The Down Underdogs: Australian Alternative Artists on Making it Big in America and at Home

The Down Underdogs: Australian Alternative Artists on Making it Big in America and at Home

by Gab Ginsberg
July 13, 2018, 10:12am EDT

“There’s obviously just a big block happening in Australia right now where people are creating all this great music,” Australia singer-songwriter Amy Shark says. “Any time [Americans] hear an Australian musician, they’re just trying to find more to listen to.”

Shark -- whose debut album, Love Monster, is out today -- isn’t wrong. 5 Seconds of Summer just earned their third No. 1 album on the Billboard 200 with Youngblood, Courtney Barnett has gotten rapturous critical acclaim and a Grammy best new artist nomination in recent years, and Vance Joy now has a regular alt radio presence and status as a festival favorite. It’s clear that there's a strong appetite stateside for the many Aussie rock, indie-pop, and alternative acts that have emerged in the past decade.

Billboard asked a selection those artists to talk about their experiences in both Australia and the United States. For some of them, the move to the United States was recent, while others are more established here. But all of them can speak to the struggles and triumphs that a new musician faces when making that move and provide an insider’s perspective on what it’s like to be a musician on the other side of the world, gaining recognition in both places for the first time.

Here, Amy Shark, Angus & Julia Stone, Cut Copy, The Temper Trap, Alex Lahey and Middle Kids shed some light on how the two music scenes differ, the appeal of “making it” in the U.S., and whether finding success here ultimately determines one’s success Down Under.

Finding American Inspiration

Most of the Australians Billboard spoke to wanted to become musicians because of an affinity for American artists. Julia Stone cites Cake as an early inspiration; Middle Kids' Harry Day mentions early alt-rock icons Pixies as a formative influence; and Alex Lahey says the first song she ever learned to play on guitar was "Everywhere" by Michelle Branch. Amy Shark says she looked to bands like Death Cab for Cutie and The Shins: “I’ve always been attracted to lyric-heavy songs and clever storytellers, and those were songs I could relate to. That music just moved me so much. I just wanted to be that for other people as well.”

From there, artists turned to a tight-knit music community to secure gigs at gritty bars and open-mic nights. Angus & Julia Stone would go down and busk in Manly and Sydney, at the beach or the pubs. “We would play our ten minutes and eventually got to know the guys who then ran the open mics, and they’d also run nights where you could do a half-hour set,” Julia Stone says. “So we started getting offered 30 minute sets for 50 dollars, and we were very excited about that.”

The Temper Trap's Dougy Mandagi remembers making his own flyers and posting them late at night in Australia’s second-most populous city, Melbourne, hoping the cops wouldn't see him. He explains that the two most "industrious" members of the band even started to run their own club nights just so they could book themselves. "It was very DIY," he says.

A Different Scene

As much as bar shows and open-mic nights may sound familiar to their American counterparts, Australian musicians say the market for live music is totally different from that of the U.S. "Gigging here is so different than gigging in Australia,” explains Lahey, who's based in Melbourne. “For one, people go to shows on Wednesdays and shit, which is awesome. In Australia you pretty much only tour on the weekends, because there's actually not enough people to populate [venues].”

Meanwhile, over in Sydney, Australia’s most populous city, there are slightly more people, but with that comes other difficulties. Joy brings up Sydney’s lockout laws, which were introduced in February 2014 with the intention of reducing alcohol-related violence. They require bars, clubs, and pubs to stop serving alcohol after 3:00 a.m., and they restrict people from entering venues in many areas after 1:30 a.m. Many local businesses believe they do more harm to the nightlife economy than help and blame them for the closure of various venues. (Restrictions for some venues have been relaxed in the past year.)

“That has taken a massive toll on music venues,” Joy says. “It’s been tough for young emerging artists, because there have been no small to mid-level venues to play. Not just in Sydney, but as a whole, there's not a heap of opportunity.” 

