Friday, April 11, 2014

Album review: Everlasting by Martina McBride

Martina McBride is a well-established country music artist - she has sold over 18 million album and won multiple awards, and she was inducted into the Grand Ole Opry early in her career. However, her latest album, Everlasting, is not an album of country songs - well, there is a cover of Elvis Presley's 'Suspicious Minds' and Elvis can sometimes be brought under the country umbrella by way of bluegrass, but that's the only exception.

On Everlasting McBride covers 'Do Right Woman, Do Right Man', made famous by Aretha Franklin; Simply Red's 'If You Don't Know Me By Now'; the Supremes' 'Come See About Me'; and 'To Know Him is To Love Him' and 'What Becomes of the Brokenhearted' - songs already released by several other artists, which have endured, as the album's title suggests, because they are everlasting. There are twelve songs in all; she is joined in one song by Gavin DeGraw and in another by Kelly Clarkson.

The challenge for any artist who creates an album out of songs made famous by other artists - whether that artist is established as McBride or not - is to not only avoid replicating the earlier versions but create something that is distinctively her own. It takes a degree of confidence as well: to believe that your version is different and strong enough to stand out - to be as everlasting - as the existing versions. Otherwise, the risk for someone in McBride's position could be too great - she is clearly good at country music, so why deviate from that?

On listening to this album, it is clear why McBride has not only had such success but why she'd feel confident about taking such a risk. In each of the songs on Everlasting McBride has found a way to insert a little bit of country without overpowering the original intent of the songs (although the lyrical content of these songs will not satisfy those who like their country music with a bit of love losin' and dog dyin'). Partly this could be credited to clever production from Don Was (by way of instruments used and flourishes added), but mostly it's in her voice: a rich, accomplished instrument that can take on any song and make it her own, with just a little bit of country along the way.

These songs do not become country songs but it's arguable that they become McBride songs - and in so doing they'll keep her existing fans happy and, no doubt, win over new fans who may previously have thought she was only a 'country singer'. Of course, as those of us who love country music know, there's no such thing. Country music is full of singers, songwriters and musicians who choose country because it's the genre that offers them the most, not because it's all they can do. Martina McBride is just such an artist, as this album shows.

Everlasting by Martina McBride is out now through Vinyl Records/Kobalt.

Album review: Tin Star by Lindi Ortega

From the first blast of Canadian-Tennesseean Lindi Ortega's latest album, Tin Star, I fell hook, line and sinker. Ortega's voice sounds like it could belong to an Andrews Sister but it is also perfectly in place atop these songs that are both country and Western, and which make you think that Ortega is hanging over a saloon door, calling out to lost love - just in case it can prove itself one last time - yet determined to hitch up her wagon and get out of town.

The album's lyrical content suggests that it is autobiographical - 'Gypsy Child' charts her journey 'all the way from Toronto to Tennessee'. In the title track she sings, Well, you don't know me/I'm a nobody ... Like an old tin star all beat-up and rusty/Lost in the shining stars of Nashville, Tennessee/Well, I wrote this song for those who are like me. These lyrics initially seem disingenuous because she simply doesn't sound like a nobody - she sounds like someone you can't ignore, someone you shouldn't delay knowing a moment longer - but she is sincere, and these lyrics, like many others on the album, depict her as a dreamer whose dream has taken her far and is still being played out.

There's an underlying melancholy to some of the tracks, such as 'Lived and Died Alone' and including 'Tin Star'. It's a necessary balance to the brassiness of some of the other tracks, because Ortega is not a one-note performer. Moreover, we have the sense that she is always in command. The lyric 'I want you to want me' in 'I Want You' sounds like it should be coming from a desperado - but Ortega sounds as if she's in no doubt about the outcome: she will prevail.

Having been gripped by the first bar of this album, I was still in thrall by the end - and over and over again. It's an accomplished piece of work from that best kind of dreamer: the one whose dream is made manifest.

Tin Star by Lindi Ortega is out now (through Last Gang Records in Australia).

