Interview: Stu Larsen

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Recently Australian singer/songwriter Stu Larsen released Resolute, the follow-up album to his debut release, Vagabond. Resolute was released through Nettwerk Records, and recently I was lucky to speak to this inspirational artist by phone while he was far, far away in the northern hemisphere – in a very small hotel room in New York City with no view, he told me.

When I do interviews I try to do research if I can, but I could not find out much about you.
Really? So mysterious [laughs]. 
That could be on purpose … but if you’re prepared to tell me your story, perhaps you could tell it as a musical lineage story.
I grew up in a very small country town in Queensland called Bowenville, which is near Dalby, and my parents did not listen to very cool music at all. I didn’t know anything different at the time so I thought, This is music … all right. It didn’t really do much for me. My father’s favourite artist was a guy called Johnny Horton, who’s probably kind of cool in that world, but I didn’t really enjoy listening to him [laughs] and I don’t really remember what else my parents had on. It just didn’t interest me at all. But eventually I started picking up the $2 CDs at the little music store – they’d just sell these old blues CDs out the front. So I started listening to Muddy Waters and BB King and John Lee Hooker, and all these iconic blues artists. And I guess that was the first time I started to really think about music and really listen to it properly, and I would just sit in my room and loop these albums over and over. Then eventually I moved from blues to Elvis – I don’t know how that happened but I was obsessed with Elvis Presley for a good few years. I just fell in love with his personality, I guess, and the way he lived his life. His big life.
He was a mesmerising performer, so I think getting obsessed with Elvis is completely understandable.
It wasn’t cool at my school [laughs] but I was, like, ‘Nup, I love Elvis. He’s my favourite.’ I started learning guitar around that time and writing a few little strange songs, silly little songs. And then I started to listening to some more folky kind of artists, which is what I still love today. Guys like Damien Rice and Ray LaMontagne, Neil Young, Bob Dylan – all that crew.
For up-and-coming artists where there are no CD stores any more, really – particularly in country towns – I wonder if that same kind of education is possible. Is the way to discover older music – to create a lineage – can anyone have that any more the way you had it.
That’s a really good point. With Spotify and Apple Music and things, you’re not really going to stumble across the older things. You have to go looking for it. And all the Top 50 playlists or Spotify Weekly is all going to be tailored to the current sound or whatever you’re listening to. I think you’re right – I think it is harder to discover by chance those older artists. I feel quite lucky to have literally stumbled across it – that was all I could afford, those $2 CDs out the front, not the $30 ones from inside the store.
But they did the trick. And it’s also that idea of having that education behind you, which explains how your songwriting and your singing get to the point they are – it wasn’t just you trying to pluck something out of the ether, you gave yourself an education.
True. I never really thought about it like that, but you’re right.
Your album, Resolute, started as voice memos – were these fragments of tunes or were they more developed, like verses and choruses?
Literally just a little idea, a little chorus or a little melody. And it’s because I’m lazy and when I have an idea I think I should sit down for two hours and try to write a song, but I want to go for a walk and take photos. I want to something else. So I quickly record that little idea and think, I’ll come back to that really soon, and then it takes sometimes years to come back to the idea [laughs]. And sometimes when I go through my phone and listen to voice memos there are some that I honestly do not have any recollection of. It doesn’t ring any bells. This can’t be me. It is me, because it sounds like me but I have no memory of that melody or that chord progression or anything. So I guess that’s why I record it, so I can have it again and not simply forget it.
And it’s arguable that going for a walk and taking photographs is part of your songwriting. You need your brain to work on it in the meantime so you do something else.
Definitely, yeah.
It sounds like there were hundreds of those voice memos – how long did it take to whittle them down to make a selection for the album?
It took a while. I listened to all of them and put them into two categories, of maybes and definitely nots. Then I again went through the maybe section and I picked out my top ten or twelve. I tried to make them into actual songs. But there’s so many in there, which is good because I’ve probably got enough for another album or two when I make the time to go through them again. I think it was pretty obvious, the ones that felt like a collection that would work together. So I had a fun time trying to finish them and make them into complete songs.
So you had Luke Thompson as your producer and it says here that he’s a long-term friend – and I think he would have had to be because the progress of this album was that you burst your appendix, Luke started working on it, and then you came into the album after he’d done a bit of work. I’m guessing you chose him as your producer because you trusted him, but was it still quite strange to come into        that process after it had started.
