Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Album review: Before Darkness Comes A-callin' by The Weeping Willows

One of the great things about the Weeping Willows’ sound is that their voices seem almost unexpected: strong, direct instruments that command the listener’s attention and then don’t let it go throughout the ten tracks on their new album, Before Darkness Comes A-callin’. And by 'unexpected' I mean that once they start singing it sounds like nothing else you've heard, which is automatically intriguing.

There’s also not a single trace of sentimentality or sap in those voices or the songs they sing, which means this is not an album for lightweight listening: it leaps out of the country music traditions that have influenced it and asks that the reader commit to it as wholeheartedly as its creators have.

Laura Coates and Andrew Wrigglesworth are the Melburnians who make up The Weeping Willows. Coates has a voice that could just as easily be turned to torch songs and Wrigglesworth has a distinctive sound that is quite different to Coates’s, in a very good way: to have two similar voices would reduce the effectiveness of each. Together they form a feminine-masculine balance that brings out the best in both.

Many of the tracks are short, effective productions, as befits their style. However, at the core of the album is the long poem ‘Travellin’ Man’, a wistful dance between Coates and Wrigglesworth, that creates a clever change in pace for the album.

The Weeping Willows work within an active, and eclectic, country music community in Melbourne. One of the best things about the wave of relatively new acts who are emerging from this community (and elsewhere) is the way they honour the lineage of the musicians who came before them while finding ways to communicate tradition to a modern audience. Before Darkness Comes A-callin’ is a country music album in the very best sense. Accept no substitutes. 

Before Darkness Comes A-callin' will be released on 8 April 2016.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Album review: In Our Blood by Kaylens Rain

One of the truly interesting, and wonderful things, about Australian country music is the variety of artists under its umbrella. This umbrella shelters artists as different as Kasey Chambers and The McClymonts; Adam Brand and Lachlan Bryan, Harmony James and Beccy Cole.

There is a spot under that umbrella for tightly written, well-produced and expertly executed country pop. The McClymonts do it incredibly well, and they're consistent with it. They're also siblings whose harmonies are sublime. Country pop isn't for everyone but when it's done well, it's very satisfying for a lot of listeners. Pop music is not the candy of the music world – it's hard to get it right, because the errors can be so obvious.

Kaylens Rain are a sibling group – a brother and sister duo this time. With their new release, In Our Blood, they have put themselves into that country pop spot with The McClymonts. Their harmonies are wonderful; the songs are great country-pop creations. While the lyrics aren't necessarily life changing – in pop, the lyrics tend to serve the music – these are songs that I've happily listened to over and over again, and I'm not tired of them yet. The key is in those harmonies, which are almost addictive.

The siblings, Kaylee and Glenn Harrison, worked with some experienced songwriters for this album, including the seemingly omnipresent Drew McAlister, and producer Andrew Cochrane. In gathering a lot of experienced professionals to help create In Our Blood, they've made a smart career move – this album certainly announces them as an act worthy of attention. Bigger shows and festivals no doubt await. 

In Our Blood is out now.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Ann Vriend on tour in Australia

Ann Vriend isn't a country music artist but I'm always willing to make an exception for Canadians (the reason for my declared bias appears in this interview). Ann is an amazing soul performer who is on tour in Australia, carting a whole lot of vinyl albums with her. Accordingly, this is being called her 'Those Records' tour. I spoke to her when she was between gigs.

So it's 9 a.m. – that's quite early for a musician.
You're right [laughs].

Are you a morning person by nature?
No. No, no, no [laughs]. But that's okay. It's easier to get up when it's sunny and warm out than when it's cold and wintry.

Now I read somewhere that you're an honorary Australian, so I thought I'd give you a little pop quiz. The first question is: do you like Vegemite?
Oh boy. The answer is that I do now that I know you have to spread it very, very thinly on your toast, because I used to think it was spread on like peanut butter or jam, and I thought it tasted like melted car tyre. Not that I eat melted car tyre, but …

I lived in Canada for a year and I didn't come across anything equivalent.
No, there is not. Except maybe melted car tyre. Which they don't serve in jars or anything.

Very true. The second question is: have you seen a platypus and, if so, what are your thoughts?
[Laughs] I saw one in a zoo in Melbourne, I believe, and I tried to see one in Tasmania but they were very evasive. So they kind of look like a cross between a lot of things. They're interesting. I wouldn't say they were really beautiful. [They look like] god was on a scrapbook day.

Third question: how do you feel about Kylie Minogue?
I think she's pretty awesome. She's like Cher – she gets younger and younger.

My last question: have you learnt to surf?
No. I've tried. I think surfing is like 99 per cent trying to get on a surfboard and then 1 per cent losing it in the water and having it almost hit you in the head.

I suppose also when you're here you're working, so you possibly don't have a lot of spare time, between travelling across Australia – which takes a lot of time – and doing the gigs.
It's true. It always seems to be eaten up. You think you have half a day off here and there's a bunch of emails and you have to eat, and suddenly there' not time to do anything [else]. Having said that, we have a few days off right now, which never really happens on a tour but this tour worked out that way. So I did go to the beach yesterday, and I didn't surf but I watched people surf. I don't know if that counts [laughs].

