Steve Eales established his reputation with country music fans during his time in the band Sovereign. Now his band is The Open Road and they have released a new album, Let's Love Not Fight, and sent it into the world with a launch during the 2017 Tamworth Country Music Festival and a first single, the cruisy 'Driftin' On'. I had a chat with Steve about the album, the creative process, and why he'd rather love than fight.
How was your Tamworth launch for the album?
It was great. Absolutely loved it. Really good responses – it was well worth doing.
Was that your only Tamworth show?
Yes. I did a couple of showcases with Tania Kernaghan and James Blundell, and a whole bunch of radio interviews, but that was the only show that we did.
It seems to be that strange thing for artists at Tamworth that you may only play one advertised show but the rest of the time it’s quite frenetic – it’s not like you’re hanging out, going to see other bands.
That’s right. Tamworth from an artist’s point of view is all about connecting directly with the fans who buy your albums and talk to you on Facebook. Not everyone is going to come to your show but everyone still wants to see you, so it’s about making yourself available.
Now to focus attention on the album: how and when did you start creating it?
I don’t know if I can pinpoint a time – it’s just the next step after the last one. There’s a couple of songs left over from the last album, The Open Road. I guess that kicked it off. So it was almost immediately after the previous one was released that we were working on this one.
From memory, your creative process is pretty constant – you’re always documenting songs as they come to you so you always have a stash of something to work with.
Yes. I’ve written songs for the next album that we haven’t even considered getting together and writing for or started to record or anything. But I’ve got two and I’m sure that Reggie’s got a couple as well. We really need two bands.
On the one hand, I would think it puts your mind at rest, in that you don’t have this looming deadline to write for the next album. When you’re living in that state of creativity and you stop yourself, it means you’ve got this work coming out and you can pick it up and make an album when you’re ready.
And the process then becomes ‘what songs go together’ – what’s going to make this album flow as far as flavours.
For this new album, did you start with a lot of songs and then have to whittle them down, or were you writing or choosing with a particular flavour in mind?
It was already ‘these songs go together as a flavour’ and then Reggie released a bombshell with ‘Mrs Wrong’ and it was, ‘Man, that’s fantastic, let’s put it on the album’. And he said, ‘I’ve got another couple that are the same kind of flavour’, and I said, ‘Let’s hear them.’ Then that became ‘Let’s Love Not Fight’. Then towards the end, we had our album put together – ‘this is it, this is what the album’s going to sound like, we’re happy with this collection of songs’ – then I came up with ‘Drifting On’. It just sort of happened. And my particular formula for putting together a song is that I’ll record the entire thing, so it’s a finished product, in my studio at home, then I’ll take it to Reggie’s studio and he does the same thing: he puts together a complete project, he plays all the instruments – he’s like me, he’s a multi-instrumentalist. So I’d put together this song and the band just fell in love with it, and the next day Reggie sad, ‘Well, I’ve put together this one,’ and it was ‘Southern Son’. And I said, ‘Okay – now we’ve got to change things.’ Because these two songs are the best on the album – that’s what we figured. But as a songwriter, the song that you’ve just finished writing is the best song that you’ve ever written.
I suppose in the process of playing those songs live, that changes.
Absolutely. There’s a process that I use where I try to work out what everyone else likes. The album isn’t really about me, or about Reggie or Robbie, it’s about how people connect with us and what we write. So the process that I use is that I’ll get a bunch of songs and introduce them as an acoustic thing somewhere in the show and see what the audience reaction is to them. If people start talking and looking the other way, you don’t have a winner.
Does it feel a bit brutal when that happens, or you’ve now been playing for long enough that you think, Oh well – on to the next thing?
