“I think the second ARIA was more surreal. The third time, well…” He laughs. “I guess that was beyond surreal. I was a little bit concerned actually, worried that there was maybe going to be some backlash. Surely there must be someone else! But it was very encouraging. People sometimes make comments that those sorts of awards don’t really mean anything, blah blah blah. But when you get that acknowledgement from the industry, from your peer group, it does mean something, and it is quite encouraging. For me though, it all fades when you’re trying to make something. The reality of going into the studio and recording, doing a gig and needing to try and be better than you were before, that’s the reality. The award moments are fleeting really, and as good as they are, they’re also just a small part of it. You can’t carry them around and say ‘hey, see, I’ve got this shiny thing!’ The realm of making records and performing is totally different. You have to step up to plate and try something new every time, you can’t just rest on one moment or goal.”
His reputation as a guitarist has been well established, but what is perhaps lesser known is Diesel’s (aka Mark Lizotte) aptitude for arrangement. Sure, he’s a renowned songwriter, but his interpretation of other artist’s work is a side of his career that is only now being fully explored. On Americana, Diesel takes some of the most outstanding songwriters out there and filters them through his own distinct lens. We see Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Angel From Montgomery’, Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run’. One of the most distinct covers though is James Taylor’s ‘Fire and Rain’. It is an interesting balance, finding how to keep faith with the original while still making it your own beast. It makes you wonder, should artists even worry at all about the original, or should songs be open to every direction?
“I think in recreating, there’s honour and there’s discovery. There’s a learning curve as well in doing that. I would do [a straight cover] as an exercise maybe. Try and totally recreate it, like artists might paint a very famous artwork to feel it, learn how it’s done, but not to share. There’s no point to putting that kind of thing out, I think. That was my goal from the outset. I think the best thing was not to…” He pauses, finding the right words. “I spent six weeks before recording just thinking about the songs. I don’t pick up an instrument straight away or get the band going, go into rehearsals and try and conjure it there. As silly as it sounds, I tried to visualise it, much in the same way as when I’m thinking up a song of my own I can sort of hear the whole thing. To hear everything there beforehand. And sometimes picking up an instrument at that time just distracts me; I can lose my train of thought. In this case, most of them I imagined how I wanted them to be, made a really good blueprint in my mind, right down to the key I wanted to do them in, the bass line, or sing them to myself as I’m walking around. Take that time to compose it inside, before you get distracted by the physical world.”
It will also quite likely prove to be a timely album. Americana as a genre is burgeoning across Australia now, heralding an unlikely resurgence of bygone instruments and tones. It paints a vastly different musical world than what Diesel experienced as an emerging musician. We have progressed from a time when popular familiarity with the banjo was unheard of, to a scene where mandolin and washboard have grown commonplace.
“I started out playing cello. People think of me as a rock guitar player but I’m no stranger to the fact that the guitar is just one of many string instruments in a very big galaxy. I guess it’s a cyclical thing. It’s a good time right now for all those string instruments, from dulcimers to mandolins, all these kind of things you wouldn’t normally see in a music shop. Going into music shops in the Eighties there were only a few that had all those types of fringe instruments. You’d be struggling to find a ukulele back then, now they’re everywhere, making YouTube stars like Jake Shimabukuro. A ukulele shredder, you wouldn’t believe it. It really whets the appetite for people to go beyond the normal. Guitar will probably go down as the most popular instrument of the century, but that could easily change in the centuries ahead. Now it feels like it’ll last forever, but it’s a relatively new instrument historically speaking. Who’s to say if it’ll always have that popular appeal?”
Americana is out now via Liberation Music. Diesel is touring nationally September – October. For tour dates visit dieselmusic.com.au.