You can tell Darren Watson enjoys a tongue-in-cheek joke just by the fact that he calls his own label Lamington Records, with a picture of whipped cream and cherry special as its logo. There are further clues in the title of his latest album, ‘Getting Sober For The End Of The World’, the cover picturing him reaching for a top-shelf whisky bottle – when the reality is that these days he’s given it away. Fellow blues aficionado Steve Hughes talked with Wellington’s top-shelf blues-folk musician, even going through the nine steps to ‘Getting Sober’ (the album that is).
Warming into our chat about ‘Getting Sober For The End Of The World’, Darren Watson talks about the music that originally led him into the “blues rabbit hole”. Early names like Tampa Red, Skip James and Sonny Boy Williamson lead on to more easily recognised artists like Eric Clapton and John Mayall who brought the music of black suffering to a new white audience. Since the late 1980s when he headed Chicago Smokeshop, Darren has been one of New Zealand’s best-known blues artists, and surprisingly well regarded in places like Memphis and other American hotbeds of the genre.
Now in his mid-50s and releasing his seventh (quite possibly best) album, Darren’s long been a serious artist yet doesn’t take himself too seriously and is increasingly awkward about being pinned with the ‘blues’ badge.
“I struggle with calling myself a bluesman, it feels like it’s cultural appropriation really. I’ve never been arrested for the colour of my skin, I’ve never had those kinds of struggles… So I think what I do is take music that I love from all over the place, a lot of it is really bluesy, and just try and put my own voice on it.
“That might sound kind of pretentious, but lately I’ve felt like finding my voice has meant I’m not so precious about the blues as I used to be. I don’t feel like I’m on that crusade to sell it as a genre anymore, and I think I probably was a zealot.
“It’s a story that’s as old as time. Bill Lake, who I’m a big fan of, he’s got this song called Grown Out Of The Blues, which I really love, and I think he’s been on this journey too. How you love something to death and you try and do it, and somewhere along the way you realise that you’ve made something new for yourself, and you’ve grown out of that thing.
“I listen to a hell of a lot of country, and hip hop. Although that probably doesn’t come out in my music it definitely comes out in the way I write lyrics. What the story is is as important as how you tell it – that’s where I’m coming from with this record. It’s still a bluesy record, man there’s some 12-bar blues in it, but it’s not a record that a blues purist would say, ‘That’s a great cover of Muddy Waters,’ etc. I find that a lot of blues songwriters tend to recycle the same stuff, and I didn’t want to do that.”
Before we dig deeper into his new album I ask Darren if there was any time or event in his career that stands out as being a special ‘changing moment’? I was thinking maybe a trip to the States, meeting one of those famed musician heroes, but his answer concerns a local hero.
“I think when I signed to Pagan Records and I met Trevor Reekie, who ran the label. I realised there was a world of music that I’d been missing out on because, that label, and Trevor in particular, had this philosophy that they would release what they liked. They didn’t have a brand, they didn’t have a genre that they were stuck in. They had The Warratahs, Paul Ubana Jones, Shona Laing, Ardijah…
“When I met Trevor it was in the late ’80s. The big buzzword at the time was ‘alternative’, that was the cool thing, right? Trevor’s kind of buzz was ‘the only alternative is to listen to everything’, and that’s still the phrase that sticks in my head. It kind of forms how I live my life musically, and as soon as those blinkers came off that’s when I became a songwriter.
“Because before then I’d been obsessed by being the authentic blues guy, learning everything note for note. And part of me is still that geeky. But the thing that got me writing and realising that I could do my own thing with it was Trevor Reekie taking a chance on a bunch of kids from the Hutt Valley playing blues, and seeing something in it, and maybe in me, that I didn’t know was there.
“That was a long time ago, and it’s only now that I really appreciate it. Of course at the time I took it on board, but as I get older I appreciate it more and more. That man deserves a knighthood if anyone does, he probably wouldn’t take it, but the good he’s done for the NZ music industry (and continues to do…). I’m gonna give that one to Trevor, he’s a good man, hanging out with him showed me this other world that I didn’t know existed.”
Thirty years on now from that spectacularly entertaining Smokeshop era, Darren describes ‘Getting Sober For The End Of The World’ and his prior release, 2018’s ‘Too Many Millionaires’, as his two most consistent albums.
