One of the most outstanding albums of 2016 was Drawing Circles by Nigel Wearne, so what better way to start 2017 than with an interview with this extraordinary musician and songwriter. Hopefully you’ll feel as inspired reading this interview as I felt talking to him.
I read in your bio that you play with handcrafted guitars and I don’t know if that means you made them or if they’re made specifically for you by someone else.
I make them. I was a woodworker as a kid – I grew up on a farm making things with my hands – and I was a guitarist as well and I decided I wanted to build a guitar. I spoke to my uncle about it – he’s a bit of a muso – and he said, ‘You need to meet my friend.’ And I said, ‘Oh yeah, I might do that,’ and he said, ‘No – you willmeet my friend.’ My uncle’s very much like that. [Laughs] So he introduced me to a fellow named Peter Daffey who’s an incredible luthier – he makes really amazing instruments. So the best thing of all out of it is that I’ve made a friend in Peter and I’ve met dozens and dozens of great people through him. So it started out as a guitar and ended up as a really great musical journey influence wise, musician wise, and just friends. He just gave me some key tips, really, and then I went away and did it, then I rocked up on his doorstep with a finished guitar and I think I was the first person that had ever done that with him – he’s had a few people come by and say, ‘I’d like to build a guitar’, and I was the first to actually come back with one.
So how do you even know which wood to pick?
There’s tried and true timbers that work and there are Australian timbers that are constantly being tried out that are working well. Most of my guitars have been made out of blackwood because that’s what’s available in south-west Victoria, where I’ve lived most of my life or I’ve had access to most of my life. The latest one that I’m using – there were two guitars used on this album. One was a 000 style, which is an old Martin style, and another’s an 0-28, which is a very small-bodied parlour guitar. The larger guitar, the 000, is made out of blackwood and spruce on the top and it’s got a really big, brash, almost metallic kind of sound. Then the little one, the 0-28, has sheoak back and sides, which is really spectacular looking. Casuarina trees are everywhere, all over Australia. I’ve seen them in Cambodia. They’re up here, they’re down there. But it’s incredible looking and it sounds amazing, so that’s probably the best thing I’ve done. It’s got spruce top and sheoak back and sides. Just talking to other makers, reading about it, experimenting is the best way to go about it. Australian timbers are really good because it’s getting harder and harder to get prime woods from overseas for reasons of clear felling and endangered species, ethics. So Australian timbers are really great.
It’s a very particular relationship, then, to have with your instrument because you can essentially craft the guitar exactly the way you want it. Does that have any influence on your songwriting – when you’re writing songs, you know what instrument you’re writing for and with, but similarly when you’re making a guitar do you think, I want my music to head in a particular direction and I can make the instrument to do that?
To use a bit of a cliché-sounding analogy – I’ll just go there – it’s kind of like with a child. You sort of have an idea of what you want your child to turn out like and they end up being themselves, and an instrument’s like that too. You have an idea of what you want and then it ends up being what it ends up as. You can have some control over that but there’s always going to be some surprises, and many of the songs on this album would not have happened if I hadn’t had built that little 0-28. Because of the type of guitar it is and the way it causes me to play, the effect that it’s had, some songs on the record just wouldn’t have happened without that. And likewise with the 000, and the banjo – I built the banjo as well – those banjo tunes were written on that particular banjo. Different instruments promote different styles of playing, I guess. There’s only one song on the whole record which is played with a flat pick, which is a first for me. There are normally more songs that are strummed or flat picked, but everything’s finger picked on this record which I guess is testament to those guitars – they are well suited to that style of playing.
Certainly they almost act like duet partners in the songs – it really feels like you’re in it with them and they’re in it with you, and I think that’s partly why the sound is so extraordinary. It feels like a real integration of instrument and voice and lyric.
Yeah, thank you, that’s a really good way of describing it. This record originally, when I was planning it, I had a band in mind. I was playing with some really good players – which I still do, from time to time, when I need a band I call them. A good friend who plays fiddle and a friend who plays double bass. My last record was very much in that direction but as it evolves – originally it was going to be a solo album, and then I thought the band, and then I went back to the original idea of playing solo. Which sort of created a new challenge for me, because it’s more sparse arrangements. All of my songs start out as solo songs anyway. I don’t have a band in mind usually, I just write the song and it is what it is. So this record just took a particular direction as things went on – I didn’t plan it to, but the whole circles thing and the nature of the songs and the themes and the way they sounded all sort of seemed to continue and continue and continue until I had a lot of songs, hence why it’s a double album.
