Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Interview: Jasmine Rae

Melbourne performer Jasmine Rae has released the first single from her forthcoming album – and the single, 'If I Want To', shares its name with the album.

'We chose the title of the album after we knew it was the single,' Jasmine said when I spoke to her recently. '"If I Want To" is one I’m very proud of. I wrote it with Bob DiPiero, who is a hit songwriter and I can’t believe he wanted to write with me, it was just fantastic. So it’s a song that’s quite different to what I’ve done before and this album is something that I’ve always wanted to do, just the sound of it. I’ve always wanted to write most of my material and that’s why I thought [the album] should be called If I Want To, and the track is one that I’m very proud of as well.'

I asked Jasmine about making the video clip for the song and whether or not it was strange to do something to different to writing and performing.

'Videos are the best,' she said. 'Everyone else on the video would totally get a headache from playing the same song over and over again' – and apparently this song was played about 20 times during the shoot – 'whereas I’m, like, "This is my song, I dig this" ... It’s actually photo shoots that are the most awkward: "This is not musical at all, what am I doing?" So the video flows very well. The guy in the video was actually 6’4” so that was a little bit different because I'm 4’6” … Actually, I’m 4’9”,' she said, laughing. 'I was standing on a box for the whole day so that was the awkward part but the music part and the acting part was all good.' 

Jasmine travelled to Nashville to write not only the single but other songs for this album.

'I wrote half of the album in Nashville,' she said. 'Writers over there, they do it like a 9 to 5 job. They’re so efficient and passionate; you can bring an idea that’s a little bit jumbled in your head and they say, "I know what you mean", and they help you sort it out. It’s not like they try to write the song in front of you – it’s very much a collaboration, bouncing ideas off each other. I kind of was scared when I started co-writing over there, thinking that they’d just write the song and say, "There you go", but that’s not how it is – it’s very open, you can talk about ideas.'

When I asked what she thought of the pace of writing in Nashville, Jasmine said that her ideas 'come to me at very much not 9 to 5 times. They come to me in the shower or when I’m driving. When I don’t have a pen and paper – that’s when they come. So finishing off [a song] in a 9 to 5 way is totally fine. Whenever people are able to get together with me and finish them off, that’s great – I just like the idea that it’s finishing off an idea that’s been in my head for a while, so it’s good working like that.'

Not only do the songs come at different times and in different places, but they also come in different ways. When I asked if it's lyrics or melody that usually comes through, Jasmine said, 'Sometimes it’s just lyrical. It’s different every time, which is why this question’s hard! Sometimes I’ll get a pre-chorus or just the first line of a chorus. I wrote most of the lyrics for a song called "Just Don’t Ask Me How I Am" but in a poem form that I’d been chipping away at for months. So it happens differently every time, which I think is why I love it so much, and sometimes ideas that I think, "This is gold, this is it", end up being completely nothing and an idea that I think, "I’ll just scribble that down even though it’s not the best", ends up being the main song.

If I Want To is Jasmine's third album and it sounds as though the experiences for each of those albums have been quite different.

'The first album – I’d won a competition called Telstra Road to Tamworth at the time, now called the Telstra Road to Discovery, and the date that my album was going to be released we already knew by the time I won the competition. So it was nine months of "We have to get this album out". So there were a lot of songs that were picked for me that I didn’t get to write – they were great songs, but I didn’t get to write the whole album … and it was very much taking the advice of people because I was very green and we had a deadline. 

'The second album we got to take a lot more time. I wrote half of the record. And then this third time around I had a little bit of time to spend with my family and then I knew exactly what I wanted to do with this record, and I wanted to write the majority of it, and so I spent a year and a half writing it, and have been across all of it. So it’s been the same team but very much a different way [of doing it] and I worked with a different producer.'

In between albums two and three, however, Jasmine's life changed in a profound way: she took time off to care for her father, who had cancer, and he subsequently died.

'Music was the only way I was able to deal with it,' said Jasmine. 'It was just very natural for me to just write it all out. So making this album and writing and being across this album was something I felt I had to do – it was very much a calling. It was the only thing I knew how to do at the time. Everything else is very blurry at a time like that. So have it finished [feels like] a big achievement.'

The album features a very moving track called 'First Song' and I took the opportunity to ask Jasmine about it, as it suddenly seemed as though it may well be about her father.

'It’s about my dad,' she confirmed. 'My dad and I were very close and great friends and did everything together. I’d never, ever written a song that he hadn’t heard. He’d heard every line that had ever come to me. I’d sing it to him and say, "What do you reckon of this?" To actually think that I would start and finish a song without him ever hearing it, I was devastated – I thought, "I don’t ever want to write because I don't want him to not hear it". That lasted for a whole week and then the week after I thought, "He would have wanted me to write because this is my calling. So I have to write this first song." And so that was the hardest. Then after that the rest of the album just flowed. I knew exactly where it was going after that.'

