Tone Talk with Imogen Clark

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Australia has become one of the great breeding grounds for indie music over the last ten years a wave kicked off by the global success of Courtney Barnett and Tame Impala is still building strong. In the years since, we’ve seen artists like Camp Cope, Julia Jacklin, Gang of Youths, Stella Donnelly, Middle Kids, Alex Lahey and more make an impact on the global stage. The latest in this venerable line of Aussie indie stars is Imogen Clark, a singer-songwriter from Western Sydney who marries big melodies and intense emotions, exploring subjects from heartbreak to suicide to alcoholism, bringing dark subjects to life in ways that are cathartic and sometimes even triumphant.

With her single “Enemy” released in the Spring of 2022, building momentum and more new music on the way, we caught up with Imogen in the midst of her mammoth ‘100 Shows in 100 Days’ tour to talk guitars…

RELATED STORY: Australian Singer-Songwriter Imogen Clark on new single “Enemy”

What is your definition of tone, and how has it changed over the years?
Tone is your sonic signature; it’s the sound of your voice as a player. I think as I’ve grown up, I’ve realized more and more how much tone is the sum of everything. It’s the songwriter, what you’re choosing to play and why, what emotion you’re trying to convey, and yes, of course, your instrument and pedals. But give two players the same exact setup in the same space, and you’ll get two completely different tones. If I put my guitar down and then two seconds later, St Vincent picks it up and starts playing, it’s going to sound 100% like St Vincent and 0% like me.

Part of me wonders if it’s a good thing that it’s so easy to find out every detail about what gear people used on classic records now because it can lead to people chasing someone else’s tone instead of finding their own out of necessity. So much about becoming who you need to be as a musician is about discovering your voice, which is sometimes uncovering it from out of all your influences.

Which guitars, amps, and pedals are you currently using and why?
I’m playing so many different kinds of gigs right now – sometimes I’m on stage playing guitar by myself for the whole show, sometimes I’ve got a whole punk band backing me up, and I don’t pick up a guitar all night.

The lovely legends at Fender recently gifted me an Acoustasonic Telecaster, and that’s become my main axe for solo gigs. The electronics in it are dynamite; the range of sounds you can get out of it is amazing. It’s light but loud and is a dream to play. I used to take a few guitars out for solo shows and switch between them through the night, and now I can just run with one.

In the studio, I play a 1967 Gibson J-50, which I use for some gigs if it feels safe to travel. It’s a pretty precious instrument, and it’s been through so many players through the years who have all looked after her; it just comes pre-vibed. I’ve written with it, too, and it feels like it has songs in it waiting to come out.

On the electric front, I have a paisley pink Tele, which has been my pride and joy for years. It sounds beautiful, clean and crunchy, and whether I’m finger-picking or fanging it, I never feel like I need to reach for another electric. I love a warm tone and always go for a Fender Princeton amp-wise.

Pedals-wise, I try to keep it simple. I’m not out here trying to be The Edge or John Mayer. I feel like the tone I’m going for lives vaguely in the ‘80s, and my pedals reflect that. I have the BOSS DC-2W for depth and chorus that’s not too chorusy, MXR Carbon Copy for those classic analog delay sounds, ZVEX Box of Rock for that British blues-rock distortion, and the JHS Space Commander for when I want to go full ‘80s rock or just add some extra color. Not to mention the only pedal that really matters, my BOSS Chromatic Tuner.

What about strings?

I use light picks, but I can play heavy as s**t and usually don’t have a guitar tech standing by to restring for me, so I use Elixirs live, which are really resilient and feel great under my fingers when I’m playing without a pick.

Are there certain recording techniques you prefer in the studio?

Yes, mainly hiring way better guitarists than me and getting them to realize my ideas for me. This isn’t to say I don’t enjoy playing on my own records, and obviously, I do it live, but especially for soloing or drawing out lead stuff, I’ve been lucky enough to work with producers like Mike Bloom, Mark Lizotte (Diesel) and Joji Malani (Gang of Youths) who are incredible players at a level I can only aspire to, and it would be crazy not to get them to bring that onto the recordings.

We talk a lot about tone and references in the lead-up to putting down a track, and I always try to keep it focused on what I want the listener to be feeling when a part comes in. After all, I’m not making records to impress other musicians, I’m trying to get my emotions out and connect with people, and guitar parts are just another arrow in my quiver to get that across.

How do you keep your sound consistent on stage?
I think the best way to keep your sound consistent is to keep your setup simple, unless you’re headlining arenas with a tech and a big crew. I try to create dynamics through varying my playing style and intensity, and of course, through the songs.

I look at someone like Jimmy Page, who was a big guitar hero of mine when I was a kid – he got heaps of range from just a few pedals during those peak Zeppelin touring years. As long as you have really reliable gear and you don’t overcomplicate things on stage, even a dodgy venue sound guy can’t f**k you up too bad. It’s really the player that generates most of the sound.

What does your practice consist of?
I really enjoy trying to tackle songs that are outside my normal wheelhouse and expand my skillset that way. A lot of the time that involves different picking styles, crazy tunings, or just increasing levels of speed or complexity. Most of the playing I’m doing is trying to get across the guitar parts on my own songs that someone who is a bit more of a shredder played on my records, especially for my solo shows.

Around the first lockdown period in 2020, I got my lead guitarist Travis New to show me some stuff to work on my lead playing, and it made me confident enough to take one of the hero solo moments in a song I normally would’ve relied on Trav to take live.

Favorite guitar riff or lick that inspired you to play guitar?

I was such a huge Zeppelin fan as a kid – those riffs were so powerful, and I loved that they had a folky side too. “Over the Hills and Far Away” was one I played over and over until I nailed all the nuances and timing.

As a teenager, I became a massive Joni Mitchell fan, and there are so many little licks and subtle guitar things in her songs that people miss out or gloss over that I think are really important parts of the songs, and they’re all in different tunings, which is a nightmare when you’re playing them at a gig but is what gives her records such a range of tonality across the guitar parts.

What is your advice for young women who hope to work in the music industry?
Find your true north and follow it. Know who you are and what kind of artist or player you’re trying to be, and don’t let old men push you or try and mold you into what they want you to be because they think they know better or you’re just a little girl.

Be prepared for, but not accepting of, not being taken seriously until you’ve proved yourself at an incredibly high level – and sometimes not even then.

The amount of venue sound guys who have tried to mansplain to me how a f**king microphone works (a literal example) or what setting I should have my own amp and pedals on, or music business dudes who will call you difficult or unprofessional for disagreeing with their advice…

The best thing I can tell you is that things are improving (very, very slowly), and now is by far the best time for a non-male to be getting into this business, and you will probably be able to say the same thing next year, and the year after that. Already in my career, I’ve been so lucky to work with incredible women in my bands, in the studio, as co-writers, engineers, photographers, designers, video crew, tour managers… Find other women who you admire and try to find ways to work with them and lift each other up.