Andrián Pertout speaks to Australian rock icon Jimmy Barnes about his latest soul journey.
Although Jimmy Barnes (born James Dixon Swan) has a legitimate claim to a Scottish heritage, being a native of Glasgow, it can be said that he has that same claim here as Australia’s number one rock icon. He is no doubt “this nation’s most popular and successful singer,” and his inclusion in the closing ceremony of the Olympics a testament of his great popularity. “Jimmy Barnes simply and eternally remains that legendary, sweat and vodka-drenched front man of the greatest rock & roll band this land has ever known,” states the WEA press release. Jimmy immigrated to Australia in 1961, at the age of five, and in 1974 went on to become a household name as singer for Cold Chisel. In 1983, the band broke up and Jimmy pursued a solo career, producing seven of Mushroom Records’ Top Ten all time selling albums. The albums include ‘Working Class Man’ (1985), ‘Freight Train Heart’ (1987) and ‘Two Fires’ (1990). In 1991, he then released the first ‘Soul Deep’ album, which soon became the biggest seller of Jimmy’s career and one of the Australian music industry’s biggest releases ever. ‘Soul Deeper’ (Songs from the Deep South) is the long awaited sequel and features the production of Don Gehman along with a celebrated cast of American R&B musicians, including guitarist Johnny Lee Schell (Bonnie Raitt) keyboardist Mick Weaver (Frankie Miller), bassist Reggie Mc Bride (Stevie Wonder), drummer James Gadson (James Brown), backing vocalists Sweet Pea Atkinson (Was Not Was) and Alex Brown (Ray Charles), as well as the legendary Tower of Power horns.
How did you initially get mixed up in this sometimes great, sometimes not so great thing called music?
JB: ”You know what? It’s one of those things that I naturally fell into. My parents, they’re Glaswegians, so it’s like a drink and they all sing (chuckles). So we’ve always sung around the house and shit. I was lucky enough, my older brother John, Swanee, was in bands – he ran away from home when he was thirteen and joined a rock and roll band. So he was a great influence, he always played tons of good music. He turned me on to Sly and the Family Stone and Hendrix. My mum and dad were both big into Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, that kind of stuff. So I always heard great music. When I was younger, at school I was in choirs and stuff, and my sisters and I used to do shows at the local church hall, when we were kids. And when I was in grade one they used to send me into different classes singing, because I was in the choir and sang louder than anyone else. As I got older, like most kids, I got into rock music, metal music. You know young boys. And so I was into Deep Purple and Free. But I wasn’t in a band at that point, and then I heard Free, and wanted to be in a band, because I really loved Andy Fraser, the bass player, and two, I loved Paul Rodgers. That’s the first guy I’d heard singing like a black guy in a rock band. At the same time Rod Stewart was doing Truth, and all that sort of stuff. It’s really where white soul started. So I joined a band when I was about fourteen, where I was a bass player, and we were doing Free and all sorts of stuff. We rehearsed for our first gig, which was going to be a school dance, and a singer, a guy called Stuart Harrison – and Stuart’s in the industry as a sound guy now, he used to be in a band called Scandal, which were a pop band and had a hit with ‘How Long’ – but Stuart was a real lad, he was a goalkeeper in a soccer team as well, and I didn’t realize that he was a huge David Bowie fan. So we’re going to do this school gig and he turns up with stockings and with make up on, so we sacked him (laughs). And I had to sing on the night. So I sang in that band for a while, but I couldn’t sing and play bass at the same time, so I threw the bass away. And then I got a phone call asking to go for an audition with this band, which ended up being Cold Chisel.”
What would you say have been some of the highlights of your career so far?
