Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Catherine Britt set to shine in The Man in Black

If you've seen Catherine Britt performing recently, you'll know that she is sounding better than ever - her voice has become an instrument of soaring, controlled power. Usually she applies that power to her own wonderful songs, but for a few days she is going to lend it to the music of June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash, as she joins Adam Harvey in the show The Man in Black. I spoke to Catherine about the show and her long friendship with Adam, plus the changes she's made in her life since her diagnosis of and treatment for breast cancer. Catch the inspiring, super-talented Catherine Britt with the always-wonderful Adam Harvey Friday 3 June at Frankston Arts Centre in Victoria - (03) 9784 1060: Tickets available online at

Also showing on Tues 31 May – COPACC, Colac, Wed 1 June – Sale, Thurs 2 June – Warragul, Sat 4 June – Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo.

I’d like to start by addressing the obvious: you’ve been going through treatment for cancer that has included chemotherapy. A lot of people might want to have a rest after that but you seem to have just kept going. You’ve been in this show, performing. I’m presuming you’re feeing well.
I am. I’m feeling pretty good. I’m just getting my body back into healthy shape – it got battered around pretty good through it all. So I’m just starting to get everything back in order now, I guess, and starting to feel a little bit normal. It takes a good year to feel 100 per cent again, apparently, but I think every day I feel a little bit more like myself and I’m definitely on the right track as far as getting my health back in order. It’s a slow process but I’m feeling better all the time.

I saw you sing recently, and I have to say from my perspective of someone who has seen you perform a number of times, your voice is sounding better than ever and I wonder if you’ve noticed that shift.
I don’t know. I’ve had a few people say to me that I’m singing better now than I ever have and I don’t know what that is, but I’m definitely feeling better in my voice, like I feel I can do things that I couldn’t do before. I don’t know if it’s a mental shift – I'm just more relaxed now because life’s too short – or if something happened in the treatment that made my voice better. But I’m definitely feeling that way – I feel a lot more confident in it. I’m really enjoying singing at the moment. So, thank you.

You do seem very relaxed on stage and that might open up the channels.
I do think being relaxed is a huge thing, and my whole mental state – the way I look at everything – has really changed as well, and I’m sure that makes a difference. I’m sure those things definitely change everything, really.

So we’ll talk about the show – you are inhabiting June Carter Cash. Did you know much about her before taking this on?
Yes, I did. I’ve been a huge fan of the Carter Family and June herself and Johnny for as long as I can remember. Probably one of the first artists I really discovered was the Carter Family. So I love their story – I think everyone loves their story. It’s such a beautiful love story. She was a real saviour for him and those sorts of stories don’t come along very often. When you’re doing a show that has such a profound and amazing story to tell, and the music of Johnny Cash to go along with it, it’s going to be brilliant, right? The both of them are failsafes. I wouldn’t normally do something like this but I think when I was approached and I read the script and saw the song list, I realised how special it really was and it was one of those one-off things that I really wanted to do. And since we’ve been doing the show, it really is a great show. The songs are so well written, they never get old. They’re just so great to sing and so classic and I really love it. It’s not like we’re playing characters or anything – we’re Catherine Britt and Adam Harvey telling the story of Johnny Cash. It’s a little out of my comfort zone having to learn all that script. I basically tell the story as Adam sings, and I sing a lot of the harmonies, so my role’s quite different to what I'm used to, but it’s great. I really, really enjoy it. It’s nice to be in that offsider position on stage, where I’m not the one singing all the songs, I’m telling the story and doing something different – which really hurts my brain, to memorise that script. But it’s been really good for me to have to learn that and learn a new craft, in a way, which is great – I’ve always wanted to get into acting and things like that at some point. So I can see these as little baby steps towards those other, different things in the future. I’m really enjoying it.

Adam also mentioned the script. As he was talking about it, and also listening to you talking about memorising it, I wonder if it’s because when you’re remembering lyrics there’s a rhythm and a set way that those lyrics are constructed that’s just not there when you’re learning straight monologue and dialogue.
Well, that’s right – absolutely. With songs, melodies, they often tell you to make up a song if you want to remember something, right? A melody helps you remember. Some of it’s definitely easier. Learning a script was challenging for both me and Adam – we both really struggled with it. We’ve got it down now, but you’re always on edge, and that's what makes the show kind of exciting. You’re thinking, Oh my god, I’m going to remember everything, right? You’re always re-reading, pushing yourself to be the best each night, and I think that makes it a little bit different. Because you get on stage and you are so comfortable, you tend to start getting into those same rhythms and telling the same jokes, and I try not to do that, but you do that naturally. Especially if you feel like the crowd isn’t connecting, you pull your tricks out. Whereas with this, there are no tricks, there are no jokes, it’s straight dialogue and the songs and it’s serious. So it’s really different but we’ve both really enjoyed it. And Adam does such a great job as Johnny Cash. He just sings those songs so well. It’s really great to get to sing with him in that capacity.

I think what would be satisfying for the audience as well is not only knowing you two are established in your careers – so it’s not as if you’re outsiders coming into these roles – but both of you are very steeped in country music history and of course you on Saturday Night Country would bring your father in to talk about the history of country music, and Adam mentioned his childhood and teenage years singing along to Johnny Cash. The level of understanding that the two of you bring to this music must be infused in how you interpret the material.
Definitely. We’re both huge fans of this music. I think it really is just ingrained in us now, this history of country music. Especially in me. I grew up with a dad just educating all the town, and every week I got to do that with him on SNC, and now we’re about to relaunch it as a podcast. We’re putting our first one out on the 1st of June. Which goes alongside – I’ve just bought Rhythms magazine so it’s Rhythms Radio podcast but it’s the same thing: the Kitchen Sessions with Dad, that’s what we’ve chosen to do. I’m excited to be doing that again and learning all over again from Dad. I always learn something new when I hear all that stuff and I’m fascinated by it. History in itself is fascinating but certainly if you’re interested in an area of it and music is everything to me, so learning more and more about it just makes me happy.

