The gentleman with the accordion and the pork pie hat, Mr Jason Webley, is finally touring Australia again (it’s been nearly five years!). While he was zipping around the continent, I snuck into his busy schedule to ask him 11 questions.
ZENOBIA FROST: You last visited Down Under four years ago. In that time, you’ve released a solo album and several collaborations. What’s been your most memorable moment since we last saw you?
Wow. That’s a big question… I’m not sure what the MOST memorable moment has been—a lot has happened in the last four years. I’ve been everywhere in the world and back, played shows in Siberia, in Morocco, Mexico City. Actually, the other afternoon stands out pretty strongly. I happened to be in Christchurch when the big earthquake hit. I was meant to play there that night, it was my first time and I was staying with friends not far from the city center. Luckily I was okay, as were my friends—and I was be able to get out of the city the next day. But it was crazy walking around and seeing the collapsed houses, the streets and bridges all ripped apart, and the clay billowing out of the earth like a million little volcanoes.
ZF: Southern Cross was written in Australia nearly a decade ago. How did the song come to be written?
JW: That song is partly stolen goods. When I first arrived in Australia I stayed for a couple days in Sydney with a Canadian woman I knew who hummed a Leonard Cohen song to me—she said he had written after learning of an affair between his wife and his best friend. I wasn’t very familiar with his work at that time. I had a cassette of some of his songs and loved his work, but I had never heard the tune before.
Later I went on to Adelaide for three weeks to perform as a street performer at the Fringe. It was a rather alienating experience. At the time I had been performing at a lot of festivals all over the US and Canada, but Adelaide didn’t go very well for me. The street scene was a bit more of a drunken mess than I had anticipated and I never really found my audience. It was hard work hitting the Rundle Mall day after day, and I remember at night I’d go and lay down in a park or somewhere and look up at the sky above me, not recognising any of the constellations, and think, “Fuck, what the hell am I doing out here?”
On that trip I became smitten with a girl I met. We had a brief affair that ended swiftly and left me feeling the same way that the foreign constellations and the streets of Adelaide had. The song came out quickly, and while I wrote, I was very aware that it borrowed a bit from whatever I could remember of the melody that the woman in Sydney had hummed to me. I didn’t realise until I heard the song later how horribly I had ripped off Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat. But I decided not to change it. People still give me shit about it sometimes when they hear the song, but I still think it was a lovely way to steal a tune, and I hope that Leonard Cohen wouldn’t mind if he knew. I think he might like the song if he heard it.
ZF: Your compositions range in style from the gloriously and joyously absurd to the heart-breakingly serious (I’m looking at you, With). Is there a particular genre/style you prefer writing and performing?
JW: I don’t like to think in terms of genre generally. Whenever I start writing a song, and it feels a bit like it fits too well into a particular category, I always feel a bit embarrassed somehow. I like songs that feel like they could have been written a hundred years ago. My songs, these days, do seem to get divided into categories of totally ridiculous silly songs and the serious ones… I think when I first started I had a lot more material that somehow lived in between those extremes.
You mention With. That was an interesting one. I wrote that song as some kind of hello, a welcome, but to everyone else it must look like a song about letting go—and I suppose I see it that way too now. That song gets played at funerals.
ZF: You’ve been compared to figures like Tom Waits. This might have been an easy comparison early on in your career, but you’ve long-since developed a sound all your own. If you could coin a title or description for the Jason Webley sound, what would you call it?
JW: I generally try to avoid defining my own music. That is other people’s job… If somebody has to coin a title for the Jason Webley genre, I hope I have nothing to do with it. I guess, on my flyers I lazily put “punk accordion” because I think that helps give people an evocative, simple idea of what to expect. But in a lot of ways that doesn’t make sense, the music isn’t punk and I only play accordion about half of the time. There are all of these labels though—stomp punk, gypsy punk, steam punk, punk cabaret, folk punk, whatever. They don’t really mean anything to me.
ZF: Your lyrics frequently stray into the realm of poetry (especially on albums like Only Just Beginning). Do you consider yourself a poet as well as a musician? What’s your usual song-writing process?
JW: It’s funny, I don’t really consider myself to be a poet or even exactly a musician. I’m a terrible instrumentalist (really, I am, trust me.) And whenever I write, I never would call myself a poet. I guess I call myself a songwriter, which is sort of a marriage of the two and sort of a compromise of the two.
I don’t have a usual songwriting process. Most of my songs, at least the ones that are worth anything, have arrived at my home uninvited, conveyed by their own unique form of transport.
