File this one under ‘making lemonade out of lemons 101.’ Sick with the flu and also nursing a cut hand, Henry Wagons’ solution to deal with what ailed him wasn’t to sit in bed and hope for the best, but to write some songs. Those songs, all duets, turned into a unique collection he entitled “Expecting Company?” and the response, to say the least, has been a positive one for the Melbourne, Australia native.
“I wish I could say I didn't pay attention, but I do,” said Wagons when asked about the reception the seven track mini-album has received. “My ears especially perk up when people say such nice things about my stuff. The reaction has been superb. I haven't had this many great reviews since the batch of pulled pork I made at Christmas, which was, for the record, my best batch to date.”
As quirky and off-beat as comparing the response to his music to his last batch of pulled pork, Wagons’ latest is one of those albums that once you put it on, you have to listen to it until the last note is struck. It’s a stylistic trademark of his work with his band Wagons and certainly on this release, which has a cinematic feel to it reminiscent of films from the 60s and 70s. It’s a comparison he has no problem with.
“That's a common comparison actually and I'm very flattered by it,” he said. “The idea of my music being anything like a cool Bond theme blows my mind. I love a good sense of drama in my songs, and if the tunes are coming at you in full Technicolor, all the better.”
But as Technicolor as the tunes may be, the lyrics aren’t Disneyesque thematically, which Wagons may want to blame on the flu.
“Many of the songs were written with a dark smirk on my face,” he said. “I was going through a bit of a cheeky, twisted phase when I wrote these duets. It was really fun, to both make myself smile and exorcise some demons. The embryo of the whole thing started when I was sick with the flu at home after a tour, and I'd also cut up my hand pretty badly. I was feeling sick and disgusted enough to remember a story my friend had told me about a rat infestation in her house, which subsequently became the inspiration for the first track.”
That first track, “Unwelcome Company,” features Alison Mosshart of The Kills and The Dead Weather, one of six guests (Sophia Brous, Jenn Grant, Robert Forster, Patience Hodgson, and Gossling are the others) that team up seamlessly with Wagons, who knew instantly who would be right for each track. Luckily, he knew all of his prospective singing partners.
“I'm fortunate enough to say all of the people on the album are friends,” he said. “While I was writing the songs the identities made themselves pretty clear early on. I sent an email or made a phone call and the cast came together surprisingly easily.”
The cast also delivers on the album, with the chemistry evident throughout. So was it difficult to reach that point, or was it just a happy accident?
“A little of both,” said Wagons. “I think knowing who you are singing with is a great head start; spending quality time over a late night whiskey with someone creates a natural synergy which translates to tape. It’s a synergy that I doubt existed between Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett, as I hear they both like to go to bed early.”
That humor and ability to place tongue firmly in cheek on record and live has built Wagons’ following substantially over the years, and on Saturday he will be performing in New York City’s Joe’s Pub for an intimate gathering that is sure to keep his reputation as a top performer intact. As for the duets, he won’t be pulling a Jekyll and Hyde, opting instead for some help on stage.
“We will be picking up some very special guests along the way in various stops, but mostly filling in the gaps in an incredibly dexterous and charming way will be Australian songstresses Kelly Day and Kirsty Tickle,” said Wagons. “Come along to the shows and meet them. I think you'll like them.”
If past history is any indication, Wagons’ word is good enough for me.
Henry Wagons plays Joe’s Pub at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, Mar. 2. For tickets, click here.