You just casually said, ‘I just bought Rhythms magazine’ and then kept going – I’d like to go back to that for a second. I love magazines and think they’ll stick around, but a lot of people might think, Why buy a magazine?
My husband and I were looking for something to start a little family business, and especially after I got sick it made even more sense to just do our own thing, and then we could live the lifestyle we really wanted. He was working a normal job and wasn’t really enjoying it or getting inspiration from it like I do my job, and he really wanted that in his life. I guess it was the right timing and I was writing for Rhythms. I had a column in Rhythms for a little while and my dad was writing for it as well. And then Marty, who I was writing for, who owned it for the last ten years or so – he’s the second owner – he just said, as I joke I think, ‘You wouldn’t want to buy it, would you? Because we’re going to sell. We've been offered something else and we want to move on from it. We’ve been doing it for ten years and it’s time to do something new and give it to fresh hands.’ And you just don't really say something like that to me because I do it. [laughs] So we figured out a way and we bought the business, and we’ve just released our second issue. So we’re four months into it and loving it. It’s insane and we’re busy as hell but we love it. It’s really great. My husband’s actually quit his real job and we’re going for it, we’re doing it full time. It’s really, really fun. [laughs]

That’s amazing – congratulations. That’s a wonderful thing to do both for the idea of dreaming big, or working big, but also because you’ve made that shift for your lifestyle.
It is really a lifestyle shift. We’ve bought a van and we travel around and go to festivals. It works like the ABC [Saturday Night Country] did. I was talking to my mates on the show and that’s why, to me, it felt like such a relaxed show and people really enjoyed it, because it’s a musician talking to a musician from a musician’s point of view. The magazine’s the same because a musician owns the magazine now. It really is a very different point of view and I have so much heart and soul in it, and I really want it to be about the artists and supporting the music scene in Australia and that’s what we’re doing. We’ve got rusted-on subscribers who just adore the magazine and writers – we’ve got the best writers in the country, I reckon, as far as music goes. They are just so passionate. They just work so hard and they’re just really all so invested in it. So we’re really lucky. It came with an amazing team of people. And the guy who started it, Brian Wise, still writes for us. And Marty, the guy I bought it off, still writes for us. It’s a real family. It’s a pretty special little business.

Now back to Johnny and June: is it less pressure to do a show when you’re entirely someone
else’s songs.
Well, no. Because your songs are really ingrained in you, especially if you’ve written them – you know exactly where they’ve come from – whereas interpreting somebody else’s feelings, basically you’re singing their diary for them. It’s tough, you know. You’ve really got to get your head around that and get into that character and feel the emotions they were feeling when they wrote those songs. And telling the story – like I said, that in itself is a struggle. So it really is challenging for us. Which I love. I love a challenge. I love making myself feel uncomfortable, putting myself outside of the box. So all of that is really exciting for me but it is challenging, for sure. A lot more than doing a gig.

I’m getting more of a sense now of why your career has gone on so long and grown bigger and bigger: it’s because you’re not content to say, ‘Well, I’ve done that and I’ll just sit here and count my bon-bons.’
[Laughs.] That's true. I really do love to challenge myself. And I don’t like to make the same record twice, I really like to experiment and try different things, and I’m always discovering new music and being inspired. I’ve been really lucky to still have a career after all this time.

Adam said something about luck as well. I said, ‘Maybe.’ Country music audiences are loyal but they’re also very discerning. The level of professionalism that both of you have delivering shows and delivering albums means that the audience keeps coming back. And you can have the stroke of luck, but if you don’t know what to do with it, it’s not much use.
That’s true, I guess. You’ve got to be there when the so-called stroke of luck comes along, don’t you. You’ve got to be the one who grabs the opportunity. You’ve got to be a go-getter and somebody who works really, really hard. Both Adam and I do that. We’ve both really earnt our careers, I think, and I know Adam certainly comes from a hard-working place too, and he is very professional about running his business, and he’s got a family to take care of, so he takes it very seriously. I guess they’re the ones who survive, when you really do run it like an actual business. It’s really about running a business and being professional and working your arse off, because no one’s going to believe in you as much as you do. It’s really up to you to have a career. I think we both have an understanding of that, which is why we’re very lucky to still be able to do this, and pay our bills doing it.

 I think it’s also having an understanding of audience and paying respect to your audience. Your albums are different each time but what’s recognisable is your strong storytelling ethos and really great structure of the songs. So your audience can go with you on that.
Yes – my voice is the same and it’s still my songs, and the style’s still there, but there’s slight changes: we do a new producer each time or we try something a little different, and that’s what keeps it interesting. All of my favourite artists do that, so I’m really modelling myself after my heroes.

And you’re probably someone else’s hero – you just don’t know it yet.
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe, I don’t know.

You mentioned that Adam takes things seriously but of course he can be quite a joker. He told me that he would probably go easy on you – but has he? Has he played any jokes on you yet?
No, not really. I’ve been on the road with Adam many, many times throughout the years and there’s all sorts of stories throughout our history. Adam’s like a big brother to me – we’re really, really old friends and we’ve just always gotten along really well, and taken care of each other. I think Adam’s really seen me at my worst recently and he was so supportive through all of that. Because Adam really is somebody who’s always making jokes and ready to grab a beer – he’s a real blokey bloke. But to me he’s a real friend and I’m very lucky to have people like that in the industry that I can rely on who aren’t just colleagues or people I see at work. I could call him right now and he’d do something for me if I need it. And that’s when I know that people are really my friends. We’ve all known each other for so many years and we’ve really bonded, so it’s good.

