Van Walker’s faith in the song
Van Walker has never been an artist to leap into the limelight, but his mastery as a songwriter is well recognised and adored by fans, peers and critics. So it can only be good that Fuse Music get behind him with the Underneath the Radar 2008 and 2010 retrospective. We spoke to him in the lead up to his January 27 and 28 Melbourne launches.
Interviewed by Les Thomas
Have you always been driven to write songs? When did it become part of daily life?
I probably started trying to write songs as soon as I started to learn chords and perform simple versions of other songs. It’s just imitation. Like watching kittens lick their paws to clean their face; no one teaches them that, they just see their mothers do it and follow suit. Most art is a process of reaching for experiences other artists have inspired in you and stumbling over your own unique experience along the way, just as they did.
You’ve been living and working in Melbourne for more than ten years now. How did leaving Tasmania and arriving in Melbourne affect you as a songwriter and musician?
When I first came to Melbourne I didn’t know anyone except my brother and a few people I’d meet when I busked. And when my brother left (to live in Glasgow) I didn’t know anyone, and you have to resist making friends with the first person who comes along, just because you’re isolated, so I guess it strengthens you’re resolve. I broke up a very important relationship to come to Melbourne so it was a rough time, but I’d made my bed. And anything in life that’s important costs something. Many things. There’s all kinds of sacrifices that need to be made, but that only makes the commitment more dynamic. And after you’ve made the commitment, it looks after you, better than most people will. Plain vigilance can be profound in itself. What’s the Goethe line: ‘There’s magic in boldness’?
How important is literature as a source of inspiration?
Novels, movies, anecdote, kung fu sing cookies, everything. It just depends on the medium the artist is inspired to tackle the detail through. I think the most interesting pieces come from the mundane. Usually, it’s just that the artist thought to express it, expose it, turn it into something, something maybe that everyone experiences but has not expressed, or not expressed in quite the same way. Melville’s Moby Dick might not work in a song – perhaps in a drum solo – but Hank William’s When You’re Tired of Breaking Other Hearts doesn’t need to be a 1000 page novel, it works perfectly as a minute and a half tune. Maybe it’s just the bravery that’s the most inspirational.
You released five albums between 2008 and 2010, but prior to that you’d written 100 songs in 2003 alone. Do you have a strong sense of the songs that are going to make the cut when you write them, or does it take a lot of time to decide?
I only realised I’d written that number of songs in 2003 because for once I’d kept a single exercise book that year and later on when I checked it had 108 songs in it. So other years I may have written more or less, no doubt less, but I never kept count. Mostly I write on envelopes and scraps of paper, and just keep all the bits and pieces in folders, and on my desk well strewn! But never in any chronological order, so in hindsight I never really know when a song was written, except if I try to remember the share-house I was living when I wrote the song and try to work out the general year I lived there, which is a pretty safe bet, cos it used to be usually I’d only be in one place for a 12 month lease. As far as creating albums, I sometimes know what I want on the record before I begin recording, but then the process will decide. If the recording of a particular track is not strong enough, it might get dropped, or put aside. And other times I’ve recorded a bunch of songs and on further listening you hear an album in amongst all the songs. And then I might put together an album of 8 songs among the 16 tracks or whatever recorded, much to the dismay of those who think you’re leaving off you’re best songs. But hopefully there’s a few sequences that work. I have many lists on my walls, and some songs might be on two or three different lists as potential album sequences. It’s just a matter of trying to create the best one, committing to that, and then coming up with the money to produce it. There’s old songs people still ask why I’ve not recorded but I plan to; it’s just a matter of time. And money.
Do you enjoy recording? What are some of the lessons you’ve gathered from that amount of studio time?
I do, but I was wary of it before I started. Or wary of myself. I’m learning to relax, which is the hardest part. I don’t believe I’ve personally performed on record to the standard of some of the songs, but it’s like they say about writers having to find their voice, I’m still yet to accomplish that, but it gets a bit better each time, which is why it’s good to get amongst it. I think the early rock’n’roll stuff came close, but that’s why I did it first, because it damages your voice to get the required effect so I needed to do that first cos now I couldn’t get that effect. But the acoustic stuff has always been a bit rigid for me, but it’s getting better. I guess it is what it is and the recording process forces you to face it. I don’t know how many people enjoy their own recordings, but the studio can be a lot of fun.
Has it been difficult not recording while waiting for Underneath the Radar to come out?
