Monday, September 24, 2012

Interview: Tania Kernaghan

Tania Kernaghan probably needs no introduction - she's released six studio albums and won quite a few Golden Guitars, and her career in country music has been going enough to prompt the release of a Greatest Hits CD and DVD. It was a real pleasure to talk to Tania on the occasion of the CD/DVD release and to find out a bit about her life, her creative process and the causes that are close to her heart.

What was the first song you wrote?
'I'll Be Gone'. Keith Urban played guitar and backing vocals on that particular track, and that was back in 1993, I think, when I wrote the song.  That was a pretty ground-breaking career move, I guess, for me.  I never realised at the time that the song would go on to be such a great success.

So did you and Fiona [Kernaghan, Tania's sister and songwriting partner] think you'd ever like to do something together, or it just kind of happened?
Yeah, it just kind of happened. We pretty much realised that we had to start writing our own songs if we wanted to make our own mark in the music industry, and move away from singing cover songs. So we just started putting pen to paper and writing together, and that's three decades ago now [laughs] that we started writing together and Fiona has been very instrumental in a lot of the songs that I've recorded and released over the years.

So, when you said you were doing cover songs, were you mainly doing country covers, or were you doing a whole lot of things?
No, definitely country covers. It's pretty much all I've ever done, in fact. I can't really sing any other styles very much. I think I'm just so country through and through [laughs].

That's probably a good opportunity then to ask you about your influences. Have they been the same the whole way through, because you sing – or you write –what I would call a traditional country style?
Very much so and I grew up with people with Patsy Cline, and Patty Loveless, Randy Travis, a lot of those early '80s, early '90s kind of artists … When I was a kid I listened to ABBA and stuff like that. I guess those songs were always pretty much at the forefront of when I was about a seven or eight year old singing. But, definitely, the more traditional style of country music, and then I guess these days with the different instrumentation that you use and your backing tracks you can give it more of a 2012 sound, as opposed to stripping it right back. It all comes back to, really, the lyrics of the song. You can dress it up with different instruments and all the rest but the lyrics are the most important thing.

You are a storytelling songwriter and country music is a really great storytelling genre in fact, probably the great storytelling genre. Are you conscious of telling stories when you write songs?
I just write from real life experiences, mostly, and I find that if I go out there and live it and see it and experience it, that it always makes for a better song. Or if I meet somebody and they've got a particular story to tell me, something that happened in their life that I find very touching or moving, then usually I'll put pen to paper. So, I guess, that's probably why the songs that turn out to be more like a story. But the thing with country music is it's music that people can relate to, everyday kind of working man music, and I think that's why it's so popular.

So when you're talking to people and you might get story ideas, are you in the habit of keeping a notebook, or do you tend to store it in your head and then sit down later on and write?
No, no you should see my iPhone it's just got pages and pages of song ideas [laughs].

What did you before an iPhone?
It used to be a notebook that I used to carry around with me, but now it's instant on the phone. And then when I go to write an album's worth of material I find that I pretty much have to submerge myself in it. So I can't really be doing other things and then also writing the song. I find that I need to pretty much go away for a couple of weeks and just think song, think lyrics, think ideas and think music, and that's the best way for me to really finish off those songs. But, yeah, a lot the ideas just come from people that I meet in everyday life.

It sounds like when you're writing, it's almost like there's a really intense creative period where you get a lot done. And, I suppose, given the life you have, where you're touring a lot and you're doing a lot of other things, you need to section off that time really?
Absolutely, and that's what you really need to do. You might put a bit of ideas down to songs, but when it really comes to the crunch you've got to just totally forget about office work, paying bills, grocery shopping, all of those mundane kind of things that everybody has to do, and you just have to section yourself off and just go away for a while. And I find if I head out west or head up into the high country and just set myself up there for a few weeks, that's the best place for me to go to start writing, get serious about writing songs.

I read in your bio that you like to get in the car and go out into the countryside, and you've just said that you like to write in the high country, so it sounds like for you the land is a really powerful force or a powerful motivator for what you're doing?
Definitely. I find that I have to get right out of the city and just really get into that landscape of – I think it helps you keep in touch with the songs that you're writing, the people that you're writing for. And just to be surrounded by the wide open spaces, or perhaps it's up in the hills, definitely helps you – it nourishes your soul when you're putting songs down on paper.

And do you find when you go to country towns that you're recognised quite a bit?
Yeah, country towns, particularly, people will take a double look, but I'm very happy to talk to people and I think that I'm probably very approachable and just in my personality its normally who I am. So, yeah, I'm happy to have a chat with the people. In fact, I was down in Hughenden in out western Queensland way a few weeks ago, and just in a little coffee shop out there, and had quite a few people come up to me and want to have a chat. So I was more than happy to do that.

It sounds like you're really aware of how you're singing to an audience and that the audience feeds back to you in a way that you're telling their stories and they're also reflecting back to you whether that works or not.  And that seems like it's a really fulfilling way for you to work.
It definitely is. It's a great gauge to know how your songs are being translated out there and getting back to just that the lyrics being so important. I think that some of the best ways to roadtest songs is to be amongst some friends around the campfire and roadtest songs just with a guitar and you can soon see if it's connecting with people and on that right level. Yes, it's pretty important that I get the audience feedback because you put so much into these songs and your albums that you want to make sure they have some longevity.

I don't think we can dispute that you have longevity given that this is a three-decade-spanning album or thereabouts!
Pretty much so, and I'm very happy due to the fact that not only is it to our twenty years of recording songs – the greatest hits also embraces a two-hour DVD and that tells the story of my life, and my touring and lots of music video clips and how I got into the music business and a whole swag of things. So it's really something that I'm very proud of, this particular package.

I was reading that it seems like your Facebook fans have a bit of influence in the song choice. Did it feel like of a strange way to choose the list?
It's incredible the way social media works these days, but I had my favourite songs that I wanted to include on the greatest hits, and I put a call out there to everybody on Facebook and said, 'This is what I'm doing. What are some of your favourite songs that you'd like see included on the track listing?' It just came in thick and fast. 'Boys in Boots', 'Nine Mile Run', 'Cowboy Up' you name it. So it was the ones that really proved the most popular that got the final say on the album.