Boneshaker was a terrific album. You’ve got the magazine, you’re doing this show. Adam mentioned that there might be some talk of the show going on. But: what’s next for you as a solo artist?
I’m heading towards the next album now. My husband and I are looking at building a little studio at home, so I’m going to make a record at home next time. I’m actually going to meet with the label next week and start discussing it, so I guess I’ll start getting into songwriting mode and next-album mode. This year is really about getting those songs together then starting to plan the next record. There’ll be something out next year, for sure. And then we’ll go out on tour. I’ve stepped into a little bit of producing other artists, and I’ve just done a girl who I really believe in, a debut artist whose album I hope we’ll be releasing soon. So I’ll take her out on the road. There’s lots of stuff like that going on. I’m always doing a million things.

And it might be wise to start the Rhythms record label …
Yeah. We’ve actually talked about it before, so that would be pretty cool. I don’t know if we want to run a label too, though [laughs].

How did the FU Cancer tour go?
It was amazing. We raised just over $10 000 for the McGrath Foundation just in donations alone. The shows were incredible, the guests were just unreal. We’re going to do it annually, a Newcastle one, and raise money for different things each year – raise a large amount for a local hospital or something like that. It’s pretty cool. It’s been a big part of my life for the last few months and I’m so glad it was so successful. We recorded a single to go along with it that’s coming out really soon through the label, and all those proceeds go to McGrath Foundation, which is pretty awesome as well.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Adam Harvey takes on the Man in Black

As if Adam Harvey wasn't busy enough with his albums and tours - solo and with his good mate Troy Cassar-Daley - he's taken on the songs and life of Johnny Cash in the show The Man in Black, co-starring Catherine Britt. Adam is one of Australian country music's great artists and great characters, and it was a lot of fun - and insightful - to talk to him recently. Victorians can catch the show on Friday 3 June at Frankston Arts Centre - 9784 1060: Tickets available online at

Also showing on Tues 31 May – COPACC, Colac, Wed 1 June – Sale, Thurs 2 June – Warragul, Sat 4 June – Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo

How far in the past did this tour have to be slotted into your schedule?
A couple of years, I suppose. It didn’t take too much convincing, though. As soon as they told me about the show I jumped at the chance. I love Johnny Cash. When I was a kid my dad used to brainwash me with all of his old Johnny Cash records and I used to sit by the stereo and I’d strum along and learn all those songs, and that’s how I fell in love with country music. That’s the reason I’m doing what I do today.

Well, that’s taken care of my second question, which was to be about your voice fitting Cash’s register – I wondered if you’d grown up singing along.
Very much so. You know, the funny thing is that because there’s a genetic disorder in the Harvey family and we grow too tall – it’s this weird thing, I was supposed to be about seven foot three, so they give you the treatment up at the Royal Children’s Hospital, they pump you full of testosterone when you’re young and that speeds up your growth spurt and speeds up puberty, and as you know once you go through your growth spurt you stop growing. So they stopped me at six foot four and my son’s just had the same treatment. So they pump him full of testosterone. He’s fourteen years old now and he’s six foot six, and that will be as tall as he will grow. Otherwise if we had letting him growing and growing, and then – as often boys are late bloomers – have his growth spurt at fifteen, he was going to be over seven foot two as well. It’s funny because we’ve got a grown man with a fourteen-year-old’s head – it’s a bizarre thing. But at least we’ve stopped at that height. The beauty of it is the specialist said to me, ‘Are there any singers in your family?’ and I said, ‘No, I’ve often wondered about that.’ The specialist said, ‘It was all that testosterone they gave you as a kid, that’s what gave you that deep voice and that’s the reason you can sing today.’ And I thought it was really odd because even as a young kid – my voice broke when I was about eleven years old because I was having this treatment, and I could sit and strum along to those Johnny Cash records and I could sing them all in the same key as Johnny Cash. It was pretty weird but in a way it was really handy, because it made it really easy to learn those songs off Dad’s records because I could play them in the same key. So he’s played a huge influence on my life, Johnny Cash. The amazing thing about him – my son hates country music.

That’s a travesty, Adam!
[Laughs] I know. He’s found this amazing new band called Guns ’n’ Roses. But he loves Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash crossed over all sorts of boundaries and people who don’t necessarily listen to country music, they all know Johnny Cash, they all like his stuff.

The song structures are fairly straightforward but the lyrics are not. I wonder if having a simple song structure makes it easier for people to approach country music. But when they hear the lyrics – well, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ is a song with a lot of layers.
Very true. And maybe you’re right – maybe there is something in that, that’s why people are attracted to those songs and the stories. Let’s face it: he was very genuine. He lived what he sang about. He had that hard life and all sorts of substance abuse and in trouble with the law and all of that stuff. So when he sings it, it comes across as very real, I guess, and I think that’s what made it even better.

Just back to your voice: it’s one thing to have the register and be able to sing along to the songs, but it’s another to learn to control your voice so you can have a career as a singer. So at what stage did you learn to make it an instrument?
Ah … I haven’t yet [laughs]. I’m still learning. I guess as I got a bit older and started to go through high school and form bands, and then as I practised more and more, it’s like anything: you’re practising guitar or practising skateboarding, and it doesn't matter what you do, the more you do it the better you get at it. I guess over time when I learnt to use it more and hold my notes longer and get a bigger vocal range. I’ve never been one who’s gone and learnt scales and done any of that, I think it was just a matter of being out and singing all the time that forced me into that. It’s a funny thing: I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. For years I had other jobs and did different things but I always had music. I was always in a band or always singing or learning songs. And in the end my old boss said, ‘Listen, you’re going away all the time to festivals and travelling around doing support acts, but you’ve got to get serious either about your career here at work or this music caper, but you can’t keep doing both half arsed.’ So he said, ‘I hate to say it but I’m going to make you choose.’ It was probably one of the best things ever. It forced me to take a chance and follow the music.

