C.W. Stoneking: "My aim is not to make nostalgic music"

Mardi 17 Mai 2011

Interview with the Australian blues singer and songwriter C.W. Stoneking following the release of the album Jungle Blues in France. This is the original version of the interview published in French by Yuzu Melodies, a website dedicated to pop music.

C.W. Stoneking: "My aim is not to make nostalgic music"
When you were a teenager and started playing music, what kind of music were you fond of?
All types of music. Sam Cooke, Bob Dylan, Iron Maiden, Jimi Hendrix, early blues, Doo Wop, lot's of stuff.

When did you start to listen to pre-WW2 jazz and blues?
When I was about 13 years old.

Who are the musicians that have influenced you?
Lots of early blues guitar player/singers, also vocal groups, jazz bands, singer songwriters etc - there's too many to list and I don't have a particular favorite.

If you had the opportunity to talk or play with one of these old musicians that inspire you, who would you choose?
Probably no one, I'd like to see some people perform, but have no inclination to play with them myself or subject them to my own brand of halting, awkward conversation - Robert Johnson the blues singer would be one.

You clearly play a role when you are singing, dressed in an old-fashioned way. What kind of man are you in the real life?

The same man but without the bow tie - that's only for the stage.

Your music sounds as if it was made a century ago. Are you interested by your era and by contemporary music or are you basically a nostalgic person?
I'm interested in lots of things. My aim is not to make nostalgic music, I'm just very familiar with some old styles of music. For me the age of the music that inspires me is irrelevant. I approach it only as music.

Black music has evolved during the last century, and for instance banjo, which is a very important instrument in your songs, has disappeared in black music. What do you think about the evolution of black music?
Yes it's like the disappearance of the bamboo flute in Yellow Music. I like the evolution.

(Yellow Music was a label used to describe early generations of Chinese popular music in Shanghai, China during the 1920s to 1940s as a reference to pornography. The color yellow in China has long been associated with pornography and sex. The Communist Party of China saw pop music as sexually indecent and labeled the C-pop genre as such. The term was used continually up to the Cultural Revolution. -Ed.)

Humor is very present in your songs. Was it also present in the old songs that inspire you or did you add this element?

It's an element in lots of stuff I like, music, writing, my interactions with people. I put it into something when I want some lightness. I like humor.

You’re a storyteller. Your songs are tales, and your last album, “Jungle Blues”, is inspired by your experiences as a survivor of a shipwreck off Africa’s West Coast. Do you consider lyrics as literary work?

Yes, if you actually write them down then they would almost always qualify as a work of "creative or imaginative writing" - a literary work.

I like the lack of conventional blues forms in your music. Does this allow you to be more creative in your songwriting?
There's form in all my songs but I don't often use a 12-bar-blues pattern. Creativity in songwriting depends on a lot more than form. Music evokes stuff that you can't nail down and is not overly dependent on form, I don't think - these are considerations that I don't think about when I write a song.

The way you sing, the musical arrangements and the sound of your records evoke old pre-WW2 jazz and blues recordings. Was it difficult and/or fun to recreate that sound and that atmosphere?

I don't recreate the sound. I recorded my last two albums on a computer. The pre-ww2 music, alot of it, was acoustically recorded with a band playing into a big horn - we don't do that, the atmosphere comes from the instruments I use. My songs, arrangements, etc, some would say it sounds old, some would say it sounds new - it depends how familiar you are with the old stuff.

I’ve read that your next album will be gospel-flavoured. Will it still have that pre-ww2 sound?
I don't know, but there's a good chance, since I've played old blues for the past 17 years, the sound is fairly ingrained in me.

What kind of music will you do in ten years? Will you still be into vintage music or will you explore new era such as the 40s or the 50s?
I don't explore eras so much, I take influence from music that I find interesting or that is effective in conveying the type of story I have to tell.

You recorded the Beatles’ song “Maggie Mae” for the Mojo album “Let It Be Revisited”. Could you talk to me about this experience? Was it an interesting experience to work on this song and transform it?

The Beatles version is a 30 second snippet of a jam session or something taking place, I looked at the origins of the song on the internet and saw it was an old sea shanty about a Liverpool prostitute/thief who is shipped off to the penal colony of Australia. I rewrote the lyrics, condensing the story from several versions into one quick story and we managed to make a two and a half minute song of it. I don't particularly like the version we made but it's better than the Beatles' one.

Your music sounds a bit unfamilar and perhaps strange to the average music fan because we no longer listen to that kind of music nowadays. Was it difficult to find a record company and an audience?

No, it wasn't too hard. People like music that's from the heart and tuneful regardless of where it derives it's influences on a calendar. I release records on my own label, King Hokum Records.

You adopt Caribbean and African-American accents in your songs, a bit like Al Jolson or other Vaudeville singers. What was the reaction of the black American audience?
Strange that you'd pick Al Jolson to compare me to as he had such a strident, hammy 20s pop voice. You're aware that a very generous portion of mid to late 19th century, 20th century, and 21st century popular music is white people imitating African Americans? I think they're used to the concept.

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© Boris Plantier