Jeff Jenkins (March/April 2015) Rhythms Magazine
Perry Keyes calls them “ghost stories”. The title of his new album, Sunnyholt, refers to the road leading out west in Sydney, which delivered more than 150,000 people in the late-’60s, early-’70s. As the inner-city slums were cleared for high-rise and medium-density housing, the people were “re-settled”, promised jobs and a new start.
Sunnyholt tells the story of the families that fell between the cracks. Deep in the heart of nowhere.
One of the album’s main characters is based on Keyes’ Uncle Ronnie, an old boxer – “a 50-fight failure” – who had a face with “a lot of character, like a dropped pie”. “When he talked,” Perry explains, “it was like he was telling me ghost stories. When you get old, you collect a lot of those.”
Keyes says the songs “ran the gamut from rampant nostalgia to abject dismay”.
“In 1969, man landed on the Moon. My Uncle Ronnie and Aunty Evonne also landed on the Moon – that’s what Mount Druitt looked like in 1969.” Keyes had never seen bushland before. “What we noticed is the further we went, the less there was.” There were no factories and no shops. A Mr Whippy-like van arrived twice a day, selling bread, milk, cigarettes and Tooheys New. “There’s nowhere to go,” Keyes laments in ‘Petrol Money’. “We’ve got nowhere to go.”
Sunnyholt is Keyes’ fourth album, his first since 2010’s Johnny Ray’s Downtown. Despite critical acclaim, he hasn’t been played beyond ABC and community radio, though he has some high-profile fans. Tim Freedman described him as “the Ruth Park of the end of last century’s Redfern”; Peter Garrett added, “Perry is the real deal. Songs from the heart, from the Aussie street. He is a rare talent.” And Missy Higgins, who recently recorded Keyes’ ‘NYE’, said, “I just fell in love with his lyrics straight away.”
Keyes was 17 when he formed his first band – two guys from Waterloo’s Housing Commission and two Lebanese guys from Redfern. They called themselves Leb Zetland. The band evolved into the Stolen Holdens, but Keyes remained Sydney’s best-kept secret until his double album solo debut, Meter, released by Stuart Coupe’s Laughing Outlaw Records in 2005. Writing songs was a way for Keyes to connect with the world. He spent most of his first five years in hospital after contracting polio. It was the last laboratory-confirmed case of the disease in Australia. “I was a skinny boy,” he reflects on the new album, “walked like Audie Murphy.”
Sunnyholt starts with the sound of an engine roaring to life. Keyes, ignition. Get set for a dark ride. “The sun was sinking low,” he sings, “and this town was sinking, too.” These are postcards from the edge, the side of Sydney not shown in the tourism ads, where the streets are “full of broken people” and “a lonely girl knows how it feels to have the beautiful things ignore her”.
Keyes knows how to set a scene. The wonderfully titled ‘Mario Milano’s Monaro’ starts: “My cousin Doreen drives a taxi, she likes girls and one day cricket.” Who knows where the story is heading, but you know you want to keep listening.
Sunnyholt is not as “big” as its predecessor (Johnny Ray clocked in at 75 minutes, with 16 songs; Sunnyholt is a concise 10 tracks and 46 minutes), though it’s just as epic. And a sequel, The Great Western Highway, is promised for mid-year. The story is bleak, though Keyes possesses a wry sense of humour. “The inner-city’s fine,” he sings in the title track, “if you can spend your time on 10 types of coffee and low-fat food.” But there are no easy answers or happy endings in Keyes’ songs, unless they’re in “$59 rooms selling stoned rub and tugs”. The best advice he can offer comes in Sunnyholt’s final song, ‘The Abattoir Sky’: “You gotta hold tight. And don’t let go.”
If songwriting smarts and glowing reviews meant anything in this mad music world, Perry Keyes would be a billionaire. Time Out called him “the truest chronicler of hard knocks as has ever worked in 4/4 time.” Reviewing the Sunnyholt Sydney launch, the Sydney Morning Herald’s Bernard Zuel declared, “No one writes with the detail, the grasp of the quotidian and the unflinching heart of Keyes.” Yep, he’s that good. Put Perry Keyes alongside Paul Kelly, Don Walker and Forster and McLennan. He’s as good as it gets.”