Lindi Ortega is touring Australia:

Tuesday 22 April at The Toff in Town in Melbourne
Tickets from

Thursday 24 April at Brighton Up Bar in Sydney
Tickets from

Lindi will also appear at:

Gumball Festival, Hunter Valley, NSW - 12 April
National Folk Festival, Canberra, ACT - 17-19 April
Boogie Festival, Tullarook, Vic. - 20 April

Monday, April 7, 2014

Album review: Bittersweet by Mark Fitzsummons

Continuing the tradition of high-quality independent Australian country music albums, Bittersweet is an impressive debut album from Tamworth native Mark Fitzsummons. Fitzsummons's musical style has several influences, including country, but while it's not strictly a 'country album' musically, its dedication to storytelling marks it as an album that would appeal to the country audience. 

Fittingly for its title, Bittersweet is by turns haunting - rather than melancholic - jaunty and romantic. Fitzsummons's concept for the album was that it would ' attempt to create a life. One not content to survive in a safe haven of grey but filled with darkness and light, happiness and tears.' He has achieved this not only through the lyrics he's written but the way the songs are performed - and that is not always easy to achieve. It is one thing for a songwriter to have a palette of emotions to choose from in writing lyrics; it is another to be able to paint those emotions musically. Bittersweet take the listener on that journey of a life - we feel the highs and lows, the crowded moments and the lonely times. 

Hopefully Fitzsummons hasn't exhausted his store of songs - it would good to hear more, and soon.

King at DirtnDust Festival

Townsville band King - whose blend of rock, rap, blues and, yes, country sounds odd on paper but really works in practice - are on the bill for the DirtnDust Festival at Julia Creek in Queensland this week. The festival will be held from 11 to 13 April. Partly I wanted to flag that King are playing - and partly I thought any festival called 'DirtnDust' needs a mention on a country music website!

Also appearing is Jer Gregg, a New Americana artist from Nashville. So the music alone makes this festival worth a visit - but there also seem to be horse races, bull ride and something categorised as 'gum boot and slush events'.

For more information about the festival, go to

For more information about King, go to

Interview: Christopher Coleman

Christopher Coleman is a young musician from Tasmania who records - and usually plays live - with a changeable group of musicians, under the name Christopher Coleman Collective. The Collective has just released its self-titled debut album, and I recently spoke to the very talented man at the centre of it.

Are you on the road at the moment or are you in Tasmania?
I just got back. We started over in Port Fairy for the folk festival there and now I'm back for the Spiegeltent launch in Hobart tomorrow night, yeah. So we've four shows in, 15 to go.

I'm going to launch into a fairly direct question drawn from your bio, which is how does a quiet and anxious child go on to become a performer?
[Laughs] I've got no idea. It's a complete paradox which I haven't the slightest - yeah, the human mind does curious things, doesn't it?

Well, your music and your bio actually suggest that you've got quite a passionate nature so, maybe, I don't know if music is an overriding passion in your life. Maybe that's how it takes you from being quiet and anxious child to being a performer?
Yeah, absolutely. It's the one love, I'd say.

You grew up in a musical household and - except from - you said that you didn't start writing songs until you were 16 despite being surrounded by songwriters, it seems, at home. So I was wondering what might have changed for you around that age that you decided to start writing songs and, I guess, playing more because you didn't play much as a child either?
Yeah. I think it was hormones, really –

– that prompted me to start writing. But, yeah, I did get an instrument when I was three or four. It was a ukulele, and then [I] played the trombone in a primary school band when, I guess, I was 11. And then when I was about 13, I started tinkering away on my dad and older brother's guitar. And yeah, by 15 I was ready to write songs [laughs].

So just back to what you said about hormones being what made you write – was that because you were trying to pick up boys or girls or just to express what you were feeling?
It wasn't a conscious thing. It was - yeah, I was just sitting at my grandparents’ shack and noodling away on a guitar and then thought I've got a little vocal melody happening and got a pen and what came out was my first juvenile love song.


First of many to come.

Do you still have that song tucked away somewhere?
I do but it'll never see the light of day if I have anything to do with it.

It's part of your archive.
Yeah [laughs]. Yep.

You mentioned in your bio that in one of the earlier bands you were in, you were playing old-time happy-go-lucky numbers in nursing homes. And I was wondering what sort of old-timey songs they were.
It was ‘Side By Side’ and ‘When the Red, Red Robin’ and ‘Bye, Bye Blackbird’ and ‘What a Wonderful World’, ‘Long Way to Tipperary’. The wartime songs.

