INTERVIEW: CW Stoneking | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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With what’s bound to be another exhilarating visit to the North East imminent, Lee Fisher spoke to King Hokum himself, CW Stoneking, about stagecraft, the blues and… erm.. Kanye West!

Despite being released in his native Australia a couple of years ago, CW Stoneking’s remarkable Gon’ Boogaloo finally gets a proper (i.e. vinyl!) UK release in July and he’s back in the UK to promote it. The album marked a shift in his style, with Stoneking playing electric guitar on record for the first time.

What was the reaction to the shift to electric guitar on Gon’ Boogaloo? I’m assuming it wasn’t exactly ‘Dylan at Newport’, but did you get any flak from the purists? And was it something you’d been wanting to do for a while?

“I didn’t get any flak from anyone about it, I started to get interested in playing electric when I began listening to more music with electric guitar, I also had a desire to try and get a style where I could sort of mimic the sounds of like a horn section or a Hawaiian guitar and the electric guitar was more suited to it.”

Guitar aside, you really went back to basics for the recording – one mic, straight to tape – did you find that limiting in any way, and what were the advantages of such a stripped back approach? 

“It was an interesting way to record and it came about unexpectedly while in the studio. I’d like to do it again – but with more planning. The main challenges are that we had no monitoring capability, so the vocalists had to sing harmonies with a drum set and loud electric guitar blaring only a couple feet behind them; the other challenge is just obtaining the ideal mix by way of positioning the players in the group, I had a percussionist in, playing a Lowland Drum, which was very loud, it was difficult to get the drum to the back of the mix without it getting too much ‘room sound’ on it – the further from a microphone you record something the more room sound you get, reverberation etc. The positives are that the energy is very cohesive between the players and singers, and of course you only have two knobs to push in the mixing process, it’s much more about a performance in a space, and less about technical tweaking after the fact.”

I think it’s fair to say you’re not exactly prolific – are the long gaps between albums because you’re a perfectionist, or because life gets in the way, or because you just like to take your own sweet time over things?

“All three things.”

Speaking of which, although Gon’ Boogaloo is just getting a release over here now, is there another record on the way?

“I’ve begun forming fragments of music, but I like to set a challenge for myself and right now I’m dealing with different sorts of time signatures and things than I’ve ever dealt with before, so I don’t reckon I will be knocking out a new album in the very near future.”

Obviously a CW Stoneking show is about more than the music –  there’s an attention to presentation and appearance, and some excellent anecdotes and rambling. Is this something that’s evolved or did you always have strong ideas about what a show should be, and are there any particular influences on how you’ve gone about that?

“It’s just evolved over time, I used to give small backstories to some of my songs, occasionally they were backstories that had occurred to me a long time after the song was written… and depending on my mood I would muse on it on stage and add small details as they came to me, that’s how I eventually ended up with some of these very long stories I sometimes tell.”

While we’re talking influences, obviously a lot of people you’ve cited as being key musicians in your life are long gone, but are there artists around you see as kindred spirits or who’s work moves you in some way?

“There are but I can’t think of who they are, I hear most current music just in accidental situations like on a car radio or out somewhere…but I enjoy a good hit as good as anyone. …Kanye West, I like some of his…Kendrick Lamarr.”

You’ve spoken in the past about the impact that first hearing the blues had on you, but could you sum up its enduring appeal? And also stuff like calypso which is also a big part of your sound?

“I don’t know if blues has enduring appeal or not, certainly the artists who make the stuff I like have it, but they don’t have enduring appeal purely on account of that they’re playing blues, if you know what I mean…. Same goes for calypso, all the musical dialects have common elements that I can enjoy but it boils down to the power of the artist, the strength of the song.”

As far as most people are concerned, King Hokum was the first Stoneking album but I’ve noticed there’s a couple of older ones out there, were these just self-produced discs to sell at shows and when you were busking?

“I wouldn’t call them C.W. Stoneking albums as they had no music written by C.W. Stoneking on them, they were recordings of me playing other people’s songs to a lower standard than the original artists.”

If this whole music thing doesn’t work out, do you think you could ever get your old job back in that New Orleans voodoo shop?

“The music thing will work out.”

CW Stoneking plays Newcastle’s Cluny on Thursday 23rd June. Gon’ Boogaloo is released on July 1st


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