Disclosure: I got so caught up in my conversations with Cary that I completely forgot to tape anything on my recorder to refer back to. We collectively topic hoppped, back tracked, suffered from mental blanks mid sentence, and organically talked for 3 hours non stop. There will be plenty of paraphrasing.
Cary Lewincamp has been a part of my life for a long time – I think I first encountered him not long after I moved to Tasmania (I keep forgetting to ask if he sent any of his kids to Albuera Street Primary) but if not then, I have certainly known of him since I was a teenager.
His music has seen me through college and university, and helped me to drift off to sleep during irregular periods of insomnia. I tend to interpret sound as shapes and sensations, and his music has always been very mellow, warming, thick cut and calming. There is a depth to his music that most solo guitar music lacks; it’s a subtleness that is actually real and can be put down to the tuning of his guitar and the fact he plays with seven strings instead of the standard six (something we discuss further on).
The day started omniously with my car battery running flat right at the time of departure to meet him. So I headed off on foot for a brisk half hour walk.
Lewincamp’s residence is tucked slightly back from the narrow road leading to the Waterworks, surrounded by plenty of greenery. The house plot itself is made up of a few different buildings interspersed with brick paved garden paths that lead round almost like a maze.
We got comfortable in his music space, a renovated shed that still retains its A frame roof and high ceiling. The walls are lined with his guitars, bookshelves with exposed timber. A grand piano sits towards the back of the room, along with an array of other stringed instruments: a banjo, a cello, an albino violin I didn’t have a chance to ask him about. As much as this room is about music, it’s also about warmth through the wood, the mismatched rugs on the floor, a space that echoes and gives each instrument a chance to resonate when being played. Almost like what I imagine sitting inside Cary’s head is like.
We start off politely and reserved. After all, I am a perfect stranger to him, although we do have a few mutual friends between us.
The weird thing is that, through all the years I have listened to Cary’s music, I feel like I know him, and that’s one of the first topics we broach to discuss. How does he handle the fame of being known and yet not know anything in return about the person approaching him.
“I’m an open guy, and I guess I follow their lead. So if they’re really familiar with me, I am with them too. You get people who tell me they listen to my music after a really stressful day to unwind, or who play my music to drift off to sleep, to accompany a dinner party. Sometimes you get couples who just nudge each other when they walk past and give a good wink, and you know why they listen to the music!”
He shared the story of a guy in the Australian armed forces, posted overseas in the middle east somewhere, who approached him and said he played Cary’s CDs at the end of a potentially traumatic and difficult day. Some of the guys would jibe at him saying the music was weak, but for him, that solo guitar gave him space, time to unwind, and be human again.
It’s true that solo guitar music is not for everyone, and indeed some sneer at the cliché nature of a single acoustic guitar. Cary thinks the overuse of music in many aspects of life has a lot to do with people not appreciating really decent music nowadays.
“Music is used everywhere, in advertisements, in movies, soundtracks, TV, the internet. It’s definitely accessible, but the quality isn’t always there. People lose a sense of appreciation for what they’re hearing. It gets to the point that when there’s live music playing, it doesn’t even register”.
He continues by using his weekly appearances at Salamanca Market as an example.
“You’ll be playing, and there will be someone standing right in front of you, their bum nearly touching your knee, and they’ll be completely oblivious to your presence, let alone the fact you’re actually playing and they’re standing right there, obscuring your view and anyone else’s who is trying to watch.”
I asked him why he though his music was so relatable. What is it about his compositions and style that spoke to so many so easily.
“Put simply, my music comes from me and resonates from me. I tend to live in the moment and experience things there and then. That has its pros and cons of course, but for the most part there is a lot of what I’m feeling at a particular time in my music.”
He retells the period when his first marriage was coming to an end and he had been playing in a jazz duo with a friend. One night, feeling so miserable, he declined to come out and play a gig. His friend retorted saying that while he understood that Cary must be feeling terrible, he absolutely had to come out to play because he couldn’t let his music partner down. Grudgingly, Cary assented, not realising that his friend’s insistence was on purpose in order to draw him out of his emotional state and to push him into a different head space. It was around this time that he rediscovered his love for making music and made the foray into composing, expressing his own feelings – pain, uncertainty, angst – through notes and tune.
