Saturday, March 25, 2017

Single release: 'Man Out of Time' by Thomas Wynn and The Believers

Thomas Wynn and The Believers is actually Wynn plus his sister, Olivia Wynn Roche, and band. It is Olivia's voice that comes through most strongly on this driving, pulsing, swampy song that has country in its veins and rock in its heart. The song is taken from the band's upcoming album, Wade Waist Deep, which will be released on 19 May. It can be preordered on iTunes.

Tania Kernaghan releases an all-Australian new album

Tania Kernaghan has been responsible for many great Australian country songs over the course of her previous six albums and now her seventh, All-Australian Girl, is adding more hits to the list. Tania is, of course, a member of a famous country music family but she has made her music, and her identity, her own - with a little help from her sister, Fiona. I asked Tania about writing with her sister, the new album and the year ahead. 

What does being an all-Australian girl mean to you?
I think you’re one of those girls that can just about take on anything in the world and achieve it. You are able to pretty much do whatever your heart desires. And ‘All-Australian Girl’ was really written for all the women I’ve met over the years – the great women – from young girls through to our senior citizens. And whether they’re driving trucks in mines or they’re working as a nurse or they’re in a co-op or a supermarket or just being a mum – and I shouldn’t say ‘just’ being a mum and a wife because I reckon it’s probably the hardest job ever – it’s a tribute to those women.

You’ve written several of the songs with another all-Australian girl: your sister, Fiona. How has your collaboration style changed over the years? Or even how it began – do you remember the first song you wrote together?
I sure do – it was back in 1992 when I wrote my first song with Fiona, a song called ‘I’ll Be Gone’. It was released as a radio single on ABC Records and then it was four years after that that I recorded my very first album, December Moon. Fiona and I just started writing when we were teenagers, and we wrote about stuff that we were experiencing, people we’d met, places we’d been. Even though we hadn’t done a real lot by the time I was eighteen, nineteen years old – I was still so young but at the time I just wrote about some stuff that was happening in my life and ‘I’ll Be Gone’ was born. And that’s pretty much what I’ve done with Fiona for all of our writing career – we just real life stuff because I think that’s more relatable to people and I think that it connects much better with them.

Even as a teenager, though – teenage years can be a time of self-absorption so even to be able to look outwards, not just one of you but both of you to write songs about people and places, did you have an awareness, growing up, of the importance of telling stories and paying attention, I guess is what it amounts to.
I had the great privilege of travelling a lot with my family when we were younger kids when my dad [Ray Kernaghan] was touring and performing around Australia. And it was back in the days of cars and caravans, so you’d get to a town with a travelling show, you’d pull up behind the local town hall, you’d plug into the power, the musicians would load the gear in and do the show that night then we’d pack up and head to the next town the next day. I did a lot of that growing up and we got to meet a lot of people and visit a lot of different towns, and you were put in situations, I suppose, where there wasn’t the technology we have today as far as computer games and iPads and iPhones and all of that distraction, and you really had to learn how to communicate with people and talk to complete strangers. Talking to a stranger wasn’t a bad thing, it was quite interesting in more cases than not. I think it was probably because of those really early days and that kind of experience as a young kid that really helped shape the way we are today and the fact that we are a bit more aware of what’s going on around us rather than being too self centred or introverted.

Still, I find it really interesting that there’s three of you [Tania, Fiona and Lee] who wrote songs, three of you who are really interested in other people’s stories and you’ve maintained that over your lives. I guess this is a comment more than a question, but I think it’s a significant contribution from one family to Australian culture.
And there’s actually four of us, because our brother Greg is a great songwriter. Although he doesn’t pursue music as his career, he has written some fantastic songs over the years – in fact, he co-wrote ‘When the Snow Falls on the Alice’ for Lee and a really good song called ‘It is Goodbye, Aussie Farmer?’ and actually sang on that track with my dad and me. Greg’s a great talent. I suppose we all experienced similar things when we were growing up so to be able to sing about and write about it and observe things as we go through life, and then regurgitate it on paper into a song, it’s kind of pretty easy to do, really.

Well, you make it look easy but I always think it’s not, because there’s all that experience behind you that you funnel into your work. But still on the question of Fiona and co-writing – is the co-writing relationship with her more flexible because you’re siblings or does collaboration in general suit you?
I just think Fiona knows me so well. We really were connected from a very early age and we got on really well, and we’ve always been friends. I kind of scratch my head and can’t understand why some siblings don’t get on with each other – I think, Get over yourself and be friends [laughs]. But whatever karma we’ve racked up we’ve got to deal with, I suppose. So Fiona and I have always had a great relationship and Fiona knows me so well when it comes to what I want to sing about and the type of music that I like to record. Although she’s had over a hundred cuts with other people around the world and a lot of music of hers has been recorded for television and movies, when it comes to country songs for me she absolutely nails it and it’s so easy to co-write with her.

