Friday, November 9, 2012

Interview: Amber Lawrence

Amber Lawrence is one of the rising stars - in fact, risen stars - of Australian country music. A great singer, songwriter and performer, Amber has won fans all over the country, and nowhere more so than in Tamworth, where she'll be performing again in January 2013. Before that, though, she's playing two last shows for 2012, in Canberra (16 November at Canberra Casino) and Sydney (24 November at Lizotte's Dee Why). Recently I spoke to her about the shows; about Luke O'Shea, who is joining her on those shows; audiences, and songwriting.

You’re going on tour with Luke O’Shea so I thought I’d ask you how that line up came about - how you chose to have Luke playing those gigs with you?
Luke and I have just been really good friends, probably for about five years. We’re both from Sydney but we didn’t meet through coming from the same town – we met in Mildura, actually, at the country music festival there. And we’ve got the same sense of humour and we really bounce off each other on stage and we’ve done a lot of writers-in-the-round kind of gigs together, where he pays me out and then is surprised when he gets as good as he gives, occasionally. And I am actually a really big fan of his music. I think not only is he underestimated; I think he underestimates himself as well. So we’ve been talking a lot and just decided to work hard together and really try, as independent artists – I mean, I’m not independent at the moment but I still have that independent mentality of really just pushing it all as hard as you can yourself. So we thought, yeah, let’s go out and do some stuff together this year and see if we can take it into next year as well.

And so will you play separate sets – well, obviously you’ll play separate sets but will you play a few songs together?
Definitely. Actually, I have a song on my album, ‘My Attraction’, which I did with Axel Whitehead. But Axel couldn’t make the album launch back in February this year and so I invited Luke O’Shea to come and sing that. And he took it to a place I couldn’t have imagined it, really [laughs]/

 [Laughs] That sounds extremely interesting.
Yeah. People are still talking about the album launch and Luke O’Shea performed – he really interpreted every lyric [laughs].

Given that it’s called ‘My Attraction’, I can only imagine how that played out.
It was very funny. So we’ll be singing that, then we’ll do ‘New England Sky’, his duet with Dianna Corcoran, and we’ll do one or two more classic country songs as well. Just some old-style stuff that’s really nice – fun to sing. With Luke, everyone knows he’s a larrikin and people know I like to have fun as well, so that’s going to be the vibe of these shows – is just a laugh, really – a good laugh [laughs].

And you probably need a good laugh, in that you’ve spent most of the year touring and it’s a lot of shows. I guess some people would think, oh, well, you know, you’re just getting up on stage and it’s only a couple of hours a night, but it’s a lot of energy and it’s a lot of travelling. So I was wondering how you maintain your enthusiasm and your energy over the course of a year, like the one you’ve just had.
Yeah, actually it is starting to – it is at that point where now, I’m quite tired and thinking, wow, that was a big year. I had a great opportunity and then every day was a really great adventure, I suppose. And it is tiring touring, because you go to bed at the very earliest midnight, but it’s usually 1 a.m., and then you never sleep in because you’ve got to drive to the next town. I don’t know how you maintain energy. I mean, I think the crucial part for me was I didn’t get sick all year; I waited ’til holidays – I went on holidays [laughs]. 

[Laughs] How convenient.
Oh, I know. It’s just how it happens, isn’t it? I think that’s the crucial thing, if you can stay well then you can find the energy. The minute the lights turn on on stage, I think for most performances, you don’t even know that you’re tired; you don’t know if you’re hungry or thirsty, you’re tired or even sick sometimes. Once you walk on stage, all that stuff is gone because you’re concentrating on the show. So, for me, that was the year and I packed a lot in as well. I sang at about 30 or 40 schools whilst I was on tour during the year. So during the days I would go and sing at schools and – I just hung on. I was very lucky I didn’t get sick, so I think that was the key to keeping – to maintaining sanity throughout the year. And they’re a good bunch of people as well.

I was about to ask you about the schools and since you’ve raised it, I was wondering if kids are a demanding audience?
Demanding, oh, yeah. The energy that’s required to do a kids show is insane because they are – they’re like, okay, come on, entertain us [laughs]. They give a lot back though, so once you’ve got them, you do feel like you’re One Direction doing a concert. The screams and the love that they give you, and they all want a hug and they all want an autograph. And so, the schools absolutely exhaust you but they send you out on a high as well, so I love playing schools. I have an unusual amount of kids that like to come to my concerts and I guess it’s probably because I’ve done a lot of schools over the time. But maybe it’s because I like to dance and jump around on stage or something like that [laughs].

I’ve seen some kids – some, not a huge amount – but some kids at The McClymonts as well and it’s one of the really beautiful things about country music –it really spans all ages of people. It’s not every performer but you and The McClymonts, I think it is that upbeat thing and parents feel like they can bring their kids, the music’s going to be suitable for them.  And they have fun, it’s just – it’s really lovely.
Yes. And I know none of my songs are inappropriate for children at all, really. I mean, if you wanted to read into ‘My Attraction’ or something, sure, you could say it’s not appropriate for kids [laughs]. But really, on a first listen, there’s no songs that parents would go, ‘I can’t play this to my kids’. And even when I’m at the schools, they’re like, ‘Oh, can we check your lyrics?’ I say, ‘It’s all right, it’s all above board, I’m a country singer, it’s all clean’ [laughs].

