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David Ross Macdonald and his dark folk songs

I can’t remember if Kate Fagan approached me with the suggestion of an interview, or if David Ross Macdonald approached me out of the blue himself on Kate’s recommendation, but the story of the Waifs’ drummer who was a singer/songwriter in his own right – of ‘dark folk songs’, no less! – was too good to pass up. In the good old days when things were less structured, I’d be able to create a ten-minute interview including snippets of various songs; nowadays I’m trying to maintain the discipline of a regular weekly music news segment, so the interview component can only be about five minutes of that segment. It is thus fitting that I make a proper return to this blog – after a month’s absence spent coping with both the rolling of that boulder up the side of the retail mountain and bouts of incredibly debilitating arthritis – with the transcript of the original full-length natter with David Ross Macdonald.

I will follow it with a transcript of the broadcast version. However, if you prefer, you can download and listen to an MP3 of that shortened version.

Demetrius Romeo: David, you play guitar and you sing, and yet you’re also the drummer for the Waifs. How did you end up on the drumstool behind that band?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: That was a very, very, very fortunate thing. I was playing with a Perth band called the Ragabillys and that was a ‘boom-chick’ band. I was on washboard. We were at the Port Fairy Folk Festival and the Waifs were there as well. They saw me play and I was having a good time and we drank a lot and we had a lot of laughs and then Donna suggested I should go on tour with them, just for one or two shows, just for a bit of fun, because I was from the west and they needed a drummer when they were touring the west. I said, ‘sure. Sign me up!’ So three months later I was on a little tour with them up to Broome. We had a great time and it grew from that.

Demetrius Romeo: Your earlier album, Southern Crossing, is a collection of guitar instrumentals played specifically on handcrafted Australian guitars, so clearly you are a guitarist as well as a drummer. How do you divide your interests, and how did that particular album come to be?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: As far as dividing my interests, guitar came first. I did classical guitar when I was a teenager and played a bit of rock ’n’ roll at school, as we all did. And then I really dropped it, to become a geologist. So when I went to university, I did that. For a number of years I endured geology as a profession. And then I went to jazz college! I played drums at jazz college. I taught myself drums, and for some reason, they accepted me. So I was always surrounded by music and keen to pursue both drums and guitar. That’s how that happens.

People say most guitarists are drummers in re-hab, or vice-versa, and it’s the percussive side of playing guitar. It’s a very percussive instrument, anyway. And drummers have a lot of time to sit back and watch guitarists. Especially when I was playing with the Ragabillies. Rodney Vervest is an amazing finger-picker, so for six years I’ve watched him play finger-style guitar and I picked that up – so that was how I managed to get influence in that, I suppose.

Also through Rodney Vervest, he was a keen supporter of handcrafted instruments from Western Australia. He introduced me to the whole world of luthiers. And then a long time later, I was in Toronto, very jaded with the touring thing with the Waifs, and we were coming up to the end of the tour in 2001 and I just decided that I would do something completely different, and that would be to visit all these luthiers that I’d heard about in Australia and take my laptop and a couple of microphones and one by one, from Brisbane to the Margaret River, I visited these luthiers and had cups of coffee, went into their studios with the wood shavings and the cups of coffee and the cigarettes and the radio – that’s their sort of lifestyle, a very solitary sort of lifestyle, building these instruments – and we’d talk, he’d show me guitars, and I’d set up the mics and I’d just record. So I did it. I just went from one state to the next with my laptop and then I ended up with a record. I was taking photographs along the way – the scientist in me definitely came out in that little project. If you do own the record, you’ll see it has a comprehensive little booklet that describes construction and glues and woods and anecdotes about each of the builders.

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: Your new album, Far From Here, has guitars, has vocals, has drums, has an ensemble playing on it. Tell me about how Far From Here came into being.

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: Far From Here was a project that came into being because I had started to become heavily influenced by Americana singer-songwriters. With the Waifs touring a lot in the US and Canada, at a lot of the festivals that we went to, a lot of fabulous singer-songwriters came to my attention, and I’d been writing songs for a long time but I had never really seen people performing… ‘obscure folk music’, I suppose. I mean, singer-songwriter stuff that’s not ‘pop music’. A lot of the material that I write has certain abstractions and poetic quality to it that isn’t something that you’d hear on popular radio, so it isn’t something that I would ever pursue or tour or record. But after my experiences of seeing people like Steve Earl and Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch and Kelly Joe Phelps, David Francey – these folks write amazingly abstract and beautiful as well as really touching and simple folk music, and it gave me the confidence to pursue it myself.