JB: ”There are some good highs and some good lows too. Most of the really good ones I can’t remember (chuckles). For me the highlight at the moment is probably the closing ceremony the other night (2000 Sydney Olympic Games), which is not because I was such a great gig or anything, but because I was so proud to be a part of it; to represent the country, we’d done such a great job with the Olympics. And the ceremony showed that larrikinism that is Australian, it showed that we don’t take ourselves too seriously in this country. I was really proud to be a part of that. With Chisel, the Last Stand, those were major high points. Some of the shows were phenomenal, just because of the energy and knowing that it was the last time that I’d play with them. I remember doing a gig as a solo performer in Cologne with the Rolling Stones, a hundred thousand people, which is just phenomenal, and we killed them; and terrorized the Rolling Stones at the same time. That was great! Another gig I did near Cologne in Germany where Midnight Oil was headlining this festival, they asked us if we could do the gig. And so they booked us, and then our agent, this agent in London who I don’t even know, had a fight with the guy who booked the tour. So the guy threw us off the tour, and Midnight Oil forced the issue and said, ‘No, Jimmy’s on the tour, he’s doing this gig.’ And so this guy, who thought we were mates of the agent tried to screw us and just fucking kept us off. And we were out at two in the morning, it was freezing cold, it was the last night of the tour, the Oils had finished at Midnight, and we were supposed to go on after them, but they kept us waiting, and stalling and stalling. And half the crowd was leaving, it was like five thousand people walking away, and we were still penned there. And then we went on and just went ballistic. I’ve never played with a band with such ferocity in my life, I was so angry, and you could literally see people turn around and come back. It was just ferocious, a ferocious band! And that’s why we got the Rolling Stones gig, ‘cause of that one. Because people saw it and freaked out.”
You have been previously quoted as saying, “The thing about the music business is sometimes the music gets lost in the business.” How do you separate the two?
JB: ”Well, you know what, nowadays I don’t even worry about the business that much. The best thing to do is to have people around you that deal with it. Some people love it. I’ve got a mono brain, so I can’t do both things, I just sing.”
But do you get pressured into doing things a certain way or taking a certain direction?
JB: ”I used to, particularly when I was signed to Geffen and Atlantic in America. The American record companies, and record companies in general really like to pressure you. In this country, because of Chisel, and because we were such renegades anyway – we couldn’t get signed, and when we did we weren’t gonna let them push us around – I’ve sort of had that reputation anyway, so they don’t mess with me here. And I’ve had success, so they trust what I do. Overseas it’s a different story, I’ve had that, ‘We don’t hear the single!’ And you’re off with writers, to write ‘Like a Virgin’ or something. But at the same time, doing all that stuff – they would pressure me to write with weird writers – you know, some of the stuff worked out right. Like I hooked up with Desmond Child, who’s the biggest pop writer in the world. You’d never have picked him and I going together, but we got off really well. We worked really well together, and wrote really good songs together. And he’s the guy that wrote and produced Ricky Martin, he’s done Bon Jovi, he wrote all the hits, Aerosmith, all the hits, Kiss, ‘I was Made For Loving You’ (chuckles). You know, he’s a great writer. So had I not been involved in that sort of pressure, there are certain things that I wouldn’t have got.”
Tell me about the Jimmy Barnes signature vocal style. Do you have a magic potion that keeps you in full gear year after year? Is it a bottle of whiskey or a natural lifestyle that does the trick these days?
JB: ”You know what? It’s survival. Ten years ago I was doing a big gig somewhere and I had a cold, with laryngitis, lost my voice. And because it was an insurance thing I had to go to a specialist, because we were changing the dates, for changes on the contract and stuff. And so I went to this throat specialist – he was the guy who did the operation on Elton John’s nodules, and so he’s like one of the most famous throat people in the world. He put an optical fibre cable down my noise and had me sing and talk, and he told me that I’m one of three singers that he’s ever seen in the world who don’t use their vocal chords. That’s why I talk horse, I use my vocal chords when I speak – you have two main vocal chords that are surrounded by false vocal chords, and I use the false ones when I sing. And he said that he didn’t know how the hell I taught myself to do it – he doesn’t know how the other people taught themselves to do it, there’s only a few people he’s seen – and the thing is since the first review Cold Chisel ever got said my voice was going to last six months. But the secondary chords don’t grow nodules, you can’t get nodules on them. So with my voice, I can’t talk, but I can sing. Sometimes I can’t speak, but I can sing. And I don’t lose my top register, I can get higher. It’s the weirdest thing (laughs). And my voice is natural, from bad foldback, survival, but there are a few thing that I do – if I get a really bad throat there’s a thing that our tour manager who used worked with Elton John showed me, which is an old opera trick. You use apple cider vinegar, hot water, equal amounts, tons of honey, a squeeze of lemon and gargle with it. But don’t drink it whatever you do, it tastes like shit! And that strips stuff off, and I think the vinegar tightens the vocal chords. But that’s one that you use for desperate measures, because I don’t think that it’s really that great for you. The other one is just having straight vodka. It doesn’t help the voice, but you don’t care anymore (laughs). Sleep’s the other great thing, singers have to sleep. The best thing that you can do for your voice is sleep.”