What was the first song written for this current album and what was the last?
I think the first song was ‘All-Australian Girl’.

That makes sense, since it’s your title track.
Yes, although I didn’t know what I was going to call it – it had a few different incarnations before that was the actual album title. But, yes, that was the first one. And then the last one I think maybe it might have been ‘Light in the Window’, the last track,

And that’s a family story too.
Yes, it is. We grew up in Albury and my grandmother lived just around the corner from our house, and we’d always get so excited about getting on our bikes when the street lights came on and riding around to Nana’s. There was always a lot of love in her home and she always made you feel welcome and went overboard spoiling us with cups of tea and she’d even iron our bedsheets when we stayed at her house because she didn’t have electric blankets so she’d make sure the bed was nice and warm in the winter before we went to bed at night. When that song was written Fiona had written the lyric and one night I was just mucking around on the piano and I came up with a melody, and Fiona said, ‘I’ve got this lyric but I haven’t got a tune,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ve got a melody but I don’t have a lyric.’ It was the strangest thing, because the music and the words went together perfectly, it was like they were written for each other even though we weren’t in the same room when we originally wrote it. We didn’t have to be in the same room to be collaborating.

That doesn’t surprise me given how much you’ve worked together and how close you are as siblings. There’s that mystical element of how songs are created anyway, so I think it’s rational that the two of you might separately come up with things that belong together.
I’m sure there are plenty of other songs that will come that way and get onto an album eventually. I guess it’s just testament to how close we really are and that relationship that we’ve got with each other.

Is there a song that means more to you than any of the others on the album?
Well, I love ‘Light in the Window’ – it’s a really personal song for me. But when I look at the songs, ‘Homestead of My Dreams’ is a real cracker. I met Smoky Dawson on several occasions and he was such a great lyricist and a wonderful man – both he and his wife are great people. And when I first heard ‘Homestead of My Dreams’ it took me back to when I first met him but also the stories that my mum has told me and still tells me about her life growing up in the High Country. She was born on a dairy farm just out of Corryong and the stories she’d tell me as a kid growing up, riding horses to school and riding the old steam train home, racing across the hills, mustering cattle – I just felt there was such a strong connection from the lyrics to me and to our family. Smoky felt like part of our family and maybe that’s just the kind of character that he was – all families felt like they had a bit of Smoky Dawson blood running through their veins.

All your songs are really evocative of different things, and that’s to do with the way you sing them too, so that your audience can connect to them. It is a skill and a talent to be able to connect to the audience but I get that really clear sense that you always feel like you’re singing to someone, it’s not just for you to stand alone in a booth and sing to yourself.
It comes through the lyrics, too. It’s really important that they have to connect with the people so they think, Yeah, that’s about me or, I know exactly what that person’s going through. And that’s important when you’re putting songs together and you’re thinking about an album. I might have thirty songs to choose from by the time I go into the studio to record them but I put myself in a position of standing on stage, now I’ve got to sing those songs – how’s it going to translate to an audience? And it’s really important that every song, every note, every word is really strong and it connects with people.

And I guess that goes back to what you said earlier about how you grew up – that awareness of other people, going to lots of different places. You must have had a very early sense of connection with others.
Yes, definitely, and all sorts of people from lots of different walks of life. I remember in those early days Dad was doing shows with a travelling country music show and they would play at a lot of Aboriginal missions out in the Territory and Western Australia – places that you don’t even get to go to these days. Even just talking to the little Aboriginal kids when we were kids and we’d end up playing with them behind the town hall and they’d be telling us stories about how they catch pigeons. I remember one place – in Agnew, I think it was in Western Australia – we had this huge bag of apples and these wild little kids who were catching pigeons to cook them up, we gave them some apples and they came back to the next day to the caravan wanting more of these apples. They had lots of stories to tell and I never felt afraid of where we were or the variety of people we met over our lives. I just think we’re all the same, we’ve just had different experiences.

Now, this is your seventh studio album. What has been the best thing about your career and what has been the hardest?
The best thing if I could make a sweeping statement – and I don’t mean to sound too saccharine-y here – but I really feel it’s what you can give back to people, it’s not what you take from this world or this life or this experience or this career, it’s what I can give back through what I’m doing with my life. So that’s probably the biggest highlight for me: to bring joy and happiness and make someone’s life a little bit better or day a little bit brighter. And probably the hardest thing in my career would be the behind-the-scenes administration and the taking care of business side of things. It’s an enormous amount of work and when you’re an independent artist you find that you’re doing a lot of it yourself, and I’ve chosen to go down that road, as an independent artist. Taking care of business is number one, it’s the most important thing. Getting up on stage is the easy part, and singing, and entertaining. But it’s the business side of things that is sometimes the most consuming and frustrating and hard. But the good weighs out the bad.

