The Rebellious Journey Of CJ Stranger - blog post image

The Rebellious Journey Of CJ Stranger

After an upheaval of lifestyle from Sydney to the Blue Mountains, the formation of his new young family, two blues-rock albums under his actual name (Cameron James Henderson), and one jam band album with Dubious Blues Trio, CJ Stranger has emerged as a new songwriting personality to release Hey Stranger, his ‘debut’ album, on August 14th. An electrified gig for the launch of the album took place on August 20th at Marrickville's LazyBones Lounge with Middleman supporting. After releasing the album online, along with a limited run of cassette tapes, the next three months saw Cam engrossed with creating and existing while ‘touring’ around NSW community radio stations to drop in, chat, and play, (delivering three seperate show appearances on one particular night), while negotiating other live performances in the midst of a pandemic. In October, an electrified, band-backed CJ Stranger performed for Dashville’s virtual Sky Ball TV Concert #3, along with Chase The Sun, Magpie Diaries, and Catherine Britt. On the 6th of November, Cam released his latest single ‘Hey Stranger (The Song)’, an eerie, soul-searching low-fi tune featuring baritone guitar and theremin, which received its radio debut on Henry Wagons’ Tower Of Song show on Double J. As Cam reveals to HAZE, “now the record is done, it’s opened a blockage for me, so I’ve got some new material.”

Relating back to the album, one notable aspect of Hey Stranger is a focus on wistful moods that compliment mental journeys to vast, distant spaces, in tracks such as ‘White Lines’, ’Fools Gold’, and ‘Outlaw’. Throughout these songs, Cam’s lyrics suggest setting and character through providing enough cryptic detail, while also allowing enough room for listeners to add their own interpretations. On other tracks such as Hey Stranger’s lead single ‘Strange One’, Cam’s love for Courtney Barnett is evident as partial inspiration for a spoken song style of rambling, urbanised storytelling, lyrically influenced by an unfiltered stream of consciousness. The song ‘Greed Point Road’ suggests a nostalgic yearning for Cam’s old city life, with its lines about the closing of bars and the raising of rent “up to the stars”. “I think the one thing [I miss about living in the city] is being able to spontaneously go to a lot of gigs”, Cam explains. “But I think I’ve really had a great time since I’ve moved to the Blue Mountains…I’m meeting more people up here so I’m not missing [the city] that much.”

As a gifted modern songwriter who began as a classical guitarist before becoming immersed in the world of electric blues, CJ Stranger knows how to strike deep internal sensitivities in listeners through subtle chord changes and evolving instrumentation. As a collector of odd musical equipment and a former touring guitarist for Middle Kids, (2018 winners of triple j’s Album Of The Year with Lost Friends), he’s also able to construct intricate, immersive, and peculiar soundscapes to aid the mood of his lyrics with beauty. When explaining his emerging preference of vibe, flavour, and musical personality over technical precision and formal skill, Cam explains that “it’s been a real learning curve”. While exploring this alternative musical philosophy, Cam explains that his journey was greatly inspired by seeing Marc Ribot, Tom Waits’ longtime lead guitarist, live in Sydney a few years ago. “He completely blew my mind…he was just playing this weird old beat-up guitar, through these ridiculous fuzz pedals…you didn’t know when they were gonna hit”, Cam describes. "When he hit [the pedals] it sounded like the PA system was going to blow up. It was amazing. He’s all about vibe, and he’s all about character.”

While on the road with Middle Kids, CJ Stranger’s rebelliousness was also influenced by the band’s fun-loving attitude of rocking up, plugging in, and rocking out in the indie zone. “Really fuzzy guitars which melt into crazy jams…definitely an influence from those guys.” Cam also reveals that Middle Kids drummer Harry Day performed on the majority of Hey Stranger, including on ‘Strange One’, which was quickly recorded in two takes at a Sydney studio called The Nest. This was unlike the rest of the album, whose foundations were initially recorded at Macquarie University in 2017 and eventually completed over a period of three years. Along with his friend Pat ‘O’ Grady, who was studying a PHD in audio recording at Macquarie, Cam and his three-piece backing band recorded the basis for most of the songs at the Uni before Middle Kids took Cam on the road for a year. This left the songwriter to record more layers on the road via guitar adaptors and MIDI keyboards. A small group of musical friends complete the album, lending their talents from the worlds of rock, blues, country, metal, and even experimental free jazz, with Cam’s brother Nick Henderson performing a majority of the album’s bass guitar with a touch of Farfisa organ - arguably the most unusual instrument to be heard on Hey Stranger, which is also a favourite instrument for Tom Waits. Released in 2016, Cam’s previous album Storm Rollin' In was naturally based around a different recording process which began in Blue Sky Recording Studio, a solar-powered recording studio in Bullaburra owned by Chris Gillespie, (who lends some slide guitar to one of Hey Stranger’s tracks). Embracing his new songwriting persona as CJ Stranger, Cam explains that his recent chapter of artistic evolution rebels against his formal classical training, but he’s still grateful for the discipline he learnt as a student of classical music - a genre he still loves.

Referencing notable songwriter’s characters in history, such as Johnny Cash’s ‘Man In Black’ and David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’, Cam asserts for his conscious choice of adopting a new songwriting persona as CJ Stranger, in a decision which has greatly expanded his creative horizons. The organically wild nature inherent in this new character is lyrically reflected in new album singles like ‘Outlaw’, which contrasts to Cam’s true self with such lines as “I am an outlaw in my mind, often hard to find…but the real me just sits here drinking tea, while I peruse these pages of history.” After delving more into songwriting four years ago, for the release of Storm Rollin’ In, (his second studio album under his actual name), Cam explains that he became fascinated with songwriting and lyrics, which prompted him to strive for the improvement of his lyric writing. “With CJ Stranger, I wanted to be able to write songs from many perspectives that are not necessarily just myself”, Cam states. “I think creating this pseudonym frees me up to do that…it felt right to give it a fresh title.” With his solo releases of 2016’s Storm Rollin’ In and 2014’s Distorted Hope Blues, Cam allowed himself to be pigeonholed as an electric blues artist, in a style partially derived from his father’s great love for the likes of Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf; popular artists of Cam’s childhood. After acknowledging a blues element in the more mysterious and abstract music of CJ Stranger, Cam reveals, “I’m not claiming to be a blues artist any more.”

As a collector of peculiar instruments and an innovator of new sonic territories, one of Cam’s current projects involves recording electric guitar straight into an old tape deck into a digital audio interface, for accurately preserving some genuine ‘wobble-hiss’. To further expand upon this concept, Cam comments that his next release will be a low-fi EP with a slightly different vibe. On the current live gig front, CJ Stranger will be opening for one of his favourite Aussie songwriters, William Crighton, at Newcastle City Hall on the 20th of November. One week later on November 27th, Cam will be performing closer to his Blue Mountains home in Blaxland through co-headlining a dinner show at Katoomba’s Pigeon Lane with guitar legend Jak Housden, and Mataya supporting. Cam leaves us with a unique nugget of knowledge from his travels. “Everyone has a unique thing they can do with their voice and most people don’t really figure it out, but I think everyone has it.” With this in mind, I hope you enjoy listening to Hey Stranger as much as I did. Stay tuned for more!

Words by Corin Shearston

Heading image courtesy of Inertia Photography and Concept Art, album cover courtesy of CJ Stranger's Bandcamp page, live Dashville/Sky Ball TV shots courtesy of Bruce A. Baker, remaining photos courtesy of CJ Stranger's Facebook page. (Click HERE to view the scientist-themed 'Strange One' music video above, filmed at Professor Skipdipper's lab...)

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