This is the second album called Vagabond to cross my desk this year. Whilst the first by Eddi Reader had a sense of her reconnecting with her Scottish homeland and looking back on her musical journey, Stu Larsen’s globe trotting is in full swing. You only have to look at his website, which is more of a travelogue than the traditional musician’s shop window. There are as many places as there are faces, if not more and although not all of the photos are Stu’s, it still adds up to a mostly first hand account of a fairly epic journey, peppered with tour schedules and even the odd map to chart his progress across the USA.
But maybe it’s a smaller world than we think as having just fallen hook, line and sinker for the Passenger phenomenon and the wit and wisdom of Whispers, there’s a direct link here. Not only are Stu and Mike firm friends, but Passenger has also produced Vagabond. It’s an important part of the developing story, although make no mistake, Vagabond stands tall, very much on its own merits.
It seems that Stu Larsen left his home in Dalby, in Australia, a close-knit, religious community of less than 10,000 people some four years ago and has scarcely been back since. It was a bold step to leave a place where according to his biography, nothing much happened and that was pretty much how folks liked it. At 23, Stu’s career in a local Bank meant that life was pretty well mapped out, but something changed his mindset and a personal and musical odyssey has subsequently taken him all over the world. Stu has travelled light his guitar and camera and as he puts it, “One pair of shoes,” relying on the kindness of friends and people he’s met along the way for a bed at night.
Mike Rosenberg set off on a similarly itinerant course, flip-flopping the hemispheres in search of the summer. It was during a trip down under that he first met Stu, and it’s easy to see how their similar perspectives would bring them together. One thing led to another and much as Mike had benefitted from the friendship of Ed Sheeran, so the baton was passed on and Stu was invited to tour with Passenger as a kind of road manger and support act rolled into one. Of course, the soar-away success of Passenger’s Let Her Go meant that suddenly Stu was playing to big crowds. Yet if you look at his website there is very little evidence of and change in Stu’s tone or overall plan, or lack thereof.
That said of course, Vagabond does mark a subtle upgrade. Whilst Stu’s previous recordings had been for sale, principally at gigs and while busking as a way of funding his travelling, the new record finds him with both management and a record label and also trusting his good friend Mike to produce the sessions. The album was recorded at Sydney’s Linear Studios and finds Stu Larsen, with his accustomed acoustic guitar and harmonica supported by a cast of top notch players. The songs are naturally seasoned by his experiences, free spirited but not carefree and also dappled with the detail that his photographic memoir suggests. His eye and his ear are equally attuned to telling a story.
Given everything above it won’t surprise you to find that Stu’s journeying makes itself felt on the opener San Francisco, one of three songs to feature a specific place in the title. There’s the refrain, “I’m heading north,” for starters, but it isn’t all so straightforward as he sings, “But I won’t know where I’m going ‘til I get there and you know I wish you felt the same.” He also sings about Paul Simon playing on the car radio and my wife casually remarks on that being somehow appropriate. She’s not wrong either, as although there’s no direct comparison, there’s just something about the easy, tuneful flow with just a hint of melancholy in lines like, “I’m on my own.”
The comparison to Paul Simon is, however, even more apt on King Street, which drifts into a meditation on loneliness and dislocation and takes a turn for the autobiographical as well, but with a clever mix of third and first person narrative. This time the journey is more of a spiritual one as it sounds like the death of Stu Larsen’s father and the grief of his mother are central to the storyline. The song is given extra weight by the Enigma Quartet string section. There’s also something in the excellent Thirteen Sad Farewells that suggest 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, although in truth it’s more the title that is suggestive than the song itself as the sentiment is more of something finishing through natural exhaustion.
Track four, Ferry To Dublin is the other song that’s specific in its geography, although it’s more about distance and separation, with a glimpse of home and a letter that remains unfinished. In some ways the same themes circulate through Pocket Full Of Coins, although here there is more self determination, even if as Stu sings, “I haven’t got a job and I don’t have a five year plan.” Far Away From Here is more about the inward journey and in this case someone who has retreated beyond the reach of others, the song’s nagging guitar figure spiralling in on itself.
Some Kind Of Gypsy sounds like a key track and possibly a crossroads moment as he sings, “Is it true what they’re about me and that you’re starting to doubt me and the things that I do.” He sounds overwhelmed as he continues, “I know you want to surround me, but you’re going to drown me with people like you.” Finally he reminds us, “All I ask for is a place to sleep, all I need is your love.” If it hints that Stu is feeling the pressure of increased exposure, the second half of the song sounds custom made for the festival and arena crowd to join in with.
There are three songs then that deal with the perils of love on the road. There’s the one left behind for good in Darling If You’re Down, with a message, “Just don’t forget yourself.” Then there’s the fleeting chance of romance and the string drenched Maybe I Am is achingly tender. Finally Skin & Bone sounds as raw as the title suggests and almost gets into gospel territory with the coda, “Oh my darling there’s a train and it’s coming, you better pack your bags before I start running, it’s coming for you.” There’s some sublime playing from the ensemble as the track is stretched out to a laid back conclusion.
It’s a perfect set up for the closer which is pure gospel of I Will Wait No More. It sounds like a song that comes straight from Stu’s home community roots as a tribute to his late father, which makes it all the more poignant.
This is a great set of songs and taken with what we know about their singer, they sound honest and engaging and it’s easy to understand why Mike Rosenberg a.k.a Passenger has taken him under his wing. Crucially Stu is up to the task of fulfilling his end of the bargain and Vagabond has the hallmark of a classic singer-songwriter, sweetly melodic and laced with finely etched details of his unfolding life story. He’s started an epic journey of globe trotting and self discovery and who knows where it will take him? On the evidence of this bulletin it’s going to be a lot of fun finding out, so tag along for the ride, offer a bed or more importantly buy a CD to set him on his way once more. Stu’s Vagabond heart just needs a little bit of your love and once you hear him sing, that’s the easiest gift to give of all.
Review by: Simon Holland
Vagabond is Out Now
Order via: Amazon
Jul 14 St Pancras Old Church London
Jul 17 Gardens of Trautssmandorf (John Butler Trio support), Merano, Italy
Jul 19 Blue Balls Festival (Passenger Support) Zurich, Switzerland
Jul 24 Sommerloft Berlin, Germany
Jul 25 Uebel & Gefährlich Dachterasse Hamburg, Germany
Jul 26 Endless Summer Heidelberg, Germany