It’s emblematic of Delaney Davidson’s natural perversity that the CD version of his new album, entitled ‘Shining Day’, is presented in a matt cardboard pack of decidedly muted colours. Perhaps the message is that his songs will shine out from the drabness of their enclosure – in the manner of the unpolished jewel from which he drew the name of his own label, Rough Diamond Inc Records. Amanda Mills caught up with the influential Lyttelton musician ahead of the release of his ninth album.
Delaney Davidson is an enigma. A troubadour, a raconteur, and an uncompromising musician, he has built a career on recording deep, dark country and rockabilly, while creating affecting and starkly honest music. A recording artist since 2004 with numerous albums under his belt, he seems to be forever touring, locally or internationally. He’s had a number of documentaries made on him – a process he describes as, “…a funny thing… it’s pretty confronting.”
If proof were needed of his importance as an artist, he was named an NZ Arts Foundation Laureate in 2015. Delaney says he found that to be a revelation, as he felt he could take stock and feel like he’d got somewhere.
“For me, that felt like a real milestone, in terms of, ‘people are actually watching what I’m doing, and people are actually interested in it.’
“I think I’ve gotten better at simplifying things,” he muses. “I definitely think you go through different phases, and you want to make things lush and rich, and you kind of want to take things away, I think now I’d like to keep it a simple picture… I’ve spent albums where I’ve really tried to get a polished, finished sound. You might not believe it to listen to my records, but I have!”
Delaney’s 2018 has suddenly turned very busy. He’s produced new albums by Lyttelton-based doom metal band Belladonna and by Christchurch songwriter Al Park. Songwriting with SJD and working with Barry Saunders has also been in his diary, with a forthcoming collaborative album and a show or two already under their belts.
Another current project has him working with Bruce Russell (The Dead C) on a Charlie Feathers’ tribute album. Performing together led to a recording plan. The process, which included playing blind off each other to some pre-recorded drum tracks, was an organic one.
“There was a lot of accidental stuff that, as long as you went with it, the end result was really good. But at the time… [it was] a rollercoaster,” Delaney grins. “For Bruce it’s funny,” he laughs again, “because it’s the most musical thing he ever did. And for me, it’s the most non [musical]! So, it’s some kind of happy medium in the middle there.”
Bruce Russell is also responsible for another development in Delaney’s life – the recent signing to UK label Glass Records Redux, a re-launched version of one of the key London independent record labels of the 1980s.
“He suggested I speak with them,” Delaney confirms. “He wrote an introduction, and… then we got it together pretty damn quick really.”
The original project with the label was a compilation album of his past material that ultimately didn’t happen, although it is still on the cards.
“I quite quickly decided… let’s do a whole new album. They were like, ‘Great, but where’s that going to come from?’ and I said, ‘I’ve actually got one here.’”
‘Shining Day’ is his ninth album, and two and a half years on from ‘Lucky Guy’ has a quite different sonic flavour to much of Delaney’s previous material, often branching away from his noir-country roots.
“Snatched out of the air,” as he remarks in the liner notes, in LA, Denver, London, Bern and Lyttelton, the gestation period for the album has been surprisingly long. Some songs date back to 2002 while others are 2018 new, ideas written to and worked up into demos on his laptop. He suggests any change in sound may be due to the preponderance of what he himself characterises as pretty rough and ready demoing.
“There’s always one or two home recordings on my albums, but to do quite a serious chunk of it, that was really nice. You always want to do something different… find new ways to develop. It really felt like pushing the light and the dark quite apart from each other… they don’t sit in the same song as much.”
Hugely experienced as a solo performer, Delaney has gained a considerable reputation locally from his recording collaborations with Marlon Williams and Tami Neilson. He believes heavily in collaboration. Sean Donnelly (SJD), and Neil Finn (no strangers to working together themselves) appear on ‘Shining Day’, on (respectively) the title track, The World is Mine and What Am I Doing Wrong, three of the highlights in an album of gems.