Was your own list quite different then to what ended up being on the album?
No, there was a couple of songs that I wouldn't have thought would have made it there, that had been so popular, but it was a pretty much I reckon 75 to 80 per cent there, it was pretty much what I felt in my heart that were the right songs.

When you're out on the road performing – even though you look like you must have started singing at the age of two to cover three decades' worth of performing – does it feel like performing is almost a different job to songwriting, so it's like different version of Tania that has to go on the road to the one who is sitting there writing songs?
I think what you see is what you get with me, I'm pretty much the same as I am at home as I am on stage. But I love singing on stage, I feel like … You've heard people talk about being in dharma? Well, when I'm on stage I feel like I'm in dharma. I just really love that connection with people and the audience, I love singing, I love entertaining. I love making people happy, and I just really find that's so much easier to do when you're on stage. And I was four years old when I first got up on stage and sang, and I got a few claps and loved it, so I thought I better learn some new songs. I never, ever doubted in my mind that I wouldn't be an entertainer or a singer. I never had another choice – you know, like a lot of kids would say, well yeah, if that doesn't work out I'll go and do this. But I never had that. I just always wanted to sing.

You mentioned dharma, which raises the idea of music as a spiritual practice and creative work as a spiritual practice – it seems like from a really young age you did know yourself and your own mind well enough, almost identifying that it was a spiritual practice even then.
Yeah, maybe so, because it is an incredible feeling when you're singing, and I've never really thought of it but I like that. But I guess that singing and music can be so very much a healing thing as well, and I feel the same when I'm on a horse when I go riding it's just such a great feeling and it's so hard to explain to people that don't know what it's like, or have never ridden a horse before. The same kind feeling, it's just like you know you're supposed to be there, and with the music that's exactly how I feel. I know that I'm doing the right thing. And when I'm a bit removed from it, and I haven't had the opportunity to go out on the road and tour or sing for some reason or other, it's truly like you're being stifled.

So what you're talking about is the practice of being present, which is something that most people strive to achieve but don't actually achieve. And I think some musicians get it – not all of them, because I think a lot people when they're performing are worrying about various things but it sounds like you've really cracked that ability to be present in those two things, horseriding and performing?
I think so, and, yeah, you're very much on the money with being present. And I do feel sorry for people who are working at a job that they aren't getting any sort of gratification from, and they just feel like it's a struggle. I just think we're not put on this earth to do that; we're supposed to be doing stuff that we love, and life shouldn't be a struggle it should be a pleasure and an enjoyment. Sometimes you've got to make some dramatic changes to really get yourself in the right zone, but I think don't waste a minute with what you're doing. If you're not happy doing what you're doing, change and do something else because just because our parents taught us to do a particular job or expect something of us, it doesn't mean that's what we've been put on this earth for.

I think you've identified that to do with work but also your service is obviously a part of your life, because you are a patron of two different charities, so I was just wondering if you could say a bit about Angel Flight and also about Riding for the Disabled, and how you became involved and what they mean to you?
Riding for Disabled, I got involved with them in about 2000 when I'd released a song called 'When I Ride', and there was a young girl who was a rider at the Riding for Disabled Centre in Raymond Terrace (NSW). She contacted me and she said to me, 'The lyrics in your song are' – and she quoted a few of them, and she said, 'I close my eyes and I'm on the wind.  I can fly when I ride.' She said, 'That's exactly how I feel when I'm riding my horse at the RDA centre.' And it was through her and then a phone call from the head office of RDA asking me to be their patron, which I was just absolutely stoked about because I'm passionate about horses and I think that what Riding for Disabled provide that terrific service to so many people, it's just fabulous. That's kind of how I got involved with RDA. And then similarly to Angel Flights, I think I got involved with an outback fundraising event through western Queensland about four years ago, raising money for Angel Flights. Angel Flights look after non-medical emergency cases for people who are in remote and rural regions who need to be taken to medical centres for treatment. And there's a whole swag of pilots and earth angels, as we call them, people on the ground that look after these patients and it's all a free voluntary organisation. So it's so important to people in remote areas of Australia which I'm very passionate about as well.

It sounds like you have a really rich and varied and very satisfying life, which is amazing. I think that's what most people aspire to have and perhaps don't ever get to, but it just seems like you've got all these things sorted out, and it's really lovely to hear.
Well, I've got a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, it seems, but there's never any time just to sit on my heels and say, 'Oh, I don't know what to do, I'm bored'. There's so many things to experience, and I always say life's like a big smorgasbord, there's just so many things to try and experience and to taste and start with Australia, because I believe we've got one of the best countries in the world here. We should always make sure that we look after it and look after its people. 

Just before I wrap up you're going to head out on the road obviously for this?
Yeah, we'll be on tour with the greatest hits, and so this year and then also into next year as well, so there's plenty of gigs and shows and things to be done in the next twelve months or so.

Tania Kernaghan's Greatest Hits is out now.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Album review: The Moment by Mia Dyson

Mia Dyson has a habit of producing very good albums, starting with her debut, Cold Water (2003), and most remarkably on the 2005 release Parking Lots. Then she dropped off the radar a bit (well, my radar), moving to the United States of America and trying to make a go of it there. Out of that time has come her new album, The Moment, which is a further example of the form she showed on Parking Lots.
True, she’s not a ‘country music artist’ but country is a broad church – in Australia, anyway – and I know from experience that Tamworth audiences will welcome anyone with a brace of stories and a guitar, regardless of genre. And anyone who has seen Dyson live knows she’s a great guitarist, as well as a singer whose voice seems to come from the mists of hard love and many lifetimes. That voice has a certain growl and rasp that isn’t often found in a female voice, but it doesn’t sound like it’s come from any kind of hard livin’ (as one might suspect in a man singing with a similar tone): it’s just her, and it gives her a distinctive sound.
Dyson also knows how to write songs that suit her voice, and her guitar, across a range of styles and stories. She can command, as in ‘When the Moment Comes’, and she can seduce (‘Tell Me’). Overall, though, this is not an album about hearts and flowers. There is darkness ('Dancing on the Edge') and pain ('Jesse'), and the acknowledgement that life is, in part, about what we fight for and what we lose ('Cigarettes', 'The Outskirts of Town' and, appropriately, 'To Fight is to Lose'). Dyson gives us unadorned emotions and tells us stories straight. This is a road album from someone who seems to now be trying to stand still – if only to tell us what she knows.
So while it’s not ‘country music’ there is a lot on this album for country music aficionados to love. Where Dyson fits most clearly into the country canon is in her seeming desire to tell stories of lives, loves, thoughts and memories, and to deliver them to her audience in as direct a fashion as possible. She seems like a rock ’n’ roll troubadour whose path could take her just about anywhere – and she always makes the journey interesting.

