Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Interview: The Sunny Cowgirls

Somehow The Sunny Cowgirls are up to album number five - I could swear they only released their first a year ago! - and have become fixtures and favourites of Australian country music. Last week I spoke to Celeste Clabburn - one half of the Cowgirls, the other being her sister Sophie - about the album, What We Do; their single 'Green and Gold', and hitting the road.

Catch The Sunny Cowgirls on stage in Tamworth this week at Blazes - they play Wednesday 23 January at 5 p.m.

A lot of country music performers are working at it full-time but I know you and Sophie live in different parts of the country now and you each have other things going on.  So you work, it seems, a lot of the time on the property with sheep.
Yeah, yeah.  I’m down in Hamilton, Victoria so it just sort of worked out, when I’m not on the road I can come back here and if there’s a bit of work on, it’s just worked out perfectly, you know?  It’s just a good balance to be out doing music but then to get back to the farm and just do something so real and so hands-on.  So, yeah, it’s great.  I love it.  It’s a very good lifestyle for me.

And it’s work you can obviously pick up when you need to as in, you can walk away from it and come back and that’s okay.
Exactly.  It’s not my property ... it’s a very good friend of mine’s.  So when I can help him out, I can, and when I can’t he totally understands.  So it just fits in so well and, yeah, it’s great.  I’ve got my dogs here as well and so when I go away, he can look after them.  It’s just a perfect set-up, I love it.

When you’re preparing for going on the road, is it a difficult process now that you’re not living near Sophie?  And I imagine you tour with a band, so you’d have to put them together as well?
Well, we always use the same band all the time – our drummer lives in Melbourne and are guitarist lives in Sydney.  And, you know, I guess we’re on the road so often that it all works out pretty well. If I go home and Sophie goes home, it’s only ever for probably at the most two weeks.  So I guess we’re all so used to travelling now and we’ve got it down to a fine art.  But it’s important to prepare for tours and stuff and we can do that over the phone.  People often ask, “How do you practice?” or whatever but we’re playing pretty much four times a week anyway so it never sort of stops.  But it’s great – it seems to work out well.

I’m really interested in your songwriting process – the two of you write really separately and then you come together in the studio, often now knowing what the other person’s songs are.  So I was just wondering, what’s it like coming into the studio probably with more songs than you need and how do you decide what goes on the album – and are there any fights?
[Laughs] yeah.  It’s always a really tough time, I think.  You know, we both write as many songs as we can and obviously you get very passionate and attached to your own songs.  And we try and be very smart and diplomatic about the whole thing and, you know, we both want to make the best album possible.  You’ve just got to balance it out with up-tempo and ballads and different scenes and stuff.  But it’s always really hard.  I think going into this album we had 25 songs or something and you’ve got to cull that down to 12 or 14 – 14 in the end – and it’s always really tough.  But when Soph first plays me her songs, you know, the majority of the time, I love them. I guess it’s a good problem, to have too many songs.  It can get a bit intense and especially being sisters, we can be very honest with each other I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. But we always seem to get there in the end.

When you’re taking the songs on the road and you know you’re going to be performing songs that you haven’t written, is it hard for you to feel that those songs are really your own or by the time you’ve recorded them do they feel like they’re yours as well?
Yes.  I think, because making an album is such a long process, the songs that Soph’s written, I’ve be singing them almost for a year already now.  So they do feel like mine, but I think also that is because Soph’s my sister and my best friend, so I understand every single line and where she’s coming from, and so they do definitely feel like mine.  And I think the same goes for her when she’s playing my songs because we understand each other so well.  But if we were to sing someone else’s songs, like another songwriter, that would feel really weird to me.  But singing [her] songs is like singing one of my songs, actually.  That’s what it feels like.

Now when you’re doing gigs and you have five albums behind you, it must be hard for you to do a set list – how do you choose?

Yeah, exactly.  We’re going through that at the moment actually.  You know, you’ve got to throw out a few of the older songs and you don’t know which ones to cull for now and which new ones to put in.  So I guess it’s just trial and error.  We’ve worked out a show for the first bit of the year, so we’ll see how it goes.  We’ve chosen six or seven of the new songs – it’s all about experimenting and which ones go down well live and which ones don’t.  We’ll see what happens.

Do you enjoy performance?
I love it and especially when you’ve got new product, new songs to perform, that’s when it gets really exciting.  So at the moment I just can’t wait to play.  We’re going to Tamworth next week so I’m really looking forward to getting out there and playing some new songs.

And whereabouts are you playing in Tamworth?
We’re back in Blazes on Wednesday, I think it’s the 23rd.  Five p.m. at Blazes, West Leagues Club in Tamworth.  Morgan Evans is the support and he has a big band and it’s the launch of the album, so it’s exciting.

That’s a signature venue to play at, I’ve got say.  Anyone who’s anyone’s played at Blazes.
[Laughs] Well, that’s what I like to think anyway.

Five albums ago, did you and Sophie imagine what your career would be like?  Did you think that you would continue to produce albums or was it just ‘we’ll put out this album and just cross our fingers’?
At the start it was, ‘oh my God, this is great, you know, they’re really into our first album’, and, obviously, you want to keep going for as long as you can.  But you never know when your luck’s going to run out or you never know what’s going to happen.  So it’s kind of bizarre.  We’ve been hearing and reading a lot, like this is our fifth album, and we can’t really believe it.  Sometimes it feels like we’ve been doing this for a long time but sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday that we began.  So it’s a really bizarre thing. But five albums is really cool and it sort of feels like we’re not just the new beginners anymore. Five albums is five albums [laughs].  It’s a nice feeling. 

