Published in Rhythms Magazine, July 2009
In absolute blackness is where Shannon Bourne’s new record, Dark Things begins. A sub-aural hum, a sonic whine, the wind whistling across a sub-sonic landscape precedes the first heavy acoustic note – harmonics and the heavy note follow again before it turns to a strum and Bourne’s voice drags itself into your head. Dark Things indeed, a haunting melody to accompany your own solidarity, singular piano notes intersperse the gentle isolation, looming like age-old pillars in the dusk before it all swirls together in an ethereal sonic vacuum – one you thought, from this man, wasn’t possible. But it is. I’ve travelled to the other side and returned and to see where this musician is today is to see a rise almost unparalleled anywhere on our planet – or indeed, in the dark places within our own minds. This is Dark Things, and this is Shannon Bourne.
I can’t quite remember how I first came across the Melbourne based Bourne. I guess with my love of blues guitar and Bourne’s heavy presence on the scene, we were bound to cross paths eventually, and when we finally did around six years ago, it was love at first listen. No doubt I wasn’t the first. Bourne, who’s now 30, began his foray into Melbourne, and indeed Australian blues, as guitarist for bands like the Bluescasters and Southbound before he got his ‘break’ and began playing with legendary harmonica virtuoso, Chris Wilson around nine years ago, which as he tells it, came about quite by chance. “Yeah, that would have been around March 2000, and it was just a duo at first,” Bourne recalls of beginning with Wilson.
“I was at a guitar factory over in Thomastown which is no longer there, trying out a guitar, when Chris walked past the doorway,” he goes on with a smile. “I knew he played ‘Mystery Train’, so I thought I’d just play a little bit of that, it was one of those decisions you make. So I did that, and Chris didn’t even come in, he sent one of the guys in who said, ‘What’s your number Shannon, Chris wants it’. Then he came in and was all kinda sheepish, and it came from that. I kinda expected to get the call to play, and yeah, three days later he called me.” Bourne went on to spend six and a half years with Wilson, both as a duo and also in the Spidermen, all of which served as an invaluable proving ground for the young guitarist.
“Yeah, it was such a steep learning curve, I mean, I pretty much went straight from school to teaching guitar to standing on stage at the Enmore doing support for Richard Thompson,” Bourne says. “So it was, what are you gonna do? Shy away from it, or pick up the ball and run with it? So there was never any doubt what I was gonna do. I learnt so much, what to do, what not to do, all sorts of stuff.” Bourne eventually left Wilson’s side in order to focus on his own thing, and so came to a close the opening chapter of Bourne’s career, but by no means are we near the end.
Stop start rhythm, guitar through a pedal so it scratches at the blackboard of your brain with fingernails of flint – junk percussion recalls memory of Tom Waites, but Bourne moans over the top, almost breathily, the crunch and grind bring to mind faded, rumpled black suits and cigarette smoke – Everything To Me is the kickstart we need from the brilliant lethargy that kicked this off, and you begin to realise this could go anywhere – further and further from where it all began.
“As much as I am a sideman, I really command my own presence. I’m aware of that as well, and I do kinda like to be out there, I can’t help it,” Bourne says when I bring up what could best be described as his career bugbear – that of the perennial sideman. Six and a half years playing guitar for Chris Wilson, plus numerous other projects where he himself wasn’t in the limelight – from the Black Sorrows and Brod Smith to Kerri Simpson and Ian Schumann – and it’s little wonder you’ll pick up a tag like that. “In the last ten years I have played every major festival and venue in Australia and toured North America, Canada and Asia – but always at the side of someone else. This time it’s personal – it’s my own material,” Bourne is quoted as saying on his MySpace page. In relation to his new record, Dark Things, it is indeed personal, and looking back at what he’s done, you can see how it is now time for Bourne to step out from the shadows of others, and cast his own light. This began in 2005, when Bourne released his first solo record, Burn It Down.
