Australian blues musician C.W. Stoneking is touring New Zealand. He tells Elliott Childs about collaborating with Jack White and Queens of the Stone Age’s Josh Homme and reinventing himself throughout his career.
If you were unaware that C.W. Stoneking is, in fact, from the Northern Territory of Australia, his rough and ready voice and the stripped-down sound on his albums could convince you he was an old-timey bluesman from the southern United States.
“Lots of times I have people who, maybe their friend has brought them to the gig or something. They don’t even know until they’re talking to me after and they’re like ‘Have you got an accent?’”
And though he is just one generation removed from the USA - both parents were Americans who left for Australia - he seems to have come to the blues by accident.
“I didn’t really get it from [my father], he always had lots of music around and so I started learning guitar with him and my stepdad….but in my sort of listening rotation as a teenager, I did have old blues stuff I guess. But I wasn’t really thinking I was gonna base my life around that sort of music. At the start, I kinda thought it was a bit funny sounding.”
“There was just like... people you meet, situations come up, opportunities to get paid or whatever. And one thing leads to another and you find yourself developing an interest in it.”
The unique sound of Stoneking’s voice caught the attention of fellow blues fan Jack White (The White Stripes), who asked him to guest on his 2018 album Boarding House Reach. Recording the track ‘Abulia and Akrasia’ was a somewhat surreal experience for Stoneking.
“They just gave me an address and were like ‘You’ve got to wear black clothing and be at this building at some time’. I rolled up to the 8th floor or whatever it was and it was all lit up with dark blue light bulbs.”
“So then I had a couple of goes at it and he was like ‘Ah yeah, that’s great’. He was like ‘Do you like it?’ and I was like ‘Not really….it’s my voice, I don’t even understand what the words mean’. He just wanted to hear me talk.”
A recent duet on a version of ‘Silent Night’ with Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age was a more relaxed affair, though the quirky nature of these collaborations hasn’t gone unnoticed by Stoneking.
“They pick me to do all their weird shit! It’s like ‘why don’t you give me a real song?’” he laughs.
From the acoustic blues of King Hokum through to the “party record” sound of 2014’s Gon’ Boogaloo, each of Stoneking’s records has come with it’s own distinct style. With each new album his look has changed as well. So what’s the next incarnation of C.W. Stoneking going to be?
“Right now I’m incognito, you know? Just wasting time between records….But it’s hard to know exactly because often I’ll write a bunch of songs….There usually comes a time when they’re getting up to the shoulders and almost finished, then I start to look for the common thread and I’ll sort of nudge ‘em. I’ll fool with rhythms and stuff like that and try and get them combining and that’s probably where I’ll pick my outfit.”
“I’ve got sort of croony… I would call them jazz ballad sort of romantical sounding songs and some is more single chord, reminds me of Nina Simone or something, that sort of rhythmic sort of thing. And some bits of gospely stuff. I never know which ones is gonna make the cut, it’s a bit of a mix right now.”