Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Interview: Sarah Humphreys

Hailing from the Central Coast of New South Wales - which is now a productive creative hub for country music artists - Sarah Humphreys has released her third album, New Moon, which is a glorious collection of songs, experiences and moods. Recently I spoke to Sarah, who was delightful, honest and inspiring. 

I really love this line that was in one of the press releases saying, “I just get this niggle in my heart, and then the songs come out of me,” and to me that sounded like you trust your creative process, so I wondering did you always trust it?
I did, yes, it’s always been a very natural thing for me.  I’ve been writing songs since I was about eight, so I’ve spent a lot of time developing that little inner voice, I guess - or just that thing that comes from somewhere else and you’re not quite sure where it is, that creates things out of thin air, so I’ve always been very connected with that part of myself since I was a little girl.

A lot of people can talk themselves out of trusting that though, so even for it to come through when you were young, it could have felt like it was weird or just you wouldn’t necessarily know what to do with it. Did you come from an environment where you might have learnt to trust that?
Yeah.  That’s a really good question.  I have a very beautiful, soft, loving mum who would just do anything for me or my brothers, and if she could see that we were happy, then that was all that she needed, and we were able to follow what we wanted to do.  Me, being the youngest, probably even more so than my big brothers, and I just feel like I was never afraid of being the weird one, I wasn’t afraid to do that, I liked not fitting in, I was quite comfortable with that, so if I was off writing my little songs and wearing my funny little clothes, then I was really comfortable and happy doing that.

It sounds like you might have been one of those children that adults say of, “Oh she’s been here before.”
I have had people say, “Oh, she’s an old soul”, and I'm like, I don't know, I thought I would have had a bit more of an idea about other stuff [laughs] but when it comes to writing, I guess maybe I’ve been here before.

It sounds like you had a strong sense of self, and obviously that was helped by your family, it also through just being comfortable, being different, because when you’re a kid in primary school and high school, there are so many forces that especially for a young creative child would want to pull you away from that.
Well, I just dove right in and anything that was weird or strange, I was into, and I liked wearing strange clothes and I was definitely an outcast by choice. I liked that about myself.

So what sort of music did you grow up listening to?
When I was really, really little, I listened to a lot of country and western music with my dad, so some Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, he loved a bit of Boxcar Willie [laughs]. And we used to listened to that driving around in his big brown Ford Falcon, and that’s a very fond memory that I have.  I didn’t spend a heap of time with my dad, I spent more time with my mum, but when I was with my dad, I remember those moments, and they were really lovely.  And then as I got a bit older and listened to Mum’s records, I really got really heavily into The Beatles and ELO, Electric Light Orchestra, and that real poppy sound, so those two things combined is kind of what I loved to listen to.

And I can hear those influences in your music. It’s really hard to write a catchy song and it’s really hard to make songs immediate for the audience, but yours are really catchy and memorable in that pop way.
Thank you.

Well, it is true, it is hard to do them, but you’ve also got that depth of lyricism that comes from the country side, and especially that older country which is a little darker. So that’s the end of my question [laughs]. I can hear your lineage basically.
That’s good, and it’s a very - it’s a good one [laughs].

So just back to the songs on the album, when they poured out of you, how long did it take?

Between about six to nine months I wrote this album, and it happened very naturally, I didn’t try and write songs for an album, I just kind of gathered them, I would say, I gathered them over that period of time, and I was just playing them at Bill Chambers’s songwriters night, and we all just got talking and thought it might be time to make a record, so we did.

 [Laughs] I like how you say that, “Like, oh, yeah, I was just talking to Bill Chambers and he’s …”
He pretty much is just like that [laughs].  It happens just like that, yeah.

This is on the Central Coast [of New South Wales] you’re talking about.

That’s fertile ground for country music in particular, so have you found that you’ve made a lot of connections, apart from the Chambers family, that have been good?
Definitely. I don't know what’s going on around this area, but there’s just so many talented people around this place. There probably are everywhere, but there seems to be a lot of music I love around this part of the world.  It’s a lovely place to live and our songwriters’ night that we go to is just full of amazing singers and songwriters and musicians, and we just love it, so we’re very lucky.

Now, of course, the mention of Bill Chambers leads naturally to a mention of Kasey, who’s the producer of your album, and you’ve known Kasey for a while, but of course that’s not necessarily an automatic qualification for a producer and especially as she hasn’t done a lot of producing, so I was wondering how you came to choose her?
I wanted someone who would look after my songs and who would look after me not just in a musical sense, I wanted someone who believed in what I did, and loved what I did and wasn’t just standing around going, “Yeah, yeah.  We love it,” and just getting paid a heap of money to do it, and Kasey is a good friend and she really does love what I do, and I just thought there’s no one better that could make this record, and that was true, we had just the best time making it.  I felt really comfortable and she has a beautiful ear, you know, she’s got so much experience and she talks herself down and she always does about everything, but she’s just got an amazing ear to hear what songs need and what they don't need, which is really important too.

I don't have any notes about where it was recorded, but I would imagine you didn’t have to go too far from home?
No.  We went to Foggy Mountain Studios, which is Nash’s [Chambers] place. It was a bit of drive to the studio, but still Central Coast region, not too far.

