Interview: Charles Jenkins

Charles Jenkins

With a title that borrows a line from a W.H. Auden poem, Charles Jenkins’ brand new album Love Your Crooked Neighbour with Your Crooked Heart is a stunningly original collection of country-folk songs packed with lyrical depth and big ideas. Damon Smith spoke to Charles Jenkins about how it all came together.

Photo by Tony Proudfoot.

Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago was, as his namesake suggests, a Doctor as well as a poet. If I had to describe your songs to a potential fan, I think I would make the Zhivago comparison and suggest the quintessential Jenkins track would start with an inspiring and though-provoking lyric followed by some awe-inspiring images. How do you take that initial simple idea and turn it into that cascading and romantic Jenkins’ style?

Romantic, hey? Well there you go; I had no idea. It takes me a long time to finish a song, so maybe I write slowly. I don’t always start with a lyric. I think there are many ways in which to ‘enter’ or begin a song and I try and use them all. ‘The Dictator with No Moustache’ for example I woke with the melody in my head, the same morning that the lyric turned up in my inbox from my friend Jo Meares, and they seemed to suit each other. ‘Let The Fireman Pass’ again was early in the morning, and I had a overwhelming need to write this dark tale, that the melody seemed to demand. In terms of the process from there on, I move songs along inch by inch either away from the guitar or with it in my hands. The opening line has to be arresting lyrically, or musically, or rhythmically and the rest of the song has to seem to be a natural progression from, and equally arresting as, that opening. When I think I’ve got enough rough ideas for a record I try and get away somewhere and spend a few days playing those songs over and over. And over.

crookedneighbour 300x300 Interview: Charles JenkinsIs it true that your son Henry did the horn arrangement for the first track of the album ‘Let the Fireman Pass’? And is this the first time you have had family involved with the songwriting and recording process?

The kids have always been involved; they’ve grown up with me recording them around the house, be they on pots and pans or piano. Eventually by about the age of five, they were better musicians than I. But I’m a much better card player and that’s all that really matters. My youngest son Elliot came up with the piano chords for the verses of ‘Swing Bridge’ which is on Walk This Ocean. Henry suggested the rhythm for a song called ‘Open Road’ which kicks off another record of mine called The City Gates. Anyways, I asked Henry who’s in a brilliant band called The Cactus Channel to corner his mates from the brass section and write a few lines for them on three songs, one of those songs ‘She Walked Slowly Through The Room’ unfortunately never made it on the record. That was a hard call to make. It’s ‘ten year anniversary bonus disc’ bound!

The crux of Pray My Dear Daughter seems to be that all these boyfriends and their job descriptions are parts of you and this is just a parental way of saying, ‘Christ, please don’t end up with someone like me’. Is there is a deepsea diver, a Lion tamer and the rest of these ‘occupations’ crammed into Charles Jenkins personality?

I am a folk singer by trade, who whines and sings out of tune and can never fill a room regularly. So that line is the most auto-biographical line in a song I’ve ever written. The rest of the occupations were picked out of a hat, or chosen for their rhyming couplet capabilities! The father is demented, no doubt about that, but in an endearing way hopefully. The song came from an old Chinese goldfields folk lyric I found which had a line something like, “I pray that my daughter marries a gold mountain man”, so I ran with that. Van Dyke Parks recalls a Brian Wilson saying that all the good songs are smart and dumb. I’m still looking for the smart section in ‘Daughter’.

You’ve been working with Push Songs for some time now and I read on the website that the humble song is the basis for an industry that generates millions of dollars each year and employs thousands of people but very little is done to facilitate, support, or acknowledge the songwriting process. Why is this?

Song writing is not glamorous, thankfully. It involves no red carpets, no bright lights nor make up. I also think it is something of a compliment that people do not appreciate how much effort it takes to write a song. I tell Push Songs participants that the great songs should seem effortless, the song should feel as if it has emerged fully formed. I tell them that it can take a lot of effort to make it feel that way. Push Songs affords me the privilege to support songwriters, but also to be inspired by them and to remind myself of what it takes to make a good song better.

I personally look for new ways to kill myself every time I watch TV or accidentally listen to mainstream radio. It seems to me that most of the music that is used in advertising, sport and general programming, is generic and manufactured. Where are the stories, the traditional musicianship and the charming and non-perfect performances and why isn’t Charles Jenkins on Triple M?

Eek! Beats me. I actually have no idea what they do play on commercial radio. I’ve worked some shitty jobs in my time where they played commercial radio and so maybe I’ve been scarred by those experiences. And really I can’t comment on their playlists as I have no idea. I do know that sonically it’s awful to my ears, that slammed compressed sound that their technicians love, just does my head in. And obviously we are lucky enough in Melbourne to have many other non-commercial options who not only play excellent music but go out of their way to support local musicians, so I listen to those.

I remember your excitement when you recorded Walk This Ocean with The Zhivagos. What is your level of excitement for this new record and how the recording process went this time around?

Well as opposed to recording in country Victoria surrounded by tall trees and beside a lake, near the bottom of a valley that we could echo harmonies down in the wee small hours, we were in suburban Melbourne surrounded by nail guns,and lots of traffic, so it was less than idyllic. But someone pointed out to me that these songs suit coming from a fraught atmosphere. And I think the record holds together better than WTO. It’s always going to be hard to top some songs like ‘Accustomed to the Dark’ for the sheer performance chops that WTO‘s recording atmosphere enabled, but maybe I like the characters more on this record? We’ll see hey?

Charles Jenkins launches the new album this Sunday at the Northcote Social Club.