Cold Ghost’s latest album was inspired by the natural soundscapes of the Nerang River on the Gold Coast. The local singer-songwriter (aka Fletcher Babb) has just released Red Gold, an elegiac mix of alt-folk with recordings of sounds drawn from the natural environment connected to the waterway that runs through Surfers Paradise and beyond.

Blending music and lyrics with field recordings that sample everything from local birds to underwater marine life, Babb’s creation is as intentional as it is compelling and intriguing. Blending songcraft and soundscapes, it offers up a singular and artfully executed view of the tourist mecca’s quieter, more contemplative natural spaces.

Created during an eight-month ArtKeeper residency at HOTA, Home of the Arts, Red Gold sprung to life as organically as the sounds that inspired it. Babb says that he approached the project with a clear idea of what it was he wanted to create while remaining open to “the shifts and changes that come when you’re in the process of creating”.

He applied for the ArtKeeper program with the intention of crafting a catalogue of songs that would use an alt-folk approach to capturing the history, stories and flow of the city’s largest river. Having launched the storytelling cultural endeavour, Stories in the Key of GC, Babb is no stranger to peeling back the glitter strip’s facade to tell the more unusual stories that dwell beneath.

“I thought to myself, if I was an artist-in-residence at HOTA, what would I create?” he says. “What would I do that would connect to the place and what would connect me as an artist to the place? I figured that the river wraps around Evandale Park and the whole cultural precinct. It’s this beautiful place that the river snakes around and you’ve got it right in front of the main strip that leads up to Surfers Paradise, which of course means the beach, so there’s water everywhere, really.

“In a way, I think it was a good little project for me to look at the history and maybe also the physicality of the river. That was my initial idea. And then, the more I got into it, the more I discovered that the process of creating was really just about being. It was about being in the presence of the river and just sitting down and observing and being and exploring. So, really, that’s what I did – I chose a project that allowed me to be an explorer, in a way.”

In fleshing out the bare bones of Red Gold, Babb completed extensive field work during which he made many hours of sound recordings. In order to make these, he travelled along the river, recording at different canals, creeks, estuaries and parks adjacent to the body of the water.

He also made trips to waterfalls and further along the coastline in order to capture a vast array of sounds – birds, drainpipes, the gentle brush of casuarina tree branches, underwater creatures, insect noises and the clanging of traffic refracting off street signs among them – that would be incorporated into the album’s 11 songs, along with lyrics drawn from morning free-writing exercises inspired by Julia Cameron’s artist’s bible, The Artist’s Way.

“I started up as far as Springbrook and went down to Hinze Dam and around the areas where Nerang starts,” Babb says.

“There’s a bunch of different creeks that feed into the river and visiting them was some of the most fascinating fieldwork I did. Using the hydrophone recorder was a lot of fun. I reached out to a friend who lives in Brisbane, (composer and curator) Lawrence English, who recommended one and it became really indispensable.

“I could throw it off the jetty and it would capture water sounds, boat ride noise. I hiked up at Springbrook and took a bunch of equipment with me and ended up recording some really great percussion in these sorts of shallow pools.”

Given his unconventional subject matter, it’s no surprise that Babb’s approach to incorporating his fieldwork recordings into his music involved harnessing some impressive technology in the recording studio. He also donned multiple caps during the project, relishing embracing the roles of singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist as he recorded, mixed and mastered Red Gold.

“Apart from just using field recordings, I did quite a bit of crossfade work, incorporating things like insect sounds into some of the songs, but the special part about this bit of the project was really who else I brought on board,” he says.

“My percussionist drummer, Jake Morton, has a piece of equipment called the sensory drum kit, four sensors that sit on top of an ordinary drum kit, and they map out the surface of the drum.

“So, when you play in different spots on that drum, it triggers different samples or iterations of samples. I can feed in birdsong and we can put that on a snare drum or we can put the thump of cars going over a bridge as a kick drum.

“It’s a really raw, organic way to work and I loved that. It’s a fairly new technology but I just loved the idea that you can take sounds from the environment and play them through the drum kit. It was amazing taking all the best bits of the fieldwork recordings and being able to incorporate them into the songs like that.”

Red Gold by Cold Ghost is available now

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