Premiere: Donald Hugh "Late" + Piano Talk with Tim Shiel (Spirit Level)

Overcome with excitement today to be premiering something new from one of Melbourne's most important labels, Spirit Level. Kindred Spirits Vol. 1: Piano Day is the first in what is hoped to be many compilations from the label started by electronic musician/Double J presenter Tim Shiel and Wally de Backer (aka. Gotye). The compilation features friends of the label such as Evelyn Ida Morris, Luke Howard and Sophie Hutchings, as well as couple of acts from their roster. The first taste comes in the form of this beautifully emotive, solo piano piece courtesy of Melbourne artist Donald Hugh (aka. Don). To dive in a bit deeper, we thought we'd have a chat with Tim Shiel about his relationship to the piano and the inspiration behind the compilation.

Are you able to tell us a little bit about Kindred Spirits Volume 1?

I’ve wanted to do a label compilation almost from the first day that we started Spirit Level. As a listener I really love label comps because it gives you an overview of what a label is about, who they are as a family and insight into what motivates and inspires them. Hopefully this does that for Spirit Level.

It’s also an excuse to pull friends in from outside the roster, and give ourselves a bit of a sense of expanded community. I’ve loved Piano Day the last couple of years, so it felt like a really nice place to start, to ask some of our friends if they have beautiful piano pieces just lying around. The comp came together very organically. Turns out everyone’s a secret pianist.

Totally. Speaking of which, what’s your relationship with the piano like?

Complicated! I don’t really have much in the way of musical training at all but the little that I did get in high school was in guitar, so that was where I came in on music - through guitar chords and guitar music. I was never a great guitarist but it definitely framed my early ideas about how music is made, on a nuts and bolts level.

The piano always felt like kind of a foreign place - it was what the teacher at the front of our high school music class played but I had no idea how to even touch it - and I guess I never felt confident just mucking around on it. That changed a few years later, after I just let go a little and started to explore with my fingers. When I toured with Gotye, technically I was the keyboard player in his band even though I’d never played piano really - he had to teach me which fingers to put on which keys in order to just play a couple of really simple songs in the set! I guess that gave me confidence though, bluffing my way through piano songs at those shows. I think if you’re confident enough as an explorer and a listener, you can play piano without knowing how to read music, or any instrument really to some degree. You just move your fingers around until it feels and sounds good, eventually you develop an intuition for where to put your fingers. I really enjoy the feel of a piano under my fingers now, I’ll play for hours even though I still don’t know how to play.

I’ve always found the piano quite interesting. Such a common instrument, but one in my opinion that we’ve really struggled getting accurate MIDI replication from. Do you think it’s worth even trying to replicate the nuances of a piano, or does the digitisation of the instrument present something new that we as musicians might want to start treating separately?

I think there are some piano virtual instruments that are getting pretty close, the ones where a lot of care has been taken to recording multi-samples and micing up the piano properly from different angles. They get used on a lot of big songs and you’d never even notice really, especially if the piano is embedded in a bigger mix.

In terms of a purely synthetic replication of a piano - the complexity of the sound makes it a bigger challenge than other natural sounds. The harmonics and overtones in a piano note are pretty intense compared to purer tones. I’ve been doing a bit of reading into machine learning and AI synthesis at the moment, and typically the piano is one of the more challenging sounds for them to synthesise. They’re getting closer though, and it might be machine learning that unlocks the sound of the piano from a synthesis perspective because it can account for a lot of that nuance, by being able to learn and iterate from past recordings. I know there are some research teams like Jukedeck for example who are actively working on exactly this.

It’s also a fascinating instrument in that a change in technique, dynamic or harmony can completely change the mood of a song. Are you able to give us a preview of what kinds of moods and emotions are evoked in the compilation?

Well everyone approached it really differently, which is great because it means the compilation showcases how varied the piano can be.

If there’s something all the tracks have in common - or at least most of them - its a feeling of intimacy. But where Donald Hugh’s track really displays a lot of control and restraint, something like Leah Kardos’ piece feels much freer and exploratory. Solo piano music often feels like it can easily access this kind of sweet spot between sadness and hope, a lot of the tracks feel like that to me. Maybe just like those harmonic overtones I mentioned, there’s something about the piano - maybe like emotional overtones? - that lends the instrument some kind of in-built emotional complexity. You can read all kinds of feelings into the same piece or the same performance. That’s part of the piano’s charm I think, and its power.

This is the first volume of Kindred Spirits. What can we expect in the future from Kindred Spirits? Will the compilations continue to be thematic?

Maybe. Tackling a theme is nice because it gives artists a purpose, and it also might give the comp a kind of cohesion that it might not otherwise have if it was just an arbitrary collection of songs we just really love. It’s just a really great way of expanding our family a little and getting some new and old friends of the label involved. Luke Howard for example is a really good friend and has been a strong supporter of our label so far, and being able to bring him in for this compilation means a lot to me.


1. Donald Hugh - Late
2. Braille Face - Intervals
3. Leah Kardos - Novice
4. researcher - Love Will You Love Me When I'm Not the 1
5. Telling - Monuments (Luke Howard Version)
6. Feels - Glasshouse (Tim's Black MIDI Mix)
7. Evelyn Ida Morris - Sit By The Fire With Me
8. mara - shift
9. Tim Shiel - For Your Health
10. Sophie Hutchings - Somewhere South
11. verydeadly - Up in the Trees

Follow Spirit Level over here and Don over here.