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(Photo by Ruby Boland)

AS EXCUSES GO THIS IS SOLID, if unexpected. William Crighton is late to the interview because of a thief in the house. A very short one. Indeed, a very young and short one, who secreted the phone behind some furniture. Though not with nefarious intent says his father.

“He loves to take it and run with things. He’s nearly two and he loves the flashing lights and everything,” says the senior Crighton, a singer/songwriter as intense as his beard, as Australian as his dry delivery, and as good as you might hope for.

Well wait til young chap sees the lights and other flashing doodads as Dad tours this month with his mate, the similarly impressive and similarly ingrained-with-Australia Liz Stringer. It’s a kind of roots festival in two-parts: blues, folk, rock and a smidgin of country.

“It seems pretty natural,” says Crighton of the pairing. “I love Liz, Liz’s songwriting and her voice. We’ve always kicked around the idea of doing a tour together and when we were in Europe with the Oils – she was obviously in the band; I was opening the shows – we made it a little more solid.”

Midnight Oil as matchmakers is an unlikely scenario, but it’s true. Stringer – whose catalogue of excellent albums is deep, the most recent, First Time Really Feeling, one of the outstanding releases of 2021 – toured with them as vocalist and occasional guitarist on their last tours of Australia and Europe last year; Crighton opened for them on parts of that tour.

“It was a great experience and it enabled us to spend a bit of time together before the shows … It was wild being on the tour and seeing the Oils do their thing on their last run around Europe and the UK.”

The last time we spoke, about a year ago, Crighton, who had recorded with Oils mainstays, Rob Hirst and Jim Moginie, had been full of praise for what the Oils had offered him in inspiration and guidance, well before they shared a stage, or a connection with Liz Stringer.

The respect was not just because they provided an example of being true to yourself, but they were a living, breathing hope that staying committed had its rewards.

“I think that’s the case with life in general. If you’re chasing someone else’s dream or someone else’s identity then you only going to end up unhappy in the long run. I think what I said was they give me licence,” Crighton says. “To hold up that cultural mirror as they did to Australia, not only to critique the culture but to give hope to the future, I think they are one of the best bands creatively and vibe-wise we’ve ever produced. I think you’d find it hard for many people disagree with that.”

Crighton and Stringer have long been people in the philosophical mould of Midnight Oil, whether the music had any direct connection to the band or not (though faith, might be another link). Rather than mimic their elders, they are testimony to the value of understanding yourselves and resistance to the easy temptations any career can face.

“I first saw Liz perform when I first moved to the Hunter Valley, from Burrinjuck: she was playing at the Grand Junkyard [aka the Grand Junction] Hotel in Maitland. This is about seven or eight years ago, she was playing acoustically in that space and it blew me away … she’s a fantastic guitar player.”

The friendship developed over the subsequent years, as paths crossed at venues or awards programs, and eventually a Midnight Oil tour, their admiration for the other’s songwriting and genuineness apparent. “And it seemed like a natural progression to do a tour”, and before it a duet on the Oils’ Golden Age.

While some songwriting with Stringer isn’t out of the question (especially if their phones get nicked by Junior and there’s nothing else to do to pass the time), Crighton has an established songwriting partnership with his wife, Julianne, and that is already the best of both worlds, and a reminder of what doesn’t work.

“I’m so lucky that I married my best friend and someone that I can really share the writing with on a super honest level. To be objective and critique each other takes a long time to develop; it doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “I find cowriting with other people just hasn’t worked. I haven’t tried cowriting with Liz yet, I’m sure we’d probably get something if we did because we are not afraid to be honest around each other.

“That’s the main thing. I remember doing co-writes and whatnot in different places in Nashville and here and there, and it never … unless you’re both willing to put in the best that you have and be honest on the day, then it’s a waste of time.”

It’s always seemed from the outside that the idea of just walking into a room with a complete stranger and expecting something genuine, not just something formulaic, to emerge, is asking a lot.

“It is, totally,” he sighs. “I think the thing that pushed me away from doing it in Nashville is some people treat the people they are writing for as idiots. It’s almost like they are trying to trick people into buying their song, and I don’t work like that. I write my music honestly for an audience I think will listen to it, and want to give them the best.”

Where does it go wrong?

“I don’t just want to mention a couple of things that I know will hook them in and then tell them a beige story. I want to treat them as the smart music listeners that they are. As people, as a human to human connection,” Crighton says, warming to the task even if his equanimity means he remains pretty calm.

“You’re right, it’s hard to walk into a room with somebody you’ve never met and be honest and put your best thing forward. It happens sometimes, but I think there’s a reason why we see these amazing songwriting collaborations throughout history, the great ones: because they’ve been in bands or friendships or husband-and-wife or best mates, and they developed through time and they can break down all the walls to where you are just being objective about the song and getting the pure essence of the melody and the groove and the story across.”

It’s hard to disagree with the man. And it’s sobering to be reminded about how much factory songwriting is about the “trick”. It makes sense, it works, the results are indisputable, as is the shallowness of so much of it.

Which is not to say that there is some intrinsic purity to one way of songwriting, or that some of the favourite songs any of us might have may not have come from structure and form over of a glorified “inspiration”. But we all know there are times we have heard a song – or whole careers for people we need not mention here – and had a thought not a million miles from John Lydon’s last words from The Sex Pistols’ final gig, “ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”

“I don’t like feeling like an idiot when I listen to music.”

He doesn’t have to add that’s one thing that won’t happen at a Stringer and Crighton gig.

Liz Stringer and William Crighton will play:

Altar, Hobart, March 16

Theatre Royal, Castlemaine, March 17

Thornbury Theatre, Melbourne, March 18

Archie’s Creek Hotel, March 19

Heritage Hotel, Bulli, March 23

Cambridge Hotel, Newcastle, March 24

Factory Theatre, Marrickville, March 25

Brunswick Picture House, Brunswick Heads, March 30

Regent Theatre, Murwillumbah, March 31

Old Museum Concert Hall, Brisbane, April 1


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