"A song ain't nothin' in the world but a story just wrote with music to it."
— Hank Williams
A guy can spend his life telling stories but a good one can still take him by surprise, even as he's telling it. Arriving 10 years into the ongoing narrative of The Cat Empire — Felix Riebl's world-conquering jazz-funk-Latino party phenomenon — INTO THE RAIN is that kind of story.
"I was writing a different kind of song then something cracked and this one came out," he says of the Wilco-esque Wide Open Rivers, the rolling lead track and first single of his extraordinary singer-songwriter debut.
"It was the first song we recorded," he says. "At the piano, very nervously, with musicians who I'd grown up with and who I admire so much, this song just opened out like water. I remember getting to the chorus and thinking, 'This is going to be a record'."
By "record" he means more than a bunch of songs. INTO THE RAIN is a record of circumstances and emotions that find their own unified style and purpose. Like The Boatman's Call or Darkness on the Edge of Town, each song illuminates another angle of a bigger human mystery words alone could never describe.
Its earliest snapshots hail from 2009, when the Cat Empire was on hiatus and their singer/ percussionist was living in Brooklyn, New York, working on an entirely different solo project (still under construction).
There's no point being coy about the tumultuous love affair that upended his intentions. It's all here, chapter and verse, albeit expressed in the elemental images that turn personal events into shared experience: from the tender Worries I've Had to the dramatic collapse of Bones; the explosive immediacy of Don’t Fall Under to the ghostly past tense of They Don't Know You.
"Not many metaphors exist for human relationships in songs," Felix says. "The key ones tend to get repeated over and over, and it’s only through experiences where you can rediscover them for yourself, that you find the simplest expressions ring true.”
"The same thing applies to music. The chord structures on this record are very, very simple. It's a bit like discovering harmony and metaphor at the same time. They're both very particular when you're in that emotional state. It was honestly a reflection of the darkest time of my life."
This alchemy between feeling and harmony is blissfully palpable in the insistent, circular motifs of I Won't Know You Anymore, a seven-minute journey from wistfulness to catharsis, and the mythically inspired Helen, which segues into an affectionate memory of Bruce Springsteen's I'm On Fire.
INTO THE RAIN was written in a whirlwind two weeks and recorded at Sing Sing Studios over five days in January, 2010. The band, overseen by producer/ arranger Ross Irwin, comprised a close-knit hybrid of The Cat Empire and Melbourne deep funk outfit The Bamboos: Ben Edgar (guitar), Ben Grayson (organ), Ryan Munro (bass) and Danny Farrugia (drums).
"It was very easy, very natural," Felix says. "We hadn't had any rehearsals. We just set up in the studio, ran the first take of the song, then a second, third . . . by the fourth take we'd have it. Some nights I might go away and change it or even write another song.
"When I write for The Cat Empire it might shoot off in all sorts of directions but this was really about stripping everything back and trying to record something essential," he says. "In the end this album, for me, is very much about my own voice as a songwriter, discovering that for the first time."
You can take that word "voice" both ways. In parts of this album, Cat Empire fans will recognise the low register of emotional intensity that haunted Miserere on the Two Shoes album, or No Longer There from So Many Nights, songs that rarely found a place in the frenzy of the band's live performances.
INTO THE RAIN also nails the voice of a mature storyteller comfortable in his own skin. The two cultures at the core of Felix's musical upbringing find a seamless equilibrium between the European folk cadences of There and We Go Out and the big, redemptive, rock'n'roll climax of My Shore.
"I quite like the way the record starts with a river and winds up at the shore," Felix says, still surprised at the ending of his own story. "I'd had that chorus in my diary for years. I must have finished writing the song at about 4.30 in the morning before the last day in the studio with the band.
"It was the last song we recorded and it just took off. That outro is about as long as the song itself but it just kept building and building, rolling like a highway or something."
As eventful as the road has been these last ten years, INTO THE RAIN has all the signs of a new beginning.
"Half of my life growing up was spent identifying with the European side of my family, listening to a lot of classical music, which led me to songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave who had drawn on that style," Felix says.
"The other side of that coin was living in Melbourne, playing football, listening to '70s rock. They were both really strong influences. When it came down to finding a single voice and approach it was always up in the air, until now.