The Moment is out now through Co-op/MGM.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Album review: Wiley Ways by Hat Fitz and Cara

'Eliza Blue' is the second track on the new album by Hat Fitz and Cara, but it sets the tone for the whole work: the call and response of Cara's rich voice and Hat Fitz's swampy, soulful cry weaved around a story and sounding like it's blasting straight out of a place caught between old time and new.

Wiley Ways grabs the listener by the ears, throat and heart and doesn't let go. It is the howl of the ancestors - musical and otherwise - and also the intriguing play (and sometimes push-and-pull) of two voices that complement each other beautifully, and two songwriters who understand each other very well but still find each other mysterious.

Hat Fitz and Cara go to the bedrock of story and song and dig up a few layers on the way down; they don't so much rebuild as reconstruct them on their way back up to the surface of the earth. Sometimes it sounds like we're pulling back the curtain on the late nineteenth century, seeing performers sitting around a campfire with whatever instruments they have to hand, deploying songs for their original purpose: to tell stories. One hesitates to say that there's 'the call of the wild' on this album, as that implies that it's not an accomplished piece of work - which it is - but it feels untamed and passionate, and in being so is a reminder that much of modern music is controlled, whether by the production process or because someone thinks the audience prefers that. Perhaps they do - a lot of us like our culture safe and unchanging (how else can we explain so many reality television shows that seek to 'find' singers, in a fairly unvaried format?). This is not a safe album. This is the blues, and it's country, and it feels like authentic Australian music - what, indeed, would have been played by long-ago folks when there was no one around to record what they were doing.

There is not much I can compare this album to, for the purposes of reviewing it. Hat Fitz and Cara are a husband-and-wife pair, like Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson; like Kasey and Shane they have an extensive knowledge of and curiosity about music. But that's as far as the comparisons go, because they produce completely different songs. There are muddy, swampy, rootsy outfits around but usually they don't have women in them - and this album is unthinkable without Cara on it. So I'm left with the conclusion that Hat Fitz and Cara are unique - and that's just one of the reasons to seek out this album. One of the others is that it will take the top of your head off, in the best possible way.

Wiley Ways by Hat Fitz and Cara is released on 1 October.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Now that Keith Urban isn't returning to The Voice ...

... You may wish to console yourself with this video of Keith in Nashville, talking about Nashville and all the things he loves about it. In other words: talking about a place that is not a television studio in Sydney. I watched The Voice purely for Keith, as it was fantastic to see him finally receiving the attention he deserves in this country, and also wonderful that country music had a bit of exposure as well. But as he's chosen American Idol over The Voice, we'll have to resort to videos and albums and the odd tour.

Interview: Luke O'Shea

I first learned of Luke O'Shea when I saw his name in the programme for the Tamworth Country Music Festival - and then I saw it the next year, and the year after that, always lots of shows at the same place and appearing with his band, The Medicine Wheel. But Luke is too young to be an 'institution', so these regular appearances had to be about something else - he just had to be a great performer. And, if you've seen Luke play, you'll know that he is. He's also a great songwriter who recently released a single, 'New England Sky', sung with Dianna Corcoran, from his fourth album, The Drover's Wife, which provided a good opportunity for me to interview him, and I encountered yet another example of the high calibre of human being working in Australian country music - each interview I do for this blog makes me more convinced that our country music singer-songwriters are an exceptional bunch of talented people.

You’re a storyteller and I was wondering where you find a lot of your stories?
It's just everyday people you meet - especially when you’re playing music all over the shop. You need characters.  The only problem I have is not having enough time in the day to pursue all the other stories and characters that I’d like to go and get involved with.

Some novelists, for example, keep a notebook of story ideas or things they’ve heard.  Do you tend to keep notes as you go?
Absolutely, and one of my songwriter's tools is [going] straight into pen and a notepad.  There’s a lot of digital media that we use at the moment which is your phone, and sometimes I hum, you know, the melody or a couple of lines into the phone and people think I’m crazy. But it comes back a little bit later on; maybe a month or two, maybe six months, maybe even a year down the line it will be either those notes or those melodies that you might have come across.

Do you find that you tend to have a stockpile then, that you could be drawing on something that’s many years old or something I guess that you think up this morning?
Yeah, absolutely. We’ve worked with this song, 'The Drover’s Wife', that had been bouncing around the back of my head for a number of years. But then all of a sudden I was doing a gig with a guitarist and I said, 'Look, have you got any melodies sloping round your head with a lyric in them?' I went home and I wrote it within an hour. The concept was there and a couple of the key lines were there.  Not the melody, I wanted the melody, time and place, and then I knew the story would just follow. But that’s just one way, there’s no rules, except rules to have a song come out here.  But other times you can be labouring over a song for days and months and weeks.  Other times it just pours out of you in a couple of minutes.  There’s no rule or rhyme.

You mentioned asking your guitarist for a lyric and I noticed that you tend to write most of the songs on your own.  But it seems that when you do involve someone else it’s more of an organic process, not that you consciously set out to co-write, but that becomes useful.  Is that true?
Absolutely. I really like the co-writes, but a lot of the times you just don’t get the time or the opportunity to sit down with other people that you really admire, you just don’t know sometimes.  Whenever I find that I get in that space where I can get with a co-writer I usually love that dynamic or that magic that can happen when the muses get together, especially when the muses are happy.  Sometimes you can sit there for hours and nothing will come out, but other times, you know, you can sit down and write two or three songs.  But it’s quite exciting to be a part of.