Absolutely. That is also part of our national pastime. Now, you're out here on tour partly to celebrate the limited edition vinyl release of your album. I read that you are bringing the vinyl with you. So I have a couple of questions. The first is: why vinyl? And the second is: what's it like transporting vinyl from Canada to Australia?
First question: I'm a huge vinyl fan. I grew up with vinyl and my parents had a vinyl collection, and I learnt to operate the turntable when I was three because they got sick of me always asking them to put on records. Also is quite a retro-sounding soul album, kind of an early '70s, early '60s soul and that, of course, was the heyday of vinyl. It's the kind of album that you have had on vinyl if it had come out then. Then I had an opportunity to get it pressed on vinyl because there's a new pressing plant that's just opened about a year ago in Canada – it's the only one in Canada right now. There's a huge long list of people who want to get their albums pressed on vinyl and there's not enough plants these days, so basically I got an opportunity to have it done fairly quickly, which is a hard thing to happen when you're not a major-label artist. So I pounced on that opportunity because it just seemed too good to be true. But then I had to get it from one side of the world to the other. I looked into mailing it and it was astronomical – it was not an option. I would have had to end up charging so much per vinyl copy that probably no one would buy it. But I fly a lot with Air Canada, with touring so much, [so] I've now reached the Air Canada Premium Elite club [laughs]. So that means I can take three large bags for no extra charge. So I just did a lot of really careful packing with a bathroom scale, like taking things out of one suitcase and putting them in another until each one weighed an even 22 kilograms. It took about 45 minutes to pack the vinyl to make that all work.

And then you're taking them on the road with you, because you're going to a few different venues. Given that you've been here a few times now, do you find that you're drawn to play in the same venues, or are you trying to look for different places each time?
I have an agent here, luckily, who is taking care of that. Some of the venues, I think, I've played before. For instance, in Sydney I'm playing The Basement, and I've played there a number of times. In fact, I even have a live album that I recorded about five years ago, half of it was recorded there. We decided to do this [tour] last minute – we weren't necessarily going to do the vinyl tour. Then when we got the green light to do it, it was already November. So the places that he would normally be able to come up with were kind of hard, because a lot of people tour in March, because of Bluesfest. So we were just kind of, like, 'we'll get what we can get'. That's how the tour has worked out.

I notice also you're going to Goulburn in country New South Wales – have you played there before?
No, I've never been there before. It's certainly not one of your big cities or anything.

Some people who work in Canberra either live in Goulburn or live nearby, so it is a bit of a satellite town for the nation's capital. So there are probably pockets of people there who will be happy to have a great gig to go to.
Right, well, that's always good.

And in the country people are more willing to travel for things than people in cities. Something can be on round the corner in a city and people won't go, but people in the bush will travel three hours to see a show.
I know, it's crazy – it's the same in Canada.

Those distances in Canada are even more vast.
And then there's always the excuse of, 'Oh, but the roads are probably not very good and they're dangerous' and we're saying, 'Well, we got to the venue.'

After you return from this tour you'll be heading into the studio for your new album. Are the songs written and ready to go or are you still tinkering?
I'm tinkering with a few, especially lyrically. Musically they're pretty much ready to go. Well, I should say that my part of the music – which is that I write the chord progression and the melody of the songs and the form of them, but then my producer does a lot on his end on the arrangement side. I kind of do some. It's back and forth – he'll send me a version and I'll say, 'I like this', 'Oh, take that out' or 'What about this?' But the production that he adds to it really takes the song from just me at the piano to a whole different thing. That process hasn't started quite yet but it will start probably within a month.

Have you ever been unpleasantly surprised by an arrangement he's come up with?

Not really. Sometimes I think, Wow, I never would have thought of this – it's so outside of what I imagined. But he's the first producer that I've never thought, This guy – what is he thinking? He's so off track.. And there have been producers in the past where I've thought, Oh man, that's so cheesy or, Why would they think I would like that? and just been really panicking because I spent all this money and they're super-excited and over the moon about this thing and I'm [thinking], Oh god, no. But the good thing about Tino, having done my last album with him, there was no time when I thought, He has no taste – what is he doing?

Because it can be such a great collaborative relationship but, yes, if you feel that you're being misinterpreted that sense of collaboration disappears and then the album's not yours any more, to an extent.
Exactly. It really does feel like that. You think, Someone's doing a cover of my own song and I don't like their version.

That would be a weird feeling.
It's a very uncomfortable feeling.

