For an artist who has already amassed more than eight million streams of Spotify in a career that spans just a few years, Michael Dunstan sure is a humble man. Meeting him for the first time at my local café, deep in the cultural wilds of Greenwood, it’s evident that he’s more than a bit nervous about this whole interview business. But that doesn’t stop him from being generous with his time, and with sharing his thoughts on his inner workings and what drives him to write and perform music. Heck, he even bought the beverages! That makes him an immediate superstar in my book.
For me song writing is quite a spiritual kind of thing.Michael Dunstan
We’re here to talk about Dunstan’s new single, ‘Above The Falls’, a song about death that he somehow makes uplifting. Such is the trickery of Dunstan’s guitar work, beginning by taking a swinging, countrified walk through the opening notes of the track — before the vocals and then the shuffling drums kick in — that he carries us along on a journey of introspection and self-discovery without us ever knowing that we’re doing anything more than just listening to a beautiful folk/pop song. The vocals are warm and inviting and by the time we reach the first turn through the chorus, a mere 28 seconds in, Dunstan is doing what he does oh so very well, making the complex seem beguilingly easy, and giving everyone who stops by to listen to his music a shot at redemption and meaning without having to take on a preacher man persona. What Dunstan does with ‘Above The Falls’ is wrap warm light around your heart and soul, telling you that, no matter what, all will be well.
Speaking to Dunstan about his song writing, he began by saying, “I don’t know why, but I used to write a lot when I was feeling down, as a means to cope, but often when I was happy I wouldn’t write anything, so it’s (‘Above The Falls’) kind of a shift towards actively trying to be aware of that. When you’re really feeling something strong, whether it be negative or navigating through something, I feel like you get to that point where you don’t think about it, it just flows out. Whereas when you’re writing something a bit happy, sometimes I have to feel like I’m dodging some clichés and stuff.”
It’s a truth shared by many an artist, writing when you’re down is somehow easier and more authentic sounding than accentuating the positive. Dunstan’s awareness of this has enabled him to produce music that keeps a focus on the difficult matters of life without bringing his audience down.
“In my mind, ‘Above The Falls’ feels more joyous to me,” Dunstan said, “even though basically the song talks about death and having someone mutual to share a story with. You can get a higher perspective on your own problems looking from that symbolic place above the falls, where you’re watching the torrent of water go down. It’s about realising that things are always going to go wrong but if you have someone to share it with and somewhere where you can look at it from a different angle then you’ll always be OK.”
Self-described as ‘pensive’, Dunstan elaborated by saying he’s “a little bit introspective,” and then went on to describe a pivotal moment that changed the course of his life irrevocably.
“In the last few years I had an event happen where I saw a friend almost lose their life and it shook me to my core to where I, for the next few years, was just trying to figure out what all of life was about. So, a lot of my song writing has been me trying to grasp what I’m here for. I found that was the best thing ever for me to deal with my anxiety. In hindsight, the real cause of all my suffering was me realising that overnight my life had changed because of that event and not being able to deal with knowing that things were never going be the same. I held onto that for a long time and it’s a crazy thing, you get to the point where you don’t feel like you’re actually anywhere near your loved ones.”
Dunstan shied away from calling the event traumatic and I’m no psychologist, but that’s what it sounded like to me, particularly the aftermath where he felt separated by his anxiety from the people he loves. Fortunately for Dunstan, he found his way back through writing music and, if ‘Above The Falls’ is any measure, his audience is all the richer for his experience, too.
“I think what I wanted to be expressing in my music overall is that within us there’s always a safe place where you can find calm no matter what’s going on externally,” Dunstan continued. “That’s something I found in two things originally, in surfing and in music. They are both places that I can go where I feel like they aren’t bound by anything, in that you can express yourself in any way you want and anything is of possible, it’s just up to your imagination.
“For me song writing is quite a spiritual kind of thing.”
I asked Dunstan whether he was comfortable with his take on his anxiety, suffering and ongoing journey of healing being shared with his audience, to which his quick reply was: “When I play live, talking about that stuff is probably the most important thing to me, because I know now when I look back at all those things, the really anxious times where I didn’t think everything was going to be OK… I look back at it now and it’s probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me, because it’s changed the course of my life.”
There’s a deep shyness and self-effacement about Dunstan that makes his act of sharing all the more remarkable. He could just let his music speak for itself and, with lyrics like, Another year fades by, sit and laugh, hug and cry / Turn your head and you sighed, said what a weird and wonderful life / I’m so glad you’re here, by my side in the strangest of times / I’m so glad you’re here, above the falls watching it all flow by, it stands very well indeed. But Dunstan has the desire to go the extra mile and let his audience see the inner workings of his artistry, just in case he doesn’t quite reach them in the three minutes that he spends with each of them.
Michael Dunstan is an artist who is still at the beginning of his career. His audience reach already bodes well for a long stint as troubadour and musical healer of souls, as does his perspective on what it takes to make it in an industry that can be as cruel as a pack of hungry wolves.
“I’ve found in the past the second you start wanting to achieve something in the short term in music that’s when music gets hard,” Dunstan said. “I find if I treat music as a long-term journey and anything else as a bonus, then my music is really enjoyable.”
It’s good to know Dunstan is in it for the long haul, because once he’s captured your heart, you’re never going to want him to let go.
Coming up next is an EP of which Dunstan said, “The contents are still to be confirmed, but late last year in springtime we recorded about five or six tracks and we also had another one or two left over, so there are about seven unreleased tracks at the moment. These songs were all recorded kind of after the tour was cancelled last year and I found myself with a big basket of songs that I was really happy with, but they felt like kind of almost like individual songs that were quite different. I’m starting to figure out where they all fit together. We’ve got a bunch of nylon tracks and then a bunch of electric tracks, so it’s just trying to figure out how to put it all together.”
Listening to Dunstan speak about this upcoming music the quiet pride and anticipation is plain to see and hear. Seems ‘Above The Falls’ is just the beginning of what is proving to be a bit of a shift of gears that the pensive man calls ‘liberating’. Likely it’s just the sort of liberation the world needs right now.
Catch Michael Dunstan on tour at the following locations in March and April:
Friday March 19 – Link Theatre | NORTHAM
Saturday March 20 – Quindanning Hotel | QUINDANNING
Friday April 16 – Mojo’s | FREMANTLE
Saturday April 17 – Indian Ocean Hotel | SCARBOROUGH
Friday April 23 – Six Degrees | ALBANY
Friday April 30 – Mermaid Tavern | DAMPIER
Saturday May 1 – Froth Craft Brewery | EXMOUTH