Aus­tralian blues prim­i­tivist CW Stonek­ing is back with another of­fer­ing of jun­gle juice, writes Iain Shedden

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - Gon’ Booga­loo is re­leased through King Hokum Records/Caro­line next Fri­day.



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

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