After 50 years Joe Camilleri is still wide awake at the wheel

MULTI-TALENTED: Joe Camilleri and The Black Sorrows are playing at Lizotte's Newcastle on December 9 and 10.
MULTI-TALENTED: Joe Camilleri and The Black Sorrows are playing at Lizotte's Newcastle on December 9 and 10.

Joe Camilleri has the enthusiasm and creative drive that musicians half his age can only dream of.

Just don’t expect The Black Sorrows frontman to present a “greatest hits” set at his live shows. Camilleri refuses to get complacent and rely on hits like Harley & Rose and Chained to the Wheel to draw a crowd. The creative fountain within him is still overflowing with lyrics and sounds that need to be shared.

After half a century in the business, though, he is the first to admit he still gets nervous about releasing new material.  

“I want people to like what I do and I don’t want to be seen as some geezer who is pushing the past. I embrace the past and appreciate that people love it, but it’s not my thing,” he tells Weekender. 

“I’m fighting on, making records and creating what I think of as my art, like many others do.

“I love singing the old songs for the people who come along and want to hear them and you’ve got to mix it up, but just playing the old hits would kill me. It would break my heart. It would be like someone has taken my soul.”

Yes, Camilleri wears his heart on his sleeve. He has a great sense of humour and is passionate and positive about what he does but doesn’t appear to comprehend just how talented a musician, songwriter, producer and singer he is. He can be self-deprecating, almost to a fault.

The Black Sorrows have just released  and are touring their 20th album, Faithful Satellite. It is the successor to the band’s last original and critically acclaimed 2014 album, Certified Blue.

“I believe the new album is the best thing I’ve done because of course you have to believe that – you’ve got to be positive,” he explains.

“I believe you do the best you can with what you’ve got. No one goes out to make a shit record.

“You have to feel really strongly about anything in this world. Mind you, you wouldn’t think I was upbeat and positive if you saw me on a daily basis.

"I can be a miserable sack.”

Playing gigs, he says, scares him. 

“I get scared at how people perceive what I do. Some people say to me, you know, every other geezer and probably the mums at my daughter’s school, ‘Why are you bothering?’. 

“The world as I know it, as a 68-year-old man, has gone past. Everything that I used to believe in barely exists any more. In saying that, they probably thought that back in my day – you know, before electricity [laughs].”

When asked if he has considering working with younger artists, he is silent for a moment. 

”You know what, I haven’t, and I don’t know why. I mean, if someone came and knocked on my door I would do it but no one seems to want to. They’re either scared of me, like those mothers at school, or they just don’t want to talk to me,” he says with a laugh.

“I just work with Nick [Smith, his long-time writing partner] and we would work with anyone. Anyone that was kind to us and nice to us, really.

“I’m up for anything to do with music but I don’t tend to chase it. In the early days I used to get called up all the time to play saxophone solos, like with Cold Chisel, but it doesn’t happen any more. You get passed on for whatever reason. Your time has expired or something. 

“It has surprised me. I write very cinematic songs and I could do a nice job on a movie because I see things in that world, a bit avant garde. I love that.”

FRESH: The Black Sorrows are touring their 20th album, Faithful Satellite.

FRESH: The Black Sorrows are touring their 20th album, Faithful Satellite.

In the meantime, though, Camilleri will continue doing what he does best – playing live music for an audience. And, of course, running around after his five children, who range in age from four to 39.

When Weekender speaks to him he is preparing for his primary-school-aged daughter’s birthday – he is taking her to a Taylor Swift tribute show, at her request – while also making plans for his son’s 30th the following weekend.

“That’s a full calendar right there,” he says.

“I rang my agent the other week and said I had a few days off. And he said ‘Let me fill them for you’. Performing live is my sanctuary. And we’re not weekend warriors. You’ve got to try to stay healthy on  tour because you can’t take a day off.”

On a recent European tour The Black Sorrows played “23 gigs in 27 days, or 21 gigs in 25 days, something like that”, Camilleri says.  

“I’ll read an audience when contemplating what songs to play. I don’t use a song list. You can tell how people react to song, what they like about it or don’t like about it.

“I remember the first time I played The Shape I’m In, and I won them over. But once you get them there you’ve got to keep them there and that’s the struggle.” 

The Black Sorrows play at Lizotte’s Newcastle on December 9 and 10. Tickets are on sale now.