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GRAEME CONNORS TALKS SONGS AND GUITARS

In a career spanning five decades as a respected singer, songwriter and performer, Graeme Connors has become a part of the fabric of the Australian country music scene. From his own acclaimed albums such as North, The Road Less Travelled, Kindred Spirit and so many more, to his songs recorded by other artists such as Slim Dusty (who recorded 12 of Graeme’s songs), Connors has just always been there, churning out quality stories set to music. His current album, released in 2018 is From The Back Country and Graeme is currently on the road touring that record. He has a run of Victorian shows coming up soon and it seemed like a great opportunity to track the man down for a chat about songs and guitars.

Graeme, let’s begin by going way back. What are some of your earliest musical memories?

My father really enjoyed singing but was totally unprofessional. He was a big fan of Jim Reeves. I guess to have him be proud of me I learned a whole repertoire of Jim Reeves’ songs. I remember singing a version of Danny Boy for his 40th birthday. It was really the power of song that drove me. I couldn’t work out why this mysterious music and the lyrics became such an obsession, so I learned to play the guitar between 12 and 13 and had a band by the time I was 14 and I knew that was going to be the path. I was listening to people like Louis Armstrong, BB King, Carole King and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Kris Kristofferson, The Beatles. It was very eclectic for me and it was driven by songs. I was trying to work out, through all these genres and idioms, there’s some magic to the way that words and melodies come together.

At what point did you discover that you could maybe make a living out music?

My band was a hot little item in my home town of Mackay and it enabled me to buy a Fender Telecaster and a Twin Reverb all before I was 15, plus we bought a PA and that sort of stuff, so there was money in this game and we made the best of it. They were different times and we were working 4 nights a week and I was still attending school. We were a group of friends, all school kids and we were totally committed to being a really fun live band that nailed it. I learned all of those John Fogerty hooks as best I could on the guitar and then somewhere along the way I got into Let it Be by the Beatles but we copied so many styles and artists. Somewhere in there I think a style developed by default.

Was there a local music store that looked after you?

Alec’s Music. Ray Alec, I ended up working for him part time while I was at school. I did it primarily so that I could buy any second hand guitar that came through and do some work on it. Some of them lasted longer than 12 months, others I moved on but it became an obsession, whether it was a Maton Starline Jazz guitar with beautiful birds eye maple, which I had it stripped back and repainted. I had a Gretsch solid body, I was just obsessed with them. At that point mainly it was electric instruments because at that time I didn’t see myself as a folky or country person, I was just part of the modern music thing that was was pretty much electrified.

Has there been a guitar which has given you more songs than any other?

I have had a series of DeGruchy guitars from Bryan DeGruchy, I was a big supporter of his and they were always good for me. I bought a D35 at the beginning of it all because D35 signified that you’d made it playing a Martin guitar. Especially with the binding up the neck, it looked pretty smart. But do guitars give me the songs? No! The song comes alone and generally unaccompanied and then I go to an instrument and work backwards. I do that with the piano too. With a lot of the songs I have to say they don’t start anywhere but from my imagination. When I am on a writing run, I am up at 5 o’clock in the morning and I will work through to about eleven and those six hours, a good bit of that is spent with a blank piece of paper and a pen. I get the framework for the song, an idea which will lead to various bits of lyric, then I might go to the guitar or the piano and the family are awake by the time I am doing that. So most of what I do, I hear in my head. When I go ot the studio they have a very clear picture of what I want to have achieved. That changes, working with really talented musicians. They will come up with something much better than what I may have but generally it will still be true to the core. The feel of the song won’t change. When I write and finish a song, I dont have to go back and study it again, I know it intimately and that’s just my modus operandi.

What song are you most proud of from a songwriter’s perspective, from the construction of it rather than the success of it?