Jasmine's voice sounds different on this new album – not necessarily more mature, but there is a different tone to it. Given what happened in her life around the time of making the album, it seemed as though those experiences might be reflected in her voice.

'The voice is an amazing thing,' she said. 'It is very much connected to all of your emotions and that’s why I find it so fascinating. So, yes, I’m a different person to who I was before any of that happened. I stopped everything so I could care for him and he wanted to be at home. It just puts everything in perspective. I know what’s important now and I didn’t really know that before – I was stressing about whether my arse looked big in jeans and stuff. None of that stuff matters. When something like this happens you think, "Now I know what’s important". I’ve also used a different producer on this album as well so he would have been looking for different parts of my voice to bring out, so that’s why the album sounds a bit different as well.'

Jasmine also said that as she has written all of tracks bar one, 'they sit in a different place for your voice when you actually write it for your voice.'

When asked whether she had been performing recently – and whether or not that might have acted as some kind of solace for her in the wake of her father's death, Jasmine said, 'It has been really difficult not performing for a little while because I love it and it keeps you kind of in check. You know what you’re doing – "I’m a musician, I perform". Whereas when you’re not performing every week you wonder, "What am I doing? I’m sitting at home writing songs all day." Everyone else goes to work and it doesn't feel right. So I can’t wait to get back into performing, but you definitely need to take time off between albums for the band to learn the new stuff and just step it up a little.'

Jasmine and the band will have their next big outing at the album launch on 3 August at Rooty Hill RSL in Sydney, where she will be supported by Buddy Goode. In the meantime she has been listening to new American singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves – but, by the sounds of it, not to too many other new American acts: when in Nashville, 'you talk to everyone and they’ll tell you who the hot artists [are],' she said, 'then you go on iTunes and you can’t buy it because you have Australian iTunes!' 

One performer whose albums she definitely has is Dolly Parton. The last time I spoke to Jasmine she was about to go to Dolly's concert in Melbourne; it turns out she not only went – to three shows – but met Dolly. 'I got my photo taken with her,' said Jasmine. 'And I went there with my dad, so that was awesome.' 

Jasmine's single 'If I Want To' is out now and the album of the same name will be released on 2 August from ABC Music/Universal. The album launch is on 3 August at Rooty Hill RSL and then Jasmine will appear at the Gympie Muster and other festivals. For full details visit:

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Album review: Dark Side of the Morning by Katie Brianna

There is always something incredibly touching about the sound of someone laying bare their heart in a song or on an album. From the first verse of 'What it Means', the first song on Katie Brianna's new album, Dark Side of the Morning, that is what we hear: her heart, plaintive and yearning. What that immediately signifies is a brave performer - a brave songwriter, too - who is prepared to show all of her cards right from the start.

It's a dangerous gamble: the performer can't control the listener's reaction. Being so exposed to the listener may go wrong, especially when we venture into the second, title, track and there is that heart again, coming through the arc of Katie's voice. But it doesn't go wrong. The vulnerability that is on display from the start of this album is also its strength - and the strength of its creator. When an artist makes such a gamble - to show her entire hand - she shows us that she has nothing to hide and also, perhaps, that part of her knows that we will like what we hear. So there's an audaciousness there, too, and it starts to emerge by the third track, 'Oh Night', and by then we are definitely on the ride and there until the end.

The musical influences on Dark Side of the Morning are strongly alt-country and Americana but there are some traditional Irish sounds there too. Country music is a genre steeped in traditions; to acknowledge them in a substantial way - within the structure of a song rather than throwing out a random sound or bar here and there - is a mark of respect to the artists who have come before. 

This album seems like a work of respect and tradition and of a young woman who is finding her own musical path through them. By understanding where she's come from, Katie can better chart where she's going. Leading her through is her distinctive voice, which is full bodied and sure. It is a voice that could have found its way to jazz, yet it sounds perfectly at home in country music. 

Dark Side of the Morning is an accomplished piece of work. It is hugely interesting - to me, at least - that in a short space of time we've had Melody Pool and now Katie Brianna, both women in their early twenties, releasing very sophisticated albums, both as independent releases. I don't know whether they have both chosen to be independent artists or if events just turned out that way, but if anything independence has allowed them both to choose the best people to work on their albums, with the attendant outstanding results. 