You’re the first person in a while I’ve heard refer to the muse – so you do believe in a muse?
Oh whatever it is, who knows what that is? But creativity certainly does have ebbs and flows, that’s for sure. You can get moments where there’s just so much inspiration around you that you’re just intoxicated by how much you want to write, and how many new chords and original melodies will come out.  But there’s other times where it’s an absolute desert – there’s just nothing.  So you’ve just got to ride that ebb and flow and you learn how to discipline yourself to sit down and work at it, and also when it’s the good times you’ve really got to utilise that, write it all down and make sure that it’s not lying.

I know you have a few kids and you work with a lot of children and you have a job, you have a life, you have a home.  I would imagine it is difficult to find some spare moments to allow that creativity in.  Do you think there’s any merit in having like a disciplined practice of turning up every day to play, or to write?  
That sounds great in theory, doesn’t it? You just want to practice, but reality is you take it when you can get it and you throw in two occupations, two careers, three children, and a mortgage. And you’ve got to try and stay fit in there somewhere, you’ve got to have some kind of exercise or sport, otherwise you start getting all stale and cranky. It’s a fine dance but, you know, I find that even with the time there’s still plenty of opportunities to steal away into a little corner and get your guitar out and kind of nut out a tune. But you know it’s like a crossword puzzle, some people get highly addicted to Sudokus or crosswords and that’s the same with the songwriting – you keep on nutting at it and in the end you can’t really rest until it’s completed.

So do you think of the songs themselves as puzzles, then, or do you think that what you’re puzzling away at is life, really, and human stories?
Sometimes there’s definite songs  like I’ve just completed one called 'The Great War', it’s something that I just had to get out because I get filled with such anger whenever I teach or talk about the First World War or any of our wars that we’ve been involved in. And then there are songs which are just kind of sitting on the front porch in a rocking chair where you can just watch the world go by and it’s not meant to challenge a person at all, it’s just meant to take one up a happy escape ride.  It depends on what you’re after: a story that’s got a movie that will stick with you or something that’s just going to take you to a happy place.

The song that’s prompted this interview is 'New England Sky', and the notes for it said that you wrote it about the skies that you see when you get on the western side of Maitland [NSW] and you feel that opening up. But it also seems a bit like a love song to the region and I wondering what that region, that Tamworth region, has meant to you over the years?
It’s meant so much. I get up there a number of times every year. I’ll skip into the country music festival up there. But also I get up there just because I’ve got some solid friends. Every time I go up there I’m just absolutely blown away by the actual beauty of the joint. And the sunsets, which should be sung about. I’ve travelled a lot around this planet, but the New England sky should on the world list - the bucket list of people who want amazing experiences. They are just stunningly, stunningly beautiful. Sometimes you write a song that wants to educate, sometimes you want songs to provoke – but this one I just want people to kick back and  enjoy a kind of sunset experience where you just visualise it, you can feel it. Hopefully one day you’ll drive out there and see for yourself.

Is there a particular point in the New England region that you recommend seeing the sunset from? 
Oh look, Gunnedah has just got something very amazing out there, but that lookout that sits on top of Tamworth, that overlooks the town, that’s just a remarkable place to watch the sun go down.  And the clouds and the moon will come out to play; it’s just, yeah something really amazing about it, something very special.

 I do find during that it’s quite a long sunset it seems there compared to Sydney, and that hue that the sky gets as the sun’s disappearing, it is beautiful.
And those rolling mountains just in the foreground with the open plains, yeah, it’s certainly big sky country.  I know it's a cliché, but once you get out there and you just feel your stresses and your worries just kind of evaporate into the ether. It makes for inspired writing that’s for sure.  

You demo'ed the song singing it yourself, and I was wondering why you chose to have someone else sing on it, or was it the case that you just wanted Dianna Corcoran on it?
Basically it sounds a bit strange to anybody would say that you’ve written a love song to a sunset, so the idea was to encode it into a potential, like a love song between two people perhaps watching a sunset. So you could conceive it that way. But also just the tonality of Diana’s voice, it’s just so rich and beautiful, she hits these high notes which just take you up into a frequency where you can just imagine it up there with the clouds and that, the sun setting down. It’s just one of those magic combinations of voices and imagery.

I don’t think it’s that strange to have a love song to a sunset, especially in country music, because I think part of that genre is that you’re telling stories and expressing affection, I guess, for a whole variety of things. And the land is a hugely important part of that. I think it is our storytelling genre where we can tell stories about the land. So, there you go, that’s my opinion [laughs].
No, I agree with you totally, and I’ve just recently written an article that says the same kind of thing where this land requires us to sing it up.  You know the Aboriginals needed to sing it up for 50,000 years. They believed if you didn’t sing it up it disappeared. And there are certain regions that in country music it carries on that ancient tradition of really singing up the land and making sure it doesn’t disappear in future generations, to stay strong and true and this is quite a contemporary version of that, but it still holds onto that ancient tradition of singing its praises and letting people know that it exists and hopefully continues.

And country music is very popular with indigenous people in Australia so I wonder if that’s not part of it, that it is – it is a continuation of sorts of their own storytelling. Absolutely, yeah, the traditional going-walkabout was following [what] were called songlines, where they would follow a set path and just sing up a certain features within their land and their responsibility was to make sure that they were maintained. 

Over the course of your career – because you’ve had, I think, four albums now and you certainly have been playing for a long time – have your musical influences changed?
Absolutely. The first two albums were with the Medicine Wheel, so that was a rocky outfit, our only way into the country industry was through the back door because of the late-night timeslots and that – the party stages and the rodeos and the B&Ss. But what attracted me to the country music genre in the first place was the stories and the storytellers, and the respectful view the audiences had for the lyric. And so as I started to get older I started to focus more on the flow of songs on the albums and delivering them and stripping back the production of the songs and the shows, so that the characters within the stories would start to shine through. And, you know, I find that very powerful when you can connect with the audience on the power of the lyric, as opposed to the power of the beat. 

I remember seeing you play more than once with Medicine Wheel at the – it’s the Tamworth Services Club you’re usually at, isn’t it?
That’s right.  That’s our spiritual home, they’ve been giving us a space where we can just explore and see what works.  My evolution as a songwriter has definitely been largely attributed to that beautiful space at the Tamworth Services Club.

