In an age dominated by ‘artists’ for whom history extends back only as far as the 24-hour news cycle, and instead what matters is contained in the moment at hand and its perceived power to create future moments, a guy like Tim Rogers (AKA Jack Ladder) seems out of place. He is not one of these creatures. He’s not even one of those exploiters of the value of perceived anachronism within a market that’s often too history-less to know any better — see our newly anointed folky overlords, for example. For one, Rogers is an actual student of history whose time spent with his forebears has shaped him into the songwriter he is — one humbled by the weight of what has come before. “All the great songwriters were incredibly well versed in folk and pop music and all sorts of other music,” says Rogers. “Maybe that’s sort of been lost a bit on a lot of people now. To a large extent it seems like it’s just become about writing pop songs that radio can play.”
During our discussion amid a short run of shows in the US, the Sydney-based songwriter consistently relates his writing approach to the knowledge he has gained from looking backwards. Where he differs from most, though, is that you actually come away with the impression that he cites heroes not for the cool-by-association mileage, but because their output has actually held sway over his own. “All my favourite songwriters—well not all of them—do that tag kind of thing instead of a chorus,” says Rogers. “And for me it feels really smart to write that way and it feels really pleasing when you write a song like that. That means building the verse to get to the line. Like “It’s all Over Now Baby Blue”, that line is the chorus and that’s all it needs to be because the emphasis is on the verses building smartly toward the line each time. Leonard Cohen does the same thing. I’m interested in that kind of structure.”
Revering the past is a knife that cuts both ways as a writer, though. On the one hand, it can provide twenty-twenty vision. In Rogers’ case, that translates as an ability to pull sounds from his arsenal that evoke, say, Kraftwerk’s sense of instrumental clarity and separation, or Nick Cave’s sophisticated angle on A-to-B storytelling. On Love Is Gone (2009), for instance, Rogers took a very specific palette to the table in order to create his own pastiche. “I was pissed off with the whole Eno thing,” he says. “Too many effects and overdubs, it just felt stupid. So we did that record with no effects and barebones with this dry horn thing — think I was listening to a lot of Randy Newman at the time. I was also going through a big southern soul phase, like, James Carr, Irma Thomas, those kind of people. And I thought a lot about how that kind of music is so vital to a songwriter like Dylan and how those things intersect. That led me to thinking ‘what if you did Blood on the Tracks crossed with a soul group type thing’… A lot of my music is these intersections between things like that. It’s total nerdy stuff, but I’m always researching when I listen to music and I get caught thinking, ‘I’m only listening to Suicide and Springsteen, what is it about those two things, and how could I blend them together in my own writing?'”
On the other side of the coin lies the concomitant ‘anxiety of influence’ that comes with being so reverential. Thus, while Rogers may well be in the process of consistently becoming a better artist, he might never feel as though he reaches a point beyond a looming shadow. “Each record has been a reaction against myself,” says Rogers. “I think all my records could be seen as huge fails. Like, with the first record I was trying to make something joyous and beautiful, and then afterwards I just totally reacted against it and became really self-conscious. Then between my first record and Love is Gone I tried to make a chamber-pop, Scott Walker type record, but I kept getting really sick and I could never seem to record any vocals.”
Another way of interpreting the “self-reaction” process undertaken with the recording of each new Jack Ladder album is to see it as a means by which Rogers stays fresh. Sure, he may feel his “old records are pretty naïve”; and that “they come off as earnest when I just want them to be honest.” But doesn’t that feeling also make for a constant side step of complacency? As Rogers himself puts it, “I’m always playing with structure, trying to shake off pop music and its structure while still making a piece of music that people want to listen to. I mean, I still want internal structure rather than something directionless, and each of my records has an arc and themes that float around throughout the whole thing.”
This shouldn’t suggest, however, that he has undergone a complete reinvention with each time at-bat. While the instrumental tools and production approach have changed dramatically between his last three records, the songwriting at the core of the project belongs unmistakably to the same guy. That is to say, Rogers has learnt a few unavoidable things about himself along the way. “I’m not very good at writing singles,” he says. “I’m not a singles guy. It makes more sense to me to tell a story with ten songs, like a little movie. I think it takes a kind of weird person to want to do that, especially now. There’s no money in it, or very little, and it’s kind of a dead art. But I got so much out of it throughout my life. When I first heard Astral Weeks, I could’ve just listened to that forever. It’s the most nourishing thing anyone could listen to. It changes you. It changed me. It made me think about the world in a very different way.”
The fact that “flat” and long songwriting comes naturally to Rogers, draws us back to the idea that he’s an outmoded character in many ways — it’s hard to imagine an industry exec getting pumped about the idea of a seven-minute track devoid of any choruses. But this approach also sets him in an increasingly rarefied space, whereby his songs hang on lyrical and instrumental sophistication and subtlety rather than instant pay-off. Sure, he’s not going to give you the grandstand hook, but if you’re the kind of person who has the patience for slow seduction, then Rogers might just be your guy. His most recent album, Playmates, is indeed a kind of flat, hypnotic affair that might readily be brushed over by the big chorus enthusiast. But it’s also not the kind of record that tends to age overnight and quickly become boring, as those replete with dirty-big-hooks so often tend to do. Instead—and this is reliant on a willingness to give it a few go-arounds — Playmates gives over something new with each listen, in turn becoming hooky in its own unique and more fulfilling ways.
That being said, however, the record (along with Ladder’s previous releases) still hasn’t been an easy sell. But what else is new? It’s no secret that when it comes to the more cerebral artefacts in our midst, commercial viability is always an uphill battle, especially in Australia. For Rogers, the process of being ignored has led to the development of thick skin, which only hardens the inclination to “not care what anyone says or doesn’t say.”
The fact that the industry has always kept him at arm’s length has perhaps also led to repeated songwriting themes of heartbreak, desperation and dead-end places. “I’ve always been pretty morose,” says Rogers. “I was a pretty grim teenager because I went to a boarding school and didn’t really get along that well. You can’t help but be a bit damaged by that… But I guess it also comes from people having not really been interested in what I’m doing for a long time. It’s also an Australian identity thing. That makes me write about the dichotomy between romantic dandy and incompetent Australian male who’s unable to deal with emotions.”
But although his career has consistently faced commercial flatlands, Rogers is hardly a guy that’s going nowhere. It’s just taking him a little longer to ascend the mountain is all. With Playmates, the fourth Jack Ladder album, Rogers has seen a release in the US through the highly respected Fat Possum Records; and also an increase in the level of media attention and fandom on the home front. All warranted progressions given the quality of his work continues to steadily improve.
The Jack Ladder product is what salty industry dogs would call a ‘slow burn’. Indeed, it’s feasible that the burn could be extinguished by a market desire for more and more sound bite and surface at the expense of quality works that require singular attention. But it’s also not inconceivable that there’ll long be room for a guy like Tim Rogers; after all, those like Nick Cave — an artist who deals with similarly flat, elongated songwriting, while also placing a high value on the album form — have continued to flourish, and indeed, expand upon their market share. If the last five years or so are anything to go by, Rogers looks set for one of those long-haul careers that imbue rejection and outsider atmosphere, as much as they do creative progress and gradual acceptance. Far from being disheartening, however, Rogers should see this hard road for what it is: the path that’s already shaped him into one of Australia’s best musicians; and with time, a means by which he may end up alive and well in music history.
Top photo: Instagram