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Henry Wagons’ Nashville Fantasies

The charismatic alt-country star on his upcoming solo album and the ever-growing popularity of the Americana genre in Australia.

It seemed inevitable that at some stage Henry Wagons, the mutton-chop-sporting frontman of alt-country band, Wagons, would forge out on his own. His charismatic nature, coupled with an ever-increasing ‘personal brand’ — courtesy of a regular radio show and television duties — has long seemed too large to be contained within the confines of a collaborative project, seemingly destined for a single stage spotlight.

Yet, it’s clear Wagons (Henry, that is) remains somewhat humbly reserved about venturing out into battle without the trusted support of his band by his side. His first ‘Henry’ release, 2014’s Expecting Company — a mini-album of duets with the likes of Alison Mosshart (Dead Weather), Patience Hodgson (The Grates) and Robert Forster (The Go-Betweens) — was clearly a toe-dip into the solo realm.

“I think it’s going to turn out okay”, Wagons meekly responds when prompted for a progress report on his upcoming solo debut. Further camouflaging any ambitions by adding that the entire process was mainly to fulfil his own rock dreams of recording spontaneously in Nashville.

In parallel to Henry’s recent pilgrimage, Americana has seen a recent upsurge in popularity in Australia, leaving Wagons — somewhat by default, by his own accounts — as one of the leading figures under the genre’s widely encompassing banner. The increased interest has even spawned a dedicated Americana festival, Dashville Skyline, debuting this weekend (October 3 and 4) in the Hunter Valley region of New South Wales.

We recently sat down with the always-entertaining Mr Wagons to discuss the festival’s impressive debut line-up, his Nashville experiences and, of course, finally going out on his own.

RS: How’s everything going? Are you bunkered down at the moment, working on a new record?

Henry Wagons: Well, almost finished it actually! I came back from Nashville, recording my first full length solo album, about a week ago. The mixes are dribbling in and we’re getting close to the end of the process. It seems to have worked out okay to my ears.

And the decision behind going solo, is there any reason for going down that path now?

My band are sick of me, they want a break from my domineering personality, and spread their own wings [laughs]. No, I think we’ve been on the road pretty constantly, more or less, for the past ten years. We’ve got all our own creative projects to do over the next year, and I’m indulging my fantasy of recording in Nashville on a diet of whiskey, hot chicken and burgers, and playing with some of my drinking buddies in Nashville.

I’ve always wanted to do that same sort of process that Bob Dylan did on Blonde on Blonde, or Neil Young on Harvest, where he just showed up last minute in Nashville. Literally, the bass player was pulled off the street whilst walking past, by the studio engineer. I’ve got enough drinking buddies over there to assemble a good time and a good sounding back line to want to go over there.

So you hadn’t organised anything?

Well I had, I’ve been over there a bit the last few years, and I had a basic skeleton crew who’ve worked with these great artists out of Nashville, whether it be Justin Townes Earle, or Caitlin Rose, or Jonny Fritz. But some of the moments, like there’s harmonica by Cory Younts from Old Crow Medicine Show, he happened to just be swinging by the studio. Or this amazing singer called Quinn who lives in Oakland, California, was touring through Nashville, performed on the record. And Rayland Baxter, happened to drop in… there were literally drop ins! And I’d grab them by the scruff of the neck and go, “You’ve gotta be on my record”. And lucky for me I was forceful enough, and big and hairy enough to make them do it. It was fun.

Previous to this, you had only ever recorded at home, correct?

We’ve spanned the gamut – our last album was recorded in my holiday house on the coast here at Mount Martha in Victoria, where I’ve got a studio set up. Basically we didn’t think we’d be at our best in the laboratorial studio environment where you’re talking to each other through headphones and behind glass like lab rats. It was part of working with Mick Harvey [Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, The Birthday Party] on production as well. So much of the Nick Cave and PJ Harvey stuff is done in a space where everything is spilling into each other, it’s got a great live sound. I kind of wanted to keep up that spirit when working with Mick.

This Nashville thing was very much a different kind of thing — it’s a little bit cleaner, a little bit slicker. But I definitely weirded up the joint. It’s pretty out there compared to a lot of the music that I think the musicians were used to working with. There was plenty more blood, sweat, tears and hair being thrown around than working with Caitlin Rose, I suspect.

