Sunday, December 15, 2013

Interview: Catherine Britt

Catherine Britt is one of the brightest sparks of Australian country music - an accomplished songwriter and performer, with Golden Guitars, multiple albums and tours behind her, and she's still only 28 years old. That may seem a young age to have a retrospective album released, but that's what The Hillbilly Pickin' Ramblin' Girl So Far is. It's a great introduction to Catherine's work for those who are not yet familiar, and it's a very fine collection of songs - not just a collection of singles - for those fans who want their favourites all in one place. I recently spoke to Catherine about the release of this new album, and about what's ahead.

You're still so young that a retrospective may seem premature but looking at your output, it's not.  So I was wondering how you've managed to be so productive in such a short space of time, really.
Well, yeah, I guess it is and it isn't.  Fourteen years, five albums in 14 years would seem a little lazy to some people. [Laughter] I don't know.  I've just tried to consistently release albums every two or so years, and take my time in doing it so that I release albums I'm proud of.  I guess I didn't realise I was at this point until the label suggested this ‘Best of’ and I had to look back and go, ‘Oh my God, yeah, I have been doing this for a while, eh?’  It's been a long time, so it feels really good to be able to this.

It's a fantastic collection of songs but, then again, you did have a lot of great material to choose from.  Was it a pleasure to choose these songs or did you find it difficult to pick which ones would go on it?
A bit of both, to be honest. There's only so much you can fit on a CD and there's only so much video you can fit on a DVD, so we had to be a little bit selective, which was quite hard at times.  But I think that, at the end of the day, we got it down to the best possible reflection of my career.  So I feel pretty good about what we've put on there.

The first songs are from your very first EP, which was released when you were 14, and you sound very assured on those songs – and you should assured for someone who is 34 or 44, let alone someone who was 14.  But do you look back at yourself then and think that you weren't that assured or confident or do you still look back and think, yeah, I knew what I was doing?
[Laughs] Funnily enough, I felt like I did.  I felt like I was really confident on who I was as an artist and I never denied myself that.  I never held back from that.  I always knew exactly what I was going to be and exactly the artist I wanted to be and I never got confused or strayed away from it, especially early on.  I was very set in what I was going to do and no one was going to change that.  It was nice to have that at such a young age.  I felt pretty lucky, looking around at my friends who didn't even know what they wanted to be when they grew up.  And I'm, like, ‘Well, I'm going to be this and this is the sort of music I want to make’ [laughs].  I knew, so it was weird.

Do you remember how you started to formulate those ideas when you were young?  Because that's quite a degree of clarity, I think, at an age when your brain is still literally a brain storm, they say teenagers have.  It’s a very singular thing to focus on at that age.
It is, which makes me wonder if I - I don't know - I may have a little bit autistic ways in me, I think.  In the fact that I focus on something and then that's it.  It's definitely a slight sign there. But I just - I knew and I focused on it and it became a bit of an obsession and that all, I guess, stems from the artists that I loved. 

In the song ‘I'm Your Biggest Fan’, you write about your brother getting married and becoming a father very young and having a very focused life, really, setting himself up - him and his wife through education and homes and more kids.  So I'm wondering, actually, whether it's a family trait to be very organised and focused.
[Laughs] Oh boy, I mean, we have a pretty special parents.  They're super smart and very - I don't know - they're very much like that.  I guess they ingrained it in us to be organised and to be proud of who we are and to follow that path 100 per cent and never hold back.  They supported us no matter what we did, even if they may have felt like it wasn't the right idea.  I mean, I'm sure my parents didn't really want me to be a country singer [laughs].  But they supported it anyway, so that's was nice.

Well, and it's paid off, it sounds like for you and your brother and, possibly, your other brothers as well. 
Yeah, absolutely.

But listening to these songs, there are a lot of songs on the album so, I think, for fans, it's definitely - it's a lot of quality output on one album. The songwriting is really consistent in that it's consistently very good.  So it's not like we could look at your early songs and say, oh well, Catherine didn't know what she was doing and now she really does.  So I was wondering if you look back on all of these songs and all of the albums and think that you have developed a lot as a songwriter at all or whether it's just you've had that consistency of vision and storytelling throughout?
Well, first off, thank you. Look, I think I've, hopefully, gotten better and, hopefully, grown as a songwriter.  I still think my best songs are to come.  I think every album I get slightly better at it. I'm still proud of my early songs and stuff.  But I sing some of them at my gigs and it is from a 14 year old’s point of view or a 15 year old’s point of view, some of the songs.  And it's not really something I can totally relate to at 28 but I can because it was me.  So I’m confused but, yeah, I knew what I was talking about back then, I'm sure [laughs].

Well, I think it sounds like it.  And also as a singer because on that first EP, you had more of a, shall we say, hillbilly twang to the way you sang but it disappeared pretty quickly.  So I was wondering whether that was something you were into at the time or whether there's still a lurking hillbilly twang somewhere.
I reckon it comes out pretty often.  But I don't know, I think I sang a little differently when I was younger, definitely.  I was still learning to sing.  God, I never really did any lessons or anything like that, which I should have done. I had no idea what I was doing and I just did it anyway [laughs].  So it's a bit of a worry but I think I was still just learning.  And every album as I went on, I learnt a little bit better how to sing in the studios and I got better because I was performing a lot.  And my voice just developed and kept changing and growing so, hopefully, that will continue to happen.