There would have been a time when I would have been a little precious about that – ‘I just love this song, you guys just don’t appreciate good talent’ [laughs]. But the reality is that some songs take two or three listens, or it might be a great song but I haven’t arranged it well enough for any of the people’s psyches. And the whole thing of, ‘That was no good, on to the next one’, that’s kind of a maturity too, I think, as far as a songwriter goes. My process has changed a lot over the years, too, because I used to be all about, ‘I need to write ten songs this week and out of those ten songs I’m sure there’s going to be a gem. And it was all about quantity. Whereas these days I know whether a song’s going to be any good or not and I will leave it inside – I won’t even put pen to paper or pick up an instrument. When I wrote ‘Drifting On’ I sat on the beach under a palm tree, with a Bintang, in Bali and wrote that song in my head with no instruments or pens and paper.
And you obviously trust yourself enough now as a songwriter to know that song won’t evaporate before you’ve had a chance to put it down.
Well, yes – that’s the whole thing about not being precious about anything. If it does evaporate, too bad. I know that I’m a good enough songwriter to leave things inside and let them come out when they’re ready, and trust that they will.
That’s a fantastic way to be, and a lot of people strive to be like it, but it would be hard for a lot of artists who perhaps are less experienced to trust in that process – to believe that the good songs will hang around. They might hurry to document everything and then that makes the editing process harder.
I go through the process of humming a little tune or singing along in the car to something that’s buzzing around my head and I will sing it into the phone, but the reality is that I’ve never listened back to any of them.
[Laughs] I guess you really do trust that process: if it’s still in your head when you get home, or later on, that’s the one that’s meant to be and if it isn’t then there was no point recording it in the first place.
That’s exactly right. But at the same time I’m just forgetful [laughs].
There’s some way the subconscious works whereby you might compose lyrics in your head and then think you forget about them, but they emerge weeks or months later.
I’m a big believer in that – that the subconscious is the driver of our life. Whatever we programme into it is going to show up in our lives over and over, on a daily basis. Put it in there, leave it in there, and when it’s ready it’s like a piece of a puzzle.
Have you always felt this way or is it something you’ve learnt over time?
It’s something I’m learning still. I had a friend whose son passed away on a weekend and I’ve got sons of my own, so I really felt it, and I felt it because I knew the kid. And on the Monday I was up in the wee hours still mulling over this situation, and I don’t like to write things that are sad. I don’t write that many sad songs, everything’s kind of up. At two o’clock in the morning I got up and penned this page of lyrics and the same thing again: I didn’t put any planning into it, I didn’t look to see if it rhymed, I don’t check anything, I just wrote it out. Wednesday I was playing the banjo and this little riff came out and I just left that as well. On Thursday I sat down and the lyrics that I’d written and the melody that was going through my head and that banjo riff all fitted together. So at two-thirty I started writing the song and by four-thirty I had it completely finished with all the guitar parts and the bass and the drums. Because that’s now my process.
That’s a great place of maturity arrive at, as a songwriter.
I think it is, to the point where it didn’t matter to me if it became a song. And the fact that it did just amazed me. I don’t think the process will ever cease to impress me and amaze me. I always talk about how you don’t create music, you just pull out the plug from your end of the pipe and it flows through you.
There is still that magic about it all, isn’t there?
Absolutely. There was nothing there before and now there’s a song. They played it at the boy’s funeral. I will never play that song live and it will never be recorded on an album or anything, it’s just for that one thing and the magic was for the people at that event. It wasn’t for me.
Given all the songs on the album, how did you choose ‘Let’s Love Not Fight’ as the title track?
I’m a bit of a philosopher and anyone who hangs around with me long enough will get a bit of an insight into some of the things that go on inside of me, because I just don’t shut up. And the whole thing of philosophising about why we are here – the whole reason we are here is because we are connected, we are one, and love is the main ingredient of life. You look out your window and you look at all the beauty – I’m looking out my window now and I see mountains and trees and it’s just magnificent. That is a love creation. It comes from love. Everything’s about love. The opposite to love is fear. Fear causes anger and desperation and fighting and everything else. So there’s always this love versus fear thing going on. One of the manifestations of fear is trying to get our own way and manipulate and have control – that’s what fighting is. Whereas love is surrendering and knowing that everything is going to be okay. I’ve been talking about this with Reggie for the last two years or something and then he comes in with this gem of a song and I said, ‘You have captured it. This is perfect.’
