Australian songwriters have a rich musical history and a variety of musical styles. In fact, they combine indigenous, western, and modern pop styles to create amazing music.
But who are the greatest songwriters from down under?
We’ve gathered seven who we think are some of the best.
Let’s dig in!
Why Are Australian Songwriters Some of the Greatest?
Australian music is rooted in the traditions of Anglo-Celts, Australian indigenous and folk music, and bush ballads. With such variety, it’s no wonder Australian songwriters are so good. The country has a rich musical history rooted in independence and freedom of thought that resonate with their culture.
We thought a little recent music history was in order since many popular rock bands originated in Australia, including INXS, Midnight Oil, AC/DC, and Men at Work.
Australian rock started in the 1950s with the ever-famous Bill Haley & His Comets’ Rock Around the Clock.
The 1960s saw further development of rock and roll styles with a bit of jazz. While Elvis and others in America leaned toward backgrounds of rockabilly and blues, groups such as Johnny O’Keefe’s The Dee Jays led the way down under with their jazz influences.
Music TV shows in the 1970s allowed artists to be seen more, and bands such as AC/DC and Little River Band and solo artists like Olivia Newton-John and Helen Reddy became international stars.
Pub Rock was the driving music of the 1980s, a mix of progressive, blues, and hard rock. The music cut through the loud hot, sweaty mix of the pubs.
Indie rock was the reigning style of music in the 1990s, popularized by bands such as Jebediah and Magic Dirt. Electronic Dance music also became an Australian staple at this time and still has a substantial global following.
The 2000s saw a rock renaissance in Australia, with bands such as Wolfmother, The Vines, and Jet charting internationally.
#1 Colin Hay
About the Australian Songwriter: Colin Hay was born June 29, 1953, in Kilwinning, Scotland. Then, in 1967 his family emigrated to Melbourne, Australia. You may know him as one of the founding members of the Australian new wave band Men at Work. Their debut album, Business as Usual, was one of the most internationally successful by an Australian group.
Hay wrote all the songs for the album, and Down Under became an Australian anthem. The group released two more albums before breaking up in 1986. Hay then embarked on a long and prolific solo career. In 2002 he created his indie label, Lazy Eye.
His solo work has never gained the smashing popularity of Men at Work, but he’s one of the world’s most respected songwriters and musicians. The Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) inducted Hay into their Hall of Fame in 1994.
Greatest Song: Overkill is certainly Colin Hay’s greatest song. It was released on Men at Work’s second album, Cargo, in 1983. The hit is a melancholy and melodic tune about anxiety and stepping into the unknown.
#2 Glenn Shorrock, Beeb Birtles, and Graeham Goble
About the Australian Songwriters: Glenn Shorrock, Beeb Birtles, and Graeham Goble were the core members of Australia’s Little River Band.
Glenn Shorrock was born on June 30, 1944, in Kent, England, and his family later emigrated to Australia in 1954. He was a founding member of the Twilights, one of Australia’s most popular bands of the 1960s. They performed perfect covers of rock bands, notably The Beatles.
Beeb Birtles was born on November 28 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. He was a founding member of Zoot, a popular 1960s Australian band, of which Rick Springfield was also a member.
Graeham Goble was born on May 15, 1947, in Adelaide, Australia. His musical influences were The Beatles, The Hollies, Bread, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. He says, “I always wanted to be in a band with harmonies… From my very first band, we had 3-part harmonies.”
LRB was one of the first Australian bands to find success in America. Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and the Eagles, influenced their music, bringing a cool country lilt. You could best describe them as a harmony rock country group. They achieved rapid success in Australia and America with their first two albums, Diamantina Cocktail in 1977 and Sleeper Catcher in 1978.
Greatest Song: The Australasian Performing Rights Association (APRA) considers Cool Change, written by Glenn Shorrock, as one of the top 30 Australian songs of all time. It’s a beautiful melodic song about a person embracing the beauty of nature and taking time for themselves.
#3 Iva Davies
About the Australian Songwriter: Ivor Arthur Davies was born on May 22, 1955, in Wauchope, New South Wales, Australia. He’s the co-founder and lead singer of the Australian rock band Icehouse. In fact, some of their musical influences were David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Ultravox. So it’s no surprise their pub-rock style eventually segued into synth-pop and new wave music.
Davies has had a prolific and eclectic musical career as a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, and producer. In 1995 he released the soundtrack album to the ballet Berlin, which Icehouse performed live on stage. He’s also composed music for television and films, including the series Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.
In 2006 Icehouse was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, and the Australian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame inducted Davies in 2018.
