Gone lo-fi blues
Aussie C.W. Stoneking taps into early Americana
You’d be forgiven if, upon hearing a C.W. Stoneking record, you assumed it to be a rare, private-press blues gem from the prewar American South.
The full-bodied drawl and howl of Stoneking’s vocals approximate the musical meanderings of the largely black roster of early acoustic blues players—Leadbelly, Sun House or Robert Johnson—and his recordings sound as if they were mic’d inside an old warehouse. Stoneking’s visual aesthetic and biography, however, are pretty far removed from that seminal era.
Stoneking was born in Katherine, in the Northern Territory of Australia. The son of two American ex-pats, he became fascinated by blues, dixieland jazz, calypso and first wave rock ’n’ roll, and learned to play within those parameters. Typically clad in all-white suits, with a short coif of hair slicked back like a Depression-era worker, and a slow, thoughtful manner of speaking, Stoneking himself seems to have been conjured by some blues-crazed witchcraft that allows him to entrance audiences the world over.
Since his 2005 debut record, King Hokum—released through his own King Hokum label—Stoneking has amassed a buzz as much for his bizarre, ghostly novelty as his music. His affinity for old blues is a common inquiry, but one he struggles to qualify.
“I never really think about music in them terms,” said Stoneking, when asked how his relationship with the blues has evolved. “I’m not really a historian or whatever, so I don’t really look at it in a historical timeline. I could have never got interested in any sort of music I think if I looked at it in that way. It’s more of an immediate thing; it’s just a direct connection with music that you like or you don’t. And that doesn’t really expire or diminish I don’t think.”
His 2008 followup, Jungle Blues, was composed from a menagerie of stylistic influences: big band swing and boogie-woogie with a dash of seafaring adventure tales and old-timey ballads. Six years later, he released the proto-rock album Gon Boogaloo, which ditched a lot of the acoustic guitar and banjo tracks for electric guitar and female backing vocals.
Nowadays, Stoneking isn’t sweating the release of new material. Besides, as he reports, writing doesn’t come easy.
“I’ve got a few strings on my bow there … I’m a champion procrastinator and also I like to tour,” explains Stoneking, who now lives in Nashville, Tenn. “I’m not really what I’d call a great instrumentalist. I can’t make it happen straight away; I need to sit down and figure it out and then play it a lot. A lot. And then get good at playing it, let alone to play it while I’m singing.”
Stoneking’s unique voice has brought a few calls for collaboration over the years—the reading of a poem on Jack White’s 2018 solo album, Boarding House Reach; a voice acting gig as a vegetable humanoid in Tome of the Unknown, the pilot for the animated series Over the Garden Wall that includes Elijah Wood among its voice artists; and a duet recording of “Silent Night” with Josh Homme on an off-date when Stoneking was opening for Queens of the Stone Age in Australia.
His usual self-deprecating, dry humor intact, Stoneking isn’t holding his breath for others to jump in and request his services.
“It’s just maybe when they’re in a dumb mood,” he quips. “They just get me if they wanna do somethin’ stupid.”
New music is in, in fact, the offing, but patience is a virtue with Stoneking.
“I wouldn’t say it necessarily comes naturally to me, not at all,” he says. “But I just punish myself until I get something that at least comes up to standards of what I’d wanna hear from somebody.”