Congratulations on another fantastic album – you just keep getting better and better.
Oh, thank you. It’s very exciting having new music out. It feels like a little child is about to take its first steps.
Do you feel nervous at the time an album’s released? Because there’s a bit of time from when you record it, then it’s in post-production …
It’s nerves but the kind of nerves … Well, you hope people like it. The album’s already made now so if they don’t like it you can’t unmake the album. So fingers crossed and you do everything that you can to have as many people hear it as they can so they can their mind up and hopefully like it. It is scary but it’s more exciting now, I think, that it’s my fourth one – I’m kind of used to it.
I remember seeing you performing on Peel Street at the Telstra Road to Discovery and that doesn’t seem that long ago, really.
Thank you – I’m glad you say that, because it was 2008.
But it only seems like three or four years ago, and therefore it seems like you’ve had a lot of albums out in a short period of time.
Well, four albums and I had a little Christmas EP as well – I haven’t really had any time away from music. Music has been my whole life since then. So ever since 2008 when I won that competition my whole life changed and I’m still on that ride.
Your sound is evolving, and it’s always great when an artist does that because it means you didn’t think you’d just repeat whatever worked for the first album. In life terms, I know that before your last album your father died and that would still obviously have an impact on you, but I wonder what the rest of your life has been like in the last two years, because your album sounds more sophisticated – and obviously you’re growing up, so it would – but there’s a different sound to it, if that makes sense.
I moved house in between – I’m now living in Sydney, I was living in Melbourne. I’m still kind of going through the grieving process with my dad passing – it’s coming up to three years now. You kind of find a new confidence in yourself, dealing with things without running it by him the way I used to always do. Now I rely more on myself for those kinds of things. And I guess just general life experiences – my best friend got married and has just recently had a baby. So, living vicariously through her doing that, I feel like I’ve just done that but I haven’t [laughs]. And the fact that people were so supportive of the last record, If I Want To, it gave me a bunch of confidence to continue making music that was really personal and music that I enjoy stretching the boundaries a little bit – having some gospel singers and some harmonica bluesy-sounding tracks. And, yeah, doing things a little bit differently.
In terms of the personal stories, it’s confronting, I guess, to have your life in a song that’s not only performed in front of an audience but which is a permanent record of a state of mind that you were in at a particular time. Do you feel like it’s an act of courage, a lot of the time, to write songs that are so personal?
I’ve always turned to music as a way of documenting how I feel. I always write every morning just about my dreams and how I feel that day. I like to express that and that’s the way I deal with it. So if people can also relate to those songs then that’s just the most amazing feeling – that the way I’m feeling is the way someone else is feeling – and it makes you feel like you belong, you know?
That’s also an incredibly good creative practice, I would think, to be writing every day, because then you can draw on that material.
Yes. A lot of it I just put into a little folder on my computer and think, Well, I’ll never use that, but sometimes you do come up with something that you wouldn’t have come up with unless you had kept writing – it just comes from writing about anything.
I’m also curious about what music you’ve been listening to over the course of writing and recording this album.
I listen to a bunch of different things, so that’s a good question. I have been going back to my roots, a little bit – I’ve been listening to stuff I used to listen to as a kid. You get a whole different perspective on it. So my mum would put on, like, Don McLean and Queen when I was a kid, so I’ve been listening to those things again – the classic-sounding songs that never go out of fashion. But I’ll kind of listen to anything and everything.
So part of the reason why I asked was noticing that difference in your sound, and maturing of your sound, and the fact that you’ve just said ‘Queen’, for me is a clue because the way this album sounds is a bigger – not operatic sound but you do have these back-up singers, which is a bit surprising as you have an accomplished and big voice yourself, so I wouldn’t have thought you needed the reinforcement, but it makes sense to me now that those singers are there, that you have these layers of sound in the songs. The songs are big – high stakes.
Yes – there are some big ideas topically. ‘Heartbeat’, the single, is about finally believing in yourself after struggling with which way you should go and listening to someone else’s opinions, finally celebrating who you are, and to me that’s a really big kind of idea and I wanted to back that up. And Luke Wooten, who produced the record, had a lot to do with the sound of the tracks. So, yes, I guess it does come with the dramatic ‘ta-da!’ kind of moments.
So was it Luke or you who had the idea to have those backing singers on some of the tracks? They’re not on all of them.
No, they’re not on all of them, and that’s a personal thing too because I feel like you should just sprinkle something special on a few different tracks. Luke has worked with them before and we actually had them on some of the tracks of the last record as well and I just loved them so much and they’re so fun. There’s just two – Angie and Gail are their names, two women who work together, and they just layer – they sound like a big choir. They’re flawless, the way they come in and just know exactly what to sing. It’s incredible to watch. And the way they talk – they snap their fingers and stuff when they talk, it’s really cool.
So you went back to Luke for this album and in the interim Luke’s also worked with the Wolfe Brothers on their second album, so he’s obviously developing good relationships with Australian performers. But you to have a producer that you’ve worked with more than once, does he now feel like a collaborator?