When I was in Canada I was involved in college radio so I found out quite a lot about Canadian music and was always hugely admiring of the indie rock scene, as it then was, coming out of Nova Scotia and some other places. Could you talk a little bit about what's happening in Canadian music, where you fit into it and whether there's an increase in independent, possibly crowd-funded releases, as we've seen here?
I think there's a lot of scenes that are picking up right now. Crowdfunding is definitely a way that a lot of independent artists, and even established independent artists, are funding their albums. There's less and less people on major labels. The indie rock scene is big and the indie pop scene is big – bands like Arcade Fire. Of course, hip-hop and R&B – The Weeknd and Drake are two massive, massive artists. Obviously R&B is mostly an American scene but has a pretty big part of the charts right now and there's a lot of producers of that genre in Canada, and writers – some big guys writing for people like Miley Cyrus. 'Wrecking Ball' was written by a Canadian guy. So I think there's a lot of different pockets in Canada that are doing really well. Where I see my music is mostly on the soul side. I'm definitely not going for the same sound as The Weeknd or Drake, but it's exciting to me to see their success and see how that fits into the Canadian answer to what's happening in American R&B.

When I was there, there was very much that sense that the United States was so physically present, for one thing, so Canada was holding the line at the border but also holding a cultural line against the US. Obviously you can't help but be influenced by what's sitting right below you but at the same time, for a lot of Canadian artists it almost seemed like a challenge and it seemed to generate a lot of creativity and not defiance, but that sense of wanting to do really well and work really hard to make a different identity.
I think so. And luckily the government of Canada supports that, in that they've recognised long ago that if they don't actively support Canadian culture, it will just get swallowed up. Not that we don't have a separate identity, but numbers wise we're such a small country compared to their population and also the fact that their major, number one export is entertainment. So, as a result, it's very competitive but there are government grants that are funded, mainly via radio stations, where you can apply as an artist to get funding to make records or to support your record. And that's a big reason, I think, why Canadian music is doing well – because we have been lucky enough to get some of that funding and actually have a fighting chance in the marketplace.

Well, it is important – they're your stories and it's Canadian art. And you are part of the Canadian export. So your next show is at The Basement, then Canberra, Melbourne, Goulburn and Brisbane. Is there anything I've missed?
We're doing a couple of other things that aren't announcable yet [laughs] and we're doing a schools show in Melbourne as well. And we're doing some video filming and things like that.

So you're using your time well while you're here.
Trying to. Although I'd better be able to go to the beach a little more just so I can come back with a tan and show it off to everyone.

Ann on tour in Australia:

Wednesday 16th March 2016
The Basement, SYDNEY NSW
7 Macquarie Place, Sydney NSW Australia 2000

Thursday 17th March 2016
Smiths Alternative, CANBERRA ACT
76 Alinga Street, Civic ACT 2601

Tuesday 22nd March 2016
Level 2, Curtin House 252 Swanston Street, Melbourne

Friday 25th March 2016
The Goulburn Club, GOULBURN NSW
19 Market Street, Goulburn NSW

Saturday 26th March 2016
The Milk Factory, BRISBANE QLD
48 Montague Road, South Brisbane QLD 4101

Interview: Brealyn Sheehan

Something is in the air in Cairns, FNQ: talented young artists appear to be sprouting on a regular basis, which makes for an exciting scene. Brealyn Sheehan brings something different to the tropics with her torch-song voice. Ahead of the release of her debut EP, I had the opportunity to chat to her.

I’d really like to start by asking you about your musical lineage, because I can hear Billie Holiday and I can hear other things too. So could you talk about your first musical loves, your influences and what you’re listening to now?
Sure. My first musical loves, I suppose, would have been more a kind of grungey type of music. I never really grew up listening to anything like jazz. Maybe a little bit of blues, but it probably would have been more male vocalists, and a little bit of Dad’s record collection, which was more of a mix of things like Eagles and Queen. I loved a bit of metal when I was a teenager [laughs]. These days I listen to quite a broad selection of stuff. I do listen to a bit of jazz now and obviously still a bit of alternative music. I love a bit of soul and funk and stuff like that. I like a lot of different kinds of music.

When you said you listened to metal – a lot of metal is the performing of it, and that sense of putting on a show. For you as a performer, has that had some influence?
Perhaps. I do like theatrical kinds of things – that can be quite impressive show wise. I’m not sure I’m quite as theatrical as some of the metal acts get!

It does say in your bio that you have a ‘sassy stage presence’.
Yeah, I would say that that’s fairly true. A bit sassy, a bit sultry, a bit emotional.

You hail from Far North Queensland and you live in Cairns now. I notice there’s quite a bit going on there – there seems to be a developing scene. Is that the case?
Yes, I think so. There have definitely been quite a few original artists in the position to record, I guess because it has become a bit easier to record than it perhaps was some while back. And there’s a lot of songwriters of all ages, not just young people but also people a little bit older as well. I feel like there’s a lot of female songwriters who are getting out there at the moment, which is quite inspiring.

By ‘easier to record’ do you mean because of crowdfunding, so you can access the funding more easily, or are there more producers working there and more studio space?
I guess it’s probably a mix. It’s become more affordable for an independent artist to record – of course, some people are doing their own recording. We’ve got Mark Myers in Cairns, who recorded and produced my EP, and he’s been working with a few people like Leanne Tennant in the last couple of years. So that’s a lovely thing for us to have someone like him in town. And there’s that combination of crowdfunding and there’s a grant program up here that’s supportive as well.