Working outside what would be considered my normal countryish Australian story telling mode, I have dabbled in some jazz influenced things which have been growth for me. A song called Fireflies, which is off the The Here and Now album, a lot of lazy passing chords that took me longer than what it would if you were talking country. Working with really melodic bass lines against the vocal, they are the sort of songs I look at and think, you are doing your job a a writer. There are songs like When A Good Man Dies which is very confronting lyrically.

Your current album is From The Back Country and you’re on tour. As you play these songs, do they develop and grow at all?

They modify. When a record is made, to me we have gone through it over and over and explored every possibility and we are happy with what you are getting to hear. That doesn’t mean that over the years that things don’t change slightly. I have been fortunate to always have great live players and they know all he hooks and when to bring it around right back to the record but they also know when they can let it out a little bit and go somewhere else and surprise me, which is always a delightful thing in the middle of a show.

Tell me about your current band.

Scott Hill is on drums. Scott hails from the Lismore area and has been working with me since about 2000. He is a very musical percussionist. We have various small band, large band configurations and he can basically fit a whole drum kit into a suitcase. Maybe it’s not a kit but things you can hit and bash. He’s amazing. He can create a wonderful percussive background. Jeff Camilleri on bass, he’s a longtime journeyman musician who has worked in jazz big bands country and has a great singing voice. He’s one of the very few signers who can actually sing a third above me, which is a great blessing if you need it. Gary Carruthers is a Melbourne based musician, a multi-instrumentalist. Gary and I have also been working together since about 2000. He has become over time a real core man in the team. He came with me to Ireland recently, just the two of us. He is aware of my repertoire intimately so we could just pick any song from anywhere in my career and do it. Andy is my keyboard player, based in Brisbane at the moment. My keyboard players have always needed to be multi-instrumentalists because they use piano accordion and various other bits and pieces. They need to be across organ and piano. Sadly I have to say that Glen Hannah had been my guitarist of choice for many years and his incredibly sad demise has left a hole but Brett Wood from Melbourne steps in when he can. Brett has so much sympatico, he steps up and lays it down every single time with energy and musicality. I am really privileged to have a group of people I have total trust in and the band I had before that, they were with me for 10 or 15 years, so there’s this longevity. Once you get on the Graeme Connors campus it’s really hard to get out.

What guitars are you taking out on the road at the moment?

I have been in a re-tooling phase. I am glad to say it show a certain amount of optimism at my age to be out buying new guitars. I have a his and hers Taylor 812CE, one is a nylon and one is the deluxe. I have always wanted tobacco sunburst guitars, so they are both tobacco sunburst. You know sometimes you just go, I want it and I’m gonna get it. I have a long history with tobacco but this is the most tobacco I have now, apart from a very, very occasional cigar. I call them his and hers because you do play them totally differently and they are beautiful pieces of work. They provide for me a lot of variation in what I can do. One is normally set to a drop D, which is the steel string and the nylon is generally as is or I can vary it. Sometimes it’s in G for various songs. It’s best for live performances if you can keep them in the simple tunings. They are my workhorses and hope they are until my dying day. Both connect at the 12th fret, which was a big decision for me to make. It was always the standard 14 frets to the body but I find that there is something easy and casual about the neck length and I am not playing screaming solos at the cutaway. What I need to do, I get done in those 12 frets.

Did it take you a while to get the acoustic sound live that you wanted?

Prior to this I had and still have a Doyle Dykes Taylor, which had a Baggs onboard pickup and I put that through another Baggs floor preamp and everyone told me that it sounded fantastic. You’d be out on a boat cruise and the musicians there would be asking why it sounded so good. You want an acoustic guitar that sounds like an acoustic guitar but have plenty of body to it. As part of this re-tooling I am using now a Grace (Design) Felix, which is a two channel preamp and it is very comprehensive in available modifications. It is great because two guitars feed into one. it’s got an AP switch and it has a boost, a tuning thing on it. I can also add a microphone if I wanted to one guitar. It has taken me a long time to get to that because I have been an LR Baggs person for a long time but that’s where I am at.

