Interview: D Henry Fenton

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Singer-songwriter D Henry Fenton is Australian in origin and now divides his time between his homeland and the US. Fenton has opened shows for acts including Keith Urban, Kasey Chambers, The Corrs, John Mayer and Colbie Caillat. He released his third studio album, Twice I Fell Down Once, in April and recently played some shows in his homeland accompanied by his band, The Elizabethans. I spoke to him by phone while he was in Sydney.
I know you’re in Australia visiting from the United States and I was looking on your website and saw that you’d taken a photo of a clip from a Kalgoorlie newspaper and in that paper they called you an ‘LA singer’ – do you feel more LA than Australian these days?
These days I’m kind of mixing between them both because I’m spending time here and there now, whereas when I did that I was mainly based in Los Angeles. But I feel an affinity for both, actually.
What’s prompted you to come back here more?
I’ve been in LA since 2006. I was there for eight years and then I got homesick or something. I started coming back more regularly because Australia’s an amazing place. It’s a lot more peaceful. I miss the energy from here – as soon as you get off the plane in LA it’s bang, it’s almost like this energy coming up through the ground, whereas in Sydney – or Australia – it’s a lot more laidback, which is good too in a different way.
I think a lot of us Sydneysiders would think there’s not a lot laidback about Sydney any more – however, we do have a lovely harbour.
You do have a lovely harbour. I’m staying in Taylor Square, near Oxford Street [in Darlinghurst] and that’s a bit of a bustle there but it’s still chilled.
What I didn’t find in my research was a reason why you first went to the United States.
Ah, it was a girl. I never, ever thought I’d spend any time in America, growing up. I always wanted to go to London. But I live in the US now.
When you went, presumably with guitar in hand, did you think you’d try to get a musical foothold there or did it just kind of happen.
I just wanted something different in my life. I’d always been playing but I just took my guitar because it’s my hobby. Paul McCartney says it’s his hobby so if he says that it’s probably all right for me. A lot of people say, ‘It’s my life, man’ – I’m going, ‘Yeah, right, okay.’ There’s more to life, you know. But I took the guitar and ended up doing okay, and I got a record deal over there – that was my first album. Just started playing over there and eventually found some like-minded people, got a little band together, and I flew out the bass player – she came out for this little tour we did [Fenton has just toured Australia]. My drummer, Dave Krusen, his first band was Pearl Jam – he played on the Tenrecord. So he got inducted into the Hall of Fame the other day, so he couldn’t come out.
[Laughs] That’s the best reason ever.
I know, right? [Laughs] He’s a really cool guy. When I first got there he goes, ‘Henry, I really like your stuff’, and I said, ‘Oh thanks.’ I didn’t know who he was at the time – I knew he was a drummer – but I found out later. He said, ‘Anytime you want me to play I’d really like it.’ So he’s been playing with us for about two and a half years now.
It’s one thing to try to make your connections in a city the size of Sydney, but with so many more people playing music in LA, what was it like finding your people?
I think you just get lucky. I found this little bar called Craig’s – I got taken there in the first week or two I was there, and there was a whole bunch of like-minded folk there, a community there, and we all sort of bonded. There was a girl called Lizzie from there – she’s played out here a bit and been quite successful. Elle King, too, she was from that scene – Xs and Os singer. A band called Truth and Salvage Company. Andy Clockwise – he’s an Aussie and he’s in that scene too. Have you heard of him?
Look, I’m fairly entrenched in country music these days, so … no.
When I write it just seems to come out in a country way. I don’t try. People say it’s kind of like a Tom Petty, Neil Young-ish thing.
I actually used to disparage country music. But I think if you’re interested in storytelling, the genre is really set up for it more than any other genre, and there’s a lot of flexibility musically speaking, so you can take the heart of country and also connecting to your audience – take those principles but still be a bit loose around what you’re doing musically but find that country audience regardless.
Someone said to me it’s the only white music with any soul, and I kind of agree.
You mentioned your band – how did The Elizabethans get their name?
Oh gosh, I don’t know – I remember seeing something on TV and thinking, Oh, the Elizabethans, and my name’s Henry, so I thought maybe I’d just call my band that. But it’s a bit of a mouthful. But people, when they hear it, say, ‘That kind of works’.
Now you’re saying it like that, I can see it. You could call yourself Henry the Eighth and the Elizabethans.
Yeah, I don’t know – he wasn’t such a nice cat.
And with a reduced band you’ve had your Australian tour, so how did that go?