Because you never know who’s going to turn up to your gigs, and in Tamworth because so many of the gigs are free, you really could get anyone.
That’s right. You never know who’s in the audience ever, that’s the one thing. And, yeah, I do hate it when people say, ‘Oh, I saw you seven years ago at such and such’, I think, ‘Oh, no, seven years ago’ [laughs] –

[Laughs] ‘Seven years ago, when I was 12’.
Yeah, right [laughs].

I do also think that longevity that artists can have – because audiences are willing to give new artists a go and so therefore, when you’re an artist building a career, you’re more likely to actually have people come and say, I first saw you when you first started playing.
Yeah, yeah. Oh, look, it’s so nice when people say that and if they’re wearing this T-shirt – the very first T-shirt I ever release, ‘I’ve got the blues’, that song and that T-shirt – and you’re like, wow. And they do, they feel like they’ve become part of your life and they’ve followed you and it’s really flattering and amazing. And also, sometimes the demographic of country music too is that there – a lot of my fans are my parents’ age and they do actually treat me like I’m their daughter and it’s so nice, they look out for me and they’re, like, ‘You’re not driving to that next gig by yourself, are you?’ [laughs] All that kind of stuff.  I feel a lot of love in this job.

So do you do a lot of your gigs solo without a band and, therefore, drive yourself between them?
Well, there’s been a lot of that. This year I was on the road with Adam [Harvey] and we had the band – and I played with the band. But I think too, because I’ve been off doing other stuff in the meantime and promotional stuff at schools, that I would just take my own car anyway and get to the gigs by myself. So I do drive a lot by myself and I don’t mind that actually – you know, it clears the mind and gives you lots of songwriting ideas.

And some singing practice, I would think.
Yeah [laughs]. Well, sometimes you just get in the car and you want no noise after a gig – no noise.

I was just thinking, when you said earlier about how if you’re lucky you get to bed at midnight – even then, you’re finishing work for the day at, what, 11 o’clock at night and for anyone else, if we’re finishing work at, say, 5 or 6, there’s no way you go home and go straight to bed.
[Laughs] That’s right. Yeah, you don’t. It’s pretty rare that you go to bed straight after a gig. Yeah, you’ve usually got to drive for a couple of hours or you’ve got to sit back at the motel with the band and dissect the gig and the music industry.

I’d like to talk a little bit about your songwriting and your songs. A lot of country music songwriters are either confessional or storytelling and you seem to fall into the storytelling game. Obviously quite a lot of the stories are not about you, so I was wondering if you find those stories as you travel around and meet people and play gigs?
Yeah, actually, I have – probably less so on the albums thus far, because I use a lot of my own stories or family stories. But that’s running out, so this tour, actually, lots of people came up to me and – you know, beautiful – a couple of touching moments – a family went out to the car and got the eulogy book from their daughter’s funeral – she was only 19 when she died, and, you know, they tell me these stories about their children. Another man emailed me about his beautiful son Max that drowned on their family farm and so there are people – they want their stories told and it’s really beautiful when they come up to you at the end and think that you might be able to be that person that tells their story. So I guess it’s a bit of a burden in a way as well, because I do want to tell their stories, but it’s sometimes hard to do. But I’ve got this folder of these emails and little stories or newspaper articles that people give to me and I definitely – once I start writing for this next album, that’s where I’ll head.

I can certainly understand how it would be a burden – unless you’re not human and don’t have emotions, it’d be really hard to not take on a lot of that and to feel that responsibility, that I know a lot of country music artists have, which is that connection with the audience, which seems to be so much stronger than in other genres. And one of the reasons why the genre works, is that connection. But it is a big responsibility.
Yeah, it is.  And you can’t keep telling sad stories all the time either. But most people come up and say, ‘Look, you probably won’t be able to do it but if you can write something’, and maybe just them sharing their story too is part of it as well. I just feel honoured that they would think to share it with me, so if I can write a song about it that does it justice, then I will. But if I can’t, I still will – am just touched that they’ve shared that with me.

So it sounds like you’re gearing up to write a new album – what are the plans there?
The plan is to – I have to switch that other side of the brain back on, actually [laughs]. That hasn’t happened yet. I haven’t’ written a song all year, haven’t even gone close. It’s just been too busy and, I guess, just in a different frame of mind and I’m more a kind of task songwriter, like, sit down to write a song rather than, ‘Oh, it’s just hit me, I’m going to write it’. So I’ve got to clear that space out in my life to tap back into the creative stuff. Hopefully once November’s finished, when all the shows finish for the year, I’ll be back, creative and writing. And it’ll be interesting to write again since I haven’t done it for a year.

And when you say your shows are finished for the year, Tamworth will come hot on the heels of that.
I know [laughs].

You’ve obviously planned your shows for Tamworth already?
Yes. This year, just one show, and it’s at the Blazes Showroom at West Leagues. So it’s a bit scary, it’s a big room, got a lot of tickets to sell but I’m just really looking forward to it, actually. Got my band all booked in and we’ve been working together for the whole year, so we know what we’re doing. And Tamworth’s a lot of fun and the fans are all there – the tickets went on sale last night, actually, so it’s all going well.

