Saturday, May 18, 2013

Interview: Jayne Denham

I first heard of Jayne Denham when I was watching CMC at someone else's house and her clip for 'A Farmer's Wife' came on. I loved the song, her way of telling a story and also the story she told.  Now her new album, Renegade, is out and I was delighted to have a chance to talk to her about it - and I discovered that the performer I responded to in that video is just as terrific in real life.

So, Jayne, you play renegade country and I was wondering how you define renegade 
country and whether you have the genre to yourself?
Well, yeah, I definitely think so, seeing I've got the old album coming out called Renegade.It was kind of funny because with the album –I came up with a title search, that was how I started the whole mixed stage of what I wanted to say as a country music artist and, yeah, I just thought that'd be cool, because a friend of mine said that in her career she's always been a little bit renegade. So, yeah, so I thought, well, I'm kind of renegading my style of country, so I ended up aiming all the song writing in that direction to match – you know, to go under the umbrella of renegade. So, well, it's country so, yeah, that's where I came up with the old renegade country and it is a little bit different, so I think that I've definitely hit the nail on the head when it comes to being a bit different in country music.

Yeah, and I think it's – you've really managed to balance a feminine style of doing things, if I can say that, with some subject matter in your songs that a lot of female songwriters wouldn't write about, and that's one of the things I really like about you.When I first saw the video for "A Farmer's Wife", I thought, who is this great chick, basically, and then you got into a truck at the end.So I guess I was—
Yeah, I was trying to have that tough thing going on as well as I'm very girly at the same time and, yeah, it is, it's kinda funny because people say, you're kind of different to all the girls, and I'm not taking on the girls, I'm going to take on the boys.

I haven't seen you play live but does that mean you tend to rock out when you play live?
Yeah, I'm kind of – well, that was part of the other reason why I knew the direction of the new album because I'm doing high energy on stage when I do my shows and some of the songs off the first two albums I just couldn't do live because I was getting booked more and more for shows – type of shows where I needed to do what I do best, I suppose, so, yeah, that's how it all came about.

You have a – I guess what would be called a big voice, except that on "Shelter" I found lots of nuances in your voice and so I was wondering what your singingbackground is, whether you've had some training in any direction in particular, or you just have always sung country?
No, look, I grew up on country and I've always been a singer but I was a dancer actually when I was at school; I was more into dancing than anything else, but I always wanted to be in a band, I thought that was kind of a cool thing to do when you're 13, and so my mum was an opera singer and a gospel singer and then my grandfather was in musicals. So we had a very eclectic kind of thing.I mean, I was doing the whole rock scene for a while but I have had training.So since I left school I've been in bands and I've travelled and touring with different artists singing backing, and had years and years of training actually after I left school. So it's sort of weird, because I think when you're employed to do different things, okay, right, we want to sing on a swift album so then you sing in that tone. Okay, we want you to sing on a rock album, okay, singing that direction or a gospel, yeah, okay, go gospel. So I think in the end all those years of doing that, when I started doing my own music, which was country, I kind of realised I could draw on all those, sort of, pools, I suppose, I learnt over the years.

And that also means, I guess, that you can apply what's best for the song, that you can make a decision.Even singing live, it may not have been the way you recorded it, that when you're singing you can choose the best way to interpret the song?
Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely, and I think that's the fun thing about recording, I don't have to – I mean I have got a fairly big range in this album. I kind of wanted to push that a little bit more; "Addicted to the Diesel" you can hear a lot more of what my voice can actually do, which was fun and it's fun to do live too.

So on the content of the album, on the song "Grew Up 'Round Trucks" you sing about your childhood riding in trucks with your father and you obviously still maintain your connection with trucks, especially as you get into one in one of your videos, so I was wondering what it is that you love about trucks and how often do you drive yourself?
Well, I don't actually drive trucks. I have driven a truck but I don't have my licence.I drove it on a friend's property but, yeah, I mean, look, as a songwriter, I'm one of these people: I love writing from an observer's point of view and I'm one of those people – like the "Farmer's Wife" song, I love to cheer people on, I like just – if you're a truckie –and I think that truckies are awesome and in our country we certainly can't do without our truckies – so up here I just keep going, I'm going to cheer you on, here's some songs that hopefully you can play in your truck and keep you going on the road.Or whether it's "Too Cute", which was my first song I ever wrote for country.I didn't drive a ute, my husband drove a ute, but I just thought that girls that drove utes were so bloomin' cool and I wish I was that cool. So that's kind of where it all came from.But my husband was a truckie when we first met, so I kind of had that little bit of affiliation.And it all started when I wrote the song "Cousin Jude",which is about a girl that I heard about who drove trucks in Tamworth and how beautiful she was and she ended up being more than what I had envisioned when I wrote the song and she's in the video clip [for] "Cousin Jude" and it's hilarious. I'm like,Jude, you're the last person I thought would be a truckie. So that's kind of where it came from and now I'm sort of known as the girl who likes to cheer on the truckies. And actually the song, "Grew Up 'Round Trucks", my husband actually wrote and then gave it to Garth Porter and Colin Buchanan to craft it even better and make sure it fitted the album and it's one of my favourite songs.

It's a lovely song.
Thank you.

