– by Tom Munday
Singer-songwriter. Producer. Author. Australian music legend – this introduction, as succinctly as possible, sums up the confounding reputation of folk-blues musician Shane Howard. The Australian-Irish juggernaut has lived the ultimate professional musician career. His multi-decade stint, from smashing the commercial charts with rock group Goanna to now, has positioned him at the highest peak of Australian music folklore. His hit single Solid Rock – performed with Goanna for 1982 album Spirit of Place – came out of a transcendent experience at Uluru in 1981. From there, he’s become one of our country’s most prestigious artists – delivering a run of 13 solo albums, 3 Goanna albums, 2 books, and a fine staple of production credits including Pigram Brothers and Street Warriors.
Howard’s affection for this wide, brown is wholly undeniable and inspirational. Influencing everyone from Mary Black to John Farnham to Troy Cassar-Daley, Australian folk-blues music may have found it’s immortal king. The South-West Victorian’s friendly nature and assured professionalism resonated with music writer Tom Munday during their interview. Promoting his latest album, ‘Deeper South’, and tour, the artist’s graciousness and carefree attitude put a strong face to the legendary name. Howard chats with Munday about his stunning career transition from Goanna to solo performing, his greatest influences/motivations, and the urge to see Australia unified by art’s undying majesty.
You’ve had extensive careers with Goanna and as a solo artist, what was the transition like between the two?
Chaos! [laughs] I guess…Goanna was when I was young. We were young and having a red-hot go trying to establish a career, trying to make a name and get our story out into the competing world. It was a very different era, Tom. It was the era where you needed a studio that probably had a million dollars worth of equipment in it to make a record.
We’re now in a rapidly changing digital age where you can do the same thing anywhere so that’s a massive transition, for a start. It’s very liberating as an artist. I live in a regional part of South-West Victoria and we’re able to walk into the shed here and make a record. I mean you still need skill and you still need good equipment but it’s certainly not prohibitive as it was 30 years ago. What’s the transition between that? Well, Goanna had incredible commercial success which in many ways, I think, was a kind of accident.
I had had commercial success with a song called Solid Rock, which talked about Aboriginal dispossession which is not really subject matter for a hit song. And yet, the Australian populous made it popular so then they had to put up with me. I’m a songwriter probably more than an entertainer so it’s always been about the pursuit of songwriting as an art. I guess, essentially, that’s about trying to make art that’s useful to other people.
You’ve explored everything from music to art to autobiographical writing, how do you approach each project? Where does the inspiration come from?
Well, you just have to surrender to the soul of the universe. You have to go a little bit mad to…look, I don’t really know. I can’t give you an answer to that. Like I said, you do have to read. I read a lot of poetry, and all those art form s are really important to feed the imagination. The brain is a very complex hard drive, a very complex computer, and the output is only going to be as good as input. So you got to feed yourself constantly with all sorts of stimuli.
Then, like I said, you have to leap off the cliff and take a little boat out into the wild southern oceans to catch the fish. You have to leap into the soul of the universe to surrender to that as an artist. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of writing, re-writing, re-working, and a lot of playing. [William Butler] Yates, the poet, called it the “hammering into unity”. It’s a bit like that – it’s spot-welding, and panel beating, and knocking things into shape after the original inspiration.
You recently released your new album, Deeper South, what was the process behind this album’s creation?
I took a year off. In this business, you don’t get superannuation and you don’t get long service leave. After 35 years of being a musician and…well, you’re an artist but you’re also in music business and it’s an exhausting world to be in. It was great to take a year off and build a room onto my house with my own hands. It’s the same as creating a work of art, you put one thing in front of another and build something out of nothing.
I gave me time to reflect on what I had done over the last 35 years and what I wanted to do from then on. A building is a very tangible thing but songs are not. But I really look to my own country, where I live now. I grew up in this country and got to travel around and see plenty of Australia and plenty of the world. But it was beautiful to sit at home. This part of the world is very different to the rest of Australia. It’s cold country, really. It has probably got more to do with Tasmania, climatically, than it has with the rest of Australia. It’s green rolling hills and dairy farm country.
