This year James Blundell celebrates thirty years as a singer-songwriter. He has a lot planned – as I found out when I spoke to him – and he’s started his busy year with the release of Campfire, an outstanding collection of songs written by other people. This is unusual for James, who renown as a songwriter is as great as that for his performances, but it works very well, with listeners treated to creative new spins on old favourite songs.
When I saw the list of songs that are on the album I thought, It will be really interesting to see how he pulls all of this together. But it really sounds like an Australian country album.
I’m glad you think so. The person I work with, Karen Waters, has a wonderful ear for a great tune. We collaborated on the choice really effortlessly. It’s been a lot of fun the whole way through. This is the third body of work I’ve worked with her on. The criteria were very simple: either songs I wish I’d written or songs that she and I thought would bear stripping back, because the ultimate compliment you can pay a song is to play it on acoustic or piano and have it still make sense. I think it speaks volumes to the quality of the artists who wrote and recorded the songs that they do actually match up. It was only ever supposed to be an eight-track [thing] that ardent fans could buy at performances rather than have to go to a retailer and it took on a life of its own pretty much from day one.
I also saw something in the notes saying you were going to unearth songs with great stories – that’s a lot songs to go through. Given the criteria you just mentioned and that criterion, how did you even approach choosing songs. Where did you start from?
It got to the very zen thing of ‘Don’t look at the mountain’ [laughs]. I think at some stage of the game it just got silly … and we were looking at a shortlist of 200 going, ‘No, hang on, let’s stop. Let’s go back to what we started with.’ I suppose the final ten were picked out of about thirty or forty that we’d agreed were all of equal merit. Then it became a matter of which would sit sonically side by side most comfortably and a bit of an ideological thread too. Basically most of it is about adversity should not stop your life, it should give it a whole new lease when you get to the other side.
Were anyone of them songs you’d already been singing around a campfire, whether that’s a literal or metaphorical campfire?
The only two I hadn’t ever sung were ‘Rain on the Scarecrow’, which has always been one of my favourite songs, and Madonna’s version of ‘True Blue’. I’d forgotten. When it was first mooted I thought they meant John Williamson, and I thought, There’s a reason for that, it’s a great song. But when I heard what Tania Kernaghan had done to it I thought, I love it, that’s great. That’s a classic love pop song, you know. How do you tell someone you love them? You tell them repeatedly in the chorus [laughs].
I was a long-term Madonna fan but stopped after she stopped writing with Patrick Leonard, who I think is a co-writer on that song – what you managed to capture in your version of the song was actually what was in her singing of it, which was a slight edge. Nothing Madonna did was ever that saccharine.
Absolutely. Absolutely. I’ve used that very word often. I couldn’t agree with you more – I’d only be repeating what you said. There’s definitely an undercurrent of that, which is the ‘I like what I got here because I’ve dealt with absolute …’ [Laughs] A word suitable for publication.
They’re your songs, you’re singing them and it’s your sound, but they’re coming from such different sources. As a singer, did you have to give a lot of thought to how you sang them or did you just let it happen to see what came out?
Very much the latter. I have a very simple recording process at home. I don’t think the album would sound like it does had I been restricted to a timeline of studio and availability and cost. When I got ‘No Surrender’ back, Paul Costa’s version of it, the first time I sang on it I was just at the end of a cold and it just sounded like crap and I thought there is no way I am letting this song go out with anything less than a good vocal on it. Funnily enough, even though I know the song intimately – I’d do a performance of it and listen back to the interpretation and go, ‘That is still not how I feel the song should sound.’ It’s a very relevant question. Some of them just fell out. ‘Scarecrow’ I think was three takes because I’ve always thought that is one of the best laments about regional life I’ve ever heard – that whole album is, in my opinion, the best country rock album ever made. ‘True Blue’ was a little tricky because it’s a very jaunty melody and Tania’s got a very individual style. The one I struggled with most – if someone had said to me five years ago, ‘You’re going to record a version of “Blowing in the Wind” in your lifetime,’ I’d have said, ‘That’s never going to happen.’ But the way it turned out was totally in keeping with the ideology of the album. I was working at a little tiny pub called The Royal in Victoria, in a town called Meredith, and the girl who’d done support for the night was an eighteen-year-old called Abigail Grace. Really strong in her own right. I asked her up at the end just to do a couple of songs for fun and we were going pretty hard to find some common ground, but she very artlessly handed me her songbook open at ‘Blowing in the Wind’ and said, ‘Do you know this one? I just laughed and said, ‘That’s DNA for my generation. That’s one of the songs that changed the world.’ The reason it was included – it suddenly occurred to me that I’m fifty-two and she’s eighteen and she’s just discovered that song in her own right, and it makes you realise how powerful and how long lasting those statements were. It’s actually nearly my favourite track on the album, the way it’s come out, because it sort of leaves you with a sigh. You’re going on this nostalgia tour – and I think Anne Kirkpatrick’s vocal on it is fantastic. Liam Kennedy-Clark, who does the last verse, is a relatively unknown musician but, god, he just makes that part of the song his own. And that was the joy of doing this album.
