Each year, Mushroom Publishing holds a writing workshop in a mansion situated in the gorgeous surrounds of Victoria's Macedon Ranges. The aim is to team up two songwriters from divergent backgrounds and challenge them to write and record one new song in a day.
It was here that TZU beatsmith Countbounce and Australian bluesman Ash Grunwald first formally met. The two had been admirers of each other's work from afar; but exchanging greetings backstage at festivals was as much as their paths had crossed.
Yet the two clicked instantly and one year later, they have produced Grunwald's career highlight "Fish Out Of Water" – a genre-defying record that is set to take the Australian bluesman to the next level. The thrilling hybrid of styles captured on the album will delight fans of quality Australian music.
For his part, Grunwald is a soulful bluesman in the most pure sense. Raised in outer Melbourne, he first picked up a guitar at the sprightly age of ten. "My granddad, who is from South Africa, would play bass and I would play with him," he recalls. "He used to do a lot of home recordings. I've often speculated how much that was an influence, because everything I play now is like one big bass line."
Remarkably, Grunwald was a budding blues aficionado by just 13. He credits Melbourne's outstanding community radio network as assisting his musical education. "I went through every blues subgenre before I got into Hendrix, Cream and psychedelic blues rock," he says. "As a teenager, I loved blues music and identified with Black American music."
He became obsessed with 12-bar blues and the likes of Buddy Guy, Albert King and Muddy Waters. What helped frame his music going forward however was some jam sessions with a friend enamoured with electronic music. "Early on, I thought it would be a good thing to combine the two."
As a performer though, Grunwald was a late bloomer. Now 31, he was in his early twenties when he made his debut playing live. Living in inner Melbourne and immersing himself in the city's blues scene, he frequently attended blues jams. Music came to the fore in his life.
He was performing in duos, playing solo and acoustic, and being ignored in the corners of restaurants. "It was great. You'd have hours of playing time each night. It was so good for me as a musician. After a while, I was making a living from it. I just loved it."
He began expanding out to regional Victoria, and cultivated a touring circuit, all within two hours of home. He put together his first album, "Introducing," as he always has - independently. "Introducing" offered a collection of blues standards and original tracks, and leaned heavily on traditional blues.
From there, he regularly toured Tassie, Adelaide, Sydney and the West Coast. Soon enough, he was nationwide. As he kept touring, his fan base expanded and the music became progressively more up-tempo.
His second album "I Don't Believe" was his first to feature sampling and live looping. It also won him his first ARIA nod for Best Blues and Roots Album. He wrote - with experience - about life on the road. He played lapsteel; all the while, the roots movement began to expand.
"It was a welcome surprise, that happening," he says. "It gave me a movement of younger, newer music to belong to and opened me up to those influences and allowed to me write in different ways." Grunwald was announced the MBAS Blues Performer of the Year in 2003 and received a trip to the US. It was an eye opening experience for him.
"I learned a lot about myself and the music I play," he says. "I heard how what I was doing was different to everybody else. I began to feel really good and comfortable about being Australian and the distance I have from the original culture that gave us blues. I felt encouraged that I was different."
He joined the bill of numerous festivals and from 2004, his following steadily grew. "Festivals gave me a forum to get on stages and make a big sound," he says. To date, he has played all the staples: Byron Bay, Falls, Pyramid Rock, Apollo Bay, Queenscliff, Great Escape and too many others to mention.
All the while, he began to embrace the nomadic touring lifestyle. Surfing became a passion. Music had offered the opportunity to tour all of Australia's major coastal areas. He and his girlfriend lived in a van and travelled up and down the East Coast, with the occasional sojourn to WA. He hosted Triple J's Blues and Roots show for 18 months and his searing live album "Live At The Corner" received another nomination from ARIA.
His next studio album, "Give Signs," was even more adventurous. By 2007, Grunwald had racked up his third ARIA nomination - for "Give Signs". The record also won Best Independent Blues and Roots Album at the prestigious AIR Awards.
