Monday, December 16, 2013

Interview: Corrina Steel

Corrina Steel has enough country music in her albums to qualify for inclusion on this website - and I'm so glad she does, as she was a delight to interview. Corrina has just released the wonderful Borrowed Tunes, an eclectic collection of cover songs, with her long-time collaborator Mike Steel, and I spoke to her recently about choosing and recording the songs, and all sorts of other things. 

I saw something in your bio about you being in France and there being wine, cheese and clothes and singing Rod Stewart songs at parties and that was the germ of the idea for this album.  Is that the case?
Yes.  That's right.  That's very true.  We were playing some shows over there and it's pretty easy to get carried out away and yeah, we'd have our little after-parties in our apartment and Mike and I would just end up belting out these Rod Stewart songs and everybody did shut up and listen so we thought oh, maybe we're onto something here.  Let's do a covers album.

Do you have a particular affection for Rod Stewart?
Seventies Rod, most definitely. [Laughter]

So you think the multiple-divorcee Rod is not really your style?  It's early ’70s Rod.
No, no.  Definitely ’70s Rod, full mullet ’70s Rod. [Laughter]

I read that you had or have some original songs already recorded but you released Borrowed Tunes before releasing the new original material. Why did you make that decision?
I just wanted to put something out quickly really and start playing live again.  And, I guess, mainly because I love the recording process.  I find that the most fun and challenging part.  And we've made two albums now in my lounge room so it's very easy and the guys have fun doing it this way.  This one we made over three weekends, just sitting around the lounge room and eating lots of yummy food.  To me the most fun you can have on the weekend is making an album.

You're actually the first person, I think, I've ever spoken to who says they love the recording process. 

Or maybe I just haven't asked but no-one has ever really just come out with it like that before saying - usually they say they prefer performing above anything.  But I guess it is a form of performance, recording.
Yes.  Well, it is but I'm the other way around.  I get a bit nervous performing.  I'm not in my natural zone doing that.  To me, it's more about sitting around the microphone and it's very intimate and - I don't know - just trying to get everything sounding really authentic and natural.  It's quite a challenge but I've made five albums now, so I think I'm getting my head around how to make it the most fun for everyone.

I'd imagine with your albums that they're recorded live, that you're not recording vocal tracks separately to the instrumental tracks?
Yeah, that's right.  On this one especially, Mike and I found out we really need to record his guitar part and my vocal live because we bounce off each other a lot, so the drummer had to sit down and listen to it.  They think the timing is probably way out but Mike was just really wrapping his guitar around my vocals and what I was doing.  So it's technically certainly not perfect but, I think, it sounds quite real [laughs].

Your voice is also very high in the mix, which is appropriate because that should be the focus of your albums, you singing the songs.  But you can find in some albums that the instruments threaten to swamp the vocals.  I guess that's the art of production and of recording properly. 
Yes.  And I guess with this album, because a lot of it is just nylon string and vocals, so that just wasn't a problem at all.  But yeah, in past recordings, I've had my vocals pulled back because it's different when you're singing your own songs.  You're not always as confident.  Whereas belting out other people's hits - just as a singer, it's a whole different concept for me.  And you just do become a lot more confident. 

I saw Troy Cassar-Daley and Adam Harvey a while ago now and they did their very first Country Song Book tour, which was them taking all sorts of old country songs - most of them old - and playing them.  And I've seen both of them play live separately.  I have never seen them have so much fun or be so relaxed as when they were playing other people's songs.  And I thought there must be like giving yourself permission to just be a musician, I guess, as opposed to thinking, Do people like this song? Is this song working?  So there seems to be a particular joy at it.
Yes.  It's very, very true.  You're just not as self-conscious because you're not revealing your own heart on your sleeve.  It's doing something that's already tried and tested [laughs], I guess. That's interesting you say that about them.

It was really interesting for me because I thought they're such experienced performers, the two of them, but they really just looked like there was a weight off their shoulders.  They looked younger, their shoulders were more relaxed, literally, and they keep doing it.  They've released the album and they've toured this album again already.  And they're doing it again next year so they must enjoy it. 
And it was probably also all of the songs they grew up listening to, like me with this.  They're songs that you had in your life forever so it's just fun.

