National Folk Festival Interview: Bill Jackson

Bill Jackson
Image Courtesy of Bill Jackson

Australian folk-country singer-songwriter Bill Jackson dropped his new double-A side “Try/Somebody’s Darlin'” last week, just in time for his appearance at The National Folk Festival this weekend. The single is the first taste of Jackson’s ambitious three album series The Wayside Ballads which he hopes to release over the course of the year. We sat down with Bill Jackson to talk the albums, music and The National.

Gareth Hugh Evans: You’ve just released a Double-A side, “Try/Somebody’s Darlin'” and I really really like them. I’ve been listening to them a lot.

Bill Jackson: It’s a bit of a different thing I did with this album [The Wayside Ballads Vol 1]. The last two albums, I did both of those in the US and they were very acoustic based. I had these songs lying around and a good friend of ours Shannon Bourne, who’s a great guitar player, said “let’s try and do an electric album. The story’s still at the centre of the songs but it’s just a different approach to it. We picked these ten songs and went in and did them – I think it took us about a day and a half to record them. It was all done pretty much live. And I had some great players in there – we hadn’t rehearsed or anything like that so it was all pretty organic in that regards. I’m really happy with the way it turned out.

GHE: I didn’t realise the songs were recorded live. But now that you’ve told me that I can hear it. It’s not overproduced.

BJ: Not at all. On that song “Somebody’s Darlin'” Shannon overdubbed some baritone which is nice – kind of gives it a Ry Cooder sort of sound. But that’s about the only thing that was overdubbed. There was one vocal overdubbed on one of the tracks but very few overdubs at all. It was good – it was pretty easy to mix in that regard. What we had was what we had.

GHE: To me the song “Try” is a political song without having an ideological agenda. It’s more of a social comment. Did you set out to write a political song?

BJ: Not really. With that one I probably just set out to document the confusion and the number issues that are around today. You could probably write another 60 verses to that [laughs]. With all the amount of stuff that’s going on and people who really care are getting really confused about which way to go. I guess it’s a list song in that regard. I sort of tie it together with the Occupy movement and the 99%. It’s an interesting song in that regard but the thing I truly love about that song is the feel that we got through it. I’ve always wanted to do a song, ever since I heard John Hiatt do “Thing Called Love”, with a straight drum feel with swinging guitars. It gives it that really nice cross-edge sort of feel that they used to do in the 50s.

GHE: I was going to say that it does remind me of 50s music. It’s not a rockabilly song but there’s elements in here.

BJ: Yeah. The other one’s got kind of a 50s thing going on as well. A sort of country-soul thing. It’s really interesting – I look forward to hearing the whole album. It’s got quite a variety of songs on there. We like to write a lot of historical songs as well – there’s a song on there about Kate Kelly and there’s also one about Angus McMillan who was one of the original explorers of Gippsland and has since turned out to be a total indigi-butcher. There’s quite a variety songs on there – there’s a couple of acoustic ones but mostly four piece band stuff.

GHE: With the electric feel.

BJ: Yeah. To get the one take thing I didn’t play guitar on a lot of them, I just sang. That helped in lots of ways. I probably played on two songs.

GHE: “Somebody’s Darlin'” feels a lot more personal than “Try”. “Try” is very outward looking while “Somebody’s Darlin'” feels a little more inward looking.

BJ: I don’t know whether you know but I write all of my songs with my brother Ross. He’s a never ending source of ideas and an inspiration. We swap things back and forward lyric-wise, he doesn’t have anything to do with the melodies. So that one I’ve sort of been sitting on for about five or six years, started playing it in the front room. This project The Wayside Ballads Vol 1 is one of three that I have to complete this year. Vol 3 is half finished – I’ve picked another 10 songs that we haven’t recorded and they’re being recorded by other singer-songwriters in Melbourne. We’re going to release that digitally and the proceeds are going to the Asylum Seekers Resource Centre.

GHE: That’s awesome.

BJ: It’s a good way of getting the songs out there as well. Some people have come back with some amazing versions of songs. It’s really good when you give songs to people and they make them their own, it’s really neat. So that’s Vol 3Vol 2 hopefully I get to do over in the US in September. That was the one I was going to do first. I’m going for a big year Gareth! Clear the decks!