And you chose Sam Hawksley to produce this latest album, which is a good choice because he’s got such a good pedigree, but I was wondering how you came across him.  Did you just come across him the way people do in the scene at Tamworth, that sort of thing?
We’ve been friends with him for years and years and have toured a lot around without a band and obviously he would be absent for a while.  So we know him really well and [we’re] big fans of his music.  He’s a great musician and songwriter.  And we’d heard he’d done a little bit of producing and he produced his own albums and everything.  But it happened really spontaneously and quickly, and I think he actually mentioned to us one day and we just sort of said, “Oh, that’s so funny.  Like, no way, we’re not going to go and do and album in Nashville with you.”  We all sort of laughed about it.  And then a couple of months later we were sort of thinking, you know, let’s do something different, and we gave Sam a call and he didn’t take it seriously at the start because he thought we were just joking.  I think it’s great to get a fresh perspective on our songwriting and the whole vibe of the album, so it was great to have Sam on board – as I said, he’s a great musician and he’s got a great musical ear.  It was really fun and different to work with him. 

I read somewhere that you and Sophie were a bit reluctant to record in the US because you’d always felt quite strongly about recording in Australia.  Is that true?
Yeah, definitely.  We never had any intentions or plans to go over there and record because everything’s done so well here in Australia.  But at the time we were trying to get everything into place, like a producer and a studio, and nothing was going right, nothing was falling into place.  And we just sort of explored all our options and Nashville came on to the table and we just thought, ‘Well, why not?’  Sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone and work with new people and in a new place because that really challenges you.  So I think it’s a really healthy thing for an artist ... to do something a little bit different.  But, yeah, it was a bit of an experiment but it was a good one and we’re really glad we did it.

It sounds like this album was recorded in a slightly unusual way in that the tracks were laid down in Nashville and you did vocals somewhere else – had you worked that way before?
It’s always done a little bit like that but not to that extent –our last few albums were all done in Perth or they were all done in Sydney and maybe the vocals are done in Tamworth or something.  But this one we thought we’ll go over and spend a couple of days doing the band tracks in Nashville and then we thought we’d go back to Perth and take our time with the vocals.  Obviously vocals are pretty important.  So we spent about a month really getting them right and really getting the sound we wanted.  And it was a really great way it worked because there was no time pressure, which was really good, and [we could] just be creative and experiment and stuff.  So, yeah, it worked out really well.  It was a good process.  It was a long one but it was good.

It sounds like your voices are really clean in the mix.  The instruments are certainly there but your voices have been brought to the forefront and it really emphasises the two of you as storytellers.  And so I was wondering whether you, in your songwriting – because you seem to draw a bit on your lives and also other people’s stories – I was wondering if that’s a mix that you like, that mix of the personal and perhaps the strange?
Sure.  A lot of our songs are real stories, you know, and so I think the mix is important to, obviously, to hear the vocals and for them to stand out.  Paul Lani mixed it and just did an incredible job with the whole thing – every single thing is so clear and big but to get the vocals above all that music the way he did I think is incredible.  Obviously he really understood the songs and the lyrics were, I guess, the most important part.  All songs are different and sometimes it’s more about the music.  But I think in the majority of our songs pretty much the lyric content is what sort of sticks out. 

You’re not raw singers – in that raw might mean unaccomplished – because your voices are certainly really distinct and clear, but it’s almost like because the voices are so prominent in the mix, you’re standing out there on stage a little bit on your own.  So I was wondering if it sometimes feels almost scary in a way to be the singer-songwriter standing there singing that song.
Do you mean when we’re actually performing or

Or on record; either/or because I imagine when you’re performing the band is quite loud.
Sure is.

I’m was just thinking, when you hear those recordings for the first time or hear the mix for the first time, do you think, ‘Ooh, that’s really me singing it’?
Yeah, yeah, sure.  Some of the songs, like ‘Thank You’ and a few of the more ballady ones, when you first hear them mix through, you’re like, wow – you feel very vulnerable because not are you singing a very personal song but your vocal is so right in everyone’s face.  So it is a little confronting but I guess you just get used to it over time. 

Was it confronting when you first started performing, to do that?
Definitely.  I think, especially with all the new ones, you’re not as familiar as you are with the old ones.  So it’s always a little daunting, but it just takes a little bit of time and you sort of get a bit more comfy.  That’s the plan anyway.

Now I asked this next question of Samantha McClymont because she’s also in a band with her sisters. The question was, “Are your parents proud of you.”  So are your parents proud of you, Celeste?
You know, I’m going to say they are.  Our parents are great people and have always been so supportive ever since we were little girls wanting to be country singers.  They were never pushy but they always supported us with whatever we wanted to do.  They’re always there.  They’re coming over to Tamworth next week and they really are terrific, just good people and very lucky to have them.  They’ve always been there for us.  We’re very lucky girls in that sense.

Were you both quite musical from a young age?
Yes. We just grew up around it and Soph got a few guitar lessons when she was about 10, I think, and then I just sort of started copying her.  It all just happened pretty naturally and was always in the household and [we] didn’t really sort of have to think about it or anything, it just sort of happened.

Did you always want to be country music performers or did you like a lot of music and you chose country music?
It was always country but, you know, saying that, we grew up and we were listening to Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers and stuff, but we never wanted to be rock chicks or anything.  The dream was always to be country music singers.  I don’t know why it happened but it’s always just been drilled into our heads so that’s what we wanted to do.

I love the idea of the two of you listening to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
[Laughs] I loved them, yeah, yeah.

But you can also learn things from those bands about performance and all that kind of stuff, and clearly you have.
Oh my God, yeah, I reckon.  They’re amazing.

Now, on this album are there any songs that you personally have that are your favourites? And you’re allowed to say songs that you wrote.
 [Laughs] Okay.  Yes, it’s always tough picking them and I think, well, just because the album’s so fresh – I’m still getting used to it – but I think definitely one of my favourites is ‘Green and Gold’.  That’s one Soph wrote and that’s the single, that’s always been a huge one.  And I think as far as my ones go, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for ‘Winter Blues’ and probably ‘Thank You’.  They’re ones that sort of – I feel this kind of power for writing them, and hopefully people will like them.

