Don’t keep it simple: Australian guitarist and singer plays Winston-Salem
People sometimes like to point out that the piano is a percussion instrument. They mention this when someone approaches the keyboard with a particularly physical attack. The guitar isn’t technically classified as a percussion instrument, but it can be played like one, and guitarist Daniel Champagne slaps out beats on his acoustic, executing pyrotechnic double-hand tapping on the fretboard, thrumming rapid triplets with his thumb and middle finger, and generally making the six-string do unexpected things. Champagne’s playing brings to mind the techniques of flamenco guitarists, one-man-band buskers, tabla drummers and other dexterous instrumentalists.
Champagne, who was born and raised in Australia but has been living in Nashville for the past four years or so, spoke with me by phone from Portland, Oregon, last week after playing a string of West Coast dates. He’ll perform solo at the Muddy Creek Music Hall in Winston-Salem on Saturday, Feb. 9 before heading up the midwest and heading back to Australia and New Zealand in the spring.
The guitar attracts plenty of virtuosic players, but people who want to show off their chops to maximum effect tend to gravitate toward the electric guitar, with its versatility, whammy bars, pickups, tone settings, cut-aways, varieties of sustain and feedback, pedals and more. But Champagne is primarily an acoustic player. He started out playing classical guitar as a kid and eventually started developing his own unique as a teenager, after hearing artists like Michael Hedges and fellow Australian John Butler.
“Developing my style was a real combination of stealing these tricks off people that were doing it and experimenting,” Champagne said.
Music is, admittedly, something that can function and captivate us without the need of the other senses, or even of verbal language itself. Melody, harmony and rhythm operate on our bodies. Vibrations move us in ways we don’t necessarily even understand. That being said, in addition to the pleasing sounds, Champagne’s playing is eye-catching. His fingers flutter and tap on the body of the guitar. He maneuvers his right arm in graceful semi-windmills to strum and pluck the strings over the sound hole, moving up the fretboard to tap or depress the strings close to his fretting hand, or back to pound out beats on the wooden front or of the guitar body.
Meanwhile, he sets up hammer-on and hammer-off figures with the fingers of his left hand, in rhythmic counterpoint, or he sounds out bright sustained harmonics. He gets a lot of sound out of the instrument. He appears to be both intensely focused and sort of carried away by what he’s doing.
Fans of players like Eddie Van Halen, Stanley Jordan and Kaki King will all find aspects of Champagne’s playing to be of note. But, unlike a lot of guitarists working with similar extended techniques, Champagne is also a singer and a songwriter. He works to balance the instrumental showmanship with an attention to songcraft.
“I really wanted to marry the two, but it can be hard to do it in a way where one’s not getting in the way of the other,” Champagne said. “Sometimes it’s hard because I always come up with interesting, cool rhythms and other kinds of things, and at the end of the day you’ve got to ask yourself if it’s right for the song, and oftentimes it’s not.”
It would be easy to let the guitar-playing get in the way of the lyrics and the vocal melodies. Champagne addresses the challenge by building in space in the verses of his songs to allow the guitar playing to ride in the backseat for a while. There are other moments where the playing is clearly the focus.
On songs like “Supernova,” off of his 2017 record Faultlines, Champagne sets up a beat, using his fretting fingers to get a percussive low-end kick-drum type of sound stressed on the one and three, while his right hand pops out a crisp snapping backbeat on two and four. He sings over top, with a rhythmic accent that borrows from hip-hop and slow-soul inflections. His playing has as much in common with the popping and slapping of funk bass, the wide-openness of beat-boxing and the physicality of drumming as it does with the a traditional folk singer wielding an acoustic guitar.
Champagne, 29, has spent a fair bit of time busking, playing festival sets and generally performing for audiences who might not expect such percussive techniques. He’s seen listeners who struggle to understand what he’s actually doing with the instrument.
“I forget that it is a bit different from regular guitar,” he said.
Over the years Champagne has fine-tuned his technique and zeroed in on equipment — like a custom pick-up — that helps allow him to play and be heard. Early on, Champagne says he was going through guitars every couple of months. He’s quick to point out that he wasn’t shredding the instruments to splinters, but that he routinely knocked hairline cracks into certain spots where he struck the body repeatedly. Early live footage of Champagne’s playing shows guitars with lots of electrical tape and other adhesives holding them together.
All of that tapping and knocking and fancy fingerwork sometimes spurs somewhat puritanical audience members to express their concern to Champagne that he’s using unorthodox techniques, causing what they view as harm to a delicate instrument. Couldn’t he just stick with three chords and some restrained strumming, some ask.
Champagne understands the appeal of the minimalist aesthetic. And he knows the virtues of stripping down one’s playing. He’s not necessarily arguing with the wisdom of the less-is-more philosophy. But still, ultimately he’s interested in a style of playing that’s more unabashedly maximalist.
“I also really love when people don’t keep it simple,” he said.
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.