“When the iron glows red, you earn your money. That is your life.”
It was these simple words, spoken by Nguyen Phuong Hung - the last remaining blacksmith on Hanoi’s Blacksmith Street, that struck a mighty chord with Jae Laffer. Citing his father’s words to a local paper in Vietnam, Mr Hung spoke of hard work, heritage and lost trade; a street name void of meaning once he retired his faithful hammer and tong.
His story was echoed in newspapers across the globe, including that of the New York Times, before falling under the keen eye of Jae in rural Melbourne.
“I read the story when I first began writing the album,” Jae recalls. “I loved the poetry in his description and in particular the image of the glowing iron; the great moment when a blacksmith strikes. It felt like a metaphor for seizing chances and the fears and trials of day to day work life - when the future is unclear and the present is inadequate.”
It is from these contemplative beginnings that ‘When The Iron Glows Red’ was born - a powerful ode to the common man, the hard worker, the devoted family man who dutifully enlists in the rat race of life, day in day out.
“The story got me considering our chances in life, and like the last blacksmith in Hanoi, wondering just what mark we leave on earth and who really knows we are here.”
But as chief songwriter and lead vocalist of iconic Perth outfit The Panics, perhaps Jae need not worry so much about legacy. Already recognised as one of Australia’s songwriting greats, his mantel glows with proof; housing an ARIA Award, triple j’s J Award and a swag of WAMi Awards.
With a back catalogue that continues to stir and inspire not only music fans but also accomplished writers of the art, question remains as to why Jae would want to venture forth on his own.
“After writing several albums with The Panics I felt an urge to write an album where the process was very single-minded and quickly realised,” he explains. “The Panics are still very much together, but I saw this as an opportunity to take ideas and themes true to myself and see them from start to finish in one burst of inspiration, without looking up".
“Just taking a song, going with my instinct on the day and leaving it at that; singing the words while the ink is still wet on the page.”
Drawing on the powerful and straight up musical delivery of a solo John Lennon, early Bruce Springsteen and Paul Kelly, Jae took a slightly more liberal approach when seeking outward inspiration.
“My inspirations were characters around me, in the workplace and in my world, that are all living in the hope of finding a greater life,” he says. “And those who found themselves seeking answers to all the complications and trials of day to day existence in the world of work, love, and money, while keeping a flame alive to follow their illusive and sometimes seemingly impossible dreams.”
Fanning the proverbial flame, both conceptually and methodically, ‘Leave A Light On’ was the first track to be penned and set the tone for the rest of the album, taking cue from Lennon solo-era string lines and classic pop hooks.
Also penned during the developmental stages of the album, ‘Leaving On Time’ emerged from a writing session with The Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart while the pair toured with Stevie Nicks. It’s a track that would later see Jae fulfill his shameless desire to incorporate brass on the record.
What began with Jae recording alone, or with the assistance of Paul Otway (The Panics), grew into a bigger beast; enlisting a small group of musicians to help fully realise the sound - Elliott Hammond (Delta Riggs) on drums, multilingual singer/songwriter Fantine on backing vocals and the signature guest vocal of Angie Hart (Frente!) on quirky duet ‘To Mention Her’. The album was recorded in Melbourne, before the final embers were stoked and mixed at New York’s Electric Lady Studio.
‘Right Above My Heart’ has Jae hitting the hammer home; paying homage to the blue-collar worker who is often treated as a dispensable cog in the larger machine. Driven by a dusty guitar line and playful piano, Laffer sings with overwhelming conviction as he argues that the worker’s badge does not define the man.
But it’s not all Eureka Flags and protest marches, with ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’ and ‘No Love Lost’ centering around young love and new adventures (or lack there of). The album also takes a wistful turn on piano ballad ‘I See Myself In You’; allowing Jae to explore wisdoms learnt and paying it forward.
“The song was written at a time when birth, death and family were surrounding me. It’s a passing on of knowledge between generations and the comfort of being understood by those closest to us, who share the same blood."
Much like Hanoi’s last blacksmith, a man who earned his trade off his father, and his father’s father, Jae Laffer imparts a story of his own, while serving as the voice of many. ‘When The Iron Glows Red’ solidifies his place as one of Australia’s great songwriters and above all, an honest and true craftsman.
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