Speaking of ‘Green and Gold’, how’s the single been going?  Have you had a chance to test it on any audiences yet?
We’ve only just started playing it but a lot of people already seem to know the words. It’s been on CMC and it’s been on radio for a while now.  So far the response has been really good and we haven’t had any complaints yet, so that’s all you can hope for! It’s always exciting playing the new ones and it’s going down well at the live gigs.

It must be surreal for songwriters to see people singing their words back to them.
Yeah, it is.  It’s really weird and it’s the biggest compliment ever at the same time, especially when an album’s just come out and people are singing along to the choruses and stuff.  It’s like, wow, they’ve listened to it that much that they can sing along.  That is just the coolest thing, when a crowd can sing your lyrics and the lyric that you wrote, you know?  It’s it’s a huge compliment.

I would presume, since this album’s newly out, that you’ll be planning a tour sometime soon?
Definitely.  We’re hitting the road in February.  We’re doing New South Wales and then down to Victoria and then up to Queensland.  So the first half of the year is all go, go, go with touring and touring the new album and the new songs, and it should be good fun.

What We Do is out now. Visit the Sunny Cowgirls' website at sunnycowgirls.com.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Interview: Tamara Stewart (part I)

If there's an Australian country music song you love, the chances are good that Tamara Stewart has had something to do with it, either as a performer or a songwriter or both. She has written songs for and with Beccy Cole, Adam Brand, Melinda Schneider and others, and has independently produced and released her own albums. Recently I spoke to Tamara about her new single, 'Women in Song', her new album Appleseed and her rich, varied country music life. 

The reason for this interview is your song ‘Women in Song’.  So I thought I’d start off by asking you what made you want to be a woman in song?
Well, I just love the industry that we’re in, I love Australian country music, I love the whole scene, so I just get such a buzz out of writing songs.  And it seems like such a simple little statement but it really is my oxygen.  I just love writing songs and it’s a way to really connect with people.  And I think it’s that connection, especially with the new album, Appleseed, that I’ve really thrived on even more.  I mean, the songs, I feel like we’re really connecting with the audience a lot more with these new songs and I just get such a buzz out of people coming up after the gig and saying, you know, “Wow, I can really relate to that song,” or it reminds them of something important for them. As I said, it’s my oxygen.  It’s my lifeline, writing songs, I think.

I’ve seen you perform and it seems like performance is also something you really – well, you looked comfortable with it, let’s put it that way, and not everyone does.  But they’re quite different jobs, songwriting and performing, and I’m always really curious as to how really prolific songwriters in particular, like you – because you have written a lot of songs – how you kind of marry those two parts of your career.  Is there some kind of gear change you need to go through?
Yeah. That’s a really interesting question, because I think my perception of it is changing and more albums and the more that I – I guess the more that I do.  I’ve always loved writing and you might know I write a lot for other artists as well.  There’s been quite a few songs that have been on the charts this year that I’ve been a part of writing.  So it’s sort of always been a bit of a grey area, I think, for me, how I sit as a songwriter and how I sit as an artist.  And it’s not until recently that I’ve just opened the floodgates and gone, you know what, I can just be happy doing both and work with other artists and it doesn’t conflict.  But I just love writing and there’s a real safety net in writing that I sit quite comfortably behind. You know, I don’t really have to put myself out there when I’m writing the songs as much as when I’m performing them.  And I really noticed that with the Appleseed songs.  Performing those songs, they’re the most honest songs that I’ve ever written and I really see the potency of performing them, I think, more than ever before.  I think that I really need to stand behind what I’m saying because the songs are so true and so raw.  But, look, I love performing.  Different things affect me in different ways.  Doing festivals and live shows and stuff like that, I just love feeding off the audience.  Doing things like TV and award shows has a different sort of feeling.  But, you know, I do get a little bit … not so much nervous but I get that real bubbly energy that can take over me a little bit and I get a bit excited.  But I’m just going to do it as long as I can until they – until they carry me off [laughs].

I know you’ve written songs with Beccy Cole, amongst other people, and it must be an interesting process to go through, knowing you’re writing a song for someone else to sing that’s not going to be something for you to perform.  And I’m just wondering if that’s – if it ever strikes you as sometimes being a bit weird almost, that it’s like, oh, well, this is my baby and I’m handing it over to someone else.
No, I’m pretty cool with that.  I know some writers can be a bit protective of their songs but especially when we sit down and – you know, there’s been times when we’ve pitched songs to people and they go and record them and they haven’t been part of writing it, that’s a different sort of kettle of fish, it’s easier to let those go.  But whenever I sit down to write with, for example, McAlister Kemp and Amber Lawrence and Paul Costa – [they] are my most recent kind of singles and cuts that have been out there – you write with the intention of just becoming them for the day and I kind of take on their lives and their priorities when I write.  It sounds a little bit – maybe a little bit creepy, I don’t know.  But I kind of have to write through them and get what they want to say and help them say it, I guess, the best that they can say it.  So I don’t feel attached.  I’m happy to let those songs go.  And I’m always pleased with the result as long as the songs get cut and they’re proud to sing them.  It sounds a little strange but if I’m cruising along in my car and I hear ‘Tractors and Bikes’ come on – Paul Costa’s latest single – I enjoy it as if it’s my own, you know?  I certainly get the same buzz out of hearing those songs on the radio as I do of hearing ‘Women in Song’ or ‘Sisterhood’ or anything from Appleseed, you know?

It sounds like you’re a true storyteller in that you realise that you’re channelling stories, in a way.  So whether you’re channelling someone else’s stories or channelling your own, you really seem to understand that idea of serving the story and putting those stories out to an audience.
Yeah, definitely.  And I certainly don’t get too proud in writing sessions by the sense of, you know, they’ve got to say it and sing it how they feel comfortable doing it.  So I think what makes a great co-writer is someone that can go in and write with an artist and people don’t even know that anyone else is in there, you know what I mean?  If you can really help the artist write themselves the best, to me, that’s the value of a co-writer.  And I know with songs like ‘Women in Song’, I had Colin Buchanan come in and write with me, and that was just such a pleasure to have him on board because he helped me say everything that I wanted to say and he’s such an incredible writer that he brought so much to that song and that’s what makes him so great.  He wrote with me, alongside me in that song – exactly the way that I wanted it to sound.

