John Butler has called Music by the Sea’s latest guest performer, Jeff Lang a ‘national treasure’ in terms of the way he plays the guitar. I caught up with him to discuss how he feels about receiving such high praise from his peers, and how he went from playing the clarinet at age eight to making the guitar his sole focus.
You’re performing at Music by the Sea on the weekend. How did that come about?
The folks running the series asked me to come and play. Who could pass the chance to escape the Melbourne cold for a day?
What do you want people to get out of attending one of your live performances?
I try to take people on a bit of a journey through the stories in the songs and the sound of the instrument I play. I guess transcendence is the aim, difficult though it is to achieve.
You first got into music when playing the clarinet at age eight. What made you switch to the guitar?
Probably my listening habits – a lot of rock and roll bands, plenty of Bob Dylan, bucket loads of guitar, scant amounts of clarinet.
Your work is described as ‘disturbed folk music’. Why is that?
Someone described it that way at a gig once and I liked it. Seemed to fit, in that whilst what I do is folk music of a kind, it’s not squarely within the confines of what people might think of when they hear that term.
You’ve released various albums, both as collaborations and solo. How is the process different when working with someone else as opposed to on your own?
You’re basically trying to meet in the middle somewhere when you collaborate; make a sound that wouldn’t have come from either party alone.
What is it you enjoy most about touring?
[The fresh] perspective brought about by bouncing my music off different audiences.
What are some of the highlights and lowlights of your career thus far?
Being on shows with some great artists and sharing the stage with amazing musicians would be the highlights. Lowlights? I’ll save ‘em for a book.
Who inspires you?
Lately it’s been Laura Marling, Rickie Lee Jones, Nina Simone, Chris Whitley, Bob Dylan, Suzannah Espie and my wife.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you be doing?
Professional jockey. Now retired and running an Astro-turf rental company, perhaps?
You’ve been described by your contemporaries as ‘a truly gifted songwriter and an outstanding guitarist’. How does it feel to hear such high praise?
It’s always nice when people like what you do and very flattering if it’s from your peers.
If you could perform with anyone in the industry, who would it be and why?
I’d love to have a series of bands with multiple drummers. Say, Jim White alongside Ashley Davies, or Jim Keltner and Hamish Stuart, Tony Buck and Angus Diggs, Rob Hirst and Danny McKenna. I’d love to be standing between those combinations playing my guitar and hearing the conversations swirling around me.
You worked on the soundtrack to the ABC TV series Gods of Wheat Street in 2014. What was that like?
[It was a] good learning experience for me, having not [scored] for TV before. I was lucky to have the help of a good team in post-production helping me get [it] done.
Beat Magazine say that your work ‘paints pictures in sound’. What is the secret of crafting the perfect song?
I’ll get back to you if I ever find out!
You’ve been in the music industry for a while now. How has it changed over the years?
It always is in a state of flux to some degree, more obviously since the whole download phenomenon has taken the wind out of album sales, I guess.
What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?
Remember why you started playing – hopefully not because you thought you’d become rich and famous, but because you fell in love with music. It’ll keep you in good stead remembering that.
What’s the epitome of success for you?
Having a continual sense of engagement with what you do and managing to make some sort of living from it.
What’s in store for you this year?
Writing songs, playing shows, recording and producing other people. The usual stuff.
Jeff Lang will perform at Music by the Sea’s Concert Series on July 4th 2015 at Sandgate Town Hall. Ticketing information is available from http://www.musicbythesea.com.au/
Written by Jackie Smith