And who else is playing with you?
So I’ve Liz Frencham on double bass, she’s a beautiful singer-songwriter and musician who plays a lot in the folk circuit, and I’ve seen her so many times and wanted her to play on my record, I just love her, she’s from Victoria.  And I got Sid Green on drums, he’s from the South Coast - another really beautiful friend that was free and able to come play on the record.  It all just worked out so perfectly.  And I had Bill Chambers playing guitar, and I had Chris Morris, my partner, playing guitar as well, and I had Michael Muchow playing guitar and he played mandolin as well, and I had Harry Hookey do some singing and some writing and some harmonica playing, so, yeah.

Well, you had real Foggy Mountain Jam going on.
We did, yeah, we did [laughs], and we were all in there at the same time playing the track through together, but I was playing and singing with the whole band and we’d get a take that we were all happy with and then sign off on it.

Well, that explains to me a least why it sounds like you’re often singing with a smile because you must have been really happy to be surrounded by them all.
I was.  I was so happy and if you get us together like we played a show a few weeks ago, we’re all together at a folk festival and I just smiled for the full 45 minute set, because just being around friends that are also musicians that you really respect and admire is just the most amazing feeling, it’s so amazing.

Some of these people came from other parts, so did you need a lot of rehearsal time or it was just like, “Okay, well, let’s go, let’s try it.”
No.  We had no rehearsing.  They had a copy of the demos and basically we’d just write out a pretty basic chart before we tracked the song, and then we’d all just go in our separate little bits of the room and learn it together basically, and by about five, six, seven takes, the song would be done.

And also I think that gives a lot of energy to the experience and to the recordings as well, having that newness about the collective.
Yeah.  And just looking over and seeing your friends just loving on one of your songs, it just lifted me up.

Now the album is called New Moon, and new moon implies a beginning, but this is your third album, so I wondering if it represents some sort of beginning?
Definitely.  It’s about things in my - even in, how do I say it?  It’s about things ending and beginning and then ending and beginning again, you know, it’s this constant cycle of the moon that is so grounding and comforting to witness, it happens every month and we’re renewed every month and we die every month - and it’s a beautiful way to view life instead of everything must be good all the time, it’s more about cycles, it’s more about seeing the tide going in and the tide coming out, it’s more about the process of life instead of everything having to be great all the time. And when I went through a bit of a dark patch last year, it felt like it was going to be dark forever, but it’s just important to remind yourself there’s always a new moon coming, you know, and even when things are good, it’s important to remind yourself it’s not going to last forever, enjoy it while it’s here, so it’s just important that that sense of impermanence I think as well.

I think it takes actually a bit of courage and discipline to be able to remind yourself of that both in good times and bad, it takes courage to actually acknowledge the fact that you’re going to have to let go of good times, just as it take courage to be in bad times and tell yourself they’re not going to last forever, so do you feel that that’s been a part of your life, having courage?
Yes. And it’s a tough one, I think it’s tough on everyone to accept and understand that kind of stuff, but I'm trying to understand it and I think I'm getting there more and more as the more years that go on.

And as someone who’s obviously very in touch with your creative practice and your creative flow, the cycles of the moon as well can represent the ebb and flow of creativity, so do you tend to find that in your work?
Definitely.  I have times where I'm writing a lot, I have times where I'm not really writing much at all.  I have times where I'm feeling really energetic and ready to go out and show everyone my songs, and I have times where I think it’d be really nice just to spend some time at home and potter around and hang out with my son. So I think it’s about that balance too, and I think we’re all trying - everyone’s - that’s the key word of the moment.

I think everyone’s trying to get balance, but I think it’s a pretty good thing too to try and obtain anyway, even if you trying, you’re doing better than if you weren’t trying. So if you can try and have some sort of balance in your life where you’re not working too hard, but you’re not working too little that you’re forgetting who you are creatively, so it’s about striking that little balance there.

And the lead single of this album is “Take Your Time”, and the lyrics of that seem to express perhaps some of the realities and frustrations of having a career in music. I was wondering if you felt those have been worth it, those realities and frustrations?
No.  Sometimes I don't.  I don't think they’ve been worth it [laughs].  I think that there have been times and that’s why I’ve packed up and gone, “I am out of here for a while, I'm done,” because this isn’t worth it, I'm missing things, you know. You can get so consumed in what you’re doing in the music industry, I think, and also sometimes in your own creativity, and especially the self-managed artists, there’s always so many things to do and so many emails to write and so many people to call back, that at the end of the day you just think, “Why on earth am I doing this”, and then a song comes through you or you play a beautiful show with beautiful friends and you go, “Oh, that’s right, I know why I'm doing this.” But there have been many moments where I have thought this is definitely not worth it, yeah.

But it also sounds like from a very young age, you had a real consciousness that your creative work is in the service of something bigger than yourself?
Well, yeah, and that’s what keeps me going and also the fact that if I never played another show in my life or never made another album, the songs would still come, you know, and I’d still want to play those songs, so it would never be a thing that, I will always be playing music, I will always be writing, it’s as natural to me as breathing, so I feel like what I have to give helps people, I feel like sometimes the way that I say things in my lyrics, or a melody, can really touch people in a way that they are surprised by it sometimes when they come to one on my shows, so that’s a really, really, special feeling, and it’s happened enough times that I know that that’s what I was put here to do.

And what an amazing thing to have that realisation.
Yeah.  Amazing.  And I'm very grateful for it, and I love that that’s what I’ve been chosen to do and my job is to look after myself and honour myself with what I do and not just go around playing every single show I'm ever offered, and I really need to take my time because I want to do it for the rest of my life and I don't want to burn out, and I know that some people just get really, really over it and I’ve been there, but I’ve taken some time off and always come back going, “I love this” - it’s like a long lost friend, it’s never going like too far away.