Do you feel there was a bit of pressure though, being that it was a bit more of a proper studio setup? The clock’s ticking and I’m assuming you’re paying as it goes?

Well, I’m sorta lucky enough for that to all be fairly abstract and have support from the industry. I’m not footing the bill. I get excited anytime there’s a microphone shoved in front of my face, whether it’s at home or the studio stage, it’s always thrilling for me. I like the attention, so it was good.

But it’s kind of a while away, that record. The mixes are literally just coming through now, and I think the turnaround on it, it probably won’t be seeing the light of day until next year. In the rest of this year, we’ve still got the tail end, the aftermath of the last record we put out. We’re playing a bunch of festivals around Australia and New Zealand, and some of our own shows to round things off. We just can’t get enough of each other quite yet, we’re still playing here and there for the last half of this year before the solo thing kicks in.

Wagons, and band, performing live.

Are you playing any of the new songs yet, or are they not quite ready to unveil?

Well they’re kinda different to the band thing. So we’re still twisting our heads around the songs from the last Wagons record. But I’ve got a feeling that when they’re rehearsing it up, I might slip in a debut performance of a solo song or two. You never know, the band might let me head out onto the audience catwalk and let me play a couple acoustic songs.

They can have a break out the back…

Exactly, they get a cigarette and a splash, catch up on the gossip backstage, a couple of arm wrestles while I indulge in a couple new songs.

The sound of your new solo recordings, how far away is that from the last album? I’ve seen that you mentioned that you thought you were drifting away from your country roots, and it was time to get back to that…

I couldn’t help but soak up Nashville a little bit. There’s a lot more twang about it, the four points of my compass were any of The Highwaymen [supergroup featuring Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson). I love that outlaw country stuff, so there’s plenty more pedal steel country writing.

The last time I was in Nashville I saw Bobby Bare Sr. play. And his wit, lyricism and slow drawl, and charm really inspired me. So there were a few of those smartass moments as well. I think it’s coming together in an old school country Vaudeville kinda way.

With those ‘smartass moments’, obviously humour is a big part of your music — at least with your performances — are you at all concerned that might become a bit of a distraction to your music?

Yeah, I feel like it was less of a problem back in the 60’s, 70’s. If you look back at your Elvis Presley’s and Johnny Cash’s, and a whole bunch of those singer-songwriter’s, they were able to act out and be charming jerks on stage whilst still getting their songwriting taken seriously. And that tradition has lost a little bit, that idea of the Rat Pack showman is not quite around as much anymore. But I’ve got no complaints really, I feel like my songwriting’s respected enough. I feel people are lending a proper ear and are coming along to the shows to have a good time. So hopefully I’m not treading the line towards Daryl Somers too much.

I take songwriting incredibly seriously, and just because there’s a couple smartass quips in there doesn’t mean it’s any less of a serious undertaking. I’ve actually concentrated on the lyrics of this upcoming record more than I have before. So I’m excited to put it out there.

With your life outside of music — you’ve recently started on some TV work, a cooking show, right? Are there any plans to continue that?

Well they seem to keep wanting to play that and there are a couple TV projects that are being talked about. But in terms of stuff I’m doing outside of music, I’ve got a show on [radio station] Double J called the ‘Tower of Song’, and being a broadcaster is sort of not something I ever imagined myself doing. But I’m really getting into it and it’s making me absorb the contemporary music scene and get across what’s happening, especially in the Americana arena. Trying to take notice of all the amazing songwriters, especially the twisted ones, which are my favourite. So that’s definitely taking up a lot of my time in a good way, immersing myself in the music scene and throwing myself into trying to make two good hours of radio every week has been exciting.

Balancing listening to others and then working on my own stuff has given a really interesting and dynamic aspect to the whole writing process. Hearing more music has made me want to write more music which is an unexpected thing, just like hosting a cooking show has made me want to eat more, which has unfortunately made me loosen my belt a couple of notches.But there was talk of doing a couple more episodes of that, and I’m already desperately hungry.

With the radio show, do you feel hosting that has a strong influence on your sound, with what you’re exposed to?

I think as a songwriter you can’t help but be influenced by your surroundings, and what you grew up listening to always drifts into your writing. I’m just being force-fed a whole bunch of amazing new stuff, I feel like [I’m being fed] the finest foie-gras and my liver and kidneys are exploding with goodness, and that’s coming out in my songs.

Anyone in particular?

