The Australian artist and comedian on surviving the lockdown, monogamy, maturity and his latest passion project
Rolling out of bed at 7am to conduct an interview ten minutes later is not exactly my favourite morning scenario. But the hefty 11-hour time difference between the UK and Australia, where Tim Minchin is based, doesn’t allow either of us much leeway. I wait for him to join the Zoom call slouched in front of my computer, my swollen, sleep-deprived eyelids blinking sheepishly at the webcam. It’s 6pm in Sydney, and, as it turns out, Tim hasn’t had a great day himself. His signature long hair is scraggly and wet (he just got out of the shower) and his eyes are red and puffy, like he was crying just a moment ago.
“Something went wrong with my eyes last night and I ended up in the emergency department of an eye hospital. It’s some sort of infection, so I woke up this morning unable to open my eyes but it’s getting better”, he explains. Despite an eventful night, Tim seems to be in good spirits. He’s calm and buoyant, sitting beside his piano, family pictures hanging on the wall behind him—a comforting composition that makes our conversation feel much more intimate than it actually is. Maintaining this kind of air of composure hasn’t come easily to the Australian artist over the last few COVID-stricken months though, he admits, and a large part of keeping his sanity intact was avoiding the news, he says.
"The 24-hour news cycle is designed to make you anxious and het up"
“I deliberately disengaged from the 24-hour news cycle and Twitter. I’ve got enough stuff going on in my life without feeling I need to binge on the ebbs and flows of the anxiety of everyone in the world. I think we make this mistake of assuming that one is morally obliged to stay in touch with what’s going on in the world—and there’s an argument for that. But putting aside whether or not it’s a moral obligation to be across all the news and all the suffering of all different groups, what’s certainly the case is that the 24-hour news cycle does not represent that body of knowledge you think you’re looking for, the 24-hour news cycle is designed to make you anxious and het up, so that you click and click more, and comment, and engage, and buy the products advertised on their sites. I’m trying to read just a few longer term things every now and then, but to be honest, I’m just not reading the f*****g news right now. I am burying my head in the sand a little bit because I need it”.
Thankfully, the global standstill allowed him to focus on his passion project of some 20-odd years: his debut music album, Apart Together. Tim has always been quite the polymath when it came to the arts. Originally aspiring to become an actor/musician, he spent many years as a “starving muso” specialising in a unique, subversive brand of cabaret-inspired musical comedy. He hit the big time around 2005 when he performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and since then, he’s appeared in multiple TV shows and penned a couple of Olivier-winning theatre productions (Matilda the Musical and Groundhog Day). Making this latest album has been his dream ever since he moved to Melbourne as a young man with a demo in his pocket, determined to get a record deal.
Photo by Damien Bennett
"It’s romantic to look life in its dripping jaws and still find it beautiful"
Though Tim doesn’t shy away from referring to himself as “successful” and “wealthy”, it seems that fame and money never muddled with his unique gift for sinking his teeth into life’s uncomfortable truths with discerning sensibility and twinkling wit. “Candour is kind of my thing,” he admits.
“What I’m good at is overanalysing, talking too much and staying too long, you know, being a bit of a bore. But through that, every now and then, I manage to come up with an idea that’s helpful to people, I think. I’ve learned over my career that some people find the way I express things is kind of resonant or helpful.”
Apart Together is just that; a rolodex of very specific life settings that force us to ask ourselves big questions around love, mortality and ethics, peppered with Minchin’s signature dash of comedic panache.
“I just want to be my own genre; I know that’s incredibly ostentatious but that’s always been my goal. I don’t want anyone to be able to put an adjective in front of me, I just want people to go, ‘You’ve got to see that guy live, he’s funny and he’s heartfelt,’” says Tim when I ask him about this offbeat concoction of philosophy and humour, welded together with music. One of the songs we end up discussing in more detail is “I’ll Take Lonely Tonight”, about trying to resist the temptation to cheat on one’s significant other while drunkenly flirting with an attractive guest at a party. Tim has been with his wife, Sarah, for almost 20 years, and I wonder whether this kind of candour ever causes any friction in their relationship.