And it’s working, because anyone who has to book in a show two years ahead is someone who’s
making a go of the music.
[Laughs] I’m just lucky, that’s all. One of the great things about the country music audience is that they’re very, very loyal. If they like what you do they tend to stick with you throughout your whole career. Whereas when I look at my kids, they sort of follow something for about a week – it’s like trends –and then they’ve all moved on to something totally different. But we’re very lucky, the country music singers.

The country music audience is always open to new artists. You mentioned luck – there’s the element of making your own luck because you’re professional. You turn up and give them a great show, you give them great albums, and they know they can rely on you to do that over and over again, and that earns their loyalty.
You’ve still got to get lucky and be in the right place at the right time. I see a lot of people out there who are really talented and they just haven’t got the lucky break.

Okay, we’ll give you a bit of luck but I still think there’s a lot of professionalism in it.
[Laughs] And bloody hard work. Plenty of that.

Exactly! But back to Johnny Cash. The songs had already been determined, because the show had been on the road before, but are there any not in there that you really wish you were singing?
To be honest, we get to cover so many. And the beauty of it was when I saw the song list I was saying, ‘Yep, I know that. Yep, I know that. I know that. I know that …’ The only tricky part – it was a bit daunting at first and it’s okay now that I know it, but learning the script was really hard. There were about forty pages of bloody script and there’s no autocues or anything on the ground so you just have to learn it all and know it off by heart. It’s only recently that I’ve started to feel comfortable enough that I know it that well now that I can sort of make it my own and have a joke or change it around slightly. With Catherine [Britt], we can sort of bounce off each other a bit but we’ve always got the script locked into the old memory banks. But it was pretty bloody scary at first and obviously because we tell the story of Johnny Cash’s life from when he first started out dirt poor on the cotton farm and we go through and tell all these different stories from each chapter of this life – the good, the bad, the funny and the ugly – then we match in the songs that suit that particular period in his life. So it’s important that you get the story right.

Now, you mentioned Catherine, and you’re a known collaborator – with Beccy Cole and Troy Cassar-Daley, amongst others. What do you like about collaboration and is there anything you don’t like?
I love to work with other people. I love to work with talented people, and I think music is such an amazing thing and to be able to share that amazing feeling with someone else, whether it’s on stage or recording a song in the studio. You know what they say about how laughter is multiplied when you get more and more people together. I really, really enjoy it, and I also think you can learn a hell of a lot when you’re working with other people. And that’s one of the things that I’ve loved about the country music industry – we’re all pretty good mates and everyone’s happy to record a duet or get up and sing together. I guess the only downside is that a couple of times I’ve had people ask if they could come and write songs with me – when it works it’s great, but sometimes it can just be a pain in the arse [laughs]. You just want to pull your hair out, you know?

And I suppose you can’t really say ‘Get lost’ to that person.
It’s tough. I did say at one stage, ‘Look, this is not working. Obviously you need to write with someone else.’ Because sometimes you get these people who just show up here and they haven’t got any ideas for songs so basically they want you to come up with the idea, and they’re not sure what direction they want to go in and they’re not sure what they want to sing about and it’s like, ‘You’ve got to give me something here.’ [Laughs] That can be quite frustrating. I think a lot of those young people who are out there are not exactly sure of what they’re all about and what they want to sing about, and until they know, you can’t expect anyone in the country music listening audience to understand you if you don’t understand yourself.

It is a sophisticated audience – they like a story and, therefore, they like storytellers. And if you don’t know what story you’re telling, they will not respond.
That’s right, they won’t get it. I see that a lot and I think, Can’t you see it? But I suppose as you get a bit older you get a bit more comfortable and you know what you’re all about, what you want to sing about and what stories you want to tell.

I saw you and Troy on the very first tour for the Songbook, and you were talking about how it all came about – you were sitting around writing the songs on a serviette. And I remember looking at the two of you, thinking, These guys are having an absolute ball.
Very true. And I love that stuff so much – I really love that classic country music and the history of our music. That’s one of the great things about Catherine, she really loves that stuff as much as I do. She knows the artists, she knows the songs and the history, and that’s really nice to be able to sing these classic songs with someone who actually loves them too.

In her book Beccy mentions that you’re fond of playing jokes on people and I was wondering if you have any plans for Catherine?
[Laughs] She gave me a good old workout in that book. As I said to her. ‘Touché, my friend, you did that very well, thank you’, and she said, ‘I went easy on you’, and I said, ‘I know you did and for that I’m grateful, otherwise I could have ended up in all sorts of trouble: divorced or dead or buried in the back yard somewhere. But I love playing jokes, but you’ve got to be able to take it as well as give it, it’s part of the rules. So I’ve got to go easy on Catherine but she’s great, she’s got a great sense of humour and I’m just so happy for her now. I’ve watched her when we first started doing these Johnny Cash shows and she was so sick, having the chemo. I really admired her strength and the way she just wouldn’t quit. I’d say, ‘Mate, if you’re not feeling up to it’, and she’d say, ‘No, damn it, I’m going to do it, I’m going to get this right’. And all through the rehearsals, and when we started doing the shows, and I know how sick she was but she just wouldn’t let it get the better of her. And now she’s fighting fit again and she’s got this real zest for life – she’s got a real sparkle now and she’s just loving being on stage performing, and that makes it even nicer, to get out there and sing those great old duets with her.

And I think her voice is better than it’s ever been.
I agree, and there’s a real fire in her eyes, it’s great. We sing ‘If I Were a Carpenter’ and ‘Jackson’, some great songs that Johnny and June made famous – the hard part is that we’ve got to do them justice.

