Richard Clapton Talks “Music Is Love” & Getting Back On Tour

Iconic singer, songwriter and ARIA Hall Of Fame inductee Richard Clapton will head across the country in March on his Music Is Love national tour, performing six headline theatre shows in Melbourne, Sydney, Adelaide and Perth. Fresh off the release of Clapton’s new album Music Is Love (1966-1970) (released on Mushroom’s Bloodlines label), which debuted at #3 on the ARIA Album Chart in April 2021, his highest-ever chart position, the revered songwriter will perform two sets at shows. Ticketholders will be treated to an electric first half showcasing his latest release, followed by a Best Of set featuring all of Clapton’s most legendary hits.

Music Is Love is Clapton’s first covers album and his sixteenth studio release, inspired by his visit to San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury two years ago. On this release, Clapton has gone back to his roots, highlighting his love for artists such as Bob Dylan, The Byrds, David Crosby, Neil Young and Buffalo Springfield. With the likes of Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Jackson Browne as fans, Richard Clapton (Ralph to his mates) has spent his life on the road. Richard talks to Hi Fi Way about getting back on tour and the Music Is Love album.

It is great to be able to actually start talking about touring and getting this tour in particular going?
Yeah. Look, well, let’s live in hope, because my tour has been postponed four times already, my fans are pretty amazing, because they’ve been hanging in there. Like the State Theatre in Sydney, the first attempt I think was March a year ago, and it’s been postponed four times. We’ve had no refunds, so it’s pretty awesome.

Has it tested your patience and your own sort of resilience in a lot of ways?
I think for any perennial musician to have to stop for a couple of years after fifty years of solid touring, it’s a very, very odd feeling. I’ve been locked down for so long, when I do get out of the house, I think I’ll be so excited to hit the stage, these should be great gigs, I hope.

Has it been weird to try and find other ways to kind of fill in the time?
There was a lot of office work, which kept me busy. Apart from that, I must admit I kind of lost my muse quite a lot, which is disappointing. It sort of worked in reverse. You’d think at a time like this, a songwriter would be really prolific, which I have been for so many decades. I’ve always written constantly. This time around, I’ve found it very slow going, which was interesting. The first year of COVID actually worked really well for myself and Danny Spencer, my guitar player, and David Nicholas who engineered the album, because we got into Rancom Studios in Sydney where we recorded fifteen band tracks on really great old analog gear in an old analog studio. We had the fifteen band tracks, but then we needed vocals, all the guitar parts, and all the backing vocals and so on.

For the first year of COVID, we’d already had the album on the back burner because everybody in the band were all touring quite hard, so we put it on the back burner for a few months to come back to it. Then when COVID first hit, it bit really hard, Danny was locked down in Melbourne and David was up here in Sydney. David was actually not well and was hospitalised, so believe it or not, he was working on the album remotely from hospital, which by the way, was kind of good for him, because I think at times like that it’s best to keep as motivated as you possibly can be. I’d like to think that in David’s case, it helped him through a lot, because obviously it takes his mind off stuff.

During that year I was really busy and I was chasing other things up. I got Mahalia Barnes and EJ Barnes to sing on one of the tracks and stuff like that. All those bits and pieces added up to being quite busy most days in the first year of COVID. In the second year of COVID, the album had been done, and then it was quite frankly an abortion, wasn’t it? As we all know, I’ve been doing the State Theatre in Sydney for fifteen years, and for the first time ever, I did the unthinkable, which I had to do. We had to pull the plug. There was a really shocking spate of COVID, I think it originated in Wollongong and we’d only just done Wollongong, but got out of Wollongong just in time, like a couple of days before there was a massive explosion of it in Wollongong. So we had to cancel the State Theatre a day before the gig, which for me was pretty shocking and a really unsettling feeling as well, because you think, Jesus, are these people going to be still wanting to be coming along in… What was that going to be? June or August, I can’t remember. It’s been postponed so many times. We’re really hanging out to do these gigs. There’s a lot of pent up frustration there, because we’ve been trying to do this so many times.

On reflection, you must be pretty happy with the reaction to Music Is Love and it charting so strongly?
Most definitely. The only thing being, COVID hit the album as well, which was very frustrating. What happened was it went straight to number one on the Australian charts and it did so well, but the album sold out in the first two days. With COVID impacting on distribution they couldn’t get any more vinyl, for a start, and then they couldn’t get stock into the stores. That dragged on for about six to eight weeks. So unfortunately, that impacted badly on the album. Nevertheless, I’ve got a mate in Canberra who’s got a record store called Songland Records, which I think is the biggest independent retailer, but he texted me the other day to say, despite it all, Music Is Love was still his biggest-selling album of all albums last year. So hopefully, maybe we can keep it slowly ticking over and we’ll win in the long run.

Was it always your intention to do an album like this with covers, or songs more so that obviously have meant a lot to you and been a significant influence along the way as well?
Yeah, there’s actually a great story to this because of the way it started, as I said, Terry Blainey and I became mates a few years ago after he split from Kylie, and I got a gig in San Francisco. Danny and I went over and did this gig and then hung around San Francisco for another three or four weeks after the gig. Naturally, I went back to the home of my ancestors in Haight-Ashbury and hung around. I was going up to Haight-Ashbury, I went up a few times, just hanging around, hanging around, because you know, it’s a holy place, mate. I came back from San Francisco and had a night with Terry, and I was waxing lyrical about San Francisco and how much I loved it. Terry said, “I know. Let’s do an album of hippy anthems.” My gut reaction was, oh, no, I don’t really do covers. I’ve never done covers, except for I Fought the Law on The Great Escape album. I think that’s the only cover I’ve ever done.

