
Set times for the night are:
Urthboy 2013 Australian Tour
SAT 23 FEB
BLEACH FESTIVAL +
THU 28 FEB
ROCKET BAR +
FRI 1 MAR
REPUBLIC BAR +
SAT 2 MAR
CORNER HOTEL +
FRI 8 MAR
SAT 9 MAR
SAT 16 MAR
ANNANDALE HOTEL *
SAT 16 MAR
ANNANDALE HOTEL +
FRI 22 MAR
SOL BAR +
SAT 23 MAR
THE ZOO +