“I guess people can hear what I feel in the music, and they connect with that feeling. That’s what I like to think at least. People say I’m the sound of Tasmania, but I could be living in Vancouver, Canada, doing exactly what I’m doing now, and people would say I’m the sound of Vancouver, Canada. They hear what they want to hear, but what they hear is what they need from the music. The ditties and tunes that eventually become a song are not complete when they are first imagined, and it might take me weeks or months to finish a piece to the point that I am happy with the sound and the flow.
My style of music takes on a story telling rhythm, so there are always little surprises that I write to keep the piece interesting – a sudden key change, a flourish of notes that might be unexpected.”
This oddly made me think about the manner in which social media is used by celebrities and promoters. Personalities are called out for posting images that have been augmented one way or another to try and garner likes.. I asked how Cary balances musical integrity versus what he feels might be more appealing to his audience?
“Ultimately I am making music for myself, creating things that I want to hear, and which meet my own song writing standards and expectations. The reality of being an artist and trying to make an income out of what I do of course means I need to sell CDs, do live performances, write commissioned work, but non of these influence the fact that if I’m not happy with a song, then I need to do something about it to make it work, otherwise it doesn’t sit well with me personally. I’m not writing with the intention of pleasing my audience necessarily, although of course I want them to feel comfortable with what they hear.”
Comfortable. That’s definitely one understating word I would use to describe Cary’s music to my ear. I know exactly what to expect if I put on one of his CDs, and I know that whatever comes out of the speakers will be of a certain style but never repetitive or bland. Not to me at least. I feel comforted and at ease. Cary’s playing style is not showy – it’s very measured, telling you to sit back, have a drink, and have confidence that what you hear will be exactly what you need and great to listen to.
He uses the example of Classical Gas by Mason Williams as a great illustration of showcasing playing styles. If you watch American Dad then you’ll be familiar with the song:
I’m pretty sure American Dad sampled Tommy Emmanuel‘s rendition, which is fast, furious, full of flair and nearly frantic in its energy. Listening to Emmanuel is nevertheless enthralling, but I’m left exhausted with my heart racing at the end of it. Cary then took out his guitar and played the more measured original version, which is still flawless, just as catchy, but because of the pace and style that he played, you have a moment to actually appreciate the musicality and the technicality of the composition.
As it turns out, we share a love of the deeper tones in the musical register, preferring bass over treble. You will already know that I am a self confessed bass bitch; the more I can feel my insides vibrate the better. Cary incorporates a thicker, richer sound in songs by playing with 7 strings, the extra string being tuned to A but an octave down to the standard that is already on a standard 6 string guitar.
This not only means he has the ability to incorporate more bass into his music, but that seventh string also resonates sympathetically during a song. This merely means that un-strummed strings will resonate in response to external vibrations (i.e. the song being played), which then lends a subtle harmonic tone. Great examples in his songs include Blue Noodle (from In Your Nearness), The Sky In Your Eyes (from The Sky In Your Eyes) and Radiance (from In Your Nearness).
While Cary doesn’t come across as obsessive or domineering, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was any perfectionist streak, some element of control that he liked to have handle of, rather than collaborating in a group where there are so many variables that need to work in harmony (both musically and personally). As a true introvert, I know how exhausting it can be merely interacting with a group of people. I imagine there is a level of comfort in being your own coach, trainer and pep rally team because any failure you experience is your responsibility alone. On the whole he agreed with me.
“I certainly have an ego; artists who tells you they don’t have an ego are full of it! So yes, I do appreciate being my own boss. Sometimes not everything that comes from a partner will be good, let alone great. On the other hand though, it can definitely be fun if you’re all on the same page and really like an idea that someone else has come up with. The fun then starts on how you can make that basic idea even better and build on it. One of my sons was doing exactly that the other night, and he was suggesting things here and there. We had fun just playing around and experimenting.”
Cary Lewincamp plays every Saturday at Salamanca Market up the top opposite the Supreme Court. His CDs (of which there are 7) are available for purchase there or online at www.cary.com.au
He also hosts guitar and ukulele making workshops at his home, run by the Australian Guitar Making School. These occur every September and run for about 3 weeks with capacity for 5-6 students. Click here for further details.