C.W. Stoneking is an Australian blues singer-songwriter with a permanent hard-on for touring and the tastiest banjo riffs you’ve ever heard. We usually try to avoid character sketches at this magazine, but he’s something of a cross between Tom Waits and a guy you just found out in the desert. 2018 saw him contribute to Jack White’s album, Boarding House Reach, but the man also has three records of his own. Our editor, Joel Slaff reached him by phone in Nashville, TN.
Joel: I’ve been to heaps of your shows, in Belgium, in America, and what’s always kept me captivated are your stories. Would you tell us one?
Stoneking: Oh boy I don’t know if I could do it right now; I’m at a shopping mall. People out… shopping… I ain’t really in the zone.
Joel: Now, how did a guy like you, from Australia get interested in or come across calypso? Jazz, blues, I can understand, what’s the origin story of C.W. Stoneking?
Stoneking: I guess I just… I used to see a record cover quite often in a store, one year I was Christmas shopping and I thought, I’ll pick this thing up, I’ve been seeing this cover of it, for a couple of years, and I went and put some headphones on in the store, checked it out, wanting to see if it was good, and… so then I spent that Christmas and summer down there, and spent the rest of it somewhere listening to this record a lot, and that’s sort of where it started. The record was a, an album of a guy called the Growling Tiger. That record was recorded in the ‘60s down in Trinidad, and that was my introduction to that stuff.
Joel: How old were you at the time?
Stoneking: I was pretty old then. 25?
Joel: Fans of yours would describe your music as haunting, nostalgic, even foreboding. There’s basically a spirit among the audience that’s got us, and won’t let us go. How would you describe your music, and your shows?
Stoneking: I don’t know how to describe it, really, I couldn’t, I’m finding it hard to paraphrase—I’m finding it hard to sum it up as a whole.
Joel: I first heard of you through my dad, who actually, at his first show of yours a year or two ago, popped his hip out of place getting out of his seat.
Joel: He said it was worth it. He heard you from the BBC, from Danny Baker, and basically said “Joel, there’s an Australian Rob Johnson, you’ve got to hear it.” Through your catalogue, you have covers of Wilmoth Houdini, you’ve had your Mississippi and Piedmont Blues albums of covers that go way back. Who first made you go, “wow, I’ve got to listen more. I’m hooked.”
Stoneking: I don’t know if I had a moment like that with one singular artist, just more of a… something, some situation landed me in a… it was musicians, one thing led to another and, it wasn’t, I don’t think it was necessarily one artist – like, a few years back, I was driving in a car one night in the country, had a cassette playing in the car, and that kinda got me going. I guess, it’s been very gradual, from when I was 18 ‘til now, I’m almost 46 now, so it’s been pretty long.
Joel: What would you consider yourself more, a musician, or a storyteller? If you had to choose that is.
Stoneking: I’d probably say a musician, just because I have to work harder at that. I need to try a lot… I feel like that’s where I’m built more, really. The stories, you know, you tell a story, you can tell these stories over the course of a few nights, and you get a feeling of what works, or how to make… you find out what’s funny just by saying it to people and if they laugh, or they don’t laugh, you change it in a few ways. You know, they just tell you what to do.
Joel: One thing I’ve noticed between your shows Stateside and abroad is that, other than the ex-pats living abroad, say in France, Belgium or the Netherlands, when they hear your stories and interludes, they know your lyrics by heart, and the reception is very, very noticeable. But, as a spectator, it’s very interesting to see the audience understand what you’re saying, but also trying to figure out if it makes sense. And I’m wondering if you can feel that as well; when you tell your stories, sing, do you see a difference in the reception you get between the States, Australia and Western/Eastern Europe?
Stoneking: Generally, it feels pretty the same everywhere. With the exception of if I’m somewhere where I can tell sometimes, if they don’t really speak English real well. Apart from like, like you said, whether it’s straight up a language barrier, I feel like, generally like, the humor or the music or whatever, it seems to go pretty universal, to me. Wherever I am.
Joel: Since your music has a lot of influence from the American South, and the Caribbean; there’s something to be said about the shared characteristics of the Australian Outback and the American South, the rural South. What exactly do you take from your experiences growing up in Australia, and how do you incorporate it into your music?
Stoneking: I think that element, which I wouldn’t have really made it into a thing until maybe one of the first times I came through the South. It was, it’s not something I really thought about. And even when I noticed it, it’s just kind of… it’s not really something where I was really like, figured it out and thinking about it. But I guess, what I felt like I noticed was maybe that, often when making music, in all sorts of ways, I will often, I become visual, I get a visual type of mind – if I want to remember a rhythm or some element of a song that I was learning to cover, I’ll often relate it to some sort of visual cue that would make me remember the way the rhythm moves or the feeling of a harmony or something. And so, I guess with that sort of thinking, there was a way I related to music for a long time, the sort of landscape what put it in my understanding, was very my life in the Australian… particularly where I grew up as a kid.
When I drove through Mississippi, it was not like, wow... I had been in some old, very arid Australian landscapes, not in this sort of strange jungle swamp. With levees and whatever, and rain, wet and hot! Because I sort of work like that, using visual connections between a picture in my mind and then put it to a sound and a song, or whatever, I guess, that is my influence from Australia. I don’t really think about it, it’s just like, unconscious. Like, I notice it, but I don’t really dwell on it.
Joel: When I think of the rural South, when I think of the deep South, you’re talking Louisiana, you’re talking Alabama, Mississippi, they do have a lot in common with what you’re talking about. The aridness, the desert, the same, similar colors, as well. If you’re talking about crafting music from a visual perspective, there’s a lot of similarities to draw on.