So I really got down to writing the songs and then eventually finding the time in Melbourne to get some of the guys out of Paul Kelly’s group to help out in the studio. Also some of the guys from Things of Stone and Wood – I’ve got some pals there that I could call – and that was the first half of the album, with the rhythm section. The second half of the album is just myself with Stephen Hadley on bass.

We did that not that long ago – last summer when I was house-sitting John Butler’s place, up in Byron Bay. He had a lot of instruments lying around. Once again, I used a laptop and a couple of microphones to get the takes that I felt really comfortable with. Then we pulled it all together again, with Shane O’Mara down in Melbourne, who does a lot of studio stuff. He’s great. It came about in a process of about two years, in between Waifs tours, and I called it Far From Here because I was never anywhere in particular, so I thought that was the only name I could give the record.

Demetrius Romeo: That’s interesting, because you talk a lot about specific memories of places, for example, ‘Pearl’, that sounds like a true-life experience that happened in a beach town somewhere. Can you tell me a bit about that song?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: Yeah. That song actually does have a very quick reference to Broome. A lot of my experiences up in Broome, as far as checking out the local history, is steeped in Chinese traditions. You have Chinese cemeteries and you have the old architecture there, and the history of Chinese pearl divers – because a lot of the Australians were too damned lazy to do any of the hard work themselves, so they got the illegal immigrants to dive for pearls. From my travels in Northern California and Arcadia, you had the Chinese in the 1880s, 1890s, they were working in the coal mines. At the same time up in Canada, in Victoria and British Columbia, the Chinese were building the railways. It’s kind of an interesting historical fact that after the gold rushes of the mid-1800s, Chinese immigration, whether it was illegal or not, happened in America and Canada and Australia and probably a lot of other places that I don’t know of, and their labour was used and abused. I suppose ‘Pearl’ is a song that ties in that exploitation, because it was evident at that time. And also some of the aboriginal history of the area, because it’s got amazing aboriginal history: the aborigines used to collect the oyster shells and ground them up and take them inland because they thought it brought rain. I thought it was beautiful that the white man was there exploiting Chinese people to get pearls, while the aborigines just wanted the shells to ground them up and take them inland. It was an interesting story and I felt compelled to put something down.

Demetrius Romeo: One of the songs that stands out from the pack is ‘Seeds’ and I say this because, to me, the introduction sounds almost like an Irish kind of folk song. Is it fair to say that it stands out? And how does it fit in to the rest of the collection?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: It is a little bit anomalous because it’s a tune where I wanted to muck around with the time signatures and it has a waltzy ‘jig’ sort of feel to it because the ‘three’ component of the 5/4 time that it’s in is very strong. And also the song actually starts with a single bar of three, so it feels as if it’s in 3/4, but then it goes straight into 5/4 and then dances around. I liked that rhythmic idea and I suppose I decided to sing over the 5/4 time signature to kind of disguise it, so that it didn’t come over as a straight 5/4 composition. That was just a fun thing to do.

The whole metaphoric value of seeds, whether they be seeds in conversation or ideas or letters, we all have seeds in our lives some of which grow and some of which don’t. I imagined that in the context of overhearing someone’s conversation in a park. That was the background for that song – a combination of music I had been working on first, and then pulling in lyrics that I had been working on in another area. That was where seeds came from.

Demetrius Romeo: Are you going to continue to divide your time between drums and guitars?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: Definitely. I’ve been with the Waifs now for six years and I think the first five of those six years were an incredibly dense period of touring. I remember our first American tour, we were out for over eight months, just touring and that was very intense. We went to a lot of festivals and got a lot of great music under our belt and made some really good friends over there and realised the scope of the folk scene in America is wonderful… broad. But now that Viki has had a little baby, we won’t be touring half as much as we used to, and it provides me with a great opportunity to play my music to the really small folk clubs and the little house concert series that we hear of. Also, being a member of the Waifs, you get your e-mails returned. You don’t necessarily get a gig out of it, but you get an e-mail returned. That way I’ve made a lot of connections. I’m just gonna play as much as I can, whether it be the guitar or the drums.

I don’t think I’m going to play drums for anyone other than the Waifs. I’ve had a few offers, but my commitment first and foremost is to the Waifs. I don’t want to be in a position where I have to say ‘I can’t tour’ because I’m playing drums for someone else. That won’t happen.