You are involved with a lot of charities and you do a lot of other things. What are you looking forward to achieving next?
That’s a hard question. I guess I just keep going from day to day. If you had have asked me that twelve months ago I’d have said, ‘I can’t wait to get my new record recorded and the songs written and get a new album out there.’ So I guess the next thing I’d like to achieve is lots of touring and singing and promoting the new record, and getting out and seeing a lot more of Australia in the process.

And speaking of touring: you do have a lot of dates booked and it says there might be more to come. So how does it feel to have the whole year mapped out – is it comforting or is it a bit strange to know what you’re doing in October?
It’s definitely a good feeling. There’s nothing worse than having a month when there’s nothing happening in a calendar [laughs]. You have to work six, eight months ahead all the time in the music business. When I look at my year planner and see that there’s plenty happening all through the year, well into November, that makes me feel very good. I’ve just got to keep meditation and keep the vitamins up and I’ll be pretty right [laughs].

 All-Australian Girl is out now.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Interview: Route 33

Melodic country rock band Route 33 has two core members: Trent McArdle and Jock Barnes, who grew up in Ipswich, Queensland, and now live in Brisbane. In their first band, Golden Child, they played other people's songs; now they play their own and they've released a debut album, The Switch. Recently I spoke to Trent McArdle and found out about the formation of his musical partnership with Jock. The conversation took place while Trent was driving to a gig on the Sunshine Coast and that was how we got on to the subject of him playing piano, as he takes a keyboard set-up with him to each show.

How long have you been playing piano?
Dad made me start it because all I did was play footy and stuff when I was ten or eleven. He said, ‘You’ve got to do music or debating or chess or something’, and it pulled my teeth but I started piano. That would have been twenty years ago now – because I’m bloody thirty, getting on. That’s how many years I’ve been playing.

Thirty is not ‘getting on’ – thirty is the new fifteen.
I hope that’s the case. I’m trying to get my head around it.

When you were a kid playing piano and I would imagine some of your mates were still playing footy and not playing piano, were you a bit sceptical about it?
Oh yeah, absolutely. The first few years I basically didn’t tell anyone I played and that was not because I was scared of ridicule or anything – and funnily enough I met Jock through his brother, Derek Barnes, who’s a Wallaby. He’s the biggest musical lover I know, so he’d always come over and we’d play piano and jam on different songs. He’d show me country music and all that stuff. But people in Grade Twelve at my school didn’t even know that I played and I jumped up one day with a barbershop quartet and played a crooner song, ‘It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing’, and people kind of sat there like they’d seen a dead person. A football scholarship holder getting up to play piano was a bit unorthodox. I didn’t mind, I didn’t care about the ridicule, it was more that it just didn’t come up.

I wouldn’t mind betting that your father thought you should be a well-rounded young man – but sport and music are really related because of that principle of drills. You have to drill piano – you have to do your scales, you have to do your Hanon – then you can play pieces, and sport is the same: drill, drill, drill and then you get to play.
Tennis is one of the most demanding sports – for me it was swimming and rugby, so waking up at 5 a.m. was just something you had to do. When you were ten you were getting up at 5 a.m. So doing piano practice was not an issue because it was something that was instilled in another side of life. I’ve got to do something I don’t like to do, which is scales and this and that if I want to play this type of song, be it classical, modern, jazz, whatever it is, until you had those drills and skills you had to do that.

You clearly have a really solid musical grounding, then, but that’s not necessarily a continuum into doing music even as a side gig. What prompted you to start playing – I know you two were in a covers band for a while?
Jock has driven us starting the cover band and then Jock has driven us starting the original music. I was living on the Coast trying to be a professional iron man and he kept bugging me: ‘Let’s do this band thing, let’s do this band thing.’ And his brother kept saying, ‘You guys should do it.’ I just basically ignored him for a while until he rang me one day and said, ‘I got us a gig, so you’d better be ready.’ And then we turned up to do this gig off the back of nothing. We had a singer at the time – neither of us sang. Then the natural progression happened: the band grew, and then one of our singers panicked one night and ran off stage. Jock and I looked at each other and I said, ‘You sing’, and he said, ‘No – you sing.’ And I lost the game of chicken and that’s how I started singing. From there we went to the CMA fest in 2015 in Nashville. We were doing writing as a hobby and that was where we said, ‘Let’s have a fair crack at this – let’s see if we can turn these originals into something.’ And then it’s been about an eighteen-month process to where we are now.

When you lost that game of chicken and started to sing, what did that feel like? Was it a natural thing or were you a bit scared?
No, no, I thought I was atrocious. I’ll always remember the first song – it was ‘Wonderwall’ – and Jock just stood there. He’d won the game of chicken; he didn’t start singing. It was a blessing in disguise – it was the best thing that could have happened. Because he felt bad that I was singing, he started doing harmonies. Before that we didn’t even have a microphone stuck in front of us. So it wasn’t natural at all. The first three or four months we were a bit worried about it but I suppose it progressed.