“I often put out the word, or make a lot of offers to people to collaborate… a lot of people don’t take you up on it, but then the people that do, that’s something in itself.
“Sean was really quick to jump on the collaboration idea. He’s a busy guy as well, so it kind of made sense to team up with him.”
Asking Neil Finn was more of a gamble in some ways.
“It was really amazing how that happened… I’ve got this sort of theory about asking people who you’re afraid of for their help, people who you look up to… Neil was really positive and encouraging, and suggested coming and doing a little bit of work with him at Roundhead.”
The album was subsequently mixed at Finn’s studio. Writing with others brings a quickening of ideas and decision making that Delaney enjoys. Other collaborators (Strange I Know co-writer Nathaniel Rateliff) and vocalist Nicole Izobel Garcia (his partner in Manos del Chango) on Washkas also brought indefinable elements.
“It’s quite a process… the shape changes so much from being an album that sounded like it was going to be quite soft at first… Washkas snuck through, and Ever Gonna See snuck through, and they both kind of bring balance back to an equal portion of light and dark.”
One song that will be familiar is So Far Away, which Davidson wrote and presents in a different way to Tami Neilson’s version.
“The way we recorded it on Tami’s album was probably more linked to the way I would play it, more rhythm and drive… a bit of anger maybe at the unfairness of distance, and how being so far away from your family can really feel like something you have to fight,” he explains. “But, the version I recorded is much more spacious and reflective. It’s got a stillness… If something’s still, then you have a lot of space around it which creates a large atmosphere.”
Davidson’s role as a producer is another powerful string to his bow of musical arts, and he notes the difference between producing his own material and producing for others.
“A fundamental point is when you produce somebody, you’re trying to take them beyond what they can do by themselves, that’s ultimately why they get you in!” he smiles. “You just can’t do that for yourself – you can’t go beyond yourself.
“Even though I’ve produced a lot of my own records, I’ve never been able to do for myself what I can do for [others]… you just have that natural advantage because you aren’t them!”
He credits a producers’ workshop at Roundhead Studio for changing his approach to production work.
“It became apparent that production to a lot of people is engineering, they think it’s about the sounds you’re getting. For me as a producer, you have to be so outside… it’s different sides of the brain, you still have to have that left side / right side thing. I think engineering’s right side and the artistic side’s left side. So, somehow I’ll always work with an engineer because I don’t want to be stuck concentrating on the controls, I want to be able to hear it properly.”
His 2018 will be typically nomadic with a six-month European tour ahead including shows with Marlon Williams.
“I’m definitely looking forward to getting the songs around. I guess it will be interesting to see as well how they adapt – once you introduce them into a live setting things change a lot,” he enthuses.
Post-European tour Davidson has plans for another NZ tour of his Magic Lightbox shows, complete with new films. His music videos are always theatrically striking, an important cinematic element bringing his songs to life. He’s created two short films but wants to expand the locales for the remaining films to England, and Europe.
“Because they’re quite heavily European-based and like Grimm’s Fairy Stories, I want to go to where they were based in South Germany and try to film some stuff,” he explains.
“The stories are cautionary tales or morals… ideas that it seems we’ve lost sight of, in the digital age, even though they are such human stories.”
There is a strong tie to his writing style – first-person perspective about emotions or situations, and he agrees there is an element of Romanticism in there.
“Romantic thinking is also coupled up with ideal thinking… there is a lot of that way of looking at things… I think there is a lot of that symbology in my work. It’s not just a theme, it’s also how it’s been presented that can make it feel that way.”
Darker elements of human nature frequently creep into his songs, as witnessed by track titles like Such A Loser and Bottomless Hole on his new album.
“It comes back to empathy. People who are in a darker place, they just want to know other people know what they’re going through. For some reason it just seems natural, I end up gravitating towards a lot of that stuff. It’s allegorical… the world takes us all over, and grinds us down, and spits us out the other end.”