ZF: I particularly enjoy the way your albums (especially Counterpoint and Against the Night) reward repeat listens by revealing layers and patterns in both sound and lyric. Webley albums feel like treasure hunts. The Cost of Living is a very different album, but a particularly cohesive album thematically.
JW: The Cost of Living was a different sort of album for me. I’m not sure if you notice, but there aren’t as many “treasure hunts” you mentioned going on with that one. There are certainly themes and there are a few melodic shapes that return, but I didn’t construct it in the same way as the other albums with all of the internal references between the songs. Another difference is that I also didn’t try so much to resolve whatever darkness comes up within the songs. For that reason, to me it is a much starker album than Against the Night and if it does somehow redeem itself and burn through the dark areas it touches on, it is because of something beyond my planning. I was a bit scared of that album while working on it. For a while I thought it might even have a bit of a curse. One of my best friends died shortly into the recording process and my father got very sick and nearly died right around the day it was released.
ZF: What are the benefits and challenges of working in collaboration as opposed to writing and performing solo?
JW: It is easier to reinvent yourself and try new things when you are bouncing ideas off of someone else. For me something in my inner-editorial board really relaxes and lets me make choices I’d never make on my own songs. Also, when I know I’m working with a new musician, even if they aren’t in the room, my mind starts going all sorts of places it would never go normally. That’s fun. But it can also be hard, and it is easy when working with others to write a lot of stuff that doesn’t actually penetrate very deeply. I believe Ayn Rand (who I don’t normally agree with) was right: nothing too remarkable ever gets done by a committee. If you have a bunch of people working on a song, it is very possible that the end result will work out to be much less than the sum of its parts. Although, maybe that’s wrong—the Beatles sure made amazing songs together and turned out a bunch of crap when they were on their own.
ZF: What kind of repertoire can we expect at your Australian shows? Old stuff? New stuff? Evelyn Evelyn stuff? Will we be treated to some songs we’ve never heard before?
JW: Well, since it has been four years, I do have a bunch of new stuff. Hopefully there will be a happy mix of it all: old songs, new songs, serious songs, silly songs, a few covers, a few old things that I wasn’t playing four years ago, and of course a few familiar songs. Last night I played a two-hour set in Perth, and I’m guessing that there were only about three or four songs that anyone there might have ever heard me perform when I was there last.
ZF: What are you most looking forward to getting up to in Australia? Do you have a favourite touring-Australia story from the past?
JW: I’m looking forward to getting to Hobart and exploring Tasmania a bit, since I’ve never been there before. I’m also playing in a bunch of smaller towns this time around—Canberra, Newcastle, Geraldton and Lismore. I’m very curious how those gigs will go.
As to Australian stories from the past—I’ve got a bunch. About half the songs on my third album, Counterpoint, were born in Australia. I still don’t like to think in terms of “favourites” but the full version of the story of Southern Cross was the one that stuck out from my first trip. An interesting anecdote is that I met Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls on that same trip, back before her band had formed when we were both street performers struggling and suffering in Rundle Mall in Adelaide.
ZF: Why the fascination with vegetables? And the number 11?
JW: The vegetable thing is or mostly was just a playful thing I did back in the beginning of my street performing. I’d wave a big toy carrot in the air to try and get the crowd worked up. You can also learn a lot from vegetables about how to live and die and about generosity. Vegetables are very generous. The number eleven is more complicated. It is an odd number.
ZF: Your website says you’ll be taking a long hiatus from touring after 2011. What’s in the works for 2012 and onwards?
JW: I don’t have any plans. The only thing I know is that I will be taking at least a year off from performing beginning on November 12th of this year. I love what I do though and hope it will continue in some fashion for a long, long time, but a voice that I trust has told me it is time to take a big break and I’m going to do that. I’m not sure how long the break will be or what exactly I will do after the break, but I hope very much that I’ll keep performing in some way and that it won’t take me four years to get back to Australia again.
[This is the full transcript of an interview I conducted for Rave Magazine. Go read that too!]
SILVER SIRCUS supports JASON WEBLEY at The Zoo in Brisbane on Wednesday, March 23 (yay!), but the remainder of his Brisbane touring schedule is as follows:
March 17—Canberra, AUSTRALIA – The Front
March 18—Sydney, AUSTRALIA – Camelot Lounge
March 19—Sydney, AUSTRALIA – Explicit Manor
March 20—Newcastle, AUSTRALIA – Great Northern
March 23—Brisbane, AUSTRALIA – The Zoo
March 24—Lismore, AUSTRALIA – Gollan Hotel