After this is over, and given how far ahead your life is scheduled, what’s next?
I know Simon, the promoter, is keen to take this show to New Zealand next and he’s even talking about taking it to Asia – apparently there’s a huge country music/Johnny Cash following over there. But in the meantime I’ve got plenty of touring with this Harvey’s Bar album – we’ve built a replica bar and had a big backdrop made up and it’s an exact replica of my bar at home. We set all that up on stage every night. That’s a lot of fun. It’ll go through to about the end of September and then I’ll start recording this Great Country Songbook Volume Two.

I didn’t realise that was coming.
That’s the plan. So we’ll record that towards the end of the year and release that next year.

Will you release it before Tamworth or after?
I don’t know. I’d like to try to get it out for Tamworth, in a perfect world. But you know what they say: if you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans [laughs].

Monday, May 9, 2016

Brealyn Sheehan is at Temptation's Door

It was my pleasure to interview Far North Queenslander Brealyn Sheehan when she released a single a few weeks ago. Now, the EP from which that single was drawn is out. Temptation's Door is not country music - as sometimes I take some licence with this blog, but only if I really, really like someone ... Brealyn is a real talent, and this time I had the chance to ask her about seducing an audience, writing music for a music box and other stuff.

Were you pleased with the reception for ‘Forbidden Fruit’, the single off your EP?
Yes, definitely. It’s been surprising in a good way.

I suppose it’s your first single so you’re not sure what to expect.
Exactly. When it’s your first release you have no idea what can happen next. So it’s been really, really wonderful to get so much airplay on the community [radio] stations around Australia, and a really positive response from the audience as well.

Given that it is being played around Australia, can you work out where it’s being played because suddenly people start following you on social media or they’re contacting you in other ways?
Sometimes you know from the radio stations themselves, or people who are using it through the airing services. Sometimes it’s from getting a message from somebody far away who is letting you know that they’ve heard the track and they’ve enjoyed it.

The themes of most of the songs on this EP seem to trend towards love and desire – not all of them, but a lot of them. How difficult is it to capture those themes and those feelings, not just in lyrics but in tone?
I guess the tone’s quite important for me and I like that to come across with each song. I get a feeling when I’m writing it that I want it to have a particular sound to it to emphasise what the lyrics of the song are about. I went in with a lot of notes about that kind of thing when I went to record, and the producer was pretty understanding of what I wanted, which was fantastic. I was nervous going in to my first recording wondering whether I was explaining myself well enough or whether I’ll be able to translate what’s in my head into the right words to tell the producer. It turned out [to be] pretty much what I had in my head, so that was fantastic.

Sometimes as a singer there are times when it’s just not coming out the way you want it to – it’s that mystical thing about singing that there can be something else blocking what you really want to do and you don’t know how to fix it.
Yes. It’s one of the challenges with the writing process as well, when you know that you’ve got something that’s starting to form and maybe you’ve got to spend some time on something else, and you’re kind of stuck and you know you’ve got to spend time on the song. Or something else is interfering with your thoughts about whatever the subject matter of the song is. It can be quite distracting. I choose at the moment to live by myself so I have limited distractions at home when I’m writing.

Do you have any tricks or techniques when that happens? Some people might go for a walk or they might take ten breaths.
Sometimes I find it helpful to put it down and walk away, whether it means I leave it for an hour or ten minutes, or whether I need to go right away from it for a while and let the idea develop a little bit more in your head, or just give it some space. Some of the songs come quite easily, I suppose, and others I need to sit on for a bit longer and figure out what the story’s really going to be about and develop it a bit further.

Some of the songs are about an ‘other’ – there is a character, for want of a better term, who is not you.
[Laughs] There’s a second party.

Did you write those ‘others’ literally – you’re thinking of a particular person – or are they idealised others?
Sometimes it is a specific person when I write but I have heard other performers announce on stage, ‘Oh gosh, I have to do this song but it’s now about somebody I hate.’ I guess what I prefer to do is not to attach a permanent feeling to a song – well, the songs that I’ve written so far have been fairly positive stories anyway, so there’s certainly nobody that I ate who’s been [an inspiration] in these particular circumstances [laughs]. But something that I’m a little bit conscious of is not letting that other character take over my feeling towards a song if it was a negative situation – but they’re all positive situations. And a lot of the time it might be a specific person or situation that’s inspired a particular song but I think you draw on other experiences as you write – at least, I do. So it might have started with the seed of one particular situation or one idea but I might start thinking about other things that aren’t specific to one particular situation might have continued the story.

And I suppose that’s the art of taking your work to a broader audience – realising that there are experiences that we all have in common as humans, and making sure that you’re transmitting what’s happening to you  personally in a way that everyone can relate to.
Yes, I think so. Songs can mean different things to different people. I know I’ve heard songs and thought, That song is about me! I know exactly how that feels. And then your friend might be sitting next to you and say, ‘This is exactly like what happened to me.’ And if you were to tell each other the story of why you think it’s about you, they could be two very different stories. I think it’s interesting the way people interact with songs and lyrics, and what they mean to them.

The way you sing – and I am sure you have heard this because you have that torch-song quality to your voice – it sounds like a seduction. If the song has an ‘other’ then it sounds like a seduction of that other, but there’s also that thing that happens with a singer, that the audience is necessarily involved. I hesitate to say that it’s a triangular seduction …

But there’s an element of seducing the audience. Every time you’re performing – and especially, I would think, when you’re recording and there’s no audience there – how do you summon that?
I try to think about what I was writing about, whether I’m attaching a particular person to the song or not. I try to think about the emotions that are involved in the story – I try to draw on that as much as I can. I think I’m fairly emotive when I’m performing and I’ve been known to shed the odd tear in a sad song. I think I would feel really weird if I stopped connecting some kind of emotion to a song. It would be harder for me to sing. Even if I decide to sing a cover I would want to choose a song that means a lot to me, that I can emotionally relate to, otherwise there’s too much disconnect – unless it’s something for fun, I suppose.

