Multi-faceted WA singer/songwriter, Steve Hensby, launches his new, self-titled double album at Ellington Jazz Club on Wednesday, May 17.
Pic: Rachael Barrett
Steve Hensby was given a guitar at eight. He began lessons at nine. Before he left his teens he was studying at the world renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston. The easy line to draw through this story, of course, is the blonde South Wester (via Canada and England) was a child prodigy who was destined for this life and it just rolled out before him. When someone does something well they always make it look easy and that it must have come easy.
Ask fellow South West singer/songwriter Davey Craddock and he paints a much less glamorous path. Craddock recalls having a few guitar lessons with Hensby while both were high school students in Bunbury, Hensby a couple of years the senior. He remembers being in awe of Hensby's talent even at that age but he also still has a clear picture of the back of Hensby's bedroom door. It was a shrine to hundreds of shredded plectrums, each one stuck to the makeshift canvas as a reminder of how hard you have to play as well as practice if you want to become proficient in your chosen field.
Talking with Hensby now, settled into his 30s and a life filled with music, and he still oozes joy for the stuff. He has just as much enthusiasm when speaking of a tough night in a Kalgoorlie bar a few years back or his pride in covering So Much In Love, a Billboard chart topper co-written and sung by his uncle, George Williams. He says that apart from a few days working at a petting zoo when he first returned from Boston he has always made his living via music. He currently is on the staff of the TAFE music course.
After nearly a decade with his indie rock band Tracksuit, he stepped out on his own, with a desire to make music that went closer to capturing something of his eclectic taste. Due to the prominent presence of Nikki Dagostino's accordion, the first disc of his self-titled double debut album has a decidedly Parisian feel. Titles like Monsieur Ou Madame and Wake Up In Bordeaux show it most obviously but there is a light, positive air to all of the recording. It's not there by accident. Nor are the rousing pirate songs.
“If I write something miserable in my living room I don't hold onto it,” Hensby explains over a cold beer in a waterside East Perth bar. “Firstly, I think, 'do I want to be playing this miserable thing on stage? Secondly would people want to listen to it?' You have to ask what are you trying to bring to the table when you are playing live. I want to bring good times and fun. I think it is about entertaining.”
Entertainment is a given when Hensby and his five-piece band (including his partner, Elysia Murphy) take the stage. He has a reminder in his setlist every night with GMDYKAACDCS (or more as it is more commonly known, Do You Know Any AC/DC Songs). The song grew out a tough night in Kalgoorlie when Tracksuit were engaged to play four sets. They looked at the crowd and could see what looked like a mix of music fans and beer fans. Situation normal it seemed.
“I got up at eight to do a solo acoustic set,” Hensby says as he uncoils the memory. “The crowd though had knocked off work at two and had been drinking since then. They were ready to rock and roll all night and party every day. “It was like the Blues Brothers [at Bob's Country Bunker].
“There was a bloke in a cowboy hat who was pretending to be the manager who wanted to kick us out of town.” Then came the real mistake. Hensby thought he might really break the ice with the cross-dressing charm of Monsieur Ou Madame. “They told me I was full of shit and wanted me off the stage. I played the half-hour solo set. I grew up in Collie and Bunbury and was used to nights that stopped because of fights and that and am immune to that but on this night it felt like something could happen.
“Then as soon as I stopped playing someone yelled, 'hey Goldilocks when are you fucking gonna get back on the stage again, mate?' I was their toy for the night. It was a bit of a shit of a night but it made for a funny story.”
Things turned around after the first break though. “An hour after that we turned up the amps and played Jumpin' Jack Flash and it was 'way hey'. You have to look at it logically. This is a country town, these are local lads who work hard during the day and here's me singing Monsieur Ou Madame in a high voice. On the night I was looking at the audience over here who were enjoying it but over there by the pool tables, not so much.
“We played two nights after that and it was Crowded House to start and then some of our songs. If you do four songs then a cover, people will go with you.”
Covers included in the new album are If I Only Had A Brain (from The Wizard Of Oz) and the theme from Postman Pat. Both show off his killer guitar picking and make it clear why he was called on to take part in around 30 of the Record Club Roadshow classic albums performances since the series began in mid-2014. He appears to be the man who can't say no. He has no intention of changing his attitude anytime soon and loves that he has come to know many quality musicians by rehearsing and performing some of his favourite albums. His Roadshow alumni Matt Geary recorded and mixed the second disc of the album.
As mentioned earlier, So Much In Love is the other cover to be found on the album. This infectious pop classic holds special meaning to Hensby as it was co-written by his late uncle George Williams, the man who also sang lead on The Tymes' 1963 hit version.
“When I was 16 and again in 18 I got to record in his studio. That was amazing. His whole life he kept working. They had a guest house in Canterbury. Under the dining room of this six-storey house he had a studio. He had his gold records down there.
“I was this kid from Bunbury and he was asking me to play him some licks and I'm thinking 'this is cool’.”
He still does.
Steve Hensby launches his new album at Ellington Jazz Club on Wednesday, May 17. Tickets are available from the venue. http://www.ellingtonjazz.com.au/event/steve-hensby-album-launch/
For more information go to: facebook.com/stevehensbymusic