Joy To The World

Posted by Mike Bell, Calgary Herald on 17 December 2013

Karl Wallinger is a joy. No. Strike that, Karl Wallinger is joy.

Speaking with the artist prior to his folk fest appearance on Sunday he exudes it, he personifies it and he provides it - even though he's a long distance call, seven hours and an ocean away. Every few minutes are punctuated with a laugh, every answer is thoughtful and generous, and his gloriously sunny disposition never wavers, no matter the subject.


Odd, then, his reaction when it's returned, either with spoken compliments, audience reaction when he performs or even interest, itself, in him and his remarkable career.

"It's very strange I find in this world for any amount of goodwill to be around the place and available," Wallinger says. "Especially to a 55-year-old overweight Welshman."

Perhaps that's because those who came to know him and love him through his time in The Waterboys, his own fruitful project World Party and even the hand he had in work by artists such as Sinead O'Connor are happy he's once more performing regularly and happier still that he's even here when there was a time when it looked as if he might not.

"It's been slowly coming together over the last few years," he says. "It's been a long road back, you know what I mean. But good, it's worth it."

For all of us. For anyone who will be on the island when he and his strippeddown, more intimate World Party - he, along with mandolinist David Duffy and guitarist John Turnbull, known predominantly for his role in late English eccentric Ian Dury's backing band The Blockheads - take the mainstage on Sunday night.

The reason being that road almost ended in 2001 when Wallinger was stricken with an aneurysm that almost took his life, satisfied, instead with five years of it, during some of which he couldn't speak, let alone perform or create. Even describing that time, with hindsight and a decade to perhaps dwell on it, the artist does so casually and with a sense of humour that belies the seriousness of the situation.

"I didn't ever really think I was in trouble, which was weird," he says. "Even when I came to after the operation and they'd sawed my head in half and I had these sort of crazy drips everywhere. The main thing I wanted was, 'Get this catheter out of my, you know, and can you not give me morphine please because I don't want to be like this and out of my trolley.' ...

"I wasn't in pain and I woke up in this amazing room, it was like in Close Encounters or something, it wasn't like a hospital recovery room like I'd seen on TV ...

"So when I woke up it was like, 'Wow, I've been abducted by aliens or something.' It was quite amazing and I was quite surprised at the glib way I came out of this operation where they'd sort of taken a chunk of my head out.

"Weird, the whole thing, quite amazing." But not without it s own share of goodwill returned or rather rewarded.

Wallinger admits that time away from his art could have been even more disastrous or ruinous had it not been for an exceptional bit of fortuitous showbiz dealings, even if they weren't entirely above board.

While his own career was seemingly in a bit of a decline - successive albums in '97's Egyptology and 2000's Dumbing Up were nowhere as well received as now classics Goodbye Jumbo ('90) and Bang! ('93) - a song from Egyptology, She's the One, would still provide for him when he couldn't, thanks to pop star Robbie Williams making it a No. 1 hit in Britain.

The financial windfall is something he admittedly understates as "helpful," but which he also describes as a bit of a double-edged sword, considering he'd taught the song to his bandmates while on the road, and, upon return, they were brought into the studio to record it with Williams, unbeknownst to Wallinger and with, he says, the instructions not to inform him.

He found himself "alienated from his band," he says, but, still, the positives more than outweighed that one negative, considering the results.

"It's made me almost believe in God," Wallinger says and laughs. "Or fairies or something, you know what I mean?"

He laughs again before adding: "Same thing.

"But it was very amazing the way that song looked after me, it was a very strange thing, good timing."

Perhaps the song was so grateful because its own creator comes from the tradition of contemporary British songwriters - such as, say XTC's Andy Partridge - who craft their pop in a way that's almost classical, with results that are certainly timeless.

It's produced an obscenely rich catalogue of hits and shouldhave-beens that includes Ship of Fools, Message In the Box, Way Down Now and Is It Like Today, that even Wallinger seems awed by, although in a way where he's uncertain of exactly how much ownership and pride he can take in their existence.

"For some unknown reason they seem to have a life of their own, all of those songs. They seemed to be able to survive on their own without any help from me, which is good, it's great. It makes it an incredible thing in my mind and doesn't make it a kind of thrusting, sort of ego enterprise rather than just, 'Here's some good tunes, let's see what we can do,'" he says.

"I just got lucky in a lot of ways, in a lot of ways. I just concentrated on things and listened to things but I didn't approach writing with anything other than a happy stoned expression on my face, actually. It's one of those things that happens, luckily. It's a strange thing."

He continues. "If I sit down and I try to write a hit it's normally the most bland boring crap.

"If you can just lose yourself, however you do that, you can get to somewhere else and that's a good place to be. It's a joyous thing really because you can't believe, 'Did I write that? Did I just do that?' That's a great feeling, that's good fun, that's where it's at."

And it's a place where he's almost ready to travel to again. He did release a five-CD collection last year called Arkeology, which was made up of live material, covers and, yes, some new songs, but not ones that he considers recent or true to what his next complete, concise artistic vision might be - whatever it might be.

Wallinger isn't yet where he knows the answer to that, just that the raw information has started arriving and he's ready to seek out and collect more.

"I've just started to get into a position where I'm actually feeling like I'm receiving the right kind of messages from my overview of the culture or the people watching thing or whatever it is that inspires you," he says. "I'm looking forward to doing that, actually."

As are the rest of us, actually. With joy.