In Conversation with David Hosking

Photo: Ross Green

Is he Australia’s greatest unknown songwriter? A songwriter’s songwriter with eight intriguing albums under his belt and a new album to be released sometime in the new year.

  If you don’t know his music, you should. Think of Nick Drake, Tom Waits, Van Morrison and even doses of Joni Mitchell – Hosking is a true storyteller and accomplished musician. If he is not discovered now, he will be discovered by future generations that will be aghast that Hosking wasn’t a legend in his own lifetime.

It’s time to explore the music world of David Hosking.


Driving to suburban Coburg in the rain. It’s overcast, not cold, but one of those Melbourne days where you are unsure of the weather’s temperament. Venturing through various look-a-like streets, Google Maps announces that I have arrived at my destination. Thanks Google.

In an unassuming house, I am greeted by one of Australia’s greatest songwriters. He greets me with a shake of a hand and is softly spoken. He has had a big night with some bandmates the night before, and admittedly it shows. We both share a black coffee, sit in his kitchen, as he rolls one of many cigarettes. I feel privileged to be in his presence, a man of such immense talent. A man that toils and labours with his songs to create such beauty. Never superfluous or verbose, his songs are crafted with emotional precision. The songs poetically encompass love, observation, humour and are delivered with such sensitivity.

And he remains unknown, despite some support in Melbourne and in Northern Ireland.

Having recently discovered Hosking’s back catalogue this year, starting with his third album Jack’s Boy (1994), it has been a gorgeous revelation and a bit of a trip.

Akin to reading a brilliant novel and being so entranced that you have to vicariously read every novel that author has written, and in the process gain an understanding of an evolving skill in writing, but also the growth of an artist. With Hosking it has been like this, with every album growing evidence of a man that is continually fine-tuning his craft – both melodically and from a songwriting perspective.

Hosking was born in Altona in 1959, and grew up in Werribee. He has been a Melbourne music stalwart for many years, but does not do as many gigs as he used to.

His last three albums have been partly recorded in Northern Ireland, where he has felt reinvigorated – forming a musical partnership with drummer and producer Paul “Hammy” Hamilton – his next album will be produced by Hammy, and if the new single (which is yet to be released) is an indication, the new material will be brilliant – Hammy adding an almost sinister edge to Hosking’s compositions.


I know that beauty can make you blind
But there’s nothing but love in this heart of mine
I thought it right through my heart and my head
And I was very careful to not think in my bed

‘Fortified’, from The Biggest Record Company in the World (1996)


The Songwriter

The bottom line is that the albums are there – and when I am gone, they will be there. And that’s what matters to me – DAVID HOSKING

<BP> Is it harder being a musician as you get older? Is it more of struggle?

<DH> I guess it is, but all my energy goes into the writing of the songs. That is what I am totally focussed on. When I am home, I just go from this chair playing my guitar to the piano. That’s just what I do, go backwards and forwards.

Are you a prolific writer?

Yes, I am always playing. I am not writing as many songs as I used to – I think that’s because of my work (David’s day job as a Disability Care Worker) – it’s hard to do both. And also, I guess, as you get older you’re not committing to record something, or you edit yourself a lot more because your benchmark gets a lot higher.

Is it the same buzz when you write a song?

Oh yeah! Yeah! When you finish the stupid thing! <Laughs> Up until then you can’t sleep – I can’t sleep or move on until that song is finished.

Is it a painstaking process?

Yeah. I labour songs more so now because I don’t want bad lyrics to stay in songs anymore. So, I have learnt. Once upon a time I would say, ‘it’s finished – yep, it’s finished, yep, the recording is good enough’ – even though there might have been a line I wish I could have come up  with –  you know, something better. But now, I will of course record it – so I don’t forget it, but if there is a line in the song that doesn’t pass muster, even if the song is years and years old, and I have recorded some good songs that I think have ticked every box as a song, if it’s not performed in the studio well enough, or if there is still something missing, I will leave it and I will go back to it. And it might be that I have different musicians to perform the song.

This is the old chestnut question! Do the lyrics or the music come first?

It’s usually both at the same time. The lyrics and the music.

What inspires you to write? What are your triggers?

Well, love songs are usually about a person. Sometimes it’s not – it could be an amalgamation of lots of people. But usually I don’t sit down to write a song about something, it’s almost like that the song is already there.

And you have to work out how to get the song from wherever it is – and I could be stuck for a line, and everything else I am really happy with, and then it’s,  “I can’t get that line”! And then sometimes I can’t get the next line because the previous line is not right. So, I check everything – it’s like I thought this line was good, it worked and it’s the right line and everything, but I can’t get any further.

