Tall, bushy and capable of writing songs which cut through the weeds to get to the source of his heart, or your troubles, Australian William Crighton may have started out as a neo-folkie, but as he explains here, the world changed and so did he.
LATE ON IN HIS NEW ALBUM, William Crighton, who sings with the depth of a rugged deep valley and the sternness of an old-time preacher, offers the incongruous call to “rejoice, rejoice”. That demand – or is it a plea? – comes in a song which charges at the listener more in the manner of Nick Cave than Nick Drake.
Rejoice? These days? Seriously? What’s that about?
“Sometimes it’s a war to rejoice: you have to fight off a lot of things in order to rejoice,” says Crighton whose first album was a quiet and often sombre collection of songs dealing with emotional turmoil. “Rejoice, we’re here, we’re with each other, we can have a good time. We don’t have to be constantly bombarded with negative energy and headlines. We can choose to rejoice in the face of all of that and plough forward, and move forward positively and constructively.”
Burly and bearded, there’s the suggestion of fierceness about Crighton which is totally contradicted by his speaking voice and approach to life. He can get angry, he is undoubtedly intense – the songs on this new album, Empire, make that pretty clear pretty quickly - but as he shows in the album’s closer, a cover of Eric Bogle’s still brilliant and powerful anti-war The Band Played Waltzing Matilda, tenderness is as full as that beard in the 32-year-old.
So given that, is it fair to say this record is tougher and angrier than its predecessor?
“Elements of it, yeah, sure,” he says. “There are songs there that are celebrations of hope and sunshine, but yeah, there is definitely an angrier side.”
It feels like a very 2018 album in the sense that it has almost duelling desires to be angry and fight back (on mining, warmongering, environmental suicide et al) but also to have faith and hope in people.
“In 2018 you are confronted with so much devastation and horrible stuff on a daily basis, some of which are not even sure is true now,” Crighton says. “But at the same time there is all this hope. I’ve got kids [two daughters, 5 and 8], I look in their eyes, and it fills me with hope because I see their spirit and I see they want to live in look after the environment, and we are getting there. Whether all that happens before ‘the wave’, I don’t know.”
You’ve got to believe in hope, even if deep down you suspect it’s groundless, in your relationships, with your kids, with your art, so you have a reason to keep doing the right thing, surely?
“Absolutely. What happens when you run out of hope? I think about it a lot. I think about how can I live this positive life?,” he says. “You can draw hope from the past you know. Even though we are at the point of something that could be horrible, you can see cultures that have lived in the past – Aborigines for example have lived here for thousands of years in relative peace, despite what white historians sometimes tell you – and draw hope from that. We could actually overcome this.”
An Indigenous friend of his pretty much told him that white problems, like white history in Australia, is almost transitory compared with the length and depth of the Indigenous experience. It’s a lesson he’s taking on, though Crighton is wont to quote Neil Young that “mother nature’s on the run” but adding that “she’s no longer on the run; she’s turned and she’s made a final stand”.
Neil Young is not an idle reference point for Crighton who has covered the Canadian curmudgeon on stage regularly and on a single (After The Goldrush as the b-side to Hope Recovery last year) with Claire Anne Taylor. Young and Crighton share that mix of anger and hope, playing aggressively and playing gently, and the belief that not only can they do both, but they should do both.
“I didn’t know of Neil Young until my early 20s, which is I think a bit ridiculous, but he expresses the full sphere of human emotions. To confine your writing or your music to one particular thing doesn’t ring true to me and he gave me licence, in a weird sort of way, to explore a lot.”
In the Young manner, Crighton chose not to take some of the easier, maybe “sensible” routes with his second album which could have continued with the gentler (if more doom-laden) roots singer songwriter style of his debut, or gone full out rock, rather than the riskier mix he’s attempted.
Is this an album which can be understood? Or does its ambiguity preclude or at least make that harder? Was his Hope Recovery single a bridge between the two albums?
“I think if people open themselves to the music, they will get where I’m coming from. But to be honest I don’t really think about it. I have a drive inside me just to be honest with where I’m at as a human,” Crighton says. “The first record was very much a reflection of where I was at that point: I was dealing with a lot of things and I got all that out there.
“It’s been four years or so since then and you change, you grow, you evolve, and your music has to reflect that. I’m sure there will be some people who liked the first record will be thinking ’what the fuck is he doing?’ but, I don’t know what to say except come along and be a part of it.”
They may see themselves reflected in these songs for there are more characters it seems on this album, alongside his personal stories, a sense of a broader community as well as a broader man.
“We all are different people. When we see things and experience things, it kinda depends on which part of you, which you, is experiencing it. So, yes I’m a father, a musician, I’m a furniture removalist sometimes, I work with my hands sometimes, sometimes I find myself go back to my Christian roots, and then I need to have something else crowd that out. It’s always a mash up.
“And I think that’s where we are at too in 2018 so for me it was an expression of that. I didn’t actively try and travel long on people’s experiences; just tried to build on experiences that I was having. There’s a part of everyone in everyone.”
Amen to that. Or even, rejoice.
Empire is out May 4.
William Crighton can be found playing: The Northern, Byron Bay, 14/7; Bello Winter Music Festival, Bellingen, 15/7; Grace Emily, Adelaide, 19/7; Howler, Melbourne, 20/7; MONA, Hobart, 21/7; 48 Watt St, Newcastle, 27/7; Factory Floor, Marrickville, 28/7; Blackbear Lodge, Brisbane, 2/8