Australia has produced its fair share of great songwriters, and this decade has seen the emergence of one of that country’s very best, Ben Salter. He’s touring the UK for the fifth time this month, and making his first ever – belated, he admits – visit to Scotland.
A prolific member of acclaimed Australian bands including Giants of Science, The Gin Club and the Wilson Pickers, Salter embarked on his solo career in 2011 with The Cat, an album that emphatically displayed the emotional depth of his distinctive voice and writing. It was followed in 2015 by The Stars My Destination, and last year by Back Yourself – a trio of albums any serious songwriter would be proud of. He still juggles several bands and projects with his solo music, but the focus for the next few months is firmly on the latter as he tours the UK, France and Scandinavia.
When opportunity permits, Salter performs with a backing band, but most of the time it’s just him, his guitar and his songcraft – as it will be on this UK tour.
“I’m pretty excited to make it to Scotland,” Salter tells AAA Edinburgh from Tokyo as he winds up his tour of Japan and prepares to embark for the UK. “So many of my musician friends in Australia say that I will love it, and I love so much Scottish music – from Jesus & Mary Chain, Yatsura, Arab Strap, Belle & Sebastian, Bert Jansch, Silver Sun, Teenage Fanclub, The Vaselines… I could go on and on. I love the late author Iain Banks and his alter ego Iain M Banks as well. it’s actually quite stupid I haven’t visited before. I can’t wait.”
Salter is a true troubadour – while he has garnered his fair share of critical acclaim in his homeland, he is still mostly (and unjustly) unknown elsewhere, but his dedication to playing anywhere and everywhere is laudable. As such, international touring is a shoestring affair, with little time to take in the landmarks.
“There is time for some sightseeing, but I guess I enjoy getting inside the places I visit from the perspective of a worker, or someone trying to earn money or make a go of it. I guess I sort of hate being a tourist because I am a pretentious snob, so this is a away around that. Unfortunately it often means rushing from gigs to venues to accommodation to bars to pubs to trains to planes to gigs to bars to venues.. it is really exhausting, truth be told, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t know how my partner Jacqueline puts up with me though. She’s had to adjust to the 70% exhaustion 30% awe ratio. But one good day or one good gig can keep you going through a shit week.”
AAA: You always have several projects and bands on the go in any given year, do you find this brings more benefit to your solo music or can it take too much time away from it?
“I’m not really sure. I try not to think about it too much. I think they all feed into each other. Some projects that may not be as close to my heart still help pay the bills while others help to get me out of my comfort zone. I just really love making music and at this stage it’s all that I know. I’ve thought about what else I could do, but realistically I may as well stick with this crooked plan for now.”
AAA: Do you know automatically when inspiration comes whether it’s going to be a solo song or more suited to another project? And does inspiration tend to come more when you’re alone or when you’re in company and/or collaborating?
“I think this travelling punishment ends up being a huge inspiration which might be why I’ve subjected myself to six months of it this time around. But I am looking forward to some more domestic inspiration once we get home – we just moved to the seaside in Tasmania in a beautiful spot called Dodge’s Ferry. I’m never entirely sure, I guess everything starts as a potential solo song and then is adapted. It just depends. I have written for specific projects obviously but in my mind I’m always trying to write the perfect solo song, the song I would most like to hear, but once I record them I hate them and the whole wretched hilarious process continues. Still, as I say there’s not much else I’d rather do. Except maybe test or design video games. Hahaha!”
AAA: Your posters bill you as epic folk – there’s certainly some folk traditions in there, but a lot going on on every album.
“Trying to find a handle that encompasses the experience of my live shows is really a pain in the arse; on record I’m all over the place, but live it’s me and an acoustic guitar and these sort of mythical stories – or pretentious waffle to be more accurate – and so I guess it’s folk. I’m happy with epic folk as a description, it’s less patchouli/vest-driven than just folk hopefully. But yeah I love stuff like Talk Talk and Robert Wyatt and John Cale and David Byrne where there’s this sort of lyrical intricacy and deliberate or wilful difficulty in the arrangements and whatnot. I suppose everyone is trying to make the music they want to hear, or that they hear in their head. I am currently on some strong anti-inflammatory drugs and I am not sure if I am making any sense. Japan has been intense.”
AAA: Personally I find it hard to choose a favourite between the three albums – is there one you’re happiest with?
“Hahaha. I don’t know. I don’t really like any of them… What I am most happy with is that they all feature the same font, Century Gothic. It really upsets me when bands change fonts. I just want a bit of consistency in this irregular world, you know? I do like some of the weird bits on ‘Back Yourself’, like ‘Fallout 4’ and ‘Spitting Imagery’ which sounds a teeny bit like Talk Talk which I’m immensely happy about.”
AAA: Do you tend to write with an album in mind or does that tend to coalesce later?
“It tends to coalesce later. Sometimes as with Back Yourself I just write stuff in the studio.. I’m trying always to eliminate my brain as much as possible and go on instinct or tap into my unconscious reservoir as I think most artists are, which is the whole idea behind the ‘Back Yourself’ sentiment – trust your guts. I certainly have an extensive gut to trust. Quantity.”
AAA: Your voice has always been strong and emotive – is it something you have to work on and/or take care of?
“Not realllly.. I’m getting better at not shouting at people whilst drunk after shows which seems to be the number one cause of fatigue, rather than the actual singing. I feel like it’s getting better rather than worse with time. I’m always trying to connect it more fully with who I am as a person which sounds odd and is probably stupid but I feel like the more authentic I can be with my delivery, the more I connect with audiences every time. People are really emotionally tuned into that stuff, whether they realise it or not, and they respond to it. It can be hard to maintain though – it’s like meditation in so many ways. It should be effortless but it takes real concentration at the same time, to be yourself, to connect with who you are and what you’re singing about. It is confronting and exhausting and cathartic. The only reason I can think why I do it is that I have a bruised ego and I need constant affirmation.”
AAA: The lyrics are obviously of vital importance to your songs, are they something you have to labour over or do they flow sometimes?
“Both really…as with the writing generally I try to let the words write themselves and create their own webs of meaning and allusion… I guess I do like the structuralist or post-structuralist approach. I mean, there is always something that it means to me, but increasingly I just whack these words down that even I don’t understand, but which just come out, and even if I can’t understand them I try and go with them in the hope that they will reveal themselves down the track, which they mostly do. Sometimes they’re just dumb. Jacqueline is the best judge. She just says ‘I don’t understand that song, I don’t know what it’s about’ and I wince and keep singing it anyway.”
AAA: And what does the future hold after this European tour? Are the seeds of another album there already?
“Can’t stop, won’t stop. If we don’t go broke or insane or both, I just want to spend some quality time back in Tasmania, under the sea, being healthy and trying to be as happy as I can.”
Ben Salter plays the Voodoo Rooms on July 22. Tickets £6 plus booking fee – TICKETS HERE
Interview: Simon McKenzie
Photo: Stephen Booth