It’s fair to say Australian alt-country artist Kasey Chambers has come a long way in recent times. After many years performing with her family in the Dead Ringer Band, she released her debut solo album The Captain in 1999. It gained a number of country music awards in her home country and led to many months’ worth of touring Australia, the United States and elsewhere. To her own amazement, Chambers even managed to win the “Best Female Artist” at the Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) awards the following year, ahead of notable pop singers such as Kylie Minogue. (“I didn’t think people like me were supposed to win awards like this!” she said at the time.) The album has also sold in six-figure quantities in both Australia and the United States.
Other achievements include the title track appearing on the hit TV show “The Sopranos.” Chambers has already performed on David Letterman’s tonight show in the United States. Robert Christgau from The Village Voice has written, “If the voice doesn’t get you – you’re not me, and you’re also not a whole bunch of other people.”
The distance she has travelled to reach her position today is both metaphorical and literal. Born and raised in the desolate Nullarbor Plain in South Australia (“Nullarbor” being a local word meaning “no trees”), Chambers quickly adapted to a nomadic, outdoor existence, which translated to a musical life spent largely on the road. Indeed, she has written a song called “Nullarbor” about those early days on her new CD Barricades & Brickwalls.
The new album is a captivating mixture of original songs encompassing alt-country, ballads and country-rock along with a credible cover of the Gram Parsons song “Still Feeling Blue.” Guests on the album include her father Bill on dobro and slide, and famed singer-songwriter Paul Kelly on one song, “I Still Pray.” The track “Crossfire” was recorded with Australian thrashabilly band The Living End, while Kasey managed to get one of her musical heroes Lucinda Williams to sing backing vocals on the song “On A Bad Day.” Despite the album fitting neatly into the “country” genre, it is far from a one-dimensional set of songs – the one thing the various songs have in common is an obvious commitment to quality by their writer.
I recently had the chance to chat to Kasey Chambers about Barricades & Brickwalls:
Green Man Review How long did it take to record?
Kasey Chambers “We kind of did it in bits and pieces. We did two lots of bed tracks where I did most of my vocals as well and just the main parts of the songs, we did around Christmas just gone, and also a couple of months before that. The rest of it, little bits of fiddle here and a bit of a guitar lick there were kind of just done whenever we got a day free in the studio because we were on tour and just so busy. All of it was done here in Australia except the song with Lucinda Williams on it and a song with Matthew Ryan and they were done in Nashville but apart from that, it was all done here.”
GMR A couple of the songs are very personal, like the charming song “Not Pretty Enough” and “This Mountain.” You obviously don’t mind sharing those bits of yourself.
KC “You know, it’s funny because when I write the songs I never think about the fact I have to play it to strangers after that. I just write it and it comes out and I’m really kind of honest with myself when I’m writing songs which is a scary thing for anyone to do (laughs), ’cause it’s not always good things I’m saying about myself! Later on then, to play them to my family and then go in and play them in the studio and then at the end, having to play them to people, like five hundred strangers in a room, it is a hard thing to start with certain songs. Obviously, to get up and play “A Little Bit Lonesome” is just going to be a hell of a lot of fun, but to get up and play “A Million Tears” is going to be a little daunting to start with.”
GMR Do people need to know the personal stuff?
KC “I guess I kind of look at it like I think these people are going out paying money to listen to me because they like my music and I think I owe it to them to be as real and honest as I can. I want the people who are passionate about my music to get to know a little bit of me as a person through my music, not just me as a songwriter.”
GMR Do people look to songwriters for the answers to questions in their own lives sometimes?
KC “I’d hate to think I have that much influence over it, because I make some pretty big mistakes sometimes! Maybe people can learn from them, I don’t know!”
GMR You’re doing OK for yourself! It’s only your second solo album but you seem to have found your own niche in the music world.
KC “I’m having a good time. I consider myself pretty lucky in the fact that I can make the sort of music that I want to make and I don’t have to compromise, and yet I can still sell a few albums along the way and get a few new fans. It’s a pretty good position to be in. I’m certainly not a millionaire or anything and I’m certainly not a big star but I’m pretty happy with where I am right now in music. And I don’t have to get a day job, which is the best part!”
GMR You’ve toured and been on the same bill as a number of rather famous people.
KC “I’m kind of getting a few of my dreams come true lately which is a nice thing.”
GMR There was one last year with Lucinda Williams and Richard Thompson. You’re familiar with Richard Thompson generally?
KC “Yeah, actually my Dad is a bigger fan than I was. I’d heard a few songs and liked them and everything but didn’t have any albums to listen to at home. Then we got to meet him that night and he’s just one of the loveliest guys. He was so nice.”
GMR To call the music you play “country” is the nearest convenient pigeonhole. Are you happy with that?
