There are only two singer/songwriters who have morphed in my mind’s eye into creative doppelgängers.
Nick Cave’s music begins within me a transformation. I am consumed by his world of criminals and victims, flesh and bone, alienation and ecstasy. Like in An American Werewolf in London, where the lead actor had enough body hair naturally before the makeup and prosthetics team got to work. The actor’s hands grew in front of the audience’s eyes, and the soundtrack featured virtually every moon-related tune ever sung, but mystifyingly, the late great Warren Zevon’s ‘Werewolf in London’ was never included. But I digress. After seeing Cave in concert, I wrote two books listening solely on loop to his single album Boatman’s Call. Plenty of my PAs threatened to jump out of my eleventh-floor chambers.
We grew up 30 miles from each other. Nick lived in Wangaratta with his librarian/teacher father. My own father was a publican/bartender who recited the love song “J Alfred Pru Fock” to 20 or so drunks, railway veterans and late-night woollen mill workers in the illegal light of the early morning until dawn. Cave fished the local river – not the mighty Murray River – but a tiny artery, the Kiwa River.
When I saw his biographical film, 20,000 Days on Earth, his furlong ponytail hanging on a wall as an art trophy made me want to click Ancestry.com.
Jack Ladder is very tall, with long brown 60s hair, migrant handsome, shy and unassuming, humble but proud. I revisited this Zelig syndrome. His music sang deep manly baritone, laced with irony, each album becoming better both lyrically, musically and accompanied by brilliant, simple video clips, standing deadpan in front of synthesiser piano on thin stilts. In “Come on Back This Way” he is charismatic and riveting. The lyrics tell a graduating story in sharper and sharper words of the late night, of leaving a club in a mood directed at each other’s partners, romantic but alternating from funny, ironic to threatening to hostile and back again to romance.
Jack Ladder tells his story better than I.
Is Jack Ladder your real name, or just your stairway to heaven and celebrity?
Jack Ladder is my real stage name. My passport still says Timothy Kenneth Rogers. My friends call me Tim. I acknowledged that Tim Rogers is one of the great rock stars of his generation. I heard it all through high school in the 90s. I could have swapped for my middle name but there was another country singer called Kenny Rogers who had the market cornered. I was born Jack but my grandparents preferred Timothy, so that’s what happened. A jack ladder is a rope ladder that hangs from a helicopter, and I liked the idea of that. So far, it has been difficult for Americans to understand my Australian pronunciation, “Lad-dah”. But I like to say it with a thick French accent, “Jacques Laddaire”. I am tall. It’s supposed to be funny, but my humour gets lost a lot of the time.
I am particularly impressed by the quality of your songwriting and videos, in for example, “Her hands” and “Come on Back This Way”. There seems to be a significant lift, in the past three to four years, amidst your relatively long career. Can you tell us more about it?
Thanks for saying. I care with the songwriting. I care less about the videos, but I have some talented friends and family who have helped me with that.
I’ve been doing it for 13 years, but the past three have been better. I’ve had a strange career trajectory. I released my first record as Jack Ladder at the end of 2006 to a slow clap. I’ve made a few more records since then. Some more popular than others. Each one seems to have undone the previous work by backflipping on genres or sounds. In that way I’ve been able to weed out the tourists and focus my attention on an audience who get the core of the songs. The song is the song and you can dress it up however you like as far as I’m concerned. In 2011/12 we released HURTSVILLE. For me that’s the first good record I made with the band. Critically it was divisive but it’s endured, and I’m still getting work from it. Then we released Playmates in 2014/15 and they’re the songs that you’re talking about. It’s a much more focused sound that Kim Moyes from The Presets produced. I also had new management and an American record deal for that album, so it was played around a bit more. The new record Blue Poles feels like a step to the side again so we’ll see how that goes. I’m hopeful.
Who were your early influences, and who among your peers are your current mentors or sources of inspiration?
