Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Interview: Drew McAlister

Drew McAlister had a successful solo career before becoming one half of the even more successful McAlister Kemp, with Troy Kemp. The duo's latest album, Country Proud, has been nominated for an ARIA award and the lads are hitting the road for some gigs, including 16 November at Kedron Wavell Services Club in Queensland (with Tamara Stewart) and 24 November at the Heritage Hotel in Bulli, NSW (with Baylou). For full details, visit their website.

Recently I had the pleasure of talking to Drew about the upcoming tour, amongst other things.

I’m going to start off by saying congratulations on your ARIA nomination.
Thank you very much, we're stoked, man, we’re so happy.

Are you going to put bets on yourself?
[Laughs] No, look, I know it’s cliché but we’re just so happy to be in the race.  We’ve got pretty stiff competition in there and we’re the new kids on the block but it’s good to be in there, and we’re just going to go and enjoy the night and – yeah, it should be fun.

It’s great to have a country music category in the ARIAs but it makes me think, yeah, there are so many fantastic albums that have been out this year and – we really do need the Golden Guitars so that everyone gets a go in more than one category.
Yeah, exactly.  The country category in the ARIAs is like the fine arts  it’s not as popular, I suppose, as the pop rock stuff but, yeah, the Golden Guitars serve that purpose, they give everyone a chance to really be recognised and for all the hard work that people have done all year.  And it’s great, it’s our awards night, it’s been going for forty years, so it’s really cool.

You guys have at least one, don’t you?
We’ve got one – I actually won one a couple of years before that with Allan Caswell but together as an act, we’ve got one.  So we’re hoping that we get a few nominations and that we might get another one, we’ll see how we go.

I think you’re a very good shot to get nominations in the Golden Guitars, so you could bet on yourself for that one.  Have you just played the Deni Ute Muster?
Yeah, we just did Deni – yeah, last week, yep.

And how did that go?
Oh, it was fantastic. It’s one of those things that you fly in and fly out, but the weather was perfect, [we had] really good crowds.  They’ve just built this brand new stage, so the stage which was originally there, that’s now moved somewhere else and then they’ve built this massive stage. It's probably not as big as CMC in the Hunter but it’s close – it’s really big.  So that was really cool to play on and the numbers were really good and by all accounts it went fantastically well.

That would obviously have been a full band gig?
That was the whole circus, yep.  Well, we don’t take our keyboard player on every gig but those bigger ones he comes along as well, so that was all of us, yeah.

Because this year, you’ve been doing a couple – well, more than a couple, a few gigs as a duo and then a few on the road – so the ones you’re about to embark on, are they full band or duo?
Troy and I have got some acoustic things and then we’ve got this cruise thing, which is just Troy and I, using the in-house band with lots of other country acts. So it’s bits and pieces, but as much as we can we prefer to do the full band gigs.  But, I guess, the beauty of doing the acoustic thing is it’s completely different to the big band live show and it’s more personal and we get to play songs that we don’t normally play and mix it up a bit.

For the songs that you do normally play with your full band, when you’re playing them as a duo, is there quite a bit of adjustment required or do you find that the two of you have been playing together for so long, that you have it worked out already?
No, it’s fine because – I mean, all these songs were written on acoustic guitar, so we’re just playing it in the natural format that they were written on.  And we’re also figuring out the idea of getting maybe a drummer.  Just using some sort of percussion instrument with this as well, maybe a kick drum or something like that, just to get that back beat a bit of a push. Through the right sound system, it actually sounds pretty big – not as big as a band, but pretty big.

That doesn’t surprise me, because you’ve both got big strong voices, so I would think that, if anything, it’s probably that mix of getting the guitar with the voice right, because your voices are confident and experienced, so your poor little guitars might struggle to keep up.
Troy and I played in pubs solo for years, so we’ve done that grind where you’ve got to get up in front of a whole bunch of people and – and they’re pretty honest, if they don’t like you, you don’t come back. So the two of us having done that, when we get together, it’s a pretty formidable sound. Troy plays great lead guitar, I’m a bit more of a rhythm strummer, so between the two of us, it belts out a pretty good sound.

Now you’ve had an interesting career path, in that you were a solo artist and, no doubt, still do a lot of solo stuff.  But you chose to be in a duo and some solo artists would go into a band or they’d front a band, but it’s quite unusual to go into a duo.  So I was just wondering what being in the duo does for you as a songwriter and a performer that you didn’t have when you were on your own?
I think the major difference is from a live point of view, because when you’re doing solos, it’s a very different dynamic; there’s a lot more pressure to carry the show and trying to go out there on your own.  But with the duo, you’re both having fun and if one guy forgets the lyrics and the other guy – well, you hope remembers. So together, I think, it’s definitely stronger. As far as songwriting and all that goes, it’s not a huge transition because Troy and I write together and we write for other different people and it’s something – we meet in the middle.  You know, in any working relationship there’s compromise, but we’ve been doing it for four years now together and we’re still keeping it afloat. The transition I found to be, probably, an enjoyable one, from solo to a duo.  And I would certainly say that my live performances has got better since – since we’ve been doing this, a lot better, I was never that animated on stage, so I think it’s been really good.

Are you one of those performers who gets really nervous before a gig?
 I used to get really nervous – sickeningly nervous and I’d get a rash all up my neck and my face and then I’d have to go on stage looking like a beetroot. But not so much now. It’s funny, we went on at Deni and we were playing in front of 10 000-plus people. I guess because we’ve done so many gigs now, we know exactly what we’re doing, [so] most of the time, I think I don’t get as nervous.  There’s certainly a few butterflies but not sickeningly nervous, where it can actually destroy your performance [laughs].

And when you say 10 000 people, I mean, I can’t even imagine what it’s like to walk out on a stage with that many people. Is there a point where you just think, I’m just going to look at the first few rows and pretend it’s not 10 000 people?
No, actually, for me – and I think Troy’s a bit the same – when more people are in the room, the better it is and the easier it is to play. If there’s two people in a room, that’s nervewracking for me and I don’t know why that is, I guess because it’s so intimate, but with a lot of people in the one room, all that energy and people screaming and having a good time – it’s a lot easier to do, I think.

