Tania Kernaghan has been responsible for many great Australian country songs over the course of her previous six albums and now her seventh, All-Australian Girl, is adding more hits to the list. Tania is, of course, a member of a famous country music family but she has made her music, and her identity, her own - with a little help from her sister, Fiona. I asked Tania about writing with her sister, the new album and the year ahead.
What does being an all-Australian girl mean to you?
I think you’re one of those girls that can just about take on anything in the world and achieve it. You are able to pretty much do whatever your heart desires. And ‘All-Australian Girl’ was really written for all the women I’ve met over the years – the great women – from young girls through to our senior citizens. And whether they’re driving trucks in mines or they’re working as a nurse or they’re in a co-op or a supermarket or just being a mum – and I shouldn’t say ‘just’ being a mum and a wife because I reckon it’s probably the hardest job ever – it’s a tribute to those women.
You’ve written several of the songs with another all-Australian girl: your sister, Fiona. How has your collaboration style changed over the years? Or even how it began – do you remember the first song you wrote together?
I sure do – it was back in 1992 when I wrote my first song with Fiona, a song called ‘I’ll Be Gone’. It was released as a radio single on ABC Records and then it was four years after that that I recorded my very first album, December Moon. Fiona and I just started writing when we were teenagers, and we wrote about stuff that we were experiencing, people we’d met, places we’d been. Even though we hadn’t done a real lot by the time I was eighteen, nineteen years old – I was still so young but at the time I just wrote about some stuff that was happening in my life and ‘I’ll Be Gone’ was born. And that’s pretty much what I’ve done with Fiona for all of our writing career – we just real life stuff because I think that’s more relatable to people and I think that it connects much better with them.
Even as a teenager, though – teenage years can be a time of self-absorption so even to be able to look outwards, not just one of you but both of you to write songs about people and places, did you have an awareness, growing up, of the importance of telling stories and paying attention, I guess is what it amounts to.
I had the great privilege of travelling a lot with my family when we were younger kids when my dad [Ray Kernaghan] was touring and performing around Australia. And it was back in the days of cars and caravans, so you’d get to a town with a travelling show, you’d pull up behind the local town hall, you’d plug into the power, the musicians would load the gear in and do the show that night then we’d pack up and head to the next town the next day. I did a lot of that growing up and we got to meet a lot of people and visit a lot of different towns, and you were put in situations, I suppose, where there wasn’t the technology we have today as far as computer games and iPads and iPhones and all of that distraction, and you really had to learn how to communicate with people and talk to complete strangers. Talking to a stranger wasn’t a bad thing, it was quite interesting in more cases than not. I think it was probably because of those really early days and that kind of experience as a young kid that really helped shape the way we are today and the fact that we are a bit more aware of what’s going on around us rather than being too self centred or introverted.
Still, I find it really interesting that there’s three of you [Tania, Fiona and Lee] who wrote songs, three of you who are really interested in other people’s stories and you’ve maintained that over your lives. I guess this is a comment more than a question, but I think it’s a significant contribution from one family to Australian culture.
And there’s actually four of us, because our brother Greg is a great songwriter. Although he doesn’t pursue music as his career, he has written some fantastic songs over the years – in fact, he co-wrote ‘When the Snow Falls on the Alice’ for Lee and a really good song called ‘It is Goodbye, Aussie Farmer?’ and actually sang on that track with my dad and me. Greg’s a great talent. I suppose we all experienced similar things when we were growing up so to be able to sing about and write about it and observe things as we go through life, and then regurgitate it on paper into a song, it’s kind of pretty easy to do, really.
Well, you make it look easy but I always think it’s not, because there’s all that experience behind you that you funnel into your work. But still on the question of Fiona and co-writing – is the co-writing relationship with her more flexible because you’re siblings or does collaboration in general suit you?
I just think Fiona knows me so well. We really were connected from a very early age and we got on really well, and we’ve always been friends. I kind of scratch my head and can’t understand why some siblings don’t get on with each other – I think, Get over yourself and be friends [laughs]. But whatever karma we’ve racked up we’ve got to deal with, I suppose. So Fiona and I have always had a great relationship and Fiona knows me so well when it comes to what I want to sing about and the type of music that I like to record. Although she’s had over a hundred cuts with other people around the world and a lot of music of hers has been recorded for television and movies, when it comes to country songs for me she absolutely nails it and it’s so easy to co-write with her.
What was the first song written for this current album and what was the last?
I think the first song was ‘All-Australian Girl’.
That makes sense, since it’s your title track.
Yes, although I didn’t know what I was going to call it – it had a few different incarnations before that was the actual album title. But, yes, that was the first one. And then the last one I think maybe it might have been ‘Light in the Window’, the last track,
And that’s a family story too.
