Horse Stories – Picking it up, passing it on
“I have pretty small dreams,” says Toby Burke. “And most people probably wouldn’t understand, but I’ve accomplished some of them.”
Burke accomplished a dream from his boyhood in April, when he picked up the LA Weekly and saw his band, Horse Stories, billed as the “special guest” for the final leg of Australian songwriter Paul Kelly’s U.S. tour.
“We’re talking about something I have literally been imagining since I was 13 years old,” says Burke of his Paul Kelly idolatry. “Gossip was the first album I ever bought, and I remember listening to Post in high school and learning every song….I didn’t end up sounding like him, but he was the the one who made me think, ‘I wanna write songs.'”
Burke told Kelly as much when he met him backstage at the Troubadour in West Hollywood. “He just said, ‘Well, you pick it up and you pass it on.’ And then he stood out in the audience and watched our whole set.”
Burke’s musical career began shortly before he left Melbourne, Australia, the hometown he shares with Paul Kelly. In his early 20s, Burke made a tentative start around Melbourne’s vibrant live music circuit, performing solo under the name Horse Stories — out of shyness, most likely, but also signaling he was a songwriter in search of a band.
Burke recorded a four-track demo with his guitar teacher and songwriting mentor Dan Warner, who encouraged him to search for kindred musical spirits. Not long after, Burke decided to move to the United States, mainly to pursue his interest in filmmaking. He brought a guitar and the demo and moved in with his brother, an expatriate lawyer living in Los Angeles.
The band materialized when Burke met drummer Clinton Stapleton and guitarist Jeff Holmes. Despite their divergent musical backgrounds — Stapleton was in National, a Texas-based power-pop outfit, while Holmes was on a reggae-punk kick with his band the Dingees — the trio found an affinity that manifested itself in Horse Stories’ impressive debut, Travelling Mercies (For Troubled Paths).
The band recently signed a European licensing deal with Loose Records, a UK label that also handles Howe Gelb and Giant Sand, the Handsome Family and Neko Case. Burke reflects on the album’s slow but sure success with satisfaction, and a little surprise.
“When we finished, it occurred to me, ‘Wow, that’s my first record,'” he says. “And y’know, it doesn’t matter whether it’s successful, but there’s something about the first thing that you do — it will always have its own innocence, its own points of reference, that you can never get back to. I’ve only started to come around to the idea that it’ll be around forever, and it’ll always be my first record.”