And also it's of your earlier material and because I mentioned "A Farmer's Wife", I'll say that I really like the way you just tell the story straight.A lot of people will try to adorn a story, which often means there's not really a story there, but you give it to the listener straight and therefore it's really accessible to the listener, and so I was wondering, for you, as a songwriter, finding those stories to tell, do you find them in unexpected places or do you actually set out to find them?
Look for me, songwriting is one of those necessary evils. I'm not really one of those people that – I just don't sit down and write a song but I get inspired by people and stories and that's when I start getting excited. And when I started my country music career, I'd been years of singing other people's songs and I went, hang on a minute, I've got something I want to say and I kind of know what I think is cool and what I like and how I would say it and all that kind of stuff. And so it was wonderful to have the opportunity to work with, what I would say, the cream of country music songwriters for all my albums.Like that was the thing, I was actually able to say, okay, I've got this funk and it's about – you know, like, for instance, "Jam the Jam", which is about roller derbies, like, I just love that I can – that's where I get my feel for ideas, it is basically hearing stories or coming up with ideas and then I go to the people that I write with and say, right, let's go and make this song, and that's the part of it I really, really love but the more I'm doing it, the more people [are] like, "Oh, it'll be right with Jayne, she's got a great song direction." And writing with Hugh McAlister and Tamara Stewart on two of the songs on the album,"Renegade" and "Outlaw", they said, "Oh, it's just so much fun to write with someone who's got so much direction and you don't let us go too far down the track if it's not the direction you want to go." So, yeah, it's fun. I'm loving that side now but I have to say, I do really love songwriting when the song's finished.

You wouldn't be the first person to say that, I don't think.
It's like extracting teeth.

Well, when you are writing that way do you – because you do have a direction for the song, are you partly thinking about how it's going to be performed? Does that inform the way you choose to go?
Yeah, definitely and that's why this album has to be a little bit different 'cause I knew what my show, I suppose, was lacking of my own songs, where I'm filling them with a cover because I wanted the show to go in a particular direction and my show is something that's my baby, that's my passion. Entertainment is what I love doing the most and I realise, okay, well, I always seem to do that song and that works really well and the fans really enjoy it, okay, I need to have a song like that. So that's where it all comes from.

And so you're now signed to ABC Music but you were an independent artist before that, so I was wondering how the transition has been, from running everything completely yourself?
Yeah, look, it's good, because as an independent artist, it's great to have the control and I think I wouldn't be where I am if I hadn't been independent, I'm so glad I wasn't signed for my first album, because you kind of grow as an artist and I'm very strong about who I am as an artist, and I suppose the more albums I do, the more I'm becoming – realising what works and what my fans like, but I realised after doing that – and I had a strong direction if I wanted to go the next level – coming alongside a label would be the best result and ABC being all Australian as well, that was the label I was hoping would pick me up and I'm absolutely thrilled and it's great to now hand the reins over to a label like ABC and Universal.

And you kicked off the year in a big way, playing some rather large shows supporting Keith Urban, so given that you love entertaining, I would imagine those big shows were actually lots of fun for you rather than being scary?
Yeah, oh man, that's like – exactly, I was like a kid in a lolly shop. It was so much fun, even to the point – I did an interview earlier today and this lady said she saw Keith Urban years ago and I said, that's what I did at the show. When I was performing I said, all right, everybody – who saw Keith Urban before he was Keith Urban, put your hand up and they're like, yeah, and I said and I bet you all went, "He's going to be a star." I said,"Who thought that?" Yeah, I knew he was going to be a star. So it's fun to play with the crowd because they're all very patriotic about their Keith Urban.

You've got your own tour coming up. Can you tell us when that might start, that tour?
Look, I've got lots of gigs coming up, bits and pieces, but there's going to be a bunch of tours that are going to be happening this year. One I know definitely is going to be throughout Victoria, all the details aren't announced yet, but I'm going to be going back to the Territory, which is exciting and so hopefully all of Australia by the end of the year.

Fantastic.Well, it sounds like you've got a very busy year ahead and I think the album's really great.
Thank you. Thank you.

Renegade is out now through ABC/Universal.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Interview: Bruce Mathiske

Bruce Mathiske is not strictly 'country', but his guitar playing is too sublime for me to split hairs about. Bruce has played all over the world and has a very interesting story - and I'll let him tell it through this interview. 

Bruce is currently touring Australia - dates are at the end of the interview. His new album, My Life, is out now.

I've been listening to your album and it's really lovely actually, it's good—
Thank you.

—mood music but also good working music, if that makes sense.
Oh, well that's good. As long as it's good for something.

[Laughs] I'm sure it's good for many things. So I'm going to actually start by asking you: What does music mean to you?
Music means – what does it mean to me? It's so many things; it's evocative of so many things. It's – I think it heals, it transforms, it energises; it's the greatest creative force there is, for me.

And it was a big question and I asked it because you've had quite a journey through your life and your life through music. So I knew that there would be something there to say. So I guess over the – have you found that over the course of your life, 'cause you did start playing music very young, that music has meant and done -– meant for you and done different things for you over time?
Yeah, that is true and I think throughout the whole time, the guitar has been the constant, I guess. From the age of seven, it's been the constant companion. I can create on it and wherever I go the guitar is always there. I go there, it's my friend; I go and talk to it. What I love about the guitar, the acoustic guitar too, is I can take that everywhere and you don't need to plug in things and this piece of wood and strings, and all the magical sounds you can get out of it and all the different styles of music; it's absolutely limitless and that's what I kind of love about it.

I'll ask you a technical question; what sort of guitar do you play?
Well at present on the road, I've got a nylon-string guitar and I've got a steel-string guitar; both are acoustics and the wood was made in Vietnam. The woodworking, and they use electronics I think from America, and they're called air guitars but nylon string and steel string.