How did the ‘Soul Deeper’ project come about? How has it grown with the second phase of volume two?
JB: ”Well, the first one, and the same with the second one, was a tribute to my roots, showing where I came from. The first one was done impromptu – we’d finished a tour, my band was staying with me, it was Christmas, they stayed at my house. I have a studio there, Don Gehman and his wife who I had worked with on a few records wanted to come to Australia for Christmas, we were all in the same house, and I said, ‘While we’re here, do you want to play, and maybe cut some tracks.’ And we had talked about it in the studio, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to record all those tunes that you love.’ So we went ahead and did it, and it only took twelve days. A labour of love, easy. This one, because ‘Soul Deep’ was so successful, the first one was huge, the record company was saying, ‘Make two, make two.’ I didn’t want to get into the studio and just make ‘Soul Deep 2’ just ‘cause it made money. You know, that’s what everybody expected and everybody would think I’m setting myself up for my bloody retirement and stuff. The reason why ‘Soul Deep’ worked is because it was done with the right energy, it was a good spirit. This one was the same thing. I was joining a new company who had a big history with me, obviously they had the Cold Chisel catalogue, and I liked the way that they had respected the Cold Chisel catalogue. They didn’t prostitute it too much. Mark Pope was the A&R man there, who had been my tour manager with Cold Chisel and my tour manager as a solo performer for years. And he knew what my influences were, and what I grew up on. Shaun James, the boss at Warner's was a big Chisel fan, he worked for Festival when we were there. And it was their idea, they said, ‘It would be good if you did another ‘Soul Deep’ record. Are you ready for one?’ And I figured that because that other one was a celebration, it was a good way to start this relationship with the record company. And it was a fun thing to do, it was easy for me to do, there are a million great tunes, all I had to do is put was good band together and get a good producer.”
Who are some of the musicians featured on the album?
JB: ”The best rhythm section in the world, I think. James Gadson is the drummer. James played with Arthur Conley, James Brown, the Temptations, Aretha Franklin, B. B. King, everybody, he’s played with everybody. He’s sixty-two years old, a great drummer, the best groove I’ve ever heard. Reggie Mc Bride’s the bass player. Reggie’s been playing with Stevie Wonder since ‘Innervisions’. He’s been there for ten years. The two of those guys were the most powerful rhythm section I’ve ever heard. It was phenomenal. The Tower of Power horns, who I’d worked with before, when they were out here with Rod Stewart. Incredible horn section, amazing guys, they had no charts, they wrote them on the spot, and did the overdubs on the spot. Johnny Lee Schell is the guitar player, who’s been with everybody, but I guess Bonnie Raitt, the Neville Brothers. He’s played with lots of people. And we had Sweet Pea. Sweat Pea’s a backing singer (Sweet Pea Atkinson), and he’s in his fifties too, and he was the singer in ‘Was Not Was’. And he had done tons of stuff, a great session player. The other singer was a girl called Alex Brown. She was a Raylette, with Ray Charles, for seven years. She’s also sung with Stevie Wonder for the last ten years. Mick Weaver, who’s keyboard player. Mick was in Frankie Miller. He’s played with lots of white soul bands. So it was a real wealth of experience. For me, besides having a great time, for seventeen days, it was like literally going to school. I just sat there and listened…”
‘Soul Deeper (Songs from the Deep South)’ out on WEA Records.
'Mixdown' Monthly ~ Issue #79, November 1, 2000
BEAT MAGAZINE PTY LTD
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