 I think that is – and you said it, energy – I think it’s the amount of energy you get back as performers.  Because it takes a lot out of a person to perform, whether it’s for five songs or fifteen, and the more people who are there giving it back to you in a positive way, the less to depleting to yourself.
Exactly, I mean, there’s nothing better on the planet, besides the birth of my children, than all these people singing the words back to a song that you wrote – it doesn’t get any better than that, it’s incredible.

Well – and it must be, as songwriters. And my next question was going to be about song writing, so I’ll go with it. Because you write most of your most songs, either with Troy or on your own, with other people but when you have someone else’s song altogether, like the John Walker song that’s on your album, I was just wondering, do they still feel like yours when you perform them or is there a different process to make them feel like yours?
No, I think they still feel like ours. Even with the first album we released, 'Blue Collar Nigh't is the very first single while we were writing the rest of the album.  That was recorded by a guy named Brad Cotter and in Nashville, Jeffrey Steele and another guy, so it's a quality song – same with the John Walker song, and because you do your vocal on it, you kind of make it your own anyway, so it doesn’t feel to me like we didn’t write it, even though we didn’t.  It just feels natural and it’s our song now.

You had Matt Fell producing this album and he’s produced a lot of albums.  So you would obviously trust his taste. But I’m just wondering whether you bring a whole lot of songs into the room and if you and Troy are arguing over something, does Matt decide? What’s that song selection process like for an album?
Well, the song selection – we decided on the second album that when we were over in Nashville and here, that we would only send songs we were prepared to record and we felt would represent our career in the best way. So then you basically hand it over to A&R and management and the producer, and all four or five of us sit down and go, okay, let’s try and strike out a list. And I think by Troy and I saying, well, we love all the songs that we’ve given you, it makes it a lot easier for us to go and record the end result.

In recording the end result, do you have a little thumb wrestle over who sings what?
We work that out as we go. Some of it is established in the writing process. I predominantly sing a little bit more on the first album than Troy did, I think, even on the second album.  But it just depends on – when you’re writing the song, who’s got to write in the melody, I guess.  But we both agreed that on this third album, we both want to be singing more constantly, I suppose, on all the songs.  I generally tend to take the chorus, Troy will generally tend to take the verse because he’s got a lower voice and I’ve got a bit higher voice.  But we just mix it up, try and sing more – I mean, if you’ve ever listened to Big & Rich, if you hear how they sing a song, most of the time they’re pretty well singing in harmony to each other and they’re mixed very evenly.  So this is what we’re going to be shooting for on the third album, I think.

And that’s also how you perform, right –f rom what I’ve seen, just of the odd clip, it sounds like your mic levels are identical, regardless of who’s singing harmonies and who’s singing lead.
Yeah, yeah.  I mean, in a live situation, if it’s blatantly obvious on the album track, when I’m singing lead, I try and sit back a little bit, but Troy’s got the lead and he does the same – but in the choruses we’re both belting it out as much as possible and as I said, if we could take a leaf out of Big & Rich’s book, we’d like to be mixed more evenly the next time around.

So you’re talking about this third album, when are you planning to record that?
We had a meeting yesterday, actually and we’re expecting we’ll be going to Nashville two or three months into next year and that will coincide with another tour, so until that tour is confirmed then we don’t really know when we’re going, but we’d like to get it in the can by halfway through next year. That’s the plan, anyway.

I’m sure some people are curious as to why Australian country music artists – they know why they want to go to Nashville, but why they would record in Nashville as opposed to here. Is that  because of who your producer is, that the situation’s better there?
We had the choice on the second album about whether we wanted to go to Nashville and record and we both chose to stay here and do it with Matt.  But the third time around, we are going to go to the States, just because, one, we’ve never done it – recorded an album there – and two, our sound is developing in a way that we want it to be much bigger – much bigger than either album  so that will enable us to be able to go up there and record it relatively quickly with state-of-the-art stuff and with the best players on the planet.  It will be interesting because we’ve never done it before, I think Troy’s recorded a few songs over there but I’ve never been over to record songs.  

By 'bigger' do you mean going for that big – well, you said Big & Rich, but the Brad Paisley, Keith Urban sound – that robustly commercial sound? And I say 'commercial' without that being a bad thing.
Yeah, yeah – definitely that – sounding a bit more like, let’s say, Rascal Flatts and Jason Aldean and Keith Urban, I guess.  So that’s kind of where we’re headed, in that genre, and that’s the stuff that we listen to, so it seems like a normal progression to try and get that kind of sound with the producer over there.  You know, bottom line is we’ve still got to like the songs that we write and they’re not so much like Rascal Flatts and they’re not so much like Keith Urban, so that will have to be the point of difference. We’re still going to write the songs that we write for this country and for our fan base and it will just sound a bit bigger.

 Do you write when you have a deadline, when you know there’s an album coming up, or do you tend to just keep writing along the way?
Well, I’m always writing, mostly with other people, but when we’ve got some time, then we knuckle down together and we [say] okay, we’ve got this amount of time to actually do it and get a list of cracker songs, but then I tend not to write with other people so much and try and focus my energy on McAlister Kemp stuff.

The two of you together, this has been a really successful ride, at least from my point of view – the first album came out and you’ve been working steadily, touring, releasing a second album, you’ve got a great amount of attention for it, Saturday Night Country and things like that.  So, obviously, you’re working musicians - would you recommend that life to people?
Not the twenty years before this [laughs].

[Laughs] Yeah, right, well, that’s the story, isn’t it?
Yeah, yeah. No, look, it’s not an issue – looking at plenty of jobs out there – but we are shift workers essentially and it’s a hard life too so would I recommend my girls do it, no. I’d push them to do something else [laughs].  No, the rewards are – and the feeling of writing songs and recording them and hearing people sing them back, there’s nothing like it. If I could’ve done that from the very, very first time I started out in music and had that reward then, maybe I’d think differently.  But that’s life and we’re having a blast now and we’re excited about the future, lots to come.

Well, as you should be. But just back on the twenty years before that you mentioned – you know, this is a big part of the story for any creative person or any artist working, whether it’s music or painting or whatever. What drives you in that time – is it the songwriting, is it the performing, is it just that feeling that you need to be doing this, that you’re prepared to make those sacrifices?
Songwriting, for me anyway, has been something that I’ve always been passionate about and I will continue to write no matter what happens.  I’ve written for many years and not made a lot of money out of it, but it’s very satisfying to somehow create something that didn’t exist yesterday, you know, and have someone record it, it’s pretty cool.  But – yeah, it’s twenty years of doing cover gigs stuff, I mean – I guess, one, we don’t do anything else and we’ve done odd jobs over the years, mostly with music – that was one thing we were good at.  But it’s the love of the song, I suppose, there’s no way to describe it.  We could have gone and done something else and probably been more miserable, you know? So music was the obvious fit, I guess.