I just realised we talked about when your song writing started, but I didn’t ask you when your singing started, so at what age did you find your voice?
Well, that was when I was probably as soon as I was talking I was always singing, I was singing in the bath, singing in the car, singing everywhere, annoying my big brothers, so probably when I was about three it started, and I didn’t have any lessons but I was always picking out songs to sing and singing them by ear and singing harmonies, so it just was definitely naturally what I was good at.

On this album your voice sounds confident and strong and even commanding in places. It feels like your voice is coming from a deep place. Some people sing in their heads, some people sing in their chest but yours sounds like it’s coming from lower.
Thank you.  I think I'm getting a bit older now and maybe it’s maturing in some ways I'm not sure, I just - I open my mouth and it comes out however it wants to come out [laughs] so I just go, “Okay.  If that’s what you want to do, that’s good.”

New Moon by Sarah Humphreys is out now.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Album review: Set in Stone by Sam Newton

To say - on this blog, at least - that an album sounds 'old fashioned' doesn't mean that it sounds tired, or out of its time, or daggy [for non-Australian readers, this word may not make sense]. It means that it sounds like its creator has put himself into a particular mindset: when stories were sung around campfires, to a small circle of listeners who paid attention and could see the singer's emotions written on his face as well as hear them in his voice. These sung stories had to do a lot of work, as they do now, but they couldn't rely on a producer or engineer to make them sound prettier. They had to do the job there and then. They had to have intent, and guts, and substance; their performer had to be confident enough to deliver them while also humble enough to understand that he served them, not the other way around.

'Old fashioned' can also mean honouring a lineage: the singer-songwriter has listened to a lot of music in his time, has let it seep into his awareness of what it is to write a song and then sing it. He honours that lineage and delivers it to a new audience. Lineages are living things. Some people deny they have them - they want to be 'original', to be new. Smart performers know that we all formed by what came before us, and it's the way you honour the lineage that's new.

An 'old-fashioned' album can also be one that makes the listener feel sentimental - the way the songs are sung makes you think of lazy summer days after school has broken up for the year and there is nothing but time and heat between you and the new year; or days when rain traps you inside and you potter around listening to music, wanting something that is a comfortable companion but which doesn't put you to sleep. Something to make a cup of tea to, or to sit on a bottle of whiskey with.

So when I say that Sam Newton's Set in Stone is old fashioned, that is what I mean.

Set in Stone is available now. You can buy it from samnewton.bandcamp.com.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Interview: Martine Cotton of musicindustryinsideout.com.au

A few weeks ago, Australian musicians (actually, all musicians) were given access to an amazing new resource: a website called Music Industry Inside Out, developed and run by Brisbane resident Martine Cotton. It was great to have the opportunity to interview Martine about this fantastic initiative - and she'd especially love to see some country music folks accessing her site. 

First of all, I wanted to say the site looks fantastic.  It is so well organised; the navigation is perfect.  So I don’t know if you’ve done it or whoever’s done it, it looks fantastic.
Thank you so much.  Yeah, I did it all.  It’s been full-on.

Just out of curiosity, is it a Wordpress site?
It is Wordpress, yes.  So I’m using Wordpress and I’m using the Genesis Framework – it’s the first time I’ve used that, and it’s been incredible, and I think I’ll never go back.

Well, congratulations, because I can only imagine how much work this has been for you.  But I’ll start off with the idea of it.  So I was wondering when the idea first came to you not just for the website, obviously, but for the whole project?
I was working at QMusic, and we were touring around regional Queensland presenting workshops, tutorials and seminars, and mentoring a lot of regional emerging artists and midlevel artists.  And they were so grateful for our help and support, so I knew that there was a need there.  And then when Arts Queensland did all their funding cuts across the board last year, unfortunately the QMusic program was one of the things that was slashed, and I was made redundant.  And I guess coming out of that, I was so devastated that the government didn’t think that the work was important enough, and I just knew that there was a whole world of people out there desperate for information.  So I’ve got quite a strong background in digital stuff as well, and I just thought, well, stuff ’em.  If they won’t support this, then I’ll just go out and do it myself.  I was made redundant in December, and the idea started germinating in January, and the ball started rolling – I got accepted in to the NEIS program, which is the New Enterprise Incentive Scheme, which is fantastic.  I did that in April, and bam, I haven’t really looked back.  It’s been great.

And is that a federal or a state scheme?
I’m pretty sure it’s federal.

As bad as it’s been to have those cuts to Arts Queensland, that previous funding for years I think actually created something special in Queensland, and I actually wonder whether you would have even come up with this idea if you lived in another state, if that makes sense.  Just that culture of what’s been happening in the arts in Queensland has been really exciting, and here’s you basically having this sense of mission, about something that I haven’t seen it in New South Wales, let’s put it that way.
Okay.  Oh, that’s interesting.  I did have a chat to one of my Arts Queensland contacts, who was actually away on maternity leave at the time that all the slashing happened.  She was horrified by what went down, but then when I told her about my plans she was like, “Oh my God.  Get in touch with us.  This is exactly the sort of thing we want to help fund.” 

It’s a huge thing to do because it comes of out of that sense of service, I guess, to the industry, because regardless of whether or not you got into the New Enterprise Scheme, you had to be willing to put a huge amount of your own energy into it. 
Yes.  I’ve been working more than full yime now on this whole project since – well, pretty much since April, and, yes, strong sense of purpose.

