Midnight Oil founding member unveils songwriting secrets

Jim Moginie, keyboardist and guitarist from Midnight Oil at Southern Cross University for an APRA Songwriters Workshop. Photo Cathy Adams / The Northern Star
Jim Moginie, keyboardist and guitarist from Midnight Oil at Southern Cross University for an APRA Songwriters Workshop. Photo Cathy Adams / The Northern Star Cathy Adams

MIDNIGHT Oil's Jim Moginie took to the stage in Southern Cross University's Music Department to "demystify and unpack the art of songwriting".

The APRA (Australian Performing Rights Association) workshop was open to the public, and Oils fans, school students and budding songwriters listened with interest as he talked extensively about the collaborative process within the band.

Moginie, the band's lead guitarist and keyboard player, said he was inspired by Don Walker from Cold Chisel and Skyhooks because they used Australian place names in their songs, whereas almost every other song on the radio in the 1970s sounded American.

A great song to me is a song anyone can play on an acoustic guitar

- Jim Moginie

"That really switched something on in me to get serious about writing," he said.

He stressed the importance of lyric writing, which is often a secondary concern for musicians.

"If the lyrics aren't good, it (the song) doesn't last," he said.

Moginie described the process of songwriting as "instinctive" and "like fossicking around for something".

He is a big fan of using notebooks to capture ideas immediately.

"If you don't write things down straight away, there are subtle things that you lose. In a book nothing gets erased, not like an IPad. A notebook is a low resolution activity. You can always come back and polish it like a gemstone," he said.

The first Midnight Oil song he unpacked was Short Memory, which originally had some other lyrics set to the distinctive guitar lines.

The song was called A Woman in History, but after an IRA bomb went off just a few blocks from where the band was living in London, it was replaced with "a list of these things people forget, that happen again and again" and given the much catchier refrain of Short Memory.

Not surprisingly, there were several questions about the causes Midnight Oil championed throughout their 25-year career and how they were incorporated into songwriting.

Moginie described songs as like "the Trojan Horse in which a message can storm the city walls".

"You can slip an idea in subtly. You don't have to bang them over the head."

Moginie said the Oils' philosophy behind their most successful album Diesel and Dust was to simplify everything as much as possible.

"A great song to me is a song anyone can play on an acoustic guitar."

The band's biggest hit, Beds are Burning, was cobbled together from a half-forgotten guitar riff, some lyrics Peter Garrett wrote on a piece of paper and left for the others to work with, a chorus that drummer Rob Hirst had written on a bass and then stitched together in about three hours.

"It's an important song, it's about something," Moginie said.

Topics:  editors picks midnight oil music

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