Dark Side of the Morning is a debut album that promises much about its creator - and because she has taken her time to craft it and release it, I have every confidence that it is the first step in a long career. I genuinely cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

Dark Side of the Morning is out now.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Interview: Tori Darke

Tori Darke has been busy writing a new album in Nashville, but her first album, Dreams & Chances, isn’t quite over yet … To celebrate the release of her new – and last – single from that album, ‘No You No Me’, I spoke to her recently and started off by asking about her trip to Nashville, where she recorded the new album.
‘Nashville was amazing,’ she said. ‘I got so many great songs written while I was over there.  I came home with fifteen new songs, which I am so excited about and I’ve been playing them heaps. I’m just re-listening to them and trying to learn them and it’s just really kind of I guess given me that motivation and inspiration to get back into the studio.’
So will she be able to record all fifteen songs, or will she have to axe some of them?
‘I’ll definitely have to axe some of them because there were some that I wrote that [I thought] that’s an absolutely great song, some that were a good song, and some that were just, “Oh, why did I intend to write that”,’ she said, laughing. ‘It’s all part and parcel. You’ve got to sometimes get through I guess what you would call the crappy songs to get the smash-hit kind of songs. So you really just are weaselling your way through to go, yep, well that idea didn’t work but then this one might, so I’m really excited about these ones.’
I was curious about whether or not Tori had a sense about how the songs would turn out as she was writing them – was there a little tingle up the spine or something like that to tell her that a song was really going to work? Or does it take a few drafts to really get an idea of it?
‘I think once you get a verse and a chorus, you kind of know,’ Tori said, ‘and you even know that it’s not going to be something that you’re going to love or you know that it’s something that you already love, and I guess you kind of know from that get-go of just going, “Yep, we’ve got a verse down and this is really cool, it’s going somewhere”. And then you get to the chorus and you get the chorus out and you just go, “Yep, that’s what it’s about”. And that happened for me several times in Nashville with some of the writers that I wrote with in mainly the last week I was there.  We wrote this one song called “Rain on a Rusted Tin Roof”, and it was an idea that I came up with in the car and we were just driving – I was just going to put some vocals down on a demo that we’d written for a song a few days before, and we were just talking about it and I came up with this idea.  And from just talking about the idea we all knew it was going to be a really special song, and it was one of the quickest songs that I’d written in my whole life.  We wrote it in about an hour and a half, and just listening back to it now and playing it to anybody and they go, “Wow, that is a great song. It gives you tingles, and that song really did it for me. I had the same reaction with a few other song as well while I was there.’
Performance is a huge part of Tori’s career, so I wondered if, as she’s writing songs, she’s partly wondering what the song is going to be like for her to sing.
‘You’re always thinking at the back of your mind what it’s going to be like to perform to an audience and how would people take this and how it would come across,’ she said, ‘and you’ve really always got to be really careful to look at it and go, “This is part of my image”. Because even if you do write a song that isn’t necessarily you, that’s the song that somebody else could record if they wanted to.
‘There’s always a chance to pitch an original song to someone else, and so for me, when writing a song for myself, I always try to make sure that the lyric content is something that I would actually say, because I have been in writing sessions before where you do have some writers that take a little bit too much control and it’s like but hang on a second, I wouldn’t actually say that phrase, it’s not something that it’s in my vocabulary, so even to sing it, it’s not being true to yourself. So I always try to be true to myself with everything that I write and with everything that I do because if it’s not, it’s very transparent and you can see straight through it.’
Tori started her country music career very young, as a teenager; as she’s growing older and now moving onto her next album, is she feeling more confident about saying things like that to people?
‘Yes, definitely,’ she said firmly. ‘I feel as though your opinion matters a little more the older you get … people will stand up and listen and hear what you’re trying to say through your songs. And the older you get, the more experience that you have in life, and three years ago when I recorded Dreams & Chances to now, even now there’s some things that I wouldn’t have recorded on that album, which I didn’t because there were songs that I’d written that I went, well at the age of twenty it just seemed like it wasn’t me and it seemed like I hadn’t been heartbroken, or I hadn’t gone through some really tough times. Whereas now I have been heartbroken and I’ve gone through some tough times but dealt with some hard things that I’ve really struggled through that – just thinking about them now it would totally make sense and I would everyone would totally get it, whereas it may not have been as believable three years ago.’
Part of the mystery of the process for a performer – or maybe a mystery for the audience but not necessarily for the artist – is accessing that emotion not only when a song is recorded but later when it’s being performed, and if the artist has to perform it a lot of times it seems as though it would be difficult to always access the emotion needed for a song.
‘We all have our good days and our bad days,’ said Tori, ‘and some days it may not even be an emotional connection. You may have something else going on in your head or in your life that’s really distracting you and that’s one of the things as an artist that you really have to try and just put aside and [say], “I’m here to do a job, this is my time to show people what I’m about, and what my music is about.” So you really have to try and do your best to just put it aside and just go, no, I’m going to show you the same emotion that I would to any other song.’
It seems like it would be hard to do that, though, and doing it more and more makes it wouldn’t necessarily make it easier because the artist is still a human being, so some days it must be quite hard to go out on stage and actually effectively cut off Tori, the person, and become Tori the performer.