And do you – have you found over the course of playing that you – I mean, have you stuck to the same style of guitar for a while, because I know that guitarists, in particular, they have certain types of instruments they like to work with and some guitarists will just have the same guitar for decades.
No, I'm not precious about that. The guitar for me has always been like a tool, I have them as a friend but I'm really more interested in the sounds I can produce. So it's that marriage between, I suppose, man and beast, almost. So I'm not that precious about the brand or the style; you pick it up, you play it and you learn to, like a marriage, you learn to love each other I guess, and it becomes second nature, that marriage between me and the guitar. So I'm more interested in the music that actually comes from it as a tool.

I don't know if you know Ani DiFranco or know of Ani DiFranco.

I remember once seeing a quote from her where she said that she'd keep playing the acoustic guitar, or it was something like she'd keep playing it while ever she could continue to discover new sounds out of it, or that was a powerful motivation for her.
Yeah. Well I've got to say that's very, very true and what keeps me absolutely motivated and excited is that new piece, verse and arrangement or a composition or that new style of music. You might hear one funny rhythm on a community ethnic station and it's like, wow, that's just sensational, I need to actually try and emulate or try and adapt that to the guitar and get my own voicing out of that. So yeah, any one thing is the most … yeah, and that makes you not sleep at night, you can't wait to get up and play and experiment the next day. So yes, that's absolutely true.

And is it partly to do – what you can coax out of the guitar, is that that combination of the strings, of what the guitar is made out of but also finding different resonances within the guitar?
Yeah, well what surprises me is that it's absolutely limitless. So yeah, and over the course, I guess, you go through different technical phases but ultimately you want to sound like yourself. So a guitar, for example, where you place your right hand makes a difference, how you move your left hand gives you that little vibrato. So that becomes your voice and what was apparently obvious to you this year changes next year. So you're finding these new little nuances all the time and I think that's what's exciting.

And I guess a lot of people who don't know much about playing musical instruments at all would probably be surprised to hear that 'cause they think oh, it's six strings [laughs] but as you said, it's a bit like an extension of yourself.
Yeah, very much. I think the thing with guitar is you can pick it up and everyone's picked up a guitar at some stage, played three chords and from that you can play and sing and accompany yourself playing a million songs and the guitar's very easy to play, easy. But at the next stage when you actually do instrumentals and proper arrangements, that's when it becomes a different instrument again. But that's its beauty and I don't expect everyone to want to play like me; I think it's fantastic as an accompaniment for your voice as well but that's a different thing, but with the same instrument.

And given that you do sing on your album – and I imagine you do live as well – do you find that process from moving towards the guitar being your accompaniment and then to it being your central performance instrument, is it a big transition or is it just all on a continuum?
Yeah, it's not such a big transition any more. I started liking the – I've always sung probably two songs, maybe three, in concert and just over the last few years, I actually started liking my voice a little bit. And it's a tool on stage I guess, it's a resource I want to use more but not just conventional singing, if you like, as your voice is an instrument. And I haven't found the solution of what I'm after yet 'cause I play the didgeridoo on stage as well and it's like, well, I have my voice there I'm not utilising very much but I haven't found the manner in which I want to do it, which is exciting too. That search, I think, I don't know … something to look forward to.

And just while I mention Ani DiFranco, her explorations of acoustic guitar ended her up with RSI. I think she had to take quite a few months off performing and I think that's a reminder of how physical the instrument is and 'cause I was reading that you used to practise for 10 hours a day and you still practise for about five hours a day. So I wondering that physicality of playing, do you think those hours of practice really kind of make your hand – it's almost like training, almost like a runner would train.
Yeah. That's very interesting because there's two distinct aspects to guitar playing: one is the creative and one is the sheer athletic side of it, because it's quite a technical monster, the guitar. So that is true. For whatever reason, when I was taught very early on, I've got really, really correct technique and I was taught in the bush, I think an organ player really my first teacher, but for whatever reason, I play correctly, like it's a holistic thing, almost. And I know anyone who's gone through stages of playing a lot usually has problems like that, that's not a rare thing but I'm very conscious of it and I think posture and all those things, yeah, it's an athletic thing and I don't think people would realise that.

Do you also find – 'cause performing, I think, is also quite an athletic thing in that you've got to gear yourself up, you've got to put a lot of energy into it and then you have to wind yourself down. So do you have special preparation for performing?
Yeah, that's – I do funnily enough, because I've been off the road for a while. Tonight is my first show back for a while and you do get a bit – a bit of angst goes through but I find now it's better to remain calm. I used to sort of get myself hyped up but as soon as I set foot on the stage, something comes over me; I'm really, I don't know, that white-line fever thing. I just become 10 foot tall and I'm bulletproof. So that's something that just happens instantly, but I find as the tour goes on, you have to do less and less warm ups; you're sort of just always on. So at the start now, like, I'll warm up probably for an hour before the show but by the end of the tour, it's like, nah, five minutes, just take the guitar out of the case and tune it up. So it changes as you become match-fit, if you like.

Well, I guess you're doing a lot of other practice anyway. So it's not like you're going a few days without playing and then appearing on stage.
No, no, I've always got the guitar and in between interviews and back at the motel room, I pick it up 'cause you always work into the next thing too, like at present, I'm on tour playing the current things from my album but whilst that album has really been finished in my head for a long time as a studio process, you've kind of moved on. So I'm working on new tunes but I'm not yet playing live.

