Q&A with Phil Manning, one of Australia's best known guitarists, true to the essence of blues and roots music

"When you think about it, blues is at the heart of so much of modern music that its impact must be immense. I can only imagine how boring the music scene would be without that blues influence. Despite the origins of blues being based on suffering, poverty, pain or any number of human conditions, I like to think that its effect on people will be to bring them together, give them a real good time and have them feel warm and happy afterwards."

Phil Manning: Down Under The Roots

One of Australia's best known guitarists, Phil has a single handedly turned more Australians onto the Blues than any other performer. The grandson of a dedicated Tasmanian bandleader, Phil grew up with music in his genes. From his earliest days backing pop artists and throughout his long career, his musical integrity has always set him apart. Many Australians know him as a member of Chain, the legendary blues band whose contribution to Australian music and the development of the blues in this country is unparalleled. Since the mid seventies Phil has forged a brilliant solo career for himself. He has featured at all the major festivals and venues throughout the country, and the list of international artists he has toured with, performed alongside or recorded with is impressive. This experience spans three decades at the top of his field. His skillful touch and great passion for the blues have kept him musically progressive, always prepared to interest himself in new musical ideas whilst maintaining his stylistic purpose. The result is a gifted songwriter with an awesome guitar technique.

(Phil Manning /Photo by Jason Rosewarne)

His latest CD ‘Out Of My Shed’ (2021) is an indicative album of where Phil is musically today. Distilling influences such as Blind Blake, Robert Johnson, Doc Watson and Celtic sounds into his original style ensures a sound that is timeless and contemporary. His use of a range of acoustic guitars in both slide and fingerpicking styles emphasises his skill at covering a full range of acoustic blues. It is a reminder that blues can be lyrical and melodic as well as emotional. His influences are absorbed into his own playing, and there is a sense of empowerment that comes from his drive and his desire to push musically into exciting new dimensions. Phil Manning is a consummate artist who continues to write, create and record, but, true to the essence of blues and roots music, it is live on stage where he excels – and it is this energetic outpouring his audience love and have come to expect.

 

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues culture and what does the blues mean to you?

Realising that blues music contains a genuine, personal expression of a feeling is something that I didn’t understand when I was just a kid and discovered ‘that’ sound. I guess I was 14 or 15 when I first heard the original versions of blues that the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Beatles etc had copied to make ‘their’ sound.

It took years before I really started to get an idea of the depth of culture, emotion and life experience that was behind it all….it also led me to understand that this background exists in every culture and the ‘Blues’ exists everywhere, although the blues we recognise as ‘American’ has a particular sound and origin – involving mainly the African slaves of course – but even within that there were influences of other cultures and regional styles even before the advent of widespread radio, recorded music and modern travel.

How do you describe your sound and songbook? What's the balance in music between technical skills and soul/emotions? 

I seem to have developed a style or sound on acoustic guitar that includes the rawness of country blues and some of the elements of bluegrass and Celtic music – I’m certainly not that skilled technically and lean towards melody and, hopefully, a strong emotional content when performing. With electric guitar it is pretty much the same attitude, although being surrounded by other musicians helps with getting the intensity of emotion across. I probably perform 70% or more original material at shows with the rest being traditional or by other composers. However, many of my own songs are influenced by traditional styles and I love using some of the quirky motifs that occur in a lot of early blues material, like odd bar lengths, or implying chord changes without actually doing them – that sort of thing. A lot of that odd stuff occurs in the writing process and happens quite naturally – many performers tend to ‘straighten’ those quirky bits out, but I love them.

"The main thing I miss is the number of great venues that existed going back 30 or 40 years. There was an absolutely fantastic touring circuit all over this country and considering the sheer size of it and the small population, that was essential for putting together large organised tours." (Phil Manning, 0ne of Australia's best known guitarists  / Photo by Jason Rosewarne)

Why do you think that the Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following in Australia?

Blues is pretty much a straight ahead, simple form of expression and I think it is certainly something most people can relate to easily – whether it’s just to dance and have a fun time, or to listen and take in the feeling and nuances. Overall, Australians aren’t that complicated as a bunch and those who discover blues really love it heaps.

What moment changed your life the most? What´s been the highlights in your life and career so far?

When I was about 14 my Dad, an electrical repair man, refurbished a great transistor radio for me (I still have it too) – I was wandering around with it blaring at a Christmas holiday camping area and on the radio came the Beatles – ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ or ‘She loves You’ – can’t remember which came first, but that was it! I was gone and from that moment wanted to grow my hair, play guitar etc.

Of course, that eventually led me, like so many of that generation, to discover British, then American blues. Then, within a few years I was regularly touring Australia, opening for (and occasionally playing with) many of the greatest names in blues, plus some of the huge rock acts. It was a huge thrill! Of course, much of that touring came about because my band ‘Chain’ had a huge hit with an unusual slow blues song called ‘Black ‘n Blue’, which set up what became a life-long career for me.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

The main thing I miss is the number of great venues that existed going back 30 or 40 years. There was an absolutely fantastic touring circuit all over this country and considering the sheer size of it and the small population, that was essential for putting together large organised tours. Twenty years ago, I would’ve said I missed the raw energy and style of the early blues artists, but nowadays there seems to have been a big revival in the styles of the 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and early sixties and there are a huge number of great young people being inspired by that music. I think it’s very encouraging and interesting to hear all these new takes on these much older forms.

"Blues is pretty much a straight ahead, simple form of expression and I think it is certainly something most people can relate to easily – whether it’s just to dance and have a fun time, or to listen and take in the feeling and nuances. Overall, Australians aren’t that complicated as a bunch and those who discover blues really love it heaps." (Photo: Phil Manning with the legendary blues band ‘Chain’)

What touched you from the sound of acoustic blues? What were the reasons that you started the Folk Roots Blues researches and experiments?

Hearing Robert Johnson, Skip James, Blind Blake, Leadbelly etc. when I was at Art School had a huge effect on me, especially as I was mainly interested in the blues oriented pop music of the time. It gave me a reference point at which I could say ‘Oh, now I know where this or that came from” The songs and patterns that existed in acoustic blues were adapted to electric instruments and that formed the basis of much of the sixties music scene that was so exciting to me at the time.

What is the impact of Blues to the socio-cultural implications? How do you want the music to affect people?

When you think about it, blues is at the heart of so much of modern music that its impact must be immense. I can only imagine how boring the music scene would be without that blues influence. Despite the origins of blues being based on suffering, poverty, pain or any number of human conditions, I like to think that its effect on people will be to bring them together, give them a real good time and have them feel warm and happy afterwards.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your experience in the music paths?

At my age and after close to 60 years in the music business I still have trouble thinking about what ‘lessons’ I’ve learnt. All the way through I’ve always held onto the idea that things can get better. It can be a really tough business, travelling endlessly, late nights, sometimes less than enthusiastic audiences, dodgy promoters, shitty sound stages, – the list of negatives can go on and on depending on the level your act is on, BUT the music is what makes it all worthwhile and the rewards can be greatly satisfying. I mean, not many performers become ridiculously wealthy, but I’ve survived and am comfortable and feel very blessed that this is the case AND I still love music, especially guitar stuff, and those old blues records still make me feel all fuzzy! But, I guess the main thing I’ve learnt is to hold on to your dreams and principles and work at it every day… the music is at the heart of it all, but make sure the business side is taken care of too!

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(Photo: Phil Manning)

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