Still, Lahey says the Australian music scenes are anything but competitive. “It's actually more supportive,” she says. “If someone gets up and hits their stride, people celebrate it. Everyone's rooting for Courtney Barnett. She blew up and everyone thinks it's fucking awesome.” Musicians, Lahey says, don’t subscribe to “tall poppy syndrome,” the Australian version of crabs in a bucket: When there’s “a popular flower” that's taller than the rest of them, it has to be cut down. “It's a really shit part of Australian culture, to be honest. I think it's awful,” she says. “But for some wonderful reason, it's not so much a thing in music.”

Help From Home

It’s tricky for artists with tight resources to tour within their own continent, since many major cities are at least a plane ride away from one another. Fortunately, there’s one entity that links them all together: Triple J, the government-funded, national radio station focusing on alternative and Australian music. It’s as instantly recognizable to an Aussie as, say, Z100 is to New Yorkers, while maintaining the cool factor of Apple Music's Beats 1.

“Any Australian that loves music worships that station,” Shark says. “That’s what keeps our whole country connected.” The singer-songwriter counts the station as one of her earliest supporters — a few years before she broke out with “Adore,” Triple J played her 2014 track “Spits on Girls.” "I thought I’d made it after that," she says with a laugh.

Cut Copy's Mitchell Scott explains that Triple J is a “stepping stone to basically anyone knowing about what you're doing” because without its support, they had a hard time getting played on commercial radio. “It was pretty instrumental in us having a career in Australia,” he says. (Still, Triple J can sometimes be slow to recognize certain native talent: Mandagi says Temper Trap didn’t get traction on the station until they moved to the U.K. and started building buzz over there. “When we came home,” he says, “We were Triple J heroes.”)

The station also puts out an annual listener-voted poll called The Hottest 100, with a countdown thar airs in early January. (Until 2017, it aired the controversial Australia Day holiday.) "It's a big deal. People gather around and have barbecues,” Scott says. “That was a big thing for us as well, realizing we were in consideration for that."

Lahey says that Triple J Unearthed, a project that aims to "dig up" Australia's hidden talent with competitions and special features, was also vital to her developing a fanbase. “I've become quite familiar with the people who work there, and I know for a fact that they listen to every fucking song that comes through,” she says. “They are so dedicated to it, and there's a real passion for independent music within that team.”

The government doesn’t just fund Triple J -- it helps out artists, too. Musicians can apply for grants from government agencies like the Australia Council for the Arts, helping them to fund tours and international opportunities without the pressure of labels and publishing advances. Middle Kids, Amy Shark and Alex Lahey have all benefited. Middle Kids were able to fund a tour to new cities in Australia with a grant, while Shark found a city council that funded the recording of "Adore," her breakout song.

“It's been really great to receive that financial support, and any investor also becomes invested in you beyond those physical kind of reasons,” Lahey says, acknowledging that the system has been “extremely generous” while allowing her to maintain her creative freedom. “I'm an independent artist and have no major backing or anything like that. It still feels like this grassroots thing, even though we're taking it around the world. It still feels like it knows where it's from.”

Crossing the (Other) Pond

Despite the opportunities the U.S. can offer Australian artists, not everyone wants to make the jump right away.

Cut Copy's Dan Whitford explains that while their label always pushed the group to perform in the states, it wasn’t necessarily priority for the band. “We obviously wanted to see the world as well,” he says, but “before that, it had been [about] trying to make it in the U.K., where we thought it was all at.” They toured stateside with Franz Ferdinand in 2005, and Whitford says the nightly crowds’ warm reception provided the inspiration they needed. “Then we went, ‘Oh, actually, maybe the States is where we should be focusing things.'”

Shark recalls a fear of playing a foreign country without the proper resources. “It was so scary because I didn’t have any money to bring my band over, and we were so tired of being in Australia; we’d played so many shows there,” she says. “But it’s just what you have to do. This is a country that we all look at in Australia as the big guy. It’s hard [to] tackle.”