Overseas touring and international festival appearances, including the esteemed Montreux Jazz Festival became a reality, and his music was continually evolving. There were elements of groove, beats, and soulful guitar. "When I play live, it has that four on the floor, modern pulse that we get from electronic dance music," he says.
Earlier this year, Grunwald was back in the States where he earned a strong buzz for his show at the South By Southwest music festival, picking up a US Management deal, plus a UK label and tour. Then he was off to Canada for his debut tour there, performing to sell out crowds. In May, it was back to Japan to support the Japanese release of Give Signs, performing at the Green Room Festival. June and July see him return to tour the UK, supporting the English release of the same album, playing festivals and his own side shows at venues such as London's renowned The Borderline.
Which brings us back to Mushroom Publishing's retreat in Macedon. Prior to the outing, Grunwald had taken to writing in an exercise book on tour. "Then, when it comes to actually recording, I make up a riff, improvise and then draw on the material I have been writing previously."
Grunwald recalls not being particularly enthused about the songwriting day. "I was really busy at the time, I hardly had any days off, and I wasn't sure what to expect. I'd never written a song with anyone before. But it was just great."
Grunwald was attracted to Countbounce's experience with both rock and hip-hop. "He knows about conventional songwriting and normal band music, but also hip-hop and electronica," Grunwald says. "I wanted to draw on that well. I've always wanted to work with a good beats mechanic; I've been looking for somebody like that for years."
Countbounce says that when the two began talking about the possibly of recording together at Macedon, his mind turned to the grimy aesthetic of blues and roots. "I felt like I could bring a fresh approach to the sound," he says. "Ash has always been about a DIY aesthetic. I thought I'd do something that was a bit edgier. The blues is in the soul of his music."
Although Grunwald had regularly placed beats in his music, it was often simply a mash-up of DIY electronic beats with his blues tracks placed on top. "I wanted to smash the two together really hard, so that you couldn't tell which side started it first," Countbounce says. "More of a soul hip-hop approach. The drums would be sampled. And the feel of a hip-hop rhythm section with his guitars on top."
Although Countbounce brought a number of his own ideas to the table for co-writing opportunities, Grunwald found his creative juices were flowing freely. "He would bring songs to me, or even just a riff, and I'd write a beat around it with him," Countbounce says. "I did all the beats for the record."
Indeed, Grunwald says that both Countbounce's musical knowledge and personal musical history - as well as his samples - helped to create the sound on the album.
"I wanted to shake up what Ash does a bit," he says. "I wanted to test his boundaries and see what he is comfortable with. And he was actually comfortable with a whole lot of different sounds." The two co-wrote five tracks on the album, and spent several months last year demoing tracks in a shipping container in Countbounce's backyard, which doubles as a recording studio. By that time they were ready to record the album.
"We took another ten days out, he came to my house, we re-tracked it all," Grunwald says. "We used really good amps, and vintage mics. We played a lot of junk percussion. It was a bit sharper this time around. We mixed it at Sing Sing."
Grunwald is delighted with the acoustic tracks on the record. The two attempted to create a vintage sound and have pulled it off spectacularly. "There's more emphasis on the beats and this album in general pushes further way from the blues," he says.
"Fish Out Of Water" works in a comparatively contrasting style of it its protagonists. "To me, the album is more up tempo and happy then my previous stuff," Grunwald acknowledges. "But Pip sees it as dark and brooding compared to things he's worked on before."
With his career on a steep ascent, Grunwald has already shared the bill with the likes of James Brown and Bo Diddley, plus the creme of Australia's local talents. "Ash is committed to being independent, he's well respected, and he's got his machine oiled and ready to go," Countbounce says.
Grunwald is proudly independent in his musical outlook. It's never made sense to him to have a record company in between himself and his distributor. Having self-managed for over five years, several years ago, he began to build a strong team behind him: manager, publicist and booking agency. Team Grunwald are jubilant about the album: a major step forward for the longevity of his career.
"I've spent more time and money on this album then all of my others put together," Grunwald says, emphasising his passion behind the project. ""My whole career in the past has been almost based around playing live. This album will change that."