And are those songs that you were familiar with growing up, or you decided, given that that was your audience, you would go out and learn them?
It was curious – I guess my grandmother plays piano and so at Christmas time, after a few bottles of wine and being drunk, we'd all gather around the piano and just sing out these songs. So they were kind of etched in the back of my mind and then, I don't know, me and a friend just decided to try and do something good and make a living from it at the same time. And that seemed like a really good idea – and it was, yeah.

Which is pretty extraordinary, because it's not that easy to make a living playing live. It's easier to make a living playing covers than originals, at least to start with, but it's still never easy. And reading about you, I realised that even though to a lot of people it might seem you were Unearthed on Triple J in 2012, Telstra Road to Discovery in 2013 – you're still very young. But I was looking at how much you'd actually played and I thought it's never an accident when someone matures at the right time, as it sounds like you have in your music. You've had a lot of playing behind you and a lot of different types of audiences. So that was your university degree, I guess, in music.
Yeah, yeah. It was my ad hoc apprenticeship, I guess. That and busking on the street and playing with other singer-songwriters and slowly writing my own tunes at the same time. And then it just out of a jam, a couple of years ago with a friend who came down from Sydney. We just called up a recording engineer the next day and decided to record what we'd done, just flicking through my old notebooks of what I'd written. And that was the first day of tracking for this album that's coming out.

Well, that actually brings me to a question I was going to ask a bit later, which is: given the fluid membership of the Collective, how did you gather people for the recording – but it sounds like it might have been an ad hoc process.
It definitely was. It was whoever was around at the time and whoever was interested in playing and liked the songs at the time. But, yeah, the recording process would usually be decided upon a couple of hours before we actually tracked something. As opposed to an organised rehearsal schedule and planning in advance to go in and record over X amount of days.

And in terms of who comes with you on the road, then, as part of the Collective, is that influenced by who's available or are you nominating who you'd like and hoping that they're available?
Everyone that I've played with, I love to play with and it's still very much the same approach: who's up for it and who's willing to slug it out for a little while.

Because there isn't a lot of money and it's a big-time commitment.

It sounds a bit like you're a ringmaster –which is appropriate, I guess, seeing that you're playing at the Spiegeltent.
[Laughter] You can say that I - I'd like to think myself as a peaceful dictator.

A benign dictator. Every organisation needs a benign dictator, I think.
[Laughs] Yep.

It seems very much from just the amount you've played, given how youthful you still are compared to – there are some performers in country music, in particular, who are in their seventies and eighties, so you're young relative to them.

But given the amount that you've played and the different forms your playing takes – busking and with the Collective in certain types of bands – it seems almost like you kind of exist on this musical wave and however the opportunities present themselves to perform, you just take them.
Yes. [It was] very much just like that from day one. It's become more strategised as the Collective has become busier and we've kind of got plans a year, a year and a half in advance now. But certainly the first seven or eight years was just blatant youthful enthusiasm to take whatever opportunity would come up. And it was extremely exciting.

To an extent, though, I think it puts you at odds with most other people in the world, to live in almost permanent creative flow, which is what it sounds like. It doesn't necessarily make for a contented existence when you're trying to interact with other people. So I was wondering if you sometimes find it hard to find your slot, or whether you've been able to meet people along the way who've gone with you.
It was funny that out at Port Fairy this weekend, I had the first feeling possibly ever where I was really a part of a tribe, if that makes sense. Like all of these people have met over the years, we're all just gathered in this one space for four days and we could all just hang out. Peers among peers, and it was a sense of belonging which was really a great feeling. You know how in most of other workplaces there'll be the organised Friday night drinks after work. I've never experienced that so much with music because it's – I don't know. You don't run into each other all that often.

Unless you're playing festivals, I guess.
Yeah, yeah. And it's really, really cool to be at that point now where we are and just to relax over a long period of time and catch up and console one and other about what's hard or what's great, and it was a really fun weekend.

So what, for you, are the hard things and what are the great things?
Well, it goes without saying that money – music isn't a wise choice if you want to be filthy rich or even to make a modest living, you need to be really, really successful, or what would be publicly perceived as really successful, is still only a moderate income. And also the lifestyle in terms of the highs of performing and that extreme energy that is transferred on a really good show to the next day at an airport by yourself waiting for a flight for four hours and then not having much to do for a couple of months until the next tour cycle comes around – it's very in your face one minute and then nothing. And trying to get some kind of balance is difficult and being content in both of those periods.

