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James Reyne On Legacy, Songwriting & What We Got Wrong About ‘Boys Light Up’

James Reyne is a standard-setter. How so? Simple: If you’re in a pub cover band, rocking any dive or RSL on any given Sunday, and your set doesn’t include at least two songs sung by James Reyne? Sorry mate, you’ve not achieved the required standard. Some artists are lucky enough to have one song that transcends into the cultural lexicon. Reyne, however, has a pocketful – and they’re as vibrant now as they were back when they were first released, regardless of who’s performing them.

Now into his sixth decade as a staple of the Australian live music circuit, Reyne keeps his legacy firmly intact by constantly bridging between his past and his present. Last year saw him release his twelfth studio album Toon Town Lullaby, blending his timeless sense of scene-setting and storytelling with modern production to create another worthy entry to an already-exhaustive canon of work. Reyne’s next run of shows, however, will be the long-rescheduled anniversary dates to commemorate Australian Crawl’s debut album, The Boys Light Up. It was originally set to coincide with the album’s 40th anniversary, but we’re now up to its 41st birthday – not that it’s aged a day, mind you.

As Reyne prepares to once again take to the road extensively as the country reopens, he speaks candidly with Music Feeds about legacy, country crossovers and smoking dope… or not, really.

Music Feeds: Apologies for beginning on a sombre note, but we recently heard of the passing of songwriter Sean Higgins. He worked with Australian Crawl on a few songs, including ones on ‘The Boys Light Up’ – do you have any reflections on Sean and on his songwriting in particular?

James Reyne: I’d heard he passed away, and it’s always sad to lose someone. I knew Sean a long time ago; I met him through Guy McDonagh, who unfortunately also passed away many years ago now. I hadn’t seen him for 30-something years, but he was always a really lovely guy every time we were together. Sean and Guy wrote ‘Downhearted’ together, and I was basically living with Guy at the time. This was many, many years ago, but I knew right away it was a great song. It’s still a great song to this day, in anyone’s language.

MF: Another one of your songs was recently covered on the ABC docuseries Going Country: ‘Way Out West’, your duet with James Blundell. This was one of your biggest-ever solo hits, and your version of this song is arguably better known than the original these days – does that legacy surprise you somewhat?

JR: This is a little more recent than ‘Downhearted’, so my memories are at least a little clearer. [laughs] So, my memory of this was that it started with Brad Robinson, who was managing me, and Chris Murphy, who was managing INXS. They had a record label together called rooArt, and I was signed to it. They also knew I was a country music fan, and I had been all my life. I grew up loving stuff like Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker, John Prine… the stuff they call “alt-country” these days. We were teenagers – to us, it was just great songwriting.

Brad and Chris put the idea to me – I can’t take credit for it myself – where they asked if I’d want to cut a country song with an Australian country singer. I thought it was a great idea, but I didn’t really know anybody in that world apart from meeting Lee Kernaghan once or twice at the ARIAs or something like that. James Blundell came to me because I’d seen him on The Midday Show or something like that. I didn’t know anything about him, per se, except for one thing: Every time he was on screen, women would go absolutely nuts. [laughs] I was like, “Right! That’s a good start.”

James expressed an interest, but I couldn’t nail down what song to do. A friend of mine who was a publicist, Megan, knew that I used to go and see The Dingoes play all the time when I was growing up. When she suggested them, the first thing that came to mind was doing ‘Way Out West’. I played around with it, and I hit onto the “la, la, la”s in the song. They only do it a couple of times, at the end; it’s not really the chorus. I sped it up, turned the “la, la, la”s into the chorus and added a solo in there. I cut it with my band in Melbourne and sent it to James in Sydney, who was making a record with Garth Porter. James said he wanted to sing it with me face-to-face in the studio, so I flew to Sydney and that’s what we did.

MF: Did you watch Going Country, and specifically the part about ‘Way Out West’?

JR: I only caught a little snippet of it, but I did find the framing of it all really interesting. They said that it was the first time that an Australian country singer had crossed over with an Australian rock singer… I was just thinking to myself, “Really?” That definitely wasn’t my memory of it. There’s a talking head with Garth Porter, saying he was the one who produced it. “Did you now, Garth?” [laughs] That’s alright, certainly not the first time that’s happened. I never had any big plans or ambitions for this song, but it worked really well.

MF: As someone whose career could easily be defined by singular moments like ‘Way Out West’, ‘Downhearted’, ‘Reckless’, ‘Boys Light Up’… when you look back at your biggest hits, did you have any sort of premonitions about any of them? Any sort of inclination that you were onto something?

