Danny Widdicombe has been a robust – and robustly talented – member of the Australian country music community for the last few years, playing with Karl Broadie at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, doing his own shows, forming The Wilson Pickers and playing guitar in the bands of other musicians such as Bernard Fanning and Tim Rogers.
Danny’s first two albums, The Transplant Tapes and Dominoes, charted the progression of a singer-songwriter of exceptional musical talent and also with something real to say. Danny’s long-term battle with leukaemia is not a secret – it was the subject of The Transplant Tapes – and it forms the background story to his latest album, Find Someone, which will be released on 21 October. Ahead of that release, Danny answered my questions by email from his Brisbane home – and he put as much into the answers as he does into his music, so I’m very grateful for his time.
1. Your albums show such a progression, not just in musical styles but in confidence and maturity as a player and songwriter. It seems like you’re constantly seeking out new musical experiences and knowledge – is that the case? And, if so, how long has this been going on?
Part of the beauty of music, for me, is the evolution that you can find taking place in any songwriter or composer’s career. Take the Beatles, for example, they start out copying their heroes with a certain amount of skill and success and then as they discover more and more about themselves and find more confidence in their art, their true nature starts to come out in the music. Gene Clark from the Byrds is another great example – his album No Other in 1974 is a massive departure from his early country rock explorations in the mid to late sixties. He’s definitely one of my heroes.
I’m basically just a music fan and I’m genuinely excited that I get to put out records and play gigs all over Australia. Winning the GW McLennan Fellowship last year and being nominated for a couple of ARIA awards with my band The Wilson Pickers gives you the confidence that recognition brings. I’ve worked hard at improving my songwriting and performing since my first album and I’m not worried about sticking within a genre or format – I’m just trying to make the music I want to hear.
2. Your voice has changed a lot since The Transplant Tapes – again, it’s more confident and mature. It sounds like you trust your voice a bit more – is that the case? Do you enjoy singing?
Since 2006, when The Transplant Tapes came out, I’ve played countless shows and made another four albums including the The WIlson Pickers material. The Transplant Tapes was made as I was recovering from a life-saving procedure that battered me physically and emotionally. Initially I wasn’t prepared to release the album – just use it as a cathartic experience – but I decided to take a chance and put it out there because I thought it might help someone out there who wanted to see someone who had been cured of leukaemia. In the end there were numerous people that said that the album was a small tonic and even an inspiration in their own battles with cancer, so I’m really proud of it.
As my health improved year after year, so did my singing and guitar playing. The Transplant Tapes is what launched my ‘career’ as a full-time musician so from then on I was practising every day and playing every weekend. I also learned so much from my peers – especially from my Wilson Picker mates who really know how to sing. Singing in harmony all the time is a great way to find your voice. It took a while but I really do enjoy singing now.
3. Having seen you play live, I sometimes think you’re a kind of guitar savant because you seem to so comprehensively meld with the instrument. How long have you been playing guitar and how often you do you play it just for your own enjoyment? What guitar do you use (electric and acoustic)? Which guitarists have influenced you?
Ha! I love the guitar. As soon as I started playing (I think I was 12) I fell in love. I remember getting home from school one day and laying on my bed with my new electric guitar. I didn’t have it plugged in but the headstock resting on my wooden bed head made the entire bed vibrate with the notes I played. I realised that playing this thing had somehow transported me – almost like a form of meditation and I felt refreshed and energised at the same time. Playing still has that effect on me if the surrounds are right. I play every day at home – my poor family try and talk to me but they look in my eyes and I’m somewhere else! It’s my ultimate form of relaxation and it’s where my songs come from.
I play whatever guitar I’m in the mood for – at the moment I have no choice but to play a nylon string because I lost all the callouses on my fingers after my recent bout of chemo. Usually though it depends on what I’ve been listening to. I remember going through a huge Tony Rice phase, so I played my Martin acoustic religiously, trying to flat pick like he does, but it just ended up sounding like me. I also really love Bert Jancsh, Charlie Byrd, Bill Frisell, Bob Brozmann, Jeff Lang, Clarence White, Jimi Hendrix, JJ Cale… The list goes on and on…
4. You play covers when you perform live – as well as your own work – and you have the ability to really turn the songs inside out, pull them back to their essence and then layer yourself over the top. Do you do that with your own songs when you perform them?