You say it’s a big room but I think the people at West Leagues aren’t fools, so they wouldn’t book artists into that showroom if they didn’t think they could fill the room [laughs].
[Laughs] Fingers crossed. Yeah, I hate sleepless nights hoping that tickets sell, that’s the worst part of the job, waking up at 3 a.m. [laughs]

I do think that’s a badge of honour for Tamworth, when you get to play that particular venue.
Yeah, I’m absolutely blown away that I’m doing that this year and you look back at when you started out and you think, ‘Oh, god, I want to be in there one day’. So, I’m in there this year, so things are still going well.

I actually just wanted to ask one more question about your song writing – on some songs you worked with co-writers and so I was wondering what that process is like for you to have your ideas then worked on by others? And whether you sometimes sit back and think, ‘Hmmm ...’
Well, it’s gotten a lot better.  I didn’t co-write much on the first or second album because actually I wasn’t that good at it, so I would go and – well, probably wouldn’t even go in with very good ideas and so I would come out with songs that I didn’t like or I’d think, ‘Well, that’s not anything like I’d ever sing’. So, the third album I actually realised, ‘Hang on a minute, I’ve got to take control in these co-writing sessions’. And so I went in with the hook of the song or the title of the song or what I wanted to write about, and I wasn’t going to come out of that without that being my song. So I think it was just having a bit more – well, confidence was actually the thing that I had much more of on this third album, it was like I can actually go into a co-writing session and go, ‘Nope, yeah, that doesn’t work, this works. No, that’s not me, I’m not going to sing that.’ Whereas, before I would just say, ‘Okay, yeah, that sounds good’. And it was more a musical co-write, I think, on this third album. Lyrically it was my direction but musically I was happy to let them take it somewhere I wouldn’t have taken it. You know, you sit on a guitar and you just play the same chords over and over, so I wanted something different, so – yeah, I think that’s why it didn’t feel like I was losing any substance of my own songs – my own self in them – because I had a much better idea of what I was doing.

Well, it is your album and to an extent, one – well, I mean, the term ‘brand’ gets used a lot but it is your personal brand and your audience expects Amber Lawrence songs.
Yep, exactly.

I think that’s completely reasonable and wise to take charge.
Yeah. And I think co-writers who do it for a living, and they’re good, understand that and they know, ‘We’re here to write your song today’. The co-writer doesn’t want to come out with a song that they’d sing, they want to make some money by getting a song on your album. So if everyone’s on that – if you walk in there knowing that, then it’s going to be successful, usually.

Well, I think it’s worked so far for you.
Yeah, yeah, it has.

Amber's tour dates:
Friday 16 November, Canberra Casino
Saturday 24 November, Lizotte's Dee Why (Sydney)

In Tamworth: Thursday 24 January, West Leagues, Blazes Showroom

Full details:

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Interview: Drew McAlister

Drew McAlister had a successful solo career before becoming one half of the even more successful McAlister Kemp, with Troy Kemp. The duo's latest album, Country Proud, has been nominated for an ARIA award and the lads are hitting the road for some gigs, including 16 November at Kedron Wavell Services Club in Queensland (with Tamara Stewart) and 24 November at the Heritage Hotel in Bulli, NSW (with Baylou). For full details, visit their website.

Recently I had the pleasure of talking to Drew about the upcoming tour, amongst other things.

I’m going to start off by saying congratulations on your ARIA nomination.
Thank you very much, we're stoked, man, we’re so happy.

Are you going to put bets on yourself?
[Laughs] No, look, I know it’s cliché but we’re just so happy to be in the race.  We’ve got pretty stiff competition in there and we’re the new kids on the block but it’s good to be in there, and we’re just going to go and enjoy the night and – yeah, it should be fun.

It’s great to have a country music category in the ARIAs but it makes me think, yeah, there are so many fantastic albums that have been out this year and – we really do need the Golden Guitars so that everyone gets a go in more than one category.
Yeah, exactly.  The country category in the ARIAs is like the fine arts  it’s not as popular, I suppose, as the pop rock stuff but, yeah, the Golden Guitars serve that purpose, they give everyone a chance to really be recognised and for all the hard work that people have done all year.  And it’s great, it’s our awards night, it’s been going for forty years, so it’s really cool.

You guys have at least one, don’t you?
We’ve got one – I actually won one a couple of years before that with Allan Caswell but together as an act, we’ve got one.  So we’re hoping that we get a few nominations and that we might get another one, we’ll see how we go.

I think you’re a very good shot to get nominations in the Golden Guitars, so you could bet on yourself for that one.  Have you just played the Deni Ute Muster?
Yeah, we just did Deni – yeah, last week, yep.

And how did that go?
Oh, it was fantastic. It’s one of those things that you fly in and fly out, but the weather was perfect, [we had] really good crowds.  They’ve just built this brand new stage, so the stage which was originally there, that’s now moved somewhere else and then they’ve built this massive stage. It's probably not as big as CMC in the Hunter but it’s close – it’s really big.  So that was really cool to play on and the numbers were really good and by all accounts it went fantastically well.

