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: