Interviewer – Benjamin Smith
William Crighton is an imposing man. Standing at about 6’3” with a bushranger’s beard Crighton also possesses an enormous, booming voice, which he applies to songs of love and death. Crighton’s self-titled debut, released last year has earned Crighton the respect of much of the industry and garnered him a pretty decent following amongst the indie/roots set around the country.
I first saw him play at the Beyond Festival, held in the heavily wooded foothills of the mountains surrounding Canberra. He spoke then of his time growing up in the Riverina and living close by in the Burrinjuck region. His songs are both personal and philosophical. They speak to his experiences in a way that can be both liberating and disturbing.
Earlier this month Crighton gave a Sunday afternoon performance to a much smaller audience at Smith’s Alternative, the tiny shambolic bookstore turned performance space for all things known and unknown in the nation’s capital. To give an idea of the breadth of performance Smith’s specialises in, the stage has hosted everyone from punk legends to big brass bands to random people just doing shit naked, and that’s just in the last month or so. It is as anomalous as it is glorious.
The tiny place is packed to capacity for the show which features Canadian songstress Terra Lightfoot as the opening act; an artist probably best described as experimental country. Her business is a kind of raw Americana blended with looping and the work of a thousand pedals. It’s homely and its warm; comfortable in a way that’s familiar but unusual enough to be engaging in the most subtle of ways. The effect of all that being that her music operates in ways that aren’t immediately obvious but that mean the songs linger for days, if not weeks, after you first hear them.
When Crighton takes the stage around five-ish it is a family affair; his wife and brother joining him as back-up singer and bass player respectively. The songs, as heard on the record, have a kind of slick quality in the production. That quality enhances their accessibility and puts on display the subtlety in the songcraft, but as is so often the case with the recording process it does not, maybe cannot, capture the tenderness of the more vulnerable moments to which they allude and can definitely not capture the ferocity of the moments when Crighton vents his disillusionment or frustration.
Most of the tracks he plays in this condensed set feature on that debut, but there are also a few newer tracks taken out for a test run. Those are some of the moments during the show to which the audience react most, an unusual feat. There is a portion of the set when the band exit the stage and leave William Crighton, just a man with a guitar, to hold his own. There is a palpable change in the mood of the room and the crowd seem to lean in simultaneously, eager to be closer to the single, striking figure whose presence now seems to fill the space previously reserved for four.
There is a track for which William forgoes his guitar and delivers acapella. His piercing eyes focus on something in the middle distance only he can see. Every note, every syllable is delivered so wrought with emotion, so loaded with intensity, that the entire room is left awestruck. It is a moment of undeniable electricity; one not entirely comfortable but nonetheless so moving that the few tracks which follow are laid low by its lingering weight.
Afterwards audience members approach, with some trepidation generally, the merch desk where both he and Lightfoot make time to chat with fans. Some seem taken aback by his warmth and humility, perhaps expecting someone brooding and moody as a result of the emotional wringer through which he’s just put them. Lightfoot signs copies of her records, including the latest ‘New Mistakes’ and Crighton dishes out signed copies of the limited edition 7” Hope Recovery, which includes a most sparse version of Neil Young’s ‘After the Goldrush’ and live set standard ‘Talking to God’
After allowing him a couple of swigs off a well-earned beer, William and I sit down and chat about family, Neil Young and the business of the music business.
BS: Will. Great show as always
BS: I wanted to ask you about the intimacy that comes with playing small rooms like this. As you’re music becomes more popular and as you become better known and the rooms you play to get bigger, is it hard to maintain that same sense of intensity and connection with the audience?
WC: I’ll have to judge that when I get there. I’ve played some bigger rooms than this and I know what you mean but I think it’s just a matter of connecting with the audience. Every audience is different, so you have to connect with them differently. But at the same time, everyone is the same so I think that honesty is the key. I think if an audience member shows up and wants to have an honest experience with me, I’m ready to have one with them. I’m putting it out there and if people wanna respond to that it’s up to them. I can never force anything upon anybody. I can only do what I do and if people like it, that’s a bonus.
BS: there is, I think, in your performances an intensity and almost a darkness that comes with your enormous voice and your size and your demeanour. Does that mean that it’s difficult to sometimes bring some levity to the music that you write and perform? Is it something you are conscious of?
