Australian blues primitivist CW Stoneking is back with another offering of jungle juice, writes Iain Shedden
I LIKED THE IDEA OF COMING IN FROM THE COUNTRY LOOKING WEIRD, DOING A GIG
CW Stoneking can’t explain his fascination with the jungle, a place where the singer likes to roam fighting lions, wooing sweethearts in the officers’ club and where, more often than not, he gets the blues. The jungle, whether in Africa or the Amazon, has been a recurring theme in the Australian songwriter’s work, most noticeably on his previous album, 2008’s awardwinning Jungle Blues, on which there was also Jungle Lullaby.
To confirm his obsession, I’m the Jungle Man and The Jungle Swing are among the 12 songs on his latest collection, Gon’ Boogaloo, which is released next week.
“Funny, isn’t it?” he says in his husky, slightly pained country Australian tone. “I don’t know why I’m fascinated with it.”
The jungle is not the only scenario into which Stoneking has thrown himself since picking up a guitar at the age of 11.
His primitive, until now acoustic, tunes are steeped in the blues, ragtime, gospel and folk. He has amassed a broad knowledge of American music of the 1920s and 30s and has immersed himself in them so fully that for the early part of his career it appeared Stoneking had just stepped out of a Louisiana prayer meeting or a Chicago juke joint, albeit by way of a time machine. In the noughties, to hear him talk on stage in an affected American twang did little to dispel that notion.
He likes to look the part as well. Invariably attired in all white, perhaps with a bow tie and brogues, hair slicked back and with tattoos aplenty, he could pass easily for any number of the vivid, exotic characters who inhabit his material; a sailor on shore leave, perhaps, or a snake-oil salesman.
He says creating a fictitious persona around himself when he emerged with his breakthrough album King Hokum in 2005 was “not something I intentionally did”. He admits, however, that the southern gothic writing of American authors such as William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor had a profound influence on him early in his career. His sharply dressed image, he says, stems initially from the character of Popeye, an unsavoury bootlegger in Faulkner’s 1931 novel Sanctuary.
“He’s a stunted, half-grown man and he wears a black suit,” says Stoneking. “I wanted to have a black suit. I was into all that stuff. I liked the idea of coming in from the country looking weird, doing a gig every fortnight or so. But I never really thought of it as a persona, more just an act.”
The truth about CW Stoneking differs radically from this alter ego, although it is a colourful story. Stoneking is the son of American teacher, poet and author Billy Marshall-Stoneking, who moved to Australia from California with his wife in 1972. Their son Christopher was born a year later, in Katherine. Stoneking’s parents split up soon after that and CW flitted with his father around rural Victoria and the Northern Territory before moving to Sydney when he was 11. That’s when music became a calling.
He played in a handful of bands while a student at Balmain High School, learning traditional styles from a variety of sources, although still uncertain about what path to take.
“After I left high school I got into the blues through a couple of guys I knew,” he says.
“The thing I liked about the whole blues was how diverse it was. I met this guy, a friend of a friend, and he played stuff. He lived in a pub in Sydney. He pulled out this old suitcase and in it were all these tapes he’d made of old blues. He had a National guitar and a banjo, and he could play them. He wasn’t a professional player or anything. We used to go busking a bit.
“Seeing him do it gave me the idea that you could bring the music back. That gave me some inspiration.”
After a move to Melbourne and then to country Victoria, Stoneking combined working odd jobs with honing his craft as a musician, taking a lead from the blues artists he listened to, such as Blind Willie McTell and Big Bill Broonzy.
“It was just a combination of things … where I ended up living and things like this,” he says. “Everybody else got jobs and got serious. I was living in a farmhouse for a couple of years. I listened to the blues for pleasure. That’s how it rolled out, with how I was living.”
Today Stoneking lives in rural Victoria, about three hours out of Melbourne, with his wife and four children. They moved there last year having spent two years in Bristol in England, which they used as a base for his sojourns around Britain and Europe with his band, the Primitive Horn Orchestra.
His new album, sans horns, was recorded in two days in a tiny studio in Castlemaine in Victoria owned by his friend Alex Bennett. It’s his sixth album, if you include a self-titled, selffunded effort in 1998 and a live album, CW Stoneking and the Blue Tits, from 1999. His new one is a slight change of pace, in that he has added electric guitar to the mix for the first time, favouring that over the National guitar and banjo that have been the hallmarks of his earlier work.
“The National,” he explains, “has its sound. I love the sound of it. It doesn’t have much presence though. It’s an old clunker. You get up the neck and it’s a long way down to the fretboard and stuff like that.”
Gon’ Boogaloo, featuring songs such as The Zombie, Mama Got the Blues and Goin’ Back South, is a stripped-back affair, even by his standards, with bass, drums and guitar the principal instruments.
“I wanted to make something more rocky,” he says. “I didn’t intend to record it quite so minimally as we did.
“We started on four-track but one of the tracks busted before we went in. Then we started on eight-track but it didn’t sound as good. We got rid of a guitar mic and recorded into the vocal mic, with double bass on another mic. We went like that.”
The album, like all of them, has an authentic prewar sound, this one with distinct gospel overtones thanks to his preachy vocals and the chorus of backing singers. He chose Melbourne stalwart siblings Vika and Linda Bull to accompany him on some tracks, as well as the lessexperienced but equally effective Kelly sisters, Madeleine and Memphis, the daughters of singer Paul Kelly.
“I had seen an African church choir in Melbourne and I wanted to try to get their sound,” he explains. “I wrote to Paul Kelly and told him the sound I was looking for and he said, ‘ Oh yeah, my daughters can do that.’ I was a bit suspicious, but I said ‘ OK’, and then he suggested Vika and Linda. My wife had already said I should try them too.
“I tried them both and they both sounded great, but totally different, but the combination was the sound I wanted.”
Stoneking plans to go out on the road later in the year, hopefully with the full ensemble from the record, and plans to tour overseas next year. His electric guitar will fill in on the horn parts from earlier songs. “You can do it all and it sounds good,” he says, “although it’s an unusual way to play guitar.”
In the meantime he’s hoping that this latest creation will keep the enigma and the reality of CW Stoneking ticking along.
“I think it sounds good,” he says of the album. “It’s ragged, but I put a lot of work into the songs. I think that gives it character.”
Singer-songwriter CW Stoneking