 Well, it certainly has progressed because now you’re singing on your own tracks. So that move into original music – that’s a fairly logical progression, but I’m interested in what working in a cover band taught you about audiences and how to get audiences to respond.
When we started doing this I said, ‘I’ll go around and see what other bands do well and not well.’ The biggest thing for me, as a cover band, was song selection and getting that right. And Jock said this in an interview the other day – and I hadn’t thought of it this way – by doing cover music I feel like you work out what punters like and don’t like, and sometimes that’s a surprising thing. When we write – because we’ve done so many cover gigs, I guess it’s a self-conscious thing where you go, ‘I’m not writing for me here.’ I mean, you do somewhat, but I’m writing thinking, What would someone at the Roma Cup who’s ten runs deep, whose just had a win on the horses – what would they want to hear? Would this be something you could see them singing along to? So just trying to relate it to those audiences. Because we’ve had gigs, especially when we’ve started, where they don’t even want to hear you. You’re in a bar and they don’t want to hear you. By the end, because we’ve got a reasonable name in south-east Queensland, we were getting gigs as a headline act even though we were a cover band, which was good. People were excited to see us. At the start it was trying to learn how to read an audience and I’ve always stated to my band now: it’s all about energy. If we’re enjoying ourselves, they’ll probably enjoy themselves too. If it looks like work, then they’re going to feel that and not vibe with you. 

And when you’re thinking about what that person at the Roma Cup wants to hear, when it comes to writing your own material you therefore have to be pretty ruthless with yourself, I guess, because you might want to go off on a certain path and indulge a certain emotion or story, but if you keep that focus on the audience, it does help you to be a lean writing machine.
It’s about simplicity, and I think no other band in the world has done it better in history than The Beatles. Their songs are so simplistic and when I hear great writers – the modern-day ones in Nashville that are performing are Chris Stapleton and Thomas Rhett. They just keep producing these songs that are so unbelievable simple that you can’t get them out of your head. If you go too in-depth you start losing people.

It’s very much a part of country music, to entertain an audience. Australian country music acts really feel that connection with the audience and a responsibility to the audience. You mentioned ‘Wonderwall’ but that’s obviously not a country song, so what informed your move into the country music genre?
Jock is huge into the Australian country side of things. He’s originally from Kingaroy [Queensland]. His family’s from Long Reach. So he grew up on Troy Cassar-Daley, John Williamson and Slim Dusty. And obviously you listen to what your parents listen to. My parents jammed a lot of Cold Chisel down my throat. The Eagles, the Beach Boys, AC/DC, Johnny Diesel, Hunters and Collectors, so I was into more that Australian rock stuff. And then I did a semester of college in America, on a swimming scholarship, in ’06 and that’s when I discovered country: Rascal Flatts, Dixie Chicks, and I thought, Wow, this is amazing. And that’s what Jock had been listening to for twenty years already. So that’s how it naturally went down that path. And also Golden Child, the cover band thing, because we were doing so many of those big country events – we played rock but also your ‘Wagon Wheels’ and your ‘Chicken Frieds’ and ‘Boys from the Bush’ and all of that stuff, it’s the influence of your audience and they’re all those country people or urban cowboys.

You mentioned Cold Chisel – I think ‘Khe Sanh’ is a country song, in the construction of it.
Yep – the way it’s constructed, the way it’s worded, the phrasing in it, absolutely. In Tamworth there’s the age-old argument: ‘Is this country or isn’t it?’ It’s such a blurred line but I’d absolutely agree. A lot of what Chisel write is veering on that kind of thing.

When it came to choosing your band name, how did that come about?
We wanted to keep Golden Child [the name of the cover band] originally because there was a bit of a funny story behind that, and basically our publicist said, ‘You can’t do that.’ We couldn’t think of anything. My girlfriend was driving home one night and she looked up at the sign on Coronation Drive all the way out to Ipswich and the road is actually 33. Obviously we don’t call them ‘routes’ in Australia but in America they do. Now we’re looking at the Australian market but long term we’d love to take one-tenth of how well Keith Urban did. So the influence of route 33: it’s the road Jock and I both grew up off; our very first gig was out at Ipswich and that’s the road that goes to Ipswich. And the ‘swich’ in ‘Ipswich’ ties in with the switch from covers to originals. We wanted to get something that wasn’t a random name – we wanted something that would half tell a story to it, so we came up with that.