It's fantastic, it’s always really inspiring to hear these sorts of stories, because a lot of people will have a dream and not realise how much work actually goes into making it come true, and I think when we hear you and people like you talking about it – no one ever says 'overnight success' but it can look like, oh, it’s just been the last couple of years. But, really, it’s many years of work.
Yeah, yeah, it is.  And we’re not unique, by any means; there’s lots of people out there who are working in all different sorts of businesses, who’ve worked hard to get to a place where they feel they’re successful – imagine being some of those people who go into the Olympics – they train for years and years and – you know, four years between your next gig and imagine the pressure, you know.  So we really can’t complain, we’re pretty lucky, we’ve got healthy families and at this point in our career, for whatever reason, things seem to be starting to happen so we’ll just run with it.

So you’re ending off the year with a few dates and then presumably you’re having a little rest before Tamworth?
Yes, we have a little rest and then we’ve got two shows booked in at the moment for Tamworth.  We’ve got our normal Blazes gig on the Thursday of the second week, it’s five o’clock. And there's another one lined up.

Blazes is a great gig for people to go to. So it seems like everything is – not falling into place, I won’t say, because you’ve worked to get it in place, but it seems like you guys are at a really great spot in your careers.
We are, it’s pretty cool.  I mean, right now is when you want to keep the train on the track and actually see the fruits of it, and right now is a pretty important time, and the third album, I think, is as important as the first two because you’ve got to go one better.  And you’ve got to keep the fans that have supported you and try and make new ones.  But we’re in a pretty good spot and we’re both feeling pretty good about things and we’ve got a great record company that seems to be really, really behind us, so we’ll just keep trying to kick some goals.

I suppose on the other side of that is you do have to keep on going, you can’t really have a rest or a break, but it does sound like you’re enjoying it.
Yeah, definitely.  And we wouldn’t want to stop; we prefer to be out there on our own, doing our thing, writing songs, and too much time on our hands is not good, I don’t think, certainly not for me [laughs].

Then you’re in a very good job.
[Laughs] Thank you.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Interview: Hat Fitz and Cara

Recently I raved about Wiley Ways, the new album from Hat Fitz and Cara. Then I saw them play live and was even more convinced of their amazing talent. Before they embarked on the tour I interviewed first Hat Fitz and then Cara, and found them both fascinating and knowledgeable. There's still time to catch them on tour - check out their upcoming gigs here. In the meantime, here's the first part of the interview with Hat Fitz.

When I was trying to think of how to describe your album for my review I was thinking that it sounds a bit like constrained wildness, except that ‘constrained’ sounds a bit boring and it’s not at all boring. Gut there are these wild rhythms in it. Then I was reading what you and Cara had written, just a little bit of biography on you both, and you mentioned something about when you started getting into acoustic, blues and folk – you loved the trance-like motions of the guitar riffs, and I can kind of feel that in your music.  It’s almost like a whirling dervish quality to some of the songs. Could you tell me a bit about the musical influences you’ve had leading up to this album?
Right from the start or just this album?

I think from the start.  I’m interested in the start.
Well, basically, I started off because the old man, he was a travelling musician, just travels around Western Queensland and that, and I grew up with Slim Dusty, Smoky Dawson, Chad Morgan, all the famous country artists at that time when country music – to me – was proper Australian country music, you know. And just grew up with all that and sort of toured around, when I was about 15, with his band, and then when I was out just doing the mining towns and sheep-shearing towns, playing all that sort of stuff, mixed in with a bit of Johnny Cash and that, and then I stumbled across a – I think it was a Beau Carter record, 1920s blues, and I just bought it because the cover looked cool, and I listened to it and I just went, what is this music? And then you slowed the record player down back in them days and tried to pick what they were doing and then just sort of got into blues that way and playing a few bluesy bands. Then in about the late ‘80s I became a front man because I just wanted to play my own stuff and have a crack at singing, and then I discovered jug music, which was when I started playing banjo, when I got into bluegrass banjo to a certain level, and that sort of got my finger-picking things adapted to the guitar. And then I just – it’s just like an evolution roll when you’re playing music, and then I stumbled into RL Burnside, who’s like a hill country blues player. And I got to play with him which was incredible – open up for him, I should say. And he’s the king of trance sort of music and just, yeah, just the old blues and just old-timey music, [with] old bands you feel the tunes and stuff like that and it gets the hair up on me neck, you know? When you listen to it enough, it becomes a part of your playing.

Just when you mentioned slowing down the record player and working out what they were doing, were you trying to work out what they were doing from a playing point of view or a songwriting point of view?
No. No. Definitely guitar playing. So it’s just like you slow it down and that a way you could learn, you could either learn off watching someone and because I didn’t have many guitar players around that was into the stuff I was into, I just had to learn it off record players.

And a jug band – because there’s the odd jug band that turns up at Tamworth and I’ve actually always been a little confused about what the jug part is but it sounds like these are bands with banjos in and –
Oh you didn’t run into Uncle Bob’s jug band?

Yeah, at the Courthouse Hotel.
Yeah, well, this is the story.  I was the original member of that band – Uncle Bob’s, they’re from up here – and back when we became a jug band we played proper 1920s jug music, and now all they’re doing they’re just bloody playing bloody covers and stuff with a bush bass and so they’re not really a jug band anymore. But yeah, we were playing proper jug. Jug band music I first – I think I ran into a guy called Gus Cannon, he’s a 1920s guy – didn’t run into him but discovered his music.  And he used to just strap on a jug and banjo, and I saw a cover and just loved his music, and then started my own band and I was doing banjo and jug, and then you get a bush bass in, washboard player, harmonica and kazoos and stuff. Jug music’s poor man’s music, because basically they couldn’t afford – like, the tuba is a jug, the saxophone is a kazoo, washtub bass is a double bass – it’s poor man’s music, basically.

