Don Walker is regarded as one of Australia’s best songwriters. This month Don will release his entire back catalogue in the one box set called, Blacktop. He’s bringing the tour in support of the release to town so we caught up with Don ahead of the show.
NL: You’ve written songs that people use as textbook examples of Australian music. These are songs that have become the fabric of people’s lives. Do you feel a sense of responsibility for them?
DON: I try and guard songs I’ve written where they might be used inappropriately in advertising, or by those who would like to harness them to some other agenda.
NL: When you’re in the studio do you prefer working with acoustic or electric pianos, and what do you look for in a piano sound?
DON: Since the early eighties, I’ve always recorded with acoustic pianos. Since 2015 I’ve recorded with an old Palings upright I found in the corner of a studio. It sounds like the saloon scene in any old cowboy movie. When I tracked down the owners, it turned out to be the Hillsong church, and I bought it from them for $700. I keep it in Jim Barnes’ studio out at Mascot. I don’t have room for it, and he very kindly allows me to park it there.
NL: Recording technology has become so accessible now. Are you a record at home type of guy or do you prefer to work in a studio environment with engineers and producers?
DON: I have no technology at home now beyond a laptop and a phone. I used to have a DAT machine, which I loved, but it expired, so I don’t record at home now. I like to record to multitrack tape, which means I have to go to the few studios that still have tape machines and the few people who know how to work them.
NL: What makes a great tour?
DON: A lot of things. Petrol money. Tread on the tires. A warm room waiting at the end of the night. People who know how to generate a laugh. It’s good to have a tour group who are just a little bit in love with what’s going to happen tonight.
NL: Tell us more about your band.
DON: It’s been the same group of musicians now for more than ten years. They’re all arguably the best at what they do. We seldom gather more than once a year, and we all look forward to it. They’re a hot combination these days. I’m a lucky man.
A lot of the attitude comes from the band. They sound laconic just tuning up. And then there are the stories, which come from a certain bandwidth in the community, which they know well.
NL: Computer or pen and paper?
Pen and paper. Cheap felt pen. Lately it’s been motel notepads. “Best Western – Melbourne’s Princes Park Motor Inn.”
NL: There are so many intimate stories in your book, Shots. Can you tell us the story that led to the writing of that book and how you felt once people started reading it?
Shots is full of stories I wrote for my own amusement on the day, and to clear my mind for songwriting, and to procrastinate from songwriting. I never imagined while writing them that they would be read by others. I was led into the consideration of a book by a friend who publishes books. Every step of the way was justified by “I can back out anytime.” At a certain time, one Christmas, as I was leaving a cinema of all places, I realised that this is a book, it’s too late to stop it, it will be out in a matter of weeks, and I was filled with terror. I remember experiencing the same feeling at the impending release of the first Cold Chisel album. Words that have been known only to myself and a few friends will be exposed to the judgement of strangers.
NL: Are you listening to any new Australian artists? What are you into?
DON: I don’t do as much listening as I should. I could write a list of Australian recording singers and musicians that I like, but it will always be incomplete. Let’s begin with Red Rivers and Roy Payne, two great songwriters and singers. I like The Drones, Tom Lyncoln and Harmony, and Suzannah Espie. But for me, the greatest from this country will always be Harry Vanda and George Young.
NL: In 50 years time what do you think people will say about Don Walker?
DON: I don’t think anyone will be saying anything at all. We don’t get remembered for long. Lets hope people who talk about themselves in the third person will have been bred out by then.
Don plays 48 Watt Street in Newcastle on 6 April. Tickets are on sale now.