New South Welshman Jason Walker recently released All-Night Ghost Town, his first album on Lost Highway Australia. I spoke to Jason about the ghosts in his all-night ghost town, Ringo Starr, and about his new label and the album’s producer, Shane Nicholson.
What is your musical lineage?
I played country music from a pretty young age with my dad, we just sat around the house and he would play the guitar and I would play the steel guitar and we’d harmonise on songs. Then I started doing the same with my brother when he was old enough to pick up a guitar and start singing and writing songs. So we started pretty young and I guess we’ve kept it up, in a way. My brother Sean and I still sit down and play together every so often. We still have the same songs and still have the same brotherly harmonies. It’s a bit like the Everlys or the Jayhawks – brothers in spirit or actual brothers sing pretty well together.
You can see that in the McClymonts – three sisters and they sound so natural together, so complementary. There is definitely something in those sibling harmonies that is difficult to replicate. Even the Beatles don’t quite get there.
That’s right. They still sound like three madly different voices, and that’s what I really like about them [laughs]. Or four voices – you can’t overlook Ringo, can you? He’s also the only member of the Beatles to release a country music album. In fact, his solo album, Beaucoups of Blues, was the first Beatles solo album in 1970. He recorded in Nashville with all those great names in country music on it. I think it’s a fantastic record. And for the record I also love the McClymonts, think they’re great. They’ve got everything that’s great about that old-school country music style of entertainment even though their sound is more modern.
You played steel guitar with your dad – that’s not usually a first instrument for someone, so how did that end up being your first instrument?
It was kind of an accident, really. I bought this guitar off this guy – it was an electric guitar and it was really terrible. Unplayable. None of the edges were dressed. So I took it back to the music shop and the guy said, ‘I don’t have a guitar here that’s only worth $100’ – like this one was – ‘why don’t you have this lap steel guitar?’ It was a Teisco and they were a very cool, Japanese-looking thing that had these futuristic buttons on it that I quite liked fooling with. So the appeal of it for me at that point was the buttons so I could press them and try to pull all of these different sounds out of it. And then one day I actually started playing it, just tuned it to open E and played the scales on the steel guitar, with my steel, and I thought, That’s not too bad, but maybe if I tune the G down half a step to F sharp … It was pretty cool, some of the sounds that I started to get out of it. So I kept it for quite a few years and I still play steel guitar, although I now play pedal steel – I own a couple of pedal steels and I like nothing more than sitting down at night when the kids have gone to bed and just sit in the lounge room and play my steel guitar until all hours.
It’s an incredible sound and it immediately denotes not just the genre of music but it seems to conjure up play and time and all sorts of things, that instrument.
Absolutely. Last night I was given it a bit of a spanking and I was playing these licks and they were straight out of 1968, Bakersfield. That’s about my proficiency level, as far as that goes. Then I discovered some other licks that went on top of it and I was having such a great time that I forgot what time it was and next thing it was 2 a.m. and I had to go to bed – I had to take the kids to school in the morning!
So who are the ghosts in the All-Night Ghost Town?
I think the ghosts are all those great bands from the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s and 2010 onwards who are locked out of all these venues in Sydney which are no longer open because of the lock-out laws because it’s cutting into everybody’s business. The night economy in Sydney has been really vibrant for a long time and now it’s just dead – there’s no other word for it. Out in the suburbs and just out of Sydney itself in the Blue Mountains, where I live, it’s still happening a little bit but in Sydney itself it’s dead. There’s no great gigs to go and play during the week any more. There’s no Hopetoun, no Sando. And that’s the all-night ghost town that I was referring to: the town of Sydney, now completely denuded of great live rock ’n’ roll and country venues. But I guess in some ways some of my favourite bands that I grew up listening to are still punching on, still playing around Sydney. Mike Baird and his cronies have let the nightlife die but [the bands] are still getting out there well into the suburbs and still playing. So that’s kind of cool that they manage to do that in spite of the government taking away our right to play, basically.
And a lot of them are getting out to Marrickville, it seems.
Marrickville is the happening suburb in Sydney – I don’t think there’s any musician who’d tell you otherwise. I think it’s amazing that the inner west sound is still happening in Marrickville. Newtown’s closed down, Stanmore’s dead and Marrickville is where it’s at now.
How long has this album been brewing?