And you were talking about the old time kind of country music and I’m actually hearing a bit more of it coming out of Australian artists in the past – I think in the past year or so there’s kind of a resurgence of interest in the roots of country music and the roots of blues, I guess as well.  Are you finding that as you play around?
I don’t know. To me, I love country music but I’m not - I hate what they’re doing, the way that we’ve become Americanised. It’s one thing because Australia had – apart from the Aboriginal music – our stamp on music was our Australian country music, like I was talking about Smokey Dawson, Slim Dusty, Chad Morgan and the rest of them. They had our own stamp on Australian country music and it was very unique and I think we’ve gone very Americanised, just from all the video clips and all that crap that’s around today, you know? And when I see country players, they even talk with an American accent in between the songs. And I’m like, what are you blokes doing? Whereas when I get into blues, I’m actually an Australian fellow taking off American blues, you know what I mean, and making it into our own.

I think Australian – and when I say country music, I’m actually talking more about the singer-songwriter vein of musicians who I come across, who I think are telling Australian stories – a lot of them are not strict country as a lot of people would define it. They are coming from blues or other influences, but these are definitely Australian stories and it’s the only genre of music I think that tells Australian stories, so from a cultural point of view this music is incredibly important – but I guess you already know that [laughs].
Yeah, definitely. 

So because you’re a songwriter as well – it’s not just about the music you’re playing but it’s about the stories you’re telling —do you draw those lyrics, the songs you’re writing, from your own life or from what you see as you go around and travel around.
Probably my own life. A lot of my songs are about my exes. I’ve come home and the missus has taken off with the kids, going through that sort of thing, being overseas for months on end and missing your kids – that’s where I come from. But Cara is a much more accomplished writer than I am. She can sit down – I’ll pluck a really cool riff and then she’ll just jot down some words and I’ll say, ‘What have you got there?’ And she’ll be just writing about someone she met, like, 20 years ago, you know? So she’s right into that where I just get – when I’m hurting or something, I’ll write down a song and I’ll write it in half an hour.

It sounds like you have a very good co-writing partnership then, if you can – somewhat seamlessly almost – you’re playing music and she’s –
There’s quite a few arguments in the middle of it, don’t you worry.

 [Laughs] Arguments over who’s right about which direction the song will go?
Yeah. She’s a Northern Irish bloody staunch woman and I’m an Aussie mongrel. It gets heated up at times, don’t you worry.

And you guys are in Queensland aren’t you?

Whereabouts are you?
We’re up out at a little town called – near Kin Kin, which is K-i-n K-i-n, it’s Aboriginal for ‘land of the black ants’, and just got a little farm up here.

So I guess that makes touring interesting, because you’ve got to get yourself to a major city and get out on the road, so it’s logistically probably a little bit trickier than for people living in cities?
Yeah, I don’t mind it. When I know I can come back to something like this and not live in the city, I’m quite happy.

You have some gigs coming up to support this record – will you be travelling around the country?
We’re just going from here down to Melbourne and back for that one, like, you’re doing all the gigs in between Sydney, then we’ll do Sydney and Blue Mountains and that.  Then we’ll do gigs in between on the way to Melbourne.  Then we’ll do a run back up, so it’s about a four-week run.

Do you ever get out into remote communities?
Not as much any more. We do a little bit. We just go, like, the back way. You might do something Dorrigo and Armidale on the way down that route. We do the coastal road but no, nothing like I used to. I want to take Cara out one day to real Australia – as I call it – think it’d just blow her brains out because they’ll take to her out there like – they’re a bit scarce on Irish women.

[Laughs] Particularly very pretty Irish women, going off the CD cover.
She’s a bloody diamond.

[Laughs] That’s beautiful. The main reason I asked about the remote communities is you mentioned the Aboriginal music of Australia and a lot of indigenous people love country – I’d say more traditional country music.
They do. Yeah.

Have you ever had an opportunity to play with anyone in those communities?-
Not in the communities itself. I’ve had an Aboriginal didgeridoo player trying to shoot in on gigs. I was over in Wales in the UK just probably only six weeks ago and there was – it was called the Black Arm Band, and they were playing over there for the Olympics, and they were playing down the road the night after us so they came to our gig and there was a big guy called Will and he was one of Australia’s best didgi players, and he got up and played with us, so it happens.

Listening to your music and reading your story, you’re almost like a musical historian or if we were at a university we’d call it a musical ethnologist, I guess, but it just seems like you draw in a lot of different influences and put them all together and it comes up with your sound.
I’m sort of stuck in old times, like I’m very narrow minded with my openness on modern music which I shouldn’t be. Cara has actually opened my eyes up a bit more, but if it wasn’t late 1800s to 1950s I wouldn’t listen to it and she’s gotten me into Motown and Soul and stuff – that’s her background, she used to front 15-piece bands in England, doing all that sort of thing, and I never would have listened to that, but it’s basically whatever gets the hair up on your neck musically, is for you, it doesn’t matter what sort of music it is. And for me, old-timey stuff – whether it’s old-timey Appalachian music or bluegrass – good bluegrass – or old blues, old country, when it gets the hair up on my neck it just my hair up on my neck, you know?

And how do you find that? Because you said late 1800s to 1950s – apart from music you heard when you were growing up, how do you actually research music from those eras?
It was very hard in the day because like I said, I stumbled on a record, you know, that Beau Carter, and then I was like, man where did this come from? And when you are living around where I was playing there wasn’t much – there’s no big record shops or anything like that – but we’re going back in the days of vinyl, you know, and I just basically brought every album with a black fellow on the front and that’s fair dinkum, and a lot of it was just shit that I wouldn’t listen to. You get home – because there was no record players where you could listen to it before you bought it. It was like you were buying it in front of milk bars and stuff, they used to sell them out the front of pubs and stuff out in the middle of Queensland and then you’d jag something like Hound Dog Taylor or Elmore James and I’ve just gone, ‘Yes’. And because you only got one record every blue moon you’d play that record to death and really get a soaking of it, you wouldn’t just have five records and one song here, one song there, so you’re forced to – not forced to – but you’d listen to that one record over and over and over and over and it was just in your head, you know? That’s basically how I went and then I got a bit more knowhow by reading the backs of the records. They’d have a record label that had a series of them artists like Mississippi John Hurt and Charlie Patton and Son House and dudes like that, so then I’d specifically go looking for these guys. I used to write them down. And then, yeah, it just went from there basically but in this day and age you just Google anything you want to know.