That would obviously have been a full band gig?
That was the whole circus, yep.  Well, we don’t take our keyboard player on every gig but those bigger ones he comes along as well, so that was all of us, yeah.

Because this year, you’ve been doing a couple – well, more than a couple, a few gigs as a duo and then a few on the road – so the ones you’re about to embark on, are they full band or duo?
Troy and I have got some acoustic things and then we’ve got this cruise thing, which is just Troy and I, using the in-house band with lots of other country acts. So it’s bits and pieces, but as much as we can we prefer to do the full band gigs.  But, I guess, the beauty of doing the acoustic thing is it’s completely different to the big band live show and it’s more personal and we get to play songs that we don’t normally play and mix it up a bit.

For the songs that you do normally play with your full band, when you’re playing them as a duo, is there quite a bit of adjustment required or do you find that the two of you have been playing together for so long, that you have it worked out already?
No, it’s fine because – I mean, all these songs were written on acoustic guitar, so we’re just playing it in the natural format that they were written on.  And we’re also figuring out the idea of getting maybe a drummer.  Just using some sort of percussion instrument with this as well, maybe a kick drum or something like that, just to get that back beat a bit of a push. Through the right sound system, it actually sounds pretty big – not as big as a band, but pretty big.

That doesn’t surprise me, because you’ve both got big strong voices, so I would think that, if anything, it’s probably that mix of getting the guitar with the voice right, because your voices are confident and experienced, so your poor little guitars might struggle to keep up.
Troy and I played in pubs solo for years, so we’ve done that grind where you’ve got to get up in front of a whole bunch of people and – and they’re pretty honest, if they don’t like you, you don’t come back. So the two of us having done that, when we get together, it’s a pretty formidable sound. Troy plays great lead guitar, I’m a bit more of a rhythm strummer, so between the two of us, it belts out a pretty good sound.

Now you’ve had an interesting career path, in that you were a solo artist and, no doubt, still do a lot of solo stuff.  But you chose to be in a duo and some solo artists would go into a band or they’d front a band, but it’s quite unusual to go into a duo.  So I was just wondering what being in the duo does for you as a songwriter and a performer that you didn’t have when you were on your own?
I think the major difference is from a live point of view, because when you’re doing solos, it’s a very different dynamic; there’s a lot more pressure to carry the show and trying to go out there on your own.  But with the duo, you’re both having fun and if one guy forgets the lyrics and the other guy – well, you hope remembers. So together, I think, it’s definitely stronger. As far as songwriting and all that goes, it’s not a huge transition because Troy and I write together and we write for other different people and it’s something – we meet in the middle.  You know, in any working relationship there’s compromise, but we’ve been doing it for four years now together and we’re still keeping it afloat. The transition I found to be, probably, an enjoyable one, from solo to a duo.  And I would certainly say that my live performances has got better since – since we’ve been doing this, a lot better, I was never that animated on stage, so I think it’s been really good.

Are you one of those performers who gets really nervous before a gig?
 I used to get really nervous – sickeningly nervous and I’d get a rash all up my neck and my face and then I’d have to go on stage looking like a beetroot. But not so much now. It’s funny, we went on at Deni and we were playing in front of 10 000-plus people. I guess because we’ve done so many gigs now, we know exactly what we’re doing, [so] most of the time, I think I don’t get as nervous.  There’s certainly a few butterflies but not sickeningly nervous, where it can actually destroy your performance [laughs].

And when you say 10 000 people, I mean, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to walk out on a stage with that many people. Is there a point where you just think, I’m just going to look at the first few rows and pretend it’s not 10 000 people?
No, actually, for me – and I think Troy’s a bit the same – when more people are in the room, the better it is and the easier it is to play. If there’s two people in a room, that’s nervewracking for me and I don’t know why that is, I guess because it’s so intimate, but with a lot of people in the one room, all that energy and people screaming and having a good time – it’s a lot easier to do, I think.

 I think that is – and you said it, energy – I think it’s the amount of energy you get back as performers.  Because it takes a lot out of a person to perform, whether it’s for five songs or fifteen, and the more people who are there giving it back to you in a positive way, the less to depleting to yourself.
Exactly, I mean, there’s nothing better on the planet, besides the birth of my children, than all these people singing the words back to a song that you wrote – it doesn’t get any better than that, it’s incredible.

Well – and it must be, as songwriters. And my next question was going to be about song writing, so I’ll go with it. Because you write most of your most songs, either with Troy or on your own, with other people but when you have someone else’s song altogether, like the John Walker song that’s on your album, I was just wondering, do they still feel like yours when you perform them or is there a different process to make them feel like yours?
No, I think they still feel like ours. Even with the first album we released, 'Blue Collar Nigh't is the very first single while we were writing the rest of the album.  That was recorded by a guy named Brad Cotter and in Nashville, Jeffrey Steele and another guy, so it's a quality song – same with the John Walker song, and because you do your vocal on it, you kind of make it your own anyway, so it doesn’t feel to me like we didn’t write it, even though we didn’t.  It just feels natural and it’s our song now.

