Down Under Blues: Australia's C.W. Stoneking Is a Roots Music Disciple

Stoneking in Nashville in MayEXPAND
Stoneking in Nashville in May
David McLister

C.W. Stoneking is, as far as I can tell, the hottest — and most enigmatic — blues artist in Australia. Born in the city of Katherine, in the Northern Territories, and raised in part by his poet father in the mostly indigenous town of Papunya, Stoneking is startling not because he does something new but because he barely does anything new at all. Where most like-minded musicians over the past fifty years, from Eric Clapton to Jack White, have used the blues as a launchpad for blues-rock, this Brylcreem-loving father of four howls harrowing, stripped-down music that sounds like a product of the Deep South — that is, the American Deep South — circa 1930. He uses long-dead slang, as on the title of his new album, Gon' Boogaloo, and he often draws his voice so that it resembles that of, say, Charley Patton.

So, the obvious question, which I finally ask about halfway into our recent interview: C.W. Stoneking, are you a white guy trying to sound black? Or at least, are you trying to make songs that sound like black songs? "Well, yeah, most of the music I listen to was made by black people," he explains. "[That's] not really the reasoning, though. It's just the sound I favor. I [have] a textural palette that tends to fall into that category, but I don't categorize it as that, generally, or think of it in that way." The relationship, as far as he's concerned, is purely aesthetic.

Born in 1974, Christopher William Stoneking's (yes, his real last name) first favorite artists were not old blues singers but Kiss, the Bee Gees, and Ted Egan, a contemporary Australian folk singer famous for hand-drumming on empty Foster's boxes. Stoneking got his first guitar when he was eleven; by high school, he was listening to the blues compilations on his father's record shelf, which were full of both old stars like Blind Willie McTell and the kinds of curious rarities — he mentions David Wylie's "You're Gonna Weep and Moan" — that can send serious collectors on a decades-long goose-chase.

Rather than track down old artists, though, Stoneking slowly learned to play their music. "I stopped hanging with people from my own age group for a while there," he says, recalling the years after high school when he kicked around Australia's blues scene. But even then, he often felt alienated: Most players he met preferred electric Chicago-style blues over his beloved hokum, or country, blues, and beyond aesthetics, they didn't — as he puts it — "seem like the most thinkin' bunch of musicians."

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This disappointment in unthinking players becomes disdain when our conversation turns to Australia's well-documented racism, impossible to ignore when you're talking about the blues. "There's a terrible history, and people keep on doing it," says Stoneking, citing both violent crimes against Aborigines and the island refugee prisons that now dot the coast. I ask if this history affects the way that blues is understood in Australia. "I don't think anyone in the blues scene cares about that," he tells me. "Most of those guys are more about strutting around with their fedoras on and playing 'hot licks.' " Stoneking says he doesn't share that attitude. "For anyone who's got a soul, that [history] will bleed into what they do."

Objecting to both the indifference and the licks, Stoneking began playing solo shows at rock clubs, and in 2007 he earned an ARIA nomination (the Australian equivalent of a Grammy) for King Hokum. With his American South–accented singing and jarring austerity, Stoneking pursues a romantic notion of the blues as outsider art, the stuff of mysterious, idiosyncratic loners.

This myth has captivated music fans (particularly white ones) since at least 1961, when Columbia reissued American blues singer Robert Johnson's catalog. Gon' Boogaloo tells a different story, recovering another side of the music — blues as a popular art form, with dance beats and catchy choruses indebted to the Latin dance music from the Fifties and Sixties from which the record takes its name. "Tomorrow Gon' Be Too Late" includes a spoken-word intro that even invokes early r&b groups like the Dells, and "The Jungle Swing" could almost pass for a loose Chuck Berry outtake.

Stoneking recorded the album in a two-day time warp during which he, a small band, and a few backup singers performed live in front of a pair of vintage microphones routed to a Fifties-era two-track tape machine. "I gotta tell you, it was hard and I didn't quite get it in the beginning," says Vika Bull, one of the singers, "but when I heard the end result I thought it was brilliant." The LP won the 2015 ARIA for Best Blues & Roots Album, high contemporary praise for a record that, thanks to its production value, sounds like it arrived over half a century ago.

Which demands another obvious question: C.W. Stoneking, do you consider your music retro? In this response he sounds frustrated. "I don't really know what that means," he sighs. For him, Gon' Boogaloo can't be "retro" or "nostalgic" because the blues is about immediacy, the feeling that hits you the moment you hear it, and that's outside of time. "I go for maximum power," he says, pointing again to the starkness of both his sound and his lyrics. "If someone dies in my songs, they're not 'dead and gone.' They're allowed to just be dead."

C.W. Stoneking plays at Rough Trade on Thursday, May 26, and at Mercury Lounge on Friday, May 27.

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