And will you be back there next year?
Oh absolutely. If they’ll have me [laughs].

Well, they’ve had you for a few years now, so I can’t imagine they’ll kick you out.
No, it’s a wonderful kind of space and we really do love it, and it feels so much at home when we all just sit up there. We don’t get to see each other too much, the boys from Medicine Wheel and myself. And it’s only when you get that magic festival that you’re sitting there and going ah, it’s like a comfy old boot.

[Laughs] I actually sometimes look at the number of musicians in Tamworth and you all seem to know each other or are about to know each other or used to know each other, and the potential for collaboration would be high. I actually think it must be difficult to pull yourself back from kind of rushing in and saying, 'Well, let’s do this and let’s do that.'  Because you’re all there in the one place and you could cook up all sorts of things.
Yeah, you do end up in a lot of strange places together and a lot of the time when you’ve finished the show there’s only one thing left to do. We all love a beer, so you get a lot of – it is a camaraderie, that’s for sure, because it’s small but it’s a beautiful little filtering system that we have, because there’s not a hell of a lot of money in music in Australia full stop, let alone within country. And so everyone understands that everyone is doing their best to pay mortgages, raise children and keep their passion alive. So you’re only dealing with committed, passionate people who have the focus in music as you do, and there’s not too many – we’re all a bunch of selfish little freaks. But occasionally we really get to have those really good times together and it’s a lot of fun.

Is there anyone, though, who if they said, 'Luke, come and play on my album' or 'Let’s write an album together', you’d absolutely love to?
There’s a whole series of people that I’d love to come and co-write with.  I’ve got a lot of heroes within the country music genre that create images and stories and hold audiences spellbound with just their power of delivery and song, and that’s where I want to go. But I don’t think your program’s long enough to list them all.

Just going back to what you were discussing earlier about having song ideas and things that might be older or newer – when you’re starting the process of doing an album do you look at what you already have and think well which songs am I going to develop now for the album?
There’s a definite risk you follow through in an album; it should feel like a book. With The Drover’s Wife there’s a real Australian theme throughout it. And be it from Ford and Holden to last scene in the movie or to bad advice for directions, there’s a definite kind of theme there which is different from The Prodigal Son, or This and Other Words. I’m working on this next album at the moment, like you write a swag of songs – you probably have 25, 30 songs to scale it down to about 12.  So it’s like you love your children, but some of them you have to put to a special school.  [Laughs] You know what I mean? You’ve just got to figure out what you love playing the most on stage, what you want to be known for and make the selection based on that.

'New England Sky' appears on Luke's album The Drover's Wife, which is out now.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Interview: Fanny Lumsden

Hailing from the wilds of inner Sydney - but originally from further-flung parts - Fanny Lumsden and her band the Thrillseekers bring a new approach to 'old-time' country on their EP Autumn Lawn, which is out now.  Fanny answered my interview questions via email. 

1.       How does a girl from Surry Hills channel the sounds of open spaces and open roads?

Well I grew up on a farm near Weethalle in the northern Riverina and we spent a lot of time on the road growing up as it takes a while to get anywhere. I went to Uni in Armidale and only moved to Surry Hills 2 years ago. I still spend a lot of time in the 'open spaces' as I go out home or down to Khancoban about once a month to work on the farm for a week at a time. So I'm travelling a lot. I find when I'm travelling I am the most inspired and do much more writing than when I'm in one spot.
I find the songs I write when I'm in the city are often themed around space and the country. I'ts definitely the lack of space that makes me channel it into my music.

2. Your sound verges on 'old-timey' country - is this the sort of music you like to listen to?
I listen to a fair range of music but I would have to say that 'old timey' country , folk and jazz like Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash and  Ella Fitzgerald, are definitely high on the list. I grew up mostly listening to Classical (my mum), playschool music and bits of Slim Dusty and Smokey Dawson (Dad) and it wasn't really until late primary school/high school that I started getting into country music. Kasey Chambers, Dixie Chicks etc.
Now days I listen to a lot of folk, alt country and a lot of current touring artists like Justin Townes Earle and  Kitty Daisy & Lewis. There is so much great music coming out in Australia at the moment and they are mostly first on my listening list.

3.       Have you played or written other sorts of songs in the past (i.e. from other genres) or have you always been a country girl?

I started out writing country songs when I was in early high school (they were terrible, I can assure you) but started leaning towards the more folkier/indie pop-ish in my late teens. I think I am back where I started in the genre sense but miles and miles away in the song writing skill level sense.

4. It's hard to get around this country to tour when it's just one person and a guitar - how many stars need to align for all of you to be able to go on the road?

Oh yeah it's a fair shuffle to get six of us and all the necessary gear from place to place but my band the Thrillseekers are fantastic. We all just make each trip as raucous and fun as possible and that way it's more of a memorable trip away.  They are also very trusting as most of the band grew up in the city and I have taken them to all sorts of places including our Floodraiser country hall tour, where we played in country halls throughout the Riverina. They all stayed with my family and learnt to drive a tractor, shoot a gun, ride a horse and crack a whip! That trip I think the tour gods definitely had their hands on the gates holding everything at bay! We actually filmed it for our 'Firing Line' clip and it has just been released on Rage and just about to be aired on CMC.

4.       You've played in a few different venues and festivals - how has your music been received?

I have been thrilled ... yes, thrilled with the reception so far... it's always hard to tell before we play as we are so often genre hopping and switching demographics from country halls to inner city laneway stages to creative festivals. We just go out and have a really good time on stage and hope the crowd gets up and gets into it. In the short time we have been playing together we have played some really terrific gigs where the crowds yip and cheer and have a regular hoedown. Its been really interesting bringing 'country' to the city, as the crowds may more often than not have country a little way down their listening lists, but they seem to be getting in to it! The themes and overall vibe maybe something they have never experienced before so that can often be the appeal.  