Listening to that song – when Dylan sings it, obviously it’s just him and it sounds like a personal … I was going to say ‘lament’ because he always seems to be lamenting something. But you manage to bring it back almost to its folk roots by having that many singers on it and it sounded really appropriate.
The way it’s turned out, it’s very positive as opposed to completely abysmal and the given condition is in a downward spiral, never to be recovered. I think it leaves it open ended. Unfortunately when you’re involved in the creation of a body of work you listen to it ad infinitum to make sure that everything’s right, but I never got sick of that end of the album. It has a whole heap of an inherent statements.
And ‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’, which of course I’ve heard numerous times – that’s the first
time I’ve ever really heard the lyrics.
Those two – ‘Breakfast at Sweethearts’ and ‘Take it Easy’ – from a writer’s point of view, because I love Don Walker’s writing and Don Henley’s writing, I think they’re both as good as it gets in the history of commercial music. I lived on and off in Sydney for twenty-five years. Early on in my career when everything was still pretty wild and woolly and I had a constitution, we had some big nights. I’d often come out of a nightclub in [Kings] Cross at half past seven in the morning thinking, I should have brought my sunglasses. I knew when I left home I should have brought my sunglasses. A cold, grey morning up in the Cross, Don Walker gets it absolutely right. And ‘Take it Easy’, it’s such a recognisable song worldwide and the banjo really drives it, but it’s actually a really melancholy song, and to pull it back and let it breathe was really good fun too.
And Bec Lavelle has vocals on that. She gets two guernseys on this album – do you have a particular preference for Bec or is that just how it worked out?
She’s one of my favourite people on the planet. We first met when we did a Forces Advisory tour through the Middle East and would up being rerouted from Afghanistan then we went down to Cyprus, and I got to know her really well on that tour. She’s an incredible vocalist and she’s a great writer. We’ve been friends ever since. We’ve toured a bit together and she decamped and went over to Berlin, fell in love with a guy who named a bar after her, so she’s got this whole amazing backstory anyway. Bec’s voice has a comfort factor that’s unparalleled. She opens her mouth and you feel yourself relax. She’s just such a beautiful singer. So I’d have had her on everything but she and Karen Waters, who owns Red Rebel Music, and I are all great friends and Karen said, ‘You can’t have her on everything– that defeats the purpose’ [laughs]. But what she did on ‘Money Changes Everything’ I just love too.
Were there any contributions from others that surprised you in a good way?
Very much so. The Wolfe Brothers – I met them as late-teenage boys in Kingston, just south of Hobart. I was doing an instore promotion for an event called Telstra Road to Tamworth, which became Telstra Road to Discovery. They just came in and wanted to say hello, and I’ve watched them grow up ever since. They were remarkable. When we sent the songs away the only brief was for people to do what they would do normally on them, and when ‘Scarecrow’ came back I thought, They’ve really lifted the whole thing into a whole new realm. I’m actually doing a lot of work with them this year because they’re working predominantly with Lee Kernaghan at the moment and Lee and I are doing twenty-five shows together this year. I think that was the biggest wow factor I got personally along with a guy called Johnny Taylor. When he sent back what he’d done on ‘Sixth Avenue Heartache’ I thought, That’s brilliant. That’s artistry right there.
When I spoke to Lee at the end of last year about his Tamworth show he mentioned a few years ago running around on tour with you – motel rooms, late nights – and how these days it’s not like that anymore.
[Laughs] That’s a song that’s coming out – again, I’m really excited. Lee and Colin Buchanan and Garth Porter wrote this song called ‘Back in’92’ when Lee was reminiscing. It’s a fun song because we did have a lot of fun. We definitely went as hard and as fast as we could for as long as we could then suffered some vague onslaught of maturity and slowed down a little bit.
And you both still have your voices so it obviously wasn’t too bad.
[Laughs] You thank the lord for small mercies. Sanity’s shot to pieces, voice is okay.
Someone else I spoke to last year was Paul Greene, who said of you: ‘He’s such an artist. He’s had an artist’s life.’ Which I thought was a lovely way to simply put something but I’m also curious about that artist’s life – did you set out to have that or did you just want to play music where you could?