“Before I’ve jumped around a bit stylistically – generally in the blues idiom, but with other influences. This one is acoustic, it’s recorded mostly live, and is not a ‘blues record’ as such. I’m just in a vein of writing where I think I’ve found my voice if you know what I mean.
“The aim I think, for me, is to try and get away from something that sounds overproduced. I’ve done it to myself in the past, I’ve over-polished songs, smoothed all the edges. The vocals here were recorded at the same time I played guitar, with everyone else in the room.”
“I’m really comfortable with it you know,” he says brightly. “Which I haven’t been before… I’ve always made an apology for this or that, feeling like it wasn’t quite right.”
Just as well he’s liking the album since he recorded, produced and mixed it himself, in the comfort of his own Ngaio home, so he’s really got no one else to blame. One result I easily spot and applaud, is the upfront presence of his vocals. Darren admits that in the past he was hiding his voice, overly conscious of little mistakes and blemishes in it.
“Over the last few years I’ve realised that the things that are good about the way I sing are the mistakes,” he laughs. “You shouldn’t hide from the little idiosyncrasies that make you you. Actually, you should bring them forward.
“‘Getting Sober’ was recorded live, with no fixes or polishing. I spent a lot of time just playing it on my own, getting comfortable with performing it. A lot of time you do a scratch vocal while you’re recording, and then go back and do the finished vocal on its own, but I think that process destroys something. There’s something about the way I sing when I’m playing that I can’t reproduce when I don’t have a guitar in my hand. Plus the fact that I got to mix myself this time! I really did zone in on the voices, the front and centre thing, and worked on bringing it out so it felt like the vocals were the main thing in each song, with everything else behind it.”
Righto Darren, how about we now take a walk along the album tracks and you tell us a bit about each of them? Getting Sober For The End Of The World is a great song, with a DIY video that’s lots of fun. Darren sees the song as a “darkly funny” way to get people thinking about the future of the planet. The upbeat track incorporates brass, keyboards, double bass combining in a positive thought for the future.
“I was thinking about what kind of world we going to leave our grandkids if we don’t sort it out. And I have actually got sober – I don’t drink anymore. And I thought it was kind of a funny title! Also I thought it was a good way to start the record, a welcome, with a bit of a laugh and some emotion at the same time.
“Musically speaking it bops along real nice. I wasn’t going to put horns on anything, but it was such a New Orleans-post funeral feel it just needed horns! Dayle Jellyman’s piano on it is astoundingly good, as always, and it just all came together.”
“I just wanted to get a Sun Records’ vibe, Elvis before the drums you know, 1955, ’56. That’s the way it came out really, just double bass [Steve Moodie], guitar, a bit of shaker and a harmonica [Terry Casey]. Very simple, rural kind of country blues, and tongue in cheek.
“It’s written-large in Donald Trump obviously, a statement about all the typically male boastful bullshit – being a self-made man isn’t really possible, so many things and people help get you there. And it almost rocks despite there being no drums! ‘He’s got all the love he needs in his own arm ends’, I think that was my favourite line!
“Matt Hay wrote this and it’s a lovely tune. Matt’s a really good friend of mine, we go way back. This was on his last record and I just love the song and wanted to give it more kind of… hips. Haha! Delia Shanly’s playing on this is amazing. She’s playing bass drum and snare (with the snare off), with her fingers. Then she adds the tom on the backbeat in the choruses, and this little finger shaker. It’s incredible what she plays on this. And my mate Craig Denham played beautiful accordion, from his flat in Prague!
“It’s one of my favourites, so un-blues – more Los Lobos’y maybe? It could also be something off a Lyle Lovett record, and I’ve been listening to him for 30 or 40 years now, so no doubt that’s rubbed off!”
“It’s freaky how things happen. It could be a perfect lockdown song really, it’s got that vibe about it. I’ve dealt a lot over the years with depression and anxiety, and I guess it’s in those lines. It’s just me playing guitar and singing, and Steve Moodie playing really amazing sparse but perfect double bass – it’s the space that makes it.
“These songs aren’t necessarily about me, just about the passing of time. I should maybe have called this one Same Shit Different Day! When I went back and put a beat counter on it we’d done it at 60bpm! That was gold, it’s a ticking clock!”