Do you know of anything like it in the world?  I can’t think of anything.
Well, nothing this genre specific.  There’s a heap of really great educational sites like lynda.com and creativelive all in the [United] States.  And it’s not where I got the idea from, but I’ve used both of those sites a lot, ’cause I lived in Japan for a long time, and I found that in Japan it was really hard for self-improvement, to do classes and learn new things.  So I ended up doing these online courses, which is basically why I know how to code sites and I was a professional photographer for a while too, and that was all through creativelive and lynda.com.  Or they helped me with business ideas as well as learning software.

But I think the genre specificity is really important, because there are things that apply to music that don’t apply to books, for example.

Yes.  Absolutely.

Or don’t apply to dance.  And I think there are things that apply to solo performers that don’t apply to bands, and vice versa.
Absolutely.  So as far as I know there is nothing like it in the world.

Well, good on you, Martine [laughter].
Thank you.

So you’ve mentioned a few different things in your background, but what specifically in the music industry have you done that’s given you this passion and drive for it?
I used to be a band manager.  I’ve managed a lot of bands.  I ran The Zoo, which is quite an iconic live music venue [in Brisbane].  I booked and managed that for about five years and worked there for about three years before I became the manager.  And ran a music services business after I left The Zoo, as a booking agent and on-ground support for international promoters.  And so I’ve seen it all, and most of my oldest and dearest friends are tied up in the music industry in some way.  And it just flummoxes me that I went away for 10 years and came back, and nothing has changed.  People still don’t have a clue [laughter].  It’s just people still getting paid $300 to play a three-hour – they’re lucky if they’re getting $300 to play three-hour sets, gruelling three-hour sets in clubs.  And it’s just – why hasn’t that changed?  Nothing’s changed. So something’s got to give, you know, in the live scene anyway.

I was thinking about the sorts of things that this project can do for people, and obviously to be successful, artists need talent and they also need to work hard, and that’s a combination that is required.  But your website now makes it possible for them to learn how to be more professional, and I think that professionalism is often an element that is missing in terms of attracting an audience as well.  I think if audiences know that they can rely on a professional product, then they’re probably more likely to show up.  How big a role do you think professionalism plays in a successful career?
I think it’s essential.  If people don’t grasp how the industry works and the expectations on you as an artist to deliver the goods, whether you’re playing live gigs, or recording, or doing interviews, your commitments to the venues, if you can’t manage all of that then just get out now, because there’s no point.

This is possibly a tricky question to answer, so you don’t have to answer it if you don’t want to, but I was wondering what percentage of acts you’ve seen – just, say, while you were working at The Zoo – who were professional compared to those who weren’t?
Well, look, I think in the music industry professionalism does come as you grow.  So at The Zoo we would have maybe two nights a week would be emerging band nights – and don’t get me wrong, I believe everyone has very good intentions.  They just don’t understand how it works.  So I wouldn’t want to put a percentage figure on it because it depends on how many emerging bands are coming through, and if they won’t – well, hopefully my site will help them learn, but it’s a growing process. It’s the same as any young person entering the professional workforce.

The fact the site exists probably now, just in and of itself, its existence means that there is now a measure of how high the bar is that new performers or existing performers might be expected to reach, and that can only be a good thing for everyone involved.
I agree.  But that’s totally why I’m doing it, because the whole industry will grow together.

This is a very big mission, and I really applaud you because as I said, you have to invest a lot of energy of your own in it. And it must be wonderful to see it come to fruition, but I certainly hope you can book in a holiday some time soon.

Yeah, me too.  I’ve actually booked in a whole lot of extra work on festivals over the summer season, and I was just realising last night I really – I haven’t given myself a break.

Well, perhaps that’s your next order of business, to plan one.
I agree.

But just back to the website – given that you have a background in digital, did you just start off thinking, okay, well, here are my content areas, here are all these things I need to think about – because it’s a really beautifully refined navigation, and it can take quite a while to get the structure of any site right.  So how did you begin to plan that structure?
I made some mind maps.  I made a list – I prioritised the things that I thought any kind of mentor site like this would need.  So they were the video courses, the specific educational articles, the forums, the list of music resources.  So they were the main things. I’ve got a couple of amazing interns who’ve been helping me on the process, and they work in the music industry themselves, they’re young emerging artists.  And they came up with some really great ideas as well.  For example, the Savvy Seven section – we sent out a list of seven questions to a bunch of really great young emerging artists.  Well, they’re more than emerging.  They’re doing it.  They’re out there, they’re touring nationally.  And we asked them seven questions basically about their careers.  And designed to help other young touring artists.  Questions like, ‘What are the best venues in your home town?’  So we made sure we’ve got a selection of artists that are coming through across every state, and all different regions.  So we actually hear it from the horse’s mouth what the best venues are in their area.  Things like touring pit stops – best places to get food when you’re on the road.  Just general career advice – you know, career mistake, worst career mistakes, advice for emerging artists, that kind of thing.  It’s a really nice read.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting all the responses back and having a look through them, because they’re all quite diverse.

You have quite an extensive list of mentors and industry professionals on the site already.  How easy or difficult was it to involve other people in the project?
Look, it’s been really easy.  Most people want to give as much as they can.  I did get a loan, and I have actually offered money.  I’ve been offering to pay these speakers, and easily over half of them refused payment. Because they’re just as committed as I am.  Well, maybe not as committed as I am, but they’ve got a genuine interest in bettering the industry.  We all do.  It can only lead to better things.  So basically I think I can count on one hand the number of people that said no, and most of them were because they’re just too busy, and a couple of them just because they don’t like that kind of role or attention, they don’t like to be in front of the camera.