I’ve recorded four albums since Bush League Bard in 2010, so I’m still working at it, just haven’t released anything to give this Fuse project the space and attention it needs. But it’s been hard to sit on these recordings, because if you move fast and don’t clear the deck, stuff can get cluttered and be forgotten and you lose your initial understanding of the project; the impetus gets clouded or pushed out of the way as new ideas fight for attention. It’s like the fish gets caught and pulled out of the deep and it’ll flap away on the jetty only for so long before it’s dropped in the bucket of water, or cooked and eaten. Otherwise it dies and you’re back with your rod in the water trying to dredge up something else.
Do you feel the weight of what’s come before when writing songs in the storytelling tradition or is it a bit like standing on the shoulders of giants?
For sure, it’s all been done before, but I also think no two people do it the same. So that justifies any creative endeavor. And we don’t have any choice anyway, so there’s no point worrying about that. I say learn from the giants, then ignore them. They’ve got their own giants to worry about. I think what’s more pertinent, personally, is that the more songs one writes oneself, the harder it becomes to write new ones. A songwriter worries more about copying themselves than other songwriters.
Nick Lowe recently suggested songwriting may be dead in 30 years. What’s your view?
I have no idea, personally, but I think I know what he means. Dylan quipped years ago that the world didn’t need any new material, and that’s true in a lot of ways. The old world maybe didn’t need Love and Left or Time Out of Mind, but the new world certainly does. Nick Lowe might be suggesting the ‘art’ of songwriting may be dying, but it’s just changing, and everything has to die to change. He’s just of the old school, so he sees it changing for the worse. Which I might agree with, but it’s gotta change, for better or for worse. Ultimately all change is for the best.
How have your relationships with your brother Cal, partner Liz Stringer and others like Mick Thomas, Chris Altmann and Zane Lynd affected your music? I’m not sure how it’s affected the music, because these people are the music; there is no music without them. Me personally, or as a songwriter, it’s affected me profoundly, if only in the sense that their camaraderie has given me profound hope and made the whole experience infinitely better. A little faith goes a long way. And ultimately music is just the experience of life and the expression of that experience. As Dylan sings, ‘I got nothing but affection for all those who’ve sailed with me.’
Songwriting is usually a very solitary exercise, but we live in a town full of distractions. How do you balance it all?
Hangovers are probably the best inspiration for songwriting I know. So work hard, play hard, and don’t expect anything to last forever. The money I make from the music I give straight back to the bars and in my heart it keeps the process going.
Are there any songs by other artists you wished you’d written?
Yeah, but I can’t think of any at the moment. For a songwriter to wish they’d composed an existing song is like being thirsty and wishing you’d invented the drink someone serves you. When I first met Liz I realised she could write a kind of pop/country song I always understood and attained to in many songs but never quite could – which could be devastating potentially – but then I just had to enjoy it and I could experience it just as enjoyably as if I’d written it, if not more so. So it depends on your maturity. And a certain level of competitiveness is healthy, if only that it keeps you searching and raising the bar. Most times Liz picks up an instrument and sings, other singer-songwriters drop their instruments and go off to get jobs in the factory. But what can you do, other than enjoy it? It’s a joy to be inspired by. A song like Across the Nullarbor by Charles Jenkins is a song I envy, the pleasure he must have felt composing that. Many songs by James McCann, many by Duncan Graham. Happy Together by Turtles, I wish I’d written that. Then the drinks would certainly be on me!
The Low Road (linked here) is a powerful statement about how to survive in the long term in music and life. How did the ideas come together for that song?
I actually wrote that song on the back seat of a car driving through the hills of Taggerty and I had the verse, chorus and bridge parts, in my head, but in no order, and I just kept humming it to myself trying to ignore the car stereo and passenger conversation, and when we finally came across a pub, I was left in the car to work it out. I’m not sure where the idea came from, it’s a general idea that’s been kicking around forever and maybe the hills inspired it. There was actually a good lesson in songwriting in the formation of that song, as there were a few lines I found embarrassing but they were the right lines so I went with them, for the song, even though personally they shit me to tears to this day. The song always decides.
You’ll be touring Underneath the Radar this year, but you’ve also been recording. What’s on the cards for 2012?
At the start of the year Liz and I are touring this retrospective, then Liz is releasing her new album in April and I’m touring with her band for a few months. Then I might be spending some time in the Far North living with some communities there and doing some workshops, learning from one another. There’s not really anything I can teach, but as I said before, a little faith goes a long way. And I’ll release one of the albums I’ve recorded last year, on vinyl hopefully, and they’ll be new stuff to record, new songs, new sessions. Hopefully I can stop writing songs and finally get up to speed. Maybe I’ll buy a bong and a PlayStation!