Chatting with C.W. Stoneking is an interesting proposition. I picture him calling on something that sits somewhere between a wall-mounted crank telephone and a tin-can and string on the technology spectrum. That I’m on the other end on an iPhone is probably all that needs to be said about C.W. Stoneking’s stage and record persona.
Calling from his home ahead of a short Australian tour, Stoneking is sort of between things. While his performances are pooling material from his last two albums, King Hokum and Jungle Blues, his mind is also on on a new album that he’s writing songs for, hoping to have out early next year. As with the progression of his previous to albums, his next work will be somewhat different. “Yeah I don’t like to make each record too similar to the one before,” C.W. posits, “In a body of work they have a purpose that is different from each other.”
As for the direction C.W. Stoneking plans to take his next album, “Kind of a bit gospel in the sound of the music,” is all that he offers up at this early stage. “I’m just kind of trying to keep them private before I can bust it all out in one big lump of new stuff.”
It has been a while since he last performed solo in Australia; his next Australian tour will be accompanied once again by his Primitive Horn Orchestra, a talented group that perfectly evoke his sound. “I pretty much use the band everywhere I go now. My original material since the last record has been written with the horns section in mind.” Touring with a band gives a much bigger sound that playing solo. “I guess it just broadens the whole atmosphere of the music a bit. I just enjoy playing with the band on stage on tour; it’s nice to have the extra hands up there.”
As for what you’ll hear from night to night, he leaves most of the musical wizardry to his faithful band. “I really don’t class myself as too much of an instrumentalist myself so I’m more just a singer and providing a bit of a rhythm while the band all do good things with it,” says Stoneking on the topic of improvisation. He’s not necessarily looking for musicians that are masters of an authentic 1920s sound either. “It’s a real mixture of influences my songs; some of it is old-time, but there’s a lot of other stuff in there so it’s not so necessary to have an encyclopedic knowledge of old, forgotten styles,” says Stoneking, suggesting that like his band’s name hints, it’s a lot more primal than that. “A lot of it comes down to being able to put the correct atmosphere to whatever story the song is about.”
After the upcoming run of dates in Australia, Stoneking will be off to England and Europe to coincide with an English distribution deal. “We’ve just come back from a month over there to warm up the crowds a bit and we’ll be back to play some large festivals over there and doing the record launches and TV and things like that. See if we can get people interested in it.”
For a musician playing music so rooted in the past, it’s really surprising just how little time he spends looking back in the past for inspiration. His sound is the result of an upbringing surrounded by the music of bygone days. “My father was musical; a singer back in the States. He gave me lots of good insight into things and just having him around and playing guitar and singing when I was a kid,” he says reflecting on his childhood. And while that seed was planted and definitely flourished, influences today are perhaps a bit more surprising. “In the Jungle Blues song, the main sort of riff in that I got from that 50-Cent tune, there’s a bass-line like ‘Bar-nump, bar-nump, bar-nump’,” C.W. sings down the phone. “So I made it sort of like ‘Dar-nunt, dar-nunt, dar-nunt’ — you know what I mean — I played it with a different beat, a swing rhythm, but it’s really a lot of that knocking back and forth in minor keys sort of thing.”
Influences, Stoneking says, are something that you don’t fully realise until after-the-fact. “sometimes you write a song and don’t know what it’s about until you reach the end and say, ‘Ah, that’s what it’s about.’ You’re looking at the song and it’s got bits of this and that influences in it that you don’t detect when you’re making it.” He distances himself from the idea of being a revivalist or curator of old styles, suggesting that his creations are largely inaccurate historically, “You know, you can’t help but have a tonne of extra influences and different perspectives if you’re making something up 70 years after some of those influences I have in me.”
The comparison to older music is sometimes less accurate than many listeners think, as he continues about Jungle Blues, the title track to his most recent album, “You play it next to an old tune and it sounds actually nothing like the 20s, and I think that goes for lots of my stuff. With the texture of my voice and the instrumentation, probably a lot of modern listeners just go ‘That’s real authentic,’ but it’s not really very true to that era. It has that same sort of graininess but a lot of it is very modern.”
His past two albums used a blend of modern and old technology to produce. ProTools was behind the recording, though older equipment did play a part, “We used some old mics and things like that.” On a cursory listen, C.W.’s music feels like it’s firmly rooted in nostalgia, but the production is much more careful and deliberate. “There were a couple of songs on either of those records where we purposely did an old sound like the duet on King Hokum On A Christmas Day and it sounds like it’s off a radio back in the old days.” Indeed, C.W. Stoneking’s albums seem to be able to be enjoyed in different ways on a rotten old turntable, or through a pair of the finest headphones available.
Much of the sound though wasn’t achieved by deliberately seeking out an old sound, so much as simply not trying to make it sound modern. “A lot of modern recordings have a lot of high-end sort of trebly sound,” he says, largely dismissive of modern trends in production. “I guess subtracting those elements and leaving to nature just what we sound like acoustically, it sort of has that texture of an old sound kind of right there.”
Stoneking isn’t one to rely on any single influences. Pressed, he can name a few overriding styles. “I’m really into the old work songs, old gospel music, jazz, early Caribbean Calypso music out of the 20s and 30s. In the start I played a lot of Mississippi blues and early 20s, east-coast Ragtime blues, but they’re a tiny portion now of the influences in my own songwriting,” he says, suggesting that the thought of naming one single artist seems daunting to him. “I like tonnes of them — there’s so many artists — and it’s a real wide field musically.”
A few years ago he broke through to the Triple J market — perhaps initially as nothing more than a curiosity — but has since grown a steady fanbase and has made appearances at festivals from the fitting Bluesfest to the youth-dominated Falls Festival. To Stoneking it’s more than appropriate that he’s found an audience in a younger crowd. “I think it’s got bits of comedy, some heartfelt stuff, it’s got atmosphere,” he says, adding that he is a bit biased. “I think it’s better for youth than some of this little wimpy fucking stuff young people listen to today. [What] all the young people want today sounds real boring to me. I’m glad that they’ve put mine on there. We’ll see if they keep doing it or not but I don’t see any reason why anyone can’t enjoy music like that.”
Despite a surge in popularity with a youth audience, he’s really after a more general audience. I ask him if he sees himself as giving younger audiences something they might otherwise not hear. “I kind of hope that I’m doing that to anyone that I play to. Try and give them something original.” Reflecting, he adds, “My crowd has always been a real mix. Even back when I was playing solo in pubs around Melbourne, I always had a real wide ranging audience from real young people not really into traditional blues to old people that were.”
C.W. Stoneking hits the road for a tour from Adelaide to Brisbane next week. Full dates can be seen here.