Given that the songs that you've recorded are songs you've, as you said, had in your life,  when you're singing them, do you feel a like you're channelling the original singer – so there's an element of little kid playing dress-ups, in a way?  That's, probably, not the right way to put it but you know what I mean.
No [laughs], I do.  Not so much, because we wanted to make it our own as well.  Some songs, a few we did try that we threw away because I felt like I was just being an impersonator.  And we didn't really want to be playing dress-ups so - but I know what you mean, but we actually threw those ones away that we felt didn't have our own personal stamp on them.

And just on that theme, I would actually think it's quite hard as a singer to not do that.  It seems like it's no surprise that you ended up recording some that did sound a bit like the originals because that would be what's in your brain, I would think, when you're approaching the song.  So to make it your own, you've got to put it through some, kind of, internal process.
Yes.  I mean there's a couple on the album which, probably … Linda Ronstadt is, possibly, my all-time favourite singer and so to put one of her songs on there was a bit of a challenge to not to sound like a cover band, you know?  So that's why we approached it with just having the nylon string and the mandolin, because her production was very big.  And also the Tammy Wynette one.  But, yes, it did go through my mind of not wanting to sound like a cover band but also keeping it similar but somehow making it a bit new.  It's just a very fine line actually [laughs].

It’s something that a very new performer probably can’t do successfully.  There are new performers who do covers, especially if they're playing live, because that's a way to get a foot in the industry in performance, but I think it does take an artist at a certain level of experience who is actually, to a degree, confident in themselves  to then sing other people's songs and make them their own.  I don't think that someone who's not experienced and who doesn't know who they are can pull that off, actually.
I don't think doing a covers album straight off the bat would have worked for me fifteen, twenty years ago, because you'd just probably be trying to sound like whoever that singer is you love.  But doing it further down the track is very interesting and also, as I was saying, it's a lot of fun and I've got to now get back focused to writing songs.  But it is very tempting to want to go and do it again. Three weekends with the boys and you've got another album.  It is fun.

Even though this album sprang out of a Rod Stewart thing, it's not a Rod Stewart album, so how did you even start selecting songs for this?
Gosh, well, I've got a pretty huge vinyl collection so I thin, I started there, just pulling out albums that I love - our only rule was to not have any rules.  So that leaves you with a pretty wide spectrum.  And not knowing at all if the songs were going to fit together was another thing which we didn't even really keep in mind.  We just focused on being inside the song there and then and hoped and prayed that, at the end, they'd all fit together. We eliminated a couple and then they did. [Laughter]

So you eliminated a couple after you recorded them?

So there's some bonus tracks floating around out there somewhere.
Yeah, there are [laughs].  There are but Mike, my guitar player, he is definitely more from the rock end of town so the Primal Scream song was his idea.  The Iggy Pop song, the Stooges song, was his idea.  And he was also going through a Tammy Wynette phase at the time so he brought a lot of those things to the table.

Sorry, it was the juxtaposition of Iggy Pop and Tammy Wynette that I was laughing at.
Yes, you got that. [Laughter]

Maybe it's a stage in a man's life where you graduate from Iggy Pop to Tammy Wynette, I don't know.
Yeah, that's right.  Well, she was married to George Jones.

Well, true.  And, actually, on the subject of Mike – he's not just your collaborator for this album, he's your guitarist, as you said, and collaborator for your original material.  So I was wondering about how that collaboration first formed and whether it works differently when you're working on your originals as opposed to how it worked when you did this album?
No.  Mike and I just - we've got to the point where we can just read each other really well and we're just musically very much on the same page.  We never disagree about anything when it comes to songs at all.  And so no, it's very natural and very simple for us.  So very lucky, very blessed to have found him.

It's an unusual creative synergy to have with someone else.  Even if you have friends that you're musically in agreeance with, it's quite a different thing to have a creative relationship with someone along those lines.
Yes, it is but, I think, you know that old saying about music? There's two types – good and bad.

I thought you were about to say ‘;country and western’ there, but no.
No.  Good and bad, and Mike and I have our own very distinct good and bad.  There's not much he likes that I don't and vice versa.  And that's right across the board of music.  I mean, he'll put me onto some obscure hip hop scene and I'll put him onto some obscure old blues thing.  And we always just tend to agree on what we think is cool or not.