You normally play in a six-piece band – who else is in your band and how did you come to meet them?
With the cover band it’s been a natural progression, and the more high demand you get in cover music the more you get paid. The more we get paid, the more we can pay people that are playing for us. Jock and I always had a thing that we’d pay everyone exactly the same, even though it’s our band we own the equipment. What we’re able to do is get some of the best session musicians in the country. Our drummer now has played with Wolfmother, Jamiroquai, Bernard Fanning. The guitarist has played with Delta Goodrem, Conrad Sewell, Midnight Sun – a couple of ARIA bands. The saxophonist has been with the Ten Tenors. We always wanted to make sure if the album did anything, we could build the band around us that was going to shape up against any band in the country so that’s why we got these guys in. The funny thing is, they’ve come from different backgrounds – they wouldn’t have known who Florida Georgia Line was a year ago – and now they’re getting right into it, which is a cool thing.

Do you have plans to tour the album?
Not yet. We’re being guided by Tom Inglis, who’s our publicist. He wants us to play those festival bills: Gympie Muster, Broadbeach, CMC next year. I’m in talk with Damian from Viper Creek about doing a tour and supporting those guys. But honestly we’re getting guided at the moment. We’re getting real good help from some of the people at ABC [Music] and some of the people at Sony who are interested, you might call it. It will be guided by stuff they put in front of us as well. What Jock and I are focusing on right now, we’ve got another album that we want to get into the studio as soon as possible. We just loved the experience the first time and we’re thinking and hoping that the next songs are even stronger. We want to get into that in the next month or two then just be guided on the tour stuff and go from there.

A producer is a big part of any album’s sound, and obviously yours understood what you were trying to do because the sound is clean and tight. And a producer who understands you can almost be like another member of the band. Except is seems like you and Jock have your collaboration pretty well sorted so you don’t necessarily need another member.
At the same time a good producer can put their extra eyes on it. Jock and I can’t for the life of us write a song together. Every song in the album is either written by him or written by me. At the end of it we might change it up – I might change a few things [in his songs] and vice versa. But we’ve sat down and tried to write together and we just end up watching football or talking about other things. So even though we’re tight on the business side of things, that cowriting is still a work in progress.

The Switch is out now.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Single release: 'Starting From Now' by Catherine McGrath

Catherine McGrath grew up in Northern Ireland and now lives in London. She has been steadily building her audience throughout the UK and released a debut EP towards the end of 2016. Initially her sound was heavily influenced by Taylor Swift but her new song, 'Starting From Now', marks a change: McGrath is developing her own sound and making the most of her impressive pipes. This is upbeat country pop - and upbeat is what's needed right now (or is it just me?).

'Starting From Now' has a great lilting beat that makes it easy to listen to - over and over - and McGrath is clearly an emerging star on the UK country scene.

Play the video below to listen to 'Starting From Now':

Single release: 'Finish Line' by Jade Jackson

Anyone who loves music knows that feeling when a song or an album gives you shivers up the spine. It is a real privilege as a listener when that happens more than once in a blue moon. Admittedly most of those moments for me have come from Australian artists. This time, though, it's an American causing the shivers: Jade Jackson, whose new album, Gilded. will be released on 19 May.

Jackson has cited Lucinda Williams as an influence and that influence can be heard in the single 'Finish Line', but not so much that Jackson has failed to come up with something distinctly her own. What's in the hooks and swirls and shadows of this song is honesty, vulnerability and determination. It's a standout song from an artist who does not fit neatly into any existing groove but who will, no doubt, create one of her own.

Watch the video for 'Finish Line' below and preorder Gilded on iTunes.

Single release: 'Drink Things Over' by Sandra Humphries

South Australia has been fertile ground for Australian country music for several decades - Beccy Cole and Kasey Chambers both had their starts there, even if Chambers was technically living on the Nullarbor Plain for the first few years. Bluegrass singer-songwriter Kristy Cox also hails from SA. So Sandra Humphries is in good - and appropriate - company as she releases 'Drink Things Over', a song with an old-time feel to the music and a straightforward tilt to the lyrics: in case of break-up, drink things over.

'Drink Things Over' is the first release from Humphries's sixth studio album, Walk in Circles, and it will delight fans who like a traditional country sound with a modern interpretation. You can listen to it on Soundcloud:

Order Walk in Circles from Sandra at

Saturday, March 18, 2017

EP review: Ava Suppelsa

Originally from Illinois, Ava Suppelsa now lives in Boston, where she attends the Berklee College of Music - this I read in her bio, which also said she melds a country/pop sound with hints of jazz. Before I listened to her to EP, I was intrigued as to what that would sound like. And here's what it sounds like: original, sophisticated and strong.

The opening track, 'He Told Me', is a love-gone-wrong song that fits into a conventional modern country canon, but it's a good introduction to Suppelsa's voice, which has a lovely tone and great range. It's from track 2, 'A Lot Like Me', that things get interesting. This is a wistful song about a childhood home, and Suppelsa manages the sentiment without becoming sentimental. It's a balance also present in the third track, 'This Time'.

