Jon Duncan interview March 2021

Nic: Hi Jon. You are from Tasmania. Have you always lived in Tassie?

Jon: I was born in Hobart but spent ages 4-15 growing up in Kogarah in Sydney – a few minute’s walk from Jubilee Oval. My parents worked for Golden Fleece and when they finished up with that in 1986 we found ourselves back down south.

Nic: When you were a kid, did you like the current top 40 or did you prefer Mum/Dad/big brother’s music?

Jon: I was into everything mate. Always been a music junkie. Through mum and dad I got Neil Diamond, Kenny Rogers, Tom T. Hall, etc. And jazz. In the 1960s they used to run a regular dancehall evening in a little town called Franklin, south of Hobart. But I always loved the weekly Top 40 broadcasts on the radio too, Countdown on TV, and I have almost every issue in print of the old Juke magazine. My 13-year-old bedroom wall was covered with posters of Madonna.

I remember I used to annoy this old bugger at the local Kogarah music shop – I’d call in most afternoons after school and pore over his records. He was really kind to me but behind his eyes I could see the gears grinding: ‘Are you ever gonna actually buy something, kid?’

Nic: I’ve noticed that there is quite a big worldwide ukulele scene and that you are pretty respected in it. Tell me more about this scene and how important it is to you.

Jon: The ukulele had a massive resurgence through the mid 2000s, Nic. A fellow called Jim Beloff had a lot to do with that, creating what became and remains a very influential website: FleaMarketMusic. I don’t think there’s a country who hasn’t produced wonderful ukulele players whom I respect and am in awe of – notably, Ukulelezaza (Belgium), Janet Klein, Ian Whitcomb, Li’l Rev, Corey Fujimoto (North US), Ian Emmerson (UK) to namecheck a few. But let’s face it, we can blame it all on Cliff Edwards!

Here in 2021 I think it’s fair to say the ukulele movement worldwide has never been stronger. So many more builders and players, and quality music. It’s a great instrument as a way in for people who doubt they can play, you know; it’s small, it’s friendly, it’s portable and you can be up and playing a song within an hour or two.

I participate in a weekly share-a-thon on a website/forum called Ukulele Underground – it’s a place where folks from all over the world hang out and share their recordings and it’s a beautiful community. For the most part I have found uke players to be like this: friendly, caring and supportive and in the end, without that, we don’t have much else worth leaning on.

Nic: I only know C and G on the uke. For some reason, my brain won’t allow a third set of chords to remember other than guitar and mandolin. What other instruments do you play?

Jon: Guitar was my first instrument that I learnt just to find a way of releasing the words in my head – that was around 1990 – so I can carry rhythm and occasional lead with that. Around 2008 I was huge into Pete Seeger and 60s folk so I bought myself a banjo and mandolin and taught myself to play a lot of traditional folk and bluegrass songs and they’ve stayed with me until now. Thanks to my wife I got into the kalimba a few years ago and which I also adore. I use a lot of toy instruments and percussion on my recordings – I have a collection of seven djembes now – and they’re a lot of fun.

Nic: What are your influences? Favourite bands?

Jon: This answer could fill a volume; I’m one of those sponges who is sensitive to everything. So many. REM were huge to me as a teenager and into my mid-twenties – their first half a dozen LPs were mind-blowing but when Monster came out, I abandoned ship.

Nic: I hear you Jon. I love everything except rap and opera. I’ll be playing Janis Ian followed by the Damned followed by Benny Goodman.

Jon: Right now and for these past years: The Mountain Goats, Richard Buckner, Husker Du, Townes Van Zandt, Darren Hanlon, Smudge, Shannon Lyon, Bill Frisell, John Fahey.

Nic: First gig you ever went to?

Jon: Wild Pumpkins At Midnight – at the Wheatsheaf Hotel in South Hobart. Would have been 1987. The best band ever to come out of Tassie. Definitely worth digging into their back catalogue; Living and This Machine Is Made Of People remain two of my favourite albums to this day.

Nic: First record you bought?

Jon: Kiss Dynasty (haha…I finally passed over some cash for that cassette to the long-suffering guy at the Kogarah Record Shop). I was 11, I think.

Nic: Can you give me a potted history of any bands you’ve been in?

Jon: I’ve played solo most of my life save for a couple of years in the mid 1990s when I played in a little duo called Crunch with an old mate of mine – gigs, weddings, etc. We actually used to play Smudge’s “Straight Face Down” back then (!) amongst a few other covers but mostly original stuff.

Nic: Crunch sounds very grunge-era! Yep, I knew you were a Tom Morgan fan from way back – what’s one of your favourite Smudge songs?

Jon: Just one! Not fair! “Superhero”.

Since then it’s just me and a guitar/uke although recently I’ve become a part of two sometime-online duos: Silence Is Autumn (with my friend Kevin, in Houston) and Two Little Woodpeckers (with my friend who is now my wife, Sia Joo Hiang, from Singapore).

Nic: You also did quite a bit of recording under the Eugene Ukulele name? What was behind that?