Pretty much everything that has turned up in any publication in my life has been a complete accident. I have always loved music. I was interested enough while I was still working with cattle to send some songs to Colin and Kevin Jacobsen’s studio and I got some encouragement but still wasn’t considering pursuing it properly. Then I had an accident – I got run over by a bull – and the next thirty years just happened. Obviously as that was going along wonderful people got involved – great promotion, great record companies – but the rest of it was completely accidental. It sort of feels like – do you remember that beautiful Peter Sellers movie Being There? It feels a bit like that. You turn around and wonder, Okay, I didn’t mean that to happen – but anyway … I hope you’re all okay. [Laughs]
Did you literally get run over by a bull?
Yes. The weirdness of the story starts about there. I’ve had three near-death experiences in my life – that was one and I thought, I’m not going to see it through this one. Another one I was being held under – I’m an avid surfer – I got held under a breaker at Queenscliff at the north end of Manly [in Sydney] and I thought, I’m not going to get out of here. And I got in a pretty sticky situation on a yacht. I was sailing solo off the coast of Sydney, between Sydney and Pittwater and I thought, This is not going to end well. But they all seem to be a full stop in a particular phase of life then you come out the other end and keep going. It has been a remarkable life.
I have to confess a particular interest in the bull incident as I’ve just worked on a book about bull riders. Being hit by a bull does seem to be a singular event.
There’s nothing like it. I really query the sanity of anybody who pursues it professionally. Admire their athleticism more than I can articulate. But there’s an element of complete unpredictability – even the most talented riders can get into desperate trouble.
It’s a really interesting sport and I spoke to some really interesting people. But I’m talking to a really interesting person right now so I’ll get back to you and your thirty years in music this year. What do you think has changed for the best, what’s changed for the worst, and what hasn’t changed in that time?
What’s changed for the best is that there’s a great young bedrock of emerging talent and mostly coming from a writing perspective. I think the singular advantage of young Australian artists in the music scene as country artists is that they all write, and that’s where your longevity is. What has changed for the worst is this incessant desire to follow the American more of every song has to be a love song. I remember going through 200 tunes from a publisher in Nashville, and even the songs that started with a fantastic riff and a great first verse that had some kind of carnage in it or some kind of really vivid imagery which suddenly turned into, ‘Why don’t you love me?’ Why does it always have to come back to that? I think the stronger young writers are writing outside relationship songs. And what hasn’t changed is this incredible amount of wonderful, wonderful music that never sees the light of day and that, to me, continues to be a great frustration. I get to sit on two panels judging – one’s the APRA Country Song of the Year and one’s the Talent Development Programme, and every year my in-car soundtrack is usually always uncut songs, because they are brilliant. I’ve been speaking at length over the years with the head of Writers Services at APRA, saying, ‘Why don’t we have a 24/7 streaming of APRA uncut songs,’ for two reasons: it would give the public a fantastic alternative radio station and, secondly, it would give artists looking for material access to some 4000 songs a year that they’re never going to hear on radio and probably won’t be pitched to them by a publisher because the artists aren’t signed.
That’s a great idea. Why aren’t they doing it?
I still wonder the same thing. It’s the second time today I’ve had this conversation so it means I’m meant to ring them and push harder [laughs].
It may even be that it ends up being your project, but that will be the way to get it done.
I think you might be right.
I suspect you have a way of getting things done.
Only when it’s really important. Otherwise I’m pretty easygoing [laughs].
I’ll conclude by asking about the year ahead – you’re on the road with Lee. Do you have other touring plans?
It’s a really busy year. The touring has already started, then the Lee gigs started. But the releases determine the touring pattern and we’ve had the first release of Campfire– August/September will be the new studio album, and at the end of the year an anthology of thirty years of work. So there will be three releases in 2017 and I don’t think I’ve ever had that in thirty years. They must sense I’m fading away so they’re going to whip me to death in this last year [laughs].
I doubt that – it’s more likely that the aggregation of work is such that it’s appropriate to recognise it and, of course, you keep creating new work and eventually things are going to cascade over each other and this is the year.
[laughs] That’s a far more logical way to look at it. Of course, I was being supercilious. I love performing, love writing, love recording. Travelling is – I got back to the family place and I’m taking over from Dad as we speak, and want to spend more time there. But travel is far more accessible these days, as are house concerts. I’m looking at streaming a couple from both the woolshed and homestead at home and I think that will be really fun way to perform too.
Campfire is out now and available on iTunes.