South Australian duo The Yearlings have garnered quite a following over the course of their previous four albums. Now, with the release of their fifth album, All the Wandering, that following is sure to increase. I recently spoke to the delightful Laura Chalklen, who took some time away from the studio where she and fellow Yearling Chris Parkinson record other artists' work, and found out just why the Yearlings' sound is so special.
You’re in your studio – your own album is out, so presumably you’re working on someone else’s album.
That’s right – we’ve started work with a guy called Ian Matthews – so we’re straight back in the studio.
Is a lot of your time spent on producing, then, rather than writing or performing?
No, that’s just become a thing that we really like to do. We did it with Sara Tindley – she came over and recorded in our studio – and Chris is really quite gifted in that way, in hearing things and what should be there and what would sound great for that tune. So it’s something that’s become more of what we do but it’s not a large part, even though I’d like it to be.
On Sara’s album, didn’t you two play on that as well?
Yes, with BJ, who’s our drummer. He’s on that album and he’s on this one that we’re doing with Ian, as well.
So you’re like a complete package for artists then – you’re providing a band and a studio.
[laughs] Yeah, that’s right – we’ve got it all! It’s a good marketing ploy. We’ve recorded of ours up at Mixmasters with Nick Wordley, who we’ve done all of our records with. But the one before we did down in our little home studio. But this time it’s a really beautiful, big, lush studio up here, with lots of room.
Your album was recorded on some fairly old tech originally – you recorded it to tape, is that right?
Yes – we’ve actually done all our records, except for the live one, on smelly old tape. And even the one we did in New York we carted this really heavy two-inch tape over to Brooklyn on the plane just so we could record it the old-fashioned way.
And is that because it gives it a warmer sound, do you think?
Definitely. I think there’s so much on mp3 and everything’s so compressed, and people get used to that sound – I know they do. But it’s like listening to vinyl, it’s got something surrounding the sound, it’s not all squashed and clean – it’s beautiful [and] warm and it’s got a really hard-to-describe feeling about it.
Does it make you, during the recording process, concentrate on getting things right – because with digital recording you can make arguably an infinite number of takes, but with tape you really have to hit your mark.
That is so true. And I think there’s something about the live performance and if you manage to get that down on tape, it’s fantastic. But also if you’re really limited with your choices, you don’t want to play it twenty million times because you start getting tired and losing the magic. So you’re kind of thinking, Oh, we could add a little bit of this here and drop him in here and mix that around and take that out – and you just can’t do it [with tape].
It’s interesting, in the evolution of recording artists until quite recently you had to be an accomplished performer because you had limited takes, but these days people can go into a studio without even having performed and have a finished product. But then, of course, they have to learn how to perform to go out and connect with audiences.
That’s true. I think it’s also that’s what we mainly do – we mainly perform live – and it’s not very often that you get to practise being in the studio with the red light on. So if you’re thinking, We’re just going to play a tune and here we go, we’re much more used to that instead of, ‘You play guitar and then I sing over the top of it’. I’m really not used to it, and you can hear it when I try to put a guitar track down and sing over the top of it I’m so disconnected. I’m not very good at that. Some artists are fantastic at layering and doing guide vocals and singing over the top of what they’ve already done, but for me I can really hear it – I sound too deliberate and it just doesn’t sound connected.
For the songs that you two are writing and recording, they’re a collection of stories rather than just delivering emotions, and I guess if all you were doing was just delivering emotions, you could drop in and drop out of those with the recording but when you’re telling a story you really need that integrated experience.
I’m with you on that and it’s a really fun experience to be in the room with everybody seeing where it will go and what will happen – that’s where the magic is, I think, in recording.
How did the Yearlings come to be originally?
I was in Adelaide in a really dodgy but fun girl band called Problem Pony and we want to Tamworth Country Music Festival and there playing with Mr Little was this lovely, smiley guitar player from Sydney, and that was Chris Parkinson … he ended up moving to Adelaide to come and live with me. So we started singing a lot together and playing guitar just because that’s what we love doing, and it ended up being The Yearlings. That was in 2000. So we're getting on – we’re not the yearlings any more!
Tamworth has been the site of so many great creative – and, obviously – personal collaborations. There’s obviously something about it that just enables people to come together. It’s a wonderful aspect of that festival.
It is, isn’t it? I think going there from Adelaide with Problem Pony and our eyes were so opened when we got there – there’s music everywhere, of all different types. It’s a fabulous time. So we’ve been back a few times. It’s quite a little cocktail of different music, isn’t it?
Yes – I recommend it to everyone. But I'm just thinking: you were in a band called Problem Pony and this band is The Yearlings – so horses obviously feature prominently!
[laughs] It’s so hard coming up with a band name! [laughs] We were The Bloody Lovelies for, I think, about two albums. We just kept saying, ‘You say a word, I’ll say a word’ – so that’s what we’ve come up with, and it’s stuck. And our studio’s called My Sweet Mule, so … there’s definitely some kind of equine thing going on, isn’t there?
Do you actually have horses?
I don’t any more – we live across the road from a horse stud and my dad’s got a horse, so I still ride occasionally but I don’t have my own pony any more.
A lot of band names don’t fit the music, but ‘yearlings’ is a very elegant word and it fits your style of music, which is elegant and not overdone. It’s an onomatopoeic band name, if that make sense.
I love that! I love that you said that, because I think that sometimes – that it’s got a bit of country in it, and it’s got a bit of youth in there, and ‘yearlings’ rhymes with ‘dearlings’- as in, ‘dears’ and ‘darlings’ [laughs]. So I like it because of that.