GHE: Definitely sounds like it’s going to be a big year! Why the US for Vol 2?

BJ: It’ll be a semi-bluegrassy album that I’ll do over there with the songs that I’ve picked. I want to record with a guy over there called Thomm Jutz. Thomm produced Otis Gibbs’ album [Souvenirs of a Misspent Youth]. He’s been out here a few times, he played guitar with Nancy Griffith the last time he was out here. He’s a beautiful musician and he’s a great producer as well. He did a series of albums over the last year called The 1861 Project, three albums written about the Civil War. So we’ve got similar interests in the historical side of things and we’re going to use a few players over there that Thomm uses. I’ve never had a crack at doing one of those albums that’s really neatly perfect and this will be a bit of an attempt at that. So that was sort of the plan. And we’ve built up a lot of friends, Pete [Fidler] and I, in the US over the last three trips over there. And it’s quite cheap to record there as opposed to here. Hopefully it all comes off – we’ll give it a crack anyway.

We’ve just got such a backload of songs. You do an album and then it’s another two or three years before you do another one. So we thought we’d try and get as many of these ones down and they all sort of got written fairly closely together.

GHE: You’re playing The National this year. Is it just you and Pete Fidler?

BJ: Yeah, just Pete and myself doing it there. We’ll sort of launch the single there because we can do both those songs as a duo. We’ve got a bunch of singles pressed so we’ll take them along. We’ll do three or four tracks off the album and then stuff from the other ones over the past few years. It should be fun – I’m looking forward to it!

GHE: You’ve played with Pete Fidler for a while. He must be a pretty inspiring musician to be up on stage with. He’s one of the best in the business.

BJ: He is. You feel pretty safe with him. We’ve been playing together since about 2006 I think so it’s all fairly intuitive now. We don’t rehearse a hell of a lot but you don’t have to with Pete – he’s very good at having a conversation with the song. He’s an incredible musician. A lot of people don’t see him playing guitar a lot either but he’s a great player. He played a lot of the electric on this album.

Pete was a bit of a legend in the 80s in Melbourne. He was in a really well known, popular psychedelic band called Tyrnaround. He was primarily an electric guitar player up until he heard Gillian Welch I think. That got him onto the dobro.

GHE: She’s enough to turn anyone onto folk and country music! You’re very lucky to have him on stage with you I think.

BJ: He’s a bloody monster player, Pete. He never ceases to amaze me – he’s an intuitive musician and incredibly talented.

GHE: So your set at The National will be a mixture of new and old stuff?

BJ: We’ll do a few things that haven’t been on anything, that might be on the [album] we do in the US, probably about three or four. We’ve been playing those songs for the last year and a half presuming they were going to be the first recording. And a few back catalogue as well – we’ve got a lot to choose from now which is kind of good. We’ll hopefully get a few other people up to play with us at some stage. There’s a guy that plays the Cajón box who’s up their every year – that’s his business, he makes them and sells them – his name is Mark Aspland. If Ruth [Hazleton] is free she might grace the stage with us.

GHE: So is there anything else that we can look forward to from you at The National?

BJ: We’ve got the three official shows and hopefully we’ll play the Flute & Fiddle [blackboard]. That’s still the best gig at the festival if you can get in there because everyone goes through it. Although they’re sort of programming it a bit more than they used to, they’re not leaving as many open spaces. But hopefully we’ll do that one because it’s always a joy to play. That’s about it really.

GHE: Well thanks so much for chatting with me today.

BJ: No worries, it’s been a pleasure.

1 Comment

  1. April 3, 2015 at 06:01

    […] “It’s a bit of a different thing I did with this album [The Wayside Ballads Vol 1]. The last two albums, I did both of those in the US and they were very acoustic based. I had these songs lying around and a good friend of ours Shannon Bourne, who’s a great guitar player, said “let’s try and do an electric album. The story’s still at the centre of the songs but it’s just a different approach to it. We picked these ten songs and went in and did them – I think it took us about a day and a half to record them. It was all done pretty much live. And I had some great players in there – we hadn’t rehearsed or anything like that so it was all pretty organic in that regards. I’m really happy with the way it turned out” – Bill Jackson chats to Gareth Hugh Evans. Interview here […]


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