JAMES BLUNDELL – PORTRAIT OF A MAN
If you’re lucky enough to chat to singer/songwriter James Blundell on his home turf, the conversation is bound to be punctuated by the sounds of the bush or the farm, of dogs barking or Cockatoos squawking as they fly past. It’s taken him 22 years to get back to where he started in a sense, and that place is pretty well represented in the songs that make up his latest and ninth studio album, Portrait Of A Man.
“The great thing about maturing as a writer,” Blundell admits, “is that your experiences actually give you a perspective from which to draw illustrations.”
If there’s one thing that has been consistent in Blundell’s work it’s been the commitment to the song rather than any kowtowing to the pressures of an industry built on the immediacy of a hit record. What he delivers in Portrait Of A Man, as he has always delivered, is the stories of people – the characters, like Mark Scott, recalled in Five To Five, - he’s met, the places he’s seen and the feelings he’s experienced in this wide brown land he has crisscrossed so often, taking his music wherever he’s been invited. You can see the horizon; smell the dust and diesel infused into a song like Running Down The Sun.
“I’ve always loved wide open spaces but having travelled across the Hay Plain a lot more often the past couple of years for family reasons, coupled with a couple of drought relief concert I’ve been doing, sponsored by the DPI in NSW, I’ve had reason to listen to the back catalogue, something it’s important in your musical evolution to do once in a while, and looking back at songs that I thought were absolutely on the money when you were doing them, they’ve confirmed in me the belief that they were going to do what they were meant to do because they’re good songs, not designed to be hits. I also realise now how unlike they were to anything else that was going on at the time on radio!”
There’s always a warm belly laugh that follows a self-deprecating comment like that, but that’s the point for Blundell. If there’s a contemporary singer/songwriter in this country today writing about and commenting on the nature of being an Australian with a quiet honesty, real integrity – and a cheeky humour when things get a bit too serious – it’s James Blundell.
“One of the great lyric aspects of being brought up in the sticks is that it doesn’t occur to you, as you’re growing up, to couch your conversation in political correctness because then you know that the other person’s not going to understand what you’re saying! The trouble is that degree of directness can be construed as either aggressive or it’s just not true. I think if you’ve got something to say, you’ve just got to say it and take responsibility for the result of not your words your actions. To do anything less with a song like that would have made it safe and you can’t do that.”
Since a wrangling accident put paid to any serious ideas of making a career of working the land, Queenslander and proud of it James Blundell – it’s all there in Queensland Calling – has poured his energy and passion into expressing himself through music, something that has paid off handsomely in his being awarded nine Golden Guitar Awards, gold, platinum and double platinum albums and tours that have token him around Australia and around the world, to Nashville and to London, quite apart from his work entertaining Australia’s Defence Force troops overseas, something he celebrates, in his own minor key way, in his revisiting of the story of Australia’s Light Horse and their contribution to WWI in the anthemic Riding Into Town, that other great ANZAC desert story all too often overshadowed by Gallipoli.
“I am a manic horseman. If there’s one thing I’ve missed over the past 22 years of making my living as a songwriter and musician is the close proximity to and working with animals and particularly horses, and so I know what went into an achievement like that, so it doesn’t hurt to remind people of that.
“The history of our Light Horse, and particularly the charge at Beersheba, highlights the magic of the union between man and horse. Both incredibly courageous entities in their own right [the good ones that is] the combination is formidable. I was fortunate enough to be involved with an entertainment tour conducted by the Australian Defence Force; that took us across the Sinai, to El Arish, and beyond that pretty well replicated the route that the Light Horse took. I don’t we’d be able to find 800 blokes capable of doing what they did today, march across the Sinai desert and make them charge a fortified position!”
The other side of all that success however has been the pressures on his personal life, the indifference of mainstream radio – something he shares with most Australian artists the wrong side of 25! – and the misperceptions of music critics trying to corral his songwriting into some carefully manicured country music paddock. That’s why signing with boutique label Compass Bros and finding producer Graham Thompson, who also produced his previous album, the ARIA, APRA and Golden Guitar-nominated Ring Around The Moon, has had such a liberating effect on him.