‘You’re completely right,’ Tori agreed. ‘And one thing that I did tell a lot of people, being an artist you are also just a normal person like everybody else in this world, and some people see past that sometimes and just go, no, you’re a singer, you’re [famous] – and it’s just like, “Give me one second – before I was even a singer, I was a human being.” I’m just a normal average person and some people don’t necessarily see through that. They just say, no, you’re a singer, we want to know everything about you and we deserve to know everything about you, and that’s why, when it comes to social media especially and any kind of media, some people get really overwhelmed. And in the country music industry, we don’t really get too much of that because it’s such a family-based industry that everybody really respects here and respects everything about you, that it’s actually a really great industry to be a part of.’
            That industry has its counterpart in Nashville, of course, and Tori’s recent trip there wasn’t her first. I asked here if there is a community of Australians there now that she can loop into and she said, ‘There are so many Australians there now … there is a really great community of Australian artists that are over in Nashville. So it’s really wonderful to be able to learn from those people that are over there and learn how they’ve done it and learn how they’re coping in a city like Nashville.’
Some Australian artists relocate to Nashville for a time – or permanently – as opposed to going there to record and coming back; I asked Tori if that’s something she’s thought about, and she said, ‘Oh, it’s definitely something that I’ve thought of, but as I have said to a lot of people, I absolutely love the town of Nashville and I love how inspired I am when I’m there, but I don’t necessarily know that I could move there full time, but I could definitely do the commute backwards and forwards.’ So it sounds like we’re not about to lose her any time soon … especially as Australian artists do travel to Nashville quite regularly and have experiences, write songs and come back.
            ‘To be able to have that opportunity to do that, to just go there and to come back, that’s so special to us … it’s wonderful being Australian because everyone is so welcoming when they hear that accent of yours.’
And now Nashville has become a sister city to Tamworth so that’s consolidated the relationship even more.
‘It’s really wonderful that that has happened and that they’ve done sister city relationship there,’ Tori said, ‘because it’s really just opened up a lot of doors, I guess too – a lot of people previously have said, “No, you’ve got to do it all in Australia and you can’t go to Nashville to do it”, but it’s really proving now that that relationship being joint that you can do it in Nashville and you can still have a really successful career in Australia.
Of course, the official reason for my chat with Tori was ‘No You No Me’, the fifth and final single from Dreams & Chances. The album actually came out a couple of years ago, so I asked if it felt a bit weird for Tori as an artist to have the last single coming out only now.
‘It is really weird,’ she admitted, ‘because it seems like it was so long ago that I released the first one, but a lot of people in this industry said to me they really believed in the album and said that they think that it was worthy of this life and to be released. [It’s] kind of giving a little bit of closure on the album and I’m really excited to see how this one goes and to see how it’s received, because I really believe in this song, and it’s just one of my favourite songs.
            When it comes to releasing a single, for Australian country music artists there is not the same kind of chance for the song to be played on mainstream radio as a pop or rock artist would have, and Tori said ‘it is harder in the country industry because a lot of our radio stations are community-based radio stations, so they don’t have a lot of resources that a commercial pop station would have. So it can be a little more difficult but to have, still, that support of those radio stations behind you is really beneficial for all Australian country artists.
‘There’s so many supportive radio stations throughout Australia,’ Tori continued, ‘whether they be community or whether they be commercial.  So it is a little bit easier to be heard, I guess, through the commercial country station because they have a lot more accessibility to bigger areas and wider spectrums. But there are so many community stations that you can pretty much every turn you go to find a community country station which is wonderful.’
Tori will now move into recording the next album and go through the process of selecting songs; I asked how long the process would take from selecting the songs to getting the final mix, because a lot of people (me included) wouldn’t know.
‘A lot of people do expect that it just happens overnight ... And it may only take a week or two to record but all the preparation and all the preparing for it can take something like a year to six months, especially for me – last year I went and did a writing trip in Nashville; this year I went and did a writing trip in Nashville. Now, none of the songs I wrote I’ve recorded yet, so you look at that and that’s a year in itself of just writing songs and preparing for new songs for an album. So it really can take a long time and it sadly doesn’t happen overnight. 
‘A lot of people say, “Oh, well, you just released now, so when’s the next one coming out?”  So you really want to say, “No, I just released one!” It does take a lot of time and a lot of effort, a lot of money, a lot of blood, sweat and tears really goes into album and I’m really looking forward to getting back in the studio and recording some of these new tunes and seeing the reception of them and how people will enjoy them.’
Tori said she’s ‘in no rush’ to release the new album – she is not planning to have it out for Tamworth 2014, although she does want to have a single out before the end of the year and then maybe release the album early to middle of next year. ‘Who knows what the next six months to a year is going to hold?’ she said. ‘I’m just looking forward to seeing how it all kind of pans out.’
            In amongst that recording process, she’ll also play some lives dates in September, hitting the road with Kate Cooke, who was on Australian Idol a few years ago. ‘I’m really looking forward to getting out on the road with Kate and doing some stuff there,’ said Tori, ‘because she’s really wonderful and her EP is absolutely killer, so I can’t wait to get on the road and really showcase both our different styles in music and yet very similar at the same time.’
            Tori has a lot ahead of her, but she’s also been doing a lot – so I asked her what her highlight or highlights from the last twelve months would be.
            ‘Well, one of my highlights from last year would be going to Solomon Islands and playing for the troops over there and also another one was playing at the CMC this year. I had an absolute ball at that festival … [you] see some of the most amazing acts that have really inspired you throughout your career.’
            Tori is a young artist clearly making the most of the opportunities that come her way; with the release of ‘No You No Me’ she is marking the end of one phase of her career – her debut album – and paving the way for the next.
To keep track of everything she’s up to, including her live dates, visit

