Sunday, March 8, 2015

Interview: Travis Collins

Travis Collins will be well known to Australian country music fans. He won Star Maker in 2004 and released three albums, then he seemed to drop out of sight for a while. I saw Travis play live once - just a short set, but enough to leave a deep impression - and became convinced that he was destined to be known far and wide. His new, fourth album, Wired, should certainly help set him on that path. Recently I had the chance to speak to Travis and found him to be a thoughtful, passionate artist whose commitment to music is clear. 

I’ll start off by saying the album is terrific. I only got it a couple of days ago, but I’ve been listening to it on repeat.
Oh, thanks.

It’s a really great piece of work, really well balanced. You can hear your lineages, if that makes sense, and it also sounds like you’re having a lot of fun on it, mostly. Obviously, the last song is an exception. But, was it a lot of fun to make?
Yeah. I kind of threw away the rule book when I went into the studio with this one. The biggest difference that’s noteworthy is that this was the first time I’d produced an album, sat behind that desk and played that role by myself. And, yeah, it was a massive learning curve. I’ve got to tell you, producers are worth their weight in gold. It’s hard. It’s so hard [laughs]. But, I think, I just threw away the rules, and didn’t really try and follow any particular trends as such. I think a lot of people are caught up in trying to guess where country music is going. And I thought I’d just do an album that was celebrating my favourite part of where country music has been. And that was honky tonk music, and the really big rocking pianos, and electric guitars, and songs that mean something. So I went back for that, and I’ve been really, really amazed with the reaction to it. The response has been quite astounding.

Well, as I said, it’s a fantastic album, so I’m not surprised other people are saying that. But, just in terms of your role as a producer, I guess there’s not a divide, necessarily, but you’ve got to, as a producer, look at the songs as how the audience would hear them, and try to create them in that way. But as the songwriter, sometimes, I suppose, that might come into conflict. So did you have any of those moments of thinking, oh, God, I’ve written this song, and I’m not sure if it’s working?
Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And that was the biggest thing about this particular record, and wanting to produce it myself, was that if I was going to be fair dinkum and do that role the way it was supposed to be done, then I had to be mindful and respectful to the fact that, as a producer, I was going to have to make decisions that myself as an artist might not have been super happy about. It sounds, kind of, just schizophrenic to say it like that, but there’s definitely two hats, and you can’t wear them both at the same time. When I selected the shortlist of these songs there were a whole bunch of songs, including my own, that were on the table, and the first thing that I had to really step up as a producer was to admit to myself that the songs that I’d written weren’t on par with some of the other songs that I’d found. And this album doesn’t feature a single one of my own writings. And that was hard to do as an artist. But, as a producer, I think the album is better for it, because I just couldn’t convince myself that the songs I’d written were up to the standing of the ones I chose. And so I had to be real with myself about that, and just make the greatest album that I could with what I had. And that meant taking a few punches as an artist [laughs] from myself as a producer.

Well, absolutely. And I would think it would be quite a confusing process, in some ways, because, obviously, you’ve been writing songs for a long time, and you’ve had success at it – and those songs are still there now. So what happens to them?
I don’t know what happened creatively, but once I made the decision to run with these 11 tracks, subconsciously the writer part of my brain has just switched on since then. I don’t know exactly what it is, but something happened by not choosing a single one of my own songs for this record, that the writing side of me is absolutely switched on now. So it’s really, really flicked a switch somewhere, and I can’t wait for the next thing. I’ve just been writing ever since the final few sessions of Wired, writing things on the back of anything, whatever’s in front of me, a napkin, or a business card, or set list, I’ve been writing songs everywhere.

It’s something has happened to your creative flow. You’ve managed to step onto the wave and start to ride it to the shore.
Absolutely. And I think this album, Wired, has been a real good direction for me. And maybe that’s what my writing was missing before. And up until this album I didn’t really know what I was trying to be as a style, or what my niche was within country music. And I think taking a break away from my own songs, and just really focusing on building what I wanted ‘Travis Collins’ to sound like, it has really helped my songwriting side go, okay, well, cool, I see what I’m doing now. And since then all this stuff has been coming out.

