(Photo by Kane Skennar)
ONE DAY WE WILL TALK about the rich creaminess of Bud Rokesky’s voice, the kind of instrument that doubles as a close embrace and suggests worldliness that is somehow still without cynicism. A voice that translates in country (where they love a deep voice, as several shallow local hat-wearers have proved) but aligns just as well in the kind of folk music where Tim Hardin or David Ackles sit waiting for life to turn even just a fraction better.
It is too a voice that challenges Rokesky’s songwriting to match its promise, a challenge he is accepting on a debut, Outsider, impressive enough to not just steal attention but grab hearts and minds, from label boss/co-producer/admiring fellow artist, Matt Corby, to a bunch of charm-resistant critics.
Yes one day we will talk about that voice. That day is soon, but today we need to talk about food. Or lack thereof.
Rokesky, who grew up on a property near the tiny town of Imbil, Queensland, not far from Gympie, these days lives in Brisbane, where music is his heartbeat but truck driving keeps him, his partner and their three daughters under a roof. And here he is, mid-afternoon, mid-week, talking from the cabin of his truck after his day has finished, worryingly – not least because the man looks in need of several good feeds – delaying getting his first meal of the day to speak to me.
“I haven’t had a proper lunch so that explains why my brain is all over the place,” he says, declining the offer to delay so he grab a roll or something. “I’ve done 12 hours and hardly a break, but we are all good. I’m keen.”
It may sound a stupid question, but as much as truck driving has some romantic resonance in country music (where a long line of songs, from the laudable brilliance of Fred Eaglesmith’s Water In The Fuel to the laughable “oeuvre” of John Laws, can be found) does he literally and figuratively ever get tired of this job? This job that isn’t him playing music.
“Do I have a choice? You make the best of what you’ve got and where you’ve ended up,” he says gently. “If you focus on the good then that’s the best it’s going to be. I’ve had maybe 37 jobs since I left school and this is by far the best one when it’s not music, because I can think about music all the time and just relax about music. It’s the job that has the most room for music.”
One thing we all grasp about truck driving is it’s solitary job. The material around the release of Rokesky‘s album posits him as emotionally as much as physically in line with its title, the quintessential Outsider: an observer, isolated, or at least separated, never having felt part of whatever is going on. What put him there? What keeps him there?
“I think I probably first started feeling it very young, and it just seemed that the way I saw the world was different from everyone else,” he says. “I don’t know if it was a lack of being able to explain it properly to other people or connect in conversation – I’m talking really young – but it seemed like I would say things and people would look at me as if I was speaking another language.
“That’s probably where I first noticed it, very young. And then from there I was taking notes on what I would say or do that would get that reaction, versus a normal or preferred reaction from people. I was constantly observing and taking notes but still never quite feeling like I could be myself without self-checking constantly.”
This would not be unfamiliar to some of us, including taking it well into adulthood. It’s tiring, it separates, and in a sense it delays the inevitable when the planning out of conversations in advance hits an unexpected snag. Even so, you may think you’re teaching yourself to “do it right”, but it never is entirely real.
“No, I never had that much foresight: I was always no filter, seat of my pants,” Rokesky laughs self-deprecatingly. “Things would come out of my mouth, I’d look at people’s reactions and think, right, remember that for next time. Most times it would be the same thing over and over.”
That’s bloody hard work.
“Until I found musicians friends, and they seemed to understand, and hearing the words of songs and the way that musicians or songwriters explain the world. That’s when it all made sense to me,” he explains. “It was like, they see the world how I see it, and I guess that’s where the dedication to listening to songwriting came from, because I could spend time with people who understood me. Maybe not having conversations with them, but they were talking to me in the language I understood.”
How were these writers seeing the world that connected with him, made sense of his mind?
“I’ve been told recently that when I’m explaining things, I’m constantly trying to give so much context so I think with songwriters they can say a thousand words in a single line. Whether it be the context they are trying to give me or it’s the context I am putting into that line, the way they explain things was so specific and so well chosen to explain so much in such a short phrase,” Rokesky says, adding with undisguised awe: “A whole story in a single three minute track – that worked so well for me.”
The revelation had immediate but also lasting impact for the Queenslander.
“Perhaps that’s why I have such a deep love of the process of songwriting. I set aside the time and I have a full story and I don’t have to do it in conversation, I can take the time to condense it all into as little as possible, but still trying to explain everything I’m trying to explain,” he says. “It feels like a victory when I’ve written a song and I successfully said a lot in not very much.”
Jeez, you don’t have to be a songwriter to feel good if you can do that in real life.
“And isn’t that what the basic want of most human beings is? To be seen by the world the way you see yourself. I’ve heard.”
Of course, knowing who you are and how you see yourself takes a hell of a lot more distilling, thinking and nutting out.
“Yeah, that actually raises a whole other thing,” Rokesky says. “A lot of the times I feel like a walking contradiction because I have so many interests in so many things that contradict each other. Maybe that’s the other beauty of songwriting: you can bring out a million different versions of yourself, and stories of yourself, with a million different songs.”
Outsider is out now on Rainbow Valley Records/Warner.
Bud Rokesky is playing The Rails, Byron Bay, April 5; Byron Bay Blues Fest, April 7-8. And then on tour with Matt Corby: Forum, Melbourne, May 21-23; Fortitude Music Hall, Brisbane May 26; Enmore Theatre, May 30-31 and June 1’ Hindley St Music Hall, Adelaide, June 30.