Tim and Sarah Minchin
“I don’t think it’s romantic to pretend life is what it ain’t, I think it’s romantic to look life in its dripping jaws and still find it beautiful, and so ‘Lonely Tonight’ is about the fact that if you’re away a lot and—if you’re lucky like me—in a fun industry where you meet interesting people who are also lonely and horny and drunk, you will get yourself in situations where you have to make a choice. And when you’ve been away for a long time, it does feel like a choice. Long term relationships are a pragmatic thing, you have to choose it again and again, and keep figuring out why.”
Tim was born in the UK, raised in Australia and then spent the majority of his adult life living all over the world, including a lengthy period in LA, which led him to suffer from what he refers to as “home dysphoria”, ie, not knowing where he belongs anymore. That’s what makes family so important to him: cousins, grandparents, Christmas and a tight-knit community—he wants all the things he experienced as a child.
"You can either talk about the Kardashians or how to have a meaningful life"
“I mean, it would be ideal if I could have sex with a lot of people and fall in love many times. It’s devastating for both of us that we’ll never have the first time seeing someone naked ever again, that’s s**t, what a thing to miss out on, but it’s the lesser of two evils, because what are you missing out on if you don’t do it?” Though he jokingly says that they’re a “boring” couple and it’s their “conservatism” that’s kept them going all these years, you can’t help but get a warm, fuzzy tingle when you hear Tim talk about his wife. Despite being “very different”, he says he still gets an endorphin rush whenever Sarah enters his office to ask him a question. “And then she bugs me about something and I’m like, ‘F**k’!” he chuckles.
During his early career as the extravagant cabaret weirdo, Tim gained notoriety for his controversial songs that hold up a mirror to society, such as “Thank You God” (“I assumed there was no God at all but now I see that’s cynical / It’s simply that his interests aren’t particularly broad / He’s largely undiverted by the starving masses / Or the inequality between the various classes”) or “The Pope Song” (the lyrics to which are so densely profane, we wouldn’t dare to print them). This outspokenness earned him a dedicated cult following and now, some ten years later, a lot of his fans are accusing Tim of becoming “too tame,” and toning it down to avoid jeopardising his now-established career—this year’s BAFTA performance being the most recent example. Yet Tim collectedly acknowledges his turn for the more “mature” kind of music as a natural progression, saying, “I suspect I won’t write punchline songs again, I kind of took that form as far as I wanted to take it. Honestly, you can either talk about the Kardashians or you can talk about how to have a meaningful life in a meaningless universe.” It’s always been his goal to write musicals and record his own album, and now that he’s finally there, the edgy songs simply don’t cut it anymore.
In fact, the musician’s embraced a much more mature outlook towards life in general, abandoning his old rebellious ways in favour of empathy and open mindedness. Even when I ask him about UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s recent [at the time of writing] suggestion that musicians should retrain, which outraged many performers, Tim expresses a surprising opinion on the matter: “It’s a politician’s job to think pragmatically about society and the economy in a pandemic. And obviously, if there’s a bunch of humans who have the capacity to contribute to society sitting around then it’s a pragmatic thing to say. It’s not really a politician’s job to tell us how to be, it is their job to come up with economically conservative pragmatic solutions to economic problems. I’m trying to train myself to be a bit more mature and go, ‘OK, they’re allowed to say that, I don’t have to lose my freaking mind, that’s just a piece of data that can come in and sit somewhere in my brain.’”
As for his plans for the near future, apart from writing a few songs for films and developing a new TV show, Tim is busy devouring literature, holding up his copies of Ann Patchett to the camera and raving about John Grisham. But mostly, he’s just trying to keep up with his daughter, Violet. “She reads very fast and she reads stuff that I think is too old and too dark for her so I’m just trying to stay on top of her,” he smiles.
Tim Minchin’s debut album Apart Together is out now. His TV show Upright is also out now on DVD & digital
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