“I hadn’t ever really put my head into songwriting, but Chris really encouraged me to do a solo record,” Bourne explains of the record he released whilst still with Wilson and the Spidermen. “It was healthy for me and so I started working songs from about 2002…I just went hard at it. I knew what I wanted to see and find, I did try and make it different to what I was doing with Chris as well. Looking back, I think it’s fantastic. It was a perfect representation to where I was at. On the whole, I’m very proud of it.” The very much blues/rock of Burn It Down was quite an important step in Bourne’s career, as it showed that he was able to get out there and go it alone, the first step in shaking off the sideman tag.
“Yeah, not just a sideman, I’ve got my own things to express, yeah, you’re right,” Bourne smiles. The seed had been planted.
Petrol fumes and big red sharks chewing up highway, wah guitar rolled in the mud, Sweet Whiskey harks perhaps most to the Bourne of old but carries a weight in on the breeze and utilises the fabled RIFF that fans of heavy based blues music hold so dear – dragged through the mud, gear change going over the bridge, back to the sonic sludgery that is the signature groove, again changing the direction, again not letting you off, subtlely face-melting guitar histrionics, check, but oh so different from the last offering.
Around two years ago then, with Burn It Down well under his belt, Bourne’s change began. It seemed, to me anyway, that Bourne was thirsting for something different, to lose the ‘bluesman’ tag to an extent, and to charter new territory. He began playing solo a lot more, his music became more adventurous, more outside the box and he began to put more emphasis on his writing and singing. “Yeah, totally, I’ve always had people drilling into my head that the moment you step up to that microphone, people stop listening to your guitar, and start listening to your voice,” Bourne says. “It took a while for that to sink in, but it really hit home. I’ve always been really shy of my voice, you get your criticisms, but I don’t care…(having my own sound) is far more important to me than hitting the right note every time. I mean, hopefully I do, but I’ve just gotta find my own voice, and I think I’m getting pretty close to that now.”
Bourne has worked it since then, these two years past, he’s matured as a musician to such an extent it’s sometimes hard to believe that he’s the same man, the same musician, he was only a few years ago. And this brings us to where Shannon Bourne is now, which is releasing Dark Things, a record which, in a nutshell, is one of the finest records – blues, rock, folk, whatever – to be released in this country in a long time. It’s different, it’s adventurous, it’s not an easy listen, it’s a sonic blockbuster that morphs and grows every time you hear it – Dark Things is Shannon Bourne’s masterpiece. “Yeah, it grew into being very important to me, to my career,” he says candidly of the record, a record which not only affirms Bourne as a stellar guitarist, but also as one of this country’s premier writers and arrangers. “I was very deliberate about it, I just worked on things and it came together, how I felt it should.”
How Bourne felt it should has culminated into a record which defies description, although given it has such a dark, eerie quality to it, in that sense it strikes me as being a blues record. “OK, yeah, I guess it’s the essence of the blues, and that thread is gonna run through everything I do,” Bourne concurs. “And I do love eerie, creepy music. I do love being able to play a note and make the hair on people’s neck stand up. I do love those big, big spacious sounds.”
Dark Things is here. It’s done. It is, to date, the highwater mark of Bourne’s career, the wave is certainly yet to break and roll back. So where does this record put Shannon Bourne? Where does it see him? “Well, I think it should push me out as a bit more of a collaborator with people, people taking my sound seriously,” he muses. “Maybe open up the world market to me. And it’s not a record you can put to a particular time either, it’s got a timeless quality to it, it’s very individual…it comes from where I come from, you know? And it’s really important. The reviews I’ve had for the record have been great, and it validates what I have to offer. I just wanna catch some ears with it.”
Bailing Dry #2 is the light at the end of the tunnel, casting off the shadows, the realisation that there aren’t always dark things floating around. What’s a little pain? Bourne asks. Not much when you’ve put together a collection of musical moments in time like this one – this is the part that makes you want, need, to turn around and do it again, the part where you realise that this has been an epic journey, from a place of shadow, to a place of light – a light that shines so bright, you hazard a guess it’ll never die out – this, Dark Things, is a light that will endure forever.
Samuel J. Fell