You’ve had a collaboration with Rick Price as well and I’m wondering if a collaboration like that is different for you than co-writing songs.
Rick’s a bit of a unique example for me – Rick and I have worked together on all four records in some capacity and Rick’s doing BVs [backing vocals] on the new album as well.  He came in and did some gorgeous guest vocals in there and we co-wrote a song together online.  But because Rick and I have worked together so much and toured together, we’re a bit – you know, I don’t know if it’s a brother and sister-y sort of thing but there’s the level of comfortability there that is definitely unique. I don’t co-write a lot of songs on Appleseed but the ones that I do are with people that I feel that real connection with.

I’ll now go to the subject matter of ‘Women in Song’, and I’ve noted in the past just for myself and talking to the odd person, that Australian country music, in particular, seems to have pretty much equal representation of prominent women and prominent men.  So it’s really not unusual to see a woman at the front of a band or at the front of an all-male band at Tamworth. And I was wondering if you have any theories as to why that might be?
I think both sides are really strong … A song like ‘Women in Song’ to me was so important to write because – especially the woman at the forefront of that song is who inspired that for me: Joy McKean. Joy has blazed a trail that is just so remarkable.  And I know people have paid tribute in the past but there’s also two other women, Thel Carey and Shirley Thoms, that we talk about in the song.  And what they’ve achieved behind the scenes and standing beside their men as well is really amazing.  A lot of people know, of course, that Joy is Slim Dusty’s wife and Joy wrote a lot of Slim’s biggest hits.  Forty years ago she won Song of the Year, the very first Golden Guitar even given out, for writing ‘Lights on the Hill’.  And here we are 40 years later, to the year, writing a song about Joy and highlighting what she’s done. I think if we keep remembering the equality, I guess, too, from that perspective, as you said in your question.  The men of country music and the women of country music are both doing incredible things and it’s just really nice to be able to highlight that.

I think also what it does is give all of the artists equal access to talent, if that makes sense, in that because there’s no distinction between who’s fronting the band. I saw Harmony James play last year at Tamworth and her band had four men in it, I think, ranging from 22 to 55 or something like that. And I thought, it’s really just that idea of putting together the best possible outfit.  And when there is no cultural issue about what men get and what women get, it just means you get the best, I think.

Yeah, totally.  If you look through the musicians and the bands that are playing around, there’s males and females. So I don’t think the male/female thing is as prominent in the performing side of things. I guess in the business side of country music, as in any corporate situation, it leans a little bit more to more men.

And when it comes to  the women who are singing with you on this song, I was wondering how you chose Felicity Urquhart and Sara Storer, given that you’ve been associated with a lot of great female singer-songwriters of Australian country. It must have been hard [laughs].
Well, look, it was hard – it was a really hard to decision to make but for some reason, in the same regard, it was really easy.  The ladies that I wanted to come on board with this – firstly, I wanted them to be good mates and Fliss and Sara and I have known each other for – well, I’m giving away ages, but well over 15 years I’ve been in and around the same circles.  And when you find people in life, in general, that you really respect and that are also incredibly talented, you do what you can to keep those people close.  And Felicity and Sara have both affected me over the years with their incredible songwriting.  So a song about female songwriters, I really wanted to sing it with some incredible, modern talent.  In a way it was a no-brainer but co-writing with Colin Buchanan, there was no question that he was the man for the job.  He’s just got that way of writing Australia so well.  And that is a gift that not everybody has.  So I’m really proud the collaborations, on many levels, happened with ‘Women in Song’.

The three of you have some beautiful harmonies on the track and harmonising isn’t always easy because some people take to it more naturally than others. Did the three of you fall into line easily or did you need a bit of direction?
We were very time limited with recording the song, putting the vocals down, because Sara lives in Darwin and Fliss, you know, she’s up there in the [NSW] Central Coast.  It was just one of those things where everything just fell into place and maybe that’s when things are meant to be, I’m not sure.  But, it coincided so beautifully and that’s how it was in the studio as well.  I mean, Fliss and Sara are both incredibly talented and professional and are beautiful-natured girls, you know?  It makes things like that so easy.  So we had a few laughs and we had a great night putting the track down, like the vocals down.  And then, of course, we came back together – the stars aligned again, miraculously – and we got to do a video clip and it’s just been nothing short of an absolute pleasure.  In fact, everything around Appleseed – touch wood, I should say – has gone just like clockwork.  And there’s so many things that can make it difficult but it’s just been a beautiful journey.

(Part II of this interview will be published soon)

Tamara Stewart is playing several shows during the 2013 Tamworth Country Music Festival - for a full list, visit her website. The gig that is especially close to her heart is the BUSK FOR BREAST CANCER on 25 January at 5 p.m. outside the Council Chambers on Peel Street, where she will be joined by a host of Australian country music favourites.


Sunday, January 20, 2013

Interview: Tom Wolfe of The Wolfe Brothers

A show at the TRECC at this year's Tamworth Country Music Festival is just the latest in a string of achievements for The Wolfe Brothers, a four-piece band from southern Tasmania, who were also finalists in a little show called Australia's Got Talent. The Wolfe Brothers have also just released their debut album, It's On (ABC Music/Universal). I spoke to Tom Wolfe late last year to find out more about the band and how they're preparing for Tamworth. 

The Wolfe Brothers appear at the Tamworth Regional Entertainment and Conference Centre on 24 January 2013 at 12.30 p.m. in a show to benefit bushfire relief efforts in Tasmania. For more information, please visit the Wolfe Brothers' website.

So January 2013 is going to be a big month for you and the band because you've got an album and a Tamworth headlining show.  So I was wondering if you're getting some rest ahead of this?
Are we getting some rest?