And do you find performing – 'cause it's you on stage and I think it's daunting enough being in a band and looking out and seeing people around. So have you ever found it's quite challenging to just be you on the stage knowing that all those eyes are looking at you?
Yeah, that's funny, but I find solo, there's a better connection between me and the audience 'cause sometimes we'll have gigs on stage or a band, I have in the past, and then I become part of the band a little bit; we become our own unit. I find there is somehow some special connection between soloists and audience that only happens if you're on stage by yourself. So you're right in that there's probably a little more pressure and yet the rewards are also greater.

And I was just thinking when you were talking before about playing guitar in between interviews and back at the motel, it's a different kind of lifestyle, I guess, when you have that. It's not an obsession so much as it is a lifestyle, but it's not how most people walk through the world because a lot of people just go about their daily business and, even if they have creative aspirations, they don't do anything about them. So do you find – have you ever found that it's sometimes been difficult to relate to other human beings? [Laughs] I mean that in the nicest possible way.
Yeah, no, that's my life. No, that is very, very true. I've spent the last three or four days in Melbourne actually in the city centre and going backwards and forwards and doing interviews and things like that and I got caught up in the 5.30 pedestrian traffic afterwards and it's like, this is bizarre, this is normal, isn't it, and that seems weird to me. I know to most people what I do seems weird but normal, if you like, is a strange beast.

Was there ever a point in your life where you had to make a decision to live like this? I mean, it sounds like you live very much in creative flow or, like, in a musical space the whole time, but it's not as if you come out of the womb that way. So I was wondering if there's a certain point in your life in which you decided that this is how you were going to live.
Yeah, well, I moved – I become a professional musician I think when I was about 21, but I mean that was really playing in clubs and restaurants and beer gardens and pubs and things like that. That's a lot different than when I decided, probably two or three years later, to become an artist. There's a big difference now and I think you can go anywhere and it's almost too easy to make a living out of playing music and be pretty ordinary at it at present.

Well, I think you're right in that I think people kind of accept what they see. So if there's people doing mediocre performances around and about, if the audience doesn't know the difference, then they tend to think that that's the way things are and I think it can make people lazy, I think it can make audiences lazy and musicians lazy or any kind of artist lazy if they're not being pushed to do the best that they can. But part of it is having an educated audience.
Yeah, I think it's got to come from the musician first. There's too many musicians playing things they don't want to play just to make a living, and my theory is, no, go and do something else for a living and play the music you love to play.

I'm really strong on that 'cause at present around Australia and the world, we've just got quantity music.

Yeah, right, and you can expand on this if you like, I'm finding this fascinating.
Yeah, well no, it's a real thing 'cause if I was in the state of Bruce, I would like all background music banned. I think it should be abolished. When music's on, I like people to listen generally, but it's in clubs, it's in pubs, it's in shopping centres, toilets, everywhere you go and there's this music and it's just this background chatter and it's actually an annoyance. At sporting events, if there's a goal kicked or down at the motorbike races at Phillip Island, they've got music playing in between races and it's, like, get rid of all that and when music is on, it should be something to be revered, I think, and listened to. I think an album is a movie; you put an album on and you listen, and you listen to the whole thing from start to finish. You don't put an album on, then go and do your ironing or mow the lawns but that's my theory on it.

Well also I see when I go out and see bands, I mean, I love to listen to the music but the people I'm with will often want to chatter and lots of other people are chattering and I always think, come on, this person's here performing for us, let's just shut up and listen, but it is interesting that people will in fact take the trouble to go to a venue to watch music and then not watch and listen; they'll just talk.
Well, maybe the cover charge has to be steeper. Well, that's the reason I play in theatres and arts venues and things like that because when I play, people listen. So that hasn't been a problem. After you've done your first million pub gigs, you sort of move from that.

Well, understandably you want to because I think also playing with that kind of background noise would affect the way you play 'cause you start basically adapting to having all those different sounds around.
Yeah, that's very true and then I think it affects your creativity, then you start writing music to account for that. So you wouldn't write anything esoterical or something dreamlike, because it's like, we'll start playing stuff that's, sort of, up tempo 'cause that'll get their attention. So you're dictated to by that and you should never be dictated to by outside forces.

Yeah. And I'm also thinking the role that music plays in all cultures really, it's existed forever. I don't know that we could identify a point before which there was music and it's so critical and people do respond to it so emotionally but it is really fascinating that yes, as you say, there's this quantity music, this background music, but people don't listen to it. I think that's the other aspect: that they hear the noise but because they're not listening, I wonder if they ever connect to music in a real way.
Yeah, that is – well that's one of the questions I have. I have no answers for you on that.

[Laughs] Oh, it's more a discussion now, Bruce, we're just talking.
Yeah, we're just talking because if they don't, they're missing out on so much. That connection to music, it's such a wonderful thing but I think people get up of a morning in their homes and they either switch on a radio, a cassette or television, but they don't listen or watch any of it; they've just got to have some chatter on in the background. So I don't know what the – I think, yeah, I don't have an answer for that other than they're missing out on the greatest art form there is.

