IT'S the most personal of songs that Adam Newling finds tortuous to write.
The closer he is to the heart of the tale, the greater the responsibility he feels. The higher the stakes in his heart.
"You fall short of writing about things that are close to ya as you feel like it has to work," Newling tells Weekender at a table outside Good Brother Espresso in the Newcastle CBD.
"It's not pressure from anyone else, it's just from myself to give the situation, or the people in my life, poetic justice."
The rising indie-folk singer-songwriter explains this in the context of a tune called Little Elephant. The song is yet to be recorded and will likely feature on his future third album.
It's a song Newling has been writing, in many respects, for the past 18 years. Ever since his best mate in primary school, Dylan Mowbrac, died from a congenital heart condition near the end of the sixth grade.
The pair would often spend lunchtimes together in the classroom with Dylan hooked up to an oxygen tank as he was unable to run around the playground with the other kids.
"We went away on school camp [in year six] and were away for a week and he [Dylan] couldn't come because he was too crook," Newling recalls.
"I remember getting on the bus that day to go to camp and seeing him and his mum and I was like, 'what are you doing?'
"I can't remember what she said and it didn't connect with me until years later, but she was kind of like, 'he's gotta go because it's probably the last thing he can do'."
Dylan died two weeks after returning home from the school excursion.
Dylan loved elephants. His bedroom was filled with figurines and posters and his granted Starlight Children's Foundation wish was to sleep at Dubbo's Western Plains Zoo.
Following Dylan's death his mother invited his friends to take a memento from his room. Naturally Newling chose one of Dylan's little elephants.
"I didn't realise how much it rattled me until a bunch of years later," Newling says. "It kind of f--ked me up for a bit."
But eventually Dylan's memory served as a source of strength and inspiration for Newling. Among he's raft of "meaningless tattoos", there's an elephant inked on the back of his leg.
"I got it when I was going through a pretty shit time," he says.
"I felt like I was pissing my life away, in with the bad crowd and doing things and I had bit of a breakdown.
"I remembered I should make the most out of my life because he didn't get to live his. It sounds a bit corny, but it's something that's sort of kept me going.
"Every time I falter or have a moment of doubt, that spurs me along."
BUILDING HIS DREAM
It's fair to say Dylan Mowbrac would be proud of the musical path his old friend has trodden in recent years.
After growing up enamoured with the music of Van Morrison and Bob Dylan and dabbling in his own songwriting, Adam Newling's music career kicked off as a guitarist for Sydney indie band Letters To Lions.
The four-piece released two EPs and a host of singles, including the minor hit Mushrooms.
But Newling's real break came through playing lead guitar in Ruby Fields' band. The pair are old friends and collaborators.
As Fields' career was breaking out with the success of the triple j Hottest 100 top-10 single, Dinosaurs, she urged Newling to record and release his solo material.
During the height of the pandemic, Newling released his first singles and in 2021 he produced his debut EP Occupational Anxiety, which blended rock, folk, cow-punk and alt-country influences.
All the ingredients were there. Simple, but effective chord progressions, emotive story-telling, and a raspy vocal with the ragged character of a well-worn pair of boots.
The songs kept flowing and triple j took notice when Newling released Sweetness and Singing Blackbird off his 2022 debut album Half Cut and Dangerous.
Both are simple folk tunes, but possess timeless and rousing choruses custom-built for drunken singalongs at pubs. It's the type of music you could imagine being belted out in a smoky beer den 60 years ago.
"That's the type of music I love," Newling says. "I love music you can sing out of key to. Music you don't have to be a great singer to sing along with. I'm probably proof of that.
"I try and write music that feels inclusive and music that I love. I'm not doing anything that's different to what was done 40 to 50 years ago. They're just trad songs man, with classic chords."
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I love music you can sing out of key to. Music you don't have to be a great singer to sing along with.- Adam Newling
FINDING A HOME
IT'S a stormy Wednesday evening and Newcastle's Good Brother Espresso is jam-packed.
Friends, family and fans are there for the launch of Adam Newling's second album Dorothy Painted Portraits and to hear the man himself perform acoustic renditions.
"I sling coffee here," Newling says to a round of applause. It seems people are as impressed with his barista skills as his music.
Newcastle is very much part of the Adam Newling story - past, present and future.
He was born at the John Hunter Hospital and lived at Warners Bay during his formative years, before growing up in Cronulla and staying in the Shire until his early 20s.
There were several nomadic and flood-affected years living at Burringbar near Murwillumbah on the NSW north coast, before Newling followed love to Newcastle.
In August he bought a house in Jesmond where he lives with his partner Rianna O'Connell and her sister Lindsay O'Connell, from popular Newcastle duo Raave Tapes.
"All signs just ended up pointing to Newcastle," he says.
"I have heaps of homies here and I was looking for a place to buy and settle down and I just found this place in Jesmond and made the move and pulled the trigger and it's been the best thing I've done in a long time."
Dorothy Painted Portraits takes its name from Newling's paternal grandmother Dorothy, who was an artist.
"None of the lyrical content on the record has much to do with her, but it just felt like a fitting ode to her and the life she lived and what she left our family," he says.
For the first time Newling focused on telling the stories of friends and acquaintances when writing Dorothy Painted Portraits.
The opener Lawrence Hargrave Drive, the delicate Amber and Bob Dylan-esque The Losing Side were inspired by flood stories.
Another album highlight, Round The Houses, was co-written with English artist Kristina Karsegard about a guy who was robbed on London Bridge.
"He had a iPhone 6, so they took his wallet and money and took his phone and they were like, 'you've only got an iPhone 6, this is a piece of shit', and instead of giving it back to him they threw it off the bridge," he says.
"As crap as it is, I was at the pub and found it really funny."
Newling turned 30 last week and with a home, a happy relationship and a burgeoning career, life's bright for the scrappy troubadour.
However, Newling isn't the type to measure success by traditional parameters.
"I look back on life and it was the music I listened to that shaped my morals, the person I wanna be," he says. "It taught me how to love, taught me how to be down.
"All the most valuable lessons I've gotten about being a person is probably through music. If I can pass that on to anyone in the most minute form, then I've won."
Dorothy Painted Portraits was released on Friday. Adam Newling plays King Street Bandroom on January 12.