What's that mean? [Laughs] No, we've been flat out.  We've been busier than we've ever been, mate.  We've been working on a new album and since we finished it off we've just done a new film clip, which is for the new single.  Of course, we've been playing as well.  We've been flat out.  We're just getting ready.  We're actually out on the road with [Lee] Kernaghan and then Dwight Yoakam.

A lot of people might think that if you're a band trying to start out in Tasmania that it might difficult, because there's not a lot of population and it's a small land mass.  There wouldn't necessarily be a lot of places to play gigs. But it certainly seems like it might have actually been the opposite for you.  That there's been this support within the community for you that's really moved the four of you along.
I think you're right.  I think we're really lucky in the fact that it kind of worked in our favour.  Because, I mean, down here, there's not really much of a country music scene at all.  Even some of the music scenes, just in general.  There's good live music venues but it's not as big as anywhere else.  So we've kind of had to make our own scene.  I know that sounds stupid.  We'd find a venue and we work it.  We'd find a venue and we pulled our own sort of show on and after about a year, we’d have a really good thing going.  That's how we'd go to all different parts of the state.  We'd find a pub or a venue that was good and we do our thing there, and we'd start with 50 people and then all of a sudden there'd be a hundred people and then it'd be 200 and then we'd be able to sell them out.  So it's kind of really worked in our favour in a way.  Also, mate, I think it made us a little bit different.  I think that's important, you've got to be a little bit different to what everyone else is doing.

Have the four of you been doing this on top of your day jobs?
We have.  We've been working our guts out for years [laughs].  We all worked full time.  I was a builder; Nick was a postman and a farmer.  Brodie is a refrigeration mechanic, Casey is a dental technician.  So we did all these days jobs but just we've been able to pull the reins up on them.  Now, we can do our job now.  So we're very lucky.

Well, I think to an extent you make your own luck.  What you've just described is a lot of years of being really consistent.  Some people would kind of play a gig here, play a gig there and think, oh well, maybe that's not working for me, I'll give it away.  But it seems like you guys have turned up, you've continued to turn up, you've kept playing your music, you've stayed together like as a group and so you've made your own luck there. 
Well, I guess.  All this stuff that is happening, it's not that this has happened overnight.  With the TV show [the band appeared on Australia’s Got Talent], it definitely sped things along a bit.  It kicked everything into gear.  But, I mean, we've been writing songs and playing gigs and putting on shows for years.  It's definitely something that's been happening in a long time.  And I think you're right: we've put the hard yards in as we look at it, we've all had day jobs where we've had to work extremely hard.  So we know - I mean, if a builder runs his own business and he wants to be successful, he's got to work really hard.  He's got to work harder than anyone else.  It's kind of the same thing really.  If you want to make something of yourself in music, you've got to work a bit harder than everyone else.

It seems like the four of you have known each other for a really long time.  And, obviously, two of you are related.  So I was wondering is it a democratic outfit or does someone get to be the boss.
No, I think as a group we work – we're very lucky how well we work together.  I mean, we all kind of have roles within the band of what we probably do.  I kind of handle a lot of this stuff, like interviews and all that sort of stuff.  Nick is probably the predominant songwriter, I'd say, in the group.  He's probably the main one at that.  But in saying that, we all write as well.  It's not just one person's role.  I think the great thing is we've been playing so long. We’ve been doing the Wolfe Brothers for probably six or seven years, but before that I was playing in bands with Casey in school.  I remember the first band I ever had was with Casey and I think he was in Grade 4 and I was in Grade 5 or something like that. We used to play Metallica together.  I played bass, he played drums.  So we've doing it for years.  I think it's really cool that we know what the best decision for the group is, if that makes sense.  We can kind of comment on things and say okay, that's not working – what you're doing there is not working.  That sort of worked better for this song or for the band or whatever.  We're pretty lucky in that respect.

I just love the idea of a kid in primary school getting his hands on a bass guitar.  You are parents must have been very supportive [laughs].
Well, our dad's a muso.  My dad's a drummer and he's been playing for years.  He almost forced a guitar into our hands [laughs].  He wanted us to play.  But we’re so glad he did. And it’s not just me and Nick – because me and Nick are brothers – but the other two guys, we grew up surrounded by music.  Constantly just music going and then being played. I remember I was six years old, I used to watch all the Beatles movies.  I didn't watch kids’ shows, I'd watch the Beatles movies and all that sort of stuff.  Just constantly surrounded by it, so it was kind of inevitable that this was what we're going to do.

Given that you were a Metallica fan at primary school, at what point did the transition to country music happen?
Look, it's always been there.  Some people say how can you like Metallica and Iron Maiden but play country music.  Well, we've always listened to country music.  Pop, of course, would have Slim Dusty and all that sort of stuff, like most people did.  Mum was probably the real the country music push.  She liked James Blundell in the early ’90s and Lee Kernaghan stuff as well.  We've got a lot of that.  So that was always on.  Garth Brooks, that sort of stuff.  But Dad was always more of a rock ’n’ roller so he had Beatles, the Stones.  He'd have Creedence [Clearwater Revival].  That was all happening but there was always country music happening.  We went to high school, we started playing guitar and you'd want to try to push yourself as a guitarist and a muso.  So we were learning Metallica and Gun N' Roses, all these heavy metal and metal [bands].  I'm really glad we did because it made us a lot better players and we can play all that sort of stuff.  And I think we started transitioning back [when] we started playing in bands, four of us together again and we started playing – I think one of the first songs we ever learnt was ‘Country Crowd’, Lee Kernaghan.  Keith Urban, Golden Road album – that was a big turning point.  I think that came out about 10 years ago.  I think I was reading something the other day.  So we heard that and that was kind of the turning point – we went, oh, yeah, now, that I like.  It was from that, we all got these records that we've had at home for years and we got them all out again and started listening to them.  Yeah, just been in love with it ever since.