And you’re still young. So I think you won Star Maker when you were 19. And that wasn’t that long ago. So this could be part of your maturation as an artist, finding out what your identity is and who your audience is.
Yeah. Star Maker feels like a lifetime ago. It’s been the greatest of ten years – ten or eleven years now – but, yeah, you’re absolutely right. And sometimes figuring out who you are is – as a person, and who you are musically are so tied together that you don’t even realise how close they are. But this whole process of Wired – the metaphor of Wired is me coming out of my independent days, and plugging back into a label, and plugging into a manager, and really just having the biggest throw of the dice that we’ve had yet. And that was this album. And so Wired became more than a concept about me and the people that support my music, and being connected. It became me and the industry getting back into being connected. So the last couple of years have all been about that metaphor of getting wired, and feeling connected to things, and having a team around me. And I’m really looking forward to not only the release of this record but where these relationships go in the next few years.

I have to say, and I will be frank, that it seems like you’ve been quiet the last little while. I saw you play at a Warner Bros party at Tamworth a few years ago – I’m trying to remember which year it was – and I just thought you were amazing live. This was before McAlister Kemp but that kind of big audience that McAlister Kemp gets, and the big performance you had even at The Pub. And I thought you had a sound that could really fill a huge space. Then you seemed to go a bit quiet. And I was thinking, Where has he gone? This guy should be hugely famous. So, obviously, it has been a bit quiet.
Yeah. And thanks for that compliment. I remember the gig you’re talking about too. That was – it was an ABC Warner night. But you’re absolutely right. I did my first two albums at ABC Music. And then I had a management deal fall apart around that time. And I lost a lot of faith in not only the people around me, I lost a lot of faith in what I was doing. And I started questioning if it’s the right road for me. I spent the first couple of albums recording songs and doing things the way that I thought people wanted me to do them, and not the way that I actually wanted to do them to make a difference. So the third record, which was a self-titled thing, was really just me stepping away, and really doing a bit of soul searching. And that album I wrote a lot of the songs, and it was a process of me trying to find out, frankly, if I loved it, if I wanted to do it forever. So I thought, let’s just cut all the trims off. So for three years there I was without a manager, I was without a label. And I recorded an album completely independent, and just toured around, and sold it, literally, out of the back of the car. And that really reconnected me with no other distractions but music. All I had was music. I didn’t have big deals going on. I didn’t having touring going on. I just had music and different people responding to it. And it really taught me to love it again. So when I went into the studio with Wired, at the very start it was the same sort of idea. I didn’t have a label. I didn’t have a manager at the start of this. I went into the studio and recorded these songs, and then I made a few calls to certain people, and got told ‘No’ a few times. But I was standing in the right room at the right time, and chatting to a guy who gave me his business card, which led to another person. Then it’s – we’re ready now to release, and I’ve got this great team around me, and I’m feeling better about my music, and feeling better about where I’m positioned that I ever have before. And just so much more in love with music, and country music particularly, than I’ve ever been.

And that definitely comes through on the album. It’s related to you sounding like
you’re having fun, but it also sounds like you’re in command. And those two things sometimes don’t go together. Someone’s who’s having too much fun can sometimes [laughs] be a little loose on the recordings. But this one definitely sounds like you know your own mind, and, I guess, that comes back to you being the producer as well.
I guess, it comes down to the song selection. And you’re dead right, because I’ve found a lot of songs, and some of these I’ve been sitting on for quite a while, and the songs on here like ‘Million Dollar View’, if you’d asked me when I recorded my first two albums what a ‘million dollar view’ was I would have said, ‘A big mansion with a couple of Ferraris sitting on the driveway, and looking over the French Riviera’, or something like that. But now I’m older, I’m married, and I’ve got a little house in the country, and it’s a life that I just love, a life that I’d die for and it’s basically, it’s a little house, it’s a Mazda and a Ford sitting on the pebble driveway, a couple of dogs running around and a beautiful wife. I look around, and that’s the kind of stuff that country music is about. And that’s what this whole process, and this album, have been about. It’s growing up and realising that – it’s singing about the universals of everyday man and woman. And the ‘Million Dollar View’ is one example on the album that – I think I’m more connected to country ideals, and what country music is now. I don’t think – I don’t think anyone really – I know what I’m trying to say here –

No, no. I understand what you’re saying [laughs].
It’s a hard one to explain, but I feel a little more qualified to sing about it now that I’ve – the last six years I’ve been out of Sydney, and living a small country life, and I feel like I get the people, and [I’m] somewhat qualified a bit more than I used to be about it.

