News October 27, 2015

Interview: Joe Camilleri celebrates 50 years in biz with a chart hit

Some years ago, when Joe Camilleri went on stage to pick up an award for The Black Sorrows, their then-record label Chief Denis Handlin quipped, “There’s no finish line for you, is there Camilleri?”

Joe Camilleri agrees that it’s a good way to sum up his 50 years in the business. He and long-time songwriting collaborator Nick Smith regularly work on ideas without a definite project in mind. Camilleri then decides which of his bands they’ll come out through. “You want to keep out of your comfort zone, that’s what keeps the songs coming. There’s something about two hours on stage where you feel brilliant, you feel brand new, and for that little time, you feel like Peter Pan. That’s why Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, are still on the road. Dylan’s got a house I’m sure, but he still lives in hotel rooms,” he tells TMN.

Camilleri turned 66 in May. He started out as a boy singing at weddings (and returned to doing weddings to fund the completion of 1987’s Dear Children). He served his apprenticeship in R&B bands, one which sacked him for his Jagger mannerisms and upstaging the others. He then exploded with two of the best bands to come out of Australia – Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons and The Black Sorrows.

The highly acclaimed new Black Sorrows album Certified Blue has added to the 50th celebrations by giving him his first mainstream chart appearance in almost a decade. They are about to go out on tour shortly.

Camilleri has set up his career where he has total control, is under no pressure to have a hit, and can work in any style he chooses. He has remained fiercely independent. Even during stints with Mushroom and Sony, he insisted execs stay out of the studio and hear only the finished product.

Elvis Costello performed your song with the Falcons, So Young, as an encore every night on a world tour. Do you feel a kinship to the way he’s set up his no-holds-barred career?

“Yes, there is a similarity of some kind in our careers. Elvis was a big fan of Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons. He found our first record at Gaslight (a store in Melbourne) and championed it. We first toured together in 1978. We were their equals; The Attractions had better songs but we were better musicians. We were their opening act but they’d encourage us to do an encore. At our first show in London, all of them: The Pretenders, Rockpile, Nick Lowe, they were all there checking us out. Elvis fell in love with So Young and gave it to Nick Lowe to record. Apparently Nick couldn’t get the right feel on his version so he threw the record out the window! Elvis told me that his King of America was partly inspired by Sonola (the Sorrows country rock album), which was nice to hear. Last year The Falcons toured with him for A Day On The Green because he asked us to.”

Was it a deliberate decision that a Sorrows record come out in your 50th year?

“No, Certified Blue was supposed to come out last year. I didn’t even realize (2014) was my 50th until someone added up the figures and told me.”

How does Certified Blue stack up against the other 16 albums?

“It’s not a big shift in what I’ve done, I just used the instrumentation in a different way. Me and Nick started writing the songs, Certified Blue and Call Me A Fool were the first two, they had a ‘50s soul feeling which was very attractive to me. I thought we had a nice bunch of songs. Wake Me Up In Paradise is a beautiful song, so it Lovers Waltz.”

Is there a specific project you’d like to do one day?

“I haven’t made an instrumental album. I’d dearly love to do that. That would take up an incredible amount of time on my behalf to be good enough to do it. I’d like to make an R&B Junior Walker-style record, it’d be challenging for me. I’d love to play with a symphony orchestra, that’s attractive.”

What about a musical based on your songs?

(horrified) “Are you crazy? What are you talking about?” (laughs)

Looking back at 50 years, what’s been one high?

“There are hundreds. My first high was when Jo Jo Zep played at the Opera House. I think it was some Mushroom event, there were also bands from the 60s, and I felt just part of a fraternity. I really felt I belonged there. It was a beautiful day and I have very fond memories of it. Another fond memory, but very sad, is when The Back Sorrows went to Switzerland (for the first time) and we sold just two tickets. We took the two of them out for dinner. Three months later we did a festival in Switzerland, the word got out, and we played the same venue and the line outside went forever.”

You dress sharp, you drive a cool 1960s Ford Thunderbird, what’s the best pair of shoes you’ve got?

“I bought a pair of snakeskin boots in Austin, Texas the day Collingwood won the (AFL) Grand Final in 1990. But, better, in Los Angeles, I found these leather high heel green and black Beau Brummel shoes which my wife at the time wouldn’t let me wear. So I put it up as an art piece!”

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