Is it more for the emotional impact, or are you concerned that the words might sound clumsy? What sort of things would you look at to improve?

Yeah, it could be all that. It could be clumsy, it could be the line might be meant to be in the song, but I reached into the song and pulled out the wrong line. And that line is meant to be later.

Or I might play it differently. I might have worked out the correct way of playing it – find the right groove.

How important is being in Melbourne for you? Where you writing songs in Belfast?

Yes, songs like ‘Down Every Street’ – that album was written in Ireland. I have got a lyric book somewhere…

Do you retain all your lyrics in a book? Even the older ones?

Yeah. Unfortunately for some of the most recent songs, they are on scrap pieces of paper. I still have a box of lyrics of bits of paper! That is also because when I was travelling to Ireland, I didn’t take that big book with me. It’s all handwritten.

Do you have one album you are particularly fond off?

Nah.

Are you critical? Do you go back and listen to the songs?

<Lighting another cigarette> Nah. Only when I can’t remember how to play something.

Why is that? Is it like looking at cringeworthy old photos that you don’t want to see?

It’s just about now and when is the next song coming. Of course, sometimes I do go back and listen, but there would be a reason for it. Someone might say something to me at a gig about a particular song and it’s really poignant or special what they have said, and I will go back and listen to the song, to try and connect with what they were saying.

Any artists you get inspiration from a songwriting perspective?

Not so much now, but when I was younger, I was catching a train into Melbourne from Werribee – probably one of the first times I went on my own – and one of my brothers had passed away and he had a band. And his old bass player got on the train – Steve – and I hadn’t seen him since my brother died. And we were just having a conversation, and he said listen to Jackson Browne. So, I went to buy the album The Pretender, in the days when you went to the record shop, and say I want this album, and if it wasn’t there, they would order it in for you, and you would wait for it. And I got The Pretender, and then I went back and got all the albums but didn’t buy anything after Running on Empty. He had some good songs on the others, but it got a bit too polished.

I then converse with David about Joni Mitchell implying that her track ‘Not to Blame’ on her 1994 album Turbulent Indigo was about Jackson Browne. The song being about domestic violence.

<DH> I didn’t know that! Wish you didn’t tell me that! Joni doesn’t mince her words, does she!

Any Australian songwriters that inspire you?

I like Don Walker. Chris Wilson. Love that Long Weekend album – I gave it to someone to listen to, and I never got it back! He is one of those songwriters – some of the songs off that album – they should have been recorded by artists like Willie Nelson, or some big American country star. It was just a beautiful album.

I am more inspired by musicians. I really loved Steve Connolly’s guitar playing. Of course, I have to say Rebecca Barnard. And Shelley Scown that used to sing with me and will again one day. When you see her in her element with Paul Grabowsky, Allen Brown, Gary Costello – you never will again with Allan Brown and Gary Costello because they are gone – some of the best gigs I have ever been too were her.

A girl introduced me to Nick Drake in my early twenties. She had the three albums. She had the boxed set. And she lent it to me, and I taped 90% of the songs. I don’t know why I didn’t tape them all. And as I get older, I thought why didn’t I record the whole thing? 


Jack’s Boy

Hosking is a storyteller. Each song being a tale of some kind, drawing you in – where the music almost becomes punctuation to the words of the song. Having been drawn to Hosking’s music through his 1994 third album, I am curious about it. Especially the appearance on the album by some old men that sing in the song ‘Shadow Shot’ – old men that almost come across as a sepia photo, a generation of men that no longer exist. Conjuring visions of shell shock and the other traumas of war, and the side effects of coming back home.

I have been listening to Jack’s Boy (it is fucking brilliant), is it about your dad?

I think the story to that is, as a kid or even as a young man growing up in Werribee – I am one of five boys – there were no girls in the family. And we were one of Jack’s boys. And you knew everyone in the street, and if you were in trouble or even something positive and being introduced, you would never be introduced as, “this is David”, it would be always one of Jack’s boys.

In the album there are some older sounding men singing. Is that man your Dad?

No, I was playing at a café in Clifton Hill. It was called Sneaky Pete’s. It is not there anymore. It was run by a couple of music lovers, and I started playing there when it first opened and there was never anyone in there – and these two old guys came in, and they were kind of street-kind off guys – like hobos – which is the better word, and they were returned soldiers from World War II.