And it’s a huge part of the genre, I think, understanding that relationship with the audience, because it is such a loyal audience. I like to think of Australian country music as our national storytelling in song. I think it’s really important. It’s culturally important, and I think country songs and country artists have so much meaning for so many members of the audience. And you only have to be in Tamworth and see the looks on people’s faces to understand that – what that means to them. So to be able to feel that yourself as an artist is critical to your career longevity, but also, I think, for it to have meaning for you.
Definitely. And you’ll hear a lot of artists say it, but it’s such truth that all we ever want to do is get on stage and sing, even better if we write. But all we want to do is get up on stage and sing a song that the person down in the crowd can say, ‘Man, it feels like they wrote my life.’ And with Wired all I wanted to do was not try and analyse it or be too tricky with it. Like I said, I sort of threw the rules out the window, and instead of going, ‘Okay, well let me study country people and write about country people –’ six years ago I moved out of Sydney, I thought, you know what? I’m going to live the life of a country person. And that was nothing to do with my music, it was just where I was in my life. I made that change. And then suddenly it’s time for this album. I went into the studio and thought, I’m going to write a song about my life, and maybe it will relate to country people, and it has, which I’m just so blown away by, because one of the greatest gifts you can get is when people contact you and tell you what one of these songs meant.

Now, the next question you don’t have to answer, but it has just occurred to me while you’re talking to ask it of you, which is: do you think you won Star Maker too young?
It’s a tough one – it’s a tough one because, I don’t know, everything sort of happens at the right time in one way or another. But I wish I knew about recording and more about myself stylistically before I’d won it. So yes and no in a way. I see a lot of people come along and walk away with that fantastic opportunity and really don’t know what to do with it. And I was the case that I didn’t know what to do with it, had no idea, but pretty quickly was surrounded by a label, and a management, and agents, and all that sort of stuff. But I look at everything up until now in my career as an apprenticeship, and Wired being my first commission as a serious work. And I don’t know if that’s disrespectful for the previous stuff that I’d done, because at the time, when I was learning and going through those previous albums, they were the greatest works, at the time, that I could have made, but you get to the age of 30 and you look back with a bit more of a level head, and a bit more of an understanding of who you are as a person. And suddenly it feels like you’re holding the greatest thing that you’ve achieved yet. I don’t know, maybe we’ll talk in another 10 years and I’ll tell you what a rubbish album Wired was [laughs].

[Laughs]. Oh, no. I don’t think that’s the case. I’m a pretty hard marker and I wouldn’t have covered this if I didn’t think I could say lovely things about it, because I feel like I want to be in the business of encouraging people to buy music, not discouraging them.
Oh, now that’s so great to hear you say that, because one of my big [things] lately is –on my personal Facebook account I scroll around, and obviously I’ve got a lot of media friends, and industry friends on there, and the amount of people that I see just bitching about what’s bad out there. I constantly call them or text them and say, ‘You’ve just wasted an opportunity to talk about what’s good out there.’ So thanks for that.