Especially if that’s what your audience becomes used to – they know they can have a certain type of experience with you, and if you weren’t having that yourself it’s not a betrayal of the audience but certainly they’d be disappointed.
I think so. It’s something I had comments on fairly early on when I started performing, about things like, ‘You’re quite emotive’, or ‘You have a way to connect with people by sharing emotional stories with people’. That emotional connection is a big part of who I am as a performer.

Listening to you talk I’m thinking about the creative life of a performer and songwriter, and what you need to summon each time you perform. It could be quite an isolating lifestyle, in some ways. Do you feel sometimes not that you’re alone in the world but that it’s your creative path to tread and yours alone sometimes.
It can feel that way. Writing alone feels sometimes like, ‘Oh goodness, this is just me by myself’. But I do get to perform quite often in a trio, and they’re used to me getting a bit emotional in rehearsal. It can feel alone, and the extra things you have to do around the writing and the performing – which, obviously, is why we go into it. All the other business that you have to do around it can be what feels the lonely part. But I’ve been fortunate to have some people give me some good advice and I have support from musicians who I play with, and a bit of help from a few key mentoring people.

And the other side of that is that music is an irresistible force – if that’s what’s in your life, and you feel that you need to obey it, there’s not a lot of choice there.
No. It’s something I always wanted to do but I was very nervous about doing, and from the moment that I did get up and sing something in front of a crowd – which was a cover – from that first moment I had a really strong sense of, Wow, this is what I want to do. And even though I still felt really nervous about it for some time, I guess I felt that this was becoming who I am, if that makes sense. As soon as I started writing probably even more so, I guess. It’s been quite a life-changing journey for me. It’s very exciting.

I’ll go now to the nitty-gritty of musicality. On ‘Wayward Girl’ you use a music box and on ‘Weight of Gold’ you wrote a trumpet part because you used to play trumpet. You have your voice as an instrument and you’re writing the songs – are you intrigued by the idea of adding these other instruments?
Yes. I know that my voice is my best instrument. It’s certainly the one I’m the most confident using. I do love instruments generally – I wish I could magically be able to play every kind of instrument but obviously that’s going to take some time. But I learnt piano as a child and did a little bit of clarinet and some trumpet at school. Now when I perform I’m mostly playing acoustic guitar or just singing if I’m with the trio. But I guess it’s something that I find very interesting, thinking about what else I’d want to add to the instrumentation on a track, whether it be for a recording or when I get the chance to perform with a bigger band. For my EP launch there were eight of us.

And I bet your voice was still the dominant intrument. 
[laughs] I imagine so. Having a big voice, I’m conscious of allowing space for other instruments to shine through.

I don’t think of your voice as a big voice in the sense of it’s booming, but there is a rich tone that would go across other instruments.
I think that’s a good way to describe it.

If you learnt piano, clarinet and trumpet when you were younger, I’m guessing you read music. So my question it: when you’re writing music, do you write it as music or are you inclined to just note chords or something like that?
It depends a little bit. With some songs it’s chords. With the music box song I started off with guitar and piano, and then to write the music box part you have to transpose your sheet music. So it’s a little bit writing out sheet music except you’re punching holes in a special card to wind through the music box. In that case, it’s definitely about the notes. It [also] depends on the situation. When I was writing trumpet lines, because I’m relearning the trumpet still I’m not very quick at thinking what notes I’m playing, so sometimes it’s a matter of recording what I’m playing and being able to look at it later or, in the case of the EP, I had a trumpeter – Cameron Smith from Brass Knuckle Brass Band in Canberra – come and play, so I was able to pass him the couple of parts that I’d worked on myself, instead of trying to write out sheet music for everything. I’m getting a bit rusty in that department! [laughs]

You are thinking of touring to support this EP – when’s that going to happen, if you do it?
It should be later in the year. At this stage I’m looking at the last third of the year. We have to nut out a few things before I can lock it all in. I have to get a bit of time off work. It won’t be quite as cold then for us poor little north Queenslanders.

Your voice could be affected by the cold, I guess.
It can be because I’m asthmatic, so I find that the cool can sometimes get me a bit wheezy, so I have to be conscious of rugging up properly if I go somewhere a bit colder and making sure I take a bit of care and look after my instrument, I guess.

Temptation's Door is out now.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Album review: Sad Reality by The Sacreblues Band

Some things are irresistible, such as the email I received telling me about a country-roots Americana band from Ireland and France. Given the Irish-music roots of eastern Canada, in particular, it's not such a surprise that Americana might sprout in Ireland. But France was harder to believe - until I remembered the chanteur-auteur-compositeur tradition. Singer-songwriters - singing storytellers - are as much a part of French culture as they are of Irish or American.

Which brings us to The Sacreblues Band who in their debut album, Sad Reality, have produced something wonderful and whimsical. It synthesises all those traditions and also sounds new. The hints of lead singer Mélissa Aït Chellel's French accent bring something fresh to this genre, and the choice of instruments used on the album nods to France while staying true to what you'd expect to find in Americana.

There are quite a few jaunty songs on this album, which collectively suggest that the band members have quite a good time - they certainly sound like they're enjoying themselves. In a world where the stakes are so high for each song, each album, that artists have to take every moment very seriously, enjoyment can often be absent. I can count on one hand the artists I've seen play live who smile while they're doing it (smiling while they're talking between songs doesn't count) - but it sounds like The Sacreblues Band could be added to that number. There is such lightness here - almost playfulness - that I happily listened to this album about twenty times before I remembered that I needed to review it.

Perhaps the concept of an Irish-French Americana band sounds unusual to you too. But hopefully by the time you read this you'll be convinced that a different perspective on old traditions can be deliciously good fun, for The Sacreblues Band have made it so.

Sad Reality is out now.