And one of them – I was having a break and sitting at the table – they came in and sat down – the guys made them a cuppa coffee and they stayed for an hour or so. And they were just amazing. Two blokes that had led wayward lives and then they started to talk and telling stories. And the guy- I can never remember what his name was – but I remember that his son was called Patrick, because he talked about his son called Patrick a lot. And that’s him singing, and I recorded it. I said to the guy, grab a mic! And he just plugged it into his stereo, and somehow recorded it. And then he sang that song – I forget what the song is – “put your sweet lips to the phone” – and he is the best singer on that album!

It reminds me of a generation of men that aren’t around anymore. I remember at Primary School seeing these old men that wore hats and suits, and seemed a bit lost.

That’s exactly what they were – they were wearing ruffled suits, big overcoats, and they looked like they hadn’t taken their suits off from the end of the war.

The whole album gives me a vibe of George Johnson’s novel My Brother Jack.

The next time you listen to it carefully – I shouldn’t give you the secret – you can hear them both talking – and he says in the middle of that song ‘Shadow Shot’ – that’s the song we put him in, because it’s about war – I can’t remember but I still got the whole conversation, but he says something like, “I was in the war. I was in Jerusalem. Where the Lord was born”. And I said, wasn’t he born in Bethlehem? And he goes, “Oh, it’s just up the road”! <Laughs> And I didn’t know anything about geography or how far Bethlehem was from Jerusalem, and then I was telling a friend this story and he said it’s not – it’s about 60 miles away! And he said, it was just up the road! And then he goes – I am not too sure if this is on the recording on the album, but he says, “I was in a synagogue” – I think he meant he was standing in the front of the synagogue, or he might have called it a church – and all the people came out and no one spoke – and it was really profound for him. He really remembered people coming out of the synagogue and no one talking.

So, it was a really interesting conversation. And plus he is singing, and if you listen at the end when I am playing banjo, that’s just me sitting at the table, just improvising – the bulk of the whole song is done in the studio – I was just improvising on the banjo and you can hear him going, “Mmmhhh” – and you hear his other mate that spoke more – you couldn’t understand a word he said – not because he was drunk, but it wasn’t him speaking, it was ghosts speaking. He wasn’t making any sense. Because his mind was shattered.


Well I knew that they were wrong
So I tried to play along
Behind the perfect cover
The one that never fall’s away
Even as you lay
Beside your perfect lover

‘Dead and Buried’ from Sleeper (2003)


The Struggle

I probably wouldn’t have made anymore records if it wasn’t for Hammy – after Down Every Street – DAVID HOSKING

Is it hard to have a day job and still concentrate on your music – is it a distraction? How do you balance it out? Do you ever say that you can’t do this anymore?

It’s more like, can I do this music anymore! It’s not about the day job. It’s either that or live on the streets, especially as you get older you start to think, “what am I going to do”? This music thing is not sustaining – you know – buying food, pay bills and all that sort of thing. What do I do? Keep doing a job or busk? So, I have just tried my best to do both, and I am fortunate to have a really good job that I find to be really inspiring.

What is your day job?

I am a disability support worker.

I mean my first album Four Track Mind  (1990) – I got a bank loan to that. I think I have told this story before. I was living in West Heidelberg and I just walked into the bank and said I would like to get $3000. I already recorded it, it was all home recorded on a Tascam 144. Which is what Bruce Springsteen did Nebraska on! And I took it into the studio and got it modified so you could bypass the EQ – the minimal EQ on the four track – and use the tape and then mixed it on a proper desk. So, anyway I went into the bank and went into the bank manager’s office – my first time in a bank manager’s office – and he said what you want the money for? And I said I want to put a record out. And he had this, behind him, all these religious things – and he said, ‘why do you want to put a record out’ – and I said, ‘because God told me to’! I didn’t think I would get the loan in the first place – and he gave me the loan!!

Good old God!

And then, I paid it off because I was working. I was only working part-time in child care and disability causally – and then I paid it off really quickly. And then I went back and he was gone. I wanted to get another loan to put the next one out and he wasn’t there anymore!!

Have you ever thought of crowd funding for new projects?

I have, but I don’t know, I don’t like to pester people for money. I would rather just work. Like do a job.But it also takes a lot of time – and I don’t have the time. So, it seems to me to be simpler just to work and save my money. It’s time consuming enough to plug a gig online – you have to be a pest, so there will be a fraction of people that are being pestered that will love music and everybody else is just deleting you.

You have a following in Melbourne, do you have that same devotion around Australia?