Jon: When I first got the balls to put myself out on YouTube it was early 2010. I’d just joined the Ukulele Underground and given myself the handle of Eugene Ukulele. Anyway, I recorded a cover of Terry Gilkyson’s “Bare Necessities” as my first outing and it got over 10K views and I thought…let’s go with that. Afterwards, and through some  mental breakdowns I deleted that YouTube channel and that insignia and lost a lot of listeners over the years doing that repeated times. It’s funny though, how ten years on, some folks still recognise my voice and message: ‘Are you Eugene?’ and that’s pretty nice. My answer to them: ‘I’m the artist formerly known as Eugene. My name is Jonathon, call me Jon.’

Nic: From your lyrics, it sounds like you put a lot of thought into them. Do you read a lot or stroll amongst the fields  thinking about life and all it offers you?

Jon: Short answer – I stroll amongst the fields with a book in hand. 😉

Long answer – It’s a mixture of both for me Nic. I’ve always been a voracious reader and had a passion to write. Weirdly enough, I don’t put a lot of thought into the songs lyrically. I’ll just pick up a pen and start with a phrase, a line and I’m amazed how the words will often start to flow; more amazed at how little control I feel I have over them. Similarly with my poetry. Most of the songs on this album happened very quickly, both lyric wise and recording. Approaching 50, I guess I have been through enough shit to feel when something is working and ride with it, and to know when to let it go if it isn’t.

Nic: Favourite authors? Any Australian ones in there?

Jon: John Banville, Iris Murdoch, Patrick McCabe, Vikram Seth, Raymond Carver.

Any Australians? Ha! Try and stop me – Helen Garner, Richard Flanagan, Tim Winton, David Ireland.

Nic: I haven’t read any David Ireland, will have to. Your wife does all your artwork. I’ve been to her website and seen a lot of her work. She is a fantastic artist. How did you meet?

Jon: I agree mate and it makes me happy to know you appreciate her work. She’s amazing. Her art and her songs just undo me; so intuitive, naked and raw. And confronting to say the least. We met in 2014 through the Ukulele Underground worldwide forum. We were fans of each other’s art from the get-go, gradually formed a friendship and here we are seven years on.

Nic: Very autobiographical and then, magical too. Lots of colour and cute looking people which can sometimes disguise, like you said, the rawness of the subject matter.

Jon: She has a broad palette on which to draw from. She can paint anything across a number of styles. Yeah, she does the naive as good as anyone but then she can do realistic portraiture also that’ll hit you between the eyes. And storytelling across panels that can break your heart into crumbs or lift you to the sky. I don’t think I know a more diverse or talented artist.

Nic: Half A Cow has now released four albums by you and I still have the cd-rs you have sent me over the years. You are very prolific. Do you write the lyrics first and put them to music? What is the Jon Duncan process?

Jon: Again, it’s very intuitive and immediate for me. Sometimes one, sometimes the other but the words and music walk hand-in-hand. If it’s the lyric first, I won’t get more than a verse down without making sure I find a melody or chord progression to bed them down in. If the music comes first then we’re on the runway and taking off.

Nic: What do you record your songs on?

Jon: A very rudimentary set-up for me. I use Audacity and a single USB mic.

Nic: Wow, sounds really good. Must tip my hat to the modern world! Are you able to send and receive songs on your computer from other people to record on, or is that not possible?

Jon: Thanks mate. Yeah, amazing what a $100 USB mic can do nowadays eh. Yes, I can and that’s what has enabled Kevin and Joo and I to be able to collaborate so easily. We share our individual audio files and build up our songs that way.

Nic: I lived out in the country for nearly six years and half of that was by myself. After a while I didn’t like the solitude. How about you? Is that what living is Tasmania like, a lot of solitude?

Jon: Haha. I’ve done the country journey twice mate. First time in 1996 I was going through some stuff and just wanted to disappear awhile. So I rented a small shack at the foot of Mt. Roland in Nth West Tasmania and lived there for 18 months. Undoubtedly the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived, though looking back, I wasn’t in the right place, mentally, to truly appreciate it. Thereafter I moved to a little farm in Birralee and ended up growing flowers for fifteen years. I’ve been back in Hobart since 2014.

Nic: I know I sound like I know nothing about Tasmania and no one sees each other!

Jon: I guess anyone of us can be as alone – or not – as we choose to be. My life these days is still one of solitude but I’m grateful for the online connections I have and for the community here in Hobart: it’s a thriving artistic space down here: rich, dense, incredibly vibrant.

Nic: Your new album Tethers seems a lot darker than your previous ones and you say it was recorded in two weeks this last January. Were the songs also written in this period?

Jon: All but two of the songs were written and recorded then. I was a bit obsessed with the sun, the stars and mainly, the moon and those motifs became the glue of the album. Yeah, there’s a lot of darkness – as is my wont – but hopefully enough light in the songs and spare arrangements for people to find their way in. Thankfully the earth keeps turning.

Nic: Lastly, tea bag or loose leaf?

Jon: To the important question!

Tea bag just ’cause I’m lazy. If we were talking coffee then it’s a different approach altogether. 😉

Nic: Shoot! A coffee teabag sounds as bad as those pod fails. Thanks Jon.

Photos courtesy of Jon Duncan. Artwork by Sia Joo Hiang gugu and gorilla


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