There’s a refreshing honesty in William Crighton’s work. His self-titled debut album taps into the rich vein of Australian life through his soulful story telling. They’re his stories, but they’re our stories too because William Crighton gets to the heart of who we are and how this vast and ancient landscape shapes our lives. He brought those stories to Bigsound 2016 and shared some with Trevor Jackson.
You say you’re a man of the land, someone who connects with mother earth. Tell me about your life growing up in rural NSW?
We grew up in a place called Ardlethan. The tin mine had closed down so there were some cheap houses getting about and dad got his hands on one of those. That’s where we started – my parents with my brother and I growing up on a farm. Music was a big part of it, Dad would listen to Johnny Cash or whatever music was on the radio which was mostly country. That was my musical education. My Nan was quite religious, so that gave me a real grounding, not that my beliefs necessarily agree with hers now, but all of that combined with growing up in the expanse of that Australian landscape in that particular part of the world made it a very interesting place for me to grow up.
There’s a real honesty in your work, a realism in the way you write – is it the human condition that interests you most?
I think it’s my own condition that I’m trying to figure out. The people around me provide me with great observations, but it’s through other people that you begin to work yourself out. When this record was coming out we moved to a place called Burrinjuck, which was on the Murrumbidgee River at the bottom of a hill. It was somewhat remote and I think that seclusion gives you an opportunity to revisit the fundamental ideas that have become ingrained in you as a kid. Then as a man in his late 20’s revisiting that while I was there was a real interesting process, because I’d never had the chance to do that before. I was living a full on adult life like most people where you’re living on the run and assessing on the go. Then you suddenly get some space and think “fuck, here I am!”. When you have that time to reflect that’s when the big questions come out. Why do I believe this? Why am I living the way I am? All of that stuff. So making this record gave me a chance to do that because it’s a collection of stories from growing up, along with observations from my adult life. That was the essence of my human condition and the conditioning of the humans (laughs).
What is it about music as vehicle that draws you to express yourself in that way?
It’s freedom. It’s the essence of freedom where you can do anything you like. For me, when I have that mindset that’s when I create the best music and my most honest work. It’s also one of the only things in life that I feel at peace doing. If I’m around my kids or in the backyard playing music it’s one of the most joyous things. It makes you feel connected to something that’s beyond the physicality of your own situation. I think that if you invest in that deeper connection then it comes through you and your music.
You’re a well travelled man, not just in this country, but overseas as well. Did you go to Nashville to further your songwriting?
The original reason to go there probably didn’t end up being the most fruitful thing to come out of Nashville (laughs), which is generally the case. Life always seems to throw you those happy accidents. I think what Nashville really gave to me was a sense of witnessing so many people wearing their own hearts on their sleeve, growing up in America and telling their stories. When I watched these great artists perform there was real expression and an honesty to what was being said that really inspired me to look into myself as an Australian to think about my stories and what it was that I wanted to say. In a funny way it made me feel a stronger connection with my own country at that time, even though I was half way across the world. Sometimes you have to leave the things you love to gain a greater perspective on what you’ve actually left behind.
Your band is very much a collective of family and friends with your wife and brother both joining you. Life on the road as a musician can be a surreal existence, do they keep you grounded?
It’s more for practical reasons. They’re family, they’ve got no choice but to put up with my shit! (laughs).
Well that it might be harder for your wife, but your brother could always walk away!
Well he can and he has sometimes (laughs). We have our blow ups, but he’s the greatest bass player I know and I’d have him in the band whether he was my brother or not. Certainly I’m lucky to have my wife with me in the band too – they both prop me up. It’s hard to find people who can connect with you so readily as those who know you best. Of course there are others who are not related to me that I feel are brothers and sisters in music because I’ve played with them a long time, that’s something you develop over your musical life. When you’re playing with people who know you so well and so intimately it gives your music a deeper connection and in the end that’s what you’re striving for.