With a corn pipe dangling from a corner of his lips, and a laconic Australian lilt that drifts effortlessly into a Deep South drawl, CW Stoneking is a wildly unique act that will have you on the edge of your seat.
An evening with him is a bit like jumping on board a two-man boat and heading upriver into a deep, dark jungle, with stories, musical stylings and strange sensibilities!
CW has an unusual style, and it’s not something he ever really set about to create.
‘I never really analysed how I came to do it; I guess it just sort of happened. I used to talk a lot on the stage and ramble, and make up stories; it pretty much grew out of talking or trying to crack jokes.
It started out quite honestly telling people how I wrote a song and then I’d throw in a few lies to spice it up and then it became funny.’ And that I guess is the difference between a gig and a show. With CW Stoneking, you get a seat in the boat with a master storyteller.
And don’t think he always knows where he’s going.
‘I don’t usually start out knowing what a song is about. I start any sort of number, whether it’s music or a set of words. .
I guess it’s like making up a story; I just stumble around and then get there eventually.’
‘I am not so good at songcraft – I don’t just take a topic and write something. When I write it tends to be more unconscious.
If I get stuck I throw in the word jungle and put another word next to it; it’s like the toy in the cornflakes box – it’s how I find something interesting to give the audience!’
Growing up in the Northern Territory gave Stoneking a taste of tall tales and some of the characters who tell them.
‘There is something about the place – there is something about the stuff I heard there told by the old fellas – they would sit on the porch and sing and there was sort of something in that dry sound of people making music outside, that texture that has internalised in my brain, because it was isolated.
I was the only kid in the house and I spent a lot of time listening to records or drawing pictures and daydreaming, so it cut me out quite well to be a bit of a hermit and able to occupy myself without needing to socialise.’ This time round when it came to recording, CW decided to put down the acoustic and plug in.
‘I sounded terrible on the electric guitar when I picked it up a few years ago! Pete Seger would have run out with an axe – it would have been an act of mercy. It’s so different from playing acoustic, the way it responds and the presence of it and the sustain.’
But it seems Stoneking has conquered electric. ‘By the time I got to record I had it all worked out. I like to know where we are going, so much of the music in my head is pinned down to a visual reference.
If you have a map of the images you are trying to make you can hear if it doesn’t measure up.’
So what does CW’s sound look like?
‘Every bit is like heading through a play, the boat launch, the big mountain rising out above the jungle, and on the approach, like the trumpet music – it’s quite cartoony – I make a cartoon in my head that goes with the thing!’
CW Stoneking and band play the Sound Lounge at the Currumbin RSL on Saturday and Byron Theatre in Byron on Sunday.
For Byron tickets go to byroncentre.com.au.