Monday, July 22, 2013

Interview: Ben Ransom

Ben Ransom is a city slicker with his heart in the country – as his new single, ‘Big Country Sky’, demonstrates. I spoke with Ben recently on the occasion of his single release and started off by asking him about his musical background, which has influences from Irish folk music as well as traditional country music. I asked Ben where his interested in music started, what he’s listened to over the years and how he’s formed his sound now.
Like most people, I think, the earliest influences come from your parents,’ Ben said, ‘and it’s usually the music that they’re listening to, and in our household we did listen to a broad range of music.  My dad was right into the Irish folk music, so we got exposed to a lot of that style of music early on, but there was also country that we listened to. It also went through to modern pop and rock, and that’s kind of where I got an interest in music. 
‘But it wasn’t until my cousin actually picked up a guitar and started playing twelve-bar blues that I thought, yeah, wow, this is something that I really want to do myself. When I was growing up and going to school and sort of listening to the music that was around at that time, it was a lot of Australian pub rock, and I guess the way I write and the songs that I come up with at the moment, you can hear some of the influences in them.
‘So I kind of got a mixed bag – it’s a bit from here, a bit from there, and sort of chuck it in and see what you come out with.’
Given the Irish folk music in his past, I asked Ben if he’d been tempted to take up the fiddle as an instrument.
‘I don’t mind the fiddle,’ he admitted, but you know what I like? I like the tin whistle. My dad has played the tin whistle. He actually played the bagpipes as well. He was in a pipe band, but I love all that jig sort of stuff, it’s really cool, and some of those songs, they’re great songs, if you listen to them, they’re really, really great songs, they’re good fun to sing.’
Given that range of influences and instruments, Ben obviously has a strong background in musicality and also in different types of songwriting. As he’s a songwriter, that must help him understand song structure and storytelling.
‘Yeah,’ he agreed, ‘and sometimes it comes naturally, but then also I went to the academy – to the CMAA Academy of Country Music.  It was around about this time last year, it was all over June and July, and during that period you study a lot about songwriting and how to write songs, and structure and wording, that kind of thing.
‘I had a couple of sessions with Tamara Stewart and she said to me that she was watching the way I write, et cetera, and said that it’s something that actually comes naturally to me. 
‘So I started writing songs from an early age, but I don’t know what it is about sitting down and actually doing it from a literary point of view or a structured point of view.  It these things sort of come to me a bit. It’s hard to explain. It’s not like an exact science; it’s just that for me, it’s one of those things that just comes to you … there’s always different ways of writing songs and learning how to write songs, and there’s many different styles and methods, but you get these sort of little snippets of inspiration from all walks of life, and that’s where I usually get my songs from.’
We discussed the idea that for most people who can write successfully, whether it’s songwriting or another form of writing, there is a spark there and that ability and willingness to follow ‘the muse’. But what is learnt through studying, studying other people’s songs or studying songwriting is that the writer learns how to put some structure around what comes naturally.  So it’s not about following. It’s not about being taught how to be able to write songs, it’s more just corralling what is known by instinct.
Ben is writing songs – not to mention recording and performing them – around work and his young family in Sydney, and that’s a lot of distractions.  I asked him if he has to structure time for himself to write songs, or does he tend to do it when it comes to him?
‘I have so much going on,’ he said, ‘but also … I’ve got to organise my own marketing, managing, bookings, all those kind of things that usually people that are signed to record labels or have people take care of that, and it leaves little time to sit down and think about songs and writing songs. I do find it hard to get a moment to sit and think about things.  But, you know, sometimes when I get my most inspiration is when I’m doing a hundred other different things and you’ve got your brain, you know, firing all two cylinders and you get these ideas springing into your head, and then I’ll just write something down on a bit of paper, and then, you know, when I get a second to come back to it, I’ll come back to it. 
‘But what I want to invest in is a Dictaphone,’ he said, laughing. ‘That’d be an awesome tool.’
For his debut album, Slow Burn, Ben enlisted heavyweight talent: Matt Fell and Glen Hannah. Matt produces a lot of albums, and Glen plays on a lot of albums and a lot of shows, so they’re both busy men. I asked Ben how he came to work with them.
