Unpaved’s favourite Bush League Bard Van Walker has been striking out in a more Celtic direction over the last few years, leading a rousing band named after the King of the Irish Rebels, Pierce Ferriter. His lead single from 2022’s forthcoming album, marks a shift in mood and an emotional thawing. In this interview, Van filled us in on life and music in Geelong and how he’s been approaching his art anew.
You’ve been living in Geelong since 2018. Why the move and how have you found life in that part of the world?
After almost twenty years in Melbourne I just needed to change the backdrop. I’ve always planned to grow old and feral in the trees, and initially I was thinking of a few different places out in regional Victoria, and then Geelong got thrown into the mix and I started coming down here once a month to play old Irish tunes with these Ferriters and I fell for the whole deal, the people and the place, and then I moved down for good and felt like after a few very hard years I’d turned a corner.
You grew up in another seaside town called Penguin in Northwest, Tasmania. Is being near the sea important to you?
I was actually born and raised in Burnie, a town not too far from Penguin, but a little bigger, fifteen minutes further west along that North coast of Tassie. We made that album (2009’s ‘Greetings from Penguin Tasmania’) at our mate Johnny Gibson’s Nan’s house (in fact, that’s the album sessions where he met Luke Sinclair and formed the group Raised by Eagles), and I planned to make different ‘Greetings from…’ albums every few years, and I have done but I just haven’t released them (there is a ‘Greetings from Boolarra Gippsland’ that was recorded during lockdown that’s in the works). I mean, either of those Livingstone Daisies albums could have been called ‘Greetings from Inverloch, Victoria’. But as far as the seaside, I grew up on the coast doing Surf Life Saving and I can still smell the ocean in the suburbs of Geelong, but I wouldn’t say I’m a water-baby, more a mountain-man!
As a listener, I feel like I’ve been following your emotional journey (not a great word, but struggling to think of one better) over the years, especially with your last album ‘Ghosting’. Where would you say this lead single Imaginary Ships sits?
I’ve got such a backlog of unreleased material I can pick from both new and old songs. And Imaginary Ships is a very old song. I wrote it before I even came to Melbourne. Yes, it’s that old! But it seemed to fit the Ferriters and this album. And my present situation. We were covering Paul Kelly’s To Her Door, and Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere, and I said, “You know, I’ve got a song sounds a bit like both them tunes!”
There’s a different energy in The Ferriters sound, definitely more Irish and upbeat. Would you say this is a very deliberate way of reframing your work? Maybe more of a fun and carefree party experience?
Definitely. Absolutely. ‘Ghosting’ was almost somewhat inevitable an album for me. I wrote my way out of a dark hole and then realised that the final act of healing was the sharing of what I’d learnt, and although it was terrifying, it was the final ‘big boss’ to defeat. My experience of composing has always been a process of discovery, of just opening up and letting it flow. I wouldn’t say it’s completely out of my hands, but I wouldn’t purposely lay such a heavy trip on my audience, but as I said, it was somewhat inevitable, but I felt I owed it to people to up the tempo a bit. A big part of moving to Geelong and making this album with my new crew was rediscovering the pure joy of music and friendship and it’s been such reawakening, so yes, it’s much more upbeat. It had to be. The first rays of the new sun are the brightest. And that’s why Imaginary Ships was a perfect fit, a song about renewal and the thawing of a cold season. “The ice is melting on my window…”
You hit me in the feels, as the young people say, when you played Drinking Too Much by Kill Devil Hills at Port Fairy Folk Festival. What is that songs significance at this point in your life?
It’s a song so many people can relate to. We live in an outrageously big drinking culture. I mean, I’ve been a heavy drinker since I was little, and I was never that little. But I suggested the tune to the band cos, you know, we drink a lot and we play a lot of drinking songs to pubs full of people drinking. So, it was a natural fit. But, see, I always associated the song with Jimmy Clinkerfield who covered it a lot back in the day, so it seemed like it was almost reborn a bit with this Geelong crew who’d never heard it. You know, I’d never have covered it in Melbourne, cos it felt like Jimmy’s. But we did a pretty straight rendition of it in the studio on a whim and it ended up on the record. But nothing compares to the original, and Steve Gibson’s country/soul singing.
You’ve been breaking a lot of strings at gigs recently. What the hell’s up with that?
Usually it’s a case of not getting enough guitar in the fold back. But yeah, I used to break the bastards all the time, then I went years without breaking one, and I thought I’d finally grown up and learnt to play the guitar properly, and then I go and break two a Port Fairy, and two the next gig at the Brunswick Ballroom. I dunno; I give it my all, and I guess something’s gotta give.
When is your single and album due for release and where can people get it?
Imaginary Ships is out now and available on all streaming platforms. The full-length album ‘Greetings from Newtown Geelong’ will be out late July.