The more I learn about Australian country music, and the more albums I hear, and people I talk to, the calibre of material we have here is so high – or the calibre of not material, but the songs and the artists is really extraordinary. And I think that’s an important part of, as I said, our national culture that the people need to know about. And I have actually found that at least half my readers now are in the US, so there’s obviously something about Australian country music that’s appealing overseas, or that people want to know about. And I think it is that the standard is just incredibly high.
I agree. Some of the stuff that’s coming through our ranch here is, one, exciting and, two, scary for me, because I know there’s a just a matter of a few years before they rise up through the ranks and drive my career into the footpath [laughs], but it’s really exciting. And I think worldwide, as a trend, a lot of music is becoming stagnant at the moment, and it’s not just country. A lot of different genres are getting a little too stuck in what they’re doing, and everyone is following the same herd. And I don’t find that Australian country music is. I think we’ve still got that genuine culture about us, and I think that’s really important to hang onto. And it has been forged and etched by so many legends before us just to keep – while we can be influenced by American music trends we’ve really got to keep that Australian dream alive. Like I said, one example, with ‘Million Dollar View’, and that comes from an American songwriter, but I think it really adapts here, and it sits well on this record because it’s talking about what everyone just wants to find, and it’s home, and it’s family, and it’s love. And, at the end of the day, that’s country music.

Yes. But just to go back to your comment about your career being driven into the footpath, I think another good thing about country music is that there is room for everyone, if you’re great at what you’re doing. Now, you’re already great at what you’re doing. So if you hold this path steady then there really is room for everyone, and also it doesn’t matter how old you are. So I think that’s the other thing. You can be 60 and starting your career in country, and the audience is quite happy to have you. Or you can be 60 and still playing, and they’re happy to have you.
Yeah. You know what I think? It’s also because one thing with country music is we’re so lucky that we end up in a scenario where we’re blessed enough to pick up a couple of new fans, country fans, they won’t stay with you for an album, or a single, or a tour, they’ll quite literally grow with you. They’ll get old with you, and they’ll follow your music into their later years. And it’s also a form of music that’s about feeling something and, like you say, it’s storytelling. And country music is about characters. Some of us are pretty rough looking. And some of us probably aren’t as thin as what some of the pop star counterparts are, but we get onstage, and the whole thing is really just about trying to make the person listening feel something. And I think that’s why we are so fortunate to have longevity with our fans, and our careers. I try not to overthink it too much, but that’s as far as I can attribute it to.

Speaking of Australian legends within the genre, and also longevity, you went on the Brian Young tour, and that’s, kind of, an arduous experience from the sound of it. You’re travelling around to a lot of places. Sometimes they’re not easy to get to. Was that a formative experience for you?
Oh, yeah. I’ve got to give credit to Troy Cassar-Daley, because the best line I’ve ever heard explain what a Brian Young tour does came from the mouth of Troy Cassar-Daley, and that was he said he went out on the tour as a young boy and came back as a young man. And I think that really, really ties it up. Because it’s – you’re not only out there learning about the music industry, and the dos and don’ts, and how to make money, and how to stick to a routine, and logistics, and all that sort of stuff. You’re really learning about life. And it’s tough days out there, but you have really good days as well. Being beside Youngy, he’s always constantly trying to make you a better gentleman. He could swear like a sailor when there were no ladies around but the minute there was he’d just as quickly clip you around the ear for dropping a rude word in front of a woman.

It was probably the best three months that I’ve ever had on the road in hindsight. And it’s crazy to say that now, because as the time I was just out there thinking, Oh, man, we’ve got to drive 800 ks today and play to 14 people in the middle of nowhere. But I didn’t realise at the time what I was learning. And what we were doing for those people out there in the bigger picture. And people would come in from cattle stations and farms that were 600 kilometres away. Some of them would drive as far as we did that day. Because for that one night, or the couple of nights that we were playing at that rodeo, or wherever it was, they could come in, and they could forget about their stock dying because they didn’t have enough feed – they didn’t have to worry about something for a couple of days. They could just come out and have a few rums, and listen to country music, and just be around other people for a change instead of being isolated, working, stressing, worrying. And I thought, You know what? That’s probably the most important lesson I’ve learnt in my career. And it holds to date. And that is it’s not just music, it’s an escape for people. People can come. And if you can sing something that hits them in the heart that they relate to, like I said, if you can have them stand there and go, ‘That guy’s singing my life.’ I remember the times that I hear a song and I think, That guy’s singing my life, or that woman’s singing my life, and it’s an unexplainable feeling. But when you can do that it’s quite affecting, and it’s something that just keeps me inspired to be out there doing it year after year, and it’s why I’m still here doing it now.