Well, that’s true, but I think the experience you have doing that research and really listening to those albums probably meant that it was a lot more embedded in you than it would have been for someone who was just Googling.
Look, absolutely. I mean, the fact that you’ve slowed the records down for starters, you get your own style because you’re not picking exactly what you’re playing, you’re just loving this song and you form your own style out of it. And then when you form your style, obviously you start writing songs and it sort of stems from there.

Seleen McAlister - Catapult Song Contest

A new artist has crossed my radar ... Brisbane performer Seleen McAlister has a great voice and a great song in 'Guilt Free', which is a contender in the Catapult Song Contest for best undiscovered new independent song in Australia. As many country music singer-songwriters are independent artists, this contest is valuable exposure for Seleen - and also provides an opportunity for fans to vote for her, as the winner is chosen by popular vote.

Seleen has been working hard at her music and connecting with fans - she's been co-writing with popular artist Drew McAlister for her upcoming album, and performing at the Deni Ute Muster and Gympie Muster, as well as Tamworth earlier this year.  

'Guilt Free' has been in the carts for a year now and keeps moving up. You can see the video clip (and, obviously, listen to the song) here. And you can vote for it on the Catapult website - the first round of voting closes Wednesday 31 October.

Visit Seleen online at www.seleenmcalister.com.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Album review: Mustered Courage

Quick quiz: how many times have you heard a bluegrass album with harmonic voices? I can't say that I ever have - until now (disclaimer: I'm no bluegrass expert). And it's a very pleasant experience, I have to say. It's not traditional bluegrass, in the way that Elvis Presley would have understood it (yes, Elvis had a bluegrass pedigree), but it's definitely bluegrassy, with the right amount of precise playing and swooning lap steel. 

At first listening this album is an entertainment: the songs are jaunty and robust and fun. On closer listening there is more going on in the lyrics - both funny ('Karma') and sad ('Middle Ground'). After many listenings, some of the songs are actually a little more wistful than it seems at first ('On the Run', 'Take Me There', 'Simply Complicated', 'Hands Are Tied'), so if you want to find something deeper on the album, it's there. There's also plenty for those who like their bluegrass at top speed ('Madeline', 'Mando Madness', 'Safe to Go Back Now') and those who like a more moderate tempo.  

What's required to put together a bunch of eclectic songs that are all technically the one type of song (i.e. bluegrass) is a fair degree of musical skill, and that's certainly present. There's also the distinct sense that the musos had a really good time making this album - and that usually only happens when they've done their preparation, written some solid songs and know their way around their instruments and voices, because then they can relax and enjoy the process. In sum, this is a great debut effort from Mustered Courage, and you don't have to love - or even know about - bluegrass to appreciate it.  

Mustered Courage by Mustered Courage is out now from Laughing Outlaw Records.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Album review: James Thomson

James Thomson's eponymous debut album is the right amount of country, folk and blues, and could probably be categorised as 'Americana' if one were forced to pick. This doesn't mean that it's hard to identify what's going on - just that Thomson seems to have a few influences and he isn't reticent to combine them, depending on what the song needs. There's a bit of Townes van Zandt and a bit of Ryan Adams, and a bit of honky tonk, and they're all welcome on this record that makes you want to do nothing so much as curl up and listen to it. 

Thomson has a great voice - warm and smooth with a slight edge. It's an 'old' voice, in that it sounds like its owner has seen a lot of life and is bringing that to bear in the stories that he's singing. So it's hard to believe that Thomson is in his early twenties, because it doesn't sound like he's borrowing these stories - he sings them like they mean something to him, that they are his.

The album starts out with a wayward harmonica that leads us into a series of tracks that go up, and then down, in key. By the third track, 'Not for You (Odds & Ends)', we are in Thomson's quiet heart, and that is largely where we stay. This is not a raucous record - it is often gentle, and slightly melancholic. Some of the songs have a reassuring swing that never turns into a swagger. It's not hard to imagine Thomson sitting on a stool in the corner of a bar, simultaneously entertaining and observing the patrons.

This is country music in a largely urban setting, and given that there's a large city audience for country music, that is not at all a problem. Indeed, it demonstrates how the genre can adapt to all kinds of material - it does not require open plains and endless sky (although they're nice to have) - and perhaps even how it allows all sorts of stories to be told in a way they couldn't within other genres.

This album is a very strong start for a young artist - one can only hope he continues to write and play for many years to come, and that there will soon be another album of this calibre.

James Thomson by James Thomson is out now from Laughing Outlaw Records.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Interview: Jake Jackson

Jake Jackson has newly emerged onto the Australian country music scene with the single 'Hired Hand' and an album due for release in January 2013. But while he may be new to country audiences, he's a richly accomplished musician with a great story, as I found out when I spoke to him recently.

I'm going to start off by asking you what is the story behind the song ‘Hired Hand’?
The story behind ‘Hired Hand’ was a really simple little story. It was basically I got to the age of about 15 and the family had a pretty tough time. We'd come back from England without any money and been living in a boarding house; my brother and I and my mum. I figured it was time to leave and take some pressure off her and do something else and try and make a way for myself. So I left home very early, at 15, and headed out on the road and worked on farms and made a life for myself for that part of my life. I never went back, of course, but I did basically just create my own life and had a fantastic time in the process. That time is about exactly that moment, heading out and going up to -- I think the first place I worked at was this place up in Lake Bolac, which is in the western district of Victoria. Worked out on a farm there for a good, I don't know, eight, nine months and had a ball. I guess I found out who I was and worked out how it was going to go forward from there.

It's a really extraordinary thing to make a decision at such a young age to do that. Did you feel that you were older than your years? That you'd kind of experienced enough by then that it was a fairly natural decision in that you felt old enough to make it?
Look, I must say looking at kids now at 15, I think to myself how on earth did I do that? But now, looking back, I had at the age of nine gone to the UK. My mother was English, my father had died and we ended up going back there to see her family and then lived in London for four years. Went to school in London and out of London and experienced a lot. Did a lot of travelling -- well, not travelling but holidays with her in Europe at the time and we went to Spain and France and all that sort of stuff until, of course, the money ran out. We had a stroke of bad luck there. I guess I had a certain level of experience at that point in my life that made me feel that I was capable of doing that. I think the difference, too, is going into the country at that age and probably still now; it was a reasonably safe place to go. I think if it was the other way around, if I was in the country going into the city, I think if I was my parents I'd be concerned. But when it's the other way around, if you're going into the country people in the country are so accommodating and so friendly that it didn't really matter.