Will you continue to add professionals?
Absolutely.  I’ve got a session booked next week, so we’ve got six sessions next week, including Harmony James and Katie Noonan, because they’re both very much – well, Harmony is amazing.  And I was worried I didn’t have enough country content, so I was quite delighted to see that you were a country blog, because the country world is probably the most in need. I went up to the Australian Institute of Country Music at Gympie and did a seminar up there, and the kids there were unbelievable.  They were so passionate and keen and sweet and polite and respectful, and I just want to help them [laughter].

The potential for the website, I guess, is that the content can infinitely grow. Do you envisage that you will at a certain point put a cap on it just for your own sake?
No.  I’m not going to stop, because the industry is constantly changing and fluxing, so I’ll keep the content up there, the existing content, but what I’ll do is introduce new modules that are relevant to the changing technologies and changing practices.  So, for example, I want to do an entire module, like, an intensive module of master classes on streaming, but I think it’s too early to do that because we still don’t really know what’s going on, like, how it’s going to pan out.  I’m actually yet to find someone who wants to talk about it, which is interesting.  Well, I want them to go directly to the source and go to Spotify and RDIO and Viva and those guys and see if they want to talk about it.

And can you envisage that the membership itself might take on its own life, by which I mean that there’s this community online that exists within the parameters of the site, and they’re talking to each other, and connections form.
That’s the dream.  That’s what the forums are for.  And I’ve also created a private Facebook page that you can get to from the forum page.  Between Facebook and the forums I really want to have a strong community of people sharing information.

And this is possibly a question out of order, but I have noted it down:  what do you think the biggest barriers to entry for new performers are?
Hmm.  Well, I think songwriting, but – well, it depends if we’re talking about the artist or music industry workers.

Sorry, the artists.  So the biggest barriers to entry for new artists, whether they’re singer-songwriters or performers.  But basically finding an audience.
I think it’s an understanding of the industry.  And managing expectations. 

Managing expectations is a big one.
A huge one.  Huge.  They have these ridiculous – well, working at The Zoo for years, we’d have these emerging nights, and these young bands [laughs] would come in and they’d say, “We’re going to tell all our friends about it.  They’re all going to come.  It’s going to be great.  We’re going to have 100 people here.”  And it’d be a Thursday night and there’d be 10 people there, and they’d be devastated.  And I’d say, “So, what did you do to get people here?”  “Oh, well, we – we just told people about it, and” – you know.  And I think a lot of the young people think that just because they’re putting an event on at a place like The Zoo that people will go, and that people go to The Zoo anyway. Like, no one goes to venues like that unless they’ve got a specific reason to do so.  It’s not a place you go to hang out – you’ve got to have a connection to whatever is going on there, be it friends or a band you love or, you know, whatever.  So these young people coming through, they get very disenchanted very quickly because they don’t understand how to market their show.

And for existing performers, do you see that issue as well?
To a degree, yes.  I think again, managing expectations, they think because they’re creating stuff that people will come.  I see that a lot.  And they just don’t understand how to market their music and their show.  I think also most young bands hook up with – well, either they stay DIY and they manage themselves, or they hook up with some young manager, and they just don’t get a grasp on strategy.  They’re just in such a rush to get everything done, like, they’ll write a song, and record it and put it out all in one week without really considering any kind of strategic kind of plan.  And you can’t do that.  It’s just a waste of everyone’s time and money if you can’t support a release with a really great strategy of distribution and marketing and how you’re going to write your press release – even that most basic of things, the press release, you know?

Q:        Yes.  All of which your website can help them with.

Monday, December 1, 2014

New Brad Butcher single, 'Believer'

One of my favourite discoveries in recent years has been Brad Butcher. I was about a year late to his debut album, but now I'm slightly ahead of the new album, as this is the video for its first single. The single is 'Believer'; the album is called Jamestown and it will be released in March 2015. Which, frankly, is far too long to have to wait! But hopefully Brad will play at the next Tamworth Country Music Festival and that will fill the gap.

If you're new to Mr Butcher's music, you can watch the video for 'Believer' below - or just take my word for it and buy the first album immediately.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Album review: Weightless by Matt Andersen

Matt Andersen is not a country artist - it's important to state that, as this is a country music blog. But it's also impossible to ignore Andersen's music and voice. From the first song on his latest album, Breathless, Andersen commands attention. His stated genre is blues; however, it seems as though 'soul' could just as easily be applied, simply because Andersen has a lot of it. There is depth and grit and feeling on these songs, and a sense of flow from one track to the next that makes the album an almost hypnotic listening experience.

Andersen hails from the Maritime Provinces of Canada - New Brunswick, to be specific - and it's not hard to imagine that he's had access to some of the rich Scottish and Irish musical traditions that are vibrantly alive in that region thanks to the calibre of musicians working there. There is history in his voice - and not just because he sings with such authority that he sounds like he's about fifty years older than he actually is - and also a sense of ease at being a singer and bandleader. No musician - no songwriter - emerges from a vacuum, and Andersen sounds like the rightful inheritor of a whole lot of blues and folk traditions that have shaped him and his songs. Those traditions are in very safe hands.