It is a really important job. Storytellers have an important role in the culture, and country music artists have a way of delivering stories, and providing escape, and providing reassurance to their audience in a far more direct way than other people, because you are willing to go to places that not a lot of other storytellers go. And it is a critically important role, I think.
Yeah, absolutely. And, I mean, country music – we’ll talk about the things that probably aren’t cool to talk about. And there’s a song on Wired, the last track is a track called ‘Lost and Uninspired’, and that was the one take in the studio – and I don’t say that as a brag, I say that because that’s all I could literally do. I heard this song on the 2nd of June, 2013 for the first time. And it was a song just about heartbreak – it was a male singer talking about a woman that left him. But, tragically, two days later I accepted a phone call, and I had to sit my wife down and tell her that her father had given up to depression and had taken his own life. And I didn’t listen to the song, or hear the song, for maybe another four weeks. But I tell you what, when I did put it back on and heard it again it spoke to me on a whole another level. And I just can’t help every time a get onstage now but come from that place now, because that was my experience with the song. And as you say, we go to some dark places, but I sing the song, and I tell that story, as hard as it is, when we tour, because I think suicide and depression are at just staggering rates in Australia, and we need to start talking about it.

Particularly in rural Australia.
Especially rural Australia. Like, where I’m talking about – places like out where I was with Youngy, and a lot of the places you don’t even have to go that far out. I mean, I’m an hour from the coastline here in the Hunter Valley, and it’s happening everywhere. It’s happening right beneath our noses, and we don’t see the signs, because, for some reason, Aussie blokes are told men don’t cry, and we grow up not sharing emotions. And it’s just absolute bullshit. So a part of the responsibility of being in front of people, and singing songs, and trying to touch their heart is to teach them that it’s okay to talk about things. This is my experience, and I want someone else to be better off for it, so this is why I’m sharing.

Speaking of going on the road, are you – no doubt you are planning a tour in support of this album. I don’t have dates in front of me, so this is your opportunity to say where you’re going to be and when.
Well, at the moment we’re focusing on just the few key festivals. I don’t really see us doing the road touring with this one until the last half of the year, maybe August onwards. But, to be completely honest, I’m having a meeting with my manager and agent next Thursday and we’re going to discuss our mud map and figure it out then. But as of right now everything has been about releasing the music, and getting it out on radio, and getting it talked about before we even look at getting on the road.

The conventional wisdom would probably be that you’ve got to promote on the road as soon as the thing’s released, but with country music people will turn up whenever you’re there, I think. So you’ve got time to do that.
I guess so. And we’re so fortunate to have a network of touring, and a network of festivals that we have. We’ve got our own Foxtel channel, which really helps, and there are hundreds of community radio presenters across Australia that do country music. There’s a few commercial stations as well. So we’ve got that infrastructure. And I don’t think we need to go out right at the time of release. Just play those few key events, and try and reach new fans. But I’d like to think we could probably get two, or the third single out of this album before we try and hit the road.

So the first single is ‘Curves’, and you could probably choose any one of the other 10 songs on there to release.
Oh, thanks, mate. I really appreciate that.

It’s true. It’s a really great album. I’m still exploring the nooks and crannies of it because that happens, I think, with albums. You put it on the first few times and there’s certain impressions of certain songs. And then the longer it’s on the more you find in it. But I think there is a lot more to find, which is always great for a listener to have multiple layers of meaning in the song.
Absolutely. Even though the production process was a couple of months long, it feels like it was a flash in the pan in the whole context of it. And so I came out of it a little bit scratched, and a little bit tired, and then when I get the master in my hand, go home and listen to it fresh and ready to hear it, I hear things for the first time as well each time that I listen to it. And it depends on what stereo I listen to it on, or where I’m listening to it, but I’m really glad it has got that aspect to it. But it’s such a credit to the engineers and the musicians that I had on it too. But I’m really, really happy, and so proud of this work.

 Wired is out now through ABC Music/Universal.

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