Given that you were a hired hand, does that mean you were just doing whatever was available? You just turned up and said what have you got?
Jackarooing, you know? Fixing fences, I did some shearing, I did everything -- all the farm jobs. All the farm jobs that the farmers usually end up not wanting to do, so I did a lot of that sort of stuff and it was fabulous. There were a lot of great times there and a lot of physical work. I'd always been very mechanically clever, I guess is the right word, and I could fix anything and had a go at everything. So I had a lot of fun. I was a fit fella and it was just a lot of fun. It was pretty easy for me to slot in there and assimilate and adapt to that lifestyle. It was a pretty easy transition. I know this sounds odd, coming from London and then Melbourne and then out bush. I'd always been into horses; I'd always done a lot of riding. As a kid, I'd ridden horses a lot and so getting out in the country and doing all that sort of stuff is not a big transition in some ways.

And you've never been tempted to have a property of your own?
Oh, many times. I'd love to have a little place, but farming now is a pretty serious business. I don't think anybody is going into farming now with a romantic vision. I think it's a very serious business with lots and lots of money involved. So at the moment I think it might be a bit complicated for me [laughs].

[Laughs] Well, I think it's complicated for everyone by the sound of it. But I was reading something about the song -- I think you first wrote it several years ago. Possibly even around the time you were working as a hired hand, is that correct?
I think I wrote that song when I was in my teens and it existed as a song that was in my head and lived there and I sang it a lot of times and never bothered recording it. Everybody always said what a great song, you've got to get that down and do something with it. It wasn't until now that I've really done that. I guess I always felt the song was missing something and the producer I was working with last year, Robyn Payne, and I sat down and looked at the song very carefully. She came up with something that changed the character of the song a little bit. Basically gave it another lift mid-song and away it went. It seemed to make the song come to life. Previous to that, it was always a good song and hopefully now it's an even better song [laughs]. But I definitely had that in my repertoire for a very long time.

It's a great song and a very solidly constructed song. I think the amount of care you've put into it shows. But not in a forced way -- it's not an overproduced song as sometimes country music songs from other countries, in particular, can sound overproduced. I'm curious that you wrote it in your teens because you weren't a musician in your teens. You were working doing other things but clearly there was a spark in you that wanted to write songs and ultimately to play music. So had you learnt music as a child?
I've always been involved in music. There's always been music in the family and we were a family that would always sing songs. Part of my life at that early age was definitely singing and playing and mucking around. It was never very serious and it was always very low key. We never thought much of it. Then I guess when I came back from the country the first time to Melbourne, the first thing I did was buy another guitar -- my first electric guitar -- and sort of got stuck into it. I was really writing a lot through that time. So, very simple songs but the beautiful thing about that song is that it is so simple and anybody that's just started on the guitar, or has been playing guitar for a couple of months, should be able to pick it up. It's only two or three chords and the melody is not hard to sing. It's an anthemic sort of thing that you can pick up pretty easily and I think that's such an essential part of any song, really. If you're starting to get too esoteric and too complicated you're losing the whole idea of what songs are about. They really should be songs that can communicate feelings and a simple song like that -- just to hear somebody sing. I've heard other people sing the song, and I've played with people that have helped me sing it, and it's always nice to hear it because it's such a simple little tune. But it's a lovely tune.

You said songs can communicate feelings and when I'm talking about country music or trying to persuade other people to listen to country music, I tend to say it's a storytelling genre. Much more, I think, than any other genre that we have in contemporary music in Australia. It’s the genre that tells Australian stories.  Rock and pop don't tend to. But I can hear that in your music as well. You're telling stories.
I think rock and pop tend to get stuck a little bit on very simple, simple concepts. Country music -- it generally spans on concepts and opens up, sometimes, long stories about people's lives. And that's what it is, it is storytelling and it's our folk music. If you go to Europe and listen to folk music in any country, you'll find that the songs are about stories about the place. Australian country music is our folk music. Good Australian country songs have got stories about Australian country life and about Australian life in general, not just the country, the city too.

One thing I find really interesting about your story is that you went to the Conservatorium of Music and you were classically trained and you gravitated towards country music. So I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that. I think if you love music, you love pretty much all types of music, but it does seem an interesting trajectory to go from such classical training into a genre that a lot of people would think is very distant from classical training.
I think it's like those people that go off on those boat cruises. They cruise all around the world and they see all the different colours of the planet and they see what other people are doing and they get a feel for lots of different things. They end up coming back and probably loving where they came from more. I think it's an interesting simile but it's true. I played a lot of classical music and enjoyed it and enjoyed the exercise and enjoyed the work and loved the dedication. It was a fabulous thing to be doing in my late teens, to be at the Conservatorium and enjoying the whole musical experience. It took me onto some really interesting musical journeys. When the album comes out in January next year, you'll hear some of those emphases. I went and spent some time in Spain playing flamenco music and all these sorts of things and they all add up and they all go into the pot. So when it comes to playing, it affects how you play and how you think. But like you say, after all that music and after all that education, I guess to be -- and I don't want to use the words ‘coming back’ to country music because it's not right. I've ended up where my heart is and it's a lovely genre to work in. Especially as a singer, you know? As a guitar player, if I just purely focused on the instrument; a lot of people, they seem to spend a lot of time getting very intellectual about guitar playing. But as a singer, to sing country songs and tell stories and to write stories is really, to me, the joy of it all, absolutely.

So do you find that with your singing voice, it feels like your natural singing voice? I guess when singers sing in different genres, they have to adapt sometimes. But is this where you feel your voice belongs?
It’s funny that you say that, because there was a time there when I was trying to push my voice in all sorts of directions and I think I went through a period of about -- I think it was about the same time I went to Spain, I decided I wasn't going to sing like that any more. When I came back, I was just going to start from the ground up again and just singing with my natural voice and not bother with any more than that, and never try and sing out of my range too much, and always basically be comfortable. Because the reality is you can't get the emotion into your voice if you're trying to sing things that you're voice isn't capable of doing or isn't designed to do. And everybody's voice is so different. So for me, I started -- well, I haven't started -- I've taken the voice to a degree where I'm only going to sing things that I'm going to be comfortable singing now, in my own natural singing voice. You're absolutely right that you've heard that because it is exactly what I'm doing nowadays. I'm not trying to do anything too technical with my voice. I'm just trying to sing the words and make them mean something.

