Lydia Jenkin

Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Don Walker: Oz rock poet

Having made his mark in Oz rockers Cold Chisel, Don Walker emerged as a singular solo singer-songwriter. Before crossing the Tasman for some long-awaited gigs, he talked to Lydia Jenkin.

There's a quote about Don Walker in the book The 100 Best Australian Albums: "[He's] the most Australian writer there has ever been. Don just digs being a sort of Beat poet, who goes around observing, especially around the streets of Kings Cross. He soaks it up like a sponge and articulates it so well."

It's a lovely accolade from fellow Australian songwriter Richard Clapton, but it bemuses Walker - who has been writing some of Australia's best loved tunes for four decades - because he doesn't think of himself as a poet.

"Not really, and certainly not a beat poet. And I don't know if that quote is accurate really, that makes it sound like I'm some guy walking around with a notebook, and pumping out the poetry - and there are people like that, but I certainly can't," he laughs.

"I just float along, doing real life, which doesn't often involve walking around the streets of Kings Cross. I write songs when all the trivia of life is looked after and tucked away, and I can get an hour or two to lure my own mind off somewhere."

Walker catches the inspiration when he can, a few hours here or there, sitting somewhere - as long as it's not at home - with a scrap of paper and a pen.

"I haven't written on an instrument for a long time. The music is in my head when I write, so I'm mostly working on the lyrics and dreaming through the bits of music in my head.

"I like to get a cup of coffee - it doesn't need to be a good cup of coffee, it just needs to be one that works. And I'm also still a nicotine addict, so nicotine and coffee are part of the routine I guess. Alcohol doesn't help at all with writing." he says with a wry laugh.

Walker was last here with Cold Chisel in 2011 for their much applauded reunion tour, but it's been 20 years since he played any solo shows on this side of the ditch.

"I came and did a couple of shows supporting Tony Joe White years ago, but that's the only other time I've performed solo. So it'll be interesting, because what I do has changed a lot in the last 20 years, and I'll be playing with a new group of musicians."

Indeed he'll be playing with local luminaries The Bads, who recently did an excellent job on a similar tour with Tim Finn. The idea came about when Dave Khan, who plays with multiple Kiwi acts including The Bads, saw Walker at Australian music festival The Gympie Muster, got chatting to him, and suggested The Bads could be his New Zealand touring band.

"It seemed like he was right. They have the right sensibility, there's no question they're a very good band, and I thought, it should be good."

He'll be playing songs from his new album Hully Gully, as well as previous solo releases, and some material from his sporadic ensemble Tex, Don & Charlie (with Tex Perkins and Charlie Owens).

Though none of his Cold Chisel band mates will be joining him this time, he certainly thinks another future tour is possible - he's writing new songs for them, and though the 2011 tour had a certain poignancy after the sudden death of their drummer Steve Prestwich, it spurred them on too.

"We've got a bit of momentum I guess, because that turned out to be a great experience. At the moment I'm concentrating on getting songs finished that might be useful for Cold Chisel, thinking of their voices - Jim (Barnes) and Ian (Moss) have very different singing skills than me, so songs that are suitable for them to sing probably won't suit me, and vice versa."

Walker also remains in touch with the world outside the music business, and has friends from all walks of life, including those he met while working as a physicist. It's potentially a key aspect of why his songwriting remains so rich and connects with many different folks.

"I caught up with a mate of mine recently who is a scientist working with the Navy, and he leads a fascinating life. He's spent a lot of time in Antarctica, and recently he's been seconded for six months to Aboriginal ranger groups who are monitoring dugong and turtle populations up in the Kimberley. By any measure it's a pretty fascinating life, and I guess that's where I could have gone, along those lines anyway.

"But I'm quite happy with where I went of course. In fact where I went, I'm pretty lucky that it finished up alright, because for most people choosing to be a professional musician, it can go badly wrong" he laughs.

Who: Don Walker, solo singer-songwriter, and songwriter and keys player for Cold Chisel.
Where and when: Performing at the Tuning Fork in Auckland on Thursday April 17, and at Leigh Sawmill on Saturday April 19.
Listen to: Latest album Hully Gully (2013).

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