Monday, August 26, 2013

Interview: Sara Storer

Sara Storer is one of our most beloved country music artists - a multiple Golden Guitar award winner and perennial fan favourite, she has written and performed some amazing songs. Sara took a break, though, as her children started to arrive. She is now the mother of three boys and she lives in Darwin. Just before the birth of her youngest son, Sara wrote and her recorded her new album, Lovegrass, which she launched at the Gympie Muster this past weekend. Ahead of the launch, and her appearance at the muster, I spoke to this delightful country music icon.

I started by asking Sara how she would prepare to play at the Muster when she's in Darwin and, presumably, her band are not.

'It’s always a tricky thing,' she said, 'but I’m getting there early and we’re all going to catch up prior to the Muster for a rehearsal, which is a must especially when I’m releasing a new album and playing the songs with the band for the first time, really. We need a little practice run otherwise we could end up a train smash.'

At the time of speaking to Sara I had not heard the album, so I asked her to describe it for someone who had never heard it, using any terms she liked - not just descriptive terms for the music.

'There’s a lot of energy,' she said, 'and it’s quite uplifting. And I always knew that this album would be a happy album because of how I feel where I'm at in this stage of my life. I’ve met Dave, we’ve had three children within five years and we’ve settled in Darwin, and just really happy. And I knew that there’s not too much to complain about. As in, sometimes when you’re in a bad relationship you tend to write sad songs and they can be great songs, but my album of course has happy love songs. 

'I knew that I’d have to go searching for other things to write about,' she continued. Other people’s stories. There are a few stories on the album, there’s a few theme songs back to my roots, which is rural life and farming; so there’s a harvest song, there’s a rain song, there’s another farmer song, which I’m very passionate about because that’s my upbringing and that’s what my family still do. I find people on the land are very strong and hard-working people, so I love to write about them. I’m really excited about this album - there’s such a lovely energy to [the songs] I can’t wait to get out and sing them on stage.

The conundrum that a lot of singer-songwriters face when they're happy is that they feel like they have to draw on the darker side of life to write songs. I asked Sara if she found that happiness in her home life has pushed her to write differently, given that she can't really draw on darkness any more.

'I think that happier songs are harder to write but I  think just writing the songs – it had been such a long gap for me, such a long spell between my last album and this – that I was just happy that the songs were coming again and coming to me in a relatively short time, which was great. Once I got that first song, the excitement and the relief that I still had that in me sparked off the next song. 

'I wouldn’t say that being happy makes you write differently – I still write those stories, I’ve still got to hear or see or feel something myself, and if it doesn’t come from me, it’s got to come from someone else and it’s got to be a true story, because I just find that that’s what makes a song stand out compared to other songs. As soon as you try to make up a song it gets a bit clich├ęd and it’s just not right. 

'So I love writing other people’s stories as well. I just have my ears wide open, basically, and every time I heard something that moved me and that I could turn inot a song, I did. And it was a great seven months. It was just like one [song] after another.

'I always do it – after every album I always say, "That’s it – there’ll be no more songs. I can’t do that again." And then all of a sudden they’re there, on paper, and you’re, like, "Oh right! I can go and record now."'

Sara had, of course, produced several albums in a row before she took a break, and I wondered if it wasn't that after that peak of creative activity that she must have when she's writing songs and then recording them and then performing them, there’s a necessary fallow period. She has also had the big energetic peaks having children.

'That’s very true,' she said. 'You do – you have these humongous peaks of things going on in your life – it doesn’t necessarily have to do with music, it’s about having family and all those things, and you tend to write – once those highs are over, whether you release an album or singing all the songs for the first time, and then they go through the awards of whatever, and then there’s that clearing process, and that’s when you should be writing again for the next album. So you sort of go into that lull and if the songs don’t come in that time, that’s when you start to panic and to worry. 

'But I didn’t have time to panic and worry – I was pregnant and having another baby, so I was still on a high with the family, because my personal life was running at a crazy mile an hour and still is. I had Billy six months ago, so I got that album out just before he was born. But I think in the back of my mind, even though my family life was wonderful and it was all going great, it had been just that bit too long musically between albums and it was really starting to eat away at me and I had to get in and be serious and say, "You either  get this done or you somehow have to put it behind you – you just can’t keep thinking about it every day and doing your head in." 

'It took a little trip to Tamworth and I just came back really inspired – 2012 after Tamworth, came home and wrote a song straightaway and that’s pretty much set up the flow of songs. It tumbled out then, which is great.'

In terms of which songs - which stories - she chooses for an album, I asked if her selection process was a matter of instinct.

