Is There More Hoodoo Than Blues to C.W. Stoneking?
An interview with Australia's Americana chameleon C.W. Stoneking as he embarks on a North American tour.
C.W. Stoneking was crooning “Jungle Lullaby”, while the swaying crowd sang along, all the words, back and forth, a tide on a desert island shore.
Dressed for the part in bleached linen with a slicked back gentleman’s haircut, he even wore a vest underneath his laundered but vaguely jungle-crumpled white shirt. All of this in line with the ‘20s and ‘30s era tenor of the music emanating from the stage. The jazz, Dixieland, Boogaloo, ragtime, hokum/country/acoustic/Delta blues ... it was all in line with the drawl and the croon and the National steel guitar.
From hokum to Delta, that list is blues heavy, yet Stoneking sees his songs as more than ‘playing the blues’. “There's some residue in my tiny reputation from the twenty-something years I spent playing old blues songs from the 1920s and 30s” he explained, “but my own music is just as influenced by other things. My song “Jungle Blues” got its start from listening to the keyboard riff of “In Da Club” by 50 Cent ... as an example.”
Born in Australia’s Northern Territory, Stoneking “took up” the guitar at the age of 11, and “from that point onward I didn't have a lot of interest in many other things.”
His father, poet, playwright, and filmmaker Billy Marshall, was a teacher in the Aboriginal community of Papunya. The time that Stoneking spent in this indigenous environment filtered into the young musician and left its cultural mark. “There's some background sound in the back of my head that has some oddly parallel familiarity to some stuff I hear in other musics,” Stoneking told me, “(it) came from sounds I heard there, a tonal quality, (it’s) sort of subconscious but I feel it.”
This same sensibility for timeworn music, for roots connected to the bones, has followed him across continents. “I noticed the first time I travelled through Mississippi that I was making this unconscious alignment to an ancient Australian aesthetic when I was listening to a lot of old blues” he recalled. “The Mississippi landscape was at odds with the interior imaginary landscape I'd created hearing that music.”
The interior landscape that produces his very specific take on blues, and hokum and jazz, amongst other styles and genres, feeds off many and varied settings and influences. “I take inspiration from all sorts of music, from locations all around the world and different time periods.” He was keen to point out however, that he doesn’t play “in a traditional, culturally specific context”: “I make my own thing, which, depending on your frame of reference might sound like any one of those but to me, knowing my process, it's a different thing altogether.”
When it comes to playing that music, he taught himself the banjo and the guitar “just by fooling around finding ways of doing things,” and owns up to having much superior skills on the guitar than the banjo. “My banjo playing doesn't conform to any accepted sort of traditional banjo technique”, he told me. “I basically just treat it like how I approach the guitar, sort of, but with four strings and a different type of tuning.”
His guitar of choice has long been a National steel; however, in more recent years a certain Fender Jazzmaster electric has stolen his heart, and took pride of place on his last album Gon' Boogaloo (2014). “I wanted to express myself more fully as an instrumentalist”, he explained. “On my Jungle Blues album (2008) I made up a lot of music for the other instruments to play while I clunked along in the background. I like the tone of the National steel guitar but it didn't give me enough sonic presence to effectively cut through a group with my musical ideas, the electric guitar is more suited to that but also a real challenge to manage coming from playing a National for 15-20 years. It took a lot of practice and adjustment to tame the sound to achieve the range of nuance I wanted from it.”
Stoneking releases his music on his own King Hokum Records. All of it is self-funded, and he even takes charge of the artwork. “I don't want a label to front the money or have any hand in the creative process of making the album. I have a team of people that handle the necessary tasks to get it out to people once it's made.”
You may have noticed there was a space of six years between 2008’s Jungle Blues and 2014’s Gon' Boogaloo. “Well I'm not fast when it comes to writing songs and kicking them into shape”, he admitted. However Gon' Boogaloo had its own particular deferrals along its extended road to being released. “Writing Gon' Boogaloo was especially tough”, he recalled. “A lot of changes in my life collided at the same time while I was working on it. Plus the desire I had to make music outside my comfort zone as an instrumentalist/singer/songwriter ... it all added up to a long time working to get to the place.”
He eventually shuffled and stomped and groaned his way to the place though, and he brings his listeners with him. There’s pre-war voodoo in Gon' Boogaloo. It gathers a childlike chorus amid otherworldly deep dark bass, howls, groans, stomps, and scorching fender guitar. It weaves curious tales of desperate regret, zombies, good luck, bad luck, and the jungle; seems like everywhere the jungle. Every inch of that tangled swampy sound has been poured over.
The backing singers, the childlike Betty Boop accompaniment to his dulcet preaching croon, that sound was searched for. “There's a certain vocal quality I've heard on various field recordings from USA/ Caribbean/Africa and some gospel records too; a sort of childlike, unadorned type of singing. That was the sound in my head when writing these songs. I found singers who had a similar quality to their voice and directed them toward what I was wanting to hear.”
The backing singers offer a screamy lost-in-the-woods call and response on “The Zombie”. It’s a shuffling dead of night in the Congo foot stomper, commenting on modern life and “all tied up in a bow as a 'dance craze' sort of tune.”
“The Thing I Done” is a song that never reveals itself. We never find out what this poor sod did to deserve such conscience, but our curiosity gives way to the rhythm. We stop caring, start rocking. Maybe that’s what the protagonist did. Stoneking’s explanation of the song gave an interesting insight into how his mind works. “I play the off beats on the guitar like a Jamaican sorta thing” he told me, “which, to me, gives a quickened pulse sorta feeling. Then I have a bass line that lays in against it in an unusual way ... in its composition it makes me feel like someone moving quickly over an empty expanse with these weird gigantic, abstract, black objects dropping from the sky ... that's what it conjures in my mind.”
His live act reflects all this. Like finding a strange quartet on a rainforest floor -- you may be reticent but the voodoo will draw you in. Stoneking’s hoodoo all-female band consists of Jessica Lee Wilkes (J.D. Wilkes and The Dirt Daubers) on bass and backing vocals, Kendra Kilkuskie on drums and backing vocals, and Paula Henderson on Baritone saxophone. Mr. Stoneking provides (sparkly) electric guitar, National steel, and the voice.
Stoneking's current North American tour extends into August.
Cara Gibney hails from Belfast, Northern Ireland. A regular contributor to No Depression Magazine, her writing on music, arts and artists can also be found in fRoots Magazine, CultureHUB Magazine, Gigging NI, Americana UK and others.