‘I love those guys,’ Ben said effusively. ‘I was put in contact with Glen Hannah, actually; I needed to get a photo shoot done, and that’s how I came into the fold. I’d done my photo shoot with Glen, and then found out all these other things about him, that he’s one of the best guitarists in Australia for this type of music, and so he said, “You can use my services any time.”  Which I did, I had to record a single, and he said, “I’ll tell you what, I reckon you’d go well with this fellow Matt Fell”, and that’s how I actually met Matt.  We went into the studio together, me, Glen and Matt, and also Josh Hubert on drums, and we knocked out the second single that we released, which is actually on the album, the single is called “Long Hot Days”, and that’s how the relationship started, and when I wanted to record the album, I said, “I want to go back, I want to capture that sound and energy again,” and that’s how we found ourselves back in the studio together and working on the album.’
Matt has a huge amount of experience producing Australian country music albums, and a good producer can make all the difference to an album, so I asked Ben what he thought Matt brought to the process of making his album.
‘It’s a good question, because for a long time, I didn’t really know the role of a producer. But they kind of breathe life into the whole thing, they can take any song and – it’s like they’re bringing interpretation of it, and they actually create the song.
‘When you go and demo a lot of songs, you are taken to these producers and they’ll say, “We don’t want to hear, you know, anything, we just want to hear the vocals and guitar or piano”, or whatever you like to do it on, “I just want to hear the most basic, basic version of it”, so that they can envisage what it is that they want to bring to it and how they will bring it to life and then coming up with the end result.  So to have a great producer is essential, I think, in any recording project. 
‘I recorded a CD twelve months before without a producer – we just went into the studio and knocked it out. It turned out okay, but you compare that to the official debut album and the difference in the quality and the sound and ideas and everything is out of this world. Matt did an awesome job; he’s one of those people who work on a different level, and it’s good, actually, to have an outsider’s perspective of your material as well, because they look at things a different way to what you would.’
            As a singer, I wondered, did Ben change through that recording process as well?
‘Yes, and that’s the thing, it’s a two-way street, and it’s a bit of give and take, and you listen to their advice and their suggestions, and then you’re sort of backwards and forwards a bit, and you develop as an artist as well. I think it’s all part of that development process, that you learn from people like this, and he’s had a world of experience, so it’d be remiss of me to just go in there and say, “No, this is how I want it done and this is it”,’ he said, laughing.
            When I remarked to Ben that his voice reminded me a bit of Keith Urban’s, he didn’t mind at all, and actually said that some people tell him that he reminds them of Bon Jovi, ‘which is cool’, he said. His sound is country rock, and that’s ‘the style of what I like to do, particularly performing live – I want to be out there and energetic and entertaining and upbeat, and I think if I tried to do something else, I wouldn’t quite pull it off. 
‘I think you have to be yourself,’ he continued, ‘or be true to the artist that you want to be. I do a lot of acoustic stuff, and I have done a lot of solo acoustic stuff, you know, a lot of quieter stuff, but it’s not really where my strengths lie, I think as an artist, I like to be a bit out there,’ he finished, laughing.
            Finally I got around to asking Ben about the single, ‘Big Country Sky’.
‘I love it,’ he said, ‘it’s a great little rocky tune, it’s a driving tune. I love songs when you’re in the car and you’re driving and you turn the volume up, but one thing I love doing is getting out and about whenever I can, and Australia is such a big, big country, it’s a massive place, and at every opportunity [I] get up, out the coast – up the coast, down the coast, down the country, wherever, and sort of getting out there and experience the countryside and everything that this place has got, and that was the genesis of the song, and because I like driving.’
            One place Ben will be driving to soon is the next Tamworth Country Music Festival.
            I guess around July, August we’ll start booking the dates in,’ he said. ‘We’ve got our sights on a few different venues there. The last festival we did twenty performances. There were fifteen full shows, but twenty performances altogether.  So we’ll probably look at trying to beat that record.’
            Given how dedicated Ben is to his craft, and to his role as a performer and songwriter, I doubt he’ll have much trouble doing that. Ben has also organised the Live at the Brewhouse sessions at King Street Wharf in Sydney, so he is making his own luck when it comes to performances. He’s definitely a name – and a talent – to watch.