So Keith Urban's Golden Road. Keith wasn't that well known here – well, I still think he's only just recently become very widely known because of The Voice.  But Golden Road wasn't necessarily a hit record here.  So you must have been exploring around the country genre to even pick up on that record at the time.
Yeah, absolutely. We always were. Every time a Lee Kernaghan album would come out, Mum would have it.  We'd always hear it and we'd always have a listen to it.  It probably wasn't our main listening point, if that makes sense?

But it was always on and we were always being exposed to it.  And then I remember listening to [Golden Road] with my brother and we're just going, now, that's cool.  Just had some different elements that I hadn't heard in country before but still really cool.  So, yeah, it just got us really excited.  And the other thing is when we write songs, we don't sit down [thinking] we've got to write country songs.  We just sit down and write songs.  The songs that come out are what they are … and I think that's another interesting thing. We were brought up on a farm and all that sort of stuff.  So we're all country boys.  So when we write songs, it just comes out like that.

Have you played at Tamworth before?
You know what, we've gone down for holidays and things like that.  Last year [2011] we drove up together, the four of us.  We drove up – the trip from hell: the car broke, the trailer drawbar snapped off and anything that went wrong could have went wrong.  We went up there and we just took it in.  We did four gigs in a few pubs and we shook as many hands as we could and we just met as many people as we could.  We really took the whole experience in and we really loved it, just loved it.  I could live there.  We absolutely loved it.  It was such our thing to be there.  It was funny, we were having a laugh the other day because our trailer – we bought a trailer to drive to Tamworth to take all our gear up, and I think it broke halfway on the way up there.  So we had to pay to get it fixed.  So when we got to Tamworth, we only had enough money between the four of us to buy one pizza.  We bought one pizza; we sat on the steps of a bank – I think it was the Commonwealth Bank – and just watched everything happen for a few hours.  It's all the money we had, all we could scramble together. [Laughs]

Well, that's a good hardship story but, of course, the story will be very different in 2013 because you'll be headlining a show. -
I know and you've got to do those things.  On the way back I think the trailer broke again and we had to get it fixed.  We nearly missed the boat [to Tasmania].  So I'm so glad all that stuff happened because it bonded us so much closer, the band, you know?  It just made us such a tight unit.  If you can get through that, you can get through anything, you know?

And, so, given how long you've all been playing together and how bonded it sounds you are, do you still do rehearsals or you just play so often you don't need to do them?
We're in rehearsals all the time. We've had a lot of rehearsals lately.  It's actually been great since we had to leave our jobs.  We've actually got time to rehearse again.  Just when we were working full time, we had enough time to run the band, do the gigs, do all that stuff, but we didn't have time to rehearse.  So, now, we can usually get one or two days a week where we can practise.  That's really great and it's just making us so much better as a band.  But, yet again, we're loving it.  We're loving to be able to sit down and focus on these songs and really analyse them and say what needs to be a bit better there.  We just had to learn a few new songs as well. So that's been really cool as well because it's given us a whole new another level of learning songs and this new material.  We're getting better as a band.

It says on your website that you're a very successful covers band.  But I would imagine that you're actually doing original material in Tamworth?
Oh, mate, yeah.  That's how it all started out.  We coped with covers and we did everything.  We did the weddings, we did the birthdays. And anywhere that anyone would have us, we played there.  I think that's really important to do that because it just teaches you how to deal with crowds and situations and stuff.  Yeah, mate, we going to be playing a lot of stuff off our new album, It's On.  We’re really excited for that.  It's really cool.  We've done the cover gigs and we've done that but now we can promote our own stuff, we play our own music.  I mean, sure there'll be a couple of covers there.  There'll be a couple of songs people will know.  But it’s our music and showing off what we do.

So are there any other people's songs that you just always love to play because you personally love them, not because you think the crowd will love them?
There's lots of things.  I mean, it changes from time to time. We're all kind of, quietly, we're a little bit of John Farnham fans.  So I do like playing ‘That's Freedom’ every now and then.  And playing a good Police song.  They're just songs that have sort of always played, they’ve always been with us.  But, yeah, we're really excited just to be playing our stuff and getting that out there now.  It's been a lot of fun.

I've seen John Farnham play live and he has one of the most incredible voices.  If you've seen him play live, you understand the magic of Farnsey.
Absolutely, mate.  There's so much power.  We saw his live tours down here in Hobart and he can project.  He'll stand at the back of the stage, three metres away from the microphone.  He's still the loudest thing in the room. It's amazing.  He's amazing to watch and he's just an amazing performer and just gives everything he's got to give.

So do you, personally, like performing and do the other band members like performing – because not everyone loves it?
I love it.  Performing is – personally – my favourite part of it.  I love the buzz you get when you’re on the crowd and the feeling you get from doing nothing else.  It's just an amazing thing.  But I think we all love it, we love performing.  I think the thing is it's got a lot of energy, a lot of energy to give and we love jumping around and [laughs] sort of rocking out and all that sort of stuff.  And I think that shows when we play.  We're honestly just having a ball and we know how lucky we are.  We've worked these mundane jobs [laughs] during our lives and had to do that.  So we know how lucky we are now that we get to play our music.  So we never take it for granted.

And you've got three other people on the bill with you in Tamworth.  So was it a band choice as to who joined you on that bill or were you told?
Yeah, well, it's kind of a bit of a collective between us and the management.  But we really like – all them guys are doing some really cool things and they've got that sort of energy and stuff that we have and we know Markus [Meier}.  We've done a few shows with him, with Lee [Kernaghan] when he plays with Lee.  He's a great guy and I love to see a bit of Adam's [Eckersley] stuff and really excited to hear more from him as well.  So it's going to be a fun show.  It’s going to be a lot of energy and, yeah, I think that's what it's all about - new, fresh energy and I hope people really enjoy it.

And this is your only Tamworth show, right?  So if people want to see you, they have to get to the TREC on the 24th of January?
They do.  You have to come along and party with us and have a really good time.  So, yeah, come along, folks, and I'll guarantee they'll have a good time.


