Queensland singer-songwriter Kalesti Butler has a wonderful new album, Airborne. While she spent her childhood performing, however, there wasn't a straight line from that to her career now - as I found out when we spoke recently.
Your first stage appearance was at age three – do you remember how you felt?
I’m not sure that I remember how I felt but I must have been pretty excited because my dad used to tell me this story about it. I walked on stage and I had a little red beanie on, so it must have been really cold, and they announced my name and I walked out in between my mum’s legs and started singing – and the band had to catch up after.
Had you been practising that number to sing?
I’d say so. When I think back, my mum used to make me practise and practise and practise loads [laughs]. I’d say I was very well prepared.
You’re from a musical family. At age nine you won a prize as well, so clearly from the age of three you kept going, so do you remember much about your childhood and what sort of musical involvement you had?
I remember going to a lot of festivals and my mum and a couple of my aunties and cousins would be singing as well, and my grandmother, and we always toured around north Queensland, mainly, doing all the festivals. Music was really a big part of the family, so whenever we had a gathering – a barbecue or someone’s party – everyone would bring a guitar, and I remember sitting – we’d all form a kind of circle where we’d all just be sitting there playing guitar, and that’s how I learnt to play guitar, by watching them and teaching myself.
I’d written down a question saying, ‘What lit the spark of music within you?’ but it sounds like it’s just always been there.
I think I was born into it. But I went to boarding school for twelve years and when I was in high school I didn’t sing at all, and then I went to uni and I think I was working in Mackay in about 2005 and I saw a sign about a local country music festival. I thought, I might go and have a look. I checked it out and I was really inspired by it, so I decided to start singing again, but I had to learn all over again. There was one girl who was singing there who really inspired me to do singing again because I’d actually forgotten that I used to be – I think I used to be really good when I was a kid but I’d forgotten that. So I learnt to sing again and I was really bad. I have video and I watch it and I think, Oh my god, that was terrible – why didn’t anyone say anything?
I’m really interested in the fact that you didn’t sing at school – do you think it was because you were out of that environment you’d been in with your family and it just wasn’t something you did? Or it didn’t seem like a thing that the school wouldn’t support? Because that’s a big change: to be so musical and then not have it for your teenage years.
My parents separated when I was ten so that’s probably what affected it. But I wasn’t ever forced or pushed into it, maybe because I did so much of it as a kid. I can’t even remember why I didn’t sing at school. I did it at primary school – we had a little band – but in high school maybe it was more about getting a really good education, maybe singing and music weren’t part of that plan [laughs]. I don’t know what happened, but for some reason it just came back to me and I took it up on my own, which I think is probably a better option anyway, because then it’s something that you choose to do yourself, it’s not something that was forced upon you by your parents, so to speak.
And when you were learning to sing again, was there a point at which you thought, Right, I’m back.
[Laughs] Yeah, I was doing through a few talent quests and singing at a few places that were hosting some really bad karaoke [laughs] and then I went to Tamworth in 2011. I wanted something to take me there because I’d never been, and my mum had been because she was a Toyota StarMaker top 5 finalist the year Gina Jeffreys won. So she’d been and recorded with Lindsay Butler Studio, she’d been in the scene in the early ’90s. So she knew all about it but she’d never taken me. I entered this bush ballad star quest competition and they said I was a finalist, and so I went and I won it. I was totally shocked because I didn’t think I would win any award at Tamworth ever [laughs]. So that was kind of the moment when I thought, Maybe I can sing. Maybe I am good enough to be a professional. And from then I built on that. The competition really did open doors for me. I got gigs at really cool festivals like Gympie Muster and Caboolture Urban, when that was on, and Mildura Country Music Festival. And when I was singing at those places and people would come up to me and say, ‘You’re really good – do you have a CD?’ that was the moment for me during that twelve months: ‘I’ve got to do a CD.’ So I did and I’ve just been going on since then.
What was the first song you ever wrote?
It was ‘She’s a River’, which was on my first album and I co-wrote that with Gretta Ziller at the Academy of Country Music. We won the TSA/APRA New Songwriter of the Year award with that song as well.
I love that song – I’ve heard it on ABC digital country radio, where it’s on high rotation. I kept wondering what you were doing so it was great to see that you have a new album.
It was so long in between. I didn’t know what direction to take. I knew I started with the bush ballad stuff but that wasn’t really all that I was ever about, so I wanted to start showcasing some of my other material and showing people that I’m not just a bush balladeer.
It’s possibly also where your voice leads you. The material on your new album really suits your voice and it seems like you’ve let yourself go in the direction you’re meant to head in.