Do you find that the audiences are becoming more aware of what’s on offer? I guess it’s that chicken-and-egg situation: there’s more music going on because performers are doing more, and hopefully that translates to performers becoming more educated about different musical styles and being more willing to see different people.
It does feel a bit that way. We could perhaps do with a few more opportunities for originals gigs up here on a day-to-day basis. There’s certainly support there with festivals and there’s a few venues that regularly have people performing their own music. Typically in the past it’s been more expected to see a covers act and there are a lot of good covers acts, of course. But there are now people who are doing both, who are working as a covers act and also doing their original music, [and they] are starting to throw in some of their original music or let their original music take over their sets a little bit. So it’s creeping out there into places that maybe weren’t necessarily known as an original music venue before. Even venue some of the pubs that people might expect to have a crowd that would only want covers are sometimes surprisingly where you find people who enjoy that aspect of live music and they enjoy seeing a performer doing what they do and are really appreciative of it.

Do you enjoy performing?
I do. I was incredibly nervous when I first started but once I got a bit more comfortable being up on stage I love it – I love that interaction with the audience and communicating with them and hopefully making that connection that you hope to make when you’re writing songs … It can be surprisingly stressful sometimes. Sometimes I feel like I get more nervous when there’s an audience full of people I know who haven’t seen me perform yet, whereas you’d think you’d get more nervous in front of strangers – but maybe you think people who know you will have some expectation that you’re going to have to confront [laughs].

Your voice has so much richness and nuances in it, and one thing that people who don’t sing may not realise is that the environment and different conditions can affect a voice. Does the humidity [in Far North Queensland] do anything to your voice?
I guess I’ve got to be a little bit careful – I’m asthmatic as well and get some sinus problems, so I have to be a bit careful of things like damp air. And I’m allergic to hay, which I’ve discovered by performing in festivals – I have to make sure I dose myself up to protect myself when I go and play on a beautiful stage with a lovely hay seating area I don’t end up getting all stuffy and itchy.

It sounds like you might have found that out the hard way.
Luckily I figure it out while sitting watching an act rather than while I was performing. But I did have to ask some people once – it was the last night party of a festival, sort of the closing party, and people were sort of frolicking in the hay, rolling around and throwing it in the air, and I did have to say, ‘Hey, guys, can you give it ten or fifteen minutes without doing that?’ [laughs]

Now we’re talking about the first single from your EP, and the EP has a few tracks on it. Are these tracks that you’ve written yourself? Have you worked with other writers? How has the EP come together?
They’re all tracks I’ve written myself. I’m looking forward to hopefully doing some collaborative writing but so far I’ve just been writing by myself, which I guess seemed like a good place to start at the time when I first had the inspiration of ‘you have to write this song right now’. And it was a good learning process to start writing by myself. I did actually write half a song with a friend who had written half the lyrics and the melody already and asked me if I’d think about writing the other half, but that’s about as close as I’ve come to properly writing a song with someone else.

I supposed everybody has their method – some people want to play nicely with others and some people just want to play in the sandbox on their own!
[Laughs] I really enjoy working with other people and there’s definitely that kind of excitement of what would that other person come up with that you could work on together, bouncing ideas around and seeing somebody writing in a totally different style to one you’d approached yourself. I reckon that could be quite a lot of fun.

I haven’t heard the whole EP but it sounds like the tracks cover a range of musical styles. Given that you have access to different styles, when you’re writing a song do you write the lyrics and then think of what sort of style might fit it, or do you start with a general idea of how the song will sound and then you kind of work on it together with the lyrics and the music?
I probably start with the sound first. A melody tends to start things off for me, and sometimes that could be something I think of when you’re at work, at the day job, or on my bicycle. Sometimes I’m just jamming around with my guitar trying to rehearse something else and I get an idea. Usually I have an idea of the feel once I start playing around with the melody, then often the lyrics will start flowing after I’ve got the melody down. Sometimes it happens all at once so I quickly press record on something trying to get whatever comes out and try to work on it later to refine it a little bit. I don’t think I’ve ever written the perfect song from the get-go – yet.

I don’t know that anyone does. Even people who bang out a song quickly are probably refining some element of it later on.
I imagine you’d have to – it would be something of a miracle otherwise [laughs].

Your debut single is called ‘Forbidden Fruit’ so I thought I’d ask you: what is your forbidden fruit?
Hmm … that’s a good question [laughs]. I suppose I would stay away from anything that belongs to anybody else. [laughs]

[Laughs] That’s a good answer. I thought you might take it literally and say, ‘Mangoes’.
Oh well, that could be another angle.

You mentioned in the press release that you never thought you’d get a chance to pursue music – did you think it was too big a dream? Or did you not think the circumstances would arise?
It did seem like a crazy dream as a child when I first thought, It would be amazing to be a singer one day. You can get weighed down by worrying whether your sound is going to be something somebody else wants to listen to, having a voice that’s maybe not typically what you hear every day. I never really knew if it would find its audience. I was so nervous starting off but from the first time I sang in front of a crowd I got a really positive response, which was encouraging. I think each step of the way there were the moments when I thought, Okay, I’ve done it now – I’ve done enough. I’ve sung in front of people, that’s enough. I’ve sung a song that I wrote in front of somebody, that’s enough. But there was always enough encouragement and enough passion – I don’t think I’ve ever felt as strongly about wanting to do something as I feel about wanting to pursue music. So I guess that’s drive me to keep going. But it’s all happened in a short period of time – I only started performing about three and a half years ago, doing a few covers at open mics, and writing just over two years ago. It’s been a bit exciting.