'It’s hearing a story that you know probably hasn’t been said before ... It's like you can have – this is a really stupid way of looking at it it, but you can have apple pie every night but every now and then apple pie is really, really good. It’s the same with songs: you’ll just know a story hasn’t been said that way before, or you haven’t heard it said the way it is, and it can even be someone saying it from their own words and it’s really just a simple line that has never been put into song before. You hear lots of lots and stories – I think it comes down to knowing, to a personal vibe that you know that’s going to make a beautiful song.'

In her songwriting Sara has tackled big themes and issues - for example, in the song 'Tears'. When asked if she feels she has a responsibility,  almost, to address those sorts of subjects in her work, Sara said, '"Tears" was just – I was moved on the day and thought, "I’ve just got to write a song about that". It wasn’t for any purpose; I hadn’t been thinking about it for ages. I was actually watching TV and saw her on TV and was really affected. Most of the songs will come like that – just moved at the moment.

Sara is known as a singer-songwriter but it seems as though she also naturally inhabits the mantle of 'storyteller'. When asked which occupation she'd put on her passport – storyteller, performer, singer-songwriter – she said, 'I find I’m a bit of all of those. "Singer-songwriter" has that nice individual sort of sound. It sort of keeps you separated from everyone else – it gives you your own identity, saying that. Once you start putting yourself into a genre you then become like everyone else. 

'I love "storyteller" because I do love writing a song that tells a story as well. 

'The other one you mentioned was "performer" – some people can write great songs and they can really go unnoticed if you can’t get up there and perform it as well. You’ve got to have a bit of stage presence and I’m always working at that. And I’ll tell you who’s brilliant at it – Beccy Cole, she’s an amazing performer. And it’s always something I worry about – I get up on stage and think I sound boring. But it’s true – you’ve got to have a bit of the X factor otherwise you can lose a crowd. So it’s always very important. Little bit of that on top, like salt and pepper, is good in the mix.

'I think the storytelling is one of my strengths and I do like a little yarn in between songs. Sometimes I think anything can happen with my show – I forget lines, so there’s always that unexpected thing – maybe that’s what keeps people listening. That’s how I got through it when I first started – I was so nervous, and I didn’t know what to say, what was the right thing to say, so I just had to be me and sometimes I think that really worked.' 

By any measure, it is safe to say that is has definitely worked, and country music fans will welcome Sara back with wide open arms as she releases her first new album in over three years and her first original album since 2007.

Lovegrass is out now from ABC Music/Universal.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Album review: Same Trailer Different Park by Kacey Musgraves

Although mainstream American country music has plenty of 'young people' it wasn't until listening to Kacey Musgrave's debut album, Same Trailer Different Park, that I realised there aren't that many 'young voices' – by which I obviously mean young songwriters. Those songwriters would exist, of course, but they're not necessarily appearing in the mainstream (yet).

Musgrave is clearly in the mainstream - she has already been the subject of a profile in The New York Times Magazine, her album is on the Mercury Nashville label, a division of Universal, and she has a publishing deal with Warner/Chappell – and thus her cultural context is more Carrie Underwood than Gillian Welch. Accordingly, her album has to be somewhat listened to in that context. And in that context it is remarkable. 

Same Trailer Different Park is a collection of well-constructed songs that tell stories of small towns and small dreams, of disappointments and heartbreaks that perhaps don't break as hard as they should if they'd actually meant something. It is, in its way, a manifesto of a young thinking woman's life - these are her experiences, this is what she has learned, this is what she plans to do again and what she plans never to do again.   

If we pitch this album next to two other releases that have come from young women this year – Melody Pool's The Hurting Scene and Katie Brianna's Dark Side of the Morning – then it is not as intriguing, not as dark nor as joyful, not as lyrically complex, not as interesting. But in Australia, 'mainstream country music' arguably encompasses a much broader range of voices, both melodic and lyrical. In Australia, Kacey Musgraves would not be remarkable. Which, to reiterate, is why context is important.

That isn't to say that there's not a lot for Australian country music fans to like about Same Trailer Different Park – Musgraves's voice is endearingly sincere yet knowing, and her songs have the dismayed wistfulness that can be often be found in young adults who are finally realising that life isn't perhaps all they were led to expect it would be. 

It is also a very accomplished first album. No doubt Musgraves had all the assistance that a big label can offer, but there are plenty of artists who have that and don't produce an album of this standard. It makes me excited to see what she comes up with next, and I'm certainly playing this album regularly. 

This album – along with the others mentioned above, and more still, like Catherine Britt's Always Never Enough – is also a sign that country music as a genre is in the hands of very talented, steady, clear-eyed singer-songwriters who have stories to tell, a conviction that there's an audience for them and the ability to bridge the two. Fans of the genre could honestly not ask for anything more. 

Same Trailer Different Park is out now through Mercury/Universal. It is also available on iTunes.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Album review: The Great Country Song Book by Troy Cassar