Breathless (True North Records) is out now.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

EP review: After It's Said & Done by Faith Evans Ruch

Tennesseean Faith Evans Ruch seems like she harks from a bygone era of American country music: the era when melancholy was allowed without transforming itself into whingeing; when a knockout voice was left alone to impress and wasn't annihilated by meaningless lyrics. Too harsh an assessment? Maybe. Or maybe I've just heard enough overproduced tracks to become weary. Which is why Evans Ruch sounds like an antidote and a respite all at the same time.

Having said that, her voice is actually such a knockout in terms of power, range, versatility and nuance that her simple accompaniment on this EP - an acoustic guitar - actually doesn't sound strong enough. She needs more, because she deserves more. She sounds like she should have a big band - of that Big Band era - because that's as many instruments as it will take to match her. This is not meant to sound like a complaint - because it's not; it's an encouragement, hopefully, to any lurking ambitious big band leaders out there to track her down and really bring back that bygone era. There aren't a lot of voices around like this - not just accomplished but distinctive. And that's a persuasive reason to listen to anything Evans Ruch produces.

After It's Said & Done is out now.

Album review: Prairieography by Del Barber

I almost reviewed this album before seeing Canadian singer-songwriter Del Barber play live in Sydney recently. Now I'm glad I didn't, because his live performance just confirmed what I thought I was hearing on the album: an artist who is able to marry tradition and modern interpretations of country in a way that honours his musical lineage, lacks cliche, and entertains, amuses and moves the listener. Live, Barber gives full expression to the stories behind the songs - and, in some of them, weaves that story into the song itself - but these songs stand up on their own on the album.

On stage, Barber said that most of his songs are not about him - he is telling stories and taking on characters. Barber is from the prairies and the album's title, Prairieography, suggests that it's a chronicle of prairie life. And there is quite an assortment of tales in that chronicle, from stolen, ahem, romantic moments in a motel room ('Peter and Jenny Lee') to a hard life on the prairies ('Big Smoke') to trying to get out of marrying a 'country girl', with a range of experiences in between. Barber's voice adapts to its message - he can carry heavy emotion and in another song sound like he's singing everything with a wink and a smile. In some ways he's reminiscent of one of Shakespeare's fools: travelling around to entertain people, seeing everything, understanding all, judging not a once. And all of his within the context of true respect and understanding of country music traditions, both Canadian and American.

Prairieography is an album that may sound like a good ol' boy's effort on first listening but it has lyrical and musical complexity that really deserves repeated, long-term listening. Barber wasn't in Australia for many shows - may he come back soon.

Prairieography (True North Records) is out now.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Interview: Del Barber

Canadian singer-songwriter Del Barber's latest album, Prairieography, is a glorious collection of stories told in music and song, and Del is bringing those stories to Australia. Ahead of his short tour (and may he come back soon), Del kindly answered some questions via email. 

Your music honours the lineage of country music - both American and Canadian. Who were the first country music artists you loved?
 I grew up listening to Johnny Cash, Ian Tyson, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens and Loretta Lynn, Pasty Cline and Hoyt Axton. I don't think I realized how much I loved them, and how much they influenced me until my adult life. Throughout my teen years I was obsessed with songwriters from the 60's like Dylan and Van Ronk, and somehow through them I became introduced to Texas songwriting, which brought me back into country music with a fever.

Your voice sounds like it was made for country music, but did you ever flirt with other genres?
Thanks!  I have always fancied myself a country singer; others have designated what I do as folk or as indie - whatever that means! When I was young I played in punk bands.  It's all music and I do love it all, but country just seems to fit me better than everything else.

Unlike a lot of traditional country music, most of your songs are upbeat - does making music make you happy?
I really want to give people a sense of hope in my songs.  I'm a pretty positive person overall and I want my songs to reflect that positivity.

You hail from the prairies and, of course, there's another well-known prairies artist who got her start in country music: kd lang. How much of a country music culture is there in the prairie provinces? And in Canada in general?
The music culture in the Canadian Prairies is rich!  Country music especially.  Most of the prairies are relatively unpopulated. Cultures of farming and work seem to bring out songwriters and songs that want to tell those stories. 

Your music has a real sense of place - almost like you're standing on a street corner telling stories to passers-by. Are you in a particular kind of mindset when you record, to evoke that sense of place?
I work hard at writing good narrative.  It truly is difficult for me to get the story to come out right in the studio.  I have to try and imagine people are listening; I have to try and convince them to keep listening.  I try and keep the studio lighting dim and I try to take over the studio with things that make me comfortable. I always try and have family around, good food and a team that want to make a good record as much as I do.

There's always a balance to be struck between being on the road, playing for your audience, and then writing new songs for that audience. Are you able to write on the road or do you need time on your own for that?
I do write while I'm on the road, but I don't know that I get anything good out. I see writing as a practice. Something I have to try and do it every day regardless of how I feel about it.  So yeah, I'm always writing, but my best songs are writing while at home when I have the space to digest and reflect on everything. When things slow down it seems easier to get my ideas on paper.

You work with Bill Western as your steel player, and both of you produced Prairieography - how did that relationship come about?
I've been friends with Bill for at least 6 years now.  He was the only pedal steel player I had heard of living in Winnipeg, where I used to live, so I sought him out to play some shows with me here and there. Since that first show, I've grown to respect him as a person and I've fallen in love with his playing. I think he really knows how to serve the song.