Well, I agree with you and I think 'cause my particular interest is country music and one of the things I love about the country music crowd is that they do listen and even in Tamworth, where there's a lot of competition for people's ears, people will sit down and listen when a show is on and even in a pub, they'll sit down and listen. And I think it's that – having that – partly it stems from having respect for the musicians, but even then they're often musicians they've never heard of but they're just sitting there respecting the fact that they're performing and I guess it's a cultural shift that has to happen. It's a cultural regard for our artists but yeah, I don't have an answer either but I think in a brave new world we can make it happen [laughs].
Yeah, well in a brave new world I think maybe we've got to go ten, 20 years and have no music at all and then we start again and just bring music in to be cherished and maybe it's just got to be in music venues so people have to actually make the effort to go and watch it and listen to it, but having said that, I'm getting an ever-increasing audience. So people do want it and the kids coming through, I'm finding, all play guitar and they get it really quick and they want to play guitar and they listen and they're interested in different stuff and when I show them some of my gypsy things or whatever else, it's like, wow, this is fantastic. So people are interested.

Yeah. So do you teach at all?
I've got a few students that I kind of mentor a little bit and sometimes I don't really have time but I can't let them go 'cause I really enjoy it and I love how quick they get things and how quick they soak it in and I learn from them as well and I like their company. So unofficially, I've got a few, yes.

And I was also wondering 'cause I was reading your bio and it didn't surprise me that playing the guitar helped you to regain the use of your hand or arm, basically, because I think it was partly the repetitive movement but also the will that you must have had to get that back that probably rewired your brain to make that work again. So you've had the guitar as physical therapy in the past but I was wondering if it's ever been spiritual energy for you?
Yeah, very much and within that, and that's probably more relevant to me later as I've studied more of that, I've realised how much I actually didn't write when I was – or correctly, rather. It was, sort of, getting it right in the head for a start when my arm couldn't work, I would imagine playing. So it had to join the dots like that, but yeah, so that mind thing I suppose that positive thinking of willing it to work and picturing it first in your head, which – that's more important and any mistakes or angst you may have within the concert happens not in your arms or your fingers, it actually happens in your head. So the spiritual side of being calm and all those sort of meditative things is vital for not only recovery but just your day-to-day betterment of whatever your chosen craft is.

Yeah. And I guess part of it's that idea of being in flow, being in creative flow, and there's been a bit said and written about that but I think that energy that carries anyone along, accessing it through music I think is a beautiful way to do it, if people can do it.
Yes and exactly, and I think as we were saying before if people are, in sort of, a noisy environment trying to create music, they're getting too much information from outside where it should be coming from actually what's within 'cause that's where the truth lies. I think that's where the music should – you almost need to go into your little cave to create correctly.

And did it take you a while as a composer and a creator to trust what came from within?
Yeah, it's taken 17 albums.

[Laughs] Oh, so not much time at all.
Yeah. So this is my 17th and it's the one that I really – yeah, that went further within than any other album and that's what made the difference, so yes.

So at a point in time you thought, right, now is it.
Yeah, for whatever reasons, like, I'm just going to sort of get in my man cave, my studio, and do whatever I actually truly, truly believe in and not ask people's opinion, or to do whatever I think I should, which I haven't really anyway, but I suppose there's elements in that within all of us – but on this one it was just a total self-belief and making decisions about the personnel to help me with it, engineering wise and things like that, but all the decisions I made I just asked myself really honestly.

Right. And so when you come to compose a piece of music, 'cause a lot of songwriters who are using lyrics might start with a story idea or something that they want to express about themselves through words, but if you're writing a song without words, does it still start with a story?
Well, I have no formula for that. I've got many different ways of writing music and it might just come from a mistake, it might come from a fiddle on guitar, I get a lot of ideas from just composing a piece of music. Then there's all these bridge sections and choruses and there's too much information. So that forms another song too. So I'm never short of ideas, probably 'cause I've had such a varied life I think helps that as well, I've got different interests. So I've got no one formula for writing music, which I think is fantastic, and I saw once about the tracks that are on my album, every single track on there is a totally different approach. Not on purpose by any means, it's just I had a look at the forms 'cause there's formulas for writing music and I think there's too much making music – or movies for that matter or whatever else – just by the numbers. There's formulas but in mine they're totally different formats on every song and I thought, that's really – the tune rather, and I thought,  that's really good, that's what I prefer; I didn't mean it but that's what's happened.

So do you find now, given that you are 17 albums down, that you're no longer that influenced by other artists you might hear, whether they're living or dead and whether it's recorded or live or are you still really open to influences?
I'm open to influences but not artists. I don't listen to music much and I haven't for a long time and there is – years ago, when I first starting picking, Chet Atkins was the man we all emulated a little bit 'cause he had that wonderful style of song picking, but as soon as I could play that style, I kind of thought, now I want to incorporate jazz and classical and rock playing within that; I don't want to sound like him, there's no point. So right from an early age I distanced myself from the influences a little bit, even though on my current album there's a tune called 'Chet Mate' but once again, it really doesn't sound anything like him, so I'm really pleased about that. So yeah, music I don't listen to and if I do, it would be soundtracks and things, music to tell stories; I love that.

Right. And do you not listen to much music simply because there is that distinct difference between you being the creator and I suppose being the audience, or is it just that you haven't found a lot of music that you like?
No, it's really I think that I love music so much I don't want to spoil it and get saturated. I'm really precious about when I listen to music and I listened to an album on a trip or something and so I'll listen to it from start to finish but say if I'm travelling through the Hume Highway from Sydney to Melbourne and driving, it's like, okay, I've had my little treat for that hour then I'm not going to listen to anything. And I'm really funny about my ears, for some reason, and that's not – I don't know why really, but I don't listen to outside influence. I get influences by culture; I love going overseas, different cultures, sights, smells, sounds and not necessarily just music.