For details on Ben’s album, singles and gigs, visit

Album review: Melancholic Melodies by Basko Believes

The very first thought I had about this album was that Ryan Adams had found his way to Sweden and somehow changed his mind about what sort of country music he likes to write and perform. The cause of that thought was the timbre, the aches and cracks of the voice of Johan Örjansson, who is the Swede behind Basko Believes and the creator of the new album Melancholic Melodies.

Ryan Adams has a distinctive voice, so it is slightly unsettling to hear someone singing in a similar way; it's also a captivating, accomplished voice, so to compare Örjansson's voice to it is a compliment of a fairly high order (at least, from me it is). And it is at the voice that the similarity ends, for Melancholic Melodies has an update feeing, tone and pace that Adams's works tend not to. 

Örjansson has produced an album influenced by country, pop, folk and blues that reminds me a bit of Brisbane singer-songwriter Timothy Carroll's work in its poetry and whimsy (Örjansson has song titles that include 'August Makes Me Cry', 'The Yellow Fields' and 'Bottles and Birds') and its layers of musicality. I don't know enough about folk to find any comparisons in that genre, but as far as country music goes the album sits under the umbrella of alt-country with a dash of Americana.

After several spins around the CD player I still haven't uncovered everything there is to hear and know about the eleven songs on Melancholic Melodies, which is always a treat for a listener - an album like this calls us back, sometimes whispers to us to return and settle in, to pay attention, because it's worth doing so. I think it's time to press 'play' again. 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Jason Owen and Amber Lawrence are Islands in the Stream

