30 November 2023

After 30 years, friends still banding together to sing a yarn or two

| Sally Hopman
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Five men with arms around each other

Willie and The Correspondents have just released their third album. The band features Greg Turnbull, Matthew Herbert, Phil Williams, Hugh Watson and Peter McDonald. Photo: Facebook.

Hugh Watson and his wife were on the train going to Sydney to see Bruce Springsteen in concert.

“We’d just got to Goulburn, and these two guys got on the train and sat near us,” Hugh said.

“They must have just been paroled because they were talking so excitedly about it … what they were most looking forward to.”

Hugh said he remembered thinking to himself at the time,” ‘I think there’s a song in this”, and by the time they got to Sydney, he had one. He also had a title for a new album, the third for the band he formed with four of his mates almost 30 years earlier, Willie and The Correspondents.

The album, We’re Free We’re Rolling, features everything from the most personal of stories to the absurdity of world politics.

“There are no boundaries as songwriters,” Hugh said. “You can literally write about anything.”

It will be 30 years next year when Hugh Watson sat down with his mate Phil Williams in Hugh’s Canberra loungeroom and sang one of the timeless Neil Young songs they love.

Phil’s wife was listening to the two singing and playing.

“That sounded good – you should form a band.”

So they did.

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Starting as a covers band, today they play their own music, hardly surprising when you consider what they do and did in their other lives – and the number of stories collected over the years.

Hugh Watson (guitar) was the former private secretary to ACT Senator Susan Ryan; Phil Williams, the ABC’s former chief foreign correspondent (harp); former press secretary to Prime Minister Paul Keating, Greg Turnbull (drums); Matthew Herbert (lead guitar and vocals) and Peter McDonald (bass).

Hugh reckons their collective backgrounds in politics and the media can’t but help their creativity when it comes to making music.

“It generally works with me writing some lyrics and Matthew writing the music. He just lives down the road, and at odd hours, I’ll say to him, ‘I’ve got another one [song]’.

“Writing songs comes in waves,” he said. “But working with Matthew, we tend to bounce off each other.”

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Between writing songs for the band, Hugh also writes novels and is currently working on his third.

What comes easier? Definitely the songs, he says. With this collective of media advisers and journalists, it’s just a matter of doing what they’ve always done: keeping their ears and eyes open for a good yarn.

Songs on the new album could not be more diverse. Some were sparked by memories, others by absent friends, family or work.

“Paul Kelly talks about the importance of grabbing a song as it goes by. That’s what I try to do,” Hugh said. “It could just be a riff or an idea; often, you just need one line to get you going.”

Hugh and Matthew wrote all the songs on the new album with input from the other band members.

They include ‘Absent Friends’, written about Hugh’s father, Robert, who fought in the Middle East and the Pacific, ‘Dear Leader’s Country Band’ about the antics of the late North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il to ‘Doesn’t anybody care about the country any more’ – which tells the tale of dying country towns. It was recorded live at Smith’s Alternative in Canberra.

“The album brings together new songs written over the past few years and re-recorded versions of several previous songs. We tried many of them out at the National Folk Festival in 2023 and at the Tathra Pub, a favourite venue, and they got a great reception. ”

The album is now available on all music platforms and can be seen on the band’s YouTube channel.

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