Well, I could understand why you're funny about your ears, because they're an essential part of your equipment for doing your work.
Yeah, well, very much and everyone says, "Are your fingers insured?" It's like, nah, my ears are more important 'cause I actually hear music and that sheer love of it. I still get shivers when I hear certain things and I never want that to be diluted, that's why I don't listen to much music, I don't want to overdo it.

And so – and I'll start to wrap this up 'cause I've had you talking almost for half an hour and you no doubt have things to do [laughs]. So given that you're on quite a longish tour now and it's extending from tonight till almost the end of June, so I was wondering what your audience can expect from you in terms of is it going to be two sets or is it going to be one long set?
Yeah, no, I'll do two sets. I'm starting in Tassie so I'm doing a two-set solo here, as soon as I get back to Victoria, I've got some kids joining me as well but it'll still be two sets. I'll be doing – I think I do probably most of the album, the new album but also there's essential things I always play and I talk during the concert tour and tell them why I'm playing and things and hopefully take them on a journey. It's about the guitar but some cultural things and some journey in my life and some of the wonderful places I've visited in music as well. So it's a nice journey.

Yeah. And it's a proper show by the sound of it.
Yeah, it's a show and very much, it's an evening with, and I'm quite humorous sometimes, which is nice in concert. So that's an important part of it; people will have a chuckle.

[Laughs] And for you to do – like, because it is a long period of time, you were saying towards the end of the tour you might only do five minutes' warm up or whatever, but do you sometimes feel like you're running a marathon when it's a long, drawn-out stint?
Well, actually it gets easier, like, after the second night on the road, your timing and everything within the concert and where you use your stories and things like that becomes so easy and seamless and after the first couple of nights, it becomes easier after that, I find. But I mean, within the four months, there's time off as well too, but I find what's really nice is like the repertoire then looks after itself and I can go and fiddle on some different ideas during the day and that sort of thing as well, so that's good.

 See Bruce on tour:

25 May - Zenith Theatre, Sydney, NSW
15 June - Manning Entertainment Centre, NSW
19 June - Powerhouse, Brisbane, Qld
20 June - Nambour Civic Centre, Qld
21 June - Gold Coast Arts Centre, Qld
22 June - Jetty Theatre, NSW

Interview: Graeme Connors

Graeme Connors is a name that will be familiar to many country music fans. Graeme has not only worked in the music industry but has just released his seventeenth album, Kindred Spirit, which is not an album of originals - as the previous sixteen were - but, instead, a celebration of Australian songwriters, from 70s star Kevin Johnson to Richard Clapton to country music hit-makers Allan Caswell and Drew McAlister. The album was conceived by Graeme and rock historian Glenn A Baker.

Recently I spoke to Graeme about the process of selecting the tracks for the album, amongst other thins.

I actually hadn't planned to start off by saying this but it struck me, after I'd listened to your album a few times, it sounds almost wistful in a way and I kind of wondered if there was a sense when you were making it that it's almost like a longing for something behind it or just some kind of sentiment that, maybe, was behind it.
That's a very interesting assessment and I'm going to have to try and take that on board and think on my feet in that regard. Maybe with a couple of songs, like "Lost on the River" and "The Love I Leave Behind", I can see where you're coming from.

Yeah, that's true.
I guess with "Dotted Line" and "Sounds like Summer", though, it seems to me like there's a sense of quite happily travelling that road, you know? The content of the songs, I haven't thought about in terms of anything other than each song has its own sort of casual Australianness, if you know what I'm saying. Like "For the Good of the Nation", it really does echo our sort of love/hate relationship with politics and politicians. "Flesh and Blood", to me, captures some sort of sense of contemporary culture with Indigenous culture, like a timeline. I'm going to have to really take that on board. With the album – with the brackets around it, you know, think wistful, and see where we end up.

It's just, you know, when you sort of listen to an album as a whole as opposed to breaking down the individual songs and there's the impression that comes out of it. And because it's a collection of songs by other artists and they're all songs you've chosen for individual reasons, I suppose it did surprise me that I had that overall impression. But, you're right, the two songs you mention, "Lost on a River" and "The Love I Leave Behind" are probably the most … not emotional of the bunch, because I think there's emotion in all of them, but probably the ones that do sound – they're probably more in a minor key, let's put it that way [laughs].
Well, yeah. Well, "The Love I Leave Behind" being the lead-off track, I mean, it's a very serious idea, isn't it? I mean – and especially when you're talking about an artist who's – let's put it this way, I'm past the halfway mark when you're talking about 100 years of age, right?

[Laughs] So "The Love I Leave Behind" does have – it's probably more pertinent to me than it would be to a 24-year-old singer.

Yeah, yeah.
Um, you know, there's that element. I think it's – I love songs that deeply touch you, you know what I mean, and these songs have in some way got to me, to the core of me. And if that means that maybe there's a sense of life is pretty serious and this is what happens, then that must be what it is, you know? Musically, I would suggest that there's no way to – Matt Fell was responsible, very much, for the musical component here. I chose all the songs, I learnt them on acoustic guitar, took them in the studio, played them to Matt, as if I'd written the songs, and then Matt generated the musical palette. And each song has its own sense of place, musically, and it's not an echo of the previous recording because he hasn't even heard the previous recordings. The song has had to, within itself, inspire him musically. And that was a very intriguing thing to see happen as well.

