You’d be forgiven for thinking that you’d turned up to a dress up event at a Michael Waugh show, one where the theme is red and black checked flannelette shirts. “The Grateful Dead might have die-hard fans called ‘Deadheads’,” observed Canadian Folk Singer Scott Cook at a recent show with Michael, struck by a sea of these working man’s tops on a warm Queensland evening, “But Michael Waugh’s shows are swarming with ‘Waugh-heads.’”
Since his 2016 debut, Waugh has released three albums of deeply relatable, emotional story songs based on characters and events from around his home town of Maffra in Eastern Victoria. Fans of the singer/songwriter have rusted on to his uniquely Australian narrative style. They proudly wear the red and black checked shirt as a sign of their connectedness, as a sort of uniformed members of team Waugh.
“Initially, it was really weird seeing people turn up to shows dressed like me,” says Waugh, who started wearing the flannel as a tribute to his dairy farming father, “ But then I realized that I was singing songs in an Australian accent about people and places that they recognized, I was singing about their lives, and that’s why people related so much that they wanted to wear that shirt.”
Inspired by the Waugh-heads, Michael has kept evolving his storytelling style, painting evocative pictures of ordinary Australians, whose lives are celebrated in Waugh’s songs. On Waugh’s fourth studio album, "The Cast", the roll-call of characters has broadened.
“There is new territory covered on this record, musically and lyrically. There may not be a red and black checked shirt on the cover, but there are still stories and characters that you’ve met before, ” comments Waugh.
The themes are also more universal and urban. ‘Dirty River’ is a tribute to Waugh’s adopted home town of Melbourne. In ‘Real Estate’ he dreams about better lives that might be lived, and in ‘Swollen’ there is a bold, brave and brutal mission statement espoused in the album, as Waugh addresses his experience of an eating disorder.
While the album might be book ended by ‘Swollen’ and ‘Sleepless’, painfully honest stories from the perspective of a haunted soul, the title of the album and the title track are about healing. Sitting at the center of this collection, ‘The Cast’ title track is brave, funny, and deeply personal, sparsely produced by Shane Nicholson and cradling a disarmingly vulnerable vocal delivery from Waugh. Nicholson’s playing is a masterclass in thoughtful, intricate restraint. Waugh’s lyricism is immediate, familiar and emotionally resonant. As the story twists unexpectedly with the characteristic narrative turn that we have come to expect from Waugh, which has lead to him being dubbed the ‘M Night Shyamalan of Country music’ by comedian Wil Anderson.
It is fitting that Waugh should title his album "The Cast" because he is very familiar with casting due to working in Melbourne as a high school Drama teacher when he’s not on the road, Waugh balances making music with supporting kids to pursue their own creative dreams.
“I realized pretty early in life that I didn’t have dad’s skill on the farm, but I loved my experiences of Arts Education. I was inspired by some exceptional country school teachers and they still come to some of my shows to support me. I’m not one of those musicians who wants to quit their day job. I firmly believe that I’m a better teacher because I make music, and I’m a better musician because I teach.”
It may be this love for storytelling in his work as a Drama teacher that has led to the character driven story songs which are uniquely specific to "The Cast". Each of the 13 tracks on the record are little slice of life dramas that play out through the album, including Waugh’s experience as a teacher from his student eyed perspective in ‘Four Square’. “Working with kids keeps things real,” says Waugh, “if you’re doing your job properly as a teacher then you need to empathize with where kids are coming from, imagining what it might be like to walk around in their school shoes for a day. I suppose if you’re doing your job properly as a songwriter, then you’re doing the same thing, trying to give voice to what it’s like to live inside a character’s skin.”