“We just get on like a house on fire, and it’s not a deeply, profoundly considered thing, it’s just that we have a very similar view on music. There were a couple of times in the studio where I was quite sure, from what my preconception of Graham was, that he might say oh no, it’s too tough, as in too hard to get right or a little bit edgy, he just embraced it fiercely. Rather than dulling the parts that had teeth, he certainly didn’t shy away from them but gave them due diligence in respect to what the song was about and what the track was. There’s nothing contrived about it but there’s certainly nothing hidden from it too, which is really cool.”
Thompson, himself a former rock bass player, with Stars, Russell Morris and Broderick Smith’s Bog Combo, certainly isn’t afraid to let Blundell “get rocking”.
“It’s a primary part of my musical composition. I love basic rock. I don’t like it when it gets too complicated but I do like things that hold up well.”
And he’s not afraid to call a spade a spade, as he does on the rockin’ Mr Ritchie – debt collectors beware, no one’s going to take away this working man’s livelihood! And Blundell wrote it before the stock markets started to tumble.
“There are two songs in particular that – Running Down The Sun and Mr Ritchie – that just came from driving across the Hay Plain a lot. I was just riding across the middle of nowhere one day and I thought God these people, and when I say these people that’s always been all-inclusive because my family is still involved in working the land, are just getting such a bollocking here, and then because it’s such a common theme when you’re in a metropolitan environment, all you see all the time is that these guys are upping their bloody profit by another half a billion dollars, you know there’s something horribly wrong here. There were little towns we were playing where there were just 15 people left and I felt that this has all got to turn around.”
There are a few interesting co-writes, including Moving On with Weddings Parties Anything/The Sure Thing’s Mick Thomas, who joins Blundell on vocals and mandolin in this jaunty stroll through hard times turned into a uniquely Australian kind of freedom.
“Mick and I met at the Mt Macedon Mushroom Writers Workshop last year and hadn’t had a chance to write but had had enough conversations to know he’s a pretty interesting guy, but this year we sat down together and I told him about a recurring thought coming off the back of songs like Mr Ritchie that current circumstance are really creating another group of people who really are learning not to be attached to their material possessions, not necessarily through choice, but it’s a reality, and that old swagman thing of the Depression of oh bugger it I’ll just walk around, so what’s the update of that in contemporary society? It was such a pleasure working with him; he’s such a cool guy.”
Thomas is there again lyrically on the equally upbeat Nothing’s Going To Get Me Down, all unrepentantly chugging guitars, and this time with a little help from the inimitable Lee Kernaghan. Another song that came out of one of those Mt Macedon Songwriting Workshops is Bound To Freeze, a chance for Blundell to expose something of his feminine side in choruses written in response to fellow singer/songwriter Felicity Urquhart’s verses. Blundell turned to a song by fellow singer/songwriter Tony Smith to present the masculine, though still gently poignant, perspective in Shearer. The son who’s now a father writes about his father with a tenderness those who only see Blundell’s bluff exterior might find as surprising as it is deeply moving in the album’s title song, Portrait Of A Man, while the gentle, appreciative loving man comes to the fore in So Good To Meet You.
“The songs that make the most sense are the ones that sort of happen in conjunction with day to day life and then you get them all at once. You can be working on bits and pieces in the back of your head for ages and ages and then all of a sudden it just all flows together. The recording of the album was pretty effortless, by which I was slightly nonplussed, because I realised I knew the songs intimately, knowing I’d nurtured them over a long period of time rather than just writing them quickly, so they’ve been with me for a long time.”
The bouncy feel-good lead single from the album, Good Wood, once again recalls the lessons of Blundell’s “surrogate father, Ernie Collins, who worked on his family’s property for some 27 years and for whom Nature’s Gentleman, on his previous album, Ring Around The Moon, was written, Good Wood an apt metaphor, in Blundell’s view, “for choosing your friends as carefully as you choose the basic materials necessary to create something of quality that will stand the test of time.”
Recorded with a crack band in whom Blundell has the utmost faith, featuring stalwarts Glen Hannah and Mark Punch on acoustic and electric guitars, Chris Rogers on dobro, Clayton Doley on keyboards, James Gillard on bass and Glenn Wilson on drums, with the raw, real spontaneity of the best of the classic albums of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Portrait Of A Man is just that, a snapshot of where James Blundell, singer, songwriter, guitarist, philosopher and one of nature’s true gentlemen – oh, and unapologetically Australian too of course – is right now on life’s journey. So settle back by the campfire, pull out the guitars (or in your case dear reader, put the CD on) and let’s share a few songs now that flock of cockies has passed.