6. What sorts of thrills do the Thrillseekers go looking for?
A wide range, I would say, from playing to a room full to the brim with elderly folk to having bras thrown at them from the audience (that has oddly happened but not by the elderly crowd). Coming up with reports on Synchronised Wwimming competitions which they reveal on stage, to coming up with as many Fanny puns as possible during soundcheck (the sound guy initially is a little dubious but rolls with the punches after about the first four or so). The options are endless, really. I will also say they I think they are seeking the thrill of world domination - one banjo and pony guitar at a time.

7. What sorts of thrills are you looking for as you launch your EP and play shows in support of it?
The kind where you are not sure which way the creature came from! The thrill of sharing my songs and stories with all the people that will listen. The thrill of meeting new people and the driving part - I'm actually really excited about getting out as I've been in the city over a month now and it's starting to make me itch. We are playing in Adelaide for the first time, so that will definitely rate high on the thrill list ... It's been hard work getting this all together and I will just be thrilled if the lanterns stay up, the turf lays out straight and the fine folk that come along to the launches have a hoot of a time. It will also be a thrill if we sell a truck load of EPs. ;) 

Find Fanny online on Facebook. Autumn Lawn is out now.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Album review: Wreck & Ruin by Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson

The temptation for artists as established as Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson - whether those artists are musicians, writers or filmmakers (or visual artists) - must be, at some stage, to rest on their laurels a bit. They have an audience who likes what they've done so far - why not just repeat that? It's lazy, sure, but you can get by on that for a while. No one would blame either Kasey or Shane for doing that. Given the success of Rattlin' Bones, their first joint release in 2008, and their individual achievements, cruising would be acceptable. But, of course, neither of them is lazy and neither courts complacency. Individually both of these singer-songwriters have consistently proved that they are not interested in that. They progress. Each solo album is a different proposition; each an exploration. They wouldn't know creative stagnation if they fell into an ocean of it.

So here's the newsflash: Wreck & Ruin is not Rattlin' Bones Mk II. It is a different album - musically and lyrically - just as accomplished as its predecessor, but more nuanced. Where Rattlin' Bones was more staccato in instruments and voice, there is a softness in Wreck & Ruin – even in the more bluegrassy tunes – which suggests that Kasey and Shane are, in all their dealings, gentle with each other. There is a touch of melancholy, too, but we can't expect that the restlessness that comes with a forceful creative flow will produce permanent contentment. 

As befits a pair who have had four more years of playing together under their belts since their last album, vocally they sound more comfortable with each other. Their voices ebb and flow around each other, their combinations sounding so effortless that one can only imagine that they sing together every chance they get. Shane seems to have developed a warm croon to his voice that fits beautifully with Kasey's tone. The album overall sounds romantic, even though the lyrics aren't always. There is occasionally the odd - and rather touching - sound of two people yearning for each other while they're in each other's presence; two people who know each other well - who know the best and worst of each other - and always seek the best, so that is what they ultimately find. 

The songs seem to come in one of three types: hillbilly, wistful and biblical (and there is some crossover). To be completely one-dimensional about it, the hillbilly songs are 'Wreck & Ruin', 'Dustbowl', 'Rusted Shoes', 'Flat Nail Joe' and 'Sick as a Dog' (and, to be clear, I'm labelling them 'hillbilly' because at the end of one of them Shane yodels 'hiiiillbilllly'). These sound like they were pure fun to record. The 'wistful' songs are 'The Quiet Life', 'Familiar Strangers', 'Your Sweet Love', 'Up or Down' and 'Troubled Mind'. The biblical songs: ''Til Death Do us Part', 'Adam and Eve' and 'Have Mercy on Me'.

Most of the songs are short and sharp, with most not lasting even 3 minutes. But they don't need to. The message is delivered, the story told, the emotion conveyed. Brevity is what experience can bring a songwriter - they realise that they don't need flourishes when a heartfelt word or chord does the job and that, in fact, flourishes just distract the listener from what the song is trying to achieve.

Kasey Chambers is one of our greatest songwriters, of any stripe. She is a folkloric chronicler of life, love and the human condition as it exists in Australia. Shane Nicholson is no slouch either, but where he complements Kasey in the duo is in his musicianship and ability to understand how instruments can be coaxed and cajoled to enhance a song and a voice (or voices). On a fundamental level, she understands how stories work in music and he understands how music works for stories. This kind of songwriting and performing partnership doesn't come along very often. It is thrilling to have it documented once more, in Wreck & Ruin

Wreck & Ruin is out now through Liberation.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Interview: Paul Costa

Paul Costa has been a fixture on the country music scene for quite a while, as any visitor to Tamworth knows, and his brand of robustly entertaining, toe-tapping songs about life on the land (and other things besides) has found audiences all over Australia. Paul's fourth album, Wheels & Steel, has just been released and I talked to him recently while he was driving his car one day - my main concern was that he was on a hands-free phone! (He was.)

So you did a gig in Kincumber last night?
I did, yeah, and we had a great time; it was a fun show. We had Adam Harvey and the Toombs Brothers and Luke Russell, so fun show, great crowd, yeah.

Was it like a mixed line-up, not just a show with you headlining?
Mixed line-up, yeah. It was a fundraiser for Variety Bash and so it was just a lot of fun and something that the 94.1 radio station organised. So some of the presenters from there sort of help them.

Do you live in Victoria or in New South Wales?
Well it's about 50/50 at the moment.  We've still got a house in Victoria, but we spend a lot of time in a rental place up on the Central Coast, because that's where it's all happening for the music and the record label's there, the recording studio's there, a lot of the musos and songwriters are there, so we're actually looking at making it more in New South Wales from now on; just looking at a bigger place to rent and we'll be right.

The Central Coast certainly does seem to have developed into this incredible hub and I think it's probably just sort of happened, not deliberately, but the studios do all seem to be there and it must feel like quite a good supportive community to be in when you're there?
Definitely, everything you need as far as the music is there, hence they call it Hillbilly Heaven, you know. You've got great artists like Adam Harvey and Beccy Cole and Kasey Chambers and a whole swag of other people on the Central Coast, so as soon as I come here I feel like I'm part of the whole scene which is a good feeling.