It would be primarily a Melbourne following, but it is so hard to stay connected with them now, with the medium of social media – and I am only guessing – there were some people at the single launch on Wednesday night, and I knew their faces. But they were twenty years older! And they said, “We just saw this on Facebook – and we were wondering what you have been doing for the last twenty years!” – and I have been posting every gig, and there are people like that, that haven’t seen it! And once upon a time I used to have quite a long – it wasn’t an email list – it was a snail mail list and I used to send gig notifications via post. And I used to get bigger crowds than I get now!

Do you send your records out to radio stations, like 3RRR or 3PBS? Would they playlist your work?

I will send it to people like I always do, if they play it, they play it – I don’t know ANYTHING about that business side of it. And it’s one the conversations I have been having with Hammy – how to not repeat the way I have been doing it. It’s what we want – for people to hear the music.

I was thinking about your catalogue – it really needs to be cherished and get some exposure. Is it frustrating that eight albums in, you are still unknown?

The bottom line is that the albums are there – and when I am gone, they will be there. And that’s what matters to me.

Though we want you here for a while yet!

I want to make more records too – I can’t wait for this new one to come out. Be it a CD or a vinyl or whatever the next format is going to be.

Did you ever approach record companies or did they come to you?

Well I got a stack of letters – the ‘Dear John’ letters were about this high  (motions well over his head) – up until The Biggest Record Company in the World album, that is when I stopped sending it to record companies.

Hosking indicates that he even considered stop making albums from 2009’s Down Every Street due to financial pressures. He credits support from singer-songwriter Rebecca Barnard, but in recent times he attributes support from Irish drummer and producer Paul “Hammy” Hamilton in reinvigorating his desire to make albums. Hammy has produced Hosking’s two recent albums All That Beauty (2012) and Butterfly Net (2017) where he has successfully been able to further enrich and expand the beauty of Hosking’s compositions, including the addition of a string quartet.

<DH> Rebecca has always been a supporter – she never shuts up about me! <laughs> She is a sweetheart. And that’s one reason why songwriters keep going even though it is a tough road.  I don’t know how someone can keep going if they didn’t have people like Rebecca and Hammy – I probably wouldn’t have made anymore records if it wasn’t for Hammy – after Down Every Street.

Why was that? Was it the financial aspect?

Yeah, the financial, and Hammy – he is mate’s rates. And even nothing at all. Because he is just so passionate about stories and songs.


Playing in Pubs

Photo: Michael Lelliot

Do you get a buzz from touring? Do you prefer touring or being more studio driven?

I prefer to perform and tour.

Is it hard to sing your songs to pub crowds that might not be listening to your music?

That’s one of the reasons I don’t play much!

Is it off-putting?

I am better at coping with it now! I used to be a bit silly about it, but I just decided if I feel like that, stop playing, don’t play.

Can you yell out, “Shut the fuck up – I am pouring my heart out here”!

That doesn’t work. I just learnt – I did a gig with Ryan McMullan (a talented young Northern Irish singer/songwriter) – he sold out at The Basement in Sydney, and it was probably if you were standing in the crowd, if I didn’t control myself it probably would have been the worst gig – you would have thought David is hating this!

But a girl from Melbourne, one of my fans, flew to Sydney to see me play – because I hardly ever play. And <laughs> because she was there, I couldn’t spit the dummy! And I couldn’t walk off. It was like there was a million chooks, and I was standing in the middle. The thing is because Kristy was there, I thought right I am going to play, and at the end of every song people really applauded. But as soon as you started playing <does a cackle noise> – and then I stayed focussed and I played my heart out and didn’t tell them to shut the fuck up – even in a jokey kind of way – in the way I would normally do! And at the very end so many people came up to me, and said we are so sorry about this – the most of them were Irish people – I think they were all backpackers that were catching up with friends. But they were still enjoying it. And everyone who came up to me, they all put their name on the mailing list, all bought a CD, and they loved it. It’s really difficult to perform and focus because it’s distracting. There was a beautiful piano – I think it was a Steinway – on the stage, and I would have loved to have played it. Played some of my songs, but there as no way I was gonna – so I played all my stuff on an electric guitar.

So, if you are in that situation now, you just gotta – it happened to Ryan last night, he was supporting The Coronas at the Prince of Wales – it wasn’t advertised, but he is huge – like, he is going to be huge, he is just an amazing singer-songwriter. And he kindly did the special guest thing for me at my little single launch, and it was pin drop audience, because I have a great audience. And then he went to support this band, The Coronas at the Prince of Wales, and it was again like a million chooks in the room!


The New Album and Northern Ireland

Cover for the yet-to-be-released single ‘All Said And Done’ – painting is by Michael Lelliot

What’s the pull towards Belfast?