Actually, this was the first track Darren mentioned as we talked earlier about his development as an artist, it’s important and an album standout.
“To find our voice from whatever music that we love, that’s the journey that we’re all on. And that’s probably why Ernie Abbott resonates as well because it’s from here. It’s got elements of all the music I love, but the story is ours. It’s not New Orleans, it’s not Chicago, it’s not Mississippi… it’s Wellington. And it’s taken me a very long time to get to the point of being comfortable doing that. If I’d written that song when I was 30 I probably would have been too embarrassed to put it out because I would have been, ‘Oh, it’s not ‘blues’ enough.”
Pathos and anger make this a focal point of his album, a dark emotional sound with strong vocal and lyrics, a standout tribute to a good man who needlessly and tragically died.
“There is a lot of emotion in singing about Ernie Abbot, it’s 36 years now since he was murdered, and there isn’t a day passed that I don’t think about it. It really affected me and turned me on to thinking politically, knowing there are people out there who wanted to do us harm.
“It’s just 46bpm, I don’t know how we played it that slow! I wanted it to be a funeral march, quite dark and emotional. And I wanted the lyrics to tell a story that touches people’s emotions. Basically, I’m trying to manipulate everyone as usual! But more than anything I’ve written before, it’s really me. It’s the closest I’ve got to what’s inside me without any filter. I actually felt like a genuine songwriter when I finished that one. And we all knew when we had finished recording that it was something special if that’s the one that gets remembered out of everything I’ve done I’ll be quite happy with that!”
A jaunty track with solid expressive drums that roll it along, and notably Mavis Staples’ long time musical director playing some luscious vibrato-rich guitar throughout. But who is this Alison Jane?
“No idea! I came up with a really cool riff, wrote a bunch of words about a fantasy woman, and had a melody for the chorus that needed a four-syllable woman’s name.”
Darren turned to his Facebook community and got 170 replies, none of which worked, but putting the last two suggestions together he got ‘Alison Jane’ and the song was finished.
“I was thrilled beyond words when my friend Rick Holmstrom agreed to lay down some much-needed Telecaster spank on Alison Jane, recorded at his friend’s LA studio during lockdown. To have one of my all-time guitar heroes on my record is… well, suffice to say I’m still pinching myself!”
“Basically continuing the theme I started with Planet Key I guess, the idea that demagogues are dangerous and worshipping politicians for their personalities is dangerous, regardless what side of the fence you’re on. The last verse turns it around to say we need to look at ourselves who elected them there. Just the four of us in the room recording live – basically it’s an excuse for Terry Casey to be an awesome harmonica soloist! I really like this song. It’s hard to write a 12-bar blues that’s catchy, but I think I pulled it off with that one, it’s cool!
Played solo in the Mississippi blues vein, with Beltona slide and Terry Casey again adding harmonica.
“It’s definitely old-style country blues, basically written about a friend’s issues. I keep trying to break lyrics down to the most simple possible combinations, and this is possibly as simple as it gets. I used the Skip James’ DADGAD tuning. At the end I wanted it to sound like it was breaking up, so re-recorded it with a mic, played through my amp.”
“It’s kind of an end of the night album really, I wanted it to be a journey. But I’m not a preachy guy at all, and that’s why I thought this would be a perfect bookend. I know how to play most of his tunes, and love playing this one, but actually, I recorded this as a mic test at the start of the album process!”
Performed almost a capella it’s not a Robert Johnson song that other artists often cover. It’s just rhythm and a single string from his steel guitar, doing that crazy hand jive up and down the neck. Jump blues that can get the place pumping. And it brings us both to the end of his album. The inevitable closing question is posed, where to from here?
“Well, the thing we’re doing with this record that I’ve never done before is that we’re giving it a bit of a nudge in Australia. I’m going to try to pick up a bit of work over there when all this Covid thing is over and we can get back to business.
“We’ve engaged Stuart Coupe, who is Paul Kelly’s old manager. He really likes the record, so has agreed to help push it and get it in front of the right people. And then in the long term, hopefully, Europe. I’ve got a few contacts in Austria, and France who are quite interested. So I’ll keep teaching, keep working, and broaden the base so that when this pandemic is sorted I get to travel a bit more!
“And keep improving. I’ve set a benchmark now, I’ve gotta make the next record better. No pressure!”