Wednesday November 19
The Melbourne Folk Club
With C.R. Avery
Bella Union, Level 1 Trades Hall
Corner Lygon + Victoria Sts, Carlton
$18 + bf members / $20 + bf non-members
$23 / $25 door sales
Doors 7.30pm
Thursday November 20
Brighton Up Bar
With Fanny Lumsden
1/77 Oxford St Darlinghurst
Ph: 02 9361 3379
Tickets $15 /$20 door sales
Doors 8pm
November 22 – 23
Mullum Music Festival QLD
November 28 – December 21
Festival of Small Halls
December 27 – January 01
Woodford Folk Festival QLD

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Album review: The Acfields

Long-time readers of this blog will know that I'm a sucker for harmonies, and no more so than when they are performed by siblings (yes, yes, I'm talking about The McClymonts). The Acfields are a brother and sister duo, otherwise known as Dan and Hannah, who can not only harmonise beautifully but do so with that instinctual understanding that seems to exist between singers from the same family.

The Acfields' eponymous debut album is a little bit country, a little bit folk and a little bit indie pop, but it's all kinds of lovely. The instrumentation is stripped back (rather than sparse), allowing the obvious stars – the Acfields' voices – to shine. There are faint echoes of another great sister–brother duo, The McMenamins, although the style of music is different. And while Fleur McMenamin shoulders the songwriting duties in that outfit, both Acfields wrote songs for this album.

Those songs are sweet and also gutsy, plaintive and yearning, and easy to listen to in a way that suggests hidden craft – because songs that easy to listen to are usually hard to write, either hard at the time or because they're the result of years of learning how it's done. Such songs are also memorable and they call the listener back for repeated listening. And so it is with the songs on this accomplished debut.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Interview: Kristina Olsen

Sometimes life - and music interviews - doesn't always go to plan. One morning, not too long ago, I was meant to interview American songwriter, singer and all-round musical genius Kristina Olsen at 9.50 a.m. I set a reminder and then got so absorbed in whatever I was doing that I didn't even hear the reminder alarm. At 10 a.m. I realised what had happened and immediately called her. She could not have been more charming - or more interesting, so I was very disappointed to have missed out on those extra ten minutes talking to her. Luckily she is touring Australia at the moment so as compensation I can see her play live. For pure musical enjoyment, you can too. Dates are below - underneath this shorter-than-it's-meant-to-be interview.

So you’ve just arrived in Australia but you’re not playing until October the 25th, and then you wrap up in December?
No, I have a few dates before then and I’m playing through until January.

This is quite a long commitment given that Australia is not your home and you’re going to miss Christmas and New Year, presumably, at home. What’s brought you out here for such a long time?
Well, I love Australia – I’ve been touring here for about twenty years and, so, it’s a second home. And I’m no fool, you guys have summer in winter [laughs].

That’s a good point! You’re playing a festival this weekend and I imagine you’ve played a few festivals. Do you prefer the intimate atmosphere of playing in a club or do you like that festival atmosphere, where people can come and go, and flow around from performance to performance?
The really massively great thing of festivals for me is that, in a sense, it’s where I connect to a new audience and that’s important for any performer, because you can have your own fans and keep calling them up but you need to have new people discover your music, and that’s what a festival is incredible for. And that non-professional reason that I love festivals for is that it’s the one time that I get to hang with my peers. If you’re a performer you play your own music every night and I can look on the bill of who’s coming up and think, I’m missing this great act who’s on next weekend playing here or My friend Lloyd was here a week ago. So we’re always chasing each other around the globe but at a festival we actually get to hang out together and it’s incredibly fun, and it’s also where I get to hear new music, which is incredibly important in keeping inspired and excited. When I first started touring Australia, I’d heard of virtually no Australian artists and I’ve encountered so many amazing musicians. Now one of my main music partners is an Australian cellist I’ve been working with for about fifteen years who’s an astonishing musician. I’ve flown him to England, numerous times I’ve flown him to the States to tour and to New Zealand, and it was just being at a festival that I learned about his playing. And that’s so important. So festivals are insanely fun and a chance to get a new audience, but mostly for me to meet up with my peers and meet up with musicians and get inspired.

Given how many instruments you play, though, I’m surprised you even need a cellist on tour.
The problem is that I haven’t been able to succeed in playing more than … well, two, if you count the voice, at once. I’ve seen people who can do that but I’m not one [laughs]. It’s really an amazing thing to meet a musical simpatico mind, you know, and that’s something that doesn’t happen that often, and that’s what this CD, Chemistry, is about – this amazing guitarist [Pete Snell] that I had a ... I actually studied a jazz composing class with him and then I thought, He’d be really fun to play music with and I asked him to do a gig and it was so much fun playing music with this sort of chemical musical connection that we said, “Well, damn, do we have any dates that we could get together to actually make a recording?” And because of our touring schedules we had three nights only, so we got together in the studio and that’s what Chemistry came out of.

And talking about instruments, your voice is a really diverse instrument – it seems like you can speak, you can howl, you can coax and cajole all sorts of sounds out of your voice. Do you consciously take care of it like you would an instrument?
[Laughs] It sounds a bit rough right now, doesn’t it?