So was it having the open mic opportunity present itself that you thought, I’m just going to give this a try?
I got some let’s say gentle nudging. I said to somebody who asked if I could sing or play, ‘I sing, but not in front of other humans’. And they said, ‘Right – tell me something you want to sing and I’ll play guitar for you’. So we jumped up and did a couple of songs, and I don’t think I opened my eyes for a moment during that whole performance, and maybe not a few of the successive ones as well. Then I took it from there. When I started writing I was already performing, doing some covers with a friend, which was great for performance experience. Then once I started writing I realised that that was really where I was putting the best part of my passion into things. So I thought, You’ve got to try to make the most of it with your music and put some focus into it and hopefully record, and that’s what I did last year.

With the EP coming out – you mentioned the day job, and obviously a lot of musicians have those. Does that mean you have time to tour for the EP release?
It’ll probably be a little bit later in the year. I’ll do a bit of local stuff up here but [anything else] will be later in the year, to fit in with work commitments. And there’s a few festival things that you cross your fingers to hear back from, and you have to fit in with that as well.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Interview: Madelyn Victoria

Madelyn Victoria is a new country music artist from San Benito, Texas who is winning fans with her single, 'He Only Loves Me on the Dance Floor'. I had the opportunity to interview Madelyn by email and asked her about the music scene in Texas and her charity work, amongst other things.

You wrote your first song at the age of 13 - what was it about? And would you perform it now?At 13 I actually just started writing poems and different lines/lyrics trying to put things together and my first set song was when I was 15 about my first boyfriend. It was definitely puppy love so you can just imagine how those lyrics might be like, haha. It actually had a good melody but if I were to perform it now I’d tweak up a few things for sure!

Do you have any special songwriting rituals - like you need to be in a certain place or write at a certain time of day or night?
I have so many different ways of songwriting. I love to write while I’m traveling, all the sights I see on the road inspire me so much. I also love to write at night jamming with my brother … but most of the time an idea/line/lyric/melody can come to me any time, any day, during any situation and I’ll quickly jot it down - for me that’s definitely a God thing.

You've been crowned Queen at several rodeos and other events - has that experience had an impact on you as a performer?It definitely has! I see any opportunity to go in front of a crowd & have the chance to represent who I am and what I do helps me as a performer. Meeting new people, speaking in public, and being interviewed is all a part of the job.

You have some traditional and contemporary country sounds in your music - who have your musical influences been?That’s exactly what I’m going for when it comes to my music. I want to stay true to my roots yet have a “modern sound” for radio … I want the traditionalists, outlaws, and today’s Country music fans to love what I do. I grew up on 90’s Country mainly and I think you could hear that in my songs as well. I love George Strait and hope to be as impactful as he has in the industry. Other musical influences throughout my life have been Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Selena the Tejano singer, Alan Jackson, and so many more. I take in as many influences and their music as I can and make it my own.

You've sung the national anthem in public several times, as well as performing your own music. What's the most nervous you've ever been before a show or performance?  I want to first say that I love singing the National Anthem, I feel like it’s the LEAST I can do to respect my country and the ones who defend it … I hardly get nervous since I’ve been performing for so long! I do get anxious a few minutes before performance time and just wanna get on the stage already and do my thing, haha. I still am learning something new every time I perform, but I feel like I’ve got that part down pretty good … it’s what goes on behind the scenes that get me a little nervous and anxious. For ex. Setting up sound, dealing with venue owners/managers, etc … I want to be as professional as possible but also just be myself. It may seem like a lot but I love it all so much.

What's the country music scene like in Texas - are there plenty of venues? Do people tend to have house concerts? 
 The music scene in Texas is AMAZING! From the north, south, east, and west you can hear the sounds of Texas! (A line from a song of mine, haha.) I was just in Austin for the 3rd Annual Ameripolitan Awards put together by Dale Watson and hosted by Ray Benson - two outstanding artists who I would call pioneers of their and my generation. The awards recognize those who deserve just as much as any Country mainstream artist, and the performances that night were so surreal and inspiration hovered everywhere, as of all of Texas and it’s venues do. There are more than enough venues in Texas to support an artist for a life time. No matter where you play across Texas from the smaller venues to the big ones you are gaining fans from that area which means everything to a performer.
You do a lot of volunteer work and have started your own event, Octave Higher Christmas - what does that involve?
 Octave Higher Christmas is sort of like a campaign I have during the holidays, very small right now of course, but I know will grow and grow in the years to come. I go to different hospitals and sing for the children, bring them presents or make them something, and even have an event for an organization  where we put on a show, have different activities. I eventually want to raise money by making the event public and donate to that specific charity or organization. Christmas time is of course a joyous time, but not for everyone and especially kids in the hospital so we try and spread as much cheer, hopefully making life an “octave higher” for them.