It’s great for your fans to have that many songs.
It didn’t feel right to break them up. I could have put them over two albums – I thought about that for literally two seconds, I just didn’t want to do that.
And they do all sound like they long together. If you’d left some of them for another album then more time goes past and you might tinker with the songs and then it’s not the same thing any more.
That’s right. And I write lots of songs and there’s lots of songs that I really like that I’ve written that I just don’t play any more because I’ve got new songs [laughs]. It’s about keeping it fresh, I guess.
It’s also about the challenge of editing your own collection of work, and I would think when you have a lot of songs it is a challenge because you might emotionally think, I really want to play that song, but then from almost a business point of view, new material has to have its day.
Yes, new material just have to have its day and I’m very much about that. As an artist and songwriter and whatever else, my compulsion is just to keep creating, really. Every time I sit down – I’ve been wanting to learn folk songs for years, old-timey sorts of songs, and I’ve been threatening to do it for years and years, and every time I sit down to learn a few I might learn one and then I’ll end up writing five songs [laughs]. I just keep writing songs. It just seems to be my go-to. I’ve sort of embraced that with this record a bit, but I still want to sit down and learn those old-timey songs. I’ve just got to do it.
How do you source those old-time songs?
In essence, I’m a gleaner – I collect things: ideas, quotes, books, stories, songs. Things that speak to me often are the really long story folk songs. If I’m going to learn a [Bob] Dylan song, the ones I end up learning are the really long, drawn-out story ones. They’re the ones I love. And folk songs are kind of the same. I like the tearjerkers and I like the ones that take you somewhere. But what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time is learn more of the singalong, communal stuff because I love nothing more than having a good session with other musicians and playing songs. I want to learn more songs to create the community. I love the community of music and sitting down with strangers and just having a universal language, playing songs and stuff. Which I can do but I want to have more songs to do that. So I listen to artists that I respect and every now and again I’ll come across a song that I absolutely love. There’s a song that I play by Norman Blake called ‘In the Spring of the Year’, which is on this wonderful album called Nashville Blues, and I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who has that album. It’s referred to n a Gillian Welch song, ‘Back in Time’ – she sings, ‘I’m sitting here in Nashville with Norman’s Nashville Blues’. She makes reference to this beautiful album. And there’s a song on the record on the first side, last song, and it’s ‘In the Spring of the Year’. You can’t get the lyrics on Google – I had to sit down old school with the record, playing it over and writing down the lyrics till I had it, and learning the song, and it’s one of those songs that people’s ears prick up and they say, ‘I’ve never heard that before, that’s a beautiful song’. And they’re the sorts of songs I really love, and you can go digging for them or you can just come across them. I guess I’m the kind of person who just comes across them. Some people really go digging for those songs, which is really cool.
When did your own songwriting start?
I was always interested in writing as a kid and in school I really liked English – I liked writing stories. I never knew I was a songwriter particularly until I just started doing it over years and years and I realised, actually, that’s who I am. I think the first song that really moved me ever was Eric Bogle’s ‘Singing the Spirit Home’. We had it on cassette and we used to listen to it going on holidays. That song’s about a guy getting executed under the apartheid system in South Africa and all these people singing to him when they did it. Music has that ability to really move me. So writing is something I could probably talk to you for about half an hour, at least, about how I write songs, but suffice to say I use a variety of ways of writing. And maybe most interestingly on this album, a lot of the songs weren’t actually written. I have a recorder and I sit down regularly and just start playing. Often when I’m feeling a little bit inspired I’ll just sit down and start playing and see what happens. Start singing. A number of songs on this record – ‘Drawing Circles’, the title track, being one of them – I literally sat down and started playing, starting singing, hit ‘record’ and recorded it, then I went back and transcribed the lyrics verbatim – didn’t change anything – and that’s the song.
You’re obviously at a point where you trust what’s come through – you don’t go back and doubt what you’ve done. As it arrives to you, whether you think it’s channelled or something else, you trust that that’s a good form.