Saturday, January 19, 2013

Interview: Tori Darke

Tori Darke may be young but her country music career is already well established. Still, the 2013 Tamworth Country Music Festival marks her this singer-songwriter's first ever ticketed show, at Wests Leagues. I spoke to Tori ahead of what is surely a landmark in any Australian country music artist's life.

I saw you play upstairs at the Tudor Hotel in Tamworth earlier this year [2012] at a songwriters showcase. So I thought I'd start by asking you: is that kind of a weird or unusual or even scary thing to do, where it's just the audience sitting right there and it's you and your guitar and you've got to talk about the songs?
No, not at all. I actually love that kind of stuff because it really kind of gives people an insight into what you do and how you do it as well, so it's a really wonderful thing, I think, going into a songwriting session and being able to share with people why you wrote that song and what it meant to you or what it means to you.

As a performer it's quite a vulnerable position to be in when it's just you and a guitar, but you certainly seemed quite relaxed and your voice ‑ you've got this really strong, pure voice, so it's suited to that.  Would you ever consider doing just acoustic tours or just acoustic gigs?
I do acoustic shows on my own as it is now, so I mean it's nothing that's really new to me, but doing a songwriter's night, you have a lot more, I guess, communication with the audience because you're telling them about the songs that you've written and why they came about.

For your headline show in Tamworth, you're going to put together a band?
Yes, so it will be with myself and my band, which I'm really looking forward to.

How do you go about choosing a band for that, especially if you're used to working on your own? I imagine it would be a little bit strange to have other people coming in?
Not really, because I do a lot of stuff with my band as well, so I kind of have it, I guess, broken up a little bit in some cases of sometimes it's with just my band or sometimes it's just myself.  So I love the band situation as well, because it gives people another totally different aspect of what you're doing and how you do it.

And for you as a songwriter it must be really interesting to see how your songs change between being performed with you and then when you have these other layers added to them live. Does it make you see them in different ways or make you perform them different ways?
Oh, I think when you write songs like acoustically, letting them come to life when you put a band to them I think is one of the most fulfilling things of what I do with music, it's so great to write a song and to kind of imagine how it's going to turn out and where it's going to go, but then when you actually get to where you hear it and you go, oh my gosh, this is my song and it's got a full band behind and a full production, it's just one of the really cool feelings.

I guess a lot of people who aren't performers would wonder how you can play the same songs over and over again, sometimes for years, but I suppose when you're really interested in the creative process, and it sounds like you are, you find it interesting that the songs taking on these different shapes.
Yeah, that's exactly right. There are songs – I guess cover songs mainly – that you will get sick of singing and that will slowly dwindle out of your set, but when it comes to original music, I think, because it's a story that's meant something to you, it never really gets too old, kind of thing.

What was your very first Tamworth performance?
My very first Tamworth was – oh, gosh, when I was 15 years old, and I can't tell you exactly what my first Tamworth performance was but I was doing the talent quest up in Tamworth back in – it would have been 2006, I think.

Was that the StarMaker or the Road to Tamworth?
Well, they're the two big ones, but the ones that I was doing was like the CMAA and the Coca‑Cola and the Jazzer Smith Talent Quest. A few years ago I did StarMaker and Road to Tamworth but what got me started was the Junior Talent Quest.

And you went to Camerata and CMAA, is that right?
Yes, I went to the Camerata College and that was in the July and in the January I went to the CMAA College of Country Music.

Other artists have said they learnt a lot about the business of country music there as well, but pretty much everyone I've spoken to who went to CMAA in particular said it's the best thing that's ever happened to them as an artist.  Did you feel that?
Yeah, definitely. I learnt so much and I got so much out of it with working with some of the industry's finest in country music and also working with some of our other artists as well in this industry.  It was such a wonderful thing and a great experience to be a part of.

You went to the Solomon Islands and played on a forces tour and I was wondering - because we occasionally see news items about people doing forces tours but no‑one really knows what goes on.  So do you play like a full set there?  Is there a house band you have to use?  What goes on?
Well, what happened was I took my own band with me, so we actually played two shows, one on the Friday night, one on the Saturday night and both nights were 45 minute shows. There were a lot of different artists that night too, so I wasn't the only artist singing.

Country music gives people a lot of different opportunities, ones like this, but also the opportunity to travel around parts of the country, parts of Australia that a lot of other artists wouldn't get to.  So, not that you're very old, but you've been performing for a while, so have you been to lots of interesting different places?
Yeah, I've been to lots of different places. This year already [2012] I've been to LA, Nashville and the Solomon Islands, so it's kept me nice and busy, which has been wonderful.

And what was Nashville like for you?
It's a really, really great town, I've been there three times now and I just always get so much done and meet so many people there I can work with, which is wonderful, so I love going back to Nashville.

I suppose you're at a point in your career because you've had a lot of attention and you're still quite young, so Nashville is a good opportunity to meet people as you’re building for a long-term career because I would imagine that you want this to go for however many decades?
Yeah, definitely.  With the music industry it's not just an overnight thing, you really have to stick with it and you have to stay in it.  You know, like they say, you have to be in it to win it, so it's not something that happens overnight and it's not something that comes easily either, it's a really hard slog sometimes. But it's so rewarding in the end when you get the results that you do.

