Kris Peters Catches up with Bluesman Sugarcane Collins who recently won best Australian blues artist of the year in the Annual Chain awards.
In the late 1970’s and early 1980’s Cairns was a vastly different place to live. There were no traffic lights in the CBD, no red light cameras, no street security systems…
What there was, was a thriving little entertainment precinct built around the now infamous Barbary Coast, a stretch of pubs running from the Wharf Street end of Abbott street. Pubs such as the Oceanic, the Great barrier Reef and The Royal were at the forefront of the music and action and back then if you didn’t have a bit of fearless bravado then the scene would chew you up and spit you out quicker than you could strum one note of your instrument.
This is the world that a fresh 18 year old with the musical dream whistling in his ears named Andy Collins landed smack in the middle of in 1978. This was a world where violence and a no – nonsense attitude were worth more than a polite handshake, a world that the future Sugarcane Collins embraced as his own. It was a world where, by his own admission, Sugarcane learnt the hard lessons of life quickly but it was also a world that without which, the steely determination and will to succeed would have escaped him.
“It was a quite different town to what it is now,” Sugarcane agreed, “and what I discovered was there was a really unique live music culture happening. I did my first gig as a singer/guitarist at the Oceanic Hotel in 1981. Now in those days, if you didn’t have live music you would not get a crowd in a venue. All of the pubs had live music as did the golf and other sporting clubs. There was more music in this town than you could poke a stick at and I was blessed to have got here in time to experience it, because by the mid 90’s it was over. A lot of the pubs were gone and a whole new generation of people came North and the town started to change fundamentally from what I knew it to be and what it has become now.”
“So the first part of my career was here in Cairns and luckily for me there was so many gigs, so many venues, but so few musicians that quite a few of us were able to make a reasonable living playing music. In those times people wanted to be entertained and they weren’t mainstream people so they were looking for different things musically. They didn’t want to hear some crappy old pop music and recycled rock served up ad nauseum night after night. They were looking for diversity. So in that sense I was able to have a jug band, I was able to have a blue grass band and I was able to have country swing bands. I was able to have all kinds of music.”
Once Sugarcane’s musical appetite was whet, he quickly turned his focus to forming a band. Although he loved the feel of playing live and being in relative control of his surroundings as a solo artist, he found himself wanting the full band experience so he started putting together like minded musicians with the goal of forming not just a band, but the best band yet seen in the region.
“I always wanted to have a band,” Sugarcane mused, but first I had to learn the fundamentals of the music industry which were miss a gig, lose a gig. Lose a gig, lose the band. So ultimately my first band venture broke up so I went overseas for a year and came back in 1986 and formed the Barron Valley Drifters and we quickly became quite popular. By 1989 we had released a few albums and grown into a 6 piece and we went to Tamworth for the music festival. By 1990 we were being proclaimed as the hottest unsigned Country band in Australia. We were on the precipice of going to the next level and I wanted to take the band to the States. I knew with that band if we could get overseas we would knock their socks off but sometimes you can’t get people to see beyond their front doors so the band broke up just as we were ready to take the next step……”
This forced Sugarcane to take stock of what he had achieved and what he wanted to achieve, and it was with reluctance that he decided his future may not lie in the band side of music and that he should maybe focus a little closer to home.
“I decided to go solo and went overseas to Europe in 1992 for a year and came back and really started my solo career in 1993 gigging solo around town again.”
He plugged away for a few years, trying to get a feel for where he musically wanted to be, and by the late 90’s he hooked up with producer Jimmy Mann and recorded his first solo album, Delta River Blues. The album was an overwhelming success, receiving awards for Song of the Year and two Queensland Album of the Year awards and also got three tracks added to the ABC’s National playlist, two of which are still on rotation 15 years later.
“I suppose you could say the first 10 years of my career was me trying to put a band together. I was aiming for the stars. I wanted the best band in the world and I got the best players this town had to offer in the genre of music I wanted to play and I went for it.”
“The second part of my career starts in the 90’s when I came to the conclusion that the band thing just wasn’t possible because it’s very difficult to get people to stay together long enough to achieve the things I wanted to achieve and when you’re dealing with professional musicians the rules are : you get the gigs, you get the players. You get the BEST gigs, you get the BEST players, but loyalty is something you can’t buy and most of the bands that do get anywhere in this world actually start off as friends so you have that foundation built on friendship which is what holds it together. That was the main reason I couldn’t get a band that was prepared to stick it out was because ultimately we weren’t friends, we were drawn together to make money because that’s what you do as a professional musician – you make money – so when i realised that the second stage of my career as a singer/songwriter began.”
In 2001 Sugarcane recorded his second solo album, Lake Street Serenade, which also recieved a host of awards including a record 12 nominations in Queensland Recording Association “Sunnie” Awards. This spurned three awards including Queensland Songwriter of the Year.
“In that second phase of my career as a singer/songwriter I wasn’t specifically singing the Blues,” Sugarcane explained, “I was writing and singing songs of all genres that reflected what I’d done as a musician. My philosophy has always been if I can’t get a gig doing songs I wanna do then I don’t play which is the same as my recordings.” “And that’s what I did with those first two albums, they were singer/songwriter albums with all kinds of different material.”
“So, from 2005, and this is the third stage of my career, I went back to the States – 25 years after my first trip. I hadn’t been to New Orleans or Chicago or Mississippi or Memphis so I went on what I call my Blues Odyssey. I flew into New Orleans and spent three weeks there and then over the next three months all of these things started to happen and the Blues Odyssey became the Blues Initiation. I bumped into and met alot of African/American Blues guys and other people who gave me great confidence in my blues playing and they told me ‘Sugarcane, you got somethin’ going on’, and to be told that by the people who’s culture I was singing back to them……. well, it was pretty special.”
After that period, Sugarcane came back to Australia full of confidence and self awareness, but still no closer to having the definitive clear picture in his head. From there he hooked up with an agent and set in motion a touring circuit from Cairns through to Tasmania and back, with stopovers at Adelaide as well. He made regular trips back to the States to further his Odyssey/Initiation, touring regularly to great acclaim, but he still wasn’t fully settled within himself. “There was really nowhere to play in Cairns any more and before I met my agent I was really unsure where I was going. In my mind I always want to feel like I am going forward so I was blessed to find an agent that looked after me and got me gigs.”
This all culminated in Sugarcane’s latest release, Downunder The Blues, a superb album showcasing the plight of Indigenous Australian’s amongst other things. It deservedly also featured in many awards, the most notable of which was Male Blues Artist of the Year from the distinguished Chain Awards. It is, to date, the most prestigious award of his career, and while Sugarcane is humbled at the recognition, he still maintains his down to Earth nature in accepting it.
“Basically, it means my work here in Cairns- and the local musicians who contributed to it- has been recognised among the best. As an artist you toil away on your project – obviously you believe in what you’re doing otherwise you wouldn’t bother – but to get an accolade or two and some recognition from the industry such as it is, it gives you the will to keep going because sometimes you wonder what it’s all about but something like this makes you realise you are on the right track and what you are doing is recognised by others as being up there and that is the whole point of my career.”
Check out Andy’s Website and get his records at http://www.andycollins.com