Q ’n’ A: Don Walker
We sat down with one of Australia’s finest songwriters to discuss his storied career, his new album, future Cold Chisel plans, and whether he’ll ever find a few spare hours a day to write his next book.
Hully Gully was recorded over several years. Was this done out of necessity because you are busy, or is this how you prefer to record?
That’s how I’ve been recording. If we find ourselves on tour somewhere with some new songs in the set, we’ll go in and book a day in the studio and see what happens. I almost never book more than a single day.
Even though your three albums were recorded so far apart, they seem to hang together sonically. How do you know where to place your songs? Do you stockpile for your solo records as opposed to Cold Chisel, or Tex, Don and Charlie, or is it way less planned than that?
Well, it’s usually pretty clear whether a song is suitable for me, or Tex and Charlie, or Cold Chisel. It’s just pretty clear from the song, they are three different kinds of things. Sometimes you can write a song that could be done by either of those people, or by another person. There are a few examples of that.
Is that why you did Everybody with Cold Chisel, as well as placing it on this record?
Yes. I recorded this version of Everybody in 2010. Before that, a girl had a hit with it in South Africa in 2003. There was another version [by Abi Tucker] that was done for a television show in 1999/2000. So, that’s one song that can be done by anybody.
You did similar with Yakuza Girls.
In that case, Cold Chisel did a version of it, and I was looking for songs I could do live, that would suit the rockabilly element of my band, and Yakuza Girls just fit it. In the case of Everybody, I recorded it first and Cold Chisel heard that recording and said, “We’d like to have a go at this song.”
With a song like Young Girls, for example, does anything specific trigger a song like that, or is it more about a feeling?
No, it was triggered by driving along Ward Avenue and seeing a young girl on a corner on a hot summer’s day, drinking a beer and squeezing a pimple on her arm (laughs), in a blue singlet.
I suppose the flip-side to that song is Angry Women, which is the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of, well, the female psyche – one comes early in the piece, the other later. Was there a conscious decision to almost bookend the album with those different side of the coin?
No, I never thought of those things. With Angry Women, that’s just me having fun with a story.
It sounds spontaneous, at least the recording of it.
That’s just that bunch of guys – an early version of [Walker’s backing band] The Suave Fucks – going in and pressing record, and yes, you’re right. No-one’s reading charts.
There’s a hopefulness to the record as a whole. Would you agree with that?
I hope so. I’ve had close friends and family say that I paint a bleak or cynical view, and I have never thought I did. I always thought that what I did was funny and entertaining. (laughs)
One would hope that on this album, there is a bit of hope and uplift on it.
Songs like Pool and Fishing deal with small, or seemingly inconsequential, subject matter, but in a big-picture way. Is that something you aim to get across?
The things you are pointing out, when you say them, I think, “Oh yeah, he’s right” but they aren’t things that are designed, or pre-thought about. The kind of things you’re pointing out are things that I am noticing later, when people point them out.
Do you find that with Cold Chisel songs, too, that you can look at them now and go, “Oh, this song was obviously about this, or this point in my life”?
Yes. Exactly. It’s a lot clearer in retrospect what’s going on with the album, then it was at the time, or during the writing.
A friend of mine pointed out that Cold Chisel tracks sound almost nostalgic for the time they were being written.
Nostalgic for the present?
Yes, I explained it a bit clumsily but do you know what I mean?
No, I don’t think that’s clumsy, I think that’s fantastic. I think that’s great (laughs). I never thought of that, but I think he’s right.
That’s possibly why those songs still appeal to different age groups. You struck a nerve with an older generation while you were younger.
Have you been to a Cold Chisel concert recently?
So you might notice there’s a lot of people there that have never seen the band before, a lot of them because they weren’t born.
I suppose post, say, 1984/85 fans would have come in through FM radio or the Greatest Hits, then explored the albums.
And more and more, the theory: that we are playing to people who are reliving their youth, just doesn’t stack up.
I agree. Back to Hully Gully. Why did you decide to place two versions of Pool on the record.
With Pool I had the lyrics first, then sat down to figure out what the music might be like, and finished up with two songs – completely different – and in the end I thought I’d put both of them out.
The major version works well as a closer.
Yes. I’d never thought that much about what should be an end song, and what song should be at what position on an album. But I think the major 7th version of Pool definitely sounds like the end of the night.
With your solo records in general, they all hang in the same space. Is that because, as you said, you will tour them, and record in studios along the way? Does the live band drive the arrangements or vice versa?
Across my three solo albums, they are three different [musician] lineups, so they sound a little different, but they also sound a lot the same. I think that’s because there’s a particular sound that goes with these stories. The stories hang together across three albums and across [Walker’s book] Shots, and so the musical landscape behind those stories is going to have a certain consistency. And although lineup changes may occur in the band, slowly over a decade or two, new people who come in have similar skills and paint similar pictures.
How do you feel about touring these days? You obviously did a lot in your early days. How do you keep interested?
I love touring, because the five guys and myself really enjoy the company and the process and the music, and we have a lot of fun. I’d like to do more of it. But I’m not an industry. I don’t have the demand, or the market to go out and tour twelve months a year.
In an ideal world, would you split that twelve months between your different projects?
In an ideal world, it would be me and the Suave Fucks playing to 83,000 people at Telstra Stadium. And then doing it again the next night.