For musicians working in the country music genre, I think the audience and performer interplay is really interesting and supportive, in that you're allowed to be vulnerable as a country performer. You are allowed to sing what you feel and the audience will support that. And I think part of the reason is that the audience -- no-one who goes to a country music show is trying to be cool. They're not trying to impress anyone. They're there because they genuinely love the music and Tamworth is like that on steroids really. But I guess as a musician, it must be really satisfying to know that you're appearing before an audience that is completely open and they're there to receive you.
Hundred percent. I've played all those rock venues and I've played all those sorts of venues. I've played jazz and I've played all sorts of music and I can tell you, it can be daunting at times because you know that everybody's there -- as you say, trying to be cool and trying to make an impression on everybody else -- and they're not really there for the right reasons in some ways. But country music audiences are fantastic. They love to hear it, they love to listen to it and they're very generous with their appreciation too. They go beyond - they're a listening audience as opposed to a beer-drinking audience -- of course, they can be beer audiences too -- but as opposed to an audience that there for a whole lot of other reasons apart from the music. As a musician, as a singer, as an entertainer, there's nothing nicer than to be working to a room where people are interested in what you're saying and what you're doing and what you're singing and what you're playing. As opposed to just standing around looking cool [laughs].

[Laughs] You don't get a lot of band T-shirts in a country music audience.
No, no, no it's probably uncool. It's funny, every genre has uncool things to do and country music band T-shirts are not the go. That's right. But, hey, it's a great genre to work with and the musicians too, there's a real family-orientated feel about it. I played some jazz music for a while and I used to play standards and sing, and it was a very loaded environment where people were very much into how you stand technically and where you sit with your taste, and you've got to like this guy and you've got to like that. And if you don't like Charlie Parker, you don't know what you're talking about sort of thing.  Whereas country music audiences and country music lovers are really just interested in the songs. They're really just interested in the things in the songs and also the other great thing about them, too, is they are prepared to judge. They're prepared to say yes, I like that, and that is a really good thing, because you'll find in a lot of audiences or a lot of genres where the music is so similar and so stereotypical that nobody's prepared to like anything new because it doesn't have a big brand attached to it or something like that.

It's an audience that's super supportive of new artists, regardless of age or sex, actually. You can be an 18-year-old young woman starting out and you'll have 70 year olds sitting there saying, ‘Good on ya, love.’ And turning up for the gig.
Australia's full of that.  Pretty much.

And also it's an educated audience, in that a lot of country music people know the history of the genre. They know about Hank Williams and Lefty Frizzell and they can talk you through any number of things. But they will embrace new artists. If a reference is there, they'll hear it. So do you have any references in your own music. If there's any historical country music that you really like or that you refer to in your songwriting?
I can tell you a story that'll make you smile. When I was at the Conservatorium, I was teaching in the evening, teaching guitar because I was getting pretty good at the instrument and so I was able to make a few dollars teaching. And I ended up teaching a blind guy. I went around to his place. He'd called me up. I went around to his place and there were a lot of funny stories associated with his story. And he's an amazing guy. He just lost his sight, very unfortunately, a lovely fella and he decided he was going to learn to play guitar. He was totally into Hank Williams and so we spent a lot of time learning Hank Williams songs and me teaching him those. Teaching him the words and teaching him the guitar parts and was fantastic fun. The first time I went there, there wasn't a light operating in the place and it was a stark reminder of what blind people have to deal with. Of course, he never changed the globes because they were of no use to him [laughs].  So second time I came back, I brought two or three globes with me and put some globes into his lights and then I could see what I was doing as well. He didn't need them of course, he had the other sense. But, look, my influences go back a long way and of course, people like Hank Williams are pretty important to me. Of course, it's all there. But I moved through that period when I was listening to guys like John Hiatt and Steve Earle and those sorts of midwest American players and really enjoyed what they were doing. I think John Hiatt played a big role in my lyric growing and my songsmithing. He's an amazing songsmith, amazing wordsmith. He was a big inspiration to me and still is, funnily enough. I still listen to that Stolen Moments album, it's pretty amazing … It's funny because I think when Dixie Chicks started coming out, everybody said to me what's that playing [laughs]. This is crazy. You've got to get onto this. And I still have those albums. I've had a couple of kids and of course, they ended up putting up with my eclectic country music taste. Occasionally I'd be listening to things that could be quite obscure and then I'd be straight into the mainstream because somebody came out with a song that just had everything. And of course, that's when I think about country music, you can dip it into the mainstream and nobody is going to say to you, ‘Oh that's uncool’, because they're all great songs. There's lots of great music around at the moment. A lot of good artists coming through too. People like Jasmine Rae and those sorts of people; they're really playing some lovely music.

Oh, there are a lot of good Victorians I found this year. Lachlan Bryan and Jed Rowe. I think there's something in the water down there with you guys [laughs].
We're working on it [laughs]. We're trying to make an impression on the country. Well, it's so cold down here; we've got sit around and write songs. There's all there is to do [laughs].

We're always hearing about how good Melbourne is for the arts. But it does seem to be the case with country music.
Oh, look, there's no doubt about it. Melbourne has got a really nice live music feel about it. But I think Sydney is the same, if you know where to go. I think you can find -- but I think it may just be a little bit more obvious here, that's all.

Smaller and more parochial, Jake, that's the way we think of it [laughs].
Absolutely [laughs].

You've obviously been doing a lot of different things but you arrived at this point of your life where you're going to put out a country music album. So how did you come to the decision of doing it now?
Oh, it’s straightforward -- did my job with the kids. Kids have left home. Personally, I love them to bits, they're fantastic kids. I lost my father early so I was determined to do a job for them. I tried to give them all the things that I missed out on and I was determined that they didn't leave home at 15 [laughs]. And of course they didn't. So in some ways -- well, I'm really proud of them and really pleased with how it all turned out. It's a bit of my time now. I struggled to keep playing music all those years, bringing up the kids. I went into all sorts of bits and pieces with my music. I was producing and playing and gigging but never really putting my heart and soul into it. I just couldn’t with the children, but now I'm free of that. I can certainly put a lot more time into it.  You know what they say about difference between a musician and a pizza: a pizza can feed a family of five and a musician can't [laughs].

