Delaney Davidson…a one man renegade ghost orchestra
New Zealand born multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Delaney Davidson is certainly no stranger to the international music scene, especially the more obscure corners of it, having contributed to the efforts of a handful of notable bands from around the world, including the ever-changing lineup of Switzerland’s Dead Brothers. Now we find Davidson pouring much of his creative self into his solo endeavor, which, when put into the simplest of terms, can be boiled down to a type of vagabond folk. Dark, haunted, whiskey-drenched, tobacco-stained vagabond folk, to be more specific, evidently written and played by a soul born too late and into a mad world hell-bent on pushing blindly forward until tumbling off the edge. He doesn’t belong to that world. That is presumably the reason his songs come across both traditional and contemporary, both refined and unconventional, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes in turns, with a respectful bow to the roots songs of the past and a meaningful tip of the hat to the songs yet to come. It doesn’t stop there, though. He won’t let it stop there. And so his music goes beyond folk to include an eclectic jumble of styles and sound experimentation — neo-blues, noir trash and avant rock, for example — placing him beside such artists as Nick Cave, Tom Waits, Bad Luck City, Leonard Cohen, Franz Nicolay, and the Sad Bastard Book Club, among others, to each of which he is only comparable to the slightest of degrees. All of that aside, it is assuredly so that Delaney Davidson’s idiosyncratic musical style is all his own, that he has long since created a unique signature sound that stands apart from much of today’s music…raw, organic, inspired and unmistakably original.
It wasn’t all that long ago that Beatman at Voodoo Rhythm Records sent me a copy of Davidson’s new release — “Self Decapitation”. At that point in time I had neither heard of Delaney Davidson nor experienced any of his songs. And thus it was a rather unexpected occasion, to say the least…an unexpected occasion that would soon contribute heavily to the extensive playlist of my everyday life. You see, most of my music listening experiences take place in my car as I drive the highways and expressways and interstates, the streets and back roads and alleyways of the Northeast. The truth is that I do quite a bit driving. And these handful of songs didn’t take long to claim ownership of the many miles between this place and that, between my pad in the Pennsylvania mountains and the towns and cities I have visited and revisited these past months. “Self Decapitation” is just one of those albums that pulls you in and completely absorbs you.
“Self Decapitation” is a rather fitting title for the album, considering it is Davidson’s solo endeavor, entirely isolated from his other projects as an artist, and the endeavor that best reveals him for who he truly is, hitting on his intellectual, emotional, psychological and spiritual compass points. Now, for the purpose of recording “Self Decapitation,” Davidson employed the additional instrumentation of half a dozen remarkably skilled auxiliary musicians, whose contributions unquestionably served to enhance the listening experience of the album in many ways. Those auxiliary musicians were Dan Elektro (drums), Melaniejane (cello), Eric McFadden (guitars and vocals), Reverend Beat-Man (guitar), GarageKid (percussion), and Fanfare Kalashnikov (brass accompaniment).
With an old charcoal fedora and a rumpled suit and tie, Davidson sometimes looks somewhat like a young Tom Waits…well, either that or a traveling salesman who’s been a wicked drunk for a few days and nights and only just slept off the worst of it in his car. But what really grabs me is not what the man looks like but what he creates as a musician and singer/songwriter. He seems to have found various ingredients that come together to make something altogether dirty, lonesome, restless and wildly engrossing. In other words, Davidson’s songs are dark, gritty, sinful compositions, seemingly inhabited old demons and long held ghosts and so many skeletons in the closet. Every note, every chord, every bit of verse reeks of the road, of those ramshackle places and forlorn people one passes as one goes, of a lifetime worth of experiences and observations, barrooms barrooms barrooms, and of being saved and damned in turns throughout it all. Of course, there are also fictions thrown in here and there, rather clever ones at that, in which Davidson sets the mood with his guitar and then paints vivid lyrical pictures of the times, places and circumstances involved. Just as it says at the Voodoo Rhythm website, the man is most definitely a one man renegade ghost orchestra.
