Photo by Stephen Holding, Shooting Stars Photography
Dave Stewart is your producer, but you also seem to have a bandmate relationship. Do you look at him as someone you love to play and make music with or as a mentor?
All of that. He’s definitely been like a mentor and friend and jamming buddy. We talk about the blues and he loves writing songs. About two years ago he said, “Come ’round my place and jam out.” We ended up just writing a ton of songs and it got to the point where we said, ‘Let’s make an album.’ It started that way, it felt like a natural thing, we got along very well, it was a great vibe. I walked into Blackbird Studio and, listening to these people play, I was really blown away.
You’re a player who can play it all. Was it a struggle to figure out where you fit in genre-wise?
The last record [Believe] took quite some time to make. It was more in the pop vein, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but this one was a lot freedom because I left Geffen Records and made it myself, with Robo Records releasing it. It was like, ‘Let’s just make an album,’ kind of the way that records were made back in the day.
Where do you like to do your songwriting?
It changes, like, all the time. At my place here in L.A. or if I’m walking down the street and I have an idea I’ll be humming it into my phone, it’s kind of embarrassing … sometimes it’s strange you can’t hear anything, it’s like a bunch of sirens and crap. Sometimes you get good ideas like that. People think I’m strange but I don’t really care anymore, I’m going on walkabouts [laughs].
Did you and Dave Stewart write most of the songs together?
We wrote most of the songs together, and then I also went to Nashville and wrote some songs over there with some of my favorite writers. But most of the songs I wrote with Dave. One of the first songs we wrote was “How Does That Feel?” It kind of flips from this bluesy jazz to this rock thing. I wrote [part of] “Heaven in this Hell” with John Feldmann from Goldfinger—we had this Delta blues idea—and then I wrote the chorus with Dave because we had this swampy idea. I would bring in different ideas and go from there.
I noticed some unique genre-blending on “How Does That Feel?” where you go from like an R&B funk groove to one of the most epic rock solos at around the two-minute mark.
We had this idea that it should totally flip. It’s a story—It’s basically an “F U” to a dude: “You can do your thing but I love playing music and that’s my first love so I don’t really care because I’ve got a million fans, ya know?” We were thinking about how fun this song would be to play live.
You really belt it out in the opener, “Heaven in this Hell,” and then it ends on this notable contrast of acoustic melody. Do you play acoustic quite a bit?
I wrote that on acoustic when I was listening to a lot of Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf. There’s some country going on in the album too, I worked with Zac Maloy in Nashville on “You Don’t Wanna Know” and I played banjo on it too. But I wanted to have the nylon string sound for [“Heaven in this Hell”] because it starts off in hell, and I wanted it to end with this floaty sound, like you’re going to heaven.
You’re noticed for your mad guitar chops, but you’ve also got major pipes. Do you find people taking more notice of your vocal abilities these days?
I’ve been singing since I was 7, and then I had this instrumental phase where I focused on just playing and writing songs, and then coming out here collaborating with a lot of people and just being a guitar player, but I see myself more as an artist than a guitar player. If someone gives me something to learn, I’m going to put my own thing to it naturally. It’s something I’ve learnt to do, to paint with my own colors because I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. For example, going to work with Michael Jackson on the “Beat It” solo, I can’t fill Eddie Van Halen’s shoes, hell no! He’s amazing, but I’m going to go in and do my own thing, and I think that’s what Michael wanted me to do because each guitar player he’s worked with is different. Slash is so different from Eddie and from Jennifer Batten. Yeah, I ‘m definitely more of an artist than a guitarist I think.
Are there any singers you really admire who’ve influenced you?
I grew up listening to Elvis a lot and I love Roy Orbison, the Beatles, Eric Clapton, Steve Ray Vaughan, and Jimi Hendrix. I listened to a lot of country too—from Faith Hill to Rascal Flatts—because we always had the country music channel on at home in Adelaide. So it’s kind of a real blend, I was playing in a cover band too, Top 40 stuff like No Doubt. I was singing guy songs and whatever was on the radio.
And making guitars out of milk cartons?
Yeah and rubber bands! When I left my guitar at home and I had invited everyone to watch me perform at lunchtime by the steps. I remember I was like, ‘Crap I guess I’ll have to make one.’ It was terrible. My mom used to work at this dental office and people used to come and say “I saw your daughter perform this afternoon with a guitar made out of rubber bands.” She kinda got used to that.
Let’s talk about your gear a little bit. You have your signature PRS guitar. Is “Pepper” still your number one?
Yes, definitely. I’ve had Pepper 10 years and that’s my go-to guitar. It just feels like my companion guitar, it’s natural to play it. I love “Manos” and then I have “Moby,” and “Frank”—they’re all custom 22s and 24s. On the Alice tour I use “Floyd,” it’s a white PRS Custom 24 and “Fire” is my other one I use on the tour and it’s covered in blood. I name all my guitars. I have another one I love called “Haze” that was built on Christmas Eve (2011). It’s a very special guitar, made in purple, it’s just really electric-looking. It’s a private stock guitar, pretty much a one-off, it’s a PRS Custom 22 and I love it.
In the studio, did you stick with your PRS’s or were there any other guitars you played?
I used an old Fender ’54 Stratocaster, you can see me playing it in the making of the Fire EP. It’s a beautiful Strat, I just had to use it, it’s old, it sounds great and the PRS and Strat sound good together.
On what tracks on the album can we hear you play the Strat?
The guitar solo in “If You Were Here with Me.”