BWW Interview: James Blundell Returns with New Album 'Come On In'
When it comes to Australia, country music might well be considered a given, considering the land's natural beauty. Put the continent and that music together, and one name stands out: James Blundell. Since the 80's, this former cattleman has carved out a legacy with songs that go beyond catchy, and well past the commercialization that has strangled much of the music in the States.
Page through the Blundell (that's pronounced "Blundle") catalog, and you are hit with lessons of Australian history, story songs with the vernacular of a hardy folk, politics and of course, love of various colors. Blundell's own battles with record companies led to a long hiatus to busk around Europe. He then came back with a vengeance on independent labels to produce a series of strong albums that include Deluge (2005) and his last, 2011's Woolshed Creek.
Personal and related matters, plus a run for the Senate last year under the banner of Katter's Australian Party put Blundell on the musical sidelines. But now he's back with his first album in four years, Come On In. The recording finds Blundell looking back at 50 years of life, and a career where proof of viability is no longer a requirement.
The embrace of new technology also played a hand in Come On In: writers, producers, and musicians from around the world contributed to the album, and Blundell never had to leave his home in Stanthorpe, Queensland. "I'm delightfully surprised inasmuch as the last three or four releases," Blundell says. "There's a real engagement from the people I'm talking to. Some interviews are just cursory; but there's a big difference when somebody's specifically asking you why a certain track is the way it is or what the subject matter was or what the influence was or the inspiration. That's made the process of talking about the album a great deal easier."
Since the release of the first singles, "Hills of Brisbane" and "Casaurina," one must get a little deeper into the album to find the experimental nature. Half of Come On In sounds vintage Blundell, the other half the latter. "I had no real focus on what to release or when to release," Blundell explains. "The longest conversation that took place was with the guy who's responsible for the title, Bill Page, who works with Mushroom Music in Melbourne, and he's been my publisher for a number of years.
"We were discussing in general that there's been a noticeable disconnection between artist and audience, whereas Bill was saying, it's like you're sort of singing at them, rather than to them." I said, 'Well, when we do this we'll make it really easy, we'll invite them in.' This is (my) first that the album title is not a track, and that predicated the process of trying to make it a much more intimate album."
Blundell and Karen Waters of Red Rebel Music devised the initial plan: "it was going to be ten tracks of sitting at a microphone, a singer-songwriter thing," he says. The first two demos were sent off to producer Theo Posthumous in Canada. "What he sent back," Blundell continues, "took (the project) to a whole new level for me.
"I didn't know any of these people, and that was the fun part for me, this was unintentionally experimental. I found it a very rewarding and maturing process to go through. It takes a lot to let go when you're used to being in control," Blundell adds with a laugh.
As to the question of fearing disconnect from his work? "Initially I was concerned that it would depersonalize the process," Blundell admits. "In hindsight I realized having the sensory deprivation of not seeing the people you're working with and forming an opinion based on so many peripherals, how they look, sound, dress...it focused purely on what was on the track and that was the liberation that was fantastic. I'd never let anybody completely do that. I don't think I'm a cautious person musically by any stretch of the imagination, but I think it's impossible for an artist to be completely objective. And that's why letting a producer produce, you have to trust them."
Out of the ten songs, Blundell only pulled back on the first single, "Hills of Brisbane." "I wasn't completely sold on the solo," he explains, "and I sent it to a wonderful man who I put in the same league as Jerry Douglas, a bloke called Lawrie Minson. It was worth doing, because when it came back both Karen and I felt the song was complete. He and I've worked together on and off for some 25 years. He is my favorite slide player. The ones I love, Lowell George and Jerry Douglas, and these two, Kevin Borich and Lawrie Minson, I think that's not bad company for fellows in this part of the world."
"Hills" is vintage Blundell, a song that is to the point and of few words, but they are enough to put the listener in a city they may never have visited. "Early on a few people said it rambles everywhere," Blundell says, "but so does the city, that's the point. It didn't need to be verse-chorus, verse-chorus, it needed to be a bit loose."
Now to the more adventurous of works: "Goodbye Grey" was written with Kim Richey five years ago, having met through a mutual friend. The song was born out of Richey taking a tour of The Rocks, a Sydney attraction, plus the history of British deportation of criminals to Australia.
"(The song) is about survival," Blundell says. "The theme that's emerged from the album is just, enjoy the moment. If something's dreadfully wrong, it'll probably be okay, given enough time."