There’s always an element of doubt. Some artists say they’re full of self-doubt and other artists say they don’t have it, but I reckon that’s bullshit – I think everyone has self-doubt. I used to always try to talk myself out of it but as time goes on I have less of it, I guess. There was a time when I was creating this record when I did wonder if the songs were any good, because that was the way they happened, and I thought, Is that enough? Shouldn’t there be more pain and anguish in writing a song sometimes? [Laughs] Or enjoyment. So I let it sit for a while. And the ones that stick are the ones I go with. There’s a couple on this record that I forgot about completely. ‘The Most of You’, the second song, I forgot about. It was one I left off my last record and then I found it in my songbook one day and said, ‘Oh, that’s right – I’ve got that song.’ It didn’t match the last record and it matched this one well. A big part of this record, too, is that I know it’s not a feel-good hit for the summer. It’s not going to be on Triple M. I’m not going to be playing on big stages selling it to hundreds of adoring fans. I’ve moved past any sort of belief that that might happen to me and I’m more focused on the thing itself, making sure that it can be as good as it can be, putting it out there, and I’m happy with it. And just letting people mill over it themselves and see what happens. I hope it’s a record that will grow on people.
I don’t think it needs to grow on people. Immediately, from the first song, I thought, We’re off to the races. It’s a serious piece of work. People can take their work seriously but not necessarily produce a serious piece of work, and by that I don’t mean that the tone is extremely serious – I mean that this record declares that you are to be taken seriously.
Thank you. A lot of work went into this and Mick Wordley, who recorded it, he was very patient with me, because my ears have got to the point where I hear the minutest detail. [Laughs] I didn’t realise it until I made this album, just how much of a perfectionist I’m becoming. But I’m friendly about it – I don’t think I’m some crazy pain in the arse, but stuff ’em if I am [laughs].
And it’s your prerogative – it’s your work.
Yes [laughs]. It’s mywork! [Laughs] Mick was great to work with – he really dug deep, particularly in the last stages of mixing and all that, because as you can imagine there were a lot of takes and a lot of songs. Even though the arrangements aren’t complex in the amount of instruments, the detail is in the way it sounds and the microphones that we use and the reverb and the compression and it was recorded to tape – just all these little details that Mick was great at. I produced it myself but really Mick co-produced it in many ways because he was the one who got the sounds that I was describing. So it was a real joint venture working with him. And it’s the third album I’ve done with him, so I trust him. I should mention too, the artwork is the next thing – the guy who did the photography, Ryan Toos, he’s an incredibly talented photographer and I did all the artwork myself: layout and this booklet that goes with it, and that all matches the work.
Back to the songs: there are literary references in there; there are historical references and contemporary references. In a way it feels like an Australian storybook, not so much an Australian songbook. Did you have that sense of documenting contemporary and past Australian life?
You’ve hit the nail on the head – I’m so glad you did that [laughs]. It’s not prescriptive in any way – I’m not trying to skew people towards any particular idea other than I guess … I like to plant seeds when I write and create, just plant seeds with people. For example, ‘Right Now’ starts off talking about the pace of society and it sort of veers into how we’re not evolved for this, we’re not built for this, and we’ve got to deal with it. It’s about as activist as I get, in some ways – I talk about asylum seekers being in boats and trying to find somewhere to live, and then I cap it off talking about the improbability of true love and somehow you can manage to find somebody. Not all of us – it doesn’t always end up lasting but it happens. In ‘The Most of You’ I talk about threading the eye of the needle – I’m talking maritime there. We’re Australians, we’re here. Like me – I’ve got Anglo heritage from Cornwall. Threading the eye of the needle is navigating your way through King Island and Camp Otway, which from a maritime perspective is literally like threading the eye of the needle – if you get it wrong you end up smashed on the rocks of King Island. There’s references in there, certainly, of our Australian heritage and certainly mine. The song ‘Son of a Blacksmith’ is about my grandfather and my grandmother, and that’s biographical – that’s what happened to them. I’ve always admired the resilience of my grandparents, [my grandfather] going to war and coming back and then having half his farm compulsorily acquired and sold at wartime price, so he got bugger-all for it. Then it happening again, because he wanted to build an airstrip and moving down to the south-west, which is where I grew up, near Warrnambool, in Ellerslie. So there certainly is those references and moving forward I’m already thinking about the next projects, which a friend of mine, Luke Watt, who’s an amazing songwriter – we’ve been accepted to go to Bundanon, which is Arthur Boyd’s home. So we’ll go up there and work on a new project, hopefully.
Drawing Circles is available from nigelwearne.bigcartel.com