EP review: Pieces of You by Chris Carmack

Anyone who is a devotee of the TV series Nashville and its soundtrack albums (and I declare myself to be such a person) will be aware that the standout vocalist of the cast is Chris Carmack, who was a late arrival in season one, playing the character Will Lexington. Co-star Clare Bowen is also a wonderful singer, but over the course of three and a bit seasons Carmack has demonstrated that he has exceptional quality in his voice and the ability to control and direct that voice as needed. His phrasing and diction are so accomplished that they recall the techniques of Frank Sinatra, who was the master of such things.

On Nashville Carmack sings the songs they give him; it was logical that at some stage he would take that voice and apply it to music of his own. The result is the EP Pieces of You, which was released at the end of 2015.

One of the reasons Carmack is so suitable for Nashville is that his voice fits country music – as any singer could tell you, voices fit certain styles of music and not others – so on Pieces of You he has wisely not strayed completely away from country. The EP is a little bit country, a bit country rock and some other things too – there are elements of soul, blues and pop.

The persuasive reason to buy Pieces of You is to hear Carmack sing and then you’ll keep listening because he makes it so easy to do so: his songs are well constructed and his lyrics credit his listener with intelligence. He could have rushed out this EP not long after he became a cast regular on Nashville but he’s clearly taken his time and exhibited care with these five songs. That’s a courtesy to his audience, and yet another reason to listen. I’d probably listen to Carmack singing the alphabet, but it’s a treat to have five original songs from him – with hopefully many more to come.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Interview: Hayley Jensen

Hayley Jensen will be familiar to many people as a member of Team Kylie on The Voice in 2014. It wasn't her first turn on national television, as she also appeared on Australian Idol. Hayley hasn't been known as a country music artist in the past but she seems to have found her natural home in country now, releasing a country single called 'The One'. It was my pleasure to speak with Hayley about this song and other things.

It's a terrific song, I've been listening to it a lot. How did it come about – how did you come to write it and record it?
I guess after The Voice I started songwriting again for my own solo releases, because I'd been working with a few different bands over the last few years and I thought it was time to start doing some solo stuff again. So I'd written another song that I wanted to take to work with some songwriters I'd previously worked with who were previously in a band called Jonah's Road, which was quite a big Australian country music band a few years ago – two brothers who are great songwriting partners of mine. So I took this other song to them and we worked on that for a few hours, and we had a few hours left before we had to head off and we said, 'Let's see what else we can write.' We were discussing ideas of what we might want to write about, and one of the guys had just recently been over to Ireland and seen this little Irish guy playing in a pub somewhere. [The guy] was obviously trying to woo some lady in the front row. He finished his song – dedicated to her – and she looked a bit coy, and he said, 'C'mon, love – there's no reason you couldn't be the one' [laughs]. She said, 'How embarrassing.' But [my songwriting partner] said it was just a little moment that he remembered that stood out on his trip. And it just got us thinking about when you meet someone, you never know, and everyone's on that journey, I guess – unless you've found the one – it's that search that we're all familiar with at one point. So we thought it was a nice sentiment to write about. That's how it came about.

And it's a very good story, I've got to say. I also note that you recorded it with Matt Fell, who you've worked with in the past, so obviously you like him as a producer.
Yes, he's an incredible producer. He produced my first record when I first came out of Australian Idol many years ago. He's a multi-instrumentalist and really tasteful, I find, in all his choices in production. It was always going to be my first choice             to have him on board again after he did my first record and he's produced records for some amazing Australian artists: Shane Nicholson, Sara Storer, Graeme Connors – a lot of really iconic Australian country artists. And I just love what he does, too, because it's not so typical sounding – he uses instruments and voicings and things that are not typical, they're interesting. Even when I listen to the songs still – even though I've been part of the whole production process, I hear things in there that I kind of go, 'Wow, what was that instrument again?' He's very tasteful. I love working with him.

A single release suggests you may be thinking about album, and also talking about recording with Matt, I imagine if you were to do an album sometime soon he'd be your producer.
I'd love him to be. I produced about six songs with him towards the end of last year – 'The One' being one of those songs. I was planning to just do an EP and then we got to the end and I've got the songs now pretty much ready to go. I felt like there were parts of the story missing or something. I didn't feel like all of the stories that needed to be in that collection were there yet. So I'm now thinking of doing an album. It's quite a new thing. I'd say there will be a few singles coming out before that does but that's definitely the plan, by the end of this year, to have a record ready to roll.

Is it kind of weird, though, having those songs recorded and just sitting there – existing in the ether, almost? You know they're there …
[Laughs] It's really weird because I'm, like, 'You know, everyone, you've heard my songs …' No, they haven't. It is strange but sometimes that happens in music: you record things and sit on them for a long time trying to work out the best way to release them, waiting to get a deal here or something else happening there, and in the meantime as an artist you can get really frustrated thinking, I just want to release them. It's almost like a child: I need to give it the best start in life. I set everything up so that when it goes out into the world it lives its life on its own. But I've done everything I can make sure that it's got the best opportunities for success. It is frustrating but I know it's for a good cause [laughs].