Was it quite a different experience for you to hand over the musical palette, I guess, to him in that way, because you've had so many albums of your own?
Yes, I think – yeah, huge. But having said that, I trust Matt implicitly. We've just made two really successful records for me, Still Walking and At the Speed of Life. Both records have really done – they've connected with my audience and, as a consequence, that gives you the confidence to say, "Matt, take it away," you know? And there are things on this record that I wouldn't have thought to do on an album, songs like "She Flew Away" by Glen Cartier. Glen's version is fairly jaunty, sort of acoustic – there was a bit of a bounce in it. I played it to Matt pretty much like that but he didn't – he felt the lyric had a depth and a sensitivity that was being overlooked by that musical approach and so came back a couple of weeks later with this sort of cinematic, end-of-the-movie feeling in which he got me to sing at the bottom end of my register. You know what I mean? So it's a very intriguing – it's a process I wouldn't have thought to do myself. And that's exciting for me and I'm sure if we come back to make another record together, that'll spill over. You know, the more confidence you have – you know, I've worked with Mark McDuff for years and years and Mark and I started off with that thing where you sort of – you're discussing everything that happens in the studio. The same thing happened with Matt. Then, eventually, you get to the point where you're so comfortable, you don't talk about anything any more. It's just like it just works, it's just two minds become one.

It's a true collaboration.
It is, it is. And it can only come from a relationship when you have trust and confidence in each other.

And you said that you went into the studio and you played him the songs as if you'd written them yourself. And I'm wondering, given that they didn't go through that same creative process within you, when it comes to – and in your notes about this album, you've talked about people being interpreters of songs, and I agree with you, I think that that art of interpretation is really undervalued. I'm just wondering when you as a performer, as opposed to the singer/songwriter, come to these songs, is there a bit of instinct about how you interpret them or do you tend to break down the music and the lyrics that's there and think logically about how you'll interpret them?
Well, I think, having done what I've done for all these years, it's an instinctual approach. It's just like I know what the lyric is saying, I know what it makes me feel and I have – due to experience, that translates from the microphone to the media, do you know what I'm saying—whatever that happens to be. And the musical component that Matt chooses to emphasise ends up being – you know, because of our relationship, it ends up being very simpatico. It's just like it works. It's just my voice, Matt's music, somehow or other the magic happens, you know? And believe me, you know when the magic doesn't happen, and I've been in circumstances where you do that, where you're battling and battling and –  and it's just not right until you recognise that scrap it and start again is generally the only way to approach. But we didn't have any of that here. It was like luckily or fortunately, the songs, themselves – you know, you have to understand that I didn't go through the labour of delivering these songs as I do with my own songs, you know? I didn't get up at four o'clock in morning and stare at a blank piece of paper and work with it until I got it right. These songs existed by other writers and I really admired their work and I connected with it but I still didn't go through the labour pains that a writer goes through. Matt probably did more of that than I did, but I knew what the song was about in my heart and head. I knew what I'm here to sing about, you know? I got it, you know, just that sort of thing.

Well, I think, to an extent, all the labour of the previous songs and the years you've been playing, in a way I think that means you do get to have it a little bit easier doing it this way, because you've essentially done your degree in music and, yes, it's Matt job to do the work and put it together, but I think, to an extent, you can give yourself a little pat and say, "No, no, this one I cannot work quite as hard on."
I think it's very perceptive of you, Sophie. I did feel that way. I'd step off to work in the morning, to go to the studio, with this sense of, like, what's going to happen today? You know, whereas, quite often when you're making a record it's like, hang on a minute now, I want to make sure I get that piece there right, there's something, you know, I just want to get a texture. Maybe we should use a small string section or maybe we should use a horn section there, you know? Or maybe it should be completely bare, you know? So I understand. I mean, when Elvis Presley went in the studio to make records, it must have been really fun, you know, because he didn't have to go through any creative labour apart from just sing the song, you know? And that's instinctual. It's like, you don't think about that because you know it, you've just got it. You know what the song's about, you know how to translate it. Ray Charles and those guys, great interpreters; Frank Sinatra. No wonder they had so many records out, you know what I mean? They recorded so often because they didn't have to suffer the pain and agony of creating the copyright, you know?

Yeah. Well, you mentioned some great interpreters of times past and I was wondering who you think are the great contemporary interpreters of any genre, not just country?
Oh, dear. Well, there's very rare artists now who don't get involved in the writing process. It's almost like – you remember Harry Nilsson and people like that? A great singer, a great songwriter, but he was better known for his interpretations than he was for his own  writing. And my worry is that the pressure is on artists so much these days to have a finger in the creative pie of writing the song that that sort of sense of just being the interpreter is maybe getting lost. You know, like, it's just not – freedom isn't there to just step up to it and go – like Joe Cocker didn't write most of those great songs he recorded but, my God, he sang them better than any singer/songwriter – he sang them better than anyone could do them, you know?

Do you think that that pressure of being the songwriter can sometimes take away from the joy of performance? Because what you've described with those artists like Ray Charles and Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, is that there was usually a joy in live performance. And maybe being the songwriter means that you're perhaps kind of looking around a little bit more than usual to see if people like the song.
Well, I've got a funny thing I say, "Bloody songwriters, you're a twisted little bunch." [laughs]

I'm being facetious but, you know, it's like Paul Simon is very self-aware, you know what I mean? Like, he's very – and it's just different to that – when you watch a clip of Ray Charles throw his head back and just do "What'd I Say" or whatever it happens to be, you know, there's this freedom and joy that comes with just interpreting a song and not having to be responsible for the –    

[The call was disconnected accidentally.] Anyway, we're back.
Yeah. Where were we?