Yes, it is. We grew up in Albury and my grandmother lived just around the corner from our house, and we’d always get so excited about getting on our bikes when the street lights came on and riding around to Nana’s. There was always a lot of love in her home and she always made you feel welcome and went overboard spoiling us with cups of tea and she’d even iron our bedsheets when we stayed at her house because she didn’t have electric blankets so she’d make sure the bed was nice and warm in the winter before we went to bed at night. When that song was written Fiona had written the lyric and one night I was just mucking around on the piano and I came up with a melody, and Fiona said, ‘I’ve got this lyric but I haven’t got a tune,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got a melody but I don’t have a lyric.’ It was the strangest thing, because the music and the words went together perfectly, it was like they were written for each other even though we weren’t in the same room when we originally wrote it. We didn’t have to be in the same room to be collaborating.
That doesn’t surprise me given how much you’ve worked together and how close you are as siblings. There’s that mystical element of how songs are created anyway, so I think it’s rational that the two of you might separately come up with things that belong together.
I’m sure there are plenty of other songs that will come that way and get onto an album eventually. I guess it’s just testament to how close we really are and that relationship that we’ve got with each other.
Is there a song that means more to you than any of the others on the album?
Well, I love ‘Light in the Window’ – it’s a really personal song for me. But when I look at the songs, ‘Homestead of My Dreams’ is a real cracker. I met Smoky Dawson on several occasions and he was such a great lyricist and a wonderful man – both he and his wife are great people. And when I first heard ‘Homestead of My Dreams’ it took me back to when I first met him but also the stories that my mum has told me and still tells me about her life growing up in the High Country. She was born on a dairy farm just out of Corryong and the stories she’d tell me as a kid growing up, riding horses to school and riding the old steam train home, racing across the hills, mustering cattle – I just felt there was such a strong connection from the lyrics to me and to our family. Smoky felt like part of our family and maybe that’s just the kind of character that he was – all families felt like they had a bit of Smoky Dawson blood running through their veins.
All your songs are really evocative of different things, and that’s to do with the way you sing them too, so that your audience can connect to them. It is a skill and a talent to be able to connect to the audience but I get that really clear sense that you always feel like you’re singing to someone, it’s not just for you to stand alone in a booth and sing to yourself.
It comes through the lyrics, too. It’s really important that they have to connect with the people so they think, Yeah, that’s about me or, I know exactly what that person’s going through. And that’s important when you’re putting songs together and you’re thinking about an album. I might have thirty songs to choose from by the time I go into the studio to record them but I put myself in a position of standing on stage, now I’ve got to sing those songs – how’s it going to translate to an audience? And it’s really important that every song, every note, every word is really strong and it connects with people.
And I guess that goes back to what you said earlier about how you grew up – that awareness of other people, going to lots of different places. You must have had a very early sense of connection with others.
Yes, definitely, and all sorts of people from lots of different walks of life. I remember in those early days Dad was doing shows with a travelling country music show and they would play at a lot of Aboriginal missions out in the Territory and Western Australia – places that you don’t even get to go to these days. Even just talking to the little Aboriginal kids when we were kids and we’d end up playing with them behind the town hall and they’d be telling us stories about how they catch pigeons. I remember one place – in Agnew, I think it was in Western Australia – we had this huge bag of apples and these wild little kids who were catching pigeons to cook them up, we gave them some apples and they came back to the next day to the caravan wanting more of these apples. They had lots of stories to tell and I never felt afraid of where we were or the variety of people we met over our lives. I just think we’re all the same, we’ve just had different experiences.
Now, this is your seventh studio album. What has been the best thing about your career and what has been the hardest?
The best thing if I could make a sweeping statement – and I don’t mean to sound too saccharine-y here – but I really feel it’s what you can give back to people, it’s not what you take from this world or this life or this experience or this career, it’s what I can give back through what I’m doing with my life. So that’s probably the biggest highlight for me: to bring joy and happiness and make someone’s life a little bit better or day a little bit brighter. And probably the hardest thing in my career would be the behind-the-scenes administration and the taking care of business side of things. It’s an enormous amount of work and when you’re an independent artist you find that you’re doing a lot of it yourself, and I’ve chosen to go down that road, as an independent artist. Taking care of business is number one, it’s the most important thing. Getting up on stage is the easy part, and singing, and entertaining. But it’s the business side of things that is sometimes the most consuming and frustrating and hard. But the good weighs out the bad.
You are involved with a lot of charities and you do a lot of other things. What are you looking forward to achieving next?
That’s a hard question. I guess I just keep going from day to day. If you had have asked me that twelve months ago I’d have said, ‘I can’t wait to get my new record recorded and the songs written and get a new album out there.’ So I guess the next thing I’d like to achieve is lots of touring and singing and promoting the new record, and getting out and seeing a lot more of Australia in the process.
And speaking of touring: you do have a lot of dates booked and it says there might be more to come. So how does it feel to have the whole year mapped out – is it comforting or is it a bit strange to know what you’re doing in October?
It’s definitely a good feeling. There’s nothing worse than having a month when there’s nothing happening in a calendar [laughs]. You have to work six, eight months ahead all the time in the music business. When I look at my year planner and see that there’s plenty happening all through the year, well into November, that makes me feel very good. I’ve just got to keep meditation and keep the vitamins up and I’ll be pretty right [laughs].
All-Australian Girl is out now.