A stalwart of the Kapiti Coast and Wellington blues scenes for many years, Al Witham is known as much for his deep baritone vocals as his performances, both solo and with a band. Recorded at ‘Al’s Garage’, his just-released third album is a largely solo effort. Del Thomas caught up with Witham to find out about how ‘Angel Bones’ came together.
In stark contrast to most modern day musicians, Kapiti-based blues man Al Witham says he only started playing when he was about 17.
“I got into Mississippi John Hurt and that folk blues thing with the alternating thumb basslines – ragtime style. I also loved Bob Dylan, so there was always a focus on lyrics, but with a rock attitude.
“It was just a hobby until I was in my mid 30s when I started playing in bands. By then, I was also writing songs. I realised I wasn’t the best singer but no-one else was going to sing my songs, so it was just the way to get the songs out there. Recording helps you sing better ’cos you hear what you really sound like, not what you think you sound like!”
Al played with Kayte And The Barflies for a while then recorded a solo album (‘Just Is’) in 2004. He was living next to Breaker Bay recording studio for a while and his 2009 follow up, ‘Faultlines’,was done there, with a band that included Wayne Mason, George Barris and drummer Richard Te One, who also produced.
“I started recording myself as I can’t afford to pay for studios nowadays – what with having a young family and mortgage… I was just working on an album but had no pre-conceived ideas about it.
“It’s been good doing it this way. The album really assembled itself as I went along as I’ve been learning to use this gear. It’s all originals except for two very old blues tracks. As I looked back on it and tried to work out the track sequence, I realised that a lot of the songs had some reference to death, even if it was just in passing, and that led me to thinking of bones. That became the working title for a while and then I realised there was a song about an angel and another about the devil – you know, these sort of dual things in people’s heads – so it became ‘Angel Bones’.”
The credits reveal that Al provided almost all the vocals, acoustic and electric guitar, bass and percussion – in fact all musical contributions on more than half the album’s 13 tracks.
“It’s mostly all me! Vocal, guitar, bass and some hand percussion, like clapping sticks together or banging a home-made drum! We had a full drum kit which we recorded here too. A friend, Jack Cromie, did that for me. And there are horns on a few tracks (Brian Romeril did them), and backing vocals on a few tracks by Julia Truscott who lives down the road. And Kevin Ludwig played some percussion as well.”
His voice is gritty, rough and often raw, perfectly-suited to his earthy style of blues and the material he sings about.
Amongst songs about devils and angels, love and death, For Eliza delicately starts; ‘When I saw my daughter, for the very first time, she fell into my hands in a slippery pile.”
It helps explain the several year gap since ‘Faultlines’, and also the minimal instrumentation used this time – he had to wait for the house to be empty to record any drums or horn parts. “I had a new family and that was my life for a couple of years. I’d also used all the songs I’d written on the last album – so I needed to write some more. But it took me a long time to learn the recording and mixing side of things. I did a lot of listening and editing! It’s like learning a new instrument.
“I was writing songs as I was going and working out how to arrange and record them. Working this way means I’m over-dubbing track by track, so it’s more of an assembly process in a way, but I always try to keep a live feel.
“If I’m doing vocals, I’ll do several takes and decide which is best. If I’ve got one that I like all the way through that’s great. But if it’s got a couple of things I’m not happy with I can edit it – but it’s only if it’s really bad that I’d do that. So, there’s the odd pitch wobble – but it wouldn’t be me if there wasn’t,” he laughs.
With the album released in July he played a gig at Studio 64 in Taranaki and will perform at the Capital Blues Club in Wellington in October, but says he has nothing else in the diary at the moment. It’s another challenge to be met in what has been a very independent album process.
“Organising bookings is another job that you have to fit in somewhere and recently I’ve been more concerned about getting the CDs manufactured and getting them out in time. The last album was released through Ode, but there are so few retail outlets nowadays that it’s hardly worth it. I’ve decided not to do Spotify. You get a pittance back and you may be under-cutting your digital sales that way. So it’s just on Bandcamp and the CDs will be available there too.”
While the Capital Blues Club gig will be with the band, he says he mostly plays solo – it’s the nature of the gigs that are available.
“I enjoy solo gigs ’cos you can go off on tangents, or if you do make a mistake you can wing it and go somewhere else. You might create something new but, with a band, you’ve got to be able to follow each other, so that means usually sticking to a structure – unless they’re really good improvisers!
“I’ve got a fairly rhythmic style of playing. But you need to put something interesting in there too, so it’s good to have that alternating bass with your thumb to whack out a beat and pick out a melody with your other fingers, play little leads across the rhythm.
“It’s nearly all standard tuning but I’ve got this old 1960s Dutch Egmond guitar I use in open A. I used that on the album for a couple of things, just to break it up a bit. I settled on open A because it suits my voice. I don’t have a wide vocal range – G is too low and D… I just can’t sing in D,” he admits with laughter.