Michael Waugh

It’s lunch break at a prestigious school on the Yarra River in Melbourne and shortly a group of senior students will be summoned back to the classroom for exam revision. Taking a moment away from class preparations to talk about his upcoming new music is Michael Waugh, a passionate educator. But that is not all…to take a line from a song on the album,

I’m a father, I’m a teacher, I’m a husband, I’m a singer, I’m a writer, I’m a thinker, I’m a talker, I’m a listener …. “If I could say what I’m most proud of, it’s all that is on this list.”

Nominated for Best New Talent at the 2017 Golden Guitar awards after the release of the highly acclaimed debut album What We Might Be, Michael has been compared to Aussie folk and country legends Paul Kelly and John Williamson and formidable global songwriters like Kristofferson.

Now, oozing honesty and continuing to capture life’s highs and lows with ascerbic and unflinching observations, this master storyteller has a new collection of emotionally driven songs on The Asphalt and the Oval. Listening is an experience that will make you laugh, gasp, shudder, cry and reminisce.

“I felt really exposed and at times terrified writing this album,” Waugh explains. Then he draws on a quote from Jason Isbell, ‘I am not fighting with you down in the ditch, I’ll meet you up here on the road…’” It is this kind of guts and sinew affirmation that gives the new album a bare-knuckle rawness of theme and purpose.

“The title, The Asphalt and the Oval, is based on how I was brought up. My primary school was divided up on gender lines. Girls had to play on the asphalt, the boys had to play on the oval. There was no democracy of choice.” Michael says he felt like a ‘misfit’ and that he was incarcerated somewhere in the middle.

“I used to be called names and one of them was ‘queer’ .., I distinctly remember in that moment, I was thinking ‘I don’t know what that word means.’ I just thought I’m obviously strange.”

Yet despite the scars from his childhood and in view of current global events, Michael believes the world needs a little less judgement and a lot more tolerance and forgiveness because ‘hating and hate doesn’t get us anywhere.’

So, these songs, just like the title track, are a personal statement. “When I started writing it I was absolutely terrified of saying ‘Joe Grey used to say that I was queer’ because it just brought back those feelings of being ostracised – alienated. But that’s also why I needed to write that song.”

Several of the songs that make up this album were written with Michael’s granddaughter in mind – and the discomfort and unease that pondering ‘a world that doesn’t play fair’ raises for him.

“I didn’t grow up with a little sister and I only have a son, so before Kiara came into our world I’d never been responsible for a little girl. And as someone who is now responsible for a little girl I’m scared because of those things that my mum, my wife and my friends had to go through. I don’t want Kiara growing up in a world where her gender might prevent her from being anything that she wants to be, or where she could be hurt because some man didn’t grow up past Grade 3.

“When we look at how women are treated, quite frankly it’s not good enough. I don’t set out to write to a theme, but when we started recording the songs (with about 40 to choose from) those that kept coming forward had the stories for men and the stories for women.”

Michael points out he is not sitting in judgement of anyone. “I just tell a story observationally.” With true grit, conviction and authenticity flowing through this album, songs like ‘They Don’t Let the Girls in the Game’ are stand out tracks, as is ‘Willy’s Chickens’ which is about the factory that employed Michael’s mother at one time.

“Those women who worked in that chicken factory were just incredibly strong women … You’ve got your hands in the air like you want to surrender, one hand holds a chook like a pub raffle winner the other’s in the arse of a Sunday Dinner … There was part of me that knew how horrible conditions were, but they just laughed all the time.”

As these true tales extract themselves, Michael steadfastly refuses to turn fact into fiction. “Old man Willy is a real guy who is still alive, that factory actually exists and the family I talk about that Mum delivered the chickens to, they are real. Mum said I needed to change the names in the song.”

But he didn’t.

…read the full story in Issue 87