Out of the eleven songs on “Self Decapitation” three of them are not Delaney Davidson originals, but rather two traditional cover songs, “Dirty Dozen” and “In the Pines”, and an interesting rendition of gospel blues trash artist Reverend Beat-Man’s “Back in Hell”. As far as Davidson’s originals, however, I would say they all have the potential to carve out their places in music history, particularly “Around the World”, “Lackie’s Men”, Magpie Song”, “Little Heart”, and “I Slept Late”.
One inescapable fact is present in all this — if Delaney Davidson stays the course, we can no doubt expect some really great things from him in the future!
Right around the time that Voodoo Rhythm Records was preparing to release “Self Decapitation,” I contacted Delaney Davidson to find out if he would be able to provide an interview portion to the piece I was doing on the album. In reply he told me that he was just about to leave to tour with Reverend Beat-Man, first through Europe and then through select cities in the US. Sadly, none of the cities in the US were anywhere near the place that I call home these days. We have since finished that interview, though, and it turned out to be more than a little insightful into Delaney Davidson the man, the artist, the expatriate, the ramblin’ troubadour, and so on.What follows is that interview in its entirety.
It has become customary to begin these interviews in an introductory fashion, as such things go, so as to give the readers a better of idea of the men and women behind the music. Having conveyed that, I would like to ask you: Who is Delaney Davidson, not just as a singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist but as an individual, as a human being of this vast and crazy world in which we live?
Delaney Davidson is the creation of a restless longing, a feeling of things being better “over there,” discovered on late night walks when he noticed that he preferred the sight of a cars headlights far away on the hills over an up close car. The excitement of imagined potential, whether in human relationships or physical geography. He was born in 1972, in Auckland, New Zealand, and grew up in the South. After being asked to leave school for having a bad attitude, he migrated to Australia and began his illustrious career in the over-heated and stinking kitchens of Melbourne, dreaming into sinks full of dirty dishwater and sacks of onions about a future of music and creativity. He tried his hand as a painter of nighttime landscapes, invented a color darker than black, and spent hours covered in ink in the print shop wrestling steel plates into his steel point etchings. His artistic career culminated in a 10 meter bronze statue of the first discoverers of New Zealand, Kupè and his ragged troupe, a neo-classical white mans fantasy dredged up from the ’20s. He worked for 12 years in kitchens around the world, before embarking upon the road of Professional Musician, working in Theatres, Opera Houses, Juke Joints and Parties.
Your latest solo effort “Self Decapitation” is rather unlike your other musical endeavors. From what I’ve already learned, you’ve played a bit with the Swiss death blues funeral string trash orchestra The Dead Brothers, and you now also have your solo project. In what other bands have you been involved over the years? And what are you doing now in addition to your solo material, if anything?
“Self Decapitation” is the third solo release from me. I have released “Rough Diamond” on Stink Magnetic Records, a collection of four track works and home recordings, as well as “Ghost Songs,” a self released album (currently sold out). Other releases are “Alpine Cretins,” a duo based album of Americana Folk style music. Last year I was lucky enough to attend the Steelbridge Songfest in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, which woke me up to the amazing potential of co-writing (several songs from “Self Decapitation” are results of this; “Lackies Men” and “Bridge is Broke” ( the latter only on the pre-release edition). I also will tour USA with the Reverend Beat-Man in July. We enjoy to work together. A long standing project over the last ten or more years is the Delemi’s Caravan Basement Band, which has released countless bootlegs of our own musical endeavours…a duo with the complex and obscure Lemmi Schwarz. I occasionally resurrect the “Rough Diamond Ghost Orchestra” — a mongrel collection of thirteen or so musicians who I force to play my songs. I have also worked in the past with an old musical conspirator, the bizarrely and deeply talented Stuart Thomas, a not so well kept secret of the Melbourne music scene, in The Brass Bed, one of the forerunners of the Brass Revival Bands of Melbourne, releasing a handful of singles and album “Save your Breath” on Bah Humbug Records.