Still, there is an allure to it. Middle Kids’ Tim Fitz sees the American music industry as a place of “progress” and “innovation.” Joy, his wife and bandmate, agrees: “We don't have the history; we’re really young [both as a country and in a musical sense]. So I think we’re looking around to a lot to America to get our vibe.”

Stone mentions the delight that comes with playing “beautiful, iconic venues” in America, and believes that these performances are a huge part of what has worked for her and the band. "The experience people have listening to live music, as opposed to a song on a Spotify playlist, is very different. That also means that you have to actually be in the place,” she says. “If you want a big break or to be a touring artist in America, you have to be there. It's a really great way to become a better musician, because there is so much music in America and so many places to play and such an interest in live music. Even if you aren't going to be famous-famous, you can still build a really successful career in America being a touring artist.”

The music industry has changed drastically since many of these artists got their start. With the streaming boom, for example, musicians are able to be heard in places they might not have a physical presence in otherwise. But Stone says it’s still important to tour in America, even if your music can be discovered when you're not on the ground in the country.

“You've got to go build a career somewhere else in the world if you want to be able to sustain your life on it,” she says. “I think our manager definitely taught us that back in the early days. She showed us that success in Australia can really be something you can achieve by becoming successful somewhere else.”

Culture Clashes

Once an Australia artist makes the pilgrimage to America, they face cultural challenges, just like any tourist -- sometimes, to comedic effect.

“Though we all speak English, there’s definitely a language barrier,” Shark says. “For example, when I check into hotels, sometimes the label puts me under ‘Shark,’ and when I say it, they’re like, ‘Shock? Shock?’ And it’s not until I’m like, ‘Sharrrk. Sharrrk.’ And they go, ‘Oh, Shark! You should have just said that!’”

Scott jovially tells a story of getting “chased down the street one day for not tipping” during one of the first times he and his Cut Copy bandmates sat down in a cafe. “That was a little bit of a culture clash. We didn't realize that was appropriate. But we found out, with some pretty strong words, that you always tip,” he says, laughing.

Other experiences are less funny. Both Angus & Julia Stone and Middle Kids recall having awkward meetings with major labels looking to sign them. “I remember going into a huge record label in New York talking to one of the main guys who wanted to sign us, and he was asking us questions, like, how many cars we wanted to have, and how famous we would want to be,” Julia Stone says. “We just had no idea what to say. It didn't even occur to us that that was a way of thinking about doing a deal. Things like that were very American so to speak.”

"We had a classic experience," Fitz says. “We met and they were like, 'You guys are amazing, we're going to make you stars,' and they were going to take us out to dinner. They came to our show and told us, ‘We’re putting the deal in, we got it.’ Then the next day, the dinner was off.” Joy shakes her head. "I was literally dressed, ready to go," she says. “You hear those stories, and you're like, ‘That’s not real,’ and then holy shit, it is real.” 

National Pride

Both Lahey and Shark agree that there is an excitement among American audiences for Australian artists.

“Everywhere I go, I talk about Australia,” Shark says. “I don’t feel like I had to do much to represent Australia. You guys love Australians so much that I just have to talk and someone’s like, ‘Oh, where are you from?’ And I say, ‘Australia,’ and they’re like, ‘Oh, my God. We love you already.’” 

Lahey feels that artists like Barnett and Vance Joy have paved the way for her and others to find their place in the U.S. “[I’m able] to come over and maybe find a little more attention because we are from the same place,” she says. “I don't think that all the Australian spots are exhausted [in America] or anything like that.”

Even better, she says, is when there’s the opportunity to bounce back and forth between the continents. “It's amazing that we are from a country that was always so small and isolated, and there aren't that many people in the grand scheme of things, but you can still have a really strong career playing and writing music just in Australia,” Lahey continues. “I think that's a testament to how people engage, and how supportive and proud we are of musicians.”

For the most part, everyone is proud to simply be waving the Australian flag in the international scene. “I think Australia has always had a pretty great lineage of artists and musicians,” Mandagi says. “And it just continues to grow."