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Middle-ground Man
July 30, 2004

While a musician he influenced topped the charts, Jeff Lang is happy to continue on his musical path. By Michael Dwyer.

Jeff Lang's voice is seething with anger. "They go ahead and they publish any old dross," he sings, "but they turn their nose up at me." Amen, brother. But what can a spurned artiste do in a world awash with second-rate commercial garbage?

Well, he picks up this sledgehammer, see. He smuggles it over to the rich end of town and he lets rip. Crunch goes the bonnet of a parked Mercedes. He hoes into Jags and BMWs, steel ringing and glass flying, until outraged bystanders wrestle him to the ground.

That's where he ends up, a bloodied mess in a tangle of steel-capped boots and fists. "It's not supposed to be this way," he rails as the ambulance siren grows louder. End of song.

"It's a story that came out of the newspaper," says Lang, Geelong-born and globally renowned roots artist. "It was about a writer in Tokyo who was depressed about not being able to get published, so he decided to commit suicide by bashing up rich people's cars in the middle of town."

The twist being that the ambulance arrived before the angry mob could complete his cunning plan. Hence the song title: Rejected Novelist Fails Again.

It was only a single paragraph story, Lang says, so he had to do "a bit of imagining" to flesh it out. But given his modest local profile these past 10 years - despite a calibre of songwriting and musicianship with few peers in this country - one suspects that the writer's sense of injustice was one of the easier parts to imagine.

"Look, you can't honestly say you're not envious of certain people," he allows. "I've said it straight to John Butler, I've said, 'Man, I'm envious of some of the things that have happened to you'. I'd like to have a little bit of that, for sure.

"But you'd like to be able to stop it as well. That's the thing about fame. Getting it started is what everyone wants to talk about. It would be nice if you could set a level where it's not out of control." Lang says.

"There's actually a decent middle ground I've lived in for most of my career. Sure, I might have been under the radar for most of it, but I haven't got any complaints."

It's late in a long day of interviews for Jeff Lang. With his vintage Bob Dylan T-shirt and a rare, bright-red Supro '61 resonator guitar he just bought on eBay, he's commandeered the boardroom of his record label in South Melbourne to deal with a growing demand for his time.

The reason could be his superb new album, Whatever Makes You Happy. More likely, though, is that Lang has accidentally become fashionable on the coat-tails of the new Australian roots resurgence, of which APRA's songwriter of the year and ARIA's No.1 album holder John Butler is the most visible protagonist.

For anyone who has experienced Lang's prodigious gifts since his first album of '94, Ravenswood - and that includes collaborators such as Don Walker, Bob Brozman and Mick Thomas, as well as a growing grassroots following from here to Texas - this is an amusing twist.

"I saw Jeff Lang," Butler told me in January, "at the Fly By Night Club (in Fremantle) in '97 or '98 and he blew my mind. It was like going to church for three hours. It was just amazing.

"He's one of Australia's most gifted musicians. He really touched me and I had a kind of revelation. That show taught me you can express yourself on guitar, instrumentally, and then sing, and take it all to the next level. For me, it all came from there," he said.

As Butler rapidly worked up to critical mass locally, Lang was mainly absent. He's already spent two months touring America this year. He was there for six months last year and nine in '02, where demand had steadily soared in the wake of half a dozen albums.

The title of his second album, Disturbed Folk, offered a whimsical description of Lang's bluesy storyteller's style. But that's among the records he feels least happy with in retrospect. It was a live album of all-new material that taught him the value of content above and beyond musical virtuosity.

"There was an aspect of what I was doing musically that I discarded after that record," he says. "I was playing a lot of 12-string guitar, a lot of fast fingerpicking stuff, and to me it was really second-rate Leo Kottke. I thought, 'Well, that part of what I'm doing is just annoying me'. So I threw it away."

The "going-off" stuff, Lang says, "was purely superficial. I ended up realising 'That's just bullshit, it's not really talking from who I am'. I'm not into talking shit to people no matter how much they want to hear it." Lang's extraordinary dexterity is certainly an occasional attraction of Whatever Makes You Happy, but that only makes the album's overall restraint and subtlety more powerful.

Like some of his favourite touchstones - Dylan, Richard Thompson and Tom Waits - Lang's tunes find every note in service of the story.

One of the most potent on the new album, By Face, Not Name, is sung from the point of view of a pregnant rape victim. It was written, Lang says, in anger over the aggressive anti-abortion morality of certain American states. Yet its potency comes not from fiery guitar histrionics but from devastating tenderness, an atmosphere deep enough to let listeners mine their own conclusions.

"I like songs that show, don't tell," Lang says simply. "If you're gonna do a song like By Face, Not Name, how incongruous would a big splash of guitar wankery be? It's offensive to think of that kind of song conveying the idea of what a great guitar player you are. That's not music, that's horseshit."

It can be a fine distinction sometimes, especially when the demands of popularity - not least the "going off" imperative - gain momentum behind an artist who is simply trying to be himself. Lang feels fortunate to have had time to find his own voice without that kind of pressure. But if it's not APRA Awards and mega-platinum chart action, what does make him happy?

"Well, a great gig can go a long way," he says. "And the last three we did were right up there."

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