All four songs on the EP were written by Suppelsa, who doesn't shy away from emotion in her lyrics, and doesn't resile from it in her singing either. It might sound obvious to say that country music songs are emotional, yet in a market as big as the USA there must also be some pressure on artists to flatten the emotion so they can appeal to the broadest number of people - certainly that's what seems to happen in a lot of the bro country that increasingly dominates country radio. But genuine emotion will always connect with a range of people. If the artist is sincere, if the emotion comes from a genuine place, the audience feels it. Suppelsa is clearly authentic but she has also, it seems, worked out how to convey that emotion in a way that enables her to command it rather than succumb to it. This is nowhere more apparent than on the last track, 'Finish Line', which is about a father trying to get sober. Suppelsa's father received treatment for addiction when she was younger, so it's logical to presume that she's writing about her own family member. But the song feels universal, and that's where she understands her role as an artist: to take a story and convey it in the best way possible to the largest number of people.

Suppelsa may still be in college but this is not the work of an undergraduate. Given that she's already an accomplished songwriter, no doubt there is an album's worth of songs there somewhere and I will wait impatiently to hear them.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

EP review: Going in Circles by Ella Belfanti

On occasion I'll stray away from writing about country music - but only for a good reason. In the case of Sydneysider Ella Belfanti's debut EP, Going in Circles, there are plenty of good reasons. 

Belfanti nominates her genre as folk but there's a fair bit of indie pop and rock in her sound. This EP evokes some Sydney indie music from the early 1990s but this is in the form of an echo rather than influence. And what's hers alone is a wonderful voice that can be gutsy and rich and also exquisitely sweet. She has also written songs that are lyrically and musically thoughtful and well developed. 

Belfanti has played all instruments and sung all the vocal tracks on these six songs that were recorded in her bedroom. Those instruments include semi-acoustic guitar, flute, drum kit, cajon, bongos, bass guitar, and some found objects. Also worth mentioning: Belfanti is seventeen. And her age is not the point so much as the fact that she has developed a broad skill set in not many years. Indeed, when I read about her age I thought maybe the songs would be a good exercise in nostalgia for my own years of teenage trials and tribulations - and there is a bit of that, but mainly what I hear in Belfanti's work is a lack of cynicism that is not all the same thing as teenage naivety, and vigour that is arguably as much to do with this being her first EP as it is to do with her age.

To hark back to the 1990s again, there was another artist whose first publicly released work was recorded at home, by her alone: Liz Phair's Exile in Guyville. Newer technologies give Belfanti an edge when it comes to what she can create entirely alone, but what they can't give her is the confidence in her own voice (singing and otherwise) that's on this record and which make her sound like a more experienced performer than Phair at the same stage. This is an artist in her element, with a wide vista open in front of her.

Going in Circles is available now.

Interview: Steve Eales

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.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Single release: 'Shine On Me' by Sophia Chesworth

Sometimes I delete enough email to get to some older messages ... and I'll find a song I haven't heard but really like, such as this one by fifteen-year-old Sophia Chesworth. In those fifteen years Sophia has graduated from the CMAA Junior Academy of Country Music, then travelled to Gympie to perform at the Gympie Muster, where she won the Gympie Muster Junior Talent Search. Sophia has won several songwriting awards in 2016, including the ‘Youth’ Section of the ASA (Australian Songwriters Association) National Songwriting Contest, ‘Youth’ Section of the TSA (Tamworth Songwriters Association) National Songwriting Contest, Open Lyrics of the Songsalive! Australia Song Comp and the Junior Songwriting Section of the CCMA (Capital Country Music Association). In other words: she's no slouch, and the proof is in this song, which has the opening lines 'I am just a small-town girl who wants to make it in this world'. Chesworth is making her way just fine.

Listen to 'Shine On Me' on Soundcloud or buy it on iTunes.

Find Sophia on Facebook:

Single release: 'Still Got You' by Karin Page

From 2016 Toyota Star Maker winner Karin Page comes this very catchy, upbeat number which is the title track of Page's EP, which was released in January. Page has strong vocals to go with this song written in praise of the person who will stand by your side in good and bad sides. 

Page started 2017 in the same winning fashion as she began 2016, with awards for Female Artist of the Year and Songwriter of the Year at the West Australian Country Music Awards, the major event of the Boyup Brook Country Music Festival held in February.

Watch the video for 'Still Got You' below and buy the EP on iTunes.

Interview: Hurricane Fall

Newcastle country rock Hurricane Fall are relatively new but already attracting fans with their melodic sound. The band is comprised of Jesse Vee (lead vocals and guitar), Pepper Deroy (lead vocals and bass), Jimmy Hick (lead guitarist) and Lachlan ‘Dusty’ Coffey (drums and percussion). I spoke to Pepper about the band's new single 'How We Get Down' from the EP of the same name.

How did the band form?
Jesse and I were in a cover band together, gigging with that, and we needed a drummer so we brought Dusty in. Then we started to write some material, the three of us, and we needed someone who was a bit more like minded for that writing process so we stumbled across Jim, then we changed the name to Hurricane Fall and the rest is history.