Yes that's a very lucky find in a person.  It sounds to me like since childhood, you've just been immersed in music.
I guess like a lot of people, growing up in the ’70s.  It was just always on in the house and, I don't know, I guess we just took it for granted.  And I had two older brothers, so my dad was blaring country music and my older brothers were playing rock ’n’ roll and punk.  And somehow I landed up being quite young and finding Neil Young and when all my friends were listening to Boy George, I was listening to Neil Young.  I'm not sure how that happened.

It probably made you a very interesting person to have around high school.
Maybe. [Laughter]

So you carried that through, obviously, when you went into your own musical career, it was not pop.  It was of a country theme.
Yes.  My first album was pretty country, I guess.  I think when I'd made that that whole alt-country thing was just becoming big.  But I wasn't really paying attention to that.  I've never really paid attention to what's going on. [Laughter]

You could be too heavily influenced as an artist, I guess, if you're paying attention to what other people are doing.  If your interest is in authentically pursuing music, really, whatever it is, it's good to not be too aware of what others might tell you to do or what others think you should do or what other people are doing.
Definitely.  Well, for me it is.  That's why, when we made this album, I was sitting in a cafĂ© in Indonesia and I heard a version of ‘I Want To Be Your Dog’ come on.  I was saying, ‘Oh my God’, and it was a girl doing it with an acoustic guitar.  And I thought, This is exactly why I didn't Google anybody doing any of these songs besides the original I knew, because I just did not want to hear what anyone else was doing it - how anyone else was doing it.  Just to try and keep it original and fresh.  But back to what everyone else is doing: I think maybe it works for some artists but for me, definitely not.  I maybe need to listen to more music than I do.

You’re playing as part of the Tamworth Country Music Festival, in Nundle, which is a beautiful town and still part of the festival.  So you can catch up with what people are doing there.
Yes, exactly. 

I know there are a few people playing at Nundle this year.  I think they've made a real effort to put more people on in Nundle, which is great.
,It is, yeah, because Tamworth can be a little bit overwhelming, can't it?

I haven't been for a few years but it's so huge and it's so hot.  I haven't had that much to do with Tamworth but I'm really looking forward to Nundle.

I hope you'll enjoy it.  I also wanted to ask you – because you release your albums on your own label, you obviously like that or you'd seek to do something else.  But is it a lot of extra work putting things out on your own label, having to run that side of your life?
Yes, definitely.  That's why once the recording process is actually finished, the bit I love, you have to allow yourself a week or two just to sink a little bit before you take on the next challenge, which is that side of it.  Which I find to be a thousand times more hard work.  But I've got a distribution company - I go through MGM - so that's a great help.  But no, definitely, I think most artists find that side of it a bit daunting, but you have to do it.

It seems that there are a lot of musicians doing it now more than ever and making a go of it, which I find really interesting.  And they're mainly within country music but they're working musicians.  They're playing gigs and they're producing their own records and they're having them distributed and managing everything.  And while I think that the creative side of your life can, sometimes, be threatened by having to do all that other left-brain management business work, if you can pull it off, it's probably, more satisfying in the end than handing a lot of it over to other people.
Exactly.  I couldn't handle the idea of having people sitting in an office, pushing you to make their percentage to pay their mortgage.  That's certainly doesn't sounds like much fun [laughs].  But to allocate time frames, that's the only way I found I can do it.  You have the creative process or you're making something and then have the time to do the business side of it.  And then Mike and I only just started rehearsing again last week for our run of gigs.  Now, all that stuff is in the past and we're back into the creative part of it.  I can't juggle both bits, I'm afraid [laughs].  Some people can, I can't. So again, back to the exciting bit again now, yeah.

As a songwriter, as a recording artist and as a performer, even though to people on the outside that just seems like it falls under the label ‘musician’, they are quite distinct skill sets so it's no surprise to me to hear you say you have those happening at separate times.  If you tried to do them all at once, there's a danger that they can affect each other in terms of how well you can do each of them.
Yeah, absolutely.  Definitely.  And when I'm doing all that, the more business side of things, I'm just not interested in playing and trying to force it because, to me, the music side of it has to be very natural and feel authentic and passionate.  And you've been swamped with emails and press releases and this, that and the other, I don't feel that I can do that job - the proper job properly.

Well, I'm going to let you get back to your proper job because I've had you talking for over 20 minutes.

[Laughter] Thank you, Sophie.  It was lovely to talk to you.

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