I know that you've been on tour with the McClymonts in the past and one thing I notice about them and I think it's probably true of you as well is that they always look like they're having a good time, and so you would never know if they're having a bad night, but it means that everyone in their audience also has a good time because they're always smiling and happy.  In country music there are a lot of people who really understand that aspect of performance that you're there to put on a show.  But there must be some days when you're just really not feeling like it. So I was wondering if you have some kind of process basically to get out and perform when you're not feeling like it?
I think with being an artist it's a really big thing to just go, you know what, I'm out here to do a job and the people that have come to watch me. You really have to set aside if you've had a bad day, if you've got a broken heart, if you're miserable, if anything, you really have to take that aside and just worry about it once you get off stage once you know your fans have gone and once you're in a car and you then if you want to have a cry or something you can, and sometimes things do get the better of us, especially when we've written songs about people that may have hurt us or things like that, we do get emotional because of course we are human.  But it's really a case of just going – I guess Lady Gaga or someone would be like a perfect example because she's got that persona of being Lady Gaga but I'm sure when she's at home she's just a normal person and she doesn't have all the big make‑up on and she's still got like green or yellow hair or something but she's just a normal person.  So I think it's really like a good thing when you get out there performing, you show everybody what … I say to myself ‘what Tori Darke's about’ and when I'm at home I'm Victoria Darke, but when I'm on stage I'm Tori. So it's kind of separating the two and making sure that everybody that is there to see you.

You've been involved in music as a musician and as a performer since you were a child, so that's an unusual childhood, most people don't have that a lot of people don't really get into big creative work or creative flow until they're adults.  So did you have a sense as you were growing up that you were quite different, that you were in this world and in this work that your friends perhaps weren't sharing?
Well, I did give up a lot of things during my childhood years, but at the same time, if I hadn't given up those things, I also wouldn't be where I am today with it, and like you said, a lot of kids, when they are young, they get into sports or they get into recreational things rather than creative arts things and a lot of people do get into it later on in life, in their twenties or even as a late teen, but for me I started dancing at the age of three and I grew up with two rock ’n’roll dancer parents so I was always surrounded by that creative aspect.

Do you have siblings? 
Yes, I'm actually the youngest of five.

And so are you all musical or dancers or anything like that?
No, I'm the only one. Two of my brothers are builders and one of my brothers lives in France and owns a ski lodge and my sister works for the police, so I'm the musician in the family.

I'm just thinking it would be so cool to have parents who did rock ’n’ roll dancing because that would have been unusual, but I'm thinking of your poor parents possibly looking at five kids wondering why only one of them turned out to be musical!
Because I have three older brothers – two older brothers and an older sister – who were from my mum's first marriage. So my brother who’s 23, we did rock ’n’ roll when we were younger as well.  But I think once I got to that age of where boys and girls thought that we all had cooties, we stopped dancing.

[Laughter] And you continued, which is great for you not that I know if you dance a lot, but I think it's all part of living with music, whether it's dancing or singing or playing an instrument or doing all three, it's all part of being musical.
Yeah, it really is, and when you look at so many different artists, they play instruments, they sing and dance or they know how to act as well, there's just so many different aspects to the creative side of things that you can really take a lot out of it. And I've done all of these things throughout the years – I've danced, acted, singing for years and I played the piano, I played the flute, and now I play the guitar and the mandolin.

When I was reading about you I thought that you have a really busy life even compared to a lot of other musicians, there's a lot going on for you, and I was wondering how you organise your time, in terms of songwriting and rehearsing and performing, and also just having time not doing any of those things?
Well, really, for me it's a matter of just separating my time and making sure that I've got enough time to do everything.  I teach, I work, I sing, I've got so many different things going on that I just have to plan my week as it comes and go okay, well I know I've got a gig here and then I'm going to teach Tuesday and Wednesday, and then my work know when I can and can't work. So it's a lot of juggling sometimes but it all works out pretty well.

I wouldn't have thought you had any time in that schedule to be doing work on top of it, and I know that that's the nature of being an artist, especially when your career's starting you have to, but that's a really full life.
Yeah, it's pretty full on but I wouldn't have it any other way. I love what I do and it's really wonderful.

So in preparation for Tamworth, as any performer knows there's a bit of ramp-up time required before you hit the stage it's not like you just turn around and get on stage and sing, even if you make it look like that so do you get into Tamworth, give yourself a bit of time, hang out, watch the other bands before your show?
I'm probably going to get in on the Monday and my show is on the Tuesday. [Then I’ll] possibly hang around for a few days after Tamworth as well, so I'll have the Monday to prepare myself and to hang out a little bit, catch up with a few friends in town and yeah.

So you're just doing the one show if people want to see you, they have to go to The Outback Bar, they can't see you anywhere else?
No, that's exactly right – just the one show this year in Tamworth at The Outback Bar and it's only $10 for adults and $5 for kids and it is an 8 o'clock show and it's my first ticketed event in Tamworth, so I'm really looking forward to it.

West Leagues is definitely the place to play, anyone who's anyone has played at Wests. Is there anything you're looking forward to at Tamworth apart from playing your show?
I love the festival every year, it's really great to go and see other artists play and just see what's going on with everybody else, so it's a wonderful place to catch up with good friends and catch up with your fans and also do your own show too.

Country music fans are really, I think, the best of any genre, they're very committed but there's also a lot of work, I think, particularly for younger artists these days keeping up with fans through social media, and it's probably a lot more work than would have happened even five years ago. Do you enjoy that aspect of the job or does it sometimes take up a lot of time?
No, not at all.  I mean, there were people that helped me when I was young, so, I suppose, for me, if I can give back to everybody else, then that's exactly what I want to do too.

And you're working on a new record?
At the moment just working on new songs, so just writing lots of new songs at the moment and getting them together too, so hopefully record something next year.

When you come to that recording process, do you kind of go to the producer with a whole lot of songs and say you pick or do you like to choose which ones go on the record?
It's a very long and gruelling process of going through songs and going through songs you've written or ones that people sent you, and experiencing all of those different aspects of going, yeah, no, this song, and then you might find a better song and then that song gets kicked out. So it does take a little while, but yeah, that's pretty much how it works for me.

When it comes to your set list, though, I imagine you get to be the boss of your set list?
Yes, definitely. I do always plan my shows and plan what I'm going to play and, of course, just send that off to the boys and then we put on the show.

Tori Darke plays The Outback Bar at Wests Leagues Club, Tamworth on Tuesday 22nd January 2013 at 8 p.m.