As the leader of Australia’s raucous country rockers Wagons, Henry Wagons has carved a formidable reputation as both a songwriter and performer. His performances can be hilariously confronting but the theatricality never overshadows the heart of the music. Earlier this year Henry abandoned the band in favour of recording his first solo record After What I Did Last Night, an album recorded in Nashville with a bunch of the city’s finest players. So what can fans expect to see when Henry hits Mullum Music Festival sans his regular band? Trevor Jackson endeavoured to find out.
Mullum Music Festival is billing you as “Australia’s ultimate outlaw countryman!” It sounds like Ned Kelly playing Tamworth – did you cook that title up?
(Laughs) No, but if I were the authorities I’d lock me up. I might not go full blown outlaw, but I might get naughty – I’m not planning on leaving anything behind.
As the front man for the band Wagons there’s a theatricality to your performance, some real swagger – from spinning microphones in your hand like a gunslinger to the big Vegas style moves that would make Mr Presley proud. What can Mullum audiences expect to see?
Well I’m certainly not afraid to go the full Tom Jones where the male cleavage can get pretty obscene. The hair on my chest is very much a product of my European heritage – it’s thick and lush. People of Mullum should be ready.
When you’re playing a set to an audience that’s largely unfamiliar with your work it’s a big call to hit the stage like that with more front than Myer. Have you ever had a negative crowd reaction from a performance?
No, not really. I’m a populist at heart and I like to entertain whoever’s in front of me. I’m an attention seeking only child and I’m built to impress. People are generally smiling by the end of it once I’ve had my way with them (laughs).
One of the more recent Wagons numbers Why Do You Always Cry – shifts from a Johnny Cash meets Nick Cave country croon into a camped up cabaret style torch song where suddenly you’re off to Paris and Broadway. It’s brilliantly clever and hilarious at the same time. Do you love intentionally messing with music genres or do you just get bored with the idea of being predictable?
That song is very much influenced by one of my favourite songwriters Lee Hazlewood. I love being creative in the studio, so if I get a chance to turn a song into a “choose your own adventure” novel I’m not adverse to taking a hairpin bend. Americana can sometimes fall victim to taking itself too seriously because it’s a conservative form of music, it’s a music that’s based in tradition. So I’m very conscious of not wanting to do that – you don’t listen to a Henry Wagons record to get paint by numbers country music that’s for sure.
Underneath the swagger and the humour there’s a real love for the music that inspires you, but do you think most people see it that way, or are they just looking at a guy goofing off on stage giving them some entertainment?
I dunno. I think I come at it from a tradition of singer/songwriters like Johnny Cash, but also entertainers like Elvis Presley and even stretching back to the Rat Pack. It’s something that’s been lost over time, these days everyone is so serious – there was a time when a singer/songwriter could have fun on stage with the audience in a humorous way. Someone like Dean Martin could walk out on stage with a glass of wine in hand, stumble into the fireplace and then breakout into one of the most heartfelt ballads you’ve ever heard. So it’s kind of harking back to that era. I am very serious about the music though.
I’ve just made my first solo record in Nashville and in a way it’s the funniest album I’ve ever made. When I made the album I really wanted to pay tribute to the fact that this was a solo record, so I wanted to give a lot of myself to the process. I was opposed to the idea of the serious singer/songwriter getting all misty eyed over their work. When I thought of my past I didn’t want to censor out all the stupid bar room stories, as well as songs about the emotional impact of fatherhood for instance. So it’s not the confessional singer/songwriter in the traditional sense – it’s got a little bit of schizophrenic vaudeville as well (laughs).
So as your Mullum appearance isn’t a Wagons show with your regular band, will it be a more toned down show, or is the performer inside of you too restless to tame?
If anything the spotlight is more mine, I get even more excited. It’s equally high sensation and I do play some Wagons’ tunes with the band as well as the new songs. It’s quite a rumble that we create and I still remain a sweaty embryo after every one of these performances.
*Henry Wagons plays the Southside Tearoom, Morningside on Nov 17 and 2 shows at the Mullum Music Festival, Nov 18 & 19.