We’re right on the edge of the Southern Ocean so it’s constantly hammering away at you. I suppose that’s influenced me more than anything, I love the notion of…no one can conquer this sea to the south of us. Between here and Antarctica we’re at the edge of the world. It’s incomparable. Something that the fishermen know, who go out onto the sea, is that you really take your life in your own hands everytime you do that. There’s the sense that the sea is a metaphor for that travel into the unknown and the unknowable.
Deeper South ranges from Australian folk-jazz (Everything is Rusted, Grief’s a Lonely Song) to Irish folk-blues (Gecko Joseph Patrick’s Merry Jig, Hymn to Love), how do you balance between varying styles and influences?
I’ve had plenty of years, Tom. There’s a settler culture here in Australia. Back in the 1980s, and throughout my career, I had written a lot about Aboriginal subject matter. Back in the early ‘80s, Aboriginal people didn’t have a voice on radio. It was much harder. I don’t need to do that anymore, Aboriginal artists have their own voice now but I think it’s important. Who are we as non-indigenous people? As the settler culture here in Australia, who are we and how do we belong here?
I guess that fuels a lot of my work, this album in particular. I see myself, and always have, as a folk artist doing folk music and music for the people. I’ve been to Ireland several times, and Scotland, and it’s really important, I suppose, those tunes – with Scottish and Irish influences – bleed their way through the record. But this also has blues influences, and jazz influences, and country influences and sorts of stuff.
We’re in the process of actually making a tradition in this country as a settler culture. Of course, that’s all against that fact that we’re an Aboriginal country. I guess I’m trying to harvest all those influences and bring them together and integrate that, its probably very eclectic, into a unified sense of what it is to be an Australian artist.
You collaborated with musicians John Hudson and Ewen Baker, what ideas and influences did they bring to the album’s conception?
Well, they are both really, really capable musicians. They’re masters of their own craft, really. We’ve known each other a long, long time so we’re very good friends. We’ve worked together on and off over many, many years. There is a comfort factor straight away and we’re very easy with each other. I really wanted to capture something very authentic musically with this record. So we basically got together and we sat in the room that I had built and made the record. We sat facing each other and played the stuff live.
We just played, and played, and played until we broke past the self-consciousness of recording and tried to capture something really special and really unique, and immediate, and honest. It’s just real playing, it’s three people playing together as you would when you’re sitting there jamming. I think, for that season, we were able to capture something very authentic.
You funded the album through OzCrowd, were you humbled by your fans’ support?
Yeah, I was. You know, it’s a new era and it’s a new age and the world of music – like everything else is changing rapidly. Three years ago, digital sales were about 15% and now they’re 50%. It’s a really rapidly changing environment. This is the first time, I’ve been independent now for 20 years, I’ve been able to have a really direct relationship with the people who are your true believers. It’s not a record company, it’s the people that love what you do and are supporting what you do. There’s a sense of humility absolutely about that there’s not a record company in the way confusing the relationship.
There’s you as the artist and the audience. The fact that they are funding the record…they’re the shareholders increases the sense of, I suppose, honesty and accountability even. You’re making this for specific people, you’re not making it just to put out in the ether to an unknown audience. In the social media and digital world everyone is connected so you know it’s a real relationship you’re having, albeit a digital level, but it’s a relationship. You know who those people are and they know who you are. That’s as frightening as it is rewarding.
What food best describes your music?
That’s an interesting question, let me think on that. I reckon it’s probably…I love fishing and where I live I often go fishing. The great food here is King George Whiting. The food that best describes my music I think is a fresh King George Whiting, out of the sea, cooked on a fire on the coals on the beach where it was caught.
Shane Howard’s new album Deeper South is now available from his website and other outlets. He is also currently on tour across Australia over the coming months, kicking off on February 25th in Melbourne.
Photo Credit: Shane Howard Facebook Page