Burra. Gympie. Parachilna. Wangaratta. You name a town in Australia, chances are Harry Hookey has played it, probably in the last month. This is a man who lives and breathes the troubadour tradition.
“That’s sort of the aim of the game,” he smiles. “Most weeks I’ll have four or five gigs and just keep it happening. I’ve slept in my car a lot over the last couple of years. That’s my main address. And Australia’s a great country for it too: you meet a lot of cool people.”
That’s been the lot of this Gippsland-born boy who gave up the country for the city, and life as a would-be lawyer for life as a roaming musician.
“I listen to a bit of country music, but I’m mainly from a folky background. I’m a big fan of the early Dylan records, a bit of Woody Guthrie, early Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, all that sort of stuff. That’s what I grew up listening to and then branched out into rock, and then found country a bit later with Hank Williams. I think my music’s a reflection of all those tastes, all mixed together,” he says, “somewhere between James Taylor and Nirvana.”
The result of that unique mesh of influences is Misdiagnosed, Hookey’s twelve track debut album, recorded with his friend, producer and mentor Nash Chambers. Like much in Hookey’s life, fate was key in his meeting with the family.
“I went up to Tamworth one year to play and Kasey came to one of my shows, and then asked me to send her an EP. She passed it on to Nash and they dug it, so they asked me to come do some spots at a few of their shows, which was awesome of them – and really generous, because I was basically just a busker at that point. I was just really lucky they came to the right gig at the right time. It was serendipity in Tamworth!”
That good fortune continued to the making of the album, whose origins were similarly accidental.
“We made the record in about three weeks, and we weren’t even intending to. We rocked up at Nash’s studios to do some demos, but I was really happy with how it sounding so after the first night I was saying ‘well, let’s just make the record now!’” he explains. “So we locked ourselves in the studio with lots of bourbon and good times and a lot of late nights. It was really, really good fun.”
You can hear that spirit in every cut on the album: this is the sound of musicians playing in a room together, excited by the possibilities.
“I wanted to go in and make an album the way albums used to be,” he insists. “I never wanted to just do a bunch of songs and put ‘em together, I wanted it to be a time-and-a-place thing. Like Neil Young’s Harvest: you can hear those guys are all in a barn, rocking out together.”
They also had a guardian angel watching over them all the way from 1965. This angel took the form of Cowboy Kate, the seductive muse of acclaimed US fashion photographer Sam Haskins, and it seems only fitting that the same shot that inspired Hookey now graces the album’s sleeve.
“I found that poster at a secondhand market in Melbourne right before recording and I loved it, and we just put it up in the studio as inspiration. You know: four boys locked in a room for three weeks needed something to look at every now and again,” he laughs. “It became a running theme throughout the recording: is it good enough for Cowboy Kate? Every song had to live up to her.”
Hookey’s not a man who likes to stand still and, remarkably, the songs on the album are not old chestnuts worn smooth by the road. Misdiagnosed is a result of recent inspiration, some of which only came to life as the process progressed.
“They were all written in maybe the year, year and a half before recording,” he explains. “Half of them came into their own into the studio – I might’ve just had a chorus, or a melody.”
That’s exemplified in ‘Man on Fire’, which went from barely an idea to becoming the album’s agenda-setting opening track.
“I just had that lyrics in my head and a little chord progression, and I didn’t think anything of it – but Nash said ‘go in there and play, I’ll press record and see what happens” and we had that song out in about three takes,” Hookey laughs. “It was just a really cool experience. I didn’t even know it was in me, and now it’s one of my favourite songs on the record. It kinda symbolises the whole experience.”
The other key song is the album’s rocking title track, a song which won him first place in the Unsigned category at last year’s International Songwriting Awards.
“If I had to use one song to define myself, it’d be that song. It’s maybe at the Kurt Cobain end of the spectrum rather than the James Taylor end,” he chuckles, “but I do like rocking out on it live.”
You know that Cowboy Kate would approve.