It’s been a long time. I was talking to Michael Taylor about it in Tamworth 2014 and that was when he offered me the deal with Lost Highway. I feel good about it now but there were a few times in the last few years when I thought, Is this ever going to see the light of day? Not because I doubted Michael’s word or the record company but I thought maybe something was going to happen and they’d say, ‘We’re not going to really concentrate on doing alt-country any more. It’s not a big money spinner.’ But the fact that they’re still doing it, still sticking with it, is fantastic. They still see the potential for people like me. So Ruby Boots and Mustered Courage and Catherine Britt and Shane Nicholson and all these other amazing artists.
Lost Highway obviously has an incredibly good pedigree in the United States and here already has established such a great line-up. It must have been exciting to be on it and did it feel like a natural fit the first time you were talking to Michael?
Absolutely, and it was very exciting to be asked. I wasn’t expecting it at all. He said, ‘I want to get you to write a bit of a blurb for this introductory video for the label – it’s going to play at the launch of the label’, which they had in Tamworth in 2014. And he waited until literally the night before to spring on me that he wanted me on the label and would I be interested. My gast was completely flabbered. I had to step back for a second and go, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ Not least because I’m not exactly a spring chicken compared with a lot of the other artists on the label, some of whom are in their thirties and I’m in my late forties. It’s been an interesting ride throughout my career and now that I’ve reached this point it doesn’t feel like the end any more, it feels like the start of something.
One of the great things I’ve observed about Australian country music is that age really is so insignificant. You can start a career at sixty, or six, or sixteen. The audience is so committed to the genre. You can have people in their sixties and seventies who are really open minded about new music. I actually don’t see it in any other genre.
That’s right. A lot of the people that I know, particularly from doing gigs around Sydney is that there’s a lot of people from that baby boomer generation, if you will, who are incredibly open minded about new music and they love finding out about new stuff. They like country music but they particularly like the country rock that evolved in the late ’60s out of The Byrds and Bob Dylan and things like that, and they’ve kind of stuck with that music forever. They’re looking for new developments on that sound and they don’t mind that there are artists who mix up country with electronica, country music singers who make solo albums, like Chris Stapleton, who made an amazing record last year. A lot of my older friends really dig Sturgill Simpson, who I think is amazing, and he’s doing more, in a way, to uphold the legacy of country music in that outlaw spirit than a lot of other country artists.
Shane Nicholson was your producer and he does a lot of producing for Lost Highway. One of the things I think is great about Shane as a producer is that he seems to be able to identify what’s unique about a performer and keep it there. He doesn’t have a sound of his own that he layers over. What was your experience of working with him like?
That’s totally true – he finds the sweet spot for your voice and the way that it resonates with other instruments and he tries really hard to get that sound in the studio, whether he’s doing stuff in his own studio or in another studio like Jeff McCormack’s. We did a lot of the live tracks for the record there and he just really like the sound of my voice in the studio with the guitar playing, so I said, ‘I can play the rhythm guitar and sing, that’s no problem’, and so we cut all the vocals live in the studio, apart from ‘Tears’. I’d sung it in the studio but then I realised we were going to use a female vocalist, Jules Crighton, on the record, so we ended up overdubbing the vocals again. He knew how to get that sound just right. He got us to do it live in the studio, so we sang that duet vocal together in the studio. We did about four takes and just chose a take and that was it. So it’s all live.
That accounts for the unified feeling to the songs, and there’s often more of a warmth to live tracks.
Exactly. Some producers will insist on fixing notes and things like that – they’ll go through an entire song and take three or four hours to fix the song note by note. I’d rather not do that – it doesn’t sit well with me. I was making records when we were still recording to tape. It’s cool to be able to do it in the studio now and still hang on to something of that live feeling.
There’s a line in your bio where you say, ‘My crime is that I wear all these hats as writer, steel guitarist, lead player, songwriter’ – do you have a preferred hat?
No, I don’t any more. I used to prefer the writer hat, which could take in some of the songwriter as well because it was at a time when I was writing a lot of songs. I’d usually write my songs at work, which is a little bit rough on my employers, but one of them was cool about it. I’d just take a little bit of time out of work to sit down and write a song and not worry too much about it. But I do all of those things now together anyway. I like to write a song and sometimes I get an idea for a story or something like that. So I do wear all those hats still. Most of the time I’m not concentrating on writing so much because there’s not much money init any more unless you do copywriting or something like that. It’s mostly down to playing a bit of rock ’n’ roll, playing a bit of country and I’ll let the rest take care of the rest.
All-Night Ghost Town is out now through Lost Highway Australia/Universal.