And I forgot to ask, when you were talking about the song selection, what the criteria were.  Was it you looking at songs thinking, I'm going to put on the singles or the ones that people respond to when I'm performing live, mainly, or is it the ones that in my heart, I really want to put on there?
The first disc was all about singles and fan favourites, so I based my show in Tamworth this year, I put out a thing on Facebook and asked my fans that were coming to the gig what their favourite songs were.  I did a voting system and it's funny, songs like ‘Drive-in Movie’, which is an album track I never released as a single, came up as the most-voted song.  So I put that on there as well as ‘In The Pines’, which is one of the first songs I ever sang as a kid starting out at gigs.  Then it became a bit of a signature track for me and, of course, the pilot track of my first EP for that reason.  So I left off a couple of songs that were soft releases.  Single number five of albums that just would tide me over but never really did anything huge and replaced them with some fan favourites.  So it was a hard decision but, I think, it was the right one.

And there's enough variety on there for people who might already have all of the albums to want to have that particular arrangement of songs. I guess that's part of the challenge for you as an artist, just thinking, if people already have all of my albums, how do I put these songs together so that it's something - there's something a bit new about it?
Yeah, exactly.  And I guess that's also why we did the new single as well, so that there was a new track element to it as well.  Not just all old stuff.  And, of course, the B side on the CD has quite a bit on there that people wouldn't have played before either.  So there's a fair bit of new stuff on there as well that will make it a little bit more of a special thing for people who already have my records.

About the new song - there was a track you had on Always Never Enough about people in the music industry talking about other people behind their backs or whatnot.  And it sounds like ‘Who Cares’ is a bit of a companion piece to that?
Yeah, definitely.  I think you're talking about ‘Mind Your Own Business’?

Yes, that's it.
Yeah, yeah. Absolutely.  I think ‘Who Cares’ was a song I've been wanting to write recently for the reasons of the song, really.  I've struggled a lot with people talking and saying things.  I don't know what it is about me that [laughs] makes people want to - I don't know - talk when I'm in a room.  But it's been something I've always had to deal with and I felt like this song was something I really wanted to say because it's not important.  Those things are so insignificant in the grand scheme of things and if you know you're a really good person and you're just doing the best you can do.  There's human error with everybody, then you can sleep well at night knowing that so, I guess, I really wanted to express that in a different way this time with ‘Who Cares’ and make it a bit more like I can't let this affect me.  You've got to just get on with life and be happy with who you are and be settled in that, so that's a little bit of a progression from ‘Mind Your Own Business’.

And in a short space of time, I've got to say because ‘Mind Your Own Business’ was only released a year and a bit ago so I think - - -
A bit ago, yeah [laughs].

But also just on that point of why people react the way they do.  I sometimes think if you do have a clear vision about your life and if you've pursued it, that actually stands almost as a living example to people who like to believe that other people should do things for them.  So people who would say ‘things keep happening to me and I don't know why, it's God's fault, it's the universe's fault, it's everyone else fault but mine’.  If there's someone like you who actually says, ‘I want to do this and I am doing it’, and then you've continued to do it, it shows up that other type of person that they have no excuse.  And that could be very annoying to them.
[Laughs] Okay, well, that's - thank you.  That makes me feel a bit better, I guess, understanding how they think.

So … even though this interview is about the CD, you must have some new material in the works, I would imagine, because it seems like you always have new material.
Yeah, I do.  I'm working on another album now so I'm looking towards, maybe, releasing something mid next year.  So this is perfect actually, it's going to tide me over nicely.

And you're playing 23 January at the pub in Tamworth and will that be a band show or is that a solo show?
Full band and it'll be the Hillbilly Pickin’ Ramblin’ Girl So Far tour show so it'll be, basically, our focus on this record and all the hits or whatever you want to call them, all the singles.  It should be really good and a little different to what we've been doing, obviously, the last five or six years at The Pub with the Hillbilly sessions.  I just wanted to bring it back to basics and just make it all about the career so far.  So I'm looking forward to that actually.  It should be really cool.  I've got a great band together so I'm pumped.

And will you do some more shows off the back of that or this is the main one with the band and then you might do some solo shows?
This is it.  I just do that one big show in Tamworth and then I, usually, go around and get up at Bill Chambers’s jam and things like that.  But they're all really small appearances and I do lots of interviews and things where I might play a song.  But I usually focus on just the one performance.  Other than my band, The Hillbilly Killers, have a show as well on the Tuesday night but that's totally different [laughs].  So, yeah, that's all I'll be doing in Tamworth.

That actually was going to be my last question - what's happening with the Hillbilly Killers - but I think you've just answered it.
Yeah, yeah.  Well, that's the next step.  We’ve just been over in America.  We played Americana Festival for all the Americans, which was pretty special, and now we're doing another show in Tamworth.  So it's going to be our second consecutive year and then we'll working towards an album release, by the sounds of it.  So it's all still moving forward and still happening slowly, because we've all got our own lives and busy schedules, especially Tim Rogers.  So it makes it a bit hard to make things move fast [laughs].

Very true.  Actually, I'll ask you one final question - and this is, probably, a cruel question - if you had to pick one song on this album from your heart that you think, This is the song I just love more than the others, which one would it be?  I said it was cruel.
Yeah [laughs].  I think the most significant - which I think is different - the most significant song for me would, probably, have to be ‘Sweet Emmylou’.  As far as the accolades that I received for it and the, I guess, attention it got, you'd never imagine that a single song would do so much and I'm so glad it's the song that I love and still, to this day, love to sing and I'm really proud of.  So I was lucky in that way, that it's a good song.  That's one that I do at every gig so, yeah, I really love that song.
The Hillbilly Pickin' Ramblin' Girl So Far is out now.
Catherine Britt is appearing at the Tamworth Country Music Festival on the evening of 23 January 2014 at The Pub. 

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