Taking into consideration the hodgepodge of styles you employ on “Self Decapitation,” it becomes rather difficult to pin down your genre of music. Just off the top of my head I can list a small handful of recognizable styles from which your songs are constructed—and well constructed, I might add—such as dirty blues, cabaret rock’n’roll, traditional roots, gothic country, gypsy folk, avant garde trash, and vagabond jazz. You must possess a bottomless well of inspiration to have written and recorded such songs. What has influenced you to use such a diverse boiling cauldron of sound for “Self Decapitation”?
Well, for the sound of “Self Decapitation” I was heavily influenced by the sound of Outside Inside Recording Studios in Montebelluna, Italy (outsideinsidestudio). Even though these songs were recorded all over the world, they were mixed (mostly except one or two) by Matt Bordin, and this sound he makes is really there. Its an interesting question what influences you in your recording work, it can be an engineer, or a place, or a sound…some feeling you want to get out…rage, ecstasy, heartbreak…coffee… someone giving you time and space is a huge influence. Beat-Man was a big help in the sound direction of some of it as well, helping to produce it. The songs are a collection of old and new, some written years ago, others written that year in between recording sessions. As well as the Traditional numbers such as “Dirty Dozen” and “In the Pines,” there were reinventions of older material I had, such as the “I Slept Late” with Balkan Brass Band Fanfare Kalashnikov.
On “Self Decapitation’s” cover it reads, 100% Johnson. Is that a reference to the great hobo wanderers of old-time America, like the ones the former Johnson family vagabond Jack Black wrote about in his book “You Can’t Win,” and like the ones that the old-timey roots and folk band The Devil Makes Three sang about on their latest album in the song “Johnson Family,” or…? And if so, what compelled you to bring up that little piece of obscure history?
Absolutely! An old friend had told me about this book “You Can’t Win” and said another old friend stole it, so I had to steal it back to read it. But since I read it, I kept seeing it round the place and I was always amazed by who had it; it seemed to make sense somehow, and a pattern began to emerge. I also felt really strongly about this Johnson Creed of Brotherhood, Hobo Dignity, and Code of Honor, helping out those you felt you belonged to or that belonged to you. I also read about this years ago in an Emerson essay on Self Reliance. I discovered there were people who recognized the way I was living and related to it: Dan Woggle who played drums on “Self Decapitation” saw me hanging out three pairs of socks, three T shirts, and three pairs of underpants on the balcony rail when we were recording and recognized the touring wardrobe washing day. “100% Johnson,” he’d said. He said it a few times that week. I stole his copy of the book as well. Recently I watched the film ” I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang” and saw the similarities between the film and “You Cant Win”. I guess its not just about Hobo-ing around, its about people, and how they relate to each other. Are they an Arsehole? If so, why? And is there anything you can change? Recognizing who counts to you. Its a common theme. Read Anton LaVey’s Satanic 10 commandments (www.churchofsatan.com). Jack Black (“You Can’t Win”) also wrote an essay called “Whats Wrong With the Right People?” (What’s wrong with the right people?—By Jack Black (Harper’s Magazine) about the difficulties of fitting into the structures of what we accept as a normal society; i.e. getting a job, paying rent on a house, getting drunk on Friday night, finding a partner, settling down and having children….and how if you thought differently about things, or if you didn’t want to follow the blind paths of conformity, you were shunned and actually persecuted to the point of being an outlaw. Most of these people were in and out of the jail systems and penal institutions during his time, and he was saying once you get in this loop its almost impossible to get out, and the whole system actually breeds and encourages a sense of mistrust and “criminality”.
I know that you’ve been touring in support of your solo album these past several weeks. What have been some of your wildest and most memorable touring/gig experiences, with either your solo project or previous bands, or both? For example, I know you’ve shared venues with Reverend Beat-Man and Holly Golightly, among others. That must’ve been something. But surely you have had some pretty memorable experiences, just as most bands and singer/songwriters inevitably do on the road.