You've got your fourth album coming up and I haven't heard it yet; I've only heard the single.  So I can't ask you questions about the album, but I do know it's your first one on Core Music with is Rod McCormack's label.  So it must really feel a bit like the industry's kind of graduating in a way?  There's now a label that's dedicated to country music and it's got distribution through Sony, you've got that whole set-up with Rod, in particular, producing a lot of established songwriters.  Do you feel like, as an artist, you're in a really good place and good time?
Definitely; it feels so natural to me. My association with Rod, goes back eight years from when I recorded my first album, and he'd produced all four of my albums.  So it feels, you know, going to a studio and now the office is set up at the studio, so it feels like home. I'm just rapt with the relationship now that  has put me on the label, thought enough of me to do so, and even the recording process now, I've had a lot more creative freedom in this last project, which has meant that something a little bit different and also it's more Paul Costa. So I'm very happy with the way my career is going right now, yeah.

I notice you've got some pretty well-established and hardworking songwriters working with you on this album – has being on this label given you access to them or to different songwriters than you'd worked with before?
Oh well, when it comes to songwriting, I think it's mainly relationships you build up as you go. Obviously with Rod, we've collaborated on a number of occasions; I have him right there, not only as a great producer, a musician, record boss, but he's also a good songwriter – a great songwriter [laughs].  So it's good to have him on board. Writing with Tamara Stewart for this record will be ... actually, we've had three songs with Tamara, so we seem to really click, and the work just came out great.  I'm collaborating for the first time with Drew McAlister on this project, with two songs, and then in the end he wrote one with Allan Caswell that they offered to me and I loved it, so we're recording that one as well. And, of course, back with Matt Scullion, who is doing really well in Nashville at the moment, songwriting. I think he's got three tracks on the new one as well, so it's great to have that type of talent that is willing to, you know, put their time in and help with the whole process.

And is there an aspect of all of this that you prefer, between songwriting and recording and performing?  Is there one part of it that's your favourite?
I think the performance side is definitely my favourite, although I do enjoy the whole process right through. You probably wouldn't want to be doing it continuously, every day, but when you're on a mission to put an album together, you just seem to go, go, go, until you know or 'til you're satisfied that the job's done. But the most rewarding part after you've written a song, recorded it, is the feedback from the audience; that's the ultimate reward, I guess.

How did you start out performing? Was it you and a guitar and the local pub, or did you enter – I didn't find anything in your bio about StarMaker, or anything like that, so I don't know if you went that route?
Basically, performing with my brother and brothers over the years. We sang at weddings, parties and anything there earlier on. Did the club circuit along the Murray [River] and built up a following – a local following – but then we started going to Tamworth. And obviously people from all over Australia come to Tamworth and so we started building a national following from there, and then spinning off that, being invited to festivals all around the country and that type of thing.  So I guess it just evolved, yeah, there wasn't any one particular thing, like I was never really into talent festivals and that type of thing, because I was already performing. When I went to Tamworth I was 19, so I was already performing and getting paid for it, so it was like we sort of skipped that first step, I guess [laughts].

When you were doing the weddings, parties and anything, were there any songs that you absolutely just got completely sick of playing?
Well I guess, anything you do for a long time is you tend to look for new challenges as an artist, and I have always been like that. Once I've done something for a little while, you're looking for what's kind of next, you know.  You constantly look for new bounds to break.

Speaking of developing as an artist, I was listening to a track off your very first album, and you had quite an Elvis sound to your voice. Are you a fan of Elvis, or was it that you just happened to sound like that?
Yeah, definitely an Elvis fan. I love Elvis's music and used to listen to a lot of his songs from when I was growing up, but not only Elvis, a lot of even the classic country as well.  I mean, Elvis did cross over to country; of course, he started out as the Hillbilly Cat, that was his first tag. So we were always enjoying Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins, and a lot of those guys as well, so there was a fairly big range. I remember going up and back to the market, had it in the truck, there always used to be music all the way up and all the way back and all those great names that I just said, including Slim Dusty and even a little bit of Chad Morgan rolled in there sometimes. It was a fun time and a great environment to grow up with country music and a bit of rock 'n' roll, '50s and '60s rock 'n' roll, which you can hear a little bit of that, especially in the earlier albums.

So when you got to being a teenager and wanting to play music, you didn't ever have a moment of thinking, 'Country music's too daggy, I can't play this?'
Never. Looking back at the whole thing, the very, very first song that I learnt to play on guitar and sing the whole thing right through was 'Country Roads'. And it felt so natural; it didn't feel like, 'Oh, this is daggy or corny in any way,' so that's just the way it went [laughs].

Well, you know, sometimes kids reject their parents' taste in everything.
Oh yeah, I guess that does happen occasionally, but no, I thought it was pretty cool, and there's so much great, great music out there at the moment. There's obviously some great Australian artists. I'm really big in a lot of the American stuff, like Brad Paisley and those guys, so I just think that if people listened to country music more, the broad range, I think country will be considered cool, you know, and there's a big market for country if people don't try and pin it down to, you know, 'That's country music; I don't like that.' I like it when people say, 'I don't usually like Country, but I like what you do', so all right, let's try and go that way a bit more.

Except I always think that part of the charm of Tamworth is that everyone's kind of accepted that country is a bit daggy and therefore, no one's trying to be cool and no one's being pretentious. There's just that understanding that we all kind of know about country and we're all quite happy that it's like that, so I'm not sure that I want country to become cool.
All right. Yep. Well, the thing is – there was only a comment just recently that there was a group that went over to Nashville and to the US, and they just couldn't get over how mainstream country was, like country is as big as pop music over there, which our market here is a lot smaller, but I think there's possibly a stigma that we need to break through, to open up the market here, and I think it could be just as big as mainstream, because there is just some great music and some great artists, that probably don't get a chance because of that bit of stigma that's going on, so hopefully, that doesn't last too much longer.

Well from my perspective, as someone who loves country, listening to country and seeing it played live, it's actually the genre that tells Australian stories and you know, I'm listening to your single and that's a story of life on the land, and a working life on the land.  You don't actually get a lot of songs in other genres that describe life and tell Australian stories. So do you feel that that's part of the genre for you?
Oh definitely. It's all about the stories, you know, and it's a great way to express the story. So if you can put the melody and the story together in a way that they gel and work and ring home, then you know, you've almost got guaranteed hit song, which is not that easy to do, but when it does happen, it works and people really keep asking for that song, like last night – 'Survivor 1932', is one of those songs that I recorded on my last album and I just keep getting requests for that song and people are still talking about it, so it's just hit a nerve and it's great when that does fall into place.