I think we were talking about the joy of performance and songwriters being a twisted little bunch, I think, was the last thing you said.
[Laughs] Yeah, well, intense little creatures, aren't they?

I mean, the one thing that I've always loved about Paul McCartney and John Lennon was that they wrote all these great songs but, you know what I mean, they're up there and you can see them having the time of their lives performing it. Bob Dylan, another story. Love his work, absolutely love his work but you never see Bob with this big beaming  smile on his face sort of going, "Here I am having a great time," you know?

I tell you who I've seen who I think – two singer/songwriters who manage to just really always have a great time is Rufus Wainwright and Ani DiFranco, who's an American folksinger.
I know Ani DiFranco, she is brilliant.

Yep. And Rufus always looks like he is interpreting someone else's songs because he's always tossing his hair around and having a great time.
I've never seen him live. He was out here with Paul Simon just recently.

He was. And I've seen Rufus many, many times, including the first time he came to Australia and he – but he also grew up in a family that really prioritised performance so that was his culture.
Yes, well, I mean, what's his dad's name?

Loudon Wainwright.

And his mother was Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters.
That's right, yeah. And his song the "Matapedia", do you know that song on Matapedia?

I don't know a lot of her work, I'm ashamed to say.
Oh, man, it is just the most beautiful song. I've got that one on my, you know, we'll say it's a desert island sort of song list but it's on there and it's her and her sister, I can't remember – "Matapedia" is the name of the song. It's about this train and they're in the car racing the train and the whole relationship is about that, the parallel of – yeah, beautiful.

But I'll steer this conversation back to your work now because we want to talk  about your album.
You're right.

Reading the liner notes, it seemed that you might have started the song selection process by artist. Like, you had some artists in mind that you wanted to put on the record. Is that true?
Well, I think the logical starting point is for songs that you know and the artist that meant something to you at a point in your career when it was important. And John J Francis was a classic, if you like, and he opens the disc because "Play Mumma Play" was an inspiration as a kid. When bands were having hits on the radio, he was the singer/songwriter who was, sort of, there with his guitar having a hit record, which made me think if he can do it, I can, too. So that would have been a strong connection for me there. Then there are the singer/songwriters you've met, you actually know, like Shane Howard. We've met on a couple of occasions and it's a natural process of, I must check Shane's work. Glen Cartier started his career at Festival around the same time I did. I don't want to forget Glen, do you know what I mean? Then, of course, there's Glenn A Baker, who's at the other end of the spectrum shooting all these artists at me and names: "God, there was so and so. He wrote a song that ended up on a Peter, Paul, and Mary recording in 1972. You've got to record it, it's just fabulous. Listen to this." But I mean, as it turned out, there were a lot of those songs that didn't stand the test of time—

Right, interesting.
—that sounded like they belonged in that period. It was the language, the musicality, someway. There are a couple of songs that Glenn really loved and felt strongly and I understand why, but they were period pieces and they were, sort of, grand and overblown now, like, do you know what I mean? Like in terms of trying to record that song, the language was too grand and, like, just didn't work, you know what I mean?

Yeah, yeah.
So there is that element. It was highly selective but if I could sit down with the songs that didn't make it and play them to you against the songs that did, there would be a very clear mark of delineation, you know, like I can see why you wouldn't have recorded that song.

So do you think then that there are any common elements to the ones that you did end up with on the album in terms of perhaps the song structure?
Timelessness and the lyric, particularly.

And the lyric, right.
The lyric has to stand – not only did it have to stand 2013, it's got to stand 2020 and it's also got to have stood 1991, you know, or whatever else. It's like trying to get that breadth in a lyric is really important and that's where the great writers come in, where language is elemental and timeless. It's not fashionable, it's not – the words aren't hip. The words are the words that people will always be able to – the simplicity of direct language. And I think each one of these songs bears that hallmark.

Yeah. So I know that you have a family business in Mackay and one quote I read, you said, it's more like going on holiday when you go on the road [laughs].
[Laughs] Yep.

I'm wondering whether, therefore, you have time to tour this album and if you do tour it, will you be touring it just playing songs from the album or will you also have your own work in it, in the show?
I'll have my own work in it as well. This album will – ultimately, it'll get a little bit drawn into the 25th year of North because North is – 2013 – to be honest, the album, I was hoping to get to, Kindred Spirit, out in 2012, so I've kind of focused on there but just the song selection and getting it ready. And then there was very strong interest from a major label towards the end of last year, that they definitely wanted to take it up but the deal couldn't work for – like, just the nature of the business these days, they were offering what was an old-style deal that won't work for either of us, you know – hang on, sorry, won't work for me [laughs].

[Laughs] Yes and you would know because you worked in a record company.
That's exactly right. I know what the margins have to be to make a living, you know what I mean? Anyway, long story short, so it carries over into 2013 as a release date and now, in October, it marks 25 years since North. So we're doing, like, Sydney Opera House and QPAC and all those big concerts to celebrate North. And this album will be subsumed in some way into that, as sort of part of a body of work. The first half will just be North from the beginning to the end and then the second half of the show will be – plus here we go, you know, this is where we're up to now. So I won't be touring it as an entity in its own right simply because my audience demand the 17 CDs set out. And I understand, I don't want to go to a concert and just see the latest CD, you know what I mean? It's like, hang on a minute, I want my favourite.

Kindred Spirit is out now.