This year’s headline act for the Essential Energy Wingham Akoostic Music Festival is legendary Australian singer songwriter, Richard Clapton.
Richard Clapton’s commercial breakthrough came with the single, Girls on the Avenue in 1975. The 1980s saw Clapton consolidate his career in the music industry, working with other artists and as a record producer. He continues to write, record and perform and this month will grace the stage at the Wingham Akoostik Music Festival. Amy Heague caught up with him to discuss music, Berlin, Pro Tools and everything in between.
Your songwriting has been branded as quintessentially Australian. What does that mean to you?
I guess something to be pleased about. I have written the soundtrack to people’s lives for the last three decades – which is good. When the shoe is on the other foot, and I am the listener, and some songwriter has written something that strikes a particular chord with me, I feel the same way.
You spent a lot of your early career in Europe. How did that time influence you as a songwriter?
Well, in those days I was pretty much exclusively influenced by what was going on in London and Germany in the late ‘60s/ early ‘70s. I hadn’t really had any experience in Australia; I mean … I‘d played the guitar, but I really cut my teeth playing in bands in London.
You initially went to Europe to pursue a career in graphic design. Did you always harbour a secret desire to be a musician?
No, I didn’t. I wanted to go to London to go to an art school, called Saint Martins in the Field, that was my intention. But I became so enamoured with Bob Dylan, to the point of having Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde album play me to sleep every night. It was just this very subtle metamorphosis, and before I knew it I found graphic design and painting and stuff like that, was a bit laborious for me – whereas what Dylan was doing was communicating instantly, and very powerfully.
Your 1977 album ‘Goodbye Tiger’, which was arguably one of Australia’s greatest albums, was written on a frozen beach in Denmark. How does that happen?
My career here in the ‘70s was very up and down, and there were a lot of conflicts with the record companies. The record companies were artistically very intrusive; they liked to have a lot of control over what you did artistically.
So I had the intention on moving to Berlin, and then I got an Australian Council grant – I think I’m the only Rock artist to receive a grant. Part of that grant enabled me to travel the world and write songs.
A frozen beach in Denmark … all my friends were in Berlin and went to Berlin University. I lived in a commune there in the early ‘70s, and Christmas break was taken in those Scandinavian countries. It’s a bit like Sydney people having a weekender on the Central Coast. So, that is the simple explanation of why I wrote those songs there.
After all that time in Europe, you headed to L.A. Did the move change your sound and where you headed as an artist?
Yeah, deliberately so. There again, it was Festival Records dictating a bit too much and wanting me to come up with an American sound. I don’t have real regrets about the Hearts on the Nightline album and its unashamedly American sound – in so far as it was produced by an American and all the musicians were American. Predictably, it very much had that LA sound to it.
I guess it was refreshing then to come home and start working in Sydney with the guys from INXS and Cold Chisel?
Yeah, because I met INXS when they were really young and Jon Farriss and I remain good friends to this day. What is that … 32 years now – God! Jon and I shared houses together through the ‘80s, and we were very creative together. We were a bit of an odd couple; but really, his thing was really vital to my life as an artist.
There was so much cross pollination and really strong ideas. INXS were really on fire in those days; they were just so creative, and they were churning it out. So I think because of Jon’s influence, it made me more aware of rhythm than I had been before that.
I’d been very set in my ways and being strictly a singer songwriter; when you are hanging out with a drummer every day, that rhythm is going to rub off.
So you have done a few albums recently?
Yeah, in 2005 I did Diamond Mine, and another album in 2006, Rewired – an acoustic album.
Did the these albums give you a fresh direction?
Well, with Diamond Mine, until the latest album (which I am going to release early next year) … I came from the old days of recording, where it was difficult to make an album for less than about a quarter of a million dollars, because the studios were like five grand a day to hire.
So you had the pressure on you to record the albums really quickly, and you didn’t really get second chances. At five grand day, you just had to go in there and get it done – so towards the end of those albums, we would go 4 and 5 days without sleep, because you had to bring it in on budget.
Then this century – I wrote Diamond Mine. I had this guy who wanted to invest in my career and I told him about Pro Tools, which is probably the most revolutionary component to music. So in some respects, Diamond Mine cost me nothing – just paying the musicians who played on it their fees. The whole album was recorded under my house, and the album I’ve just done was recorded there too. We did do a bit of recording like drum tracks in professional studio, but because I am a writer, the album is now costing virtually nothing.
It means artistically you can refine your ideas over long periods of time. There are songs on this album that I have been working on for four years, so it is absolutely fantastic for me and for the listener as well. You just end up with a better product with more substance, and I think much better structured ideas instead of the slap dash.
I guess as a songwriter, it gives you that time and grace to hone your craft.
Yeah … and live with it. I can come up with an idea, slap it down on Pro Tools, if I’m not vibing on it, I can file it away. Then I have these nights where I will just sit there and open up the files of ideas I’ve had – and something will jump out and I will think, “That’s really good”. It is the most liberating experience I’ve ever had in my career.
So you are heading up to Wingham for the Akoostik Festival in October. What can punters expect from you?
If you want to know if I am going to play Deep Water and Capricorn Rising, of course the answer is “yes”.