September 2010. By Greg Phillips
Ross Wilson talks new album, guitar and harp.
Ross Wilson had been working on this collection of tunes for the album ‘I Come In Peace’ for some time, thought they were kind of special and was awaiting the right opportunity to record them. Friend, producer and ex-pat Australian Mark Moffat had made a niche of himself in the studio world of Nashville, Tennessee and suggested to Wilson that he could put together a pretty useful bunch of guys to do the tracks justice. Wilson also wanted to approach the recording as anonymously as possible. “No preconceptions, no history, none of this legend stuff,” he told me. So Nashville fit the bill perfectly.
Wilson was not only impressed by the Nashville session guys’ work ethic, but also their ‘plug in and play’ efficiency. “They’d just listen to the songs and see where they’d take them,” explained Ross. “We cut all the basic tracks in two days. They basically spent about an hour per song, which is unbelievable. They have these number charts. It’s a different way of doing it and some country artists here are doing it now. So it doesn’t matter what the key is, ‘one’ is the root note and he’d (band leader Buddy Highett) write minor key symbols and other esoteric symbols on there. I swear, they’d look at these numbers, they’d walk out and come back and they are all playing their parts. I’m going … what? I’m just thinking how did they do that?”
The album is a mixture of narrative ballads, country swing, R n’ B and some uptempo tracks, not too dissimilar in style to Mondo Rock. It’s the latter tunes such as the title track and first single ‘I Come In Peace’, which really leap out of the car stereo speakers thanks to Moffat’s sonic attention to detail. “I came back to Australia and the early mixes had come back some time ago of ‘I Come In Peace’, ‘Land of Contentment’ and ‘Hell of a Time’, because they were absolutely finished and I didn’t want to muck around with them,” said Wilson. “Then I went off and did the ‘Five Decades of Cool’ thing and put it on the backburner. We started back on some tracks he sent some over and they weren’t quite how I heard them. I think maybe he was mixing them in a way he thought I might like to hear them, like stuff we had done in the past. I emailed him back with some points, and from that point onwards they were much more natural sounding. He really went to town on a couple of things with depth of field and I thought it sounded great.”
It’s not just the quality of songs and the recording result that Wilson is proud of with his new album ‘I Come In Peace’, but also the lyrical content and even the way songs blend into each other to form a story. For example, there’s one character who keeps reappearing in songs at different stages of his life, perhaps part biographical, part observational. “The guy in ‘Fishin On A Rainy Day’ is the guy from ‘Land of Contentment’ going out into the bay and there’s a vague suggestion that he might float out through the heads and never come back again,” Ross explains. “Same with ‘Old Country Road’, he’s still stuck where he was in the beginning. Then it starts to move into acceptance I guess, with ‘Love’s Journey.”
Another little quirk of this album is its subtle Australianess. Not many artists attempt to be colloquial in their songs, but when Wilson name checks Victoria’s Patterson Lakes and Sorrento in the track ‘Fishin’ On A Rainy Day’, it actually fits, and without a whiff of tokenism. Apart from a few songwriters such as Mick Thomas, Paul Kelly and Shane Howard, there aren’t many others brave enough to try. Whereas the Americans don’t seem to have a problem with it. “It’s a challenge to be comfortable with the names of the places around you where you live,” said Ross. “I think it’s sometimes hard to fit Nar Nar Goon into a song (laughs). We’ve got funny names. But the Americans do it with Wicheta and stuff. The same question has occurred to me. I don’t know. Country artists seem to be able to do it better than we do.”
One of Wilson’s most underestimated talents, is his ability to conjure a sweet sound out of the humble harmonica, no matter which genre he chooses to play it in. “I kind of made it a mission to continue using the harmonica in non-blues settings.The harmonica is used to excess in blues music … well I’m trying to find other ways to use it. A lot of people copy the masters like Little Walter, but they are single note players. Like Howlin’ Wolf, I blend it in with chords. I use chords and single notes with a bit more of a rhythmic approach rather than showing off and playing endless tirades of single notes.”
Anyone who has seen Ross live will also know he doesn’t mind an occasional strum as well, and in recent years has aligned himself with Gibson brand of acoustic guitars.
“I use a Emmy Lou Harris acoustic which is terrific because I don’t like the really big bodied ones and I have little fingers. I don’t like the giant Gibsons as much, even though they sound great. So they brought this model out and it’s a bit more feminine. It’s smaller and I can get my hands around it. You can plug it in and I’m getting really good results with that on the semi acoustic shows I do. I also play a Les Paul Junior, one pickup, two knobs which is always nice and simple. Set and forget.”
The album I Come In Peace is now out and more than anything, Ross is proud of the fact that some mainstream FM radios stations have come to their senses, and are playing new material from one of our most treasured ‘classic hits’ artists, a feat he had been constantly told would be impossible for an artist if his ilk to achieve.
“I’m proud that ‘I Come In Peace’ is getting airplay because I am the first dude of my age that it’s happened to. It’s been so ageist. When I started doing some modern tracks around 2000 and stuck them on the ‘Now Listen’ compilation as bonus tracks. there’s one song ‘Same As Me’ and I just love it to death. I was saying to the people I was with at the time, I have to get this out there. They said to me, they won’t play it Ross. So I said what about we do a video to go with it and they just kept saying they will not play it. Anyway I didn’t do it and I am really annoyed that I didn’t. So this time I had a good track, did a really good video and it’s getting some action. I just wanted to go back to playing the game on the level playing field. A modern, well recorded album and I am out there plugging’ away. So some stations have picked it up, and even if that’s all, then I feel vindicated that I am the first ‘older’ dude getting airplay for his new material.”