KC “Oh absolutely. I love being known as a country singer, I love country music. I guess I have a country voice and I can’t get away from that even if I want to. Even on the new album when I sing with Living End I still sound like a country singer. But I’m happy with that. When people ask me what sort of singer I am, I say country. It’s a pretty broad thing to say these days, that takes in a fair bit of different music. I’m sure they’ll figure it out, I’m not too worried about whether they’re country music fans or not that listen to my album, I just want it to be people that want to hear my music.”
GMR There are so many styles under the banner of “New Country / Alt Country”
KC “I reckon it’s all gone pretty bloody haywire, to be honest! I reckon at the moment the country scene is healthier here in Australia than it is in America. I love playing over there and the thing is, in America, because of the population I can tour over there and play to just alternative country music fans and still have quite a crowd every night. Here in Australia it’s a little harder because of the population and you’ve got to get out to a lot of new fans as well. In saying that, in America I would never ever get played on mainstream country radio or anything like that. It’s just too alternative and they’re too kind of set in their ways at the moment. You have to not only sound like Shania Twain but look like her as well. It’s a bit like that in America at the moment. I think here in Australia, they’re letting a few new things come through into mainstream music that wouldn’t have been there before. That’s a nice thing and I’m not sure how much that’s really happening in America right now.
“There’s a lot of radio there in America but I think if you lost the population, and you had the same population over there as you do here, an artist like myself would just never ever survive. I would have had to go out and get that day job, damn it! So I’m kind of glad that I spend most of my time here and still going to live here forever and the scene’s going pretty well for me at the moment.”
GMR What about the actual sound of an Australian country artist versus any of the American ones, not just necessarily the accent but the actual sound of it – do you think it’s possible to define how Australian country differs from other types?
KC “Yeah, I don’t really have a word for it but I do think there is a difference. I think there’s a big Australian influence in my song writing in particular but also the sounds are probably a little different. I’ve obviously grown up listening to a lot of American country music so there’s always going to be that influence there but I’ve also lived my whole life in Australia, I’ve played my whole life with Australian bands, you know, I’ve recorded everything in Australia and spent most of my life with Australians, so I guess that’s always going to come through too in some way.”
KC “Exactly. There’s not really a word for it, I guess it’s just the way it is.”
GMR When you’re touring overseas, do people comment on how Australian you sound; in other words, do they pick it up whereas you perhaps can’t?
KC Yeah, the accent certainly does go a long way overseas! They absolutely love that and once I found that out I played that up as much as I can – I mean I don’t walk around talking like Crocodile Dundee, but it’s a great thing going over there and being able to kind of advertise Australia, really. In every interview all they pretty much talk about is Australia and they’re really interested, which is a good thing. And I’m proud of that too.”
GMR Is it easy to sound individual, regardless of where you actually come from?
KC “It’s easy for me to do because it’s so natural. I’m not sure if it’s easy within the industry for that to be OK. Sometimes it might make it harder but to be honest, I do my thing, I don’t really think too much about what the industry is thinking. I certainly don’t go out of my way to piss anyone off. I get support from some places and not from others but I don’t really take it to heart, I just get out there and tour and do my own thing and hopefully pick up a few album sales along the way and have a good time.”
GMR “Runaway Train” is the single from the album. Was that your choice?
KC “Yeah, pretty much. I mean, me and the record label, we work together pretty much on everything. We’re all on the same wavelength most of the time. They kind of know where I’m coming from musically and I realise where they’re coming from for the business side and we get along really great. We just sit down and work out what would be the best.”
GMR I would have thought the title track would have been a fine single.
KC “I think because that’s the heaviest song on the album, I didn’t really want to go with that first. I didn’t want people to think, ‘Ah, she’s turning into a rock singer now.’ I think “Runaway Train” shows a little more about what the whole album is like so I kind of like going with that sort of song first.”
GMR You obviously love touring – you’ll be on the road fairly heavily to promote the new album, I suppose?
KC “I love getting home from a tour and spending a week or something at home, then I get itchy feet and just want to get back out there again!”
GMR I guess the next point along the road would be someone else covering one of your songs.
KC “Yeah, that would be a buzz if that happened one day. I’m not sure if it ever will.”
GMR Who would you pick?
KC “Oh, just Emmylou Harris would be fine! She’ll do.”
In interviews, I always like to ask if there’s any question the artist has always wanted to be asked, but never were. Kasey said there was one she’d really like to be asked at that particular time, so I did.
GMR Do you have any pets?
KC “I do! Just recently, my boyfriend bought me for my birthday because I’ve always wanted one, a diamond python. She’s absolutely beautiful, her name is Jerry, named after Jerry Seinfeld. She just shed her skin for the first time yesterday and it was very exciting.”
GMR She still has fangs?
KC “Yes, I’ve been bitten by her twice. But she’s my pride and joy at the moment.”
That, and Kasey Chambers’ highly enjoyable new album, no doubt.
Both The Captain and Barricades & Brickwalls are released in Australia, the UK and Europe through Virgin, and in the United States and Canada through Warners.