So what are the great things?
The great things are the – is the writing process. It's a great thrill and that's really just thriving and the pen is doing all of the work and you bring the song to the band and they're completely on the same level and surprise you with embellishments. And then the recording process, the little flashes of just working and vibrating really well. And then performing is one step further in terms of the adrenalin rush, and so sometimes the shows can just be incredibly life-giving like the best high you could possibly have.

And others not?
Yeah. Well, generally the shows are – you feel all right about them but you feel a little bit deflated. It's easy to focus in on the things that didn't go as well as you would have liked, rather than the things that did go well – but, yeah, generally most shows are kind of ‘yeah, we did all right’, and then there's the odd one that's just like ‘oh wow, that was really special’, and then an equal amount where it's just, like, ‘yeah, that was a car crash. It was a disaster.’ [Laughter]

And I suppose it's never easy to identify what the common elements are for the car crash ones or the excellent ones?
Yes. It's curious, because it's the same material that you're playing generally, bar one or two songs you might bring into change it up a bit. After a while, if you're introducing songs, they take a similar banter. It's not scripted but it's repeating a certain show to a certain extent. And so it's funny how sometimes it's just right and other times it's wrong, but usually it's just in the middle somewhere.

Just going back to something you said before about being publicly or what might be publicly perceived as being successful. I would imagine it's a real challenge for a songwriter and performer, and someone who is both, to think about wanting to have a viable career in music, in performance and in releasing records and also wanting to do just what you want to do creatively. So I was wondering if you ever feel … not a responsibility and not a pressure but something in the middle about having to release material and perform material for an audience. Not to try to please the public so much, but to try to build an audience and whether that affects what you write and how you perform if that makes sense?
I'm quite a naïve person and my approach is similar, in that I just hope, but without thinking about it that if I'm putting out and writing what feels good to me there's going to be somebody out there who feels the same way, and I just hope that if I love what I'm doing then somebody else is going to. When you break it all down, Deborah Conway, an Australian singer-songwriter, said that you really only need 1000 people who are interested in your stuff who are willing to come to a show whenever you tour and buy each record. If you release a record each year, a thousand people – and you do that on a yearly basis. You can carve out a little niche career and that's all I'm really interested in achieving. Just trying to find your little community of like-minded listeners, I guess.

And I think the key to connecting with an audience is also in something else you said earlier about the pen flying across the page, doing the work itself, which suggests that you're a storyteller who understands the nature of storytelling, which is that the stories don't necessarily belong to you. That you're the one who's communicating them to an audience. The best storytellers are the ones who have that experience that you've just described, which is the stories come through you and because you're trusting that process to a great extent, you're letting the stories tell themselves. They do find an audience.
Yeah, yeah. The songs are so much stronger when I'm completely overtired and uninhibited. Then when it's, like, ‘all right, this week I'm going to try and get down to the piano at 9 in the morning and I'm going to write for three hours and then …’ I haven't mastered the art of the conscientious, focused writer. I'm still in that youthful, completely reliant on the muse [phase], I suppose.

I've actually only ever interviewed one singer-songwriter – and I've now talked to a lot of them – who turned up every day at the studio and wrote. Everyone else, regardless of age, seems to wait for the muse to strike or the flow to kick in or however you want to describe it.
Yeah. Right.

The one person who did do it every day said that she did that because she said you have to write the bad songs in order to get to the good songs and that was her process.
I agree with that but I just can't seem to do it. But that's the thing – the people that I really look up to, like your Nick Cave or Paul Kelly, Leonard Cohen, they've all said that they get down there and even ABBA all turned up to work and did varying levels of how hard they pushed it. But, yeah, I think you need to be ready it all times at least to honour when the muse does strike, I guess.

Except Benny and Björn from ABBA used to go to their nice little cottage on an island off Stockholm to write.
[Laughter] They wrote some great songs.

They absolutely did. They were also control freaks in the studio, by the sound of it [laughs].

Now, I'm curious that you went into Telstra Road to Discovery, because it used to be Telstra Road to Tamworth. It's not that any more. But it's quite a structured talent quest, for lack of a better descriptor – the structure of it seems to be slightly at odds with what seems to be the fluid nature of your work usually. So how did you find being in Telstra Road to Discovery?
It was completely bizarre and you picked it well in – it didn't come naturally to me, but I'm so glad that I did do it because it was just a whole new community of people to bounce ideas off and some of my really closest friends were a part of that. And there's no doubt that the program has led to some really great opportunities for my music and they're really genuinely supportive of emerging independent artists, [and] I don't know of any other massive corporation doing that. I'm sure they've got their reasons to do it but it was so much more of a pleasure than I expected it to be.