Also in terms of your style of music and how you record: it’s too easy to hide behind a lot of instruments, a lot of engineering and mixing, but really the two of you are quite exposed in terms of where your voices are placed in the mix. And you’re respectful of the songs by not overburdening them with a lot of instruments. But does that mean you feel exposed and raw sometimes as performers?
Oh yeah. To go from being in a band and then it’s just two of you. A lot of the time it’s just me and Chris – we don’t always have BJ playing with us – so it can be really intense and really exposing. But there’s so much space and I love that, that it’s not all spelt out for people and there’s a lot of room to move and breathe, I guess.
Is the creative process between the two of you a very collaborative one, or do you tend to write a song and then he writes a song, and then you talk about it?
[Laughs] I don’t think we’ve ever written an entire song together. I will go away into my little corner and write something and sometimes it will take quite a while, and then I will sit down and play it to Chris and he might add a little chord or something to change it up a bit. And with him, he’s more of a blurter – he can write a song on the way home from work or something, and I might just add another verse or line or help him out with the more editing type of [thing]. So we help each other in that way. Or sometimes I’ll just have a line or a chord and be mucking around with that, and he’ll just start playing guitar and it will lead into a good feel, and then I’ll take that away and work on that. So that’s how we collaborate – we come together at the salty end of things.
So in creative terms you’re a settler and he’s a pioneer – pioneers tend to blurt things out and settlers sit there and polish, polish, polish. It’s an inherent thing.
[laughs] I’ll tell him that.
But it’s not the answer I was expecting from you – on the recordings you sound so integrated that I just presumed you wrote together.
Maybe sometimes he’ll say, ‘Got any lyrics lying around?’ and he might have a verse and I’ll actually write the chorus, or he’ll need another verse and I’ll write the verse, so in that way we have kind of written stuff together. But usually it’s just right at the end that we’ll come together.
You’re going on the road soon together – given that you’ve been together for a while, you perform together, you record together and you have lives together, is there ever a point at which you turn to him and think, That’s it – I’m over it! Don’t want to play with you tonight!
[laughs] You know, sometimes I think when I'm really tired and we’ve been driving and then there’s no food – you’ve got to wait around for food – and it’s just starting to get a little bit hard, and I’ve just been thinking, What are we doing? We’ve got no money and we’re cold and no one’s going to turn up … But then we’ll get up on stage and that’s what makes it worth it and that’s what keeps you going, and that’s what changes everything. There’s so many different threads besides money and food – it just keeps you going, having a fantastic gig or playing even to two or three people but just having this connection with Chris onstage is what makes it worthwhile.
Have you always had this drive to perform and to connect with people?
Not for me. I remember with Problem Pony – I’ve played in orchestras and things like that, but that was my first band. I got so nervous – it was all fine and great fun in the lounge room with my friends but onstage my bum started wobbling, I couldn’t sing – it was just horrendous. And it was even more scary when I got up with Chris – it was just, like, I don’t think I’m cut out to be a performer – I don’t think I’m a natural at wanting to get up onstage and tell lots of stories or lots of jokes – that sort of person. But actually when I am up there and making music, I don’t really think about the audience – I think this is something that’s really magical. That’s the part I love. And I don’t get the bum wobbles any more.
There are various theories about creative work and creative flow, and a lot of them come down on the side of the actual doing being the important thing – you can’t sit around waiting for the muse to strike, you need to just start working. And it sounds very much like your experience has been that you basically just kept doing things despite being nervous, despite thinking that performing perhaps wasn’t right for you – and now you’re at a point where you’re in this flow of performance and really just being present in it that makes it all worthwhile.
For sure. When we come offstage – and the other thing is that Chris is very much an improvise player, he’ll never do the same solo twice, and a lot of times we’re just jamming out, really, where he’s just going on some crazy solo and I’m just following, but then afterwards I think, That was just a magical thing that only the people who were here watching will ever witness – and I think that’s quite an addictive feeling.
Speaking of playing gigs, I saw a photo of you playing at The Bluebird Café in Nashville, which is a legendary place – how did that gig come about and what was it like for you?
We went over to Memphis with Sara Tindley and we did the Folk Alliance – it was this crazy thing where they get lots of musicians and industry people and festival directors, and you’re all in this hotel and you do showcases. So you’re playing in your bedroom to a little audience until about two or three in the morning. So there’s lots of music and there’s craziness, and we thought after that that we’d go to Nashville. And Audrey Auld, she was living there – I think she still is living there – and we’d kind of organised with her to do a show and she said, ‘Let’s do one at the Bluebird’. So we did one with her and Sara in the round. And it was crazy – you think it’s like this mythical place and then it’s way out in this suburb like near a supermarket, and it’s a very un-groovy-looking place, and then you walk in and think, This person’s been here and that person’s played here. Then you sit in the middle of the room, facing each other, and you have the audience all the way around you, behind you – so you have your backs to the audience – and then you take it in turns to sing songs. It was strange but it was … you could hear a pin drop. People are so respectful and [really] listening.
Your music demands that people listen anyway, but it is always nice to go to a gig and have people listen. Country music and its related genres do encourage listening audiences, so you can find that audiences are respectful here [in Australia] as well.
I’ve found that they’re really vocal. Like if somebody does an incredible solo – and it doesn’t always have to be the bass solo, it can be anything – they’re just whooping and hollering, so encouraging in that way. Really warm.
All the Wandering is out now and The Yearlings are on tour. Visit www.theyearlings.net for information.