Yes, I feel it is like that, and I felt like that with the last record. Because when I go over there, I’m not actually over there for a super-long amount of time. I was there thirteen days for the last record and seventeen days for this record, so a lot of the stuff we’re doing is over Skype beforehand, talking about feels and stuff. So it has to come down to, yeah, I totally trust the way he thinks of a song and I’ll follow his direction for a song, unless I have a specific kind of thing in mind and then he’s very open to me having my opinions. So it feels like we’re doing it together. And there’s a lot of times when I'm tweaking lyrics of the songs up until I leave Nashville, and so it feels like I’m constantly writing the song and Luke has helped to do that up until the recording process is finished.
In that amount of time there’s no room for playing, really – you have to arrive and hit your mark.
Yes, it is like that. Vocals usually only take two or three days and band tracking takes two or three days as well, and then the rest of the time you’re re-listening to things and thinking about what should change, and then there’s backing singers who come in. So you don’t get to take it home and sit with it and drive around in your car with it – because I would never drive in America, my god, it’s on the other side of the road! I know people who have made their album over a six-month period and really lived with the songs but I kind of like doing all of that beforehand and then just going in there and letting the magic happen kind of quickly.
I’m curious if the discipline of working that way, and having the time constraints that other acts don’t have, that’s good training for live performance, because there’s only the one shot there too.
I feel like if I don’t have a deadline for something I’ll never do it. We knew that I was going to be recording in December in the middle of last year and I hadn’t written most of the songs yet, and it was just like, ‘Oh my god!’ And somehow magically it comes together. You think three weeks before that it’s just not going to but it does and I can’t even explain how it happens. But, yes, it is good practice doing it like that.
For people who love a deadline there’s some mystical process around time and how time works and I think once you’ve got that deadline in sight it’s amazing how time organises itself to help you, in a way.
It does, and things like ‘I need a song like this’ and it won’t come to you but the night before you leave, at 3 a.m., it will come to you. It is kind of magic in that way.
And the songwriting process for this album – I don’t have notices about who you’ve written with, so if you wouldn't mind talking a little bit about that.
I did a three-week trip to Nashville to write the songs, and so I wrote about half here in Australia with some writers – Rob Draper, who I wrote ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Town’ with on the last record, we wrote a song called ‘We Don’t Know Any Other Way’ on this record. I wrote a song called ‘Fly Away’ on my own and it just kind of fell out at 3 a.m. I didn’t write anything on my own for the last record and it just kind of felt nice to have something that’s just very, very raw on there. ‘Eggs in a Basket’ I wrote in Australia with Clive Young. He’s great, he wrote ‘Last Man Standing’ with Adam Brand. That was our first time writing together and the fact that it’s called ‘Eggs in a Basket’ is the most random thing ever. ‘When I Found You’ I wrote with Joe, who plays piano in my band, and his songwriting partner, and we wrote it for my best friend’s wedding. We weren’t planning necessarily that that would be on the record but it ended up being that way, so that’s something very special. ‘Heartbeat’ I wrote overseas with some amazing writers over there. A lot of these people, it was my first time writing with them.
And last year you did a few shows on Adam Brand’s tour?
Yes, quite a few – it was about 21 shows.
So that was in and around creating your own album. You didn’t write a song with Brandy but it can’t be far off.
No, we didn’t write a song but there is a duet with Adam on this record that he actually put on his record, it’s called ‘Quit This Time’ and we performed it every night on this tour, so it kind of was so very much of the journey of the last couple of years so I wanted to include it on my album. It definitely the vibe that I was going for. But, no, we haven’t written so that would be good if we could do that.
Maybe next time you’re on tour, although I think those long tours aren’t necessarily conducive to songwriting because you have other things to think about.
Sometimes it is, but both people have to be in the mood because a lot of the time boys just want to play with their skateboards and drink beer and go to sleep, whereas I’m, like, ‘Let’s write a song’ and they say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that now’. So maybe eventually, but I might have to make a special trip.
That’s a very good insight into the touring life.
I know – they bring their skateboards and they skate around and it’s a lot of fun, but I didn’t even try it once. The closest I got to skating was sitting on my suitcase that had wheels and scooting myself along.
It sounds like after soundcheck they’re off doing something like that while you’re studiously thinking, I could use this time.
Yes, because it’s like, ‘You’re all such fantastic musicians, we should be getting together’, and also I’m thinking about making an album at the same time. But it’s nice, too, to kick back – I’m not always studious. But I guess I am a lot of the time.
Your output over the previous years indicates that you’re productive, if not studious.
I do like to be productive, but sometimes the best songwriting ideas come to you from letting loose and not thinking about songwriting. It’s a conversation with someone where you talk about life, so you can’t actually plan these things, I’ve learnt.
Heartbeat is out now through ABC Music/Universal Music Australia.