No, no, that’s not at all what I’m saying! Some singers have their voice and they sing the way they sing but your voice feels like an instrument – it’s soaring above the other instruments and it’s telling a story and you’re getting a lot of sounds out of it but that kind of use of any instrument can take its toll if you don’t look after it well.
Yes. Exactly. There’s all these considerations that any musician does … When I was a teenager I liked playing volleyball and quickly realised that there was no way I could play volleyball or rock climb – I used to like to rock climb – and be a guitarist, because you needed your nails and your fingers in good order. So there’s this thing that you say, ‘Okay, if I’m going to do this I’m going to give that up’. And my voice … I would have a real struggle with my voice in that when I was young I was told by a choir teacher that I had a terrible voice and I couldn’t sing, and, you know, when you’re a kid and you have a teacher – they’re the ultimate authority, so they know everything. I knew that my teacher was correct and so I stopped singing – completely just stopped – and that’s when I became a multi-instrumentalist. Just because I wanted so much to sing – I wanted a voice, a musical voice, and so instead of having a voice in my throat I play guitar and banjo and saxophone and all these instruments, looking for that voice I couldn’t have. And we lived for a while, my family, in Los Angeles on a noisy street and I would just climb up on the roof and sing where no one could hear me – sit on the roof of the house and sing with all this traffic going by where I was completely silent and, strangely, kind of developed a rhythm and blues voice there, just from singing a lot. And then I thought, Well, screw it – [Bob] Dylan sings and he’s got a terrible voice. I’m going to sing because I like writing music. And people would say, ‘Oh, we like your voice’, and I’d think, People lie right to your face – I know I have  a crap voice. And it wasn’t until I was in my early twenties – I’d heard Bonnie Raitt had a singing teacher, and I’ve always loved her voice, so I gathered up all my courage and all my money and went to her, and I always thought that I bought my voice on the instalment plan. You know, she was incredibly expensive, and in about six months gave me a working voice. But to this day people say, ‘You’re a singer’, and I go, ‘No, I’m a musician – I play all these instruments – my voice just goes along for the ride.’ But, yes, there are things that I have to be careful with – and I’m not being a very good example of it, we had a late night drinking Australian wine last night, which is exactly … You don’t drink much alcohol, you have to not drink much caffeine because it all dries your voice out – you have to drink endless reams of water. As soon as Friday comes I’m going to be on the plan – because I have a gig, I’ll be good – but until then, screw it [laughs]. I’ll be myself.

I guess your voice tells the story of the life you’re living and if you happen to have been up late drinking wine, then that’s the story.
Yeah, it’s gonna be a little rougher [laughs].

When you were talking about that teacher – I guess that’s the path, then: if that teacher hadn’t said that to you back then perhaps you would never have picked up other instruments.
It’s true, you know, and good singers are a dime a dozen. So she gave me a great gift, which took me a long, long time to realise – I thought she was just an evil witch – but she did give me a great gift. I’m not just another singer. And she gave me a palette, without knowing it, of colours. If I want to write on a concertina a piece of music it’s going to come out incredibly differently than if I write on a banjo or on a guitar or on a piano. So I have this lovely palette of instruments to write and draw from, and it’s a real pain in the ass touring, I’ll tell you [laughs].

I’ll bet – all the humidity affecting strings, for one thing.
We’re always keeping them in maintenance. But it’s always interesting and it’s fabulous. And I always say it’s the best job in the world with the worst commute [laughs].

Kristina Olsen's new album is Chemistry, out now.  Her website is www.kristinaolsen.net

Catch Kristina on tour:

Sat 25 Oct Flying Saucer Club 4 St. Georges Rd, Elsternwick, VIC with Peter Grayling - cello

 Sun 26 Oct Beav's Bar Lt Malop St, Geelong. 3.30pm VIC with Peter Grayling - cello

 Fri 31 Oct - 3 Nov Maldon Folk Festival Maldon VIC Kristina solo

 Fri 7th Nov Mountain Mumma Sheffield Tas

 Sat 8 Nov Goulburn Room Best Western, Hobart Kristina solo

 Sun 9 Nov The Jetty Cafe Bruny Island TAS - Lunch Concert

 Wed 13 November Sutherland Acoustic Tradies Trade Union Club Gymea NSW

 Friday 14 Nov Roxby Hotel Glebe NSW Kristina solo

 Sat 15 Nov Shoalhaven Folk Club Nowra - Showgrounds Pavillion NSW Kristina solo

 Friday 21-23 Nov Major's Creek Festival Majors Creek NSW Kristina solo

 Thursday 27 Nov South Coast Folk Club (SA) Port Noarlunga Bowling Club Hunt Park, River Road Port Noarlunga 8pm

 Friday 28 Nov House Concert in Kensington Adelaide, SA tel 08 8331 9654

 Saturday 29 Nov Hats IncCourthouse Gallery Auburn (Adelaide Hills) 8pm

 Wed December 3 Melbourne Folk Club Bella Union Trades Hall Melbourne

 Friday December 5 Barwon Heads Bowls Club Barwon Heads VIC

 Monday 15 December Geelong Folk Club Elephant & Castle Hotel

 December 27 – Jan 1 2015 Woodford Folk Festival Woodford QLD with Peter Grayling - cello

 Fri 2 Jan West End Sessions Brisbane

 Saturday 3 Jan Mullim Hall concert 8pm Mullumbimby NSW

 Thurs 8 Jan 2015 The Barn Rosny Farm Clarence, TAS concert 8pm with Peter Grayling - cello

 Fri 9-11 Jan 2015 Cygnet Folk Festival Cygnet TAS with Peter Grayling - cello

 Thurs 15- Sun 18 Jan 2015 Illawarra Folk Festival Wollongong NSW