Was there even a tiny twinge of thinking, I wish I’d written that song?
On the previous album I’d written ‘Fix It With Love’ because I have this philosophy that whatever the problem is in life there is always a love solution.
The feeling for me of your album is that there is this really laidback quality to it, by which I don’t mean slow or lazy, but there was this sense of things being laidback even if the lyrics weren’t necessarily like that – ‘Mrs Wrong’, for example, is not a laidback song lyrically but the sound is very much of you and the band being at ease. Do you feel at ease?
We do. That’s what our gigs are like – they’re very comfortable. We’ve been playing together for ten years, so we know what each other’s going to do. When it comes to writing and recording it’s the same. I know what Reggie’s going to play and I know what feel Robbie’s going to put on with the drums and the percussion. So there is a whole heap of, ‘Well this is where we’re at and this is what we sound like.’ On previous albums – This is the Life, for instance – I was still overcoming the rejection that I felt when Sovereign split up and the two brothers went their separate ways and one took off interstate and I was, like, ‘Well, damn.’ And on the Battler album and then This is the Life there was that whole feeling of, ‘I’m going to prove myself. I’m going to prove that I’m more than just this and more than just that.’ Especially on This is the Life there’s so many feels and genres on there, and there’s some really angry songs and some really loving songs. Whereas now I don’t feel like I need to prove anything, I just need to connect with people in a way that is right for me. This is what I sound like.
On this album that’s been achieved. The other word I noted when I was listening to it was that it sounds really open – maybe it felt a bit like an invitation to a listener.
That’s nice – I like that [laughs].
As you mentioned, you and the band have been together for ten years. Is there a secret to staying together for so long? Most bands will not last ten years.
I think the secret with us is that we don’t do everything together. For instance, Robbie has played for just about every top artist in Australia as a drummer, and I’m not talking about just country. He’s played for Shania Twain. He does the Australian Bee Gees tour, so he goes to Vegas and goes around Europe. He’s of that calibre and I guess if he was just hanging around waiting for me to put together a tour that he could play on there’d be a bit of, ‘What are we doing next? What are we doing next?’ But there isn’t. And the same with Reggie – he’s got other bands. He goes over to Europe and sets up studios with people over there. He records with people like Tommy Emmanuel and James Reyne. Tonnes of high-end people that he works with. And I do a lot of solo work. I’m off around the world doing acoustic solo work. I play in America and around Europe and Asia. So when we get together and do our band thing it’s like, ‘Yeah! This is where we’re at.’
And you’re all bringing lots of different experiences and audience experiences as well into what you’re doing together.
Yes, it adds a lot of dimensions to what we do as far as the live shows, that’s for sure.
I noticed on your gig line-up that you’re playing at a rodeo this weekend. Have you played at many rodeos before? Is it a different kind of experience?
As a solo artist my biggest hit is ‘Girls On Horses’, which is about rodeo girls, barrel racers. And with Sovereign our biggest hit was ‘Tooraweenah Cowgirl’, which was about barrel racers. So rodeo is a great place for us as an act. A lot of our songs are written about horse riders and I’ve had horses all my life as well. It’s a great environment. The people there enjoy what we do and we connect with them on the lyric basis.
Have you ever had any barrel racers come up and say ‘thank you’ or ‘I think that song is about me’?
Tonnes of times. And it is about them. When they’re out there racing around I can’t tell who’s who – they all look the same. I’m not a rodeo guy – I wouldn’t go to a rodeo, but I would go and play there because of the people.
And that sounds like what all of your work is: connecting with people.
One of the things I try to get across – especially in songs like ‘Long Way Here’ on the previous album – and I did it again on a few of a songs on this album, another thing that I say a lot, and it’s true right to my very core, I absolutely love people. I don’t pick people to pieces. I know everyone’s got faults and their own idiosyncrasies. But I just love being with people. I love having people around me. And that’s my point of connecting. When it comes to playing live or writing a song, it’s about how can people benefit from this song, not about me trying to express my inner angst or whatever.
Let's Love Not Fight is out now.