[Laughs] I've never heard that.
It's a good one, isn't it? I often think about it [laughs]. But now I'm free of the kids, I'm able to focus back on the music. And I'm really enjoying it. It's great. I've rekindled a lot of friendships that I had years and years ago and some of those people have gone on and reached amazing heights in their musicality. Others have stopped playing and come back to playing. A couple of guys that I haven't played with for a few years that I jam with now and again. Every couple of weeks. They both stopped playing and now that I'm back into it, they've sort of jumped back in a bit too. So it's a nice journey to be back and doing it as ferociously as I'm doing at the moment. And I did the album and I came away from the album thinking I really like this album. I know that sounds odd, and I probably shouldn't say these things about my own things, but I really am proud of it and I'm really, really enjoying it, and what's nice about it is I play it for people and they enjoy it too. And that is a wonderful feeling; it's a wonderful thing to be doing.

There actually wouldn't be too many artists who can say that the album has happened at the right pace, at the right time of their lives. It's really unusual for someone to put their artistic ambitions on hold or artistic dreams on hold, to raise a family. I think the cultural imperative is to get out there and do it as young as possible and as quickly as possible. But, of course, then you're vulnerable to doing things when you're not ready. But you've had time to let it marinate, so to speak. And to put it in the oven when you wanted to [laughs].
 [Laughs] Yeah.

And obviously that's what you're feeling, that it's the right time.
Oh definitely. The nice thing about doing it a little bit later in life is that you don't have the same inhibitions that you do when you're younger. I remember I played hundreds and hundreds of gigs when I was younger and I never thought I was a good enough guitar player. I never thought I was a good enough singer. I was always trying to get better and I was always working on it hard. And, of course, you always do try and get better, but there comes a certain point in your life where you think to yourself well, that's what I am and that's what I've got and this is how I play and this is how I sing and I'm just going to work with that and work with what I've got rather than the continual push to try and make it happen in some sort of a way. The other nice thing too is that now I am doing it at my own pace. I'm not under any pressure. I'm not going crazy to get signed by some major record label or anything like that. I'm an independent artist and I'm basically just cruising along and doing it at my own rate. That's the only way you can really be creative. If somebody says, ‘Sit down here and write a song in the next half an hour’, it's pretty hard to do, but if you've got the time and you take your time, things just seem to happen anyway. So it's all good.

Your album's coming out early next year but will you be touring ahead of that? One would imagine you're touring around the time it's released as well.
We'll definitely be touring around the time it's released and hopefully we can get to as many ports in as many storms as we can [laughs]. I will be taking a band on the road -- I do a three-piece set-up with a singer and a fiddle player and just myself on guitar. That's pretty nice too. So we may be doing a combination of ‘band gigs’ and three-piece gigs. So we'll see how that rolls out, but that's what I'm very much looking forward to getting the album out there on the road. It'll be good fun.

As an independent artist, I guess, it's great to have control over your own music but the flipside is you've got to organise everything yourself. So is it somewhat daunting to think, ‘I've got to organise a tour or I'll find someone to organise a tour for me’?
It’s massive, it's absolutely massive. I can't deny it. I used to think it was just going to be a simple thing. Just putting together an album and away you go -- the rest of it will all fall into place. Well, I can tell you it's a big job and I tell you what, the stuff that I've been doing lately that I find to be an amazing job is putting those videos together. The videos for the songs are just a huge job and I guess I totally underestimated the work of the videographer. I have been very, very busy for the last six weeks now -- five weeks putting together a couple of videos. One of them is up on YouTube for this song [‘Hired Hand’] now. It's a lot of fun. We had a lot of fun filming it and we had a lot of fun producing it. That's a hard process. It's nearly as hard [laughs] as writing the music, dare I say it. In some ways it's harder because it's not my field of expertise. Music almost seems simple compared to the movies.

I almost would have thought that we could do away with videos these days. But they're obviously still very useful because people are making them.
Oh look, people will have to. People have to put a name to a face and a face to a name. They need to see it on the screen and I think it helps tremendously in terms of relating the songs. The video we did, it's a nice video and it's cool. There's a little bit of humour in there and it's not too serious and we're just having fun. You get to see the players and you get to see where we filmed it out in the country in Taggerty up in the north of the Divide here. It's good stuff. It's important, I think. If it helps people to relate to the songs and the next single which comes out in about another six or seven weeks, we're working on that video at the moment. 

And when you head out on the road, are you one of these writers who tends to collect stories from various places? Like you'll keep an ear out for what's going on and jot down a few ideas as you go? So if you're on the road, will it be partly a story-collecting exercise?
My car has two books, two old books in it that I just keep writing words in. I'm writing stories down, reference points. I leave two books in there because if I take one out and lose it or I put it somewhere else, I leave it in the rehearsal room or something, then I've always got the other one to jot it down. I've always got a jotting book next to me. I learnt that from a guy called Mike Rudd years and years ago. When I was a kid, I played around with a band working. He wrote a song called ‘Someday I'll Have Money, I'll be Gone’ it's called, I think. It was a great song, a huge song, huge international success. He taught me that. He said you always grab a little pad with you and write down words as they come. So yeah, definitely, as we're on the road, we'll be looking for -- not necessarily looking for experiences. We'll be noting experiences. There you go.

 [Laughs] Well, I guess again the genre feeds into itself that way. To be a country music artist necessitates going out to remote places often or just going to regional centres and you do tend to see a lot more stories or hear a lot more stories that way.
Oh look, no question about it. You roll up in a new town; you have a lot of experiences. I was doing a radio interview the other day and it was up in Tenterfield -- actually it was a day of radio interviews and I remember almost every town I'd been in, there was a story I could tell. Tenterfield, I came off a motorbike at 2 o'clock in the morning one night and spent the whole night in a ditch. I could've written a song about that but I don't know if I did [laughs].

You could still write a song about that.
I still could, yeah. I still could. The New England Highway in the middle of the night.

I hope it wasn’t winter.
It was okay; I survived it [laughs].

 [Laughs] That's good. Will you be heading for Tamworth?
Look, that's the plan at the moment. Things are happening very quickly for this, for me and this song at the moment. We're getting an extremely positive response to everything so I guess we've got to be at Tamworth in some way, shape or form. I'm not sure quite how we're going to get that sorted but I know we will and yeah, we'll be there somewhere.  So it'll be good fun.

Visit www.jakejackson.com.au to listen to 'Hired Hand'.