Stoneking: Well, I thought it wasn’t similar, which is why I noticed it. Where I grew up, it wasn’t green, like that, and swampy. It was red sand, and completely different! My dad was friends with all these guys who sat on the porch, singing these songs, traditional music, for hours on end. Painting and stuff, so I got used to that, so I guess some of that Delta Blues, the elements of out there reminds me of being… songs that just go, go, go, go, stuff like sticks and boomerangs or whatever.
Joel: From what I’ve learned, the basis of Australian history is in fact, the indigenous Australian spirituality and the Dreaming, those kind of images that come around with that aspect. Does that play a part in the tales that you sing about? And the music that you make?
Stoneking: No, not really. Never really thought of that. I don’t really know what it comes from… I just sort of… I don’t know really. I don’t think about it that much, in terms of the stories that I tell and things like that. A lot of the time, it just started with one thing and then, maybe I would think of something while I was on stage, some little addition, and maybe I’d just follow a tangent. I’d think of something funny and then use that the next time I did a show. Throw some more stuff in there. That’s just kind of experimenting, I’m not really thinking about it very much.
Joel: So it just kind of comes to you, basically.
Stoneking: Yeah, kind of, yeah. Like the Bermuda triangle and stuff; maybe I heard that the Bermuda triangle was full of seaweed, you know? People are flushing their toilets too much in Florida… too much fertilizer in the sea, I don’t know. Turned it into the pubes floating around there and it’s clogging up the plughole down there. I know that eels migrate south, so maybe I’ll make up some bullshit story and throw that in. I just kind of, you know... it’s not very deep.
Joel: With your stage presence, you always find a way to make it an “only you” situation. When you decide to go on tour, whether it’s in the States, or Europe, Australia/New Zealand, money aside of course, how do you decide how to perform? Are you going to perform solo, are you going to perform with a band, because I know you’re going on a solo tour with your shadow band. People go on solo tours all the time, but the fact that you made it with your own shadow, I thought to myself, “of course he would do something like that.” How do you decide how to put on your shows?
Stoneking: I can’t even take credit for that because some dude messaged me a while ago, out of nowhere, from Argentina or somewhere, and I checked out his art and was like, “oh cool.” I’ve been trying to use different artists for posters and that so it doesn’t always look the same, and, the dude from Argentina made a poster and, he made up the thing about the own shadow; he just sent the poster, and it had a link. Pretty much, until I got a new record, I’m playing places I ain’t played before and, covering a lot of miles, and stuff like that, there are better ways to go broke than putting up bands in hotel rooms.
So, that’s pretty much why I do that. Maybe last year, because I had a couple of festival days, and they want a band, I did like, a tour last year with Queen of the Stone Age, and they wanted a band, it was a big joint, so I put a band together for that. But, I do really enjoy the solo thing. Some of the things I’m doing need a band, so I’ll put a band together, and then, I’ll probably end up doing that. Not sure what minds I’ going to put together to use. Last record, I didn’t use any horns, it was just like, straight band, bass and drums, background singers. And, then I guess when I went on with QOSA, I put the horns back in. What’s in my brain, I think of the overarching flavor.
Joel: How do you take your music and try to make it work with a band like QOSA? Doing jazz blues, calypso, then with a rock band, is distinctive, but there are some similarities. Did you have to change your portfolio?
Stoneking: I didn’t really change my stuff. When I did the tour, I’d never heard of QOSA before, so I didn’t really know, I kind of suspected it would be on the night, but, in terms of getting a band together, I hadn’t played with a band in a while, so when that came around. So I just put together a band, just trying to make a jam. It wasn’t really built around any ideas because I didn’t really have any ideas. Turned out it was all right!
Joel: You played at some very big venues, when you toured with them.
Stoneking: It was cool! Roll in, eat lunch, do sound check, eat dinner, do the gig, and then it’s like 9:30, and we had two big meals, and then we’d done the gig already, so we could do anything we wanted. So it was real good. If they took me around for something like two years, I’d be real happy. The sound was always good; that was something I was on about. Playing in some of these real big places, is it going to be echo-y? That’s the thing, the sound was real good, it was good, I really liked it.
Joel: Would you prefer doing that again, or would you like sticking with more intimate venues?
Stoneking: I like both, they all got their own thing. I did a gig last time I was in Belgium, and I never used to do this kind of thing, but this guy kept on asking, they had like a little stage, a little joint out the back. I didn’t even use a microphone, that was real cool. I didn’t know there wouldn’t be a microphone ‘til the afternoon! As long as I can hear myself, that’s the main thing I guess. If I can hear myself, and the crowd can hear me, I like both.
Joel: Every concert I see you at, you’re mentioning a new artist that I’d never heard of that you take influence from. Last show I saw you at, you mentioned Edith Wilson and Tommy McClennan, and I’d never heard of Wilmoth Houdini before I heard you.
Stoneking: Artists like Tommy McClennan, the way he plays guitar, I’m inspired by that, how he plays guitar. I didn’t copy his riffs, but it’s definitely inspired by him.
Joel: If you were to teach a course, like a college-level course, in delta blues, jazz, calypso, the underpinnings of your genre of music, what would be the required reading and listening for your students?
Stoneking: Oh boy – I’ve never been to college, I don’t actually know what form that takes. That’s something I’d have to think about. I don’t know if I could do it all on calypso and blues, I would, I guess I would just pick out my favorite song, and then talk about the structure, how they’re made, and calypso – I ain’t learned about it like a, you know a proper education or whatever, but I know why I like it. You could pick a lot of different bunches of five of ‘em, there are so many artists, so many of them, and they’d all be different. But it would be cool to sit around and listen to records all day!
Joel: And get graded!