I haven’t really forced anything upon myself – it’s kind of just happened naturally that way. It’s better because it’s more real and it’s more true to what I’m about.
You also write with your mum, Val. When did that co-writing arrangement start?
It kind of started when she realised that I was getting serious about my music. With the first album, I didn’t realise but she had written thousands of songs and she gave them to me and said, ‘Here – see if there’s anything that you can use.’ And then I thought, There’s some there that are cool but I’ve got ideas for songs and maybe she can help me write these songs. So that’s where it started. Sometimes I just come up with a title for a song and then we write the song, or sometimes I come up with an idea, sometimes Mum comes up with the idea and I’ll say, ‘Okay, let’s write that song.’ Sometimes it’s over the phone, sometimes it’s while we’re driving or when she visits or if we’re at a festival. She lives fourteen hours’ drive away from me, so I only really see her a couple of times a year. So there’s not a great deal of songwriting but when we do get together at least half a dozen songs will be written, for sure.
Where do you live now?
I’m in Emerald, in Central Queensland. She’s north of me, up in the Gulf of Carpentaria still.
That’s where you grew up, in the Gulf Country, isn’t it?
Yes, I grew up on a cattle property. A lot of my aunties and uncles are still up there on cattle properties but most of them are spread across the Atherton Tablelands – Innisfail, Cairns, all that area.
Having grown up on the land, what in particular about that lifestyle stays with you?
I really like telling people how cool it was growing up on the property and the fact that we had four-wheelers and motorbikes and we used to just on weekends have free rein to cruise around and make some dust. We had our own helicopter and helicopter pilot, so if we were mustering and we got tired we could just get a free ride home and the horse would go with the mob. When we were little we’d fall asleep on the horse and our horse would be in with the mob and hopefully we wouldn’t fall off [laughs]. Maybe as a kid, or any kid, you don’t have any worries in the world but we seemed to not have any. It was so cool. Even today I like visiting cities but I prefer to be in a country town. I just like the whole … everyone’s kind of family and friendly, and even now if I got stuck I could call my auntie or my uncle and they would take me in and I could stay and eat all their food, and they wouldn’t even care, it’s just how they are.
Country music isn’t just for country people, but what do you think it offers country people in particular, in terms of storytelling? And in your album I’m thinking of that sense of place and community that comes through.
It makes you feel real. The storytelling – I don’t like singing a song that I can’t connect to, and telling a story in a song has to be real and truthful to some extent. I’m a bit of a realist as well. I don’t know. It just makes you feel good.
I think that’s the best answer, and that’s what country music performers do so well here – Australian country music artists really get that balance of entertainment and connection, and meaning. A lot of Australian country music really demonstrates that you can have songs that mean a lot but also make people feel good, and that they can tap their toes to.
Yes – I think my dad was always about, ‘It’s got to have a good tune, it’s got to have a good beat’. He was always about the toe-tapping thing. And even my mum, when she writes a song, she says if you can’t dance to it, it’s not really a good song. If we’re working on a song and we have a break, I might be in the kitchen getting a drink or something and she’s dancing around. She’s moving to the songs as she works [laughs].
You have a really solid lineage, then, for your own songs. And you’ve played a lot of festivals – what has been the highlight so far?
Probably the opening concert for the Tamworth Country Music Festival, I think in 2013. Also working with some band members at the Mildura Country Music Festival – the Toombs brothers and Jayne Denham’s band, it makes you feel cool as an artist. You feel really special.
The new album, Airborne, is out. It sounds like you and your mum write together regularly and I know you did some other collaborations for these songs. How did you end up choosing what was going on that album?
I didn’t really know what was going on that album until I sat down with Robert Mackay and nutted it out. I am really bad at that part of it. Especially if you write a song, you get so connected to something that’s your own that you can’t see if it’s good or bad [laughs] – you’re just, like, ‘Yes, it’s going on the album!’ But when we worked out what I was trying to achieve with the album, all the songs had to connect and Rob was really good at helping choose the songs and saying, ‘Yes, that’s good’ or ‘Mmm – maybe we could think about another song’. It was more about whether the song was really good. And whether it was me as well – when I was singing the song, ‘Yeah, that song’s Kalesti’ or ‘I don’t really think that song’s you’, even if I did write it, or it was a great song but it wasn’t really a Kalesti song.
Those can be tough decisions, can’t they – having the strength to let the song go for someone else to have, it’s a tricky thing.
There’s a few songs on the album that I hadn’t even heard of before – some songs were choices that Rob said, ‘Have a listen to this song and see if you like it’, then I decided yes or no. Like ‘Airborne’ and ‘Dead Man’s Shirt’, they’re songs that I didn’t know about previously.