What sort of covers were you doing?
Rock. We were always influenced by country music and we all come from country backgrounds so that was what our heart was in, but the rest of it was just to make coin.

And get practice, I suppose.
Yeah, that’s it. So when we started to write it came out country, so we went down that path.

Your bio says you were Tamworth born and raised – are all of you from Tamworth?
Dusty, myself and Jesse are from Tamworth. Jim was born in Sydney – actually, I think he was born in California. He grew up in Sydney.

Growing up in Tamworth, a country music influence was probably inevitable whether you wanted it or not.
Exactly. I got Slim Dusty rammed down my throat from an early age.

I don’t think Slim is music that a kid likes – he wasn’t overly melodic. Listening to your sound, there’s a lot of melody and a lot of harmony, so as you grew up what were your musical tastes.
We all have very broad tastes but at the root of all of it is musicality. Jim has a blues background, Jesse has country and pop, I have a lot of country. We all love Keith Urban – everyone does, because he’s an Aussie boy. Florida Georgia Line, the boys love. I love Clint Black and Garth Brooks – they’re the guys that started it all. Reba McEntire, a lot of that sort of stuff. Jo Dee Messina. That sort of real rocky country but melodic and well-written songs are the ones we follow and they still influence me, certainly.

There hasn’t been a lot of that melodic country rock in Australia and that’s where you guys are part of a new sound, in many respects. McAlister Kemp had a very rock sound but that more melodic sound – I’m scratching my head to think of anyone other than Keith who really did it when he went to the United States. Has it been difficult to find a foothold with your style?
We’ve picked up a pretty good fan base. I wouldn’t say they’re country fans initially, though. We put a lot of emphasis on our live performance, so that attracts people to watch us because it’s entertaining outside of what the music’s doing. In terms of the music, I think because we’ve drawn that crowd it’s become popular and we’ve got a couple of the country music fanatical people watching and they’ve picked it up because they like it now too. But you’re right, it’s been hard to find our groove and who we are. I guess the songs that we write are from the heart and we put them out there and we love playing them and we love people listening to them. So we put it out there because we love it, and if people can latch onto that, well, good, but we’re not out there to try to write popular country songs. That’s just the stuff that comes to us

How did you choose your name?
Jesse came up with it, actually. We were brainstorming ideas and there were a few good ideas. He came up with it and we said, ‘That’s pretty good, let’s run with it.’

You guys now live in Newcastle and a lot of country music performers live not too far away, on the Central Coast of New South Wales. Why did you pick Newcastle?
It’s sort of a natural progression for people from Tamworth. There’s a lot of Tamworth people in Newcastle. But it is a good hub for musicians – there’s a good live scene here, you’re close to Sydney and it’s great to live on the beach. The Central Coast and Newcastle are just a great spot.

When you write songs, do you have an established method for doing it? Does one of you write a song and bring it to everyone else?
That’s essentially what happens, where one person writes the song and then we bring it in and collaborate on it. That’s how we’ve done it in the past and that’s what seems to be the most successful out of all the writing methods, for us anyway. I write – I could be going down an escalator and an idea comes to me and, bang, that’s where the song comes from. I don’t sit down and write a song, it just comes along when you’re doing everyday stuff, and then you sit down and piece it together. That’s how I write and that’s how Jimmy writes. We recently did a writing session, Jesse and I, which was good but it was different to how we usually do it.

Would you attempt it again?
We would, because it was a learning process. I guess when a song comes from the heart they’re very personal, so when you’re sitting down with someone else it’s hard to let go of it. When you take it to the boys it’s easy to let do – ‘Here’s my baby, let’s work on it.’

Four people in a room, each of you with opinions, can get a bit tricky but it sounds like it’s a fairly harmonious process.
It’s good. That’s not to say there’s not a fair share of arguments because we are always arguing, for some reason. We love each other but it we had a GoPro in that car – my god.

Do you fight over who drives when you’re going to gigs?
No, it’s the front seat. I always drive.

I guess the arguing is the sign of a healthy relationship, because you can express your opinions and still stay together.
They’re expressed, for sure. Nothing’s held back, ever. I’m surprised at how personal it gets and we all still play together. It’s that intense. But it is one of the keys to our relationship as a band, that you don’t bitch about each other, you say it to your face. If you feel that way, you say it straight up to the guy’s face and then it’s over and done with.

It also suggests that you’re four passionate individuals, prepared to back up what you’re saying.
[Laughs] Yep. It isn’t always a good thing, but yes.

It sounds like if it’s personal disagreement there’s not so much musical disagreement.

No, there’s not. I think it’s one of the keys – if you look at all the really successful bands, they talk about chemistry in terms of stepping into a room and it just happens. And we’ve worked on it but that’s where we are now. We knew as soon as we came together that it was going to work. It all gelled together. So we feel we have that chemistry there. That makes it easier straight off the back.

