By BRUCE DENNILL
Dave Starke is a South African singer-songwriter who strives to capture human moments in musical form – to sum up a whole host of thoughts and emotions using just his voice and a guitar. He describes a guitar as “nothing more than a wooden box with strings, tensioned to near breaking point – it’s fundamental, honest and often scary and it’s a good metaphor for the human experience…” Shifting Boundaries is his second album and features the single Calling Out To You. The music video to accompany it was shot in studio and on location at The Zululand Brewing Company and George Hotel in Eshowe, Zululand.
“Influence” is a loaded, often misunderstood concept. An artist may sound similar to another but have no knowledge of them, or be a super-fan of someone whose output is completely different to their own. Who or what was the artist, album, song, era or scene that initially mapped out the road to you becoming a musician?
I was in a heavy metal band at high school, until I had this near mystical experience in an attic in London with a collection of old records and a small record player. It was then that I discovered the early work of James Taylor. That was my first exposure to the concept of a singer-songwriter and it was an important turning point in my musical journey. I was 17 at the time and from then on I threw myself into folk music and began writing shortly afterwards.
Has that changed over the years? If so, how and why, and what are you currently exploring?
I still love James Taylor, but he was like a gateway drug into a whole world of other musicians from his generation like Neil Young, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and so on. And those musicians, in turn, lead me to exploring more modern musicians that are the living extension of the folk singer-songwriter legacy. My current favourites are Bonny Light Horseman, Josh Ritter, First Aid Kit, Van Wyck and Bedouine. Locally, I am loving Bill Knight, Faye and Wren, Jak Tomas and Jenny Eaves.
Name one song you wish you’d written. What makes that song so important?
There are so many! Sometimes you hear an amazing song and it makes you think – cool I want to write like that, I can do that. And sometimes you hear a song so great that you just want to quit because you’ll never get that good. I particularly love the lyrical strength of Leonard Cohen and I do regular tribute shows of his work. So if I were to choose one of his that I would love to have written it would be Take This Waltz. But to be honest I would be proud to have written any Leonard Cohen song…take your pick! He is so clever with words and even better at evoking strong emotional response in the listener.
Which aspects of your music do you prioritise? For you, would you rather have that your lyrics, your melodies, or your vocals or instrumental work are the are the most memorable parts of your songs?
As a singer-songwriter, the lyrics are of primary importance to me. I’m a musical storyteller more than anything else. I am, however, totally obsessed with timbre – the actual tone of my voice. That is, I spend a lot of time working on tonality – getting the right sound. It’s a weird concept to try to explain, but it matters to me – a lot…
The music industry is no longer a single-narrative operation. For you, what is the best way to get your music from your head to potential listeners? Please comment on digital means (from social media to full streaming and download distribution), playing live (how often; where; to whom), being a cottage industry (selling CDs from a box in your car or similar) and any other creative channels you’ve explored.
Yes, the recording industry doesn’t exist anymore. But music is still alive. I am sad that I may never get to work with the kind of team that a label would have put together – arrangers, A&R people, session musicians and so on. A lot of work and planning used to go into that and it resulted in what was loosely called “artist development”. These days, most of us are going out on our own and doing our own recordings and producing. That has positives in terms of freedom and control, but on the down side, there’s nobody to squeeze you, to push you, to say no to you, and those can be healthy things to experience. I have self-produced two albums and I’m proud of my work. I recorded with an engineer that I have a good rapport with and that certainly helps. In terms of getting music out there, the genre that I am in lends itself to small performances, house concerts, theatres and more, and I do a lot of that. I also have all of the digital platforms – Spotify, Deezer and others. The money generated from those is not good, but there are other good benefits if you know what you are doing that can get your music to the right people. As a folk singer in South Africa, the potential audience is not big, but if you can get your music onto good Spotify playlist, then the world can become your audience and that’s great. I’m a full-time musician, but not all of my work is original. I also perform covers in restaurants and bars and at weddings and I undertake theatrical tribute shows. I find that each of those can help you to expand your audience for your original music. You just have to keep at it. For the past few years, I have been averaging about 180 shows per year. It’s hard work – late nights, lots of driving, but it’s the only way. You have to keep pushing.
In terms of the above, is there a gap between what you envisioned and what you are experiencing now? Does it matter, and if so, how do you close that gap?
I always thought that if you were good enough and hard-working enough, then somebody would discover you and you would get your break. That might have been true 20 years ago, but now you absolutely have to make your own opportunities. It can be soul-destroyingly intimidating, but you have to believe in what you have to offer, develop a very thick skin and keep moving forward. I think there is room in South Africa for an artist development consultancy. Basically a group of people that can fulfill the role of the record label team. Arrangers and producers that can take you from good to great. I’d love to be on the receiving end of something like that and I’d love to be involved in doing for others too.
What is the story behind Shifting Boundaries – the genesis of the songs, the people involved, the muse behind their creation?
The entire album is really about change. It’s called Shifting Boundaries because it’s about how relationships, situations and mind-sets can alter, bend and shift. The time period in my life in which I wrote it saw the end of some relationships and the beginning of new ones, as well as big changes in my life as a result of leaving the safety of employment and going full-time into music. It’s been a scary few years and the songs are an attempt to process that fear and hope and gratitude. It’s about looking inward and getting to know who I have become. I read a great book at the start of the process called The Great Work Of Your Life and the gist of it was that you can’t be anything you like; you can only be who you are. I have become myself. It’s taken years of mistakenly trying to do and be other things. But now I am myself and this album is the story of that becoming…The single Calling Out To You is a song about holding on to the stubborn belief in something that could be – even if everything seems very stacked against it. It’s calling out to the future – a song born out of blind optimism.