Peter Milton Walsh of the renowned Australian pop group reflects on A Life Full Of Farewells
In early April, Australian singer-songwriter Peter Milton Walsh, with his band The Apartments, re-released one of his most beloved albums, 1995’s A Life Full of Farewells.
As Walsh explains during a recent Zoom chat from his Sydney home, this was something that had been impossible to do for many years: “The [record] label through which I had released a couple of things in the 1990s went out of business, and nobody knew where the master tapes for this album were anymore,” he says.
Those tapes remained lost for more than 20 years. By chance, someone finally found the missing tapes in a Sydney storage unit. “It was phenomenal,” Walsh says of the discovery, adding that he was astounded that nothing had been thrown out during the intervening decades.
Recovering these tapes came around the same time that Walsh released a new album, In and Out of the Light, in 2020. When both of the subsequent European tours he had planned were cancelled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he realized that this was the perfect moment to reissue A Life Full of Farewells, his band’s third album (and make it available on vinyl for the first time). “There was some affection for this album,” Walsh says, “so it just seemed like good timing. We can’t tour, but here’s something else from the past. It’s still part of The Apartments story.”
As he readied the reissue, Walsh says it was interesting to revisit these tracks a quarter century later. “I feel like this is a reunion with my former self,” he says. “I’m meeting the guy who wrote the songs. I vaguely recognize him.” He says A Life Full of Farewells seems like an especially appropriate title, in hindsight: “I do see that what was going on here was a bunch of farewells, to the person and the life that I had known.
“I had drifted around for a long time,” Walsh continues. “I had never really stayed in one place for too long. I was getting into my thirties when I was writing these songs, and you recognize that the new decade means that you can’t just go on repeating yourself. And in many ways, I really didn’t want to repeat myself because it was really just like an endless series of mistakes. I guess that’s what I was working out: what do you keep of your life, and what do you throw away?”
As a result, Walsh seems especially introspective on these songs (which is further enhanced by the jangly, refined instrumentation). Already known for writing deeply meaningful lyrics, A Life Full of Farewells finds him even more candid than usual. He says he believes that this may be why this album connected particularly strongly with listeners. “Some of the things on this album, I’m sure many people at many moments in their lives must think – like in “Thank You for Making Me Beg,” [which is] almost like a story about a sense of failure. I think people do have those feelings,” he says.
This doesn’t mean that these songs are bleak, however. “When I listened to it [again] and I heard ‘Paint the Days White,’ I recognized that in some ways, the character in that song is trying to draw somebody out of a darkness that’s descended on their lives, and make things whiter and brighter,” Walsh says. “I definitely think that’s something I’ve tried to do with music – to create something beautiful that is a companion to people through hard times, as well as good times.”
In his own life, Walsh did find happiness, settling down in Sydney with a wife and children. But tragedy struck in 1999 when his three-year-old son, Riley, passed away from a rare disease. In his grief, Walsh halted his music career. “It just didn’t seem like the right thing for me to go, ‘Oh, life goes on – I’ll go back and just do what I’ve always done, go out and play,’” he says. “I understand that lots of people find that’s the only way they can get through it, but I’m not one of those people. My feeling was, the only way that I could honor my son was by shutting down.”
This hiatus lasted until 2013, when Walsh felt ready to emerge again – and was surprised at the warm reception he received when he did. “There was a real fervor for The Apartments – it was a revelation to me,” he says. “I honestly thought I would have been forgotten. But as it turns out, a whole bunch of new people had discovered The Apartments. No one could have predicted that.”
Even during his time out of the public eye, Walsh had never stopped writing, and he released a new album in 2013, Seven Songs, followed by No Song, No Spell, No Madrigal in 2015. These albums received the same critical acclaim that The Apartments have always received, starting with their 1985 debut, the evening visits…and stays for years. Along the way, the band became popular across Europe, and particularly in France.
Walsh first began writing songs when he was fifteen years old, growing up in Brisbane on Australia’s Queensland coast. “It was like a big country town, a river town,” Walsh says of Brisbane. “There was a relatively repressive conservative government. So it was that kind of world in which I grew up.”
When Walsh was a teenager, he got his first real glimpse of what was possible outside of his hometown.
“My cousin came to stay one Christmas holiday from Sydney, which was a far more sophisticated place,” Walsh says. “He brought along his Spanish guitar, and he played ‘Sinnerman’ by Nina Simone. I got him to show me how to play the guitar. I was into it from then on. It just seemed obvious to me that I should try and write songs. Without being too arrogant about it, I thought, ‘I can do this.’”
VIDEO: Nina Simone “Sinnerman” (Live 1965)
Walsh became active in the Brisbane music scene, briefly joining The Go-Betweens before devoting himself solely to The Apartments, which he had formed in 1978. He has remained the sole songwriter and constant member ever since. “I’ve always used the name ‘The Apartments’ because I do think that what I do comes out as a band sound, [which] changes from time to time depending on who’s in the band,” he says.
Now living in Sydney, the cosmopolitan city that had so inspired him growing up, Walsh is now regarded as something of a living legend in the Australian music scene. It has been a career that he doesn’t take for granted.
“I feel extremely lucky and grateful,” he says. “Look, this is a casino life: you could make all the right moves and nothing could happen, because that’s happened to a lot of people. So the fact that I didn’t make the right moves and there are still people interested, it’s a cause for gratitude for me.”