Swanee is Australian rock ‘n’ roll royalty. Brother of Jimmy Barnes, uncle to Jimmy’s recording artist kids, cousin-in-law to Diesel, childhood friend of the original AC/DC members, the lineage is impeccable. He’s also had a hit or two of his own as a solo artist and member of The Party Boys. Swanee has just released a new album, One Day At A Time, his first since 2007’s Have A Little Faith. One Day At A Time is a celebration of life, a tale of survival and a hark back to simpler times and simple values.
More than anything though, One Day At A Time shows that Swanee has lost none of his signature soulful vocal power. Apart from one song which had been laying around for a while, the tunes on this album were co-written with producer and keyboardist Darren Mullan, a musician Swanee has immense respect for. “He’d send me an idea,” Swanee says explaining the ease of the process with Darren. “I’d put a vocal on it, send it back to him. We’d meet the next day and just do it.”
The one song which Swanee already had written was ‘Close The Door’, a track about soldiers returning home from war. Swanee himself had served in the army for a couple of years in the early seventies. It’s probably one of the strongest tracks on the album and one that’s close to his heart.
“Close The Door was one which had been around for a long time,” he says. “I wanted to write something for the guys coming back from service overseas from the wives perspectives … ‘close the door, light the fires because we’ll all be home tonight’. It was just a nice picture in my mind. It’s a nice song. I have a few versions of it but I think that’s as good a version there is. I love to do something where you sit down with a plan. I particularly love the returned soldiers. They never get enough good things said about them.”
One of the features of that track and many others on the album is the soulful treatment of the backing vocals. “Again, that’s the keyboard player and myself. We just threw them down,” says Swanee. “It comes really naturally to us because we are both similar characters, we like the same music and listen to the same albums, so it was really easy. We tried to phrase them a little better, like a lead singer doing backing harmonies as opposed to backing singers singing in the traditional way.”
On the huge bluesy, gospel track ‘Heart Run Dry’ the backing harmonies and Swanee’s robust vocals combine perfectly to pay tribute to a style of music which was prominent in the Swan household while John and Jimmy were growing up.
“I’ve always wanted to do a gospel album,” explains Swanee of an unfulfilled dream. “I have always been a little hesitant because Jimmy had such great success with the Soul Deep thing and I just wanted to wait until the right time to do a gospel album. The closest I could get has been to feed one in on every album. People only know me from rock ‘n’ roll, so I wanted this album to be a little different. I loved all the old gospel singers. I am still a Ray Charles fan but the gospel stuff goes back to the Blind Boys of Alabama. Anything that I can get my hands on that’s gospel I will listen to. All the way back to Mahalia Jackson. One of the first songs I remember hearing was In The Upper Room by Mahalia Jackson when I was about ten. My dad loved it and used to listen to it so I got to hear it. The family got to hear it. It’s the type of thing you either love or you don’t and luckily, we all loved it.”
Another significant contributor to the album was guitarist James Muller, commonly known as one of Australia’s finest jazz players. However, on One Day At A Time, the versatile Muller shows a much meaner side to his playing.
“He’s a monster,” exclaims Swanee of Muller. “He is a jazz guitarist, as is my bass player, Damien Steele Scott. I said to Damien that I wanted to get someone in to play like Mossy and he said, wait until you hear this guy. He told me he was a jazz guitar player and I thought, oh, I don’t think that would sit well on some of these tracks. Anyway, James came in and he’s such an unassuming big man. He walked up, shook my hand, had a listen to the track, started playing and I said to the guy … every take … keep! I was sitting there totally entertained instead of telling this guy what I wanted him to play. He just played what he felt the track needed and it was exactly what the track needed. I like the guitars really loud, especially when it’s James Muller. The guy is fantastic. He’s very unassuming but when he picks up a guitar he turns into a monster.”
Swanee took the opportunity to provide his own rhythm guitar parts and is particularly prominent on the rockier track ‘No One Takes Me Serious’. “I played the rhythm parts on it. That riff is my riff,” says Swanee proudly. “it was a guitar exercise I had. If there’s an opportunity to tun something into a song, I will do it. I play guitar, drums and sing on this album. I’ve got a GIbson Studio Les Paul, Fender Telecaster and a Maton Mastersound.”
Anyone who knows Swanee will tell you he is one of the kindest souls in music. He’s often on social media urging his fans to assist the underprivileged by providing food or shelter. He actively assists and promotes the organisation Orana (http://www.oranaonline.com.au/), is involved in fundraisers and has spent many hours visiting palliative care patients, people in the final stages of their life. Sometimes he’ll take along his guitar and sing, other times he’ll just lend an ear. It’s the subject of the album’s closing track ‘Here’s To You’, a song about Todd, a patient Swanee used to visit.
“Sometimes what they need is just to be able to talk about themselves,” explains Swanee about his visits. “Everybody goes in and says, you’ll be right. Well that’s just not true, they won’t be right. They are dying and sometimes they just need to be bale to talk about that. I’m just a good ear for them because I go in there as a musician with no agenda accept to give them a bit of freedom for a few moments and talk about what they might not be bale to talk about with their family. Sometimes it is really hard when the family goes in because the person dying doesn’t want to load up their shit onto somebody. They can load it up onto me and I don’t have to take it onboard. It is more of an honour that I can do that. It is a real blessing to be able to sit through those moments with somebody . You watch them struggling for their breath, their own life support. The people take your hand and they are really grateful. So Here’s To You is raising your glass up to them.”
Amid his social work, recording the new album and playing gigs, Swanee has also been involved in an ongoing project led by producer Mark Moffat which features some impressive Nashville session players. “We’ve got a project in Nashville called Kilo a southern rock type band that kicks arse,” he explains. “Mark Moffat is a dynamite guitar player and we have people from Ted Nugent’s band, Bonnie Raitt’s band. These are guys, who after their session work, they just want to come into town and let their hair down. They played on my album Have A Little Faith and one of the conditions was that I would come back and sing with them. What an honour. Anytime I can work with Mark Moffat, I’ll take it. We’ve just finished a film clip.”
Swanee launches One Day At A Time on July 27 at the Marion Hotel in Adelaide, an album he’s proud to add to his long list of credits. “I just hope they enjoy it,” he says of his expectations. “I just want to make albums that I think people would like listening to. You want to make a good album that represents you for the rest of your life.”