The Something For Kate frontman chats influences, songwriting and innovations in guitar.
If you’re good at picking musical trends, then you’ll have cottoned onto the fact that Australia’s got quite a knack for churning out some killer singer-songwriters.
Whether you want to look up to the big guns – think Paul Kelly, Archie Roach, Grant McLennan – or to members of the modern guard like Courtney Barnett and Julia Jacklin, there’s certainly no shortage of witty songsmiths to come from Antipodean shores, many of whom have been notable guitar slingers in their own rights along the way.
In this department, there’s few figures quite as seminal as Something For Kate’s Paul Dempsey. Somewhat underrated in the public domain but revered by critics, keen fans and contemporaries, Dempsey’s been an integral force in Australian music for the better part of 25 years, turning in no less than seven studio albums with the acclaimed three-piece and a respectable three solo albums on his own accord.
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While it’s his soulful vocal tone and figurative, delicate approach to songwriting that tends to resonate with many listeners, Dempsey’s also a grossly underrated guitarist with a deceptively snakey playing style, frequently opting for a beaten-up Fender Jazzmaster to bust out his intricate licks and textural guitar arrangements.
It’s a combination of these factors – or perhaps, just the fact that he’s a really genuine bloke who knows his way around the fretboard – that’s led for him to team up with Fender to help launch their latest six-string innovation: the dynamic American Acoustasonic Jazzmaster.
“I couldn’t have dreamed of it,” Dempsey says of his partnership with the brand. “I had really cheap, crap guitars for my whole teenage years, and I remember dreaming of owning a Fender – it just wasn’t realistic for me as a kid. I just thought ‘Man, to get my hands on a Fender one day…’ – it’s pretty special to be involved.”
Dempsey’s love affair with the Fender Jazzmaster, like many guitarists of his age, stems back to its affiliation with the alt-rock trailblazers of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He recalls guitarists like Thurston Moore and Kevin Shields leaving a lasting impression on him as an adolescent, which led to him acquiring his first Jazzmaster at the age of 19.
“I remember being a kid and seeing the guys in Sonic Youth playing Jazzmasters, just hitting them with drumsticks and and just smashing the hell out of them, and I thought ‘Well, that looks like a pretty solid workhorse’,” he says.
“I’m also 6’6”, so when I put on the Jazzmaster, it felt right straightaway instead of feeling like a ukulele, and I realised that Thurston Moore is also around that height as me, so maybe it’s just a tall guy’s guitar.
Tall guys aside, Dempsey notes that there’s several other factors that drove his fascination with the Jazzmaster, listing of the idiosyncratic design quirks that have made it such a divisive instrument among guitarists for the past sixty years.
“I think the floating tremolo systems on them are the best tremolo anyone’s ever made, and the fact that you can hit strings behind the bridge to make this whole other noise that other guitars just can’t do, I really love as well… I feel like I can do things with a Jazzmaster that I just can’t do with other guitars.”
Anyone privy to Dempsey’s work with Something For Kate or as a solo artist will know that he’s prone to picking up an acoustic for some of his more balladeering moments, which he says makes the hybrid design of Fender’s American Acoustasonic Jazzmaster all the more appealing to his songwriting process.
“As a writing tool for me it’s amazing,” he says. “When I’m working on things usually I’d have to make the decision ’is this going to be an acoustic song or is it going to be more of an electric rock thing?’. This allows you to just fall somewhere in the middle.
“A thing I always do a lot in the studio is play electric guitar and then track an acoustic underneath it to give it a bit of brightness. Sometimes, you’re going for a tone that you’re not sure is a gritty electric tone or an acoustic tone, and you don’t know what to do so you end up doing both.”
Paul also notes in passing that he attained experience with the Acoustasonic range in the studio while recording Something For Kate’s most recent effort, last year’s The Modern Medieval, opting for the guitar’s unique timbre and hybrid functionality to flesh out his tracks.
“For this album, I had actually an Acoustasonic Telecaster in the studio,” he recalls of the recording process. “There were a couple of times where it was like, ‘Okay, I can find a tone that falls somewhere in between an acoustic tone and an electric tone,’ and yet, at the same time, it’s not either. It’s a whole new thing.”
Tonally speaking, the Acoustasonic Jazzmaster is fully loaded: with the flick of a switch and a twist of a blend knob, you can access a myriad of classic acoustic body tones, in addition to any number of electric or hybrid sounds offered by its Shawbucker pickup.
However, Dempsey says that it’s the feel of the guitar that he keeps coming back to marvel at, explaining how the slimline body shape and inviting neck profile help to facilitate his unique compound guitar style.
“I think it really suits my particular style of playing, because the way I play anyway isn’t just chords, and it’s not just lead. I’ve always written songs that have complex sort of chords going on; there’s a lot of movement in them. I’m usually playing a bass line or rhythm part with a couple of fingers, and then I’m playing some other melody over the top of that with the other fingers. It’s almost like this sort of compound style of playing, so I just find that again it suits that as well.”
If there’s one thing about any form of Jazzmaster that’s crucial for Fender to get right, it’s that it has to pair well with pedals. It’s a guitar that’s forever intertwined with the art of effects-heavy alternative guitar playing, and the thought of such an instrument with no such mojo would make any shoegazer sick to their stomach.
Thankfully, Dempsey confirms that the Acoustasonic Jazzmaster more than lives up to the occasion.
“I run it through my board and straight into a Twin Reverb,” he says. “If you don’t have any pedals on, you can get all these beautiful clean acoustic tones, or you can flick it down to the pickup and get a gritty sound, and then you’ve got all those possibilities for blending things.
“When you start kicking on some pedals, it gets really crazy. I also love the sound of an acoustic guitar through a really hot amp – that’s a great sound as well, but not a lot of people do it for obvious reasons. With this, you can do that straight away.”
It’s vital to note that Fender’s American Acoustasonic range is not by any means an attempt from the brand to slowly replace their solid-bodied predecessors, or even convert those who are electric or acoustic purists into the nether regions of their beloved musical hobby.
Rather, these guitars are totally distinctive instruments unto themselves that hold up as a clear evolution of the guitar and the future direction in which it’s headed, something that even Paul Dempsey acknowledges as a lifelong vintage guitar fanatic.
“If you asked me ten years ago if I thought there’d ever be an Acoustasonic Jazzmaster, I wouldn’t have considered, it but I like it. On the one hand, I’m a bit of a purist: all my Jazzmasters are old ‘60s ones, and I can be quite particular about some things,” he admits.
“I like the fact that people are coming up with new things that can give you new tools and new sounds. I love it when something new comes along that, you know, that that gives you new tools – although there’s some things that I’m not into.
“I don’t have much time for seven-string guitars or things like that. But I appreciate that for a lot of people, they’re a massive innovation and they love it. There’ll always be new things that surprise us.”
The Fender American Acoustasonic Jazzmaster is out now. Check it out here.