I think pretty well. People seemed to really dig the music. We sold quite a few CDs. Adelaide was tough because they had the Adelaide Crows versus Port Adelaide [AFL] game and that was 50 000 people, sold out, and Adelaide’s not a big town. And Tim Rogers was playing around the corner. We did all right but we would have done a lot better without that going on. But the owner, she loved it and we made some friends and fans. The tour’s just basically to let people know that there’s a record out.
Speaking of that record – it’s said to be about ‘ghosts, love, obsession and revenge’. Have the ghosts been exorcised?
No, they’re still floating around. I’m not sure what ghosts are any more … No, they’re still around. I was trying to describe what I was writing about. There’s a song called ‘Love is a Tough Commodity’ on the record and one of the lines is, ‘Ghosts in my vision and my spirit’s on the run’.
So that’s where the ghosts have come from. Everyone lives with them, I guess, and clearly they can be good fodder for lyrics.
Exactly. I think I want to do a clip for that song. I’m imagining some party and kids in sheets poking their heads around the corner and I’m the only one who can see them.
And I was also interested in the idea of revenge: do you think it’s a dish best served cold?
Yeah, it is. You can’t get emotional about it. I’m not a vengeful person but that song … a lot of the stuff I write about is inspired from my life, as a lot of songwriters draw from. It was just someone in my life who wasn’t the sweetest person. I thought ‘an eye for an eye’.
And the great thing about having the ability to create art is that you can take something in your life that has felt a certain way and transform it into something else so that someone else gets to relate to it for their own life.
I find that with other people’s songs, too. That song in particular – the revenge song, ‘you step on me and I’ll step on you’ – I started singing in French. There’s this lyric and I didn’t know what it was saying, and it was, ‘The sea is me and the sea is you’. It’s kind of like, ‘Hey, we’re all part of this but if you cross me I’ll cross you back.’ But as a person I wouldn’t necessarily do that, but the person in the song [would].
Writing a song is a little way of doing that, but a gentle way.
And it’s a detached way of doing it because you’re not quite as involved.
The other word that interested me was ‘obsession’ – can any musician really be non-obsessive?
No, they’re all obsessive, I reckon. Some may hide it, but … That one’s a song called ‘Down Your Street’, which is basically a song about driving down your ex’s street, for not fiendish motives but just a reflection or accidentally [doing it] – ‘I wonder what they’re doing’. One of those songs.
Even though, as you say, guitar is a hobby, musicians at your level of creation and touring and production of albums, there’s that element of always wanting to improve on your hobby.
Oh yeah, absolutely. I’d love to build my audience and stuff. A lot of people have said, ‘You deserve more from this’, and if it happens, that’s great. I’m doing everything that I can. I’m getting a radio promoter in the US to push the album. I’ve already sent it to him and he really digs it and he’s already picked the songs that he thinks might do okay over there. And I have Karen Waters and Stuart Coupe helping here.
It’s also just thinking of that – giving it to a radio promoter. In the olden days, which weren’t that long ago, there was that really limited time in which to get your music to people. For better or worse, with the way things are now with streaming and whatnot, albums can take on different forms. So you’ve created that body of work but in terms of how people listen to and the lifespan it may have, it’s a lot more unpredictable now how long it will last and who it will reach and how.
Totally. People bring out records all the time now, famous acts, and they just fly by and you don’t hear of them. Tom Petty put an album out not so long ago … It’s just tracks now. Apparently Drake’s the one who’s the master of just putting singles out, or just streaming songs. He’s got such a huge audience, he can do that. I don’t know if the album’s dead or not – I keep reading that it is. I’m in the old-fashioned way but I just wanted to record those songs and put them out. What do you do? I’m not sure.
I think an album’s an art form much like a novel, in that it’s longer-form storytelling. And where you can’t really take chapters out of a novel and have them make sense, you can take singles out of an album and have them make sense. But if you’re the one who’s created that longer form, it’s not easy to say, ‘I’ll just give up that longer-form storytelling.’
No. It’s hard to do that. Next year I’m going to put out an EP of Howlin’ Wolf songs that I’ve recorded and then do another album, I think. The title of this album – Twice I Fell Down Once – I was reading a book on Woody Guthrie. He had a few children and one of his kids died in a house fire when she was nine, in the late ’40s. Her name was Cathy, and she’d say these little things to Woody, and he used to love them and write them down. One of them was, ‘Twice I fell down once’. It was just so beautiful. I wrote it down in a book and then a few years later I came across it and thought, That’s what I’m going to call my record. I thanked Cathy Guthrie on the record too.
In terms of how you create your songs, are you the sort of person who writes bits and pieces down and then collects them later?
Yes, I do that. I can collect fragments over time and then put them together. The tunes can come together all at once but I’ll work them a little bit. I’ll have a little bit then work out a little bit more. These days I’m trying to find something to write about, too. I hate repeating myself musically – I don’t want to write a similar tune to something else I’ve done, or a lyric. So it takes me a little while until I can find something that I think is more unique. I had a friend who told me, ‘I based a groove around this Jonathan Wilson song’, and I never do that. I don’t try to copy any song, I just write the song and give it to my band and then we play it a bit, and that’s how it comes out.
Do you tend to head into the studio with more songs than you need orhave you already curated your selection by that stage?
A few more. There’s a few songs that didn’t make the cut. I usually go in with a bunch and then that gives me a reason to write more songs. Because I really love recording. It’s really therapeutic because you’re trying to work out harmonies – ‘What if we played a nice tune here to balance countermelodies?’ I really like doing harmonies and guitar lines, working them out. It’s just fun. I just like it. It’s great. And for me to do that, I need songs.
The relationship between mathematics and music is established – and what you’re describing there sounds like working out mathematical puzzles.
It is. And I think it’s already there – the songs are already written. I always try to make things simple, too. This album is kind of different. The last two albums have been singer-songwriter and I’ve hired different bass players and drummers when I was in different towns and got the best I could do. But this one’s just the band and a couple of friends added a few things because I thought it might be fun. But it’s just me, Dave and Mary Beth pretty much on everything. And people seem to be reacting to it a bit better than the last one, which I thought wasn’t a bad record.
If you’ve been playing with them for a while they’re now collaborators, which gives a different energy to what you’ve created.
Yep. And Mary Beth, my bass player, we co-wrote a song on the record – ‘Dusty Wings’. I don’t know if you have the record.
I do. I’ve listened to it – several times.
Thanks for having a listen. I’m never sure if people listen to stuff.
If I’m going to talk to you I like to listen – also because I’m interested in people’s musical lineages, so I like to listen to hear if there’s a lineage there or not.
Can you hear any influences in it?
Not really – which is why it’s interesting that you said you don’t base what you do off others’ work. I can hear that in your music. I can’t hear a direct reference to anything.
I really try to just let it all flow, just me and the band, rather than copy a groove. But apparently [copying] is how a lot of people write. I’m not saying that’s bad, I just don’t know how they do it.
Twice I Fell Down Once is out now.

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