Well, apart from the amazing help I seem to get from people everywhere, wildest times are hard to think of. You kind of have to be careful on the road alone and not in a gang of musical companeros. I am pretty well behaved. I used to drink a lot and had some crazy stories from then — drinking vodka in Russia and waking up 1,200 kilometers away, lighting bridges on fire, wrestling in skinhead bars. Then there are just the amazing things you are privileged enough to see: midnight tours through the back route canals in Venice, all-night sessions with Algerian drummers, bar fights in Sao Paolo because of your music. I think the way you get into a mode of life with like-minded people and no one stops you is something amazing. You are allowed to indulge it for weeks on end, till it becomes totally normal; then you come across someone who isn’t used to it and they can’t believe you are so far into your way of life. They think you are crazy. Like a frog if you put it into a pot of cold water and slowly bring it to a boil, it doesn’t notice the temperature change until it boils alive. I remember one time we were on tour with The Dead Brothers, and it was washing day for Pierre Omer. He had a shower, and threw all his clothes onto the floor of the shower, stamped them round then hung them in the little hotel bathroom on all the towel rails and hand rails, then he took the hair dryer, turned it on and wrapped the cord round the handle trigger so it was on full, tucked it into the rail pointing into the air and went to bed. The dryer stayed on all night and by the morning the clothes were dry…simple answers to everyday problems, with a twist. I couldn’t believe the logic. We were lucky we didn’t burn alive.
Do you consider yourself a one-man band when it comes down to your solo endeavor. Or do you simply consider yourself a solo artist with accompanying musicians and singer/songwriters? That is to say, I know you have others accompany you on your studio albums, providing auxiliary instrumentation and whatnot, but do you ever play as a one-man band at your gigs? And when I say “one-man band,” I mean it terms of, say, King Automatic, Hasil Adkins, and Bob Log III.
I would definitely not consider myself a One-Man Band. I don’t know why, but I guess it’s because I don’t play lots of instruments at once. I only play one thing at a time, as well as the fact that I deviate too much into finding other musicians to play what I am completely incapable of, skill-wise (see Fanfare Kalashnikov in “I Slept Late,” or the formidable skills of Eric Mcfadden on “Lackie’s Men”) to see myself as a complete unit or “One-Man Band,” or compositionally speaking as well. I spoke earlier of discovering the power in co-writing, and this is an area I really want to explore. I always seem to hear a lot more than I can play, either at the same time or technically, so I would definitely see myself as a songwriter who works with other people, even though I generally tour alone.
Lastly, if there is anything at all that I failed to cover, or anything you would like to express, talk about, etc, please feel free to do so now. The floor is all yours, Mr. Davidson!
These are strange, Strange times. Music has eaten its own tail. The genres are blurred into almost non-differentiated zones; three word prefixes “ALT/MAINSTREAM/GRUNGE”…or “POWER/AMBIENT/IMPRO”… The internet has destroyed any distance or inaccessibility, both in terms of researchable technique (check out the plethora of tutorials available on YouTube, as well as the footage of the greats that was once in some dusty library vault), or tools used to achieve certain sounds (now everyone can have unlimited rare amp sounds, on board mixing effects, obscure keyboards). It is a similar time to the 1920’s with the glut of great music out there. Consequently, it is getting harder and harder to tour or sell music. People are so used to everything being free. Music, once something people went out and bought (and I remember spending hours in the record shop while my Dad pored through the bins) is now something you download, or the artist hands out at the show after playing. People are surprised when you ask for money for an album. The fact is that we artists have to get the album from somewhere, if it’s from our label the chances are we had to pay for it from the label (I have had people balk at the price of an album after you played them a great show, and when I asked them how much they would like to pay they offered me less than what I had paid for it). If we are self-produced we still have to get it from somewhere. Now is the time to think; to think how much longer we want music to last, and to think, “where do we want it to go?” Be proud to support music as a thing of its own, be proud to pay money to keep it alive.