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JUSTIN BURFORD & UNPLUGGED: NIRVANA REIMAGINED The X-Press Interview


In October last year, a performance like no other took place within the walls of His Majesty’s Theatre. Perth rocker Justin Burford and the rebellious rule bending Perth Symphony Orchestra (PSO) delivered Nirvana’s MTV Unplugged in New York in a way the sold out audience had never seen or heard before. For one night only, Unplugged: Nirvana Reimagined saw PSO and Burford deliver the iconic Nirvana album with a unique orchestral twist, and now the sold out success is back for those that missed it the first time. RYAN ELLIS caught up with Justin Burford ahead of the upcoming encore Unplugged show on Friday, September 28 to chat about the show’s origins, Nirvana influences, working with the creative PSO rebels and his other endeavours.

The Unplugged: Nirvana Reimagined encore with PSO is coming up soon. Grunge and orchestra seem at odds with each other but once you hear it, they actually complement each other nicely. Where did the idea come from initially to fuse these two together?

I think the idea came from the original concert itself. It’s so rich in this haunting way. There’s almost an understated decadence which I think summed up Kurt and Nirvana quite nicely. Kurt had such a unique theatrical voice. Sure, he’s remembered as the “king of grunge”, but he was always an artist first. Just look at the set design of that television sound stage. The lilies, the candles, the lighting, the cello; it’s all very deliberate. These weren’t the fleeting whimsies of a dumb punk rocker, he was a stylish guy.

It’s not the first time you’ve covered Kurt Cobain and Nirvana; what pulled you towards doing these performances? Anything in particular or just being a long-time fan who’s also got just the right voice for it?

I was a right place, right time fan. Nirvana exploded as I was turning 14, it was immediate. The idea of doing a show about that particular obsession of mine only came out of doing the musical Rock Of Ages in 2011. As the show was closing at QPAC in Brisbane, I saw John Waters’ Glass Onion. I thought “I should do something like that about Kurt!”

Your Adelaide Cabaret Festival show Kurt back in 2012 got rave reviews. Did you ever imagine you would end up doing something of this scale with PSO at that time?

I could only have dreamed. Perth is pretty lucky to have someone like Bourby Webster [PSO Executive Director] doing what she’s doing, and I’m super lucky to have met her. She’s so adventurous and open minded, a rule breaker like me, which is why we get along so well.

How did you the come into contact with the PSO and what was their response initially? Were they all for it, or did they look at it like “this guy’s nuts”?

I’m pretty sure Bourby went “this guy is nuts, I love it”. It fits right into the PSO mantra. There’s a story here. Perth composer and legend Ash Gibson-Grieg was the one challenged to tell that story in music. And it’s not all sunshine and lollipops, it’s a great way of showing off just what you can do with the dark heart of an orchestra.

I was quite unsure of what to expect when I went to the show last year; it seemed like an odd combination, but there was just something attractive about the obscurity of it. In the end, it was brilliant. Did you expect it to be so popular and sell out as quick as it did, and to be doing another show?

I think there was just a faith in the material between the key creatives. When you’re going into something like this, you can only think of the show in front of you. You can’t be distracted by whether this is going to tour, et cetera. Of course the thought is there from the beginning, but managing your expectations is a big part of working in the arts.

There was a really diverse crowd; everything from corporate suits through to older grungers sporting classic Nirvana tees and leather jackets, and even plenty of younger grunge-heads. When the plan was on the table, was there a target audience or just an open for all, whoever rocks up sort of thing?

The plan for us was always to serve the material, do good by the legacy and the music and tell the story. Then it kind of defies genre and just becomes good theatre, which is in keeping with the atmosphere of the original performance.

If you could have anyone at the show, who are the faces you’d be most keen to have in the crowd, excluding Cobain of course… Dave Grohl maybe?

That would be terrifying!

The orchestra seemed to add a new level to the music. Some songs sounded more emotive like Polly, which was actually a bit of a tearjerker, while others like Smells Like Teen Spirit [in the encore] were just totally different without losing their originality. Was there anything specific you were trying to achieve getting PSO on board, or did you just want to try something totally different?

Ash and I talked a lot about the meaning of each song; the emotional nitty gritty. That’s what governs the arrangements. The music throughout remains true to the emotional centre of each song. That’s what the mission was.

Were there any particular favourites from the 2017 show, both to perform and hear, and why?

Where Did You Sleep Last Night closes the first act. It felt like the catharsis for myself and the audience last year. It will be really interesting to see if the same is true again.

You pulled off the sound and the look of Kurt without a glitch. What’s it like performing as him, as a “being in his shoes” type of thing? Do you get a different feel for or perspective?

I did a lot of research back in 2012 when I was putting together Kurt. It took a little while to get the voice and mannerisms but I’ve done him quite a few times since then.

How did you get into the mindset of Cobain and prepare for the show? Was there anything in particular you did, or are you just naturally that way already?

I guess I just kind of get into the “vibe” of Kurt in the days leading up to the show. I have a few little things I do that help me find him, like voice exercises and physical movements. It is becoming more habitual. I’ve gotten better at slipping in and out of the character.

It seems pretty obvious you’re a Nirvana fan too, how much of an influence did they have on you growing up and as you progressed into the music industry?

I come from a family of big music fans. I was listening to music since I was a baby but when Nirvana came along, I was just at the right age of 14. It felt like a movement and a voice that was speaking for me. It was a special moment in music history to be a part of and I guess I’ve never totally shaken it.

Do you have a favourite album and song?

I remember being obsessed with In Utero. Nevermind has the hits and is amazing on all levels but In Utero is just raw emotion. Bleach was actually the first Nirvana album I heard. Before they exploded I had a Canadian friend at school who gave it to me on cassette. I used to listen to it mowing the lawn. I thought it was cool but the obsession didn’t really kick in until I saw the Smells Like Teen Spirit video for the first time.

PSO aren’t afraid to push the boundaries of their orchestral capabilities. How did you find working with them? They all seemed to be really digging the music when they performed; are there a few fans amongst them as well?

Bourby and Jess [Jess Gethin, PSO Chief Conductor & Artistic Director], and the entire PSO team are amazing. Everyone works so hard because we are all seriously passionate about music. It’s genuine. I think that’s what comes across at all of their concerts. I like to think there’s something extra special about this show though.

It’s not the first time PSO have reimagined something in their own unique style, with past and future events including Signed, Sealed, Delivered: The Music of Stevie Wonder & Aretha Franklin, Ministry of Sound: Orchestrated and Steampunk Mozart. If you could see them or work with them to reimagine anything else, what would you love to see them have a go at?

Bourby and I are always chatting about ideas. In fact there is one that I think might actually see the light of day. I guess we’ll all have to wait and see.

A quick bit on your other projects, Coco Blu and End of Fashion. What’s been happening in their respective worlds?

Both projects are up and running and both are due for some new music. I’ve been teasing about new tunes from (End of) Fash(ion) for ages, but it is coming. I’ve been busy with Coco Blu which has taken some priority this year.

Coco Blu released a new single What is Fate recently. Is there anything else on the horizon? Can we expect an LP anytime soon?

New single What is Fate is out on Apple Music, iTunes, Spotify etc and will be leading in to an EP release later this year. There is definitely an LP in the works which will more than likely be ready by next year. In the meantime, we’ve been pretty busy playing live which is always so much fun.

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