The Michael Brinkworth household is known for cheesy omelettes, strong coffee, and jam sessions on the kitchen balcony that last well into the night. Walking through the door of the Australian singer-songwriter’s flat in Friedrichshain, Berlin is like stepping into an alternate universe where time does not exist. I’ve whiled away many weekends sitting at his table, listening to him harmonise with his flatmate Pip Fluteman, singing his own songs, or any cover you could possibly request (I guarantee you he’ll know it).
“I love learning covers,” he tells me. “I think that’s the main way to grow as a musician.” Sitting around his table on Sunday nights, drinking beer and eating falafel with peanut sauce from Marafina, I started taking it for granted that no song request will ever go unanswered, but there is a special place in Michael’s heart for Neil Young, Wilco, and The Replacements. ‘Force of Nature’, one of the songs from his upcoming album, is his love letter to Neil Young, in which he sings: “And I know there’s almost no way/ That you’ll ever hear this song/ And even if you did/ You’d probably think it was a bit too long”.
Michael made his entrance on the Berlin folk scene seven years ago, after years of extensive travelling that included working on a weed plantation in the US, teaching English in Guatemala, and hitchhiking across Europe. He had his guitar stolen in Spain and smashed his head after falling off a roof in New York, but no misadventures ever quelled his wandering spirit. Just before COVID-19, he had spent three months touring around Australia.
“I haven’t been outside of Berlin in almost two years. That’s never happened before,” he said. It’s a strange time for Michael, who had been planning to release his sophomore album Wasted Wonder before the virus started. “So much effort went into recording and producing the album that I can’t help but feel disappointed about how corona has affected the release. I’ve been putting it off for as long as possible in the hope that I would be able to organise a release show, but I felt like I couldn’t put it off anymore. The video for my single ‘Thick Skin’ was recorded a year and a half ago, and the friends that were involved in the filming of it kept asking when it was gonna come out.”
‘Thick Skin’ talks about the experience of busking in bars around Berlin. “Before the pandemic, I was one of the hardest working musicians out there – I went bar busking almost every night to save money for this album. It’s only now that I feel like I’m wasting away the days. I’m at a loss as to what to do – I’ve only ever known how to be a musician, and the pandemic is keeping me from doing what I’m best at.”
Michael likes keeping a sense of mystery about his troubadour persona, and while picking out press shots with me, he dismisses the ones where he’s showing off a big grin. “I don’t look mysterious enough in these,” he says. But what makes Michael stand out is not mysteriousness – it’s the candour of his smile and the laugh lines around his eyes. Authenticity is not a word I’d use often to describe a musician, but it’s the only way to describe Michael Brinkworth. If there’s someone who genuinely loves music, it’s him.
In ‘One More Time (Just for Fun)’, he sings “I’m not good enough to be great/ But I’m better than not bad”, but I don’t know any musician in Berlin who doesn’t love hearing the singer-songwriter play. At a house gathering before the second lockdown, I remember him sitting in the corner of the room fiddling on his guitar. “Play ‘Country Town’!” someone asked. “Or ‘Falling In Love with a Broken Heart’!” someone else requested. When Michael sings, he is transported to another world – his eyes glaze over and his voice shakes and grates with the emotion of the song.
Michael is a musician that should have been born in another time in another place – as a character on the pages of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or in Bob Dylan’s ‘Freight Train Blues’. He was telling me about attending Rainbow Gatherings – temporary hippie communities in remote forests, years ago, and said: “I wouldn’t do it again now. Some of those people live on the rainbow.” But Michael is just as idealistic as some of the people he talks about, and very much a dreamer.
“I’m still in a travelling way,” he says. “I’d like to live in South America someday. Maybe. Or go back to Australia. I don’t know, I’m just getting tired of Berlin, although I have built a life here now.” In his song ‘Lost Boys’, he sang: “We never had what it takes/ To know when to stay”, and it seems like Michael still doesn’t know. Another time, he says: “I’d like to do a Vipassana retreat [ten days of silent meditation], but maybe when I’m older. I’d go mad if I couldn’t play music for ten days.”
There is something romantic about Michael Brinkworth and his approach to life. “Money doesn’t matter,” he said when he brought over pizza to my place months ago, waving away my offer to pay him back. “You don’t know freedom until you have nothing left in your bank account.” What matters to Michael is music, time with loved ones, and maybe an occasional movie night. “You haven’t seen Almost Famous?” he exclaimed a few weeks ago when we were having coffee. “That movie changed my life!” A week later, we were watching Almost Famous – Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical film about writing for Rolling Stone as a teenager – and eating curry, a staple of Michael’s.
The other day, I was walking down the street listening to Wasted Wonder, singing along to ‘Sunday Shoes’. The busker Michael describes in the song sounds a lot like himself: “He don’t need no microphone to sing the blues/ He plays Saturday night music in his Sunday shoes”. I ran into Michael when he was busking in Treptower Park, and he told me that Pip had found the shoes he was now wearing on the street a few months before. I smiled. Of course, he did.
Michael Brinkworth’s new single ‘Thick Skin’ is out now.