Every week, I come across unexpected surprises, whether it be New Orleans band The Deslondes, just a random CD across my desk, a couple times people said you gotta listen to this. I was pleasantly surprised by Keith Richard’s solo album, [that] really impressed me. From someone really ancient like Keith Richards to someone really new, I heard just like week, a young girl called Gina Rose Bruce who’s put a couple songs on Soundcloud and Unearthed, who’s songs really impressed me.

There’s a guy called Juan Waters, a sort of South American/New York City singer-songwriter that sounds like an acoustic Velvet Underground. Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats is an amazing new, twangy, guttural soul band. I’m probably not even touching the surface of the stuff that raises my eyebrows every single week in this job. There’s more cool stuff out there that’s passively seeped in before I had the radio show. It’s an exciting world out there!

I think the success of Jason Isbell’s record is incredibly significant for the Americana scene as a whole. That made Top 10 in the Billboard US charts without any country radio play whatsoever, and the Americana network is still small. So there’s this general acceptance of an alternative country, general Americana twang scene on a very mainstream stage. It’s a very exciting time for rootsy music around the world.

What do you put that down to? Especially this Americana revival, that definitely seems like something that’s been stewing — at least within a confined world for some time, but is now starting to cross-over…

When I first went to the Americana Awards in Nashville, half of the ceremony was dedicated to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack as being the catalyst for a cultural movement and revival of Americana. The whole institution of the Americana group that runs the Americana Awards, the Americana Association, [when it] was founded, they credited the momentum created by the Coen Brothers soundtrack. Isn’t that crazy?

They said that started this snowball that has weirdly continued, and gained momentum. There’s been amazing artists that have come through like Justin Townes Earle, and your older artists that are still creating amazing outsider music like Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams. In Australia, you’ve got stalwarts — Kasey Chambers, Tim Rogers’ What Rhymes with Cars and Girls — it’s created this movement and acceptance in Americana tainted country.

And here we are today, and the snowballs have gotten bigger and bigger, and it’s just about climbing over. In the same opposing tidal wave [there’s] the increase in [the] plastic quality of popular country music, there’s a thirst for music that’s a bit more transparent. So much music in the pop-country scene, you don’t imagine it live or want to see it. You can’t hear the instruments. There’s a great transparency to modern roots and Americana music that there’s a mainline between live and recorded. Live presence, just being there and seeing the actual people involved is a real commodity now. And Jason Isbell’s record represents that – it’s a beautiful recorded, highly pure sounding record, and people really relate to that.

I definitely feel it’s a reaction to that. I guess as someone not so immersed in the scene, but from an outsider’s perspective, it’s being edged into this pop-country grey area. I feel it’s only natural for people to rebel and get back to something more live and lo-fi.

I think that kind of equivalent movement, that lo-fi, punk quality that I love in rock and other genres is starting to come across into a more twangy feel to. So that’s exciting for me, who especially can’t wash the dirt out of my beard if I tried.

You couldn’t do the shiny pop songs?

No, I don’t think that’s ever really going to be an option. Brooks and Dunn look pretty manky, but they seem to pull it off somehow.

And now there’s an Americana festival happening in Australia, the Dashville festival, it’s exciting that it’s now getting more exposure locally…

Dashville Skyline is bringing together so many of the great Australian acts that fall under the umbrella of my radio show, in the general sort of Americana, twang, alternative country scene. Many of my favourite Australian acts are playing. I think it’ll be a real coming together. A real moment.

There’s another festival called Out on the Weekend which has started as well that’s coming up in Melbourne and Sydney in October, which will be fun. There’s definitely this overflow, there’s definitely something a-brewing.

Is there anyone that you’re quite keen to see on the Dashville lineup?

It all looks really good, but a couple of my favourite artists playing — The Lost Ragas put out a great album recently called Trans Atlantic Highway, which is absolutely fantastic and I’m keen to see live. Olympia is playing live, a friend of mine Melody Poole, Dan Waters, the list goes on. I should have the poster in front of me. James Thompson has put out a great record, and again a massive surprise to me. There’s a bunch of great people that I’m excited to be seeing. All Our Exes Live in Texas always put on a great show, I saw them at Blue Mountains Festival and they’re very charming. I’ll be very busy watching as many bands as I am eating cheese and drinking beer backstage.

Dashville Skyline is on this October long weekend (October 3-4).