By Gareth Hipwell.
CU: The first thing that caught my attention with Honest People is the cover art, which I see was painted by an artist called Simon McLean. What’s the story with the dobro-shaped tractor you’re riding there? It really seems to capture the span of your life so far, from your early days farming wheat in the Mallee and up in the Moree region, to your life in song.
JW: My wife Meg and I spotted several of Simon’s paintings in a hotel in Mandurah in WA years ago and I was that rapt with them. He uses charcoal and then colours them afterwards. When I came up with this idea of me sitting on a dobro–like a buggy on wheels–Meg and I thought he’d be the ideal person to do it, if we could find him and commission him. We’ve got a cottage above the Gold Coast. Turns out that’s where he lives! He’s such a character, we just became instant old mates. It’s one of those pictures you can read all sorts of things into. This is a fresh album of all new songs, and I really didn’t want the same old dial on the front!
CU: Your love of native birds is well known, but one thing that’s always struck me with your songwriting is your frequent reference to Australian trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers. Frangipanis, for instance, frequently crop up in your work. It reminds me at times of the Victorian-era tradition of the “Language of Flowers”. Something that’s new to me is the supplejack tree you refer to in ‘Heatwave’, the opening track to Honest People. Do you associate certain trees or flowers with a given mood or place or theme, perhaps?
JW: Yes, supplejack – a lot of people in Australia won’t know where they’re from or what they are! It’s called supplejack because it tends to twist as it grows. It starts off almost as a vine, and gets twisted around itself. It’s actually good fodder. You can cut the limbs off it for the cattle. It’s quite unique, from the Northwest of New South Wales, up into Queensland.
‘I was a bird lover as a kid, so that got me into knowing where birds nest, which trees suit them best. When we moved from the farmland in Victoria up to northwest NSW, I realised all of a sudden just how diverse the bush is. We were clearing a lot of it, too–as farmers do–but I was falling more and more in love with it. So much so that I was leaving trees standing all over the place, getting to know what they were and how old they were and what sort of timber was in them. Now, everywhere I go, I can understand what the soil confirmation is from the trees – you can judge the soil of the farming country around Moree based on the trees that grow on it. If it’s brigalow country, it’s really good soil and so on. Unfortunately, a lot of areas don’t realise how unique they are. I’ve always encouraged people to put a sign outside the town saying “this is mallee country” or “this is brigalow country” or “this is bottletree country”. And of course in the Kimberley you’ve got the boabs. In a big country such as this you can really get into the wonderful variety of trees and habitats. It just goes from there to becoming a conservationist. That’s why I wrote Rip Rip Woodchip – you start to see things being destroyed that are unique to this country.
CU: The third track on Honest People, ‘Song for Luke and Mel’ was arresting on the first listen. I’d read beforehand about the tragedy behind the song, the sudden passing of your son-in-law Luke’s fiancé Mel last year,and so I was struck at first by the optimistic, hopeful tone of the song.
JW: It’s an enigma, that song. It’s probably the least country track on the album. I started writing a song a few months after that tragedy. My wife Meg is still devastated. Luke’s a wonderful son who lost his fiancé. She just died in her sleep and no one knows why. She was a nurse, you see, so no one was worried that she’d been in bed all day. Poor young Luke was away at the time. I started writing a song which had the touched by angels’ fingers idea in it. Meg said to me, ‘you’re not writing this about us at all – this is inspired by Luke and Mel.’ I thought about it and decided if that’s the way you feel about it, I’ll make it about Luke and Mel. So it developed from a positive love song into a story of tragedy. I didn’t really want a song that’s a dirge. In the past I wrote a song about my late brother Robin called ‘Salisbury Street’, and it’s one of my most popular songs. The nice thing about it is that it keeps his memory alive. And I know that the families, Mel and Luke’s families, like the idea of a song that’s a love song with a tragic twist, but it’s not too sad to listen to. It’s bittersweet. It’s celebrating their love, you know, but it’s sad in the finish. You can celebrate love in a sad way.
CU: I wonder if I can talk to you about songs of protest – songs with political intent. There are a couple of songs in this vein on Honest People – ‘Kings and Queens’ is a republican anthem, while ‘It’s All About Love’ urges global compassion and understanding with respect to issues of sexuality. ohoWhat was it that first drew you speak out – and what’s the return?
JW: I learned from Pete Seeger and Joan Baez that you do write about things that bother you. I’ve kept that tradition. I’m more of a folk singer than I am a country singer. I know it can make enemies, as I did with ‘Rip Rip Woodchip’. I write as an Australian who feels for the country. I’m a writer – if not first and foremost, it’s very important for me to say something meaningful. I don’t just want to write commercial songs, just like if you’re an author or a poet or something else, you want to have some substance.