Definitely. I can’t stand playing the same songs the same way twice. It takes all the music out of it – especially when you’re on a tour and you’re playing a similar set list every night. It also depends on who’s playing with you. If I’m lucky enough to be playing with my old friend Luke ‘Fiddleboy’ Moller, we can really mix it up. Playing with great musicians makes you play right at the top end of your game, which can give any song that extra ‘something’ that can make some live shows so special.
5. Find Someone is definitely not like your work with The Wilson Pickers – do you still feel an affinity for country music, or is that in a different compartment now?
I love old country music and I think you can turn most songs into a country song by using a certain instrumentation. The Wilson Pickers always made it clear that we weren’t trying to replicate the great bluegrass greats such as Flatt and Scruggs, rather we were using a bluegrass-style instrumentation to get our songs across. If you played my new album live with banjo, fiddle, dobro, acoustic and double bass, sang in harmony and gave the songs a different swing, it would sound like a country outfit. The essence of the songs would still be there. I just chose to record this new album in such a way that made me happy as I was recording them – not worrying about whether they fit in any genre. Find Someone has a couple of country rock tunes but also psychedelic pop, fingerstyle folk, a blues/roots track and more. I love most styles of music and I don’t mind hearing them one after the other – I’ve basically put a radio show together with what seems to be a random collection of tunes, but the thread running through them is that they’re all my songs, all stemmed from the same influences.
6. You are a really confessional songwriter, in that it seems like your heart, thoughts and feelings are all in the songs, especially on Find Someone. You’ve spent a lot of time in hospital, and in hospitals it’s hard to avoid everybody knowing your business. Has that sort of ‘exposure’ made it more natural for you to be so open in your songs – perhaps you already feel quite exposed and, thus, the songs grow out of that?
I prefer to write songs that have a story or a theme rather than just throwing a collection of words together that happen to rhyme and leaving it at that. Even when I’m writing a song from a fictional standpoint, making up a story that at first seemed to have no relevance to me, I can look inside the heart of the song and see that it is really quite autobiographical. It happens again and again. But I don’t mind putting the songs out there for others because I’m proud of them and the words fit the music. I find that when people are affected by my songs it’s because they’ve had similar experiences. Find Someone isn’t out yet so I don’t really know what the reaction to those songs will be but my last album Dominoes had some lyrics that dealt with my delayed depression, which apparently resulted from living with cancer for so long. Time after time, I’d find myself listening to people tell me how those particular songs hit a nerve and how much they meant to them.
I’m not sure if it’s healthy or not to pour your life experience into your lyrics but it’s just the way I do it, even if it’s subconsciously, so I’ll just keep doing it. I think being a musician comes hand in hand with the element of being exposed – standing on a stage or putting your music out for ridicule or praise even before anyone has looked at whether your lyrics expose anything to do with your personal life. For me, it’s all about trying to put good songs together and then finding the best way to get them across musically. What defines ‘good’ and ‘best’ when it comes to any form of art is really up to the artist. The more musical experience I have, the more certain I am about my definitions of those terms. I think your point about being in hospital has merit, but at the end of the day for me, dealing with cancer and its treatment, although it gives you a wealth of life experience, forces you away from the momentum of creation. It gives me experience to write about but takes away the energy and tools I need to put them together in a song. This is why I was so desperate to get this new album out when I was cut down again by leukaemia – I knew it would be a long time before I was able to write another bunch of songs and who knows when I’ll be ok to play them live? I’m proud to have Find Someone ready for release after such a tough run these last few months.
Find Someone is an ABC Music/Universal release. It will be launched on the 21st at The Zoo in Brisbane. Details and tickets here.
You can buy the album from the ABC Shop here.
Danny’s Myspace and his ABC Music profile.