Another intriguing track is "Bones," written by Brisbane singer/songwriter Jac Stone, who rose to prominence through her appearances on the Australian version of The Voice. "In looking through her catalog, this song just leaped out."
The original version Stone recorded is not that much different, but Blundell and duet partner Fiona Kernaghan put two unique voices to the track. "I've always been a huge fan of her," Blundell says. "By the time we got to recording that, Fiona and I had both been through pretty turbulent separations, neither of us knew the other were going through that. But when we got together it was beautiful to have a song that neither of us had written because you weren't endorsing or interpreting the other's experience."
First and subsequent listens make the listener think something's not quite in sync. "It's very disjointed," Blundell says, "it sounds like the two people performing the song aren't in unity. But that's the point of the song. It's my personal favorite on the album because I didn't write it and I'm allowed to love it. It's got a real tension to it that I love."
This writer's personal favorite has to be "When the Lights Go Out," a cautionary tale from coming from an old man who's seen it all. "It's probably the shining example of getting wildly excited when I unwrapped what the producer had sent back. It was supposed to be dark, but the stuff he put in there which was a detuned banjo which gives it a throwback sort of idea."
Blundell goes further: "I hate seeing any race of people become disjointed from their concepts and practicality. Lianna Rose, who I wrote the song with, she's the only woman of my generation I know who grew up with five other kids shooting rabbits to feed the family, and making sure that hot water was in the coppers for washing. This girl's the real deal, very sophisticated now, but I don't think I could have written that song with anybody else, because it needed femininity to it inasmuch as there had to be a positive. With Lianna's input, it became much more questioning, of, 'I can tell you what I see, but what are you going to do about it'?"
Our conversation also touched on the different perceptions of music, specifically between two separate continents. Face it, when most Americans think of Australia and music, AC/DC, INXS and Midnight Oil spring to mind for most. "When I started," Blundell says, "Australian radio play was heavily weighted toward domestic content because it was really good. (Those bands) were competing on a global scale anyway, and our national playlist reflected that.
'With the exception of Keith Urban and to a degree Kasey Chambers, we've never had broad-spectrum country artists that have really brought that genre to the forefront in other cultures," Blundell continues. "Steve Earle would do reasonably well on the east coast (of Australia), but sell out everything on the west coast, because it's an R&B sort of the country. They thought Steve was the coolest country-rock-blues thing since sliced bread; he's still my favorite writer of my generation. We are very eclectic in our tastes."
Blundell makes one more point: "The thing that's fascinating in the interim, the visual part of music release has gone from something you did as part of it to being nearly as important as radio play. So there's now this sort of second string of audience that are all these young, healthy, party-loving 26 to 30-year-olds who got dragged to their first concert of mine when they were six!"
Blundell has been touring extensively to support Come On In, and he headlined two plum spots, the annual Broadbeach Country Music Festival, and the Royal Queensland Show, also known as EKKA. The latter, held in Brisbane is one of the largest expositions of the farming and ranching industry of its kind. According to EKKA's website, some 400-thousand people pass through its gates every year.
"My background is hardcore horses and cattle," Blundell says, "proper cowboy stuff. I was allowed to ride into the ring singing on the back of this beautiful brown Stock Horse and had to get my skill set back. It was an amazing job, and there were big crowds, some 20-thousand people a night. They were really responsive, really supportive. I think there was just enough romance and nostalgia in the nature of the performance to get a really good response."
As for a return to North America, Blundell wishes to do so. "I think the next album will follow quite quickly on the heels of this one," he says, "because we've established a process that's very low impact. Smaller tours, the UK, Ireland, I'd love to come back to Canada, and just a manageable sized tours mostly for the stimulation of playing. I like playing in pubs, I like to see the whites of the eyes and try and get the story and the difference in culture across. I'm finding more and more the global audience is interested in that. They want to know why Australia is a different country. There're stories that are fun to tell."
At 50, Blundell looks back on a varied life but sees age as no stopper. "I can't tell you how appreciative I am of what happened. I woke up having turned 50 in the midst of what turned out to be my third and final separation, and instead of being uptight about it, I was really calm. I have had a fairly turbulent life and some of it I could have avoided had I been a little more circumspect, but it wouldn't have been as much fun. But turning 50 was a really comforting thing, I think making it was a big plus. And then realizing you control so little of your overall life that you might as well enjoy every bit of it."
He sums up: "Having a ball, having a wonderful time. I've never enjoyed my music more. There's a little bit of life left in the dog yet."
Photos courtesy of Clive Fox Photography