Amber Lawrence is well known to Australian country music audiences, having released three albums and played regularly around the country, including at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, all while she's still in her twenties. Jason Owen is a newcomer, the 19-year-old runner-up of The X-Factor 2012 who hails from the country but doesn't stick strictly to country music. Now these two have come together to record and release their version of 'Islands in the Stream', the song made famous by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, and to embark on a five-month tour of the same name.
        As it turns out, this tour was to be Amber's alone. But while Jason was recording his new album, Life is a Highway, 'I said to the producer it would be really nice to do a duet,' he told me recently, 'and we needed to find a hit duet that had been out in the '70s/'80s/'90s.
'I sat down with my managers and they mentioned Amber Lawrence and that she was talking about doing a tour, and I said, "Well, what would be wrong with sending me on the road with her with my album and touring with her and maybe we could get together and do a duet, and maybe perform it?" and one thing led to another and I said, "What about 'Islands in the Stream'?" and they said, "That's a risky song to take on" … But we jumped in the studio and recorded it and the way it came up – it just has that country unique style about it and it has our own feel about it. And the tour is called the Islands in the Stream tour and we're pumped to get out on the road and perform it for everybody.'
As Amber tells it, 'I was looking for someone to tour with, and, you know, I've done so many different tours over the years and so many different combinations, and it's kind of almost like all the people in this industry that are established I've already toured with them … Jason came along just at the right time. So it was great, and it was something my manager was thinking of as well, and I've watched a bit of X-Factor and I'd actually voted once, only once, and it was for Jason.'
Amber believes that audiences are excited by the combination because 'they want to know what [Jason's] really like, and I've been around, so people kind of – you know, they know me, and I guess they want to see a new exciting show which this will be, so I'm excited.' And she is full of admiration for her touring buddy: 'He really hadn't done much before the TV show, and what an amazing achievement to have had virtually no experience, go on and sing like that, and come second in a competition.'
Before they headed out on tour, though, they recorded the single. I asked Jason about what that was like, given that he and Amber had not met before they decided to record a song together.
'We had an absolute ball,' he said. 'We've done a bit of a film clip for it too. We just had so much fun. Amber's a great girl … we just have so much fun together, it's great.'
        Amber says that she felt 'nervous' about recording the iconic song, 'but the more I get along in this career, I think, "Just go for it rather than say no to things because, oh, it could end up being bad".  I just think "Go for it, just give it your best", and I'm sure there are people who think, "Oh, [the song's] got nothing on the original", and, of course, the original is always the original, I don't think you can outdo any original song ever. You can do your version of it, and we kept it true to us as well, and it's just really fun to sing. Obviously the lyrics are a bit awkward, you know?' she says, laughing. 'But Jason's cool with singing them to me, so,' she says, still laughing, 'we're okay, we'll cope with the lyrics.'
        Before embarking on the longer tour, Jason and Amber played one date at Rooty Hill RSL in Sydney. They are sharing a band – Amber's – and, says Amber, 'there was a vocal rehearsal, but basically we stepped on the stage and both just had fun, and had a really good time – we've got the same performance vibe. The same wanting to have fun with the audience, wanting them to join us rather than be sung at. So there's a warmth to the show.'
        Jason agrees, saying that the Rooty Hill show was 'great, we had an absolute ball' and he sounds happy to be working with Amber's band, saying that they are 'great guys – really, really good musicians'. Amber says of Jason's interaction with the band, 'he didn't really have his own band, and he loves it. I think the first thing he said to the guys when he met them was, "So are you guys, like, fully be able to have a beer on tour".
Those musicians are flexible, too, when it comes to the set list – they have to be, by the sound of it, because Amber says, with a laugh, that she's 'already had two handwritten letters telling me the songs I need to play.' The letters came in the post, and 'that's a good thing,' she says, 'because lots of times via email I'm actually likely to forget … but the ones that are handwritten, I've got the old-fashioned diary, I pin them to that page of where the show is.'
So Amber and the band will change the set list as the requests come in and, she says, 'I'll do a bit some acoustic songs as well, just to give the band a bit of a break', given that they'll be playing almost a full set for her and a full set for Jason as well.
        Given  that Amber has toured before, there are certain expectations from her audience – namely, that she'll play particular songs, like 'The Man Across the Street'.
        'We haven't had any requests for that, but that's more the one that if I don't sing it, it'd be after the show people will be like, I can't believe you didn't sing "The Man Across the Street". So I will always sing that. It's good when you get to this point, you've got three albums to choose from, and it can make it hard, but I guess it gives a bit of variety, too.'
        Choosing songs can be a process of trial and error. Amber says that during a big tour with Adam Harvey, 'every few weeks we tried sets of new songs that we thought were our new favourites, but generally you go back to the ones that work, even if they're your favourites.  If they don't help you win the audience over, you've got to get back to the ones that weren't.  But so often your favourites are the audiences' favourites.'
        Amber is also at the point in her career when she has to strike the delicate, and sometimes difficult, balance between playing old material and new.
        'You do want to play new songs because that's fun for you, but again, even if [the audience] like it, then they can't take it home with them anyway, so they come up and say, "Oh, I really loved that song", and [I say], "Oh, no, we haven't recorded it yet". So it's kind of useless to play it.  I'll only really play new songs at venues where I've played a lot.  So where people might say, "Come on, play something new, we just saw you."  But pretty much this tour it's going to be all the stuff from the albums.
        The other aspect of touring is the other activities that take place around it. As Jason says, 'It definitely takes a lot of time. We have radio interviews, newspaper interviews, photo shoots, video clips, we're writing songs, we're on the road, we're touring – everything just happens at once. It's a very, very busy lifestyle. But in saying that, your music and your fans are absolutely everything to your career. If you don't have your music and your fans, and perform your music for your fans, your career will go down the drain. The main thing for us to do is tour our music, sing our music for our fans, and to make your fans happy, to perform and do what you love to do is the goal – the rest of it just comes with the career and you find other time for that. The tour is a very important thing to do – you get out and meet your fans, it makes them happy, it makes us happy.'
        And that sounds like the best possible reason of all to go on tour! When I ask Jason if there's one place he's especially looking forward to playing, he says, 'Dubbo will be a big one –  being my area. Coming back here on the show [X-Factor] with Mel B was amazing. So I really think that could be a big one. I reckon Bathurst could be big. So I'm really looking forward to coming back this way, especially for my supporters on X-Factor. I had a hell of a lot of support from around here. So I can't wait to perform for these guys – that's the place I'm most looking forward to, being back out in my home area and thanking everyone.'

To see Amber Lawrence and Jason Owen on tour, scroll down for dates and booking details. And in the coming days I'll post more from each of these artists separately.

Thursday 1st August 2013
Bathurst Panthers, BATHURST NSW

Friday 2nd August 2013
Orange Ex-Services Club, ORANGE NSW | (02) 6362 2666

Saturday 3rd August 2013
Dubbo RSL Club, DUBBO NSW | (02) 6882 4411

Friday 9th August 2013
Hallam Hotel, HALLAM VIC

Saturday 10th August 2013
Commercial Hotel, SOUTH MORANG VIC

Friday 16th August 2013
Gateway Hotel, CORIO VIC

Saturday 18th August 2013
Lighthouse Theatre, WARRNAMBOOL VIC | (03) 5559 4999

Saturday 31st August 2013
Caloundra RSL, CALOUNDRA QLD | (07) 5438 5800

Sunday 1st September 2013
Toowoomba City Golf Club, TOOWOOMBA QLD | (07) 4636 9000

Saturday 7th September 2013
Canberra Southern Cross Club, WODEN ACT | (02) 6283 7288

Friday 22nd November 2013
Kedron-Wavell Services Club, BRISBANE QLD | (07) 3359 9829

Saturday 23rd November 2013
Twin Towns Ex-Services Club, TWEED HEADS NSW | 1800 014 014

More dates to be announced in coming weeks