(C.P.A.G Jenkins, left; D.L. ROBERTSON, right)
“GEE IT SAVES A LOT OF MONEY when you just do things digitally.”
Thus spake that prince of songwriting, Charles Philip Arthur George*Jenkins, on the release of a new album of his finest worksongs: pop, and gospel and rock, and pop, with heartbreak and joy and yarn-spinning, and pop.
The second in the series of what you might call albums of “instant songs” – written and recorded with a deadline of one week, on a theme dictated by a Melbourne radio show – Radio Sketches 2: The Death Of Stars (following last December’s excellent Radio Sketches, but this time flying high on arrangements featuring a “band” and strings and more), will only be available online as, ye gads, sound files from Bandcamp.
It’s very 2022. It’s very practical and financially sensible for an independent artist, even if he is someone who not only still has a CD player in his car (“and it sounds great!”) but a cassette player too. Or maybe especially because he is an independent artist driving a car so old it has a CD and cassette player in it.
However, for me and others like me who like having something physical to be able to pull out and hold and play whenever we want, and are prepared to pay for it, the absence of a record or CD is, well, palpable.
“There’s a lot …,” Jenkins begins. “Well, I aim to do a fair few of these things so I think I’d rather save the vinyl for other projects.”
Other things? More on that soon. For now, he explains that with a bare minimum recording budget the base material, recording wise, was never pristine. Volume 1 sounded close and pretty damn fine to most of us, and volume 2 even better, but for someone mixing it or looking to transfer it to vinyl or CD, it had let’s say, issues.
“I just didn’t want that battle and cost, so I thought let’s just do it, let’s get it out. There’s Radio Sketches 3 ready to go, all my sad nylon-string songs.”
And to be fair, it’s not just his work to deal with. Radio Sketches 2 is credited to Jenkins and Douglas Lee Robertson, who pop music fans will recognise as Jenkins’ long-time companion/fellow songwriter/fellow vocalist in that superb band, Icecream Hands (and another project, the Melbourne-centric The Amateur Historians). Newcomers will now know him as the man responsible for the extra instruments, voices and arrangements of the new recordings.
“About once a fortnight I will write a song [for the radio series] that I think this could really do with a touch of ‘The Full Douglas Lee Robertson’, and the other week I will do a quiet, nylon-string song,” Jenkins says. “Also, I don’t want to overstay my welcome with – I’m pointing behind me to the neighbouring block where the vinyl pressing plant is – where they do me a pretty good deal and favours when they do my vinyl. So if I keep on doing vinyl for every record I put out, they won’t have any room in their warehouse for anything else but the records I don’t sell.”
Feel free this point to insert some variation of LOL. Though the idea that it might be Charles Jenkins and Taylor Swift dominating the machines at pressing plants around the world has some delicious edge to it.
“Well, okay, yeah I didn’t want to get in her way.”
See! A prince among men that C. Jenkins.
One final word on physical and in particular cassette versions, Jenkins reveals that he once had an old HR Holden whose cassette player jammed and for six months all he listened to was R.E.M.’s Reckoning. To prove how deeply that embedded itself in him he pulls out a guitar and immediately starts singing So. Central Rain, one of that album’s gorgeous moments. “Mike Mills, I just love his backing vocals. He seems like the real musical guy in that band.”
Which is, as fate would have it, a perfect excuse to segue back to another bass playing, harmonising, “real musical guy” type, the aforementioned D.L. Robertson.
“He is insane, Douglas. And he needed to be cajoled into having his name on the record: he said, all right, okay, if you think so,” explains Jenkins. “It takes me a day or so to write the song, and that’s not bragging or anything, it’s just because there’s a time constraint: if I know that the song needs to get to Doug and then needs to be at the radio station by Saturday, in time for Sunday, then I need to get it to him by Wednesday to give him a few days.
"So I’m only hearing the song a few times and it’s Doug who has to listen to the things over and over and over and over, and then the highlight of the week of course is the Friday night or Saturday morning whenever I get the text saying ‘sending something now’, and I drop everything and get in front of my computer, with headphones on.
“That is just the best high that I can have, to hear what he’s done to my songs. I don’t know that I’ve ever gone back to him and said, no.”
Jenkins says there was only one of the 12 songs on which Robertson had contributed arrangements which was not included, and that was because he didn’t think his original song was good.
“I would like [Radio Sketches 2] to sell so I could give Doug some money.”
What is the secret of this combination?
“It’s a long time in the trenches, I suppose. There’s probably commonalities in our record collections – well, I know there are – and he is a fabulous producer. He’s never really trying to get in the way of the song; he’s just trying to move it along.”
Robertson’s technique apparently is to sit on the song for a day or so, getting on with his regular work while it percolates in the background. All he gets from Jenkins is recording with a vocal and one or maybe two acoustic guitars, with a click track tempo. There are no other instructions.
“You learn after a while not to micromanage everything. Or in my case, not manage at all,” laughs Jenkins.
There has been the pressure of the deadline and the extreme time constraints, but there’s also the complete absence of pressure, which is fine by Jenkins who says happily that “if it doesn’t work, it’s no big deal; I just won’t go on the show that week”. Mind you: “I hasten to add that hasn’t happened.”
That’s impressive commitment, not just because he also teaches songwriting and has plans for another Amateur Historians album. Jenkins had his gallbladder removed this year, “and there were complications”, inducing a week-long fever in hospital.
In that time he shared a ward with two men, one of them a younger man coming off alcohol, the other one an older gentleman who didn’t think he was on the 7th floor of St Vincent’s Hospital: he thought he was on top of the mountain he grew up on, full of stories about the village.
Sure enough, the neighbouring teacher, collector of yarns local and personal, and inveterate writer came away with an idea or two.
“I kept on writing songs, one for me, and one for that fellow and one for that fellow. I just imagined them up on the stage, three-beds. And thus, Gallbladder: The Musical came to pass.”
Hilarious! We laugh together. But wait, he’s serious.
“I’ve got a friend who runs the Adelaide Fringe Festival and she said [slams hand on the table] ‘I want it. I want it on my desk, straight away.’. So, yeah. It’s either going to be called Gallbladder: The Musical, or Notes From The 7th Floor.
“So that’s another reason to hang on to my friends at the vinyl pressing plant: I want to be sure that they’re ready to go.”
Charles Jenkins’ and Douglas Lee Robertson's Radio Sketches 2: The Death Of Stars is available now, as mp3 or WAV files, at https://charlesjenkins.bandcamp.com/album/radio-sketches-2-the-death-of-stars
*Songwriting royalty C. Jenkins may be, but these are not in fact his middle names. Still, why should Douglas Lee Robertson have all the fun?