Image: The Apartments in Paris: Peter Milton Walsh, Natasha Penot and Antoine Chaperon by Louis Teyssedou.
Author: Bradley Cork
There is a beautiful and mysterious allure to the music of The Apartments that is hard to place into words. They’re a band that exist outside the realms of popularity or household names; a collective that have a direct impact on those that are lucky enough to be exposed to their music. It’s been an interesting journey that has seen many differing iterations of the band and captivating live performances throughout the world. The primary constant behind this collective is Peter Milton Walsh. Peter, who began The Apartments in 1978 in sunny Brisbane, around the same time good friends Robert Forster and Grant McLennan were forming The Go-Betweens.
‘Grant [was] actually the one who helped me name the band – there were many suggestions he made that were completely unacceptable – and then we arrived at The Apartments, loosely named after the Billy Wilder movie ‘The Apartment.’ And he said ‘Ah Peter, this is perfect! Billy Wilder, the cynical, the romantic’.
I spoke with Peter and Natasha Penot – one of his latest collaborators – in great detail about their European tour, the enduring quality of the songs he has written, and the way in which their powerful performances can leave audience members profoundly moved. The music of The Apartments illuminates a different type of feeling to many bands, something richer or more peculiar, and if you invest the time and energy into their albums, you will be rewarded. A radio DJ in Melbourne once mentioned to Peter that his songs do not necessarily partake in the common attributes of Australian music, but rather reminded her of gin, smoke and perfume. ‘I’ll take that!’ says Peter cheerfully. ‘It’s very easy to say ‘they’re sad songs’. That’s a very easy way to dismiss them. If you do actually spend some time with the songs, you know that’s not what they do to you.’
Peter is quick to mention the gratitude he feels for the fact that there are audiences from differing countries that are excited to attend an Apartments show. ‘There is this other thing that happens outside of Australia that exists which I happen to really like (laughs). It’s just fantastic to be able to jump on a plane and go ‘okay I’m going to go to Switzerland, France, Holland, Spain, England and people will turn up.’
‘I feel like the biggest engine in my life is probably gratitude. I can say this to you because I don’t completely understand it but I just have to accept that it exists.’
He adds that in his first-ever show in Cologne, Germany, a young woman approached him asking for an autograph for her father: ‘So I sign the card and then she grabbed my arm and said ‘before I go, I want you to know that this has been the most intense experience of my life!’ She was nineteen and my daughter happened to be turning nineteen that day and I said to her ‘there’s going to be a parade of intense and beautiful experiences and it’ll be fantastic’.
The Apartments have had a very strong relationship with European audiences, developing a cult-like status through the years. Peter considers the last tour to be the biggest European tour of his life. This would be due in part to the European iteration of The Apartments, the trio of Peter, guitarist Antoine Chaperon and keyboardist and vocalist Natasha Penot. Peter met them serendipitously one night after they attended an Apartments gig in Paris in 2009. He was strolling through the venue thinking wouldn’t it be great to sing a duet one day, and following a show, Antoine came up to him and let him know that his musical partner Natasha had attended and ‘she’ll be here in a minute but I’ve never seen her like this, she’s been laughing, she’s been crying…’ Two nights later, a cover of The Apartments’ ‘Sunset Hotel’ by Penot and Chaperon is sent to Peter and the rest is history.
With Natasha collaborating on the song ‘Black Ribbons’, her and Antoine have been permanent fixtures in the band ever since. I spoke to Natasha in regards to this moment seeing The Apartments for the first time. ‘When Peter came to France he played for the first time in many years and came with Elliott Fish. I was just in front of the stage and was completely captivated by all the songs and I remember it was ‘Not Every Clown Can Be In The Circus’. I’m a huge fan of that song. Listening to that song for the first time…I felt submerged with emotions.’
