Chain drinking with the blues band whose music has been warmed by the South African sunshine
I welcomed 2016 on a rustic, isolated farm at the southernmost tip of Africa. A group of friends came from all four corners of the globe to join me with the goal of immersing themselves in South African culture. So I found it delightful that the score to our evening came in the form of gravelly, mesmerising, molasses-dripping blues. My native country was the last place they expected to hear such old school American music. The songs of hard drinking, existential wonderings and love letters to New York emanated from Taleswapper, a raw, folk-inspired act from Cape Town. The three-piece comprises founder and lead vocalist Donny Truter - who describes their sound as “maudlin balladry” – and insanely talented multi-instrumentalists Jacques du Plessis and Gert Besselsen (aka Mr. Cat and the Jackal).
Although the band is based in South Africa, Taleswapper was born in Paris “circa 2004 give or take a few beers,” as Donny puts it. It started out as a poetry project, then came the music, then came the songs. By hook and crook, the group happened quite by accident: “I never thought music was going to be a career. I still don't consider myself a musician, though my CV would suggest otherwise. I love making music but I’m still kinda winging it. Are you allowed to still be winging it after this long?” I’m not surprised that he’s surprised. It’s a challenging career path for any young South African to set their sights on given that the country has a historically unstable economy and little infrastructure when it comes to the business of music. But those who take the leap are often rewarded.
Having moved to New York a decade ago, I’ve watched from afar as my home country has blossoming on all creative fronts, from music to art and fashion. Donny has had a similar experience. “I’ve lived and toured all over the world and enjoyed my fair share of big cities but Cape Town is still the place that I look forward to the most. People here believe in music. There are hundreds of places to perform, whatever sound it is you want to play. Hell, just the other day I saw a kid singing on the street because her mother wouldn't buy her an ice cream. The creatives in this town are constantly building things, breaking them down, and re-naming them.”
This is evident in the multitude of talented local artists who are making a global name for themselves but while many of this new guard have a distinguishably South African sound, look or feel to them, Taleswapper slides into a place where Roy Orbison and Leonard Cohen are downing shots in a smoky middle-American speakeasy. “I’ve always loved ballad writers. Tom Waits does it better than most. I mean have you heard Kentucky Avenue? I grew up with older siblings so my influences were quite diverse but it was the ballads my folks used to listen to that struck a chord within me. These were stories of down hearted loners and lover outlaws. There was a stage when there simply was no one else that was cooler, meaner or more mystical for me than Skip James. I fell in love with his stuff and then tried going back further. Clapping and stomping and singing still cast a strong voodoo on me.”
"Clapping and stomping and singing
still cast a strong voodoo on me"
Having spread his intoxicating sonic gospel far and wide for over a decade, the highlights have been many. He’s performed alongside Lenny Kaye from the Patti Smith band, opened for Kyp Malone from TV On The Radio and lit up stages at every major South African festival. And the hard graft has paid off. During a short stint in Los Angeles working on a film score last year, Donny got picked up by Sony and Taleswapper has just signed a three album deal. Donny elaborates: “The deal involves expanding what I’ve already done independently and involving other producers in South Africa and the rest of the world. It was a daunting move to make because I’ve always controlled my own work but sometimes you have to allow things to evolve in other ways. We have very old-sounding music so it could be an interesting marriage with the modern music industry. Let’s see what happens next.”
Their long-awaited full-length debut album, The Death Of Kindness, is due for release in March and there are some ridiculously moreish tracks being teased. Donny treats us to a snippet of one here:
I joke that I know his guilty pleasure must be Justin Bieber’s oeuvre. “You totes got me bae!” he laughs. “To be brutally honest I don't listen to (contemporary) music all that much. I love 1990s rap and I suppose I'm guilty of knowing all the words to Toxic by Britney Spears. Good song, right?” It’s clear that there are many musical layers yet to be revealed from Taleswapper. When the new album drops – and while you wait for the accompanying tour - be sure to grab a Guinness and a drinking buddy to listen to it and turn the lights down low.
Photography Francois Visser, Sean Gibson