It also sounds like you know to trust your instincts – you have an instinct that the stories aren't quite complete in that collection. Have you always trusted your instinct with things or is it something that you've learnt you can do?
I've always been encouraged by my family and others to trust my instincts. It's hard, because you always have different people's opinions coming in. Even what you could think in the first instance might work you have that realisation a bit later that that didn't work. There's songs that I've written and produced and released that I think back later, Was that the right thing to do? I think you do always learn from those experiences. But then sometimes you find you're completely off, so there's songs I'm releasing on an album, for example, that I'd never release as a single that I have a look through the statistics and what have you and you see, 'That's the most popular downloaded song and I never did anything to promote that.' It's quite bizarre. But I think that's the wonderful thing these days with the internet, particularly on iTunes people can browse through the songs and thing, Oh, I like this song, I'm going to pick that one. Even if the artists or record management or label decide to release one song, ultimately it comes up to the people listening – what they will pick and champion. That's sort of good too – you know it's not the final decision [laughs].

As long as people don't start making decisions based on those sorts of statistics – there's a danger that things could become too prescriptive, that people look at those statistics and say, 'It's that kind of song, with that time signature and that key that is really popular'.
You're right – that's definitely a danger. I think there's too much … I was going to say randomness in it all to put people's preferences down to that kind of thing. I think it's more of an art than a science and I hope it stays that way.

I think you can also never underestimate the appeal of a voice and what people respond to in a voice. People hearing your songs, they'll hear what your voice sounds like before they'll listen to the lyrics. Humans respond to voices really instinctually.
It's kind of interesting – when I was working in my previous band, working with other songwriters who were part of the band, I'd be deliberating over this lyric and 'Oh, we can't release it – I have to write this word'. [One of them] would say, 'Hayley! Nobody's listening to the words!' 'Yes, they are!' [I'd say.] 'They have to be! It's the stories that matter!' He'd say, 'No, they're listening to your voice and the melody, then if they really like that they'll listen to the words. And then they might be nicely surprised at what they hear.' I don't know – it probably depends on the type of music. Some people when they sing you automatically hear every word and it takes you away, and other artists you might never know what the song was about but you loved it [laughs].

I do think in country music the words really are important to the audience because it's so much about storytelling. You've come back to country music. You were in Back to Bacharach touring around the country and you've dabbled in other genres – well, you've done more than dabble. What's brought you back to country music?
Even though I love all the songs that we did as part of the band, it does come back to feeling like I have stories to tell and experiences to share, and wanting to have a deeper kind of thing than just banging out a few pop tunes. I guess it's expressing who I am and that's what I feel like – as a singer-songwriter in this genre you really get to … well, what can I say – indulge yourself in that [laughs].

That's one of the lovely things about country music audiences – they are very accepting of a range of stories. There's no one type of story that Australian country music audiences, at least, are looking out for. It's a very open-minded, open-hearted genre of audience.
I've certainly found that just since coming back to it and really committing to this new part of the industry that I'd skirted around the edges of before but never jumped both feet in. I can honestly say that it is like a big community and the support that I'm getting from people and the types of comments they give, it's really considered. They're actually listening to the song and they're really listening to the words and following along the journey rather than [it being] something new that pops up then goes away the next week. It's really loyal people. You really do feel that sense of community and I guess that's why the stories are so important, because we all relate to them in our own ways. I might be singing about one experience but somebody else could hear it and it reminds them of another has the same emotion attached to it. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do and be part of.

And, of course, the apex of all of that is the Tamworth Country Music Festival, so how was your Tamworth this year?
Well, I just can't believe that I've never been before, because it was really incredible. Especially being part of – even if I put Star Maker aside, being part of that experience with other artists, just having the opportunities because I was part of that, gave me such a great introduction and probably opened up a few more doors when I was there than it would have been otherwise. It was incredible. Why can't we have that all the time somewhere? Everywhere you go there's music playing – there was music playing in Big W! Somebody playing out the front of Target. Lowes had people. As well as the big pubs and everything like that had artists all day. It was incredible. Speaking to some of the other people who were part of Star Maker – we all talked on Facebook afterwards, saying, 'Is everyone experiencing the big come-down after Tamworth?' You feel like a superstar and on cloud nine the whole time you're there, getting to do what you love every minute of every day, and then … back to reality [laughs]. For me it's been, 'I've got to make this new video clip for the new single and I've got to get it out there!' So it's been kind of a continued effect, which has been lovely.

I've also observed that the connections and relationships that get formed at Tamworth – creatively, meeting producers, musicians, other songwriters – they're like this arc over the whole year that follows, where things happen and then everyone comes back together and different things happen, other people come back together. So it's a really extraordinary event.
I absolutely agree with you. As I said, we've got this Facebook group – this little virtual community with all the Star Maker people, and everyone's saying, 'Are you playing here?' 'Let's all apply for this!' 'Let's all go there!' But then I guess jumping up and singing with Amber Lawrence and the girls as part of the Girls of Country tour was amazing – getting the songs that we'd written a little bit further out there. And now Amber's saying, 'I'm thinking of putting this [song] on my next album that Shane Nicholson is producing', and I'm, like, 'Awesome!' Just building those relationships – as you say, it's a special connection you have when you're part of something like that. It's really beautiful. I don't think you find it in other styles of music. I certainly haven't found it in any other genre that I've dabbled in. It's special.

