Creative Campaigning

16 May 2012 | 5:36 pm | Doug Wallen

“Really, it’s like a cheating way of playing banjo,” Dan Lethbridge confesses to Doug Wallen of the six-string banjo he favours, as does Neil Young.

With his mannered songs of heartache and self-examination, Melbourne's Dan Lethbridge bridges the gaps between, folk and the clear-eyed indie pop of yesteryear's Candle Records roster. Backed by his band The Campaigners and juggling a handful of instruments himself, Lethbridge self-produced his second album Oh Hawke in the spare room of his West Melbourne home. Maybe that's why it's been four years since his debut, Dreamers Of The World Unite.

“It was quite a torturous project, really,” he admits with a laugh. “I was going crazy by the end of it.” That's because he recorded onto an old 16-track and couldn't do the handy edits that computers have made quite easy. So if a passing train or truck was too loud, or if he stuffed up, he had to start each take all over again. Would he ever do it that way again? “No, never!” he laughs. In fact, he's planning to record the next one with ARIA-winning producer Shane O'Mara (The Audreys, Lisa Miller), who recorded the drums for and mixed Oh Hawke.

Another reason for all that time between albums was Lethbridge's lending of his guitar playing out to others. He plays in the band of Ballarat's Mick Young, aka Young Werther, and in Damon Smith & The Quality Lightweights. (Smith also plays keyboards for Lethbridge.) And now Lethbridge is also playing in a new band called The Handsome Bastards with O'Mara and Nashville export Rick Plant (husband to songwriter Sherry Rich), who has played with Emmylou Harris and Buddy Miller. They haven't played a gig, but they're planning a residency soon.

“It's like a dual guitar attack,” he describes, “and I'm just on acoustic. We just play slow, sad country covers.” Speaking of country, both of Lethbridge's albums have been dubbed country to some degree, and Oh Hawke's Song I Sing To You, Old Jack Frost and the Tracy McNeil duet Hard To Fight definitely boast twinges in that particular direction. So is one record more country-inspired than the other? “I'd say about the same,” he answers. “Song I Sing To You was a song I wanted to get out of my system; I'd never written a song as 'country' as that one. It's classic country chords that you hear in a million songs. As for the rest of the record, it's hard to know what it is.”

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It's tempting to single out the banjo that kicks off Day Never Comes as some kind of bluegrass or country signifier, but it's actually a six-string banjo rather than a traditional five-string. “It's less fancy,” says Lethbridge, “because it's tuned like a guitar. Really, it's like a cheating way of playing banjo. So if you can play guitar, you play it on this thing and it sounds like a banjo.” Neil Young has often used six-string banjos, which puts Lethbridge in good company.

Now that the country thing has been (sort of) cleared up, let's make something else known: Oh Hawke has nothing to do with former Prime Minister Bob Hawke. Rather, it's the name of the West Melbourne street where the songs were mostly written and recorded, the same space Lethbridge has occupied for more than half a decade. The window of the aforementioned spare room looks out onto Hawke Street, cementing the connection. “I didn't want some deep and meaningful title, like I tried to do with the other one,” he deadpans.

Of all the quietly gripping moments on Oh Hawke, perhaps the most immediate is opener Saturday Night Fever, a feat of unnamed melancholy complete with a current of understated saxophone near the end. It's no disco-fuelled romp, then, but a simple vignette about a pair of people, whether a romantic couple or even siblings. “They're up against the world and all they have is each other,” observes Lethbridge. That may sound commonplace, but the song stays with us.