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A little big gnarly: Skyscraper Stan. Photo/Supplied

How love tamed travelling troubadour Skyscraper Stan

Having captured life in the backblocks of Oz in his songs, the Kiwi musician is steering towards more personal territory.

Most of the 10 years Stan Woodhouse has spent on the wrong side of the Tasman has seen him touring his music around Australia’s backblocks and regional towns, living out of battered cars and a hard-worn swag.

Although he says he’ll always consider himself a Kiwi (his mother is New Zealand writer Stephanie Johnson, his father Australian film editor Tim Woodhouse), the 31-year-old just couldn’t pass up the inspiration that such a huge, empty country offers for a self-styled troubadour.

Ask him what he finds so attractive about the “lucky country” and luck doesn’t come into it. Instead, he sets off on a sermon about austerity, expanse, isolation and the stories (sometimes bleak, sometimes centred on the kindness of strangers) he’s been able to gather while essentially sleeping rough.

“I started off in a red Mazda and when that blew up, I got a white Mitsubishi and then that blew up, too. After that was a Ford van … until I blew that up. Yeah, I’ve blown up a lot of cars – but there’s a lot of distance to cover in Australia,” he says.

“It is flying by the seat of your pants inasmuch as you’re running the risk of being done for vagrancy because you’re not paying for a campsite, you’re just pitching by the side of the highway in a swag. But you get to see the most generous side of others and so I loved it – it’s been a fantastic way to meet people and see the country.”

Woodhouse – who performs under the name Skyscraper Stan, because of his long-limbed, towering appearance – has used his rambling lifestyle to hold up a mirror to Australian life. His dusty country-style “troubadour rock’n’roll” might spring from long red-dirt roads, but it could just as easily have come from US cactus country.

He had a comfortable upbringing in Auckland, so his choice of “glorified poverty” across the Ditch has been an occasional source of grief (“my younger sister thinks it’s super-lame … a bit like the theme of Common People by Pulp”), but he likes his life to be “a little big gnarly, a little bit gritty”, and he is “attracted to stories about gross things”.

On his new album, Golden Boy Vol I and Vol II, that’s true, to a point. Opener Dole Queues and Dunhill Blues is a tale of a destitute druggy being nabbed for theft after wanting cash to provide his kids with the “kitset kitchens” and “concrete-lined suburban gold mines built to fit all the shit from the television”. And Tarcutta Shade is a glorious portrait of a 40°C rural truck stop full of “blowflies, blacktop, bull-headed men” and “boys sitting stoned in a Commodore”.

But then you get up, turn the vinyl over, and suddenly there’s track six, On Your Corner, and Woodhouse has gone all first-person. He’s “been thinking of nostalgia with a side of deep-fried self-pity”, he’s “dreaming of a brand new start”, he’s “somewhere along the road to an overdue epiphany”.

Somehow, halfway through this album, something has changed. And, rather wonderfully, it reflects a very real sea change for Skyscraper Stan – Woodhouse has finally settled. He’s got a partner – Monique Kerr, who sings backing vocals on Golden Boy – a dog called Flo, and a three-bed rental on a quarter-acre block in rural north Victoria where he likes to take Flo on long walks in the bush and indulge his love of birdwatching. And it’s good for his songwriting, because he’s spent the time assessing who he’s become.

As a result of listening to his dad’s Frank Zappa albums and identifying with Zappa’s refusal to write “bleeding heart, self-centred songs” about love or loss, Woodhouse has resisted the temptation in his music – until now.

“I turned my back on that Frank Zappa school of songwriting and realised that it is an emotive form of art, and it’s important to explore topics that may be emotionally complex, such as love.”

There’s still a lot of “the road” in his storytelling, but Woodhouse has definitely moved on from his rambling, swag-sleeping days, and his music is all the better for it.

“I’d been holding up a mirror to the rest of Australia while I was moving around. Now that I’m a bit more sedentary – not constantly travelling and sleeping on the side of the road – I had to hold a mirror up to myself. I just didn’t have much else to look at.”

GOLDEN BOY VOL I AND VOL II, Skyscraper Stan (Heart of the Rat Records)

★★★★

This article was first published in the August 17, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.