You had Matt Fell producing this album and he’s produced a lot of albums.  So you would obviously trust his taste. But I’m just wondering whether you bring a whole lot of songs into the room and if you and Troy are arguing over something, does Matt decide? What’s that song selection process like for an album?
Well, the song selection – we decided on the second album that when we were over in Nashville and here, that we would only send songs we were prepared to record and we felt would represent our career in the best way. So then you basically hand it over to A&R and management and the producer, and all four or five of us sit down and go, okay, let’s try and strike out a list. And I think by Troy and I saying, well, we love all the songs that we’ve given you, it makes it a lot easier for us to go and record the end result.

In recording the end result, do you have a little thumb wrestle over who sings what?
We work that out as we go. Some of it is established in the writing process. I predominantly sing a little bit more on the first album than Troy did, I think, even on the second album.  But it just depends on – when you’re writing the song, who’s got to write in the melody, I guess.  But we both agreed that on this third album, we both want to be singing more constantly, I suppose, on all the songs.  I generally tend to take the chorus, Troy will generally tend to take the verse because he’s got a lower voice and I’ve got a bit higher voice.  But we just mix it up, try and sing more – I mean, if you’ve ever listened to Big & Rich, if you hear how they sing a song, most of the time they’re pretty well singing in harmony to each other and they’re mixed very evenly.  So this is what we’re going to be shooting for on the third album, I think.

And that’s also how you perform, right –f rom what I’ve seen, just of the odd clip, it sounds like your mic levels are identical, regardless of who’s singing harmonies and who’s singing lead.
Yeah, yeah.  I mean, in a live situation, if it’s blatantly obvious on the album track, when I’m singing lead, I try and sit back a little bit, but Troy’s got the lead and he does the same – but in the choruses we’re both belting it out as much as possible and as I said, if we could take a leaf out of Big & Rich’s book, we’d like to be mixed more evenly the next time around.

So you’re talking about this third album, when are you planning to record that?
We had a meeting yesterday, actually and we’re expecting we’ll be going to Nashville two or three months into next year and that will coincide with another tour, so until that tour is confirmed then we don’t really know when we’re going, but we’d like to get it in the can by halfway through next year. That’s the plan, anyway.

I’m sure some people are curious as to why Australian country music artists – they know why they want to go to Nashville, but why they would record in Nashville as opposed to here. Is that  because of who your producer is, that the situation’s better there?
We had the choice on the second album about whether we wanted to go to Nashville and record and we both chose to stay here and do it with Matt.  But the third time around, we are going to go to the States, just because, one, we’ve never done it – recorded an album there – and two, our sound is developing in a way that we want it to be much bigger – much bigger than either album  so that will enable us to be able to go up there and record it relatively quickly with state-of-the-art stuff and with the best players on the planet.  It will be interesting because we’ve never done it before, I think Troy’s recorded a few songs over there but I’ve never been over to record songs.  

By 'bigger' do you mean going for that big – well, you said Big & Rich, but the Brad Paisley, Keith Urban sound – that robustly commercial sound? And I say 'commercial' without that being a bad thing.
Yeah, yeah – definitely that – sounding a bit more like, let’s say, Rascal Flatts and Jason Aldean and Keith Urban, I guess.  So that’s kind of where we’re headed, in that genre, and that’s the stuff that we listen to, so it seems like a normal progression to try and get that kind of sound with the producer over there.  You know, bottom line is we’ve still got to like the songs that we write and they’re not so much like Rascal Flatts and they’re not so much like Keith Urban, so that will have to be the point of difference. We’re still going to write the songs that we write for this country and for our fan base and it will just sound a bit bigger.

 Do you write when you have a deadline, when you know there’s an album coming up, or do you tend to just keep writing along the way?
Well, I’m always writing, mostly with other people, but when we’ve got some time, then we knuckle down together and we [say] okay, we’ve got this amount of time to actually do it and get a list of cracker songs, but then I tend not to write with other people so much and try and focus my energy on McAlister Kemp stuff.

The two of you together, this has been a really successful ride, at least from my point of view – the first album came out and you’ve been working steadily, touring, releasing a second album, you’ve got a great amount of attention for it, Saturday Night Country and things like that.  So, obviously, you’re working musicians - would you recommend that life to people?
Not the twenty years before this [laughs].

[Laughs] Yeah, right, well, that’s the story, isn’t it?
Yeah, yeah. No, look, it’s not an issue – looking at plenty of jobs out there – but we are shift workers essentially and it’s a hard life too so would I recommend my girls do it, no. I’d push them to do something else [laughs].  No, the rewards are – and the feeling of writing songs and recording them and hearing people sing them back, there’s nothing like it. If I could’ve done that from the very, very first time I started out in music and had that reward then, maybe I’d think differently.  But that’s life and we’re having a blast now and we’re excited about the future, lots to come.

