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About Stu Larsen
That Stu Larsen called his album Vagabond makes sense from the moment it opens. It contains tales of travels taken on a whim, with no final destination decided and no itinerary to follow. It’s full of startlingly simple, compellingly pretty, storytelling songs packed with people the singer has encountered on different continents - some friends, some former lovers and some strangers he met along the way too.
Song titles include San Francisco, Ferry To Dublin and King Street, a reference to Stu’s occasional base in Sydney’s Newtown, where businessmen and beggars co-exist and you can learn about life simply by sitting in a café for a couple hours, watching the goings-on.
Not that Stu has had a city to call home for the past four years. Since deciding, in 2010, to venture further than his native Australia, New Zealand and Japan – all countries he had already toured, several times – he hasn’t stopped travelling. Partly, that’s due to his great friend Passenger, for whom Stu has been support act over the past three years.
It was Passenger who produced Vagabond, an album originally recorded at the tail end of 2012 on a shoestring budget, which was due for release last year. Passenger’s global success, however, took the pair on an unexpected journey that lasted longer than either imagined, as their audiences grew from 50 to 5000 people.
“It has been an amazing journey to tag along with and to learn from,” says Stu. “For most of it, it was just the two of us, I would be handing out Passenger’s flyers and selling his CDs while he was busking, all over the world. We couldn’t believe it when 100 people starting turning up at the shows, now it’s thousands every night.”
The pair will be back on tour together in the States in late summer, but the rest of Stu’s year is all about taking Vagabond’s songs to new audiences. Since the album was rerecorded in Sydney in January with a host of musician mates – including Passenger on backing vocals and guitar, a string quartet and banjo and backing vocals from Tim Hart (Boy & Bear) – a four month tour has taken in Australia, the UK, Europe and North America.
The oldest song on Vagabond is San Francisco, the opening track, which was written on that first trip Stu took out of Australia and the Far East. A three month journey was due to end in L.A., but on landing in the city, Stu picked up a car and drove up the coast to San Francisco. That drive is beautifully captured in the song in which Stu, with his “too tight jeans and too long hair” and Paul Simon on the radio, ponders finding love on his arrival.
“It was actually written in L.A., where I drove back to before flying home,” recalls Stu. “I’d been recording with a friend when it came to me. I sat on the studio floor and wrote it within a few minutes. This May, while touring the States, I went back and recreated the trip for a video in a 1964 Oldsmobile Dynamic 88.”
First single Thirteen Sad Farewells wasn’t intended for the album, or in fact for Stu. He wrote the song for a musician friend from Australia who was recording a new album. It was only when Passenger heard it and told Stu he must keep it for himself that it became Vagabond’s calling card.
Plucked acoustic guitar, pretty piano, shuffling percussion, soaring strings and soft harmonies are present on songs that range in tempo from that perky first single and the upbeat, banjo-backed Darling If You’re Down to heartbreak ballad Ferry To Dublin and the haunting, strummed Skin & Bone. But it is Stu’s warm, incredibly intimate voice that makes the listener feel like he’s singing solely for them and haunts long after the songs have stopped.
Vagabond isn’t Stu’s first album, although it feels like a new start. Growing up in the tiny Queensland town of Dalby, three hours west of Brisbane, he learnt guitar from the age of 14 at his mum’s behest. She had spent the ‘70s in a folk band and thought learning an instrument might help her son overcome his shyness. At 15, he wrote his first song. On his final day of secondary school, he was brave enough – just – to perform a song he had written about his final year in front of 1000 fellow pupils and their parents.
“As a shy kid, it’s probably the worst situation you can put yourself in,” he says. “I was so nervous, I almost couldn’t go on stage. But as soon as I did, I was fine. That was the moment I got over a disabling fear of performing in front of people.”
There were stints in covers bands – “In a tiny town like Dalby, where there are no venues, no one really wants to hear original songs,” shrugs Stu – then a move to the small city of Toowoomba, where Stu went solo and won a talent contest.
Vagabond is a fresh start, but there’s one track that, subconsciously, stems from Stu’s past. The album’s gritty, gospel-hued, Lord-referencing closer I Will Wait No More hints at his upbringing in the church.
“That’s the only song on the album not remade in the studio with Passenger,” says Stu. “It was recorded at a friend’s house on King Street in Sydney. Towards the end, you can hear the brakes of the buses squeaking as they went past.
“It’s a very simple song – just two verses and a chord structure repeated. It does have a gospel feel, I have no idea where the idea came from, but it wasn’t planned. To be honest, I’ve never had a plan. I just go with what feels right.”