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William Crighton: “I have to try and get it in the moment, otherwise I kind of go backwards”

William Crighton. Credit: Julieanne Crighton
(Image credit: Julieanne Crighton)

Raised a Johnny Cash devotee in the NSW Riverina, it stands reason that William Crighton’s art would sit flush in the centre of a three-way Venn diagram between searing and smoky blues-rock, dusty Australiana and rich, heartfelt roots. Water And Dust – Crighton’s third full-length effort – amplifies his earnestness in all three areas, delivering an album that is intense in its impact, painstakingly crafted to take its listener on a deep and enthralling journey. 

As its title and artwork make explicit, the record explores Australian culture with an intense sharpness, Crighton’s love for his homeland unequivocally gallant. To parrot the label copy, it sees the songster tap into “the terrain, the people, the raw beauty, the danger the echoes of the past and the hopes for the future” – it is, in a few ways, the definitive Australian album of 2022. 

“I like to think that all of these songs on Water And Dust have hope in them,” Crighton said in announcing the record. “That country where we recorded ‘Keep Facing The Sunshine’ has a gentle and powerful nature that seemed to keep the darkness at bay. The people who have influenced me most are often the people who have been through real trauma and still manage to be grateful for the wonder of life. Even when something terrible happens you can usually still find a way to be grateful for the lesson.”

Australian Guitar caught up with Crighton to dig further into the records origins, touching on the wide slate of collaborators featured on Water And Dust, and why its rawness is crucial to the overall listening experience. 


How did you want Water And Dust to reflect your evolution as an artist? 
Well that’s right – I wanted to try and become a bit better of a player, and get a better understanding of things. I also wanted to shift up the sound a little bit, as far as it went with involving more people and going for a bit more of an expansive sound. I was really interested in combining different elements of music from people I knew – so William Barton, Jeff Lang, of course my wife Jules, and a few different drummers like Luke Davison, Matt Sherrod and Rob Hirst. 

Obviously it’s my record and all of that, but I put a lot of faith in the people around it to create the sound that I sort of envisaged. But it can always go either way in those situations. And it did – y’know, there were some really fortunate surprises that I couldn’t have seen coming, which made it onto the album. I was interested in combining all these tones together to make that soundscape for the narrative to sit on, but a lot of it did come about through that “get in the room and see what happens” sort of process.

What was some of the surprises that changed this album’s trajectory? 
They just come about, y’know? For instance, ‘Sunshine’ was a surprise in the sense that Jules and I finished writing the song one morning, and we recorded it that same day – just bass, drums, guitar and vocal – and then Jeff Lang came in and put this really cool, African sort of riff on the Irish bouzouki. Those sort of things come about really spontaneously, and it’s exciting. And then William Barton puts his didge on it, and all of a sudden we’ve created this soundscape that none of us saw coming. 

That was the same with most of the songs, actually. It’s one thing to think, “Oh yeah, we’ll throw all of this stuff together and see what it sounds like,” but it’s another thing for it all to actually come together, into this cohesive sound where everything has its own place. And the musicians – everyone who played on this album invested their heart and soul into it, it seems. No-one was just going through the motions, everyone was really trying to be creative and do what was best for the song.

Were you all tracking a lot of this record live in the room? 
A lot of it. All of the initial tracks, and a lot of the vocals, were recorded live – not necessarily in the same room, just because we wanted to isolate some of the sound, but at the same time, capture performances. I come from a live background, and I really wanted to capture the energy that happens when everybody’s doing the same thing at the same time and sharing that space. 

We did a lot of that at Jim Moginie’s studio, Oceanic: we recorded live-to-tape, pick the track we liked, and then build on it from there. But not too much building – most of my guitars and vocals are just from those original tapes. I find that I just perform better that way. Lang overdubbed some stuff, because there’s multiple tracks of him on there and he’s a bit of a genius with the overdubbing. But I struggled to overdub stuff – I have to try and get it in the moment, otherwise I kind of go backwards.

Was there a lot of improv going on? 
Totally, there was. It’s like one of those things where you have have a song in your head, and so you’re singing it and playing it as it comes out. And then you might try to forge it a few different ways, and it doesn’t quite work, but then you finally come across it. Or you can play through it the first time, and there it is. One of the recordings is the first time anybody in the room had played the song except for me. And in the case of ‘Stand’, that was the first time anyone had really played the song at all, because we’d just finished writing it.

So when you listen back to the album, do you think, “Ah, if I had a few more weeks to work on that song, I would have done this or that,” or have you been able to really embrace what came out in those sessions? 
I mean, every time you hear something, you’re going to think about what could have been done, or what should have been done, or what wasn’t… But it’s a different question to ask, “Well, would that have been better?” And I don’t know the answer to that. Of course, I’ve thought about lots of different ways I could have done things. It’s a funny line – for me, it’s like you’re trying to leave your ego behind, but you also try and become the song a little bit. You can’t do it without becoming the vehicle for that song. 

A lot of that is off the cuff – it’s the first or second thoughts about a song that matter most. There are other songs where you go down the rabbit hole a bit further to figure it out, but most of the time, I end up coming back to the first couple of ideas I had anyway. Even with the lyrics: sometimes I’ll write a song and it’ll take me ages, Jules and I will work on it together for a year – sometimes more, even. And they’re okay, but the songs that just happen, where the lyrics fall out real quick, they’re the ones that seem to be the best.

For me, it’s just about experiencing that song and being in it, and capturing something that is going to do it justice. I want to make something that honours a time and place and captures a feeling. The song is going to be done – and done differently – another thousand times before I’m dead. I always try to stay true to the essence and the spirit of a song, but I like to change it up when we play live, and let the song have a different feeling each time I play it.

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Ellie Robinson
Ellie Robinson

Ellie Robinson is an Australian writer, editor and dog enthusiast with a keen ear for pop-rock and a keen tongue for actual Pop Rocks. Their bylines include music rag staples like NME, BLUNT, Mixdown and, of course, Australian Guitar (on which they also serve as Editor-at-Large), but also less expected fare like TV Soap and Snowboarding Australia. Their go-to guitar is a Fender Player Tele, which, controversially, they only picked up after they’d joined the team at Australian Guitar. Before then, Ellie was a keyboardist – thankfully, the AG crew helped them see the light…

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