It's the voice that defines James Reyne - unmistakably and unapologetically Australian, singing with incisive accuracy, warmth and rich humour about the Australian experience. His great talent for writing poignant songs propels that distinctive voice, rich in melody and compelling rhythm. James crafts a sound forged from more than 30 years of experience and success, and while his modus operandi remains recording new material, he's canny enough to spread his interests through to solo acoustic performances and such projects as his TCB album in 2010, capturing his performances of Elvis Presley songs. 'I know that I'm a better singer now. I can do a lot of things a lot better than I used to,' says James, 'and that inspires me to keep making a lot of music.'
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, to an Australian mother and an English father, James arrived with his family in Victoria during the early 1960s, establishing their home in the Mornington Peninsula. Leaving law school to study drama at the Victorian College of the Arts, James and some friends formed the band Clutch Cargo, which in 1978 was renamed Australian Crawl - appropriate as James and several others in the band were competitive swimmers at the time. After his brother David Reyne quit as drummer to continue an acting course, Australian Crawl got into full stride and started to gain popularity on the fledgling pub circuit.
Characterised by James' unique vocal style and rakish charm, Australian Crawl became one of the bands that defined Australia's pub rock era of the 1980s, translating its live energy and knack for vibrant melodies into discs that won saturation radio airplay. All of Australian Crawl's albums achieved Top 5 status, equating to more than 1 million album sales in Australia. As the hits kept rolling on - 'Beautiful People', 'Errol', 'The Boys Light Up',' Things Don't Seem', 'Oh No Not You Again' and 'Downhearted' - James also came to earn serious acclaim and respect as a songwriter. 'Reckless', which became a national No.1 hit single for the band in November 1983, confirmed the tenor of James' writing ability and continues to resonate powerfully as one of Australia's cool cultural anthems.
The band was now riding the big wave of popularity, being voted Australia's Most Popular Group at the 1981 Countdown awards, with James winning Most Popular Male Performer in 1980 and 1981. Yet even at this high flying stage of his career, after he had landed a major acting role in the 1983 TV horse opera Return to Eden, James was equal parts alluring and self-effacing, always half taking the piss out of his own saleable image. He refused to take himself too seriously.
With his ever-present crooked grin suggesting that he had motives far beyond peddling a pretty face, James committed himself to writing, recording and performing new material. This became even more apparent after Australian Crawl split in 1986. James spent some time in the United States and Europe before returning to Australia in 1988 with a head full of new ideas, inspiration from new collaborators and a notebook full of fresh songs. His first solo album, James Reyne, was bold, abrasive and connected immediately with audiences, featuring three Top 10 singles and registering triple platinum sales. It was his first decisive step towards defining a new style.
The rapid succession of two more solo albums, Hard Reyne in 1989 and Electric Digger Dandy in 1991, saw James courting international attention, recording in the US, Australia and London in the company of such admirable guests as seminal swampy bluesman Tony Joe White, drummer Kenny Aranoff and singer Renee Geyer. Continued platinum sales showed he was charting a steady course.
His recording output also came to embrace notable and successful collaborations. In 1992, he recorded a duet with country singer James Blundell, a cover of the The Dingoes' song 'Way Out West', which reached No. 2 on the Australian charts and remains James' biggest solo single. Later that year he joined former Sherbet frontman Daryl Braithwaite, Jef Scott and Simon Hussey to create the album Company of Strangers, which produced four Top 100 singles.
James' critically acclaimed fourth album The Whiff Of Bedlam was released in 1994, a lavish production recorded in Los Angeles with Stewart Levine and a star cast of American musicians including Bill Payne, Michael Landau, Vinnie Colaiuta and Lennie Castro. But as James attained a new artistic peak, this era ironically marked an end of commercial radio airplay for his new material. 'The climate changed pretty quickly for performers of my vintage,' says James. 'Radio changed its tune. Suddenly I was not part of their core demographic. They would play my 'classic hits' but wouldn't consider my new material. And if artists like me couldn't get radio airplay, we couldn't get a recording contract.'