Has there been any thought regarding the next Cold Chisel album? Or is that outside your focus right now?
No, there’s been a fair bit of thought about it, and some initial writing, but there’s a long way to go yet. The first thing is songs, and we don’t have any songs yet that are getting us all excited. But we are having a bit of a plug at it. We got together a month ago, it was the first time we’d actually tried to write together in a little room, in a little studio. The first time in forty years. That was enjoyable. None of the songs we came up with were great, but that process was a bit of a revelation.
Have you co-written before? I know there are songs with co-writing credits, but it seemed like you augmenting someone’s song, or vice-versa, or doing so remotely.
Not within Cold Chisel. I’ve done that myself, elsewhere. HQ 454 was a co-write with Troy Cassar-Daley. That one was Troy and I in a room. I have done a certain amount of it. I wrote one or two songs with Graeme Connors, sitting in a room. That was the first time I tried that, many years ago. But I’ve never done it in Cold Chisel. It was always different people bringing in songs and showing them.
Why do you think that is? Is it because it started with you as the only songwriter?
Partly. There was never a need for it, and there’s not a need for it now. It’s just something we were keen to try.
And recently the Cold Chisel catalogue was remastered and a lot of bonus tracks and unreleased recordings were taken out of the vaults. How involved were you in that process?
The hard work was done by John O’Donnell. The involvement of the band was John passing us CDs packed with stuff that we hadn’t heard since the day we recorded it decades before, and saying, “What of this is releasable? What of this would you be happy for people to hear?” And of course, John is an enthusiast, so there are some songs that he would have liked to have released that we said, “No, let’s keep that one a secret (laughs). Forever.” So John did all the hard work, of finding the stuff and putting it in a format that we could easily sift through, but we were involved, too. He oversaw all the packaging, which I think is gorgeous, and I don’t take any credit for at all.
Is it weird revisiting these things?
Yes, it’s a bit weird hearing some things that you have completely forgotten about. It’s unquestionably you, and your mates, but you have no memory of them at all.
Are there any of those old recordings that you were pleasantly impressed by? Or that you dismissed at the time of recording that now you like?
Sometimes you hear some live things. There was a very good song that we discovered, before John was involved, called Hold Me Now. Now, none of us could remember this song at all. It’s from a lost stage of our history: we were just bumming in Sydney, we had no recording contract, and every eight to ten months someone would let us make some demos, and I was trying to figure out what to write, and there’s this song in amongst it all, and the recording of it doesn’t sound great, and I don’t think we ever had it on multi-track, and I can see why we would have ditched it at the time, but it’s actually quite good. But, none of us could remember it at all, to the point where we didn’t know who wrote it. It was fairly clear I wrote it, because it’s the kind of things I would write – it had my fingerprints all over it, but I don’t remember writing it at all.
When you are paring down songs for inclusion on your solo records, do you tend to be connected to the lyrics, the music, or is it purely about the songcraft?
I’m just writing all the time, and there are some songs that just feel close to me, whereas songs that I wrote for Cold Chisel don’t have to feel close to me. But they have to be songs that whoever’s singing them can feel a resonance with. For years and years, I wasn’t writing songs for myself, I was writing for Jim and Ian. Its very important if you ask a gun, expressive singer to sing something, that it is something that they believe themselves; that they won’t find it difficult to get inside of. I always bear that in mind when writing for Cold Chisel, or a Tex, Don and Charlie thing where Tex is singing. Those kind of singers won’t sing something if they don’t believe in it.
Does that stretch to what key you write in?
Well, I just write for the sake of writing, and only look later at who this could be suitable for. I know when songs are mine – when they are for me to sing – and I can’t explain that any more than they fit somewhere in my heart. If a song announces itself as something that Jim would really love, putting it in Jim’s key is the easy part, because I know exactly what his range is and where he enjoys singing, so I can just adjust the key to make that enjoyable for him.
How many songs do you have sitting around at any one point?
Quite a few. I could probably go in and do another solo album now.
What stops you from doing that?
There’s no compulsion to do it. With none of these albums do I have an industry – as I said before – breathing down my neck. If I did, I could say, “Alright, book a studio next Tuesday, and I’ll do it.” There’s more compulsion with projects where other people are involved. Tex and Charlie and I have been keen to look at making another record for a couple of years now, but we’ve always had other projects that get in the way, so we haven’t been able to focus on it. We have the core of a body of pretty good songs. With Cold Chisel, I have enough songs of that kind, that we could go into a studio and make another Cold Chisel record of songs that I have. But I think there’s a danger that would be more of the same. I want to open up other processes and blow up that easy way – to get a better result. A result that’s worth shouting from the rooftops about.
And what about a sequel to Shots? That book seems to mostly cover the pre-signing days.
No, I don’t think I’d ever do a sequel to Shots, but I’d like to write another book. I’d write to write some fiction.
Is that something you’d need to set aside a big chunk of time to do?
I don’t think I’d like to set aside a chunk of time. I wouldn’t like to put myself in a house on a headland and say, “Okay, you’ve got three months to write a book.” I think if the pressure of the nuts and bolts of my daily life just eased off a little bit, which it’s likely to do later this year; if I just had a little less to do each day, and I could just dream a little more, that’d be enough.