“She’s one of those names like Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday, she’s in the pantheon,” Mick Harvey says of Nina Simone.
“So to actually start hearing her albums properly and realise that she was actually working in quite a different field to any of those people, who were much more inside specific genres, was really significant for me, really inspiring.”
I don’t know what you would call that music in ‘Four Women’, it completely defies any genre.Mick Harvey — Don't Look Back
Considering the great musicians that Mick Harvey has worked with, and his own stellar output over his four-decade career, it’s not surprising that the uncompromising and inimitable style of Nina Simone had him hooked early on.
“Sometimes she was playing a bluesy thing, jazzy thing or a soulful thing. But a lot of the time she was also just mixing them up and making something new and different out of them as well.
“That’s what a lot of Australian musicians do, actually. We essentially have a European background to our musical heritage, in the more contemporary things, it’s a mixture of British and American music but then you have the European influence as well.
"An awful lot of Australian bands are not particularly interested in a specific genre. They’re more interested in reconstructing their own idea out of these disparate sounds and influences.
“So seeing someone like Nina Simone, a black American woman, it’s really amazing that she’s just picked up the ball and did her own thing. I think she herself described what she made as black classical music.
"Rather than being confined to a specific genre, she was going in her own direction with whatever she wanted to use and I’d like to think that’s what I’ve done my whole career.
“The song ‘Four Women’ has a beautiful simple musical atmosphere that’s created through simplicity. There’s no showy playing or clever stuff going on, it’s just finding a feel and using that to make the music work. It’s so elemental what she does a lot of the time and that’s been a big influence on how I go about trying to make music.
“Lyrically, I love the way the song is atypical. It doesn’t really have a chorus, it’s just four verses telling four different thumbnail sketches of four different women and you kind of understand the meaning and intent as the song progresses.
“It doesn’t preach to you, it doesn’t say ‘think this or that’, but in a way what you’re meant to think is there, it just presents some pieces of information which are very affecting. If I think about it in my own writing, I probably quite often try to do that, not be too specific, but just put the words together so they create a picture you can interpret, or understand without being told what to think.”
Mick Harvey’s not a fan of being too prescriptive or obvious, as it can be antithetical to an artistic vision.
“I always felt uncomfortable about early protest songs,” he says. “It all becomes a bit prosaic very quickly. Or it can. It kind of doesn’t have any mystery in it, the mystery music can have with its atmospheres and its emotional undertow, it kind of destroys that stuff a bit.
“You can almost say ‘Four Women’ is a statement similar to what you might get in protest songs, but the way its handled, it’s so beautiful that it never gets near the prosaic.”
Even though the defiance in the song is evident, its concluding lyrical exclamation is unexpected and somewhat baffling.
“It’s crazy, it’s almost absurd to say ‘My name is Peaches’, that’s brilliant. She’s offsetting things that she’s saying. It’s a very interesting piece of writing.
“It’s also doing the unexpected musically. I don’t know what you would call that music in ‘Four Women’, it completely defies any genre. It’s very unusual and that’s definitely something that I aim for; always to be making music which is outside of those definitions, if it all possible.”
Hear more about the song that changed it all for Mick Harvey on Don't Look Back.