James Reyne biography
The answer was to take his recording future into his own hands. In 1999, James funded the recording of his Design For Living album, which featured such superb songs as 'Reno', 'Little Criminals' and 'Stranger Than Fiction'. Mostly recorded with friend and producer Scott Kingman at his studio in Melbourne, the album was eventually licensed for mainstream distribution and found a willing audience that came to appreciate the new material through James' live shows.
While radio wasn't interested, James' self-sustained recording output has remained steady and true. Speedboats for Breakfast, released in 2004, was followed by Every Man a King in 2007, with both albums boasting a sharp, positive sound that showed James hadn't been soured by limited broadcasting exposure. 'There's no point bitching and moaning. It's more important to figure out how to keep doing what I deem to be most important, which is writing and recording new songs,' says James. 'Every artist in Australia of my ilk has been deemed a 'heritage act' and we will always be defined by our old hits, so it's a challenge to find an avenue and an audience beyond that. But it's not impossible. I do a variety of things to make sure that these new original recordings remain my artistic focus.'
A parallel recording opportunity came when James commenced live shows that were pared down to stark acoustic performances, initially in the company of Mark Seymour, the former Hunters & Collectors frontman. The popularity of these shows led to the recording and release in 2005 of And the Horse You Rode in On, featuring acoustic reworkings of songs from throughout James' recording career, avoiding many obvious touchstones to instead allow a tasty array of deft tunes, perfectly suited to acoustic treatment, to bask in the limelight.
The immediate popularity of this album saw the release of Ghost Ships in 2007, a second acoustic selection boasting a few of James' more familiar old hits and several other obscure gems. While this idea was based on a straightforward commercial premise - providing a souvenir from the concert for enthusiastic punters - the response showed the artistic strength of James' songs in all their naked glory, and his continuing prowess as an engaging performer. 'It was an idea dictated by economics,' says James. 'I'm not in a position where I can go out with a full band all the time, but I want to keep performing. And these albums showed me that it's possible to do this powerfully and convincingly on my own terms.' Rounding out a busy year, the DVD One Night in Melbourne was also released in 2007, capturing a live performance that spanned material across James' full body of work. While he has affection for such a well-produced retrospective, he's cautious to not wrap too much of his musical output in nostalgia. 'I wrote Beautiful People when I was 18, and I'm all grown up now. Every time you sing a song like that you're forced to confront who you were at that age. Most people are allowed to move on in their life, but no, not me. This is why I keep recording my own albums of new songs. It's the next piece of work that I always find exciting.'
As further proof of his versatility and interest in diverse performance mediums, James has performed memorable songs to accompany a delightful series of children's books illustrated by Australian artist Wendy Straw - The Little Engine That Could, Mr Froggy (an original Australian edition of Mr Froggy Went a-Courtin') and Save the Bones for Henry Jones. James also popped up as a guest vocalist for country rock band The Distance on their song Country Life in 2008. With the release of TCB in 2010, an album of songs originally recorded by Elvis Presley, James proves that he's open to infinite sources of inspiration. Devised with producer Charles Fisher, TCB features 14 songs from the Presley songbook played straight and tight, built around such swingin' gems as 'Good Luck Charm' and 'Such a Night', the jumpy rockabilly jaunt of '(Marie's the Name) Latest Flame', the slippery silken shuffle of 'She's Not You', and the soaring bombast of 'Kentucky Rain'.
'Nobody should be that precious about it. It's not an Elvis album; it's quite simply an album of great songs. Hell, it's meant to be fun.' At the age of 52, James Reyne reflects fondly on the most recent chapters of his long music career, content in the knowledge that his work continues to bear the stamp of quality and originality - even if it doesn't equate to chart-topping sales and high rotation radio airplay. 'I always get a chuckle when someone says to me ‘Whatever happened to you?' And I can say that I got infinitely better at singing and writing songs, and make better records every time I go into a recording studio. Really, when people look at me now and listen to my music, I just hope they see and hear someone who's really enjoying himself.'
James Reyne travels from Victoria Australia
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