What seems like the easy way often proves to be the hardest route of all. CW Stoneking’s musical career testifies to that truth: traveling only by bike through the countryside, drinking late into the evening, working as a school handyman by day, and listening constantly to the old music, Stoneking created his own one man world of blues.
Stoneking captured the hobo spirit of those days on his first album, King Hokum. He expanded his sound through his second and third albums, Jungle Blues and Gon’ Boogaloo. Now Australia’s top blues picker, Stoneking recently came to play his first official gig in New York City. CONVICTS caught up with him to ask a few questions. We ended up with the lowdown on New York’s status as a twenty first century Rome, Stoneking’s organic vision for music, and the ways that being unusual can pay off in the end.
How’s it going C.W.? To start what’s New York City to you? Know you have some roots here…
What is it to me? I don’t know. My grandmother came from New York City. I never got to come here with her, but I have family around here-there’s still a strong contingent of the Italian branch of my family over in Brooklyn.
How did you envision the city before you saw it? Did it live up to the picture painted in your mind as a kid?
Well, I thought it was probably the modern day Rome or something like that. The big city of the new world, I guess you’d call it. That’s what I thought before I got here, and that’s pretty much what it looks like on the ground.
What about playing music here? Are the vibes different here from other cities you’ve played in?
The first time I came through I did a show somewhere and left my instruments in a taxi cab, lost my guitar and my banjo the first night I was here. I wrote something about it on Myspace. This was back in the day and lo and behold all these people came forward, one guy I knew came round with a banjo for me to borrow and another dude, Smitty, who I had never met before rolled up to my apartment with a three year old vintage guitar and loaned it to me for the few weeks I was in town. I’ve met with a good bunch of people here. I’ve had a positive view of the joint and I was impressed with the-I don’t know-kindness.
People here are far friendlier than you’d expect.
I get the impression that it’s a big place, but with very close pockets of activity spread throughout.
Tell me about your songwriting process. Can you write on the road?
I’ve been really bad at writing on the road. That’s something that I need to get better at, because I’m going to be on the road a lot now. This last record, the one I’m here for now, took me six years to write. It was an ordeal in every sense.
Six years is a long while.
Six years is a long time to have every person you bump into asking how’s your album coming along, especially when it’s not coming along very well. But it paid the dividend personally, in terms of writing songs that go deep and dark and don’t take the easy way out. I suppose.
What does the easy way look like for you?
The easy way? Well, I spent a long time playing old blues. I know the riffs and the lingo and I could spin something out that would sound like a pretty good rendition of something that’s come before. I try to go into the unknown, even if it does come out sounding like some old funny thing in the process. When I hear other acts who have similar influences, I can hear the difference in personal intensity.
Did you grow listening to the blues? Was it in your household, listening to your parents playing records?
No more than anything else. I got into Jimi Hendrix, then at about thirteen I started listening to blues. I can’t remember what gave me the idea to get ahold of got a hold of a cassette tape that had two albums on it. I listened to that for about five years.
What was your move from there?
After I left high school, I was not qualified nor inclined to do any further education. I looked for a job because I didn’t have a paper route. I still don’t have too much work ethic, outside of playing the music. I can go hard, but if I’ve got to do banking or take care of other things, it’s not my thing. So my peers who were getting ready to make their way in the world departed from me, and I ended up with a bunch of old dudes who had already done their thing-or not-and we used to spend a lot of time sitting around on porches and doing funny little gigs up around Sydney, playing. I expanded my circle of listeners, but it was still kind of mysterious to me back then.
And from there…
I moved down the country and kept on going. I had a song on my first record called “Handyman Blues” I was living in a little farmhouse, working as a handyman in a little school and I would ride my bicycle about nine kilometers back to my house. I didn’t have a driver’s license, thank goodness, because I liked to drink back then and I would just sit around ’til any hour. There were no rules for my lifestyle. As long as I could make that bicycle ride in the morning. I’d be at the yard working at the school and I’d have the headphones on riding the bike. I was very saturated in the music I liked. That was my sort of world where I began to start making my own records.
Your first album King Hokum came out around that time. Was there a single breakthrough moment when producing that, or was the album a slow build?
I’m kind of a bit lazy about writing, but I gradually worked up a wreckage web of stuff and made a record. Coming out of my strange bubble-I was lucky because I didn’t have a big thing behind me. I laid it onto something and people found it very unusual. I think unusualness gave me a little bit of propulsion. I’m not the best-what would you call it? Person who gets my shit into retail and things like that. But I did what I could. I did my thing.
Were you still living on your own?
Like I said, I didn’t have a driver’s license, I was kind of a bit of a…I was not very mobile or free. I was just a dude who was kind of stranded. So I was able to hire musicians and I really didn’t know exactly what to do with them at the start, but over the course of like a year or so, I started to get the feel for that and made a jungle blues record where I really had a great time coming up with that album and just putting other things in.
What was your inspiration for, as you put it, the jungle blues?
Science fiction takes a bit of truth, a bit of scientific fact and I did that as a way to sort of nip together a world that sort had connections that let you feel the pulsation of true living blood… A living mesh of various things so that’s sort of where I’m at. That’s where I’ve come from and as I’ve gone along, I feel more free. Do you want me to play a song for you?
That would be great.
I’m going to do my best. I’m going to try this one. It’s a little hard to sing so I’m not very warmed up. It might sound a bit shit and we might have to do something else.