So, yeah, I’m going to balance the two up for as… well, forever, really, that’s the goal of life: to play music until you drop dead. That’s mine, anyway!

Demetrius Romeo: An excellent attitude! David Ross Macdonald, thank you very much.

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: Thanks for your time. Appreciate it.


Here’s the bit that got broadcast as part of the music news segment on ABC NewsRadio – but really, rather than read it again just to see where I made the crafty edits, why not download it here and listen to how I made crafty edits instead?


Debbie Spillane: New releases: let’s have a look at what’s happening in that department. Far From Here by David Ross Macdonald.

Demetrius Romeo: Let me tell you about David Ross Macdonald. You don’t know him, but you do know him: he’s the drummer for the Waifs, but he’s also a great guitarist and a folk singer, and he sings what he calls ‘darkfolk songs’. Now, I did have a chat with him, I will play the interview, but before I do, let’s have a listen to some of his instrumental guitar work, because his first album, Southern Crossing, was a series of instrumentals played on handcrafted Australian guitars.

Soundbite: ‘Old Macs Tractor’ played on a Wright Guitar by David Ross Macdonald, from his album Southern Crossing

Demetrius Romeo: David, you play guitar and you sing, and yet you’re also the drummer for the Waifs. How did you end up on the drumstool behind that band?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: That was a very, very, very fortunate thing. I was playing with a Perth band called the Ragabillys. We were at the Port Fairy Folk Festival and the Waifs were there as well. They saw me play and I was having a good time and we drank a lot and we had a lot of laughs and then Donna suggested I should go on tour with them. I said, ‘Sure!’ We had a great time and it grew from that.

Demetrius Romeo: Your earlier album, Southern Crossing, is a collection of guitar instrumentals played specifically on handcrafted Australian guitars, so clearly you are a guitarist as well as a drummer. How do you divide your interests, and how did that particular album come to be?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: Guitar came first. I did classical guitar when I was a teenager and then I really dropped it, to become a geologist. So when I went to university, I did that. For a number of years I endured geology as a profession. And then I went to jazz college! I played drums at jazz college. I taught myself drums, and for some reason, they accepted me. I was always surrounded by music and keen to pursue both drums and guitar. Then a long time later, I was in Toronto, very jaded with the touring thing with the Waifs, and we were coming up to the end of the tour in 2001 and I just decided that I would do something completely different, and that would be to visit all these luthiers that I’d heard about in Australia and take my laptop and a couple of microphones and one by one, I visited these luthiers and just record.

Demetrius Romeo: Your new album, Far From Here, has an ensemble playing on it. Tell me about how Far From Here came into being.

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: I’d been writing songs for a long time but I had never really seen people performing… ‘obscure folk music’, I suppose. I mean, singer-songwriter stuff that’s not ‘pop music’. A lot of the material that I write has certain abstractions and poetic quality to it that isn’t something that you’d hear on popular radio, so it isn’t something that I would ever pursue or tour or record. But after my experiences of seeing people like Steve Earl and Kieran Kane and Kevin Welch and Kelly Jo Phelps – these folks write amazingly abstract and beautiful as well as really touching and simple folk music – it gave me the confidence to pursue it myself. And I called it Far From Here because I was never anywhere in particular, so I thought that was the only name I could give the record.

Demetrius Romeo: One of the songs that stands out from the pack is ‘Seeds’ and I say this because, to me, the introduction sounds almost like an Irish kind of folk song. Is it fair to say that it stands out? And how does it fit in to the rest of the collection?

DAVID ROSS MACDONALD: It is a little bit anomalous because it’s a tune where I wanted to muck around with the time signatures and it has a waltzy ‘jig’ sort of feel to it because the ‘three’ component of the 5/4 time that it’s in is very strong. And also the song actually starts with a single bar of three, so it feels as if it’s in 3/4, but then it goes straight into 5/4 and then dances around. I liked that rhythmic idea and I suppose I decided to sing over the 5/4 time signature to kind of disguise it, so that it didn’t come over as a straight 5/4 composition.

Soundbite: ‘Seeds’ by David Ross Macdonald, from his album Far From Here

Debbie Spillane: That’s ‘Seeds’, from David Ross Macdonald’s new album Far From Here, and David’s currently playing gigs around Australia with details on his website.