‘I need a cigarette – where can we go?” says Richard Clapton, pacing around the foyer of the ABC studios in Sydney in the midst of a run of radio interviews about his new album, The House Of Orange. The 67-year-old’s 20th album since debuting with 1973’s Prussian Blue, it finds the singer-songwriter exploring an Americana feel with new songs and re-recordings of some classics. After inhaling a cigarette outside, he retires to the back of the ABC cafeteria for a coffee. I offer to pay and Clapton, looking clear-eyed and relaxed, pushes my hand away. “I’m the record company for this one,” smiles the man his friends call ‘Ralph’. “I’ll do the label thing and pay.”
Your new album was recorded in Nashville and has a very Americana feel. Was that conscious?
I think Americana’s been in my DNA since the very beginning, but it became a bit convoluted when I met INXS and I started going in all those tangents, so for awhile it was a bit obscured. Mark [Moffatt, producer] listened to 70 songs over three months and bunched them together. He didn’t care if they were older or new. It’s nowhere near as eclectic as my older albums where you’d get [INXS drummer] Jon Farriss-funk mixed with a ‘Ralph’ country rock track.
Have you ever made any serious attempt at breaking America?
Chuggie [former manager Michael Chugg] and I tried it on years ago. Back when George Wayne was on Double J he hooked Jackson Browne and me up. Jackson took a liking to me and took my stuff back to Elektra Asylum, his label, and got me in the door there. There was already some interest from Island Records in the UK. Nothing eventuated unfortunately. I was tied to a deal in Australia and the label here was asking for impossible deals. I just wanted to get my records out.
1977’s Goodbye Tiger is considered one of the best Australian albums of all time. Towards the end of that decade it seemed like you had the potential to be a global star. How did you cope when it didn’t happen?
I came back here and that’s when I just turned into the local drunk, going to [legendary Sydney rock & roll haunt] Benny’s every night and getting totally maggoted. I was stumbling around Benny’s going, “I could have been a contender.” Then I met my ex-wife Susie and we fell in love. She said, “Well, do you want to drink yourself to an early grave or marry me and we’ll have kids and live happily ever after?” So we got married and had kids. There were offers but never one that was meaty enough to persuade me to move the family to America. So I went quiet on that front for 25 years.
How bad was the substance abuse during that time?
It was full on. Personally I’m quite opposed to so many of our brothers and sisters who try and bury this in the closet. There’s no way I’d condone the use of coke, but I’ve also got no regrets about it. I had some marvellous times and wrote some great songs on coke. I wrote the whole of [1987’s] Glory Road on coke. There was a great interview with Joni Mitchell years ago when someone tried to get at her about her cocaine use. She said she hadn’t given up and she explained that she liked the chaos in her mind that enabled her to write those songs. Same for me. It made a lot of my songs possible. It enhanced my mental state. But I have to say that that muse doesn’t work for me anymore.
You were very close to INXS. Some have suggested their influence wasn’t always good for you musically…
When I met them there was a certain chemistry. Until that point I had dedicated my life to aspiring to be Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman and Neil Young. That’s all I wanted to be. When I met them I had to go into Hutch’s world – My Life In the Bush Of Ghosts [Brian Eno and David Byrne’s 1981 album] and all this alien music he [Michael Hutchence] was into. But to be honest with you, especially with [1982’s] The Great Escape, I really appreciate that they dragged me out of where I was and I ended up doing some pretty left-of-centre stuff, and I wouldn’t have done that without INXS and in particular Jon Farriss’s influence. So I have no regrets.
“There’s no way I’d condone the use of coke, but I’ve got no regrets. I wrote some great songs on coke.”
Do figures like Dylan still loom large in your life?
They’ll remain constants for the rest of my life. The only thing that’s changed is that I got into Ryan Adams years ago and I think, “Go, kid, someone’s gotta wave the fucking flag.” He’s like old us, the whole spirit of 30 years ago.
Do you have a guiding principle that keeps you going?
Down the side of Tower Records in Tokyo is a big sign that says, “Without Music There Is No Life”. And I really do believe that. These days I find it hard to find many artists that connect with me, that have that electricity. When I heard Dylan’s “Positively 4th Street” I went, “This is what I want to be.” I was 16 or 17 and that was me from that moment on.
How do you reflect back on your career?
I’m actually really happy with it. Because in the clumsiest of ways I’ve managed to straddle everything, and get through it. I’ve been middle class for 20 years. I can eat in nice restaurants, stay in nice hotels. I’m never going to be Elton John – but I wouldn’t want to be.
From issue #775, available now. Photography by Joshua Heath.