Old Man Luedecke - Australian dates

Sometimes I miss emails I really shouldn't - like the one announcing an Australian tour by Canadian gem Old Man Luedecke. He's in Australia right now and while I've missed a few dates, there are some shows still to come - fellow Australians, get thee to one of them!

May 10 -- Sunset Studio -- Newcastle, NSW
May 11 -- Gaelic Club -- Sydney, NSW
May 13 -- Illawarra Folk Club -- Wollongong, NSW
May 14 -- White Eagle Polish Club -- Canberra, ACT
May 15 -- Hotel Blue (Live at the Attic) -- Katoomba, NSW
Find Show tickets: here

EP review: Kayla Woodson

There are a lot of big voices in country music, especially in the United States. A big voice can come naturally, or it can be cultivated. In either case there's no guarantee that big is best. Sometimes the singer relies on the power of the voice to convey the message and doesn't develop technique. Sometimes they just don't sound like they believe in what they're singing. But I wouldn't be reviewing Kayla Woodson's eponymous debut EP if that were the case.

Louisiana native, now Nashville resident, Woodson has a mighty instrument in her voice, and she sings from the heart and from the gutsiest part of her register. If we look past the feeling in her singing, the technical accomplishment is there too.

I'm one of those people who listens to the voice first, then the lyrics, so Woodson could have been singing a shopping list for all I noticed at first. Instead the EP is a collection of songs - all of them co-written by Woodson - some of which are about love and associated difficulties (country music is also noted for not doing love easily). It's also clear that she sings from a place of confidence and strength, which is very appealing. 

This is a solid EP from an artist who clearly knows what she's doing. Now that she's living in Nashville, she's no doubt met a lot of other artists like that. What differentiates an artist who finds an audience from one who does not is often due to how well they connect to an audience. I want to keep listening to Woodson singing, so I'd say she's got that part covered.

Kayla Woodson is out now.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Interview: Keely Johnson

Keely Johnson is a young Queenslander who has lived with cancer since a young age, but that hasn't stopped her becoming a singer and songwriter - and she's also good mates with Lee Kernaghan, who is the subject of her song 'The Man in the Hat'. The word 'inspirational' gets tossed around a bit, but it only took me a few minutes of speaking to Keely recently to realise that she is. 

Not too many people have a song written about them – how does Lee feel about this song?
Well, when I sang it to him the first time, on the 25th of May 2015, I think he was a bit upset. I don’t know if he was crying or not, but I think he was pretty upset, and pretty honoured to have a song written about him.

I’d think especially a song by you, because you’ve known him for a long time, haven’t you?
Yes, I think it’ll be two years now.

How did you first met?
We met at a field day and I said, ‘I have this duet about childhood cancer’, and I said I wrote it, and then I gave him a look at it, and he said, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ I’d just shown him the first line and he said yes.

That must be so exciting for a songwriter and a performer, to have that happen.
I was jumping around the house for the next week, I think [laughs].

You’ve been a fan of Lee’s for a long time – can you remember the first time you heard a Lee Kernaghan song, and what the song was?
‘Something in the Water’ – oh no, it might have been ‘Boys from the Bush’ when I was really, really little. I can’t remember that, but the first song I do remember is ‘Something in the Water’ and ever since I would play that, on repeat, every single time we got in that car, and even when I was in a pram I used to love that song. My first ever concert was near Emerald. I was about two years old, sitting on my dad’s shoulders, and Lee’s guitarist touched my hand. That’s when I instantly fell in love with Lee [laughs].

Some parents might get sick of hearing the same song over and over again, but it sounds like your parents facilitated you liking Lee’s songs.
Yes, I think so. Now that we’re best mates with him, he’s not a superstar, he’s a friend, and that’s what I really plan on treating him like. I don’t want to treat him like, ‘Oh my god, it’s Lee Kernaghan!’ I had that moment when I first met him and that’s why I wanted to write a song about him, because he’s such a great guy once you get to know him. This song is my pride and joy, that is written about a truly wonderful man, and he helps so many people.

Now, you’re a songwriter and a guitarist and a singer – was he your inspiration for beginning to play, or have you listened to a lot of different country music over time? If so, who are your other inspirations?
I think Lee would be my inspiration, because he’s got so many people under him that I look up to. He’s my mentor. He’s told me to go to the Tamworth Academy, start learning the guitar. He really is my mentor on telling me what I need to do. He doesn’t say, ‘Keely, go to this or go to that’, but he’ll tell me wisdom that I need to know. He’s such a great guy, he really is. The day before I went to chemo I was given Keith Urban’s guitar at his concert. I’m a big Keith Urban fan too but not as much as Lee.

When did you first start playing guitar?
I’ve had lessons since 2013 but I never put my head to it, I always thought, I’m not going to learn this. But in the last couple of weeks my guitar teacher, Laveen Stewart, and also my beautiful singing teacher, Renee Grant-Williams in Nashville – Lee put me on to her too, she’s amazing. She’s taught Tim McGraw, Lee, Robbie Kernaghan, Faith Hill, Carrie Underwood, all those sort of people. And my guitar teacher, she’s amazing too. The last couple of weeks I’ve learnt some songs on the guitar and my fingers hardened up on the steel strings.

You have to get those calluses forming.
Yes, absolutely. And in a way, for me to write the song, it was just to say thank you [to Lee] for helping me, and I would love the world to hear it. I was actually on twelve months of chemo in Brisbane when I wrote this song. I wrote them down on paper and Mum helped me rhyme them a little bit. When I took it to my producer, Brendan Ratford, he added a few lines and put the music to it. Brendan knows Lee really well and he could tell me a few little secrets that I didn’t know. Some of the days I was pretty crook and tired but I needed to get it done for Lee. I really just wanted to follow in my hero’s footsteps, because he writes songs about soldiers, he writes about Slim. He has written songs about so many other people but he’s never had a song written about him before, so I thought the option’s there. I just wanted everyone to know how great of a guy he is. He was busking outside of a Tamworth tyre shop when he was young, with Ray [Kernaghan, his father], and then he went up on Renown Rock – the Roll of Renown, where your face gets put on a rock in Tamworth, which is the biggest country music award that he could have won. And I was there when he got presented with that, and in the middle of his song he said, ‘Hey, Keels.’ It was so funny.