Well, as you should be. But just back on the twenty years before that you mentioned – you know, this is a big part of the story for any creative person or any artist working, whether it’s music or painting or whatever. What drives you in that time – is it the songwriting, is it the performing, is it just that feeling that you need to be doing this, that you’re prepared to make those sacrifices?
Songwriting, for me anyway, has been something that I’ve always been passionate about and I will continue to write no matter what happens.  I’ve written for many years and not made a lot of money out of it, but it’s very satisfying to somehow create something that didn’t exist yesterday, you know, and have someone record it, it’s pretty cool.  But – yeah, it’s twenty years of doing cover gigs stuff, I mean – I guess, one, we don’t do anything else and we’ve done odd jobs over the years, mostly with music – that was one thing we were good at.  But it’s the love of the song, I suppose, there’s no way to describe it.  We could have gone and done something else and probably been more miserable, you know? So music was the obvious fit, I guess.

It's fantastic, it’s always really inspiring to hear these sorts of stories, because a lot of people will have a dream and not realise how much work actually goes into making it come true, and I think when we hear you and people like you talking about it – no one ever says 'overnight success' but it can look like, oh, it’s just been the last couple of years. But, really, it’s many years of work.
Yeah, yeah, it is.  And we’re not unique, by any means; there’s lots of people out there who are working in all different sorts of businesses, who’ve worked hard to get to a place where they feel they’re successful – imagine being some of those people who go into the Olympics – they train for years and years and – you know, four years between your next gig and imagine the pressure, you know.  So we really can’t complain, we’re pretty lucky, we’ve got healthy families and at this point in our career, for whatever reason, things seem to be starting to happen so we’ll just run with it.

So you’re ending off the year with a few dates and then presumably you’re having a little rest before Tamworth?
Yes, we have a little rest and then we’ve got two shows booked in at the moment for Tamworth.  We’ve got our normal Blazes gig on the Thursday of the second week, it’s five o’clock. And there's another one lined up.

Blazes is a great gig for people to go to. So it seems like everything is – not falling into place, I won’t say, because you’ve worked to get it in place, but it seems like you guys are at a really great spot in your careers.
We are, it’s pretty cool.  I mean, right now is when you want to keep the train on the track and actually see the fruits of it, and right now is a pretty important time, and the third album, I think, is as important as the first two because you’ve got to go one better.  And you’ve got to keep the fans that have supported you and try and make new ones.  But we’re in a pretty good spot and we’re both feeling pretty good about things and we’ve got a great record company that seems to be really, really behind us, so we’ll just keep trying to kick some goals.

I suppose on the other side of that is you do have to keep on going, you can’t really have a rest or a break, but it does sound like you’re enjoying it.
Yeah, definitely.  And we wouldn’t want to stop; we prefer to be out there on our own, doing our thing, writing songs, and too much time on our hands is not good, I don’t think, certainly not for me [laughs].

Then you’re in a very good job.
[Laughs] Thank you.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Interview: Hat Fitz and Cara

Recently I raved about Wiley Ways, the new album from Hat Fitz and Cara. Then I saw them play live and was even more convinced of their amazing talent. Before they embarked on the tour I interviewed first Hat Fitz and then Cara, and found them both fascinating and knowledgeable. There's still time to catch them on tour - check out their upcoming gigs here. In the meantime, here's the first part of the interview with Hat Fitz.

When I was trying to think of how to describe your album for my review I was thinking that it sounds a bit like constrained wildness, except that ‘constrained’ sounds a bit boring and it’s not at all boring. Gut there are these wild rhythms in it. Then I was reading what you and Cara had written, just a little bit of biography on you both, and you mentioned something about when you started getting into acoustic, blues and folk – you loved the trance-like motions of the guitar riffs, and I can kind of feel that in your music.  It’s almost like a whirling dervish quality to some of the songs. Could you tell me a bit about the musical influences you’ve had leading up to this album?
Right from the start or just this album?

I think from the start.  I’m interested in the start.
Well, basically, I started off because the old man, he was a travelling musician, just travels around Western Queensland and that, and I grew up with Slim Dusty, Smoky Dawson, Chad Morgan, all the famous country artists at that time when country music – to me – was proper Australian country music, you know. And just grew up with all that and sort of toured around, when I was about 15, with his band, and then when I was out just doing the mining towns and sheep-shearing towns, playing all that sort of stuff, mixed in with a bit of Johnny Cash and that, and then I stumbled across a – I think it was a Beau Carter record, 1920s blues, and I just bought it because the cover looked cool, and I listened to it and I just went, what is this music? And then you slowed the record player down back in them days and tried to pick what they were doing and then just sort of got into blues that way and playing a few bluesy bands. Then in about the late ‘80s I became a front man because I just wanted to play my own stuff and have a crack at singing, and then I discovered jug music, which was when I started playing banjo, when I got into bluegrass banjo to a certain level, and that sort of got my finger-picking things adapted to the guitar. And then I just – it’s just like an evolution roll when you’re playing music, and then I stumbled into RL Burnside, who’s like a hill country blues player. And I got to play with him which was incredible – open up for him, I should say. And he’s the king of trance sort of music and just, yeah, just the old blues and just old-timey music, [with] old bands you feel the tunes and stuff like that and it gets the hair up on me neck, you know? When you listen to it enough, it becomes a part of your playing.

Just when you mentioned slowing down the record player and working out what they were doing, were you trying to work out what they were doing from a playing point of view or a songwriting point of view?
No. No. Definitely guitar playing. So it’s just like you slow it down and that a way you could learn, you could either learn off watching someone and because I didn’t have many guitar players around that was into the stuff I was into, I just had to learn it off record players.

