William Crighton’s music is pretty hard to define. The guy clearly bleeds country, but with a dark aesthetic, strange and experimental backing music that occasionally burrows down these moody little rabbit-holes, explodes outwards into massive wailing climaxes. The only comparison I could draw from the top of my head is maybe if what Nick Cave might have sounded like if he moved further north, instead of to Melbourne, when he left Wangaratta.
In April, Crighton is bringing these gothic re-imagining’s of rural Australia on tour again, this time trying it out solo for the first time for a stripped back and intimate series of performances. I caught up with Crighton for a chat over the phone while he was on his lunch break at work, where he teaches music to inmates at a prison in Wellington, NSW, to chat about the tour, and to get a clearer idea of what influences his sound.
What first got you into music and when did you start playing?
Well, I started playing when I was a kid. My grandmother used to take me to church and I learnt all the church hymns and what-not. My mother also used to sing to me – folk music – before we used to go to bed. She loved ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone’ and old folk tunes like that. My father was into country music like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson and the like. So I grew up with that music around me, that’s what originally got me into it. You realise the power of music, the way it makes you feel and the way it makes others around you feel… [when] my grandfather was sick and dying we’d go and we’d sing to him, and it’d make him feel a bit better. That was when I was about seven or eight, and that’s when I knew I’d be doing it forever in some sort of capacity.
You are often described as a super unique artist. How do you describe your music to people when they ask about it?
That’s a good question. I mean I just try and write from my heart and tell stories as far as the lyrics go; try and paint a decent picture that gets across what I’m trying to say. As far as musically, I just try and keep it open. Whatever I feel, and whatever influences me, I try and go down that path. I try and keep parameters away from the whole thing, you know? Obviously, you’re going to have them because you’re restrained by your talent and by your vision, but I just try and push both of those things to the limit each time I play, and each time I record and write a song. I try and be simple, but also try but get the most out of it. I think that everybody has a unique bit to add to whatever they’re doing, it’s like our fingerprint, our music. It’s like nobody else can make the music that I make if I’m true to myself. Of course, there’s always going to be influences, but at the end of the day we all have our own voice so if we’re true to that then I think the idea of having a unique sound sort of comes around.
Your music is pretty experimental, and the dynamics are used really well. You’ve already kind of explained where those ideas come from, but what’s your recording process like? Do you do it solo or with a band?
Yeah, it’s me and a band, and a producer/engineer Matt Charade, this American dude, he’s a friend of mine. Then my brother and my wife Jules and various other people who are in the close friend and family circle. We just sort of get together and record. Both Empire and my first album  were recorded just in houses that we’d set up as studios. When we’re off the clock, we can just work on things for as long or as little as we like. We sort of just get a spot for a couple of weeks, and then bunker down. There might be days where we do nothing, and then days where we do a hell of a lot. And it’s just, Australia is a unique landscape, and I think that if you listen to the landscape and you listen to what’s going on around you, and you let that fuel the music, then that’s going to provide endless inspiration for new ideas and new things to do. You mentioned dynamics… dynamics are to me one of the most, or the most important things, because it’s how the world around us sort of is too, how we perceive it. It’s all shades of colour, shades of loudness and softness you know? The difference between a cockatoo screeching and a kookaburra cawing, down to like little insects making there sounds. There’s a diverse range of sounds that you hear in the natural environment, and also in the environment that we affect. I get a lot of inspiration from listening to that, and trying to let that sort of fuel the musical choices, rather than purely trying to come up with it out of myself, because that’s a very limited mind.
You’re gearing up for your first solo headline tour toward the end of April, do you want to tell us a little about that?
I usually play with a band and we’ve done a couple of headline tours before, but this time I’m just on stage by myself, I’ll be playing a bit of keys and guitar and some other things. I just wanted to do this tour, outside of an album cycle or anything like that, to really get back to the bones of the songs and interpret them with just myself on stage. Experimenting with the songs and telling some of the stories behind the songs as well… And then I have my good friend, Beans On Toast – who’s a great entertainer from the UK – who’ll be coming out and opening shows as well.
You’ve already toured all over the world as well. I was wondering what have been some highlights of your career so far?
Definitely the last Australian tour that we did was one of the highlights of my short career so far, just to see that level of support on the second album. It’s a very grassroots movement. I get a bit of radio play here and there, but a lot of it comes from word of mouth, and to see that level of response last tour was extremely wonderful. I guess other gigs that have been highlights on an international level; the Cambridge folk festival in the UK, [it has] an awesome and very long history. Every show is a unique experience, a different experience, so it’s hard to stack them up against one another. Some shows you’re more connected with the audience, and they’re the shows I really like. When you all feel as one, and you’re there with no distractions and all feeling the same thing, that’s what I like the most.
After your tour, what have you got planned for the rest of the year?
Well, in June I go to the UK for another tour there, and then I’m going to Canada, and back to Scandinavia in Europe, which will see me through to the end of September. Then I’ve got some more shows around here, and I’m working on my third album as well, so that won’t be too far away, probably 2020. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of music comes about then. I don’t really sit down and consciously write an album I try and just let the experience and the inspiration guide where it goes, so as soon as I have enough decent material I make an album.
When & Where:
Espy St Kilda, Melbourne – Thursday May 2
Theatre Royal, Castlemaine – Saturday May 4
Sooki Lounge, Belgrave – Sunday May 5
Written by Liam McNally