I would imagine he feels as lucky to know you as you feel lucky to know him.
Like he said on Inside Story on Channel Nine, if I keep saying nice things about him he’s going to have to go up two sizes of Akubra. And, of course, I wear his brand of Akubra.

Your association with Lee has taken you to Tamworth, to perform with him – and Tamworth is the pinnacle, obviously. So that must have been incredibly exciting, to play there with him.
Oh, it was. In 2014 I did ‘Turn This to Gold’ with him, and I had no stage experience, so I didn’t have any ‘ears’ or anything like that. This year I was his opening act. I was introducing him on stage, singing ‘The Man in the Hat’. I am bringing an EP out down the track and I have met some of the most amazing people. And it’s thanks to Lee that I’ve met these amazing people, like Kerry Lee and Rachel Watson and Don Gough. These are all friends that I’ve made because of Lee and they’re the people who have helped me get through; they’re the people I’ve asked, ‘What did Lee do when he was younger’. And when you watch the music video, [there are] snippets of Lee – it has his grandparents in it, of him side by side with his Blue Devil Band, against Waltzing Matilda, Ray’s truck. His first Golden Guitar nomination and he won it. It really shows who he is. And while I’ve been using ‘The Man in the Hat’ to raise the profile of the Golden Octopus foundation – which he is the ambassador for, of course – I also hope the income will assist in my own extremely expensive ongoing cancer treatments. All the profits from ‘Turn This to Gold’ went to Make a Wish but all the profits from ‘The Man in the Hat’ is going to help with my growth hormone that costs $2000 a month. But mainly I hope it provides a level of hope for other children diagnosed with cancer, and against all odds you can tough it out and follow your dreams. I know I’m following mine because a great man has helped me create. I’m nowhere near getting a record label or anything – I’m just a little fish compared to all the big artists like Lee and Troy Cassar-Daley. I’d love to follow in my hero’s footsteps and one day, eventually, get a Golden Guitar nomination – that’s top of my bucket list.

Everyone starts with a single – Lee, Troy, Beccy Cole. They pretty much all started on Peel Street and everyone starts with a song.
Absolutely. I busked on Peel Street last year and I had great fun, so I’m definitely going to be doing it next year.

I’d like to talk about your foundation – why is it called Golden Octopus?
A lot of people think it’s a charity for an octopus, the animal, and it’s not. The reason I picked an octopus – and he’s called Ollee, as in Lee, and he wears an Akubra hat and he’s gold, because gold is the colour of childhood cancer. The reason we picked an octopus is because there’s eight groups of childhood cancer – bone, blood, brain, spinal, neuroblastoma … So each leg on Ollee is each different childhood cancer group. There’s not one charity out there that helps all the childhood cancers. Me – 0.7 in a million kids get what I’ve got and I didn’t have a lot charities that helped me, and there’s a lot of kids out there that I know, like Luke Spalding – he’s a V8 Supercar driver and he’s just started his career off, like me, and he is very, very rare, there’s only about three kids in the world like him, and he never had a charity to help him either. He’s an Octopus hero. There’s a lot of kids out there that are really rare, that don’t have a charity to help them. It’s not just the rare ones – we cover leukaemia and that sort of stuff too. If you have a child or a friend or a family member who has childhood cancer, pop onto our website, and email me and we’ll see what we can do to help.

I read that part of your interest in setting up your foundation is because of the challenges faced by children in rural and regional areas who have cancer, and obviously challenges you’ve had because you’re in Far North Queensland. Some people won’t realise what’s different about being in the country and needing this treatment – what are some of those challenges that rural children face?
I live in Ayr, which is about an hour away from Townsville. I’ve got no hormones. I’ve got no cortisol. Say if a snake bit me and I’m on my cane farm where I live, an ambulance can’t come and find me. Within fifteen minutes I’m dead because I don’t have any cortisol. But I’m very fortunate that my mum’s a registered nurse. There’s a lot of kids out in rural areas – we’re going to be putting childhood cancer nurses in these regional areas. They’ll have CPR training, chemotherapy training, so that if this child has been hurt or injured, the nurse gets called as well as the local hospital. With children living out on farms it does get a bit difficult, so that’s why we are putting telehealth systems into our local regional hospital so children don’t have to go to Lady Cilento hospital in Brisbane every three months or Westmead down in Sydney. They can go to their local hospital and Skype their doctor. I’m eighteen in August so I’m not under a children’s hospital any more.

That’s a big shift for you, because that’s a system that you’ve become used to and now you enter a different system.
Yes, that’s right. I’ve seen three-year-olds pushing round their IV poles because their mums are so upset they have to go outside and they can’t watch their child having chemo. The cancer nurses are going to help and support them too. That’s the whole aim of the charity. I don’t think of myself, I think of other kids and their situations. I’m very fortunate that my parents have paid for everything and that’s why ‘The Man in the Hat’ is going to pay for what they pay.

On the Channel Nine show you said, ‘I may be little but I have big dreams’. You’ve already achieved the dream of this song and you said that Tamworth was a dream – do you have any other dreams that you’re pursuing now or that you have in mind to pursue?
I have two. Raising a million dollars by the end of this year and top of my bucket list is to win a Golden Guitar. And bring out an album. So I have three big dreams. I also have normal teenage dreams like learning how to surf but music will come first [laughs].

For more information on the Golden Octopus Foundation, go to