And a jug band – because there’s the odd jug band that turns up at Tamworth and I’ve actually always been a little confused about what the jug part is but it sounds like these are bands with banjos in and –
Oh you didn’t run into Uncle Bob’s jug band?

Yeah, at the Courthouse Hotel.
Yeah, well, this is the story.  I was the original member of that band – Uncle Bob’s, they’re from up here – and back when we became a jug band we played proper 1920s jug music, and now all they’re doing they’re just bloody playing bloody covers and stuff with a bush bass and so they’re not really a jug band anymore. But yeah, we were playing proper jug. Jug band music I first – I think I ran into a guy called Gus Cannon, he’s a 1920s guy – didn’t run into him but discovered his music.  And he used to just strap on a jug and banjo, and I saw a cover and just loved his music, and then started my own band and I was doing banjo and jug, and then you get a bush bass in, washboard player, harmonica and kazoos and stuff. Jug music’s poor man’s music, because basically they couldn’t afford – like, the tuba is a jug, the saxophone is a kazoo, washtub bass is a double bass – it’s poor man’s music, basically.

And you were talking about the old time kind of country music and I’m actually hearing a bit more of it coming out of Australian artists in the past – I think in the past year or so there’s kind of a resurgence of interest in the roots of country music and the roots of blues, I guess as well.  Are you finding that as you play around?
I don’t know. To me, I love country music but I’m not - I hate what they’re doing, the way that we’ve become Americanised. It’s one thing because Australia had – apart from the Aboriginal music – our stamp on music was our Australian country music, like I was talking about Smokey Dawson, Slim Dusty, Chad Morgan and the rest of them. They had our own stamp on Australian country music and it was very unique and I think we’ve gone very Americanised, just from all the video clips and all that crap that’s around today, you know? And when I see country players, they even talk with an American accent in between the songs. And I’m like, what are you blokes doing? Whereas when I get into blues, I’m actually an Australian fellow taking off American blues, you know what I mean, and making it into our own.

I think Australian – and when I say country music, I’m actually talking more about the singer-songwriter vein of musicians who I come across, who I think are telling Australian stories – a lot of them are not strict country as a lot of people would define it. They are coming from blues or other influences, but these are definitely Australian stories and it’s the only genre of music I think that tells Australian stories, so from a cultural point of view this music is incredibly important – but I guess you already know that [laughs].
Yeah, definitely. 

So because you’re a songwriter as well – it’s not just about the music you’re playing but it’s about the stories you’re telling —do you draw those lyrics, the songs you’re writing, from your own life or from what you see as you go around and travel around.
Probably my own life. A lot of my songs are about my exes. I’ve come home and the missus has taken off with the kids, going through that sort of thing, being overseas for months on end and missing your kids – that’s where I come from. But Cara is a much more accomplished writer than I am. She can sit down – I’ll pluck a really cool riff and then she’ll just jot down some words and I’ll say, ‘What have you got there?’ And she’ll be just writing about someone she met, like, 20 years ago, you know? So she’s right into that where I just get – when I’m hurting or something, I’ll write down a song and I’ll write it in half an hour.

It sounds like you have a very good co-writing partnership then, if you can – somewhat seamlessly almost – you’re playing music and she’s –
There’s quite a few arguments in the middle of it, don’t you worry.

 [Laughs] Arguments over who’s right about which direction the song will go?
Yeah. She’s a Northern Irish bloody staunch woman and I’m an Aussie mongrel. It gets heated up at times, don’t you worry.

And you guys are in Queensland aren’t you?

Whereabouts are you?
We’re up out at a little town called – near Kin Kin, which is K-i-n K-i-n, it’s Aboriginal for ‘land of the black ants’, and just got a little farm up here.

So I guess that makes touring interesting, because you’ve got to get yourself to a major city and get out on the road, so it’s logistically probably a little bit trickier than for people living in cities?
Yeah, I don’t mind it. When I know I can come back to something like this and not live in the city, I’m quite happy.

You have some gigs coming up to support this record – will you be travelling around the country?
We’re just going from here down to Melbourne and back for that one, like, you’re doing all the gigs in between Sydney, then we’ll do Sydney and Blue Mountains and that.  Then we’ll do gigs in between on the way to Melbourne.  Then we’ll do a run back up, so it’s about a four-week run.

Do you ever get out into remote communities?
Not as much any more. We do a little bit. We just go, like, the back way. You might do something Dorrigo and Armidale on the way down that route. We do the coastal road but no, nothing like I used to. I want to take Cara out one day to real Australia – as I call it – think it’d just blow her brains out because they’ll take to her out there like – they’re a bit scarce on Irish women.

[Laughs] Particularly very pretty Irish women, going off the CD cover.
She’s a bloody diamond.

[Laughs] That’s beautiful. The main reason I asked about the remote communities is you mentioned the Aboriginal music of Australia and a lot of indigenous people love country – I’d say more traditional country music.
They do. Yeah.

