“When i first started doing that too i used to drink a lot and stuff; I was much sloppier, I think, than I am now”
Hair Brylcreemed back, CW Stoneking is immediately recognisable when placing an order at the counter of a quaint café in Brunswick. He looks a bit maritime in his white slacks and navy hooded knit, borrows a lighter from the wait staff and takes a seat on an outside table. Time to approach.
Having experienced CW Stoneking recently in St Michael’s Church, his between-song banter and backstories were as engaging as his songs and he incorporated “maybe six new ones” into the setlist. During this show, Stoneking mentioned he was asked to learn a Coldplay song to sing at a friend’s wedding, which he then pointed out was harder to forget than learn. When asked which Coldplay song this was in particular, Stoneking smirks, “That’s a lie. It’s not true. I just picked out Coldplay because they’re famous. I don’t even know any of their songs… It’s just a thing I made up [laughs].”
Often intros into Stoneking’s songs contain some dialogue and he speaks all the parts. Does Stoneking ever accidentally mix up the characters’ voices? “Oh yeah, yeah. When I first started doing that too I used to drink a lot and stuff; I was much sloppier, I think, than I am now. My wife, when we first got together, used to say, ‘They’re good those things except you just sound like the same dude all the time. Get with it!’
“But there’s one song that’s really hard, because it goes back and forth real quick all the time and I don’t know that I ever get that perfectly right – that Going The Country song. When I do that live, I can’t remember. A couple of times I’ve had to write it out and I’m like, ‘Oh, how’s this work? Who’s who?’”
Our coffees arrive and Stoneking stirs in the sugar vigorously. He wears a chunky silver skull ring. “I don’t know anywhere to go in Melbourne anymore,” he admits. The Stonekings now live “an hour, an hour and a half, sorta north-west of Bendigo” with their four young children - two boys and two girls –aged “nine, eight, four and three”. Those kids must look forward to storytime with daddy. “I used to read to the boys,” he shares. “My job has switched over to the girls now, for bedtime.” Stoneking finds it hard to find good children’s books, however: “There are tonnes of real bad ones, you know what I mean? And some of them the kids like and there’s badly rhyming ones – they’re the ones where I don’t read ‘em, I just speak it, ‘cause I can’t stand to hear my voice doing these bad rhyming things. It’s just horrible.” One of his youngest daughter’s favourites is “about this rabbit, he’s called Poo Bum”. “All he will say is ‘Poo Bum’,” Stoneking continues, “and so Harriet, you see – she just loves that, you know: Someone asked him to do this, the little rabbit, and she’ll go, [puts on excited female toddler voice] ‘POO BUM!’
“Do you care if I smoke? Doesn’t madder?” Some of Stoneking’s songs are begging to be turned into kid’s books (with accompanying talking books). While lighting his pipe, Stoneking says casually, “I thought that Talkin’ Lion’s Blues would’ve been a good kid’s book.”
Stoneking hasn’t been over to the States for a while. “I sorta stopped going there ‘cause I had some trouble always gettin’ my band visas and I kinda got fed up a bit,” he reveals. “That’s why I started goin’ to England. So it must’ve been, like, 2009 – I had a bunch of stuff lined up [in the US] and then it came to the thing, and I was meant to meet my band there, and then their visas hadn’t come yet. I ended up having to get two put-together bands in America – one on Portland and then do it again in LA – and then I was just like, ‘I’m not gonna bother with this joint right now’… So then in 2010 I said, ‘Alright, well we’ll go to England and Europe’.
“And so, yeah, then we did that. Then my wife got pregnant again so that’s why we moved here. But I’ll try and get over there [the States] again I think with this rekkid and try again, yeah.”
Before Stoneking was based in England, he spent about five months on the road. “We did maybe four trips, I think,” Stoneking remembers, “sort of five or six weeks at a time. Because, you know, I paid for everything; it was super down to the wire. So, like, you know, go for 42 days and do 40 gigs – it was always like that. And the routing was sometimes quite bad: 90-hour drive and then, next day, ten-hour drive. It was hard on the band, a couple of the band members started coming apart a bit at the seams and that.
“It was much easier once we lived there [in England]: just go out for a week, come home, go out for a coupla weeks, come home.”
His appearance on Later… With Jools Holland is something Stoneking recalls with fondness. The acts he shared the soundstage with were Cee-Lo Green, Steve Miller Band, The Jim Jones Revue and Janelle Monáe (“she had a sore throat the night we were there so she had to ditch one of her spots, actually, and they gave it to us”). Holland introduced Stoneking as “an artist from Australia who brings a magical vibration”. “I remember at the end of the toon the camera was there and I looked into it for a sec, like that [demonstrates staring down the barrel], ‘Oh, this is good. This is gold.’… I don’t know how many people watch [the show]. I like that, just live like that. It was good. It gave me a bit of a thrill.”
