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Q&A: Australian Music Icon Ross Wilson

Chris O’Hearn
|
07.07.2010
Ross Wilson, who started his career in 1964 with garage punk outfit The Pink Finks at the tender age of 16, has entrenched himself in the Australian music scene as a singer, writer and producer of some of the country’s best-known and most-loved songs. In the ’70s, his catalogue helped Australian music become recognized in its own right. In one of the most prosperous times in Australian rock music history, Ross Wilson and Daddy Cool set the bar high, however Ross’ production on Skyhooks’ groundbreaking album Living in the 70’s pushed all expectations to a new level.
 
Ross was just as prolific in the ’80s with Mondo Rock’s “Cool World,” “A Touch of Paradise,” and “Come Said the Boy.” With the release of his 15th studio album, I Come in Peace, imminent, the two-time ARIA Hall Of Fame inductee took some time out to sit down with Gibson.com
 
You are just about to release your new album. Who produced the album and what can we expect to hear?
 
Yeah, the new album is produced by my old mate Mark Moffatt, who moved to Nashville about 10 years ago. He’s totally plugged in to who the great players are in that town so the studio band he assembled for me was ace.
 
Has the recording process become easier or more difficult with each release? Do you feel pressure to constantly evolve?
 
This time around it was really easy – we cut 12 tracks in three-hour sessions over two days. I could hardly keep up with ’em. Then we spent a couple of weeks doing vocals and other overdubs at Mark’s home basement studio. Vocals take a while because, with new songs, you’re figuring out the best way to sing each song so that, hopefully, it is the defining vocal for that song. That means listening and often revising and redoing parts, especially lead vocals. As for my evolving, this album is a major work from me that demonstrates that I have continued to evolve as an artist and a human. Musically there is a lot of light and shade on this album. The lyrics are very important and read well even if you’re not listening to the music.
 
As a songwriter how do you write? Do you enjoy co-writing?
 
If I’m co-writing a lot of that involves receiving psychological intuitive impressions of the other writer or writers. What I come up with is influenced by who they are as well. My main writing partner of the last 20 years is my buddy Eris O’Brien. He works the same way. I may give him a title and then he comes back with a tune and some words and there is always some of me in there. Then I mess with that and add more and quite often use my innate sense of what “works” to shape it. For instance he may use the title as the punchline of the verse but then I’ll go, “Let’s make that a full chorus – sing it three times instead of once.” “Fishin’ On Rainy Day” is a good example of that; my title, Eris’s music and verse lyric with some input from me, then me and him together on the chorus and bridge, then my more commercial ear arranging the final thing. When I write by myself it’s often done quicker but then I’ll tinker with the lyrics and delivery right up to the final vocal.
 
Who have been the biggest influences in your career?
 
John Lee Hooker and Frank Zappa both demonstrated to me that it was good to break the rules. I still listen to Hooker all the time. The Zappa influence fell away after a while, but his love of early R&B and doo wop led me to research those areas and I put it into practice with Daddy Cool. I can easily say that everything that has ever caught my ear has had an influence on me. “Eagle Rock,” “Come Back Again” and “Hi Honey Ho” all combine pre-war Mississippi country blues with John Lee Hooker and R&B and pop. Later, I’ve become more of my own man, a singer and writer living in Australia doing what I want to do and reflecting what is around me.
 
What was the first gig you ever went to?
 
My mum took my brother and me to the opera – Aida and Tales Of Hoffman. They were pretty entertaining but I don’t really enjoy opera these days. The first rock gig I went to was Lee Gordon’s Big Show at Festival Hall starring Buddy Holly & The Crickets, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny O’Keefe. That was in 1958 when I was 10 and a half. My dad took me. It had a big effect on me. Though at the time I didn’t realize it, the experience gave my “star” a flight path and when I was 16 and in The Pink Finks we played at Festival Hall in the Battle of the Bands. In 1971, I headlined there with Daddy Cool. In the ’80s, with Mondo Rock on some heavy bills. I love Festival Hall. It’s a beautiful dump that resonates with the vibes of everyone from Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Lionel Hampton to all the rock stars and rappers that have ever played there.
 
What was the first album you ever purchased?
 
I can’t remember – it might have been the Stones’ first album or Otis Redding’s or a John Lee Hooker – dunno. Albums didn’t really become a big deal until the early ’60s, it was all singles, unless you were into folk and jazz, then you bought albums. My dad had piles of jazz albums and I used to browse through those. My big brother was going to art school and brought home Joan Baez and stuff like that. Actually, that makes me think that the first album I bought was “Blues, Rags & Hollers” by Koerner, Ray & Glover, three white, American folkies who were delving into blues – that was 1963 when The Beatles were breaking big.
 
Do you still enjoy making videos?
 
I’ve just made my first video in quite a while. For the album’s title track “I Come in Peace.” It was really good experience ’cause we had a lot of time to edit it and the post-production effects you can utilize these days after the final edit are extraordinary. Paul Goldman directed and we had worked together on some Mondo Rock vids. Our friend Carolyn Mackintosh provided the creative overview and everyone else in the clip are kids and people we know including the cool, blonde rock girl playing the Gibson acoustic, Laura Wilde, who is the daughter of a family friend and has since relocated to Beverly Hills to further her career.
 
You have played a Gibson for quite a while. Tells us about the guitars you play?
 
In the video Laura is playing my Gibson Emmylou Harris (http://www2.gibson.com/Products/Acoustic-Instruments/Small-Body/Gibson-Acoustic/L-200-Emmylou-Harris.aspx) and I use that when I play semi-acoustic shows. My electric is a reissue Les Paul Junior. One pickup, two knobs, set and forget. I love it.
 
You have always had an incredibly loyal and passionate fanbase. Do you get to interact with them much?
 
We interact on my website, rosswilson.com.au <http://rosswilson.com.au>, and more recently on Facebook as well. I keep both very up-to-date. At gigs, I take time to talk to fans if I’m signing CDs and other merch. We have a few that come to practically every gig, even when we play interstate. They’re amazing.
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