A good friend had a friend that worked for the BBC in Derry which is in Northern Ireland. And he really wanted me to come there to Ireland in general and to play music. He thought that Ireland and people in Northern Ireland would love my music – they do love songwriters and storytellers, and he was pestering them to pester me – and eventually I decided I would do it, and since then it opened the doors in meeting these great musicians – and in particular Hammy – who is the producer of the last (in what will be) three albums.

The first one was Down on the Street – the first with the Irish connection – and Hammy played drums on that. No one really produced it. We all kind of produced it. And that was the first studio experience with him, and since then he produced entirely and engineered the next one – he didn’t mix it – and then he produced and engineered Butterfly Net.

When is the new album going to be released?

We are going to do singles for the first time in my life.

And why is that?

Well, it is very hard to get traction – you put the albums out and they get swallowed up.

Is it building excitement for the album?

That’s the idea. It’s not my idea, but…but I just have to face it. It’s very hard- and I have done all these albums, and no one has heard them much. And everyone is doing it. And you have the online element of it.

The single is the necessary evil, but then the whole album is not complete. Because we are doing singles there is no hurry.

So, you will be doing some gigs to support these single releases?

Yeah, I will do my best to do as I am told. And do a few more gigs.

Who tells you what to do?

No one really! I get some strong advice from Hammy, who is my guiding star at the moment, and he is a big supporter. And as well as that he is an amazing musician.

Do you think that the album is an art form is dying?

It will never die because most people that really, really love music will want albums. And they want the whole thing – the stuff that I see where my stuff is streamed and everything, and hardly anyone downloads the artwork. They are just listening to it.

There are people out there that just want albums. And lay on their bedroom floor with their headphones on listening to it from beginning to end.

Is there a theme for this album?

Yes, it’s just trying to shed some light on where we are, and why we are, and what we are.  

Is it spontaneous in the studio?

Yeah, yeah, this song – I said c’mon let’s try this one – so I just went in and played my parts – you know what, I actually don’t remember how this one was done! He might have played along with me. I am playing guitar – there is another guitar player as well – and there is drums and percussion. And Hammy played piano as well, in a kinda weird way. And there is no bass player. The other guitar player tuned his guitar to really low.

When I leave the studio now, I don’t take any rough mixes or anything with me – I don’t want to listen to them.

How has the new album been progressing so far?

The album started in Ireland back in November last year, the bare bones of it, well most of it really. All my parts anyway. And then Hammy was out here in March this year, and we did some more stuff in a studio in the Blue Mountains. And re-did a couple of songs, cause we used the wrong mic or something. And then he has continued to work on the new album, and brought in the other guitar player – Colm McClean – but we call him Colly. He is a really good guitar player. And there is possibly going to be the string quartet again, and god knows what else Hammy will put on it. There will also be bass. We already did the drums and bass together in the studio live. Sarah Liversidge is also on it – she is an amazing singer. She did some vocals here – in the house. But apart from that, the album was done in Ireland and in the Blue Mountains.

Do you feel rooted in Melbourne, as you have been here all your life? Is that why you have remained here?

Lack of opportunity has kept me here. I would leave Australia in a heartbeat tomorrow.

Really? Why is that?

Because when I went to Ireland for the first time, the day after I landed, I was supporting Ron Sexsmith! And I would never get that gig here!

David plays me his new single ‘All Said and Done’. The vibe is dark and moody, a reflection of these heady times. It’s atmospheric and ambitious, and it has certainly whet my appetite for his next album. Reassuringly it makes you feel uncomfortable, and shows that Hosking is continually pushing himself, and the influence of Hammy has been a positive beacon in the musical career of this artist.

He plays me the single, and it was a surreal experience getting lost in the music, with the creator being only one metre away.

Sometimes when you meet an artist in person, you can be disappointed and it can almost make you dislike their music. With Hosking it was the complete opposite. A humble man, a person that is passionate about writing songs, and despite financial hardship still gets euphoric about the process.


DAVID HOSKING ALBUM DISCOGRAPHY

Hosking’s album catalogue is something that needs to be experienced. Immerse yourself in the stories about love, observations, life and the philosophical. Always sincere, open and sometimes doused in humour. An artist like Hosking should be appreciated. He is definitely up there with the Australian greats, and no longer should be unknown.

1. Four Track Mind (1990)

2. Slow Runners (1992)

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.  Jack’s Boy (1994)

4. The Biggest Record Company In The World (1996)

5. Sleeper (2003)

6. Down Every Street (2009)

7. All The Beauty (2012)

8. Butterfly Net (2017)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bandcamp: https://davidhosking.bandcamp.com

Website: https://www.davidhosking.com

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