WC: I don’t know I guess I just write from the heart and from my experiences, and at least half of those are dark. It’s like a day and night. Life is at least half-dark, if you want to look at it like that. But on the other hand, what is dark? What is light? It’s all just what it is. If you’re going to write a happy positive song, it’s not really happy or positive if that’s your intention in the writing. I just write what I write. If it’s dark, it’s dark. I mean you kind of get an accurate translation of how I’m feeling. I don’t really consider myself as dark. I just consider myself as playing songs from my heart and how I feel. I’m not the most proficient musician but I get it across because I feel it I suppose. But it’s a hard question. Am I dark? I don’t know.
BS: I feel like I should clarify that what I meant was that it can come across that way because of the imposing nature of your stature and look and because of the depth of your voice.
WC: Yeah, and I sing a lot about death, I suppose. But I think that you can get the misconception that death is a bad thing. It’s a common cliché but in all knowingness losing your wallet is worse that dying if you add up all of what we know about the afterlife. I know that if I lose my wallet there is going to be a lot of struggle to get things back on track. I’ve got to go to the RTA I have to go to the bank; I’ve got to do all that. If I die, I don’t know what there is. And everything goes there. Everyone is there. Everything that has ever lived has died, so we are only going where every other thing that has ever been has gone. Or just recirculated and I sing a lot about that because I find that it’s an outlet for happiness for me. It makes me happy to sing about those things. It doesn’t necessarily make me sad or dark to sing about dying.
BS: that’s an interesting perspective and probably one that requires more introspection than our time here allows.
WC: Yeah, and look I think it’s because we’re aware of this place which is centred around the kind of Christian thinking. That idea that there is a heaven and there is a hell and there is a dark place that you go if you’re bad and a good place you go if you’re good, but I just think we’re here to learn and it’s all just the one thing.
BS: that’s an idea that’s reflected in your lyrics, where you say ‘evil is a myth, but good on the other hand is right there at your fingertips’ (a line from Crighton’s song “Smile”).
WC: yeah, I don’t think evil exists. It’s up to us to make good the situation that we’re in. We judge evil by the consequences on the human being. Yes, there are bad things to do. There are unfortunate things to do, that’s for sure. But evil itself I don’t think exists.
BS: on a somewhat different note, I know you have children and a young family. How have you found trying to balance the challenges of being a family man with the life that comes with being on the road and being a touring musician and the demands on your time?
WC: that’s a good question. I’ve done a lot of travelling this year and I’ve seen a lot less of the kids than I would have liked. But when we are around we have quality time. And a lot of the time the kids come on the road too. But I write about life, and so I have to be out there living it and if I’m just on the road trying to pay the bills then the songs probably aren’t going to be that interesting so I always try to keep that in mind. I love to play music and I have to pay my bills and combining the two is always a difficult process but I think that where I’m at, I just go away and play and when I’m at home, I just work with furniture and work in the garden and see my kids. I don’t know how I’m going to manage that but I guess I’ll just manage that the same way I manage anything else. If it ever comes to seeing my kids over the music; I’ll just see my kids and not play music.
BS: I know that you’re working on a new album and that you’re right in the middle of the writing and recording process. There is song you play in your sets, I think called Morning Song. Will that be on the new album?
WC: yep, that’ll be on the new album. I just tried out a few new ones today. Morning song is one that probably isn’t on the dark side, going back to how you’re looking at things from before. Yeah, sometimes you can get down because there is a lot to get you down. You just have to open the newspaper or look on ABC or CNN or go online or whatever. There is a lot of facts that don’t really mean anything and then when you get to the centre of things you realise that all the beauty and all the things that you want to feel just come with the morning sun and it’s just that simple. Look after the place and I think that’s what Morning Song is about. We get depressed and it’s all our own doing.
BS: there was another song that you played today, one that you did acapella. There were also some you did with the band and some you did on your own. How do you get a feel for whether a song needs just a voice and a six string or a full band or any instrumentation at all to give it the space to do what it’s meant to do? When do you know when to leave it alone?
WC: every gig we do is different. Sometimes we do that song acapella and sometimes the whole band comes along. I guess it depends on what the gig is. That song is a story so I always remember going to Tamworth and seeing bush poets and they just tell a story without any music or anything, but they put some kind of rhythm to and it has it’s own melody and I always used to love that. And then the Beat poets as well, I was always into and so sometimes I just enjoy telling the story without any music at all.
But going back to what you were saying before I’m just trying to process and a lot of people call me dark but I think we are what we are and there is no real…there is illumination and darkness and you know, what is darkness? Is it an inability to see or is an actual feeling.