Coming together like that and feeling it’s going to work – you still have to trust in that feeling.
Yes, you do and that’s one of the hardest things too. You do second-guess yourself at times but it all seems to come together and even in the space of a two-hour writing session for a song at the start of it you might be feeling a bit flaky about it but at the end it sort of comes together and you think, Trust in the boys and it’ll come good, and it does. But you’re right – there’s a fair bit of trust there.

And that’s pointing back to the elasticity of the relationship, that you can have your opinions and come back together, so even though to an outsider it may sound noisy, it seems like it’s a really healthy unit of four equal individuals rather than one leader and three followers.
For sure. We’re all very individual. Which is good – we don’t like the classic cliché of a band. It’s sort of like the Four Musketeers – one in, all in.

When it comes to singing lead vocals, though, does that flow with whoever the songwriter has been?
Usually. What I’ve tried to adopt lately, though, is to write two-part songs. ‘Love Her Right’ is a two-part song so there’s two lead vocal lines and then we swap with the harmony lines. Same with ‘Don’t Miss Me’ and ‘How We Get Down’, we both sing lead parts and both back up and do the harmony parts. The only one we don’t do that on is ‘Dance With Me’. But when we’re mixing the masters we say we want the vocals sitting level, so we really push for that, so it sounds like it’s one voice rather than two.

You mentioned ‘How We Get Down’ and that is the single off your new EP. What is the story behind the writing of that song?
We did a tour out northwest, and it was early on so we were into the party stage of it. We went pretty hard on the weekend, drove back on the Sunday, washed up, Jimmy went home and wrote that song. So that pretty much is how it happened. Partied all night and drove all day. It was good because it was the first song that was inspired by what actually happened on the road. It’s a good song, we like it. We’re proud that Jimmy went home and put it into a song.

The process of choosing a single always interests me, because sometimes it’s not always the most radio-friendly song – particularly in a country where radio for country music is not that strong, unlike the United States. So how did you come to choose this song as the single?
There was a couple of options on there. We were planning to go with ‘Don’t Miss Me’ as the first single but it all came down to the film clip, actually. We had a mate of ours come up with an idea for the film clip – Tom from Gravity Films – and we said, ‘Righto, we like that idea, so let’s push that as the first single’. I think a ballad is better in the winter anyway – it’s more of a summer feel-good song.

I’ve never contemplated the idea of ballads being better in the winter, but you’re absolutely right.
Our publicist taught us that.

Good fire-side stuff, I guess.
That’s it. She’s a smart woman.

You’ve played quite a few great gigs, support slots and festivals. Is there anything on your wish list that you’d like to play? I notice that you’re playing the Mt Isa Rodeo later in the year.
That will be a big one. To be honest, we just like playing. The boys are probably more excited – I don’t really get excited about stuff, I just love playing every weekend and going on tour. We’ve got the Grapefest Run, that’s a different sort of gig for us. We just did one of those in Bendigo. That’s where they do a fun run through the vineyards then get all tanked up and party with us in the end. They start – bang, they’re gone. We’re hanging around – ‘Oh, they’re back!’ ‘Oh, they’re drunk – let’s do this!’ I was a bit dubious, actually, I thought it wasn’t going to work, but it worked really well. The concept is new to Australia but they’ve done it in France and the States and it’s worked exceptionally well. They get 20 000 to an event over there. It’s in its infancy in Australia but I think it’s going to take off for sure.

And something else that’s been taking off is the cruise for country music and I can see that you have one lined up in October – will that be your first?
It will be. Actually, I’m excited for that one.

I wonder with those cruises if it’s difficult being the artist, because you can’t leave the venue. But I guess you’ll find a way of keeping the lines between you and the audience clear.
[Laughs] Yeah, staying in your room.

If you want to keep them clear – for all I know, you want to mingle. And I’ll ask one last question. You’ve put two EPs out. The usual trajectory is to release an album after that but the way people find music and play music is changing. Is it a consideration for you guys – are you thinking, yes, an album because the country music audience likes an album, or are EPs more suitable to your life? You’re on the road, perhaps it’s easier to get out four or five songs than an album’s worth?
It was logistically for the last two EPs and time wise – you’re on the road all the time, it’s harder to block that couple of weeks out to record, let alone the time to write and finish songs so that they’re album ready. But we’ve certainly got the material, so this next project will be an album because country fans do like albums. But everyone’s doing EPs now, and we sell more in streams than we do in downloads. That’s the way it’s going nowadays.

My theory about why the country music audience likes a CD is because they like a memento of a show.
They do, and we’ve sold heaps of hard copies – thousands. And we appreciate that too. It’s good to go [to a show] and sell merch. That’s wicked.

How We Get Down is available now. Get it on iTunes.