Greatest Song: Davies and John Oates of Hall and Oates co-wrote Electric Blue in 1987. It was a top ten hit on the Australian, American, and Canadian singles chart.
#4 Keith Urban
About the Australian Songwriter: Keith Urban was born October 26, 1967, in Whangarei, New Zealand. When he was two years old, his family moved to Caboolture, Queensland, Australia. He learned guitar at an early age and says Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac were significant influences.
Urban released his first album in Australia in 1990 and achieved success. He then decided to move to Nashville in 1992 to pursue his American country music dreams. Urban formed the band The Ranch, and their self-titled album, released in 1997, was a smashing success. He’s also an American Idol judge and married to Australian actress Nicole Kidman.
Urban has won countless awards throughout the years, including over 19 Grammy nominations. He’s the winner of four American Music Awards and six ARIA awards, including the Outstanding Achievement Award for his contribution to Australian Country Music.
In 2020 he was appointed Officer of the Order of Australia for “distinguished service to the performing arts as a singer and songwriter and charitable organizations.”
Greatest Song: Urban released Blue Ain’t Your Color in 2017 and won Single of the Year at the CMA awards. It was his biggest crossover hit and earned him two Grammy nominations.
#5 Michael Hutchence and Andrew Farriss
About the Australian Songwriters: Michael Hutchence was born on January 22, 1960, in Sydney, Australia. He was the co-founder, lead singer, and lyricist of INXS.
Andrew Farriss was born on March 27, 1959, in Perth, Australia. He was the keyboardist, backing vocalist, and primary composer for INXS.
The writing duo met in Sydney in high school. Hutchence had just moved back to Australia from Hong Kong, and Farriss stopped the bullies tormenting him. They quickly became friends, and in 1976 Hutchence joined Farriss’ band, Doctor Dolphin.
The band went through a couple of transformations before INXS was born in 1979. Their first self-titled album debuted in 1980. Farriss said about their partnership, “We were just solid and very arrogant. We never second-guessed each other or ourselves and just went with our instincts. It was all very natural and organic.”
ARIA inducted INXS into its Hall of Fame in 2001. Unfortunately, Michael Hutchence committed suicide on November 22, 1997.
Greatest Song: INXS released The Devil Inside in February 1988. The lyrics of how we all have “the devil inside” combined with the driving rock rhythms have made it one of INXS’ best-known songs.
#6 Nick Cave
About the Australian Songwriter: Nicholas Cave was born on September 22, 1957, in Warracknabeal, Australia. He was first known as the vocalist for The Birthday Party, an Australian gothic-rock band active from 1978-to 1983.
Critics considered the band’s subject matter extremely perverted and shocking, dealing with themes such as suicide, vampire sex, and other gothic tales. Their reputation was that of “the most violent live band in the world.”
After The Birthday Party broke up, he formed Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The band based its early work on Delta Blues and the American South. Cave moved on from his punk rock origins and collaborated with some of the most notable artists in the world, including Johnny Cash, Shane MacGowan, and Marianne Faithfull.
He’s the godfather to Michael Hutchence’s daughter, Heavenly Hiraani Tiger Lily, as well as a novelist, screenwriter, and actor. NME ranked Cave as the 19th greatest living lyricist.
Greatest Song: Into My Arms is a love ballad released in January 1997. Cave performed the song live at Michael Hutchence’s funeral.
#7 Steve Kilbey
About the Australian Songwriter: Steven Kilbey was born on September 13, 1957, in Welwyn Garden City, England. His family moved back to Australia when he was five, and he began his musical career at 17.
He’s the singer, songwriter, and bass guitarist for the alt-rock band The Church, formed in 1980. Kilbey is a prolific songwriter with over 1000 songs copyrighted. The Church’s music reflects his search for spirituality and meaning in life. One of his influences is The Baghavad Gita, a central Hindu text, and he says he’s a devotee of Krisha – a Hindu deity.
In the 90s, he struggled with heroin addiction but managed to get clean through the methadone program in the early 2000s. In 2011, the Australian Songwriter’s Hall of Fame inducted him into the organization.
Greatest Song: The Church released Under the Milky Way Tonight in February 1988 and won Single of the Year at the 1989 ARIA Music Awards. It’s #33 on the Best Australian Songs of All Time list.
Australian Songwriters Are Born into Music
The Australian people are born into a land of toughness, independence, and tolerance. They’re creative and prolific people with music born in their blood. I think we can agree that they’re some of the greatest Australian songwriters in the world.
Who’s your favorite Australian songwriter?