Do you often play with a full band?
Yes, a lot. Sometimes it might be stripped back to an acoustic show where you've got a couple of players or another player, but mostly with a full band these days, yeah, which is always a lot of fun.

And when you have those full-band gigs, do you find your audience has more guys than girls, or is it fairly evenly weighted?
I think it's 50/50, I'd say, yeah; maybe slightly more females, slightly more, yeah [laughter], but fairly even.  

Listening to your music, it sounds to me like it's really masculine music. I think there's such a need for really good masculine music, particularly in country, so I was just curious as to know whether it was mainly guys or girls, but maybe women are more open-minded about country music?
I don't know. With this last album, we've intentionally gone a little bit tougher with the sound overall, and that's something that I've wanted to do for a couple of albums [laughter], it just hasn't seemed to have gone that way, but this time it's kind of fallen into place and I kind of think that with that little bit of tougher sound, that it's going to open it up to mainly, possibly a few more of the male side liking it, as well as the female, but and probably broadening the range of the age group. I've had 18 year olds love it and I've had 80 year olds love it, so it's good if you can kind of please the ear to that broader range of age.

I was looking at your touring page, which is how I realised you were playing last night, it didn't seem like you had a lot of gigs booked around the launch of the album; are you planning to add some later in this year?
Yeah definitely; we're working on shows at the moment. I'm an Ambassador for Mission Australia and we've got about four or five shows; the dates are just booked in for those shows. We've got other touring lined up, I think we're starting off in Queensland and it's going to be updated fairly soon. I'm going back to the Birdsville Races, which is always great; this'll be my third time performing at the Birdsville Races. And I've also got a trip to Europe; a Country Music Riverboat Cruise, starting in Amsterdam and going through Budapest, two weeks, five star, all inclusive. It's going to be really hard to take and even harder to come back to reality, I think. But I'm looking forward to keeping fairly busy and there's going to be a lot of in-store promotions as well lined up to promote the album, so looking fairly full, at this stage, yeah.

How did you become an Ambassador for Mission Australia?
Well, I just happened to run into Sheryl O'Donnell from Goulburn. I was on tour with Amber Lawrence and helping her out. She's sponsored by SsangYong, so we were at the SsangYong dealer and I was helping out with my little PA system and Mission Australia were there doing a sausage sizzle and we got to meet Sheryl and they booked us for a show, and I was just talking to Sheryl, she said, 'Would you like to become an Ambassador?' And to be truthful I didn't know a lot about Mission Australia at that stage, but since finding out a lot more, and being involved in a lot of projects now, I was very, very proud to be asked and she inspired me to write a song called 'Shine', and it's on the album [Wheels & Steel], and they're going to use that on presentations and radio ads and also some TV, so I'm very happy with the way that's turning out; it's a real win/win.

So does part of being an Ambassador mean that you talk about them at your gigs, or you have their logo up, or anything like that?
I think it's just supporting each other.  So I just do that without even thinking about it now, you know.  I talk about it a lot, when there's something advertised, you know, I'm up or down, 'Paul is a proud Ambassador for Mission Australia'. I'll do a few things, just help Mission in a different ways; I'll be an MC or I'll make an appearance at different times and then they might get me to do other stuff.  I just flew to Darwin recently with Mark Holden and Deni Hines as part of the their urban quest, for people all around the Northern Territory, young kids from 10 to 19, picking out the best vocalists, and we ran a big competition there, so that was great, I was really happy to be a part of that. So it's just working together and the music seems to work really well with what they do as well, so once again it's just a win/win.

It sound like you're working full time as a musician and you've got all these other aspects to it, like Mission Australia.  Have you always been working full time as a muso, since you were a teenager, or is it fairly recent that you've been able to do that?
Full time.  I've been full time for the last 12 years.  I had a job – my last job was with Elders Merchandise; I was a farm sales rep. So it was very rural, of course, and I was very comfortable and I was working in an area that I was well known, because of the music, so that kind of helped with sales as well [laughter], but I did that for six years. But the music was always pulling me, so it was something that I just had to do and it was a hard decision to make, and then when I finally had to hand the phone and the keys back to my car and walk home [laughter], and thinking, well, I'm on my own now [laughter], with no regular wage coming in, but because I've been doing it for a while and we already had a reasonably good plan with what we could do, it worked out – so far, so good, anyway.

I think that's quite amazing, 12 years as a working muso.  There's aren't many people who would be able to do that, so good on you.
Oh thank you. No, it's been the best 12 years of my life, and I hope it never ends [laughter].

Have you already lined up your Tamworth gigs for next year?
Just thinking about it; we haven't locked them in 100 per cent yet, but I played last year at the Capitol Theatre and so we might be back there again, we just haven't locked it in yet, but that was a great show there, always a good venue.

Great. Well, I'm about to wrap it up, but I just wanted to ask you, 'cause I saw in your bio that you grew up in the Mallee, so I was wondering if you will always consider yourself to be a country boy?
Oh definitely, yeah, yeah.  I mean growing up on a farm, definitely a country boy; there's no doubt at all [laughs].

Do you miss the Mallee?
I've still actually got a house in Robinvale, the town I was born.  We do spend a bit of time there; we've got a lot of family and friends there, so I'm there quite a bit. I don't really get time to miss it, but it's a beautiful area, they're right on the Mary River, and there's very distinct bushland and even the red dirt – it's not like anywhere else in Australia. That's one of the reasons why when we did the film-clip for 'Tractors & Bikes', we took it back to one of the farms on the Mallee – you couldn't talk about the Mallee and film it somewhere else, 'cause it just wouldn't work [laughs].

It seems like your country credentials are extremely intact.
Oh well, I mean, I think you just be yourself and you let people decide what you're doing or not; that's the best way to go.

Paul Costa's new album is Wheels & Steel, and it's out now.