It was a bit weird, yeah, but I really trust him and I had no doubt that he would do a good job. I think he was more nervous than I was when I finally got to the studio to listen to what they’d done after two weeks of them working on it. I think he was worried that he may not have got it right or they may have wasted two weeks, but it was simply perfect and I couldn’t have been happier with what Luke had done. I honestly think he knows my songs better than I do. He just has a real musical knowledge and a musical brain, and he’s very sensitive to different genres and artists he works with. He just gets it. He’s one of those amazing guys who can just fit into any situation.
Did that medical experience [Stu had an emergency appendectomy] affect your creative process – a burst appendix is quite dramatic, and your music is not dramatic in that you’re not Queen, for example. Coming out of something so dramatic and coming back into your very sophisticated, measured sound, did it feel kind of weird?
It didn’t feel too weird but it took a while to get into it again, because I couldn’t sing – I couldn’t record the vocals for another two or three months. I had a tube shoved down my nose and throat for a couple of days, which affected things. The operation and everything was far worse than it should have been, partly because of where I was [in Indonesia]. So it took a long time to recover from that. I guess coming back into the album, it wasn’t like going from hospital to studio. It was a long, gradual process of getting back to life again. Honestly, the night before I had the operation I was thinking, Yeah, cool, no worries, gotta have an operation – my appendix will be gone tomorrow, then a couple of days I’ll fly back to Australia. It was the first time I’d had anything like that and I had no idea how it physically affects you and takes you back to square one. I wasn’t eating. I couldn’t eat food for days. I couldn’t walk on my own. It really knocked me about.
I completey empathise, as I had tubes like that and a long recovery from an operation, and I know how draining it can be, and how it can affect your voice – given that your voice is a reflection of your experience, and how you’re feeling at the time, I would think for you, as a musician, that would almost have been concerning as well.
I was very worried. Especially in the hospital, when this tube was down my throat – that was all that was on my mind. I didn’t care about the appendix. I didn’t care about anything else. It was just ‘Is this going to do damage?’ Then slowly, slowly … I went and did some regional New South Wales gigs for a month, just to get my voice back to strength before I recorded the vocals again. After the first few gigs I was still a bit concerned but the strength came back, and it started to feel good again. We had tried to record vocals before those gigs and it was just never going to happen. There was no strength or power to it, and it didn’t sound like my voice. It was very concerning around that time, but eventually we got there. It took a few months, but we got there.
You sure did get there, and well enough for the album to be signed to Nettwerk in Canada. They ar such a well-regarded label. How did that connection come about?
Through my good friend Mike Rosenberg, aka Passenger. I feel very lucky. I travelled around with him for a few years and got to meet all of the people he was working with, from management to record labels and booking agents. Lucky enough for me they all agreed to work with me and help me out as well. It’s a fortunate connection.
You’re certainly part of a pedigreed line-up – so the pressure is now on!
[Laughs] Yeah. I love Nettwerk. They’re big enough that they can get stuff done but they’re not too big so they neglect artists or have too many artists to worry about. I think they’re the perfect-sized label to get the job done.
I read on your Bandcamp profile that you ‘follow the opportunities that lay themselves down in front of you’. Does that feel like a brave thing to do in life, or is that your nature, to follow those opportunities as they come up?
It wasn’t my nature [laughs] but it has become very natural now. I was a super-shy kid and I would turn away from anyone and anything that came near me. I just couldn’t really interact very well with people when I was young, and I guess even into my teenage years and early twenties I was still quite shy. But when I started travelled and started playing music a bit more seriously, I think I started to adopt that as a bit of a mantra – to just take the opportunities as they come and see where they lead, and not really have too solid a plan. I have been quite happy to just see what happens. I think when you commit to something for a period of time, you can potentially miss out on other things. If I’d have locked in something ten years ago I don’t know that I’d be doing what I’m doing. Because I was so free I met Boy & Bear, and those guys helped me out and we tagged along, and then I met Passenger. Because I was not tied to anything else I was able to say ‘yes’ to those opportunities and just take it wherever it went. I hope I can live life like that for many years to come.
It seems like that flows into how you write your songs as well – you’re making these voice memos, you’re not committing to any one thing right in that moment, you’re giving yourself these little musical opportunities. Eventually that solidifies but you do have all these other prospects floating around.      

I love that you see it like that. I feel like for me it’s more laziness but I love that you’ve given me a more positive way to see it [laughs].
Resolute is out now through Nettwerk. 

or Google Play.

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