When asked about his decision to abandon banjo for this latest set of songs, Stoneking muses, “It’s not gonna stop the world or somethin’, but, you know, maybe four people have said somethin’ to me. It wouldn’t even have occurred to me [that this decision would bother fans] and then I thought, ‘It’s probably these dudes sittin’ around playin’ banjo’. ‘Ah fuck, oh, cool! Someone plays banjo and whatever, makes records and CDs,’ so, yeah, I’ve had a coupla things, you know: ‘Oh, yeah, it sounds good but I miss the banjo!’ And I look on their thing, ‘Yeah, it’s a banjo player, poor fella,’ hahaha.”
Electric guitar is now Stoneking’s instrument of choice. “I sorta heard some things on guitar,” he explains. “I was like, ‘I like that,’ you know? I was listening to, like, Charlie Christian, I heard something of him and it sounded good. It was sorta jazzy, but quite tough and bluesy as well. I thought, ‘Man, I wish I could do that’… And so I’ve sorta been working on it in private for a few years ‘cause I really didn’t play electric guitar since I was a teenager.”
For this new album, Stoneking also “really wanted singers”. “If I could have a ‘50s gospel quartet that would be my ultimate band, you know?” he shares. Initially on the hunt for some African singers (“‘cause I heard some African singers online I really liked”), Stoneking found some likely candidates, set up a rehearsal “and then they didn’t show up”. After he was stood up a few times, Stoneking changed tack: “I wrote to Paul Kelly ‘cause I thought, you know, ‘He must’ve sang with heaps of people and that,’ and he said straight away, ‘Oh, my daughters can do it!’ And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah,’ I didn’t know, ‘Maybe. Anybody else?’
“‘Oh yeah, Vika and Linda [Bull] could do it,’ so I hooked ‘em both up.” There are some songs on the album – The Zombie and Tomorrow Gon Be Too Late for example – where the backing vocalists sound like children. “No, that’s how Kelly girls sound,” Stoneking explains. “They sound like they’re ten, yeah, totally… And so it’s funny, ‘cause the sound I like – the African singers – it has an aspect to it of that kinda kiddie voice, you know what I mean? Really unaffected, that’s sort of what I was looking for… So I ended up gettin’ that sound anyway from just using the four of ‘em.”
Another happy accident led to Gon’ Boogaloo being recorded on 2-track. After bigging up an old 4-track machine while showing Stoneking around Sound Recordings in Castlemaine (“This dude was like, ‘But we’ll use this for you ‘cause they’re the best’”), when it came time for the sessions “track three on it was busted”. Stoneking taps ash outta his pipe. So they started work using an 8-track, but Stoneking wasn’t happy with the guitar sound: “I was singing into this nice old ribbon mic and I said, ‘Just turn off the guitar thing,’ and then you could hear the guitar.” After chucking a mic behind the drumkit, Stoneking marvels, “Straight away you could hear the sound and it had this sheen and it was, like, beautiful.”
The way Stoneking pronounces certain words – “stoodio“, “toon”, “rekkid” – adds to Stoneking’s ye olde charm. Gon’ Boogaloo was recorded in just two days and Stoneking estimates that they could “only do four takes, tops” because there were “tonnes of toons” to get down, which took its toll on his voice. “The last day I was, ‘Oh, how can I get through this number?’ It was really bad. And then it kinda spat out the other end and I went home and my wife’s like, ‘Any good?’ I’m like, ‘I dunno, man. It might be shit, might be good. I dunno. But I think it’s good. It felt good, but it’s rough.’ I said, ‘It’s very raw.’ And then she liked it. So I thought, ‘Well she didn’t like Jungle Blues that much.’ I’d be like, ‘It sounds good,’ she’d be like, ‘Ah, pretty good, yeah.’ But I’ve listened to [Gon’ Boogaloo] only a coupla times and it’s got its own thing goin’. It’s a good one to crank up. It’s not so dreamy as Jungle Blues maybe, I dunno.”
HIP HOP ROOTS
Mama Got The Blues is a standout track from CW Stoneking’s new Gon’ Boogaloo album and he dreamed up the bassline way back when he was composing Jungle Blues (the title track from his previous, fourth longplayer of 2008).
“It’s old, you know,” Stoneking confesses of said Mama Got The Blues bassline. “At the time, that 50 Cent toon was out: In Da Club.” Stoneking impressively mimics the hip hop track’s beat, which also calls to mind Lapdance by NERD. “It’s sorta rhythmic. And there was a couple of toons around at the time – Dr Dre or somebody was doin’ ‘em. So I was hearing this thing and I was like, ‘It’s good, it’s good!’ Dark or whatever.”
Although Stoneking’s happy with Mama Got The Blues (“It’s a fun song, I like it. It’s sorta mysterious”), he’s not 100% satisfied with his vocal take. “My voice is really worn out,” he bemoans. “I got there. The middle bit’s a bit hangin’ on. I was really kinda bummed out that my voice was so ruined for that, ‘cause usually I can sing it so much better.”