The ever eccentric CW Stoneking hits Glastonbury
CW Stoneking is a master of music’s most grass-root function: telling yarns. Adrian Craddock finds out what makes this eccentric Aussie musician tick, ahead of his Glastonbury debut.
WHATEVER happened to mystery in music? Before the internet, pop culture was peppered with poorly lit back-stories, uninhibited by the truth. Bob Dylan was raised by carnies, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil and David Bowie was from Mars. The information age has blown the smokiness out of pop culture and left it squirming under the fluorescent light of behind-the-scenes documentaries and MTV reality shows. That’s why a character like CW Stoneking is so remarkable.
This is what we do know: Stoneking spent his childhood in a remote aboriginal community outside of Alice Springs. As a teenager he relocated to Sydney and became increasingly fascinated by his American father’s delta blues records. But from here the story is hazy.
The word is he worked for a New Orleans Hoodoo doctor during the mid 90s. He’s also rumoured to have been involved in a shipwreck near West Africa whilst on a scientific expedition studying parasitic worms. When asked to confirm the story, Stoneking replies with typical ambiguity: “Well, that’s the story”.
CW Stoneking is a master of music’s most grass-root function: telling yarns. “I don’t want to wear it as if I’m building a persona,” he whispers down the phone. “I’m more interested in the story itself. Sometimes I like to stand outside of it all and just be the deliverer.”
From the white suits, to his puzzling accent, the 37 year-old bluesman is like an eccentric character from an early Tintin comic. That said, his exotic narrative isn’t a crutch to hide behind; Stoneking is also musical heavyweight.
“I was the best guitar player in my neighbourhood so I played in a few rock bands when I was younger,” he said. “But since I left school I’ve pretty much been doing my own thing.”
The obvious question is how a Gen X kid growing up in the Australian desert comes to consider the sounds of 1920s blues and Calypso as his “own thing”. It turns out the reasons are partly economic.
“I could never just buy albums willy nilly. I didn’t have that much cash.” he remembers. “I only bought albums with sounds that I really wanted to find out about. It just turned out it was a lot of old stuff I guess.”
Unlike other peers in the 21st century blues revival, C. W. claims to lose interest after the 1950s.
“A lot of the later blues shit just sounds like bad rock and roll to me, so I just kind of stuck with the early stuff that had that primal, mysterious element.”
As for growing up many, many miles away from the birthplace of blues, he says his Australian roots helped develop his sound.
“I couldn’t say that Australian music has necessarily influenced me, but I think the landscape did. I’ve always favoured an arid, dry sound. I liked the harsh sound that you hear in the old blues records. When I was in Mississippi I realised that it was actually a lot more green than I imagined, and realised the image in my head was really an Australian thing.”
Stoneking’s writing backdrop is much greener nowadays. He has recently relocated to England, where he plans to record his new album. Never satisfied with remaining stagnant, CW says his new album may feature a more gospel sound.
“I’ve always liked to play gospel music and I want to make a far more rocking record I guess.”
Is there a possibility of updating the sound to include electric guitars?
“It’s a possibility that I’d use electric guitars. But I don’t think I’d throw away the resonator, it really is part of my sound now.”
Aside from his new album, Stoneking is also preparing to play at Glastonbury. In keeping with his image as a delta time-traveller, he’s not particularly familiar with the world’s largest performing arts festival. “I don’t know too much about it to be honest. I’m looking forward to checking it out, I’ve heard it’s pretty far out,” he says.
The slot comes on the back of rave-reviews for his last album, Jungle Blues. Since its release in 2008 CW has toured extensively and perhaps began to experience the bohemia once only reserved for his press releases. He’s even got to walk the streets that, as a young kid, were only accessible through his dad’s dusty 78s.
“It’s funny because you go to those joints in New Orleans and that’s where it all happened, but then my whole thing is my own imagination. Most of what I know about it, I just made it up. Sometimes that’s more what I care about than the historical truth of it all.”