I didn’t warm to the idea, I was just letting it percolate, and then Terry emailed me a list of, I don’t know how many songs, about twenty songs old songs. I was reading the list and going through and playing some of those tracks, and I was warming to the idea. I don’t know, within a week or two, I just thought, “Yeah, actually, this is a really great idea”, because the way Terry explained it to me is this is my musical DNA. It’s music, it’s where I come from. What I’m referring to is, as the album title states, it’s hippy anthems from 1966 to 1970. It encompasses the really most important songs of my life. The Byrds were a real seminal influence on me, because I was already into Bob Dylan. When The Byrds started doing Bob Dylan covers, I had a big love affair with The Byrds for a while. Then I ended up in London and the interesting thing is the same thing applies to Terry. I’m actually a London hippie and not an American hippie. However, in London, I was listening to After the Gold Rush, Blonde on Blonde, Joni Mitchell’s Blue, and James Taylor’s first album.

Despite the fact that I was a resident of London, I was listening to all this music coming out of Laurel Canyon. When you think about it, I think this is all in the album liner notes anyway, all these songs did originate from Laurel Canyon. Even The Lovin’ Spoonful, because I always regarded John Sebastian as being New York, but when you really dig into the history, yes, The Lovin’ Spoonful were from New York, but apparently they got busted for pot and that’s when they moved to California. From that point of view, cathartic’s not the word. It’s just been a great thing for me to do, and it’s reintroduced me to this music. Not that I ever really stopped listening to it, but when you compile those fifteen tracks together, you just realise the magnitude and the importance of those songs. I mean, it begs the question, have all the good songs been written, you know? So I’m really happy with the end result.

I just love the way that you’ve interpreted some of these songs. For me, Riders On the Storm and Cinnamon Girl are really, really awesome, what you’ve done with them. If you narrowed it down to a couple, is there those one or two that you think, yep, this really sums up this period for me?
Probably Almost Cut My Hair by David Crosby, because to me that is the real hippy anthem. I feel like I’m letting my freak flag fly, and gee, I sing that better than I speak it, actually. It’s a bit of a tongue twister. It’s overtly hippy. As I said, it’s literally a hippy anthem, like all the lyrics are so hippy from that period. What is it? “Looking in my rear view mirror and seeing a police car,” and all that sort of shit, you know? Fantastic work from all of them.

Do you think there’ll be a volume two?
Sadly, while the late, great Michael Gudinski was still alive, Gudinski would call me up out of the blue and go, “All right, so what’s album two? What’s album two?” I think you might have heard about what Michael was like, a real firebrand, bloody human dynamo sort of thing. Gudinski kept pestering me for what am I going to do for album two. I think he was probably looking at this like a Soul Deep One and Soul Deeper Two kind of thing. I agonised over what album two could be, because it could go two ways. At one stage, I did veer off into London, and I had wanted to originally while we were curating all these songs, I’d come up with like Waterloo Sunset or Lola or Street Fighting Man, or any number of great British tracks. Album two could be London music from the period, or then we could go to 1970 and start with Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell from the seventies. That’s undetermined at the moment. We’ll just see what happens.

Have these songs taken a bit of getting used to playing live? A bit of rehearsing involved to obviously try and nail it to fit the live show?
Honestly, I’ve just got the best band. They’re a great band, and I’m glad of that, because quite frankly, these songs would not be easy to play. The guys that play with me, even though they’re younger than me, a couple of them are half my age, but they’ve still got this really, really great grounding, and they’ve got a great, not just appreciation of music history, but they almost live music history. To play that sort of hippy music, you really need to connect with it. You really need to tap into that psyche. I have said to everybody involved, “Look, I really want this album to be a homage, not an album of covers,” because I still feel uncomfortable with Richard Clapton doing a covers album.

That’s what I would like to think the boys have done. Well, you said it yourself, they are such authentic replications of the originals. I’d like to think they are pretty much just like the originals with me singing over the top of them. But to me, the band just sounds like the original bands, the way they sang. Obviously, we’ve got the better benefit of fifty years of technology, so even though we did it in an old analog studio in Sydney, it’s still far superior technology to what would have been around in the late sixties. I think this album obviously sounds better than some of the originals, although then David, the engineer I was talking about earlier, I think he’s gone to great lengths to really study the audio or aural aspects of the old recordings, and he’s also tried to replicate. Well, not tried to, I think he has replicated pretty much how those old records used to sound. It’s just probably without some of the clicks and pops, probably.

You must be looking forward to getting back out to Adelaide? It feels like it’s been like an eternity.
Oh yeah! For a lot of acts and a lot of artists, it just feels like it’s been way too long. Mate, especially The Gov, because the last time we did The Gov, which is not all that long ago, really, and it was just wild. That was a fantastic gig last time we played, it was a great crowd and the crowd was so into it. It was one of those special, magic sort of nights. So hopefully we can come back and do that again.

Interview By Rob Lyon

Catch Richard Clapton on the following dates. Tickets from Frontier Touring

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