Early on, the music my mum played in the car was very formative. The usual stuff: The Beach Boys, Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Creedence, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed & The Midnight Cowboy soundtrack. In high school, I loved Miles Davis and I was obsessed with Primus. I was in the jazz band. I played bass. I wore suits from the Salvation Army. I didn’t talk too much. I didn’t start singing or writing songs until later in my early 20s. I found my way on to Nick Drake, Townes Van Zandt, Tim Hardin, Fred Neil, Gram Parsons. All these tragic figures. I was probably very depressed and going through a late adolescence. I went to boarding school and I didn’t really know anything about socialising. I bought a four-track and got stoned at home alone with my cats and wrote songs. I’m really grateful for that time.
Right now, it feels like there are loads of interesting songwriter/artist/musicians around with individual and intelligent perspectives. My dear friend and touring partner Mr Alex Cameron is one of them. Best mate Kirin J Callinan is doing things his own doggam way. One of my favourite singers and people is Natalie Mering of Weyes Blood. Her last record is a stone-cold classic, and I was lucky to tour with her, opening and playing in her band. Angel Olsen is a force of nature. There’s Long Island brothers The Lemon Twigs who have the hottest show in town. Ryley Walker is a songwriter/Twitter demon from Chicago who just released an insane record of heady jazz folk. Old heroes of mine still bringing it are Bill Callahan and David Pajo. There’s a lot of amazing new music sitting under the pile of rubble of the weekly #chillout Spotify playlist.
I have found your lyrics to be more ‘workshopped’, or as I wrote about Leonard Cohen once, each word is a ‘worry word’. Cohen took months to get a song right. Nick Cave also works this way. Do you? Or are you more spontaneous?
Most of the songs I record I pick based on my not remembering writing them. Then I might pick over something and fix them up a bit. Sometimes, I get hung up on the nuance of certain lines for years. That can shift the entire meaning of the song. But I prefer to work on something that has arrived subconsciously. A lot of what happens in my songs is true. I was labelled a surrealist at one point but I don’t feel that’s accurate at all. Maybe an imagist. But it’s all true.
What ambitions do you hold for your high-end band, with its membership sometimes including Kirin J Callinan and others?
Ideally, we would be able to tour as our own festival. Donny Benét, Kirin J Callinan, Laurence Pike (has an excellent solo drum record). We get Alex Cameron and all those folks I just mentioned and do a Rock ‘n’ Roll Circus type thing. A travelling family... but then you get the egos. Who’s headlining? Who’s opening? Profit splits, etcetera. It’d be a mess, like most utopian dreams. I always envisaged my music being played at an empty stadium. I’ve started to think about filling it now.
You have just toured North America, and despite climate change, did you take them by storm?
I toured North America last autumn and the climate change was real. People were getting absolutely soaked at our shows. Also, we were trying to avoid very real hurricanes driving through the South. I toured there again in spring and it was still snowing. Keep in mind I was touring with Alex Cameron, and he is killing it. We’re doing sold-out rooms across the country. People are buying in. It’s a cultural movement.
How do you find life on the road? Are there any groupies that bother you? If so, please pass on their numbers.
Touring life can be tough, I have been suffering from severe back pain from those 10-hour drives, but I enjoy the movement and the sense of purpose. Each day there is a goal set. Play a red-hot show. Everything else is just noise leading up to that moment. If I’m home too long pondering existence, I start to go mad. I thrive under routine.
The fans are all online these days. It’s easy to get in touch. And in many ways, we’ve sold ourselves out of the mystery and allure of the rock ‘n’ roll dream with social media. People just want selfies to boost their own profile. But there are prizes at the top. At least that’s what I’m told.
In an ideal scenario, where would you like to be based musically, to achieve the greatest possible success for your career?
You can be based at home now. I have been based in the Blue Mountains for the past seven years. I need space. Los Angeles is great for a couple of weeks. The sad fact is: to do the real work, you can’t afford to be based anywhere. You really have to be on the move for 10 years to secure your seat at the table. I like to have animals around, so that might have to wait.
On behalf of your fans, when will you release a new album, and when will you be touring Australia?
The new album Blue Poles is out now. I just toured Australia but will be touring again later in the year. Will keep you posted.