JR: Not one. I’m serious when I say I’ve never had any ambition for anything I’ve put out to be huge. I just constantly write songs, and some of them just happen to stick around. Songs like ‘Reckless’ and ‘Boys Light Up’ in particular… they’re songs that just fell out of me, really. They took about as long to write as it takes to sing. That’s why I never thought they were any good. The reason ‘Boys Light Up’ has that oom-cha oom-cha rhythm to it is because I wrote it on the piano, and that’s literally all I could play – I started writing it with just two fingers. I think it’s good to be aware of your limitations because it forces you to come up with something – and sometimes it’ll be even better than you know.

MF: Many of these songs have had decades in the public discourse, and a myriad of interpretations to follow. Have you found your songs to be misunderstood at all?

JR: It happens all the time. Everyone thought that ‘Boys Light Up’ was about dope-smoking. It had nothing to do with that! It was just an expression we used to use when we were teenagers. We had to go to a dance class once a week. A group of us would gather around and share a cigarette before we went in – there was maybe five or six of us. “And the boys light up again,” we’d say. It was just a stupid expression. We just thought it’d be cool to go into a dance class smelling of smoke because that’s what was cool in 1972. It just popped into my head randomly the day I was writing that song. It’s got nothing to do with the verses – I mean, you can connect it, but I’m not gonna bore you with it. [laughs]

MF: The Boys Light Up might be 41 this year, but you’ve been far from idle in more recent years. A lot of your contemporaries of the time are happy to just keep playing the old stuff without any updates to their discography, whereas you’ve made plenty of new music since the end of Australian Crawl and have never really left the circuit for long. Has your motivation to write music shifted contextually over the years?

JR: I’ve just always done it. I did it before I wrote ‘Boys Light Up’, and I kept doing it after I wrote ‘Boys Light Up’. I did it for a few hours every single day for a few years there. I probably wasn’t great, but I was always doing it. I was always drawn to the idea of it, and even now I like to think that I still am. I just sit around and things will pop into my brain, and it’ll put me to work. It’s just the way my brain works, I guess. You never really know quite which way it’ll go. Some songs, for whatever reason, just arrive in this fully-formed way. You start writing and then blergh, it’s fallen out of you. It doesn’t happen a lot, sure, but when it does it’s fantastic. For the most part, you only really have a germ of an idea to go off. Something will have intrigued you to the point of wanting to pursue it, and you’ll want to persevere with it in order to see if it goes anywhere. It’s sort of like doing housework – it’s not always fun, but there’s something satisfying about getting it done and knocking it out. I quite like that process – playing with words, playing with form, playing with songs, mapping it out. Sometimes things will reveal themselves that you never planned on, and that can be the most exciting part.

MF: Did you find yourself writing more over the lockdown periods, or was it the last thing on your mind? It seems a lot of musicians went really far in either direction, depending on where they were at personally.

JR: When the first lockdowns hit, I didn’t really do anything for a while. After it went on for a little while, I started to think to myself that I should be utilising my time a little better. I tried making myself sit down to write, but I’ve found that every time you do that nothing seems to happen. Funnily enough, it was just putting the idea in my head in the first place that made me want to do it again – and little by little, it started to happen naturally again. It became a part of the routine – getting up, going and getting some exercise in, come back home, grab a coffee and get stuck in. I really started to enjoy the process again. I’ve finished quite a few songs now!

MF: As someone who’s cut their teeth as a touring artist, it must mean a lot to have The Boys Light Up tour ready to go once again after so many delays. This one never even got a couple of shows in, did it?

JR: Never even started! We’re starting at the end of this month, into early December and through the start of the new year. It’s going to be a traffic jam out there, we can tell. Like everybody else who does what we do, we’ve had to basically duck and weave around changing restrictions, lockdowns, changing old dates into new dates. Everyone’s had to postpone, everyone’s had to change gigs, everyone’s had to lose gigs. Then you’ve gotta go into tango with these venues – the Gurus have got it on this night, the Oils have got it on this night. I’m just pulling names out of the air there, but you know what I mean. [laughs]

MF: How are you feeling, with the comfort of knowing it’s a reality now?

JR: It’s great to be out there, it’s great to be working again. It’s going to be absolutely fantastic to play. The band are ready, they’re sounding really good. Like any tour, we’ll probably really hit our stride with the first couple under our belts. I’m sure we’ll spend most of the first few shows being like, ‘How does this one go again?’ [laughs] It’ll still be great, of course!

 Listen to James Reyne’s critically acclaimed 2020 album, Toon Town Lullaby, here. His tour dates will re-commence from Friday, November 26th and you can watch his global live stream concert event on December 12. Details here.

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