Does having a new album out make creating a set list more enjoyable or more difficult?

I have to be alert that people come to the shows at a point of introduction which may not be my new album and it may not be the first album, so I have to really try to scatter gun something from all parts of my career through the set. Of course we want to play these new songs. You write them, make the record, love them and be enthusiastic about them. I try to maybe weave similar themes from various albums, something gives that the audience a line that runs between South Of These Days, The Road Less Travelled and the latest album, so I do take a long time in putting a set list together. It almost seems like a yearly thing where you spend a lot of time toward the end of the previous year working out what you want to do next year and where you want to focus. Then in comes something unusual and you might want to revisit This is Life or one of those albums because you have these incredible players and you might want to do something banjo-heavy for instance. Overall I would say the umbrella is that it’s basically the new album in a 12 month period trying to blend that with the past and then there is this shift mentally where you go I want to re-freshen everything, your opening songs, closing songs, everything. Then of course someone comes up and says I have come all this way, could you please play this and you have already done 22 songs for the set. Thankfully with a band like I have, I can pretty much cover all of the material my audience is going to want to hear.

It’s a nice problem to have isn’t it?

I am blessed. I know this business has altered so dramatically that a lot of the new players have no idea what a privileged life we had to be working six nights a week, 6 weeks in a row, travelling with musicians, your friends, the laughter the fun. It’s a tough world now for the troubadour to where it was. We don’t want to dwell on that but we do want to make every time we step out the door with our instruments to be as a great a celebration as it was but now we do it 3 nights a week instead of 6 nights. It’s the way the business has gone. It means that we have to spend more time alone in the studio working on your craft and it requires discipline. When you had 36 shows in 6 weeks, believe me, you never had to practice, you were there. Your fingers were hardened and your voice was tough. These musicians, although they are incredibly gifted and talented, and not through any fault of their own, the opportunity to work hard and do what we do is no longer there, so they are teaching, they’re forming little bands during the week so thay have something else to do. I don’t want to sound negative by the way, and I dont want it to come across negative, it’s just a reminder from someone who has been doing this as long as I have that the good times we are enjoying today may not look as good as some think and we are constantly told that the amount of money that music industry makes is x more than ever before but why are there less musicians in the saddle out there doing it?

You have some Victorian dates coming up then we’re almost at the end of the year. What’s on for 2020?

2020 we have quite a few festivals which is nice. To be honest it is time for a new album for me. Part of my tooling-up means that my home studio is also getting a bit of a shake up. Normally I go to Sydney to record but I am thinking I might bring people to me for a change. Once we do that we can take it elsewhere to be mixed and mastered. That’s my view at the moment but could change at any point. The most important thing is songs and I am piecing that together as we go. It is a slower process with an artist coming up to his 20th album than a beginner I would suggest because I know where I have been and I don’t necessarily want to go there again, I want to go somewhere new. There’s always the editor in you going, hey Graeme, that change, that comes from song 4 album 12! You have to keep turning the editor off, getting on with the job and reviewing it after, it’s intriguing. That’s what happens when you’ve had a long career. I am blessed. I don’t see it as a problem, it’s something I am responsible for. I am responsible for what I put out there and I want it to be really, really good. I want to be relevant. Every album I make, I want people to say, he’s still there, he’s still got it!

TOUR DATES

Friday, November 22
Graeme Connors (18+)
Caravan Music Club, 1 Victor Road, East Bentleigh
Phone: 03 9579 4512
Doors: 8pm
Show time: 8.30pm
Finish: 10.30pm
Tickets: $40/53/56+bf; $45 on the door (if available) through Caravan Music Club

Saturday, November 23
Graeme Connors (18+)
Capital Theatre, 50 View St, Bendigo
Phone: 03 5434 6100
Doors: 7pm
Show time: 7.30pm
Finish: 9.30pm
Tickets: $69+bf through Capital Theatre

www.graemeconnors.com