Peter outlined to me that the performances between the three of them are always special and unique. ‘I definitely have a profound sense of things being destined. They’re deeply into it. It’s a matter of them accepting who I am. I don’t play the same things twice, it used to annoy people but now it’s like ‘well that’s just who he is – we’ll let him get away with it.’ Natasha is quick to outline the chemistry that both her and Antoine have had with Peter from the beginning. ‘I think because I’ve played music with Antoine for a long time, we are used to working together. The first time working with Peter, it felt completely natural…It seemed like we had been playing together for many years. We love his songs and we’re always happy to play with Peter.’
Peter left the duty of crafting a set list to both Natasha and Antoine as he knew they would have a differing perspective from him about which songs people would want to hear in Europe. Natasha did find it difficult to choose between the songs she holds so dearly. ‘Before being in the band, we were fans of the Apartments of course, so we know what people in France love. With Antoine, we wanted to put together a set list of songs that were very powerful, of course all of Peter’s songs are very powerful for me. Some can be more catchy or light-hearted but they are always emotionally powerful. I think we achieved what I would have wanted to hear if I were in the audience.’
Being at an Apartments show, there is a huge amount of respect in the songs Peter has written. While many quiet singers with an acoustic guitar may struggle to get their message across due to noisy patronage, Peter affects a completely speechless and tentative audience. ‘I know I don’t have a big voice, I’ve got a voice so small it could barely make it up a set of dollhouse stairs. But if you play softly enough, sometimes people will come into it; people are drawn into it. There’s definitely a connection there that happens in that space, in that moment, because then it’s gone. A show is like skywriting, it’s there and gone.’
Peter’s output has had a qualitative nature to it with time between records being a notable fixture. In 1999, the death of Peter’s child Riley had Peter put the band away. Understandably grief-stricken, it took him time to feel the right to be able to perform again and carry that experience with him into his music. 2015’s No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal addresses this traumatic event in his life and while it can be hard to listen to songs like ‘Twenty-One’ without tearing up, there are also songs full of wonder and hope for what’s around the corner like ‘September Skies’ and ‘Black Ribbons’. Peter’s music has never lost that duality in his songs, from debut album The Evening Visits…And Stays For Years through to the latest album, The Apartments’ music has been able to draw listeners in for the long haul while giving them the inspiration to persevere through good times and bad.
‘I think the stories that are my songs are just things that happen all the time, they’re eternal things that happen again and again and again in people’s lives. I’ve got this song called ‘Everything Is Given To Be Taken Away’ and that came out of just feeling like that was something that I wanted to say to people.’
‘It might look like I’m winning, it might look like things are great, but I’m in the same night as you and I do think people pick up on that intensity, where people see themselves reflected in the songs.’
When listening to The Apartments it can be very easy to see their music as some form of catharsis but Peter has never really seen his songwriting as such, more a continuation of persisting onwards: ‘I think this idea of catharsis is a bit of a myth. I don’t think I have been through any sort of catharsis by playing the songs and then life suddenly gets better. People call it catharsis but it’s called living. There’s this fantastic line from Bertolt Brecht that states ‘In the dark times, will there also be singing, yes! There will be singing, about the dark times.’ I spoke to a guy at this house show to close the tour that was a private show. He said ‘you may think that your songs are melancholic but they’ve never made me feel melancholic, they’ve made me feel inspired to go on!’ That’s almost like a secret.’
Natasha has always seen this duality in working with Peter, there’s the person who is light-hearted and there are the songs which evoke a lot of intense emotions. ‘We laugh often with Peter because he has such a good sense of humour. People don’t know that because his songs are so dark but Peter is a very lovely person, he’s always a pleasure.’
With the European tour a not-too-distant memory for Peter and having to unfortunately say goodbye for the time being to both Natasha and Antoine who are based in Paris, Peter has plans to begin work on a new Apartments record, having already consulted producer Wayne Connelly. He is in the midst of finishing songs in his home where he now has the space to tap into his creativity. That is surely something to look forward to for all Apartments fans. In the meantime, we can appreciate that the sun is yet to set on a varied career full of gratitude, ambition and possibilities.