BS: I think that in good music of the kind you make, rootsy kind of stuff, there is a long tradition of, even when there is a lightness on the surface, it’s contrasted by something more sinister or at least more complex below the surface or sitting just at the periphery. I always thought that about the likes of Leonard Cohen, who you’re obviously influenced by, I thought it about Neil Young, who you cover and who your music takes a lot from and of course Nick Cave, with whom there are obvious comparisons. With a lot of those guys if you listen in the most shallow of ways to what they do you might be quick to think ‘what a miserable bunch of pricks’. But in truth I think they’re often celebrating that complexity which is where all the interesting elements of humanity lie.
WC: yeah. It fills you with hope.
BS: yeah, and sometimes you just have to look a little harder to see the light. One other question I wanted to ask was, and I’m not usually inclined to ask artists to explain their work, but what is the promise of Neil Young?*
*(In the track “Jesus Blues” from Crighton’s self-titled debut record he rages “life in the hospice, driving a pan tech truck. Just business men on the radio, I want the promise of Neil Young”.
WC: Well it’s what we were just talking about. It’s a lot of things. When I first heard Neil Young, he filled me with hope and the confidence and the strength to be what I want to be and to recognise the uniformity of the consciousness of human beings who can also articulate our own individual perspective. I think that that is what that was for me when I heard him and when I listen to the radio I hear a lot of businessmen telling artists to do this and do that and there is no expression. And then you have artists growing up who aspire to be that rather than to express themselves in an honest way and rather than aspiring to be the songlines of our generations. Dylan for instance is a songman obviously, but if there was no music business he would have just been like the blokes in whatever tribes, sitting around carrying the stories of people. That as musicians is our job: to tell stories and to entertain but also to fill people with love and hope and to be a reflection and to make people dance and all of that. But I think most importantly it’s an act of human expression and when it’s put in the box of the corporate model, things cannot be what they are. I mean of course there are exceptions but because there are always boxes to tick and because there always things you can and can’t say I feel like it contradicts the meaning and the purpose of music. And so when I hear Neil Young, I just hear purity in no matter what he does. Sometimes he’ll just play with feedback for half an hour and you might not like how it sounds but it’s an honest expression. And I think that’s all I was trying to get across with that lyric.
BS: Neil Young is an interesting example there because he famously has resisted any attempts to curtail his creative instincts, to the point where he has spent vast amounts of time and money in litigation. I also wonder though about the kind of musical environment in which Neil Young came up and the one in which you now find yourself and the enormous differences between the two, particularly in the way music is produced, marketed and distributed. One the one hand it’s much harder for record companies, and subsequently artists, to sell product and so make money but on the other hand, it also means that there is likely to be a little more freedom in that you are able to produce your own music relatively cheaply and distribute it through your own networks without corporate intervention or even the need for it. Do you feel like you have a freedom that artists who have gone before you didn’t have because of both changing attitudes and technology that facilitates artist-led production?
WC: yeah. I do. I think that we have those platforms to say what we want to say and play what and where we want to play and make the records we want to make and if we find a corporate entity that embraces what we do, that’s fantastic; that’s wonderful. That’s the key; that freedom. It’s an interesting conversation to have because at the end of the day you have to ask yourself what it is that you’re doing it for. Like I know what makes me feel good and I like to make other people feel those things and I also like to make a bit of money and I know that I also like to just have a play for no particular purpose. So I think it’s just a system of having lots of balls in the air and figuring out what’s right for the individual. But at the same time the key is just not to lose that honest expression, because I know that when I’ve gone down those paths, even if there is no 3rd party; even if it is just in your mind that you add those impurities, it’s important to unframe that. And I just have my take on it and it is what it is.
BS: you’re touring with Canadian artist Terra Lightfoot at the moment. She is an amazing artist and the combination and contrast of your styles is a pretty good fit. Where did you guys connect and how is it that you come to be touring together at this point?
WC: well, a friend of mine introduced me to her music and I’d just been to Canada and I’d heard her music and met her in Toronto at Canadian Music Week and I loved how she plays and what she channels and what she sings and she’s got a good message. It’s a message I relate to. She is a woman who plays the guitar very well and knows how to put on a show, to however many people that might be at any show. So we got to know each other and she has come here to open some of my shows here and I’m going to open some of her shows in Canada.
BS: will there be an opportunity for you to share a stage together, a chance for some shared stage time as well as your separate shows?
WC: well, yeah. Maybe we’ll throw that out there and see what happens. That Sam Cooke song is a good one; I do love that song.*
*(In her set, Terra Lightfoot does an inspired version of Cooke’s “Bring it on Home to Me” which astounds the audience and sets the bar for the rest of the show so high it would probably be out of reach for most performers.)
BS: William Crighton, thanks for hanging out good luck with the rest of the tour, we’ll see you soon
WC: thanks Benjamin
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