Have you ever had an opportunity to play with anyone in those communities?-
Not in the communities itself. I’ve had an Aboriginal didgeridoo player trying to shoot in on gigs. I was over in Wales in the UK just probably only six weeks ago and there was – it was called the Black Arm Band, and they were playing over there for the Olympics, and they were playing down the road the night after us so they came to our gig and there was a big guy called Will and he was one of Australia’s best didgi players, and he got up and played with us, so it happens.

Listening to your music and reading your story, you’re almost like a musical historian or if we were at a university we’d call it a musical ethnologist, I guess, but it just seems like you draw in a lot of different influences and put them all together and it comes up with your sound.
I’m sort of stuck in old times, like I’m very narrow minded with my openness on modern music which I shouldn’t be. Cara has actually opened my eyes up a bit more, but if it wasn’t late 1800s to 1950s I wouldn’t listen to it and she’s gotten me into Motown and Soul and stuff – that’s her background, she used to front 15-piece bands in England, doing all that sort of thing, and I never would have listened to that, but it’s basically whatever gets the hair up on your neck musically, is for you, it doesn’t matter what sort of music it is. And for me, old-timey stuff – whether it’s old-timey Appalachian music or bluegrass – good bluegrass – or old blues, old country, when it gets the hair up on my neck it just my hair up on my neck, you know?

And how do you find that? Because you said late 1800s to 1950s – apart from music you heard when you were growing up, how do you actually research music from those eras?
It was very hard in the day because like I said, I stumbled on a record, you know, that Beau Carter, and then I was like, man where did this come from? And when you are living around where I was playing there wasn’t much – there’s no big record shops or anything like that – but we’re going back in the days of vinyl, you know, and I just basically brought every album with a black fellow on the front and that’s fair dinkum, and a lot of it was just shit that I wouldn’t listen to. You get home – because there was no record players where you could listen to it before you bought it. It was like you were buying it in front of milk bars and stuff, they used to sell them out the front of pubs and stuff out in the middle of Queensland and then you’d jag something like Hound Dog Taylor or Elmore James and I’ve just gone, ‘Yes’. And because you only got one record every blue moon you’d play that record to death and really get a soaking of it, you wouldn’t just have five records and one song here, one song there, so you’re forced to – not forced to – but you’d listen to that one record over and over and over and over and it was just in your head, you know? That’s basically how I went and then I got a bit more knowhow by reading the backs of the records. They’d have a record label that had a series of them artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Charlie Patton and Son House and dudes like that, so then I’d specifically go looking for these guys. I used to write them down. And then, yeah, it just went from there basically but in this day and age you just Google anything you want to know.

Well, that’s true, but I think the experience you have doing that research and really listening to those albums probably meant that it was a lot more embedded in you than it would have been for someone who was just Googling.
Look, absolutely. I mean, the fact that you’ve slowed the records down for starters, you get your own style because you’re not picking exactly what you’re playing, you’re just loving this song and you form your own style out of it. And then when you form your style, obviously you start writing songs and it sort of stems from there.

Seleen McAlister - Catapult Song Contest

A new artist has crossed my radar ... Brisbane performer Seleen McAlister has a great voice and a great song in 'Guilt Free', which is a contender in the Catapult Song Contest for best undiscovered new independent song in Australia. As many country music singer-songwriters are independent artists, this contest is valuable exposure for Seleen - and also provides an opportunity for fans to vote for her, as the winner is chosen by popular vote.

Seleen has been working hard at her music and connecting with fans - she's been co-writing with popular artist Drew McAlister for her upcoming album, and performing at the Deni Ute Muster and Gympie Muster, as well as Tamworth earlier this year.  

'Guilt Free' has been in the carts for a year now and keeps moving up. You can see the video clip (and, obviously, listen to the song) here. And you can vote for it on the Catapult website - the first round of voting closes Wednesday 31 October.

Visit Seleen online at

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Album review: Mustered Courage

Quick quiz: how many times have you heard a bluegrass album with harmonic voices? I can't say that I ever have - until now (disclaimer: I'm no bluegrass expert). And it's a very pleasant experience, I have to say. It's not traditional bluegrass, in the way that Elvis Presley would have understood it (yes, Elvis had a bluegrass pedigree), but it's definitely bluegrassy, with the right amount of precise playing and swooning lap steel. 

At first listening this album is an entertainment: the songs are jaunty and robust and fun. On closer listening there is more going on in the lyrics - both funny ('Karma') and sad ('Middle Ground'). After many listenings, some of the songs are actually a little more wistful than it seems at first ('On the Run', 'Take Me There', 'Simply Complicated', 'Hands Are Tied'), so if you want to find something deeper on the album, it's there. There's also plenty for those who like their bluegrass at top speed ('Madeline', 'Mando Madness', 'Safe to Go Back Now') and those who like a more moderate tempo.  

What's required to put together a bunch of eclectic songs that are all technically the one type of song (i.e. bluegrass) is a fair degree of musical skill, and that's certainly present. There's also the distinct sense that the musos had a really good time making this album - and that usually only happens when they've done their preparation, written some solid songs and know their way around their instruments and voices, because then they can relax and enjoy the process. In sum, this is a great debut effort from Mustered Courage, and you don't have to love - or even know about - bluegrass to appreciate it.  

Mustered Courage by Mustered Courage is out now from Laughing Outlaw Records.