Well, that's fantastic. And I've got to say from my perspective, as someone who now has a lot about the Australian country music industry in particular, the country music audience is extremely receptive of new artists regardless of age or sex or even the sub-genre of country music therein. And I think because it was originally the Road to Tamworth, Telstra knew that they could take young artists and get them out to an audience and the audience would be receptive. And I think that hasn't changed, even though it's no longer just focused on country music. Country music to me is an anomaly, really, culturally speaking, in all sorts of ways, because it seems to be the only form of Australian culture – including books and films – where there's an audience just wanting and accepting new artists. It's really fantastic.

So there you go, that's my little spiel about country music [laughs].
I couldn't agree more. I had my first experience at Tamworth earlier this year and it was very much what you were describing.

I'll just ask you one more question, because I realise time is ticking away. Your album is an independent release, as a lot of albums these days are. I'm starting to wonder if record companies will have anyone left to put out. And I was wondering if you like having your independence or has it been more work than you expected?
No. I'm really glad, I'm so glad that it's independent. I'm very lucky to have got a team around me to help all of the logistical and business sides of the process. I don't think that I could - I certainly couldn't have done it all myself. But yeah, I imagine that all of my releases will remain independent.

I think it's a really interesting time actually, in Australian music, at least. I don't know what's happening elsewhere but I'm seeing such great quality recordings, including yours, as independent releases and the artists owning their own material, owning their own recordings which never used to be the case and putting out beautiful-looking CDs and the quality of the production is fantastic. So it's a fascinating time really.
Yeah. It's really open for every man and his dog and that's a really good thing.

Before I close, I'm just going to say when I was first listening to your record I thought it was going someplace and then it went absolutely another, and it was a really beautiful revelation when it went into these other places. And I think that's probably the way your music and career will continue to go, heading in one direction, going to another but the results will always be great.
That's kind, thank you.

Christopher Coleman Collective is out now.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Album review: Nothing to Win and Nothing to Lose by anchor & the butterfly

Australia is a country of landscapes both harsh and beautiful, and rarely anything in between. We have expanses of silent land and crowded skies of screeching cockatoos; quiet forests in which the only sound seems to be leaves breathing, and beaches noisy with crashing waves. We don't tend to think of the city as what defines us - it is the natural world that makes us who we are, regardless of where we live. But it is the city that dominates a lot of our cultural output - as it must, for most of us live in cities. Rarely, though, does anyone attempt to capture those rich whispers of the Australian landscape in recorded sound. 

Nothing to Win and Nothing to Lose by Victorian duo anchor & the butterfly opens with a track so evocative of the Australian landscape that I almost expected to open my door and find that I had somehow been transported to a paddock on a dewy morning, magpies in the trees around me and the sun just starting to strike the ground. No matter how many times I listen to it, it is always so moving that I want to stop whatever I'm doing and just listen.

This track, 'A Lone Star', is the perfect introduction to this album, which picks up pace - although not too much - in a mindful way, the structure of the album suggesting careful thought about how songs would best fit with each other. 

Singer-songwriter Bridget Robertson is a heartfelt narrator of the stories in these songs; guitarist Lance Hillier complements her perfectly, producing delicate strains or more robust accompaniment as required. These songs are restrained without being constrained; they are layered and also crisply produced. Hillier's guitar is the constant in amongst any other instruments that appear - it keeps track of Robertson's voice, weaving around her, supporting her, cajoling her.

This is not an album for those who like their country music replete with duelling banjos, but it is worth the attention of anyone who likes to give time to music and who will get time in return - this is an album that will stand up for years to come, and it rewards repeated listening. For anyone who loves music, what could be better?

Nothing to Win and Nothing to Lose is out now.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Faith Evans Ruch: new single 'Don't Go'

My new favourite Tennesseean. Faith Evans Ruch, has released a new single from her album 1835 Madison. 'Don't Go' showcases Faith's distinctive vocals at their best. You can listen to the album version here:

Or see a very fine live version below, performed in Memphis:

1835 Madison is out now - visit Faith's website at