‘As I say in the liner notes for Honest People, I was inspired by Stephen Fry to write ‘It’s All About Love’. He did a show in which he went around the world stirring up homophobes like Putin. I was right on his side. I think it’s crazy these dictators around the world are out there killing people, and yet they’ve got this big problem with gay people. It’s just weird. The last statement Stephen made in his show was, it’s all about love. It was just the perfect saying. It seems like an obvious thing to write a song about, but in that context it may not have been written before.
‘As far as ‘Kings and Queens’ goes, everyone knows I’m a staunch republican. I’ve got no problem with the monarchy in England, I just think we’re way past that now and it bugs me that they’re going to end up as heads of state just because they’ve been promoted like movie stars. So people are going to put words in my mouth and say I’ve said “kings and queens don’t belong in this land”, but what I’ve said is they don’t belong to this land. It’s a different thing. I don’t mind them coming here, but they don’t belong to us, you know?’
CU: I discovered recently that you had written a couple of songs (for 2002 LP Gunyah) centered on Jindabyne and the Snowy River. I wonder, how do you go about writing a place? And are there any places you have an urge to write about but have yet to get to?
JW: Well there probably will be places I haven’t yet visited but will want to write about. I haven’t been to Arnhem Land! You can drive across Australia all you like – you’re only driving on hairlines on a map, aren’t you? You’re hardly seeing any of it! So I never worry about that. Things always inspire me if I’m prepared to get out there and look for them! You know, I can take a trip in the caravan or camper and head off and go to a huge number of towns that might only be thirty k’s from the highway or freeway but that you’d never otherwise see.
‘What I have done on purpose with songs like ‘Heatwave’ is I’ve decided I’ll write a song that isn’t about going somewhere – it’s about an Australian icon. Heat is becoming more and more a feature of the country. ‘Galleries of Pink Galahs’ was my drought song, ‘Prairie Hotel Parachilna’ was a dust storm song, so I thought, why not write a song about a heatwave? I do deliberately try to find things to write about. The Gunyah album was actually my Cape York Peninsula album.
‘Because people know me, I have no trouble getting out and meeting people, having lunch and a beer with them. I feel it’s like Henry Lawson or Banjo Patterson – they used to just go out and experience things and write about them. And it’s all still there. The thing about Australia is, they’re still battling out in the bush-it hasn’t changed. The little towns are still dying, there’re still people struggling on stations. And they’re all characters worthy of a song. It’s the only way you can get it, to go there and experience it. You might get a saying from someone that’s unique to that area, that’s peculiar to it. Opal mining towns are a great source of material because that attracts quite eccentric people. They’re all different – some are after something, but a lot of the time it’s lifestyle they’re seeking. Mainly it’s just an excuse to live in a humpy!
‘It’s a big country of battlers-because of the inconsistent weather, mostly. It’s probably similar in America, too. But it’s the battlers here, I think. That’s really what ‘Waltzing Matilda’ is all about – the battler, the shearer, the underdog. That’s the sort of stuff people want to hear about. Imagine trying to write a song about Murdoch or Packer–billionaires–people who’ve got everything. It’d be boring!
CU: I hadn’t appreciated that there was ever a time when bush balladry–the songs of Slim Dusty and his ilk–wasn’t ubiquitous in Australian country music. How do we go about sustaining bush balladry and these traditional styles of storytelling? I suspect that for people of my generation, it might be fairly low down on the list of styles they’d be drawn to explore.
JW: It’s important, because we could lose contact with who we are. It’s hard to write about what an Australian is in the city because they’re all sorts of things now. But in the bush, you can come from anywhere in the world, but you go out to the bush, to Lightning Ridge or wherever, and you become an Aussie. Because the bush itself changes you. The cities tend to become cosmopolitan. But I think the bush itself, with all its different climates, over a period of time you’ll be able to tell a North Queenslander from a South Queenslander, because of the areas they live in and what they put up with and so on. There’s nothing I can do about it but put out the best record I can. And it’s hard to get airplay anywhere in Australia, really, nowadays. Doesn’t matter what music you’re into. But I still sell out concerts, and you’d be surprised how many people your age  come to the shows. And they can be into heavy metal or whatever and still come to the shows, because the songs are about them, about their grandparents, and life here. I think that’s the main reason I’ve been successful, is just saying it like it is here. Rather than being embarrassed by it or thinking it’s not musical or whatever, I think we have everything to be proud of and to explain in music. Slim and Buddy Williams, to me they were our early folk singers. I think Slim was inspired by the Carter Family – as much folk as country. But there’s an American genre now that almost has to have the same instruments in every track. That’s what I object to, that generic sameness. I think we can be much more creative and listen to our own sounds.