I think that's right. The other thing you find in country music that I have never observed anywhere else in the world to the same extent is equal representation of male and female artists. In Australian country music it's pretty much fifty-fifty, as far as I can tell.
I hadn't actually considered that. When you look at America it certainly seems as if it's a bit male heavy. Certainly n Australian country music, you're right [about the female artists], and that's a really wonderful thing that there's the same kindo f support and embracing of everyone – it's not one or the other. Yeah, you're right – that's awesome! I hadn't thought about that.

It's not ageist, either – I've seen bands with a range of ages in them. It's music that brings people together.
That's right. And it peeves me to no end that a lot of the industry is ageist and a lot of artists who have so much experience and incredible talent just don't get the opportunities that young people do. And, of course, we need to make sure that everyone gets opportunities, but you certainly see that at Tamworth, being the representation of Australian country music, and it's wonderful.

One last question: you've mentioned The Voice and Star Maker, so you're clearly not afraid of a competition.
[Laughs] I'm a bit of an addict. I've got to stop with this!

Is it more nerve wracking to sing on live television or to a small number of people in a bar?
Small number of people in a bar, every day [laughs]. Absolutely. And even worse if it's one or two. Way more nerve-wracking, way more intimidating. Live television – there's something that takes over you when you're doing that sort of thing. When you're thrown right in the deep end like that there's some sort of … it must be adrenaline, and it almost feels like an out-of-body experience. But when you're there in a small room of people, you're definitely in your body and you're feeling every single little stare [laughs]. You can see every head tilt and eye twitch [laughs].

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Album review: Brave the Good Dark by Catherine Traicos

Catherine Traicos is a great person to interview: smart, interesting, thoughtful and honest. It can be no surprise, therefore, that these qualities find their way into her new album, Brave the Good Heart. On this album Traicos's singing is accompanied by guitar and not much more. She is essentially standing alone before the listener, asking us to connect with her voice - or not. 

One of the things that I find appealing about Traicos is that her voice contains no affectation - there are no curlicues or unusual ways of phrasing that can so often shut out a listener. We always have the sense that Traicos is singing to us direct, so we trust what she tells us. On this album she has been recorded close – not as close as the late Karen Carpenter, whose every swallow could be heard – so that listening to the songs becomes something unusual, almost like it's a conversation we are in with her, but it isn't our turn to speak yet. And, like a truly good conversation, it requires careful listening. 

Traicos is vulnerable in these songs – she does not resile from things that are difficult and dark. None of them are 'pretty' songs – these aren't radio-friendly pop hits – but Traicos's voice is constantly alluring. It took me a few listens to get past the sound and into the substance, simply because I wanted to observe how she sings.

This is a quiet album for quiet listening, released in summer but probably best suited to a cosy autumn or winter afternoon, when you're tucked up inside with time to listen and appreciate. It doesn't fit into any genre other than 'singer-songwriter' and that is just fine - it means that it may take longer for people to find it (given the general fondness for labels) but she'll be there, waiting to have that conversation. 

Brave the Good Dark is out now. You can also find it on Bandcamp.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Album review: Eagle & the Wolf

I fell in love with the eponymous debut album Eagle & the Wolf on first listening. Then I listened to it about fifty more times just to make sure. All that listening later, my love for it is actually stronger.

This may be a debut album but the duo that is Eagle & the Wolf are no debutantes. Sarah Humphreys has released three albums of her own. Her voice is at once an instrument of growling power and honeyed sweetness. Kris Morris has been busy forging his own country and blues career; Kasey Chambers produced his album Ruins (and also produced Humphreys’s third album, New Moon).

Humphreys and Morris have formed a personal and musical connection that is immediately obvious in their music. Their voices dance with each other and never joust. Their sounds marry and balance, both vocally and instrumentally. Their respective lineages in country, roots and blues are obvious, and they also clearly know how to blend them so that they bring out the best in each other.

The moods of this album are various and consequently the album never feels stuck or flat. The opening track, ‘Mama, Son & the Holy Ghost’, sounds like a call to arms. It is more swampy than the rest of the album, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great opener to the album, sounding, as it does, like a declaration of intent. Much of this album sounds like an exploration of loneliness and loss experienced and overcome, and of love and communion. 

Humphreys and Morris share lead vocals on some songs and alternate on others. But always the other is there. There is so much courage in these songs – in the lyrics and in the way they are sung. Morris and Humphreys sound like they are singing only to each other, and accordingly the listener feels like they’re witnessing something incredibly intimate – and beautiful.

This album is moving, thrilling and satisfying, and a real artistic triumph. If this is what this pair can produce on their first outing, it is exciting to contemplate what may come next.

Eagle & the Wolf is out now.