The immigrant’s songs

Aussie expat Richard Davies keeps moving.

Richard Davies once told Rolling Stone that he wanted to make music that he would be “totally comfortable hearing” when he was 56. But since then, the Australian singer and songwriter has become more ambitious. “Now it’s 65,” he says by phone from his upstate New York home, “when I imagine I’ll be lucky to hear anything.”

“I hope I’d still enjoy music—I think I will,” he continues. “A lot of my story is, I tell people I’m only playing music for a while, but I’ve realized it’s not like a jail sentence.”

Richard Davies

Crocodile, Tuesday, April 21

It took Davies a long time to even start playing music. He first picked up a guitar at the age of 21. Despite being a late bloomer, Davies doesn’t seem to have any problem churning out beautifully crafted pop songs with impressionistic lyrics. His latest record, Telegraph, is minimal without sounding sparse, instantly accessible yet more resonant with each listen. The songs are always the focus, whether the guitars create a rocking-horse rhythm (“Cantina”) or a wistful country-and-western feel (“Main Street Electrical Parade”), whether the keyboard sound is a psychedelia-tinged ragtime piano (“Surface of the Sun”) or a serene, smooth organ (“Crystal Clear”). As with his debut, There’s Never Been a Crowd Like This, Davies handled most of the production himself, and the result is a model showcase for his songwriting skill.

Back in the ’80s, Davies formed the Moles, a psychedelic garage band, with some friends from the University of New South Wales in Sydney. The group recorded one album together, moved to London, then broke up. In 1994, Davies relocated to Boston, and met Gresham, Ore., trumpet player and arranger Eric Matthews. The duo went into the studio for a one-off project, and emerged with the seminal chamber-pop record, Cardinal. Davies played guitar and sang, while Matthews played bass and arranged Davies’ songs. Cardinal’s brilliant sound foretold indie-pop’s coming fascination with the ’60s orchestral pop of the Beach Boys, Burt Bach-arach, and Love.

“I love the way the Cardinal record sounds, I’m proud of it,” Davies says. “But people’s attachment is more subtle than just the fact that it’s orchestral—the impact is the feeling. You can have just Robert Johnson playing guitar, and that has oceans of impact.”

When he talks about his songwriting, Davies always comes back to the importance of his physical surroundings. Even Cardinal’s cult influence, Davies believes, can be traced to the place where it was made. “It’s easy to take [the Cardinal] songs, and say, ‘These were the new ingredients, a change from grunge.’ But I think it was because the songs were written in England…. In Australia, you get all this English music and all this American music, and when I was a kid, I was particularly interested in bands that found an audience in both places: the Beatles, Motown—and the Rolling Stones did a lot of recording in America. That cross-pollination between America and England, that was in my mind when we were doing the Cardinal record, because there I was in America—in Portland, Oregon—with songs written in England. That had a lot to do with the feeling.”

Likewise, being an Australian living in the U.S. had a lot to do with the feeling of Davies’ latest record.”Telegraph is a migrant’s record. I didn’t plan it that way, but it is. If you’ve ever watched one of those documentaries about immigrants on Ellis Island—while I was writing these songs, I was spending a lot of time getting green cards, and all that, and it was like the U.N. waiting to get to the window, and I thought, ‘I guess I’m one of these people.’

“Growing up in Sydney, there was all kinds of [American] input from films and TV,” he continues, “but it’s very different from living in the U.S…. Things here are new to me [and] because they’re new, they become subjects.”

The next month should be particularly inspiring for Davies, since he and his backing band have embarked on what’s only his second U.S. tour. His first time around, he was opening for the Flaming Lips. In fact, Lips’ guitarist Ronald Jones helped on the production of Telegraph, although Jones’ penchant for effects is anathema to Davies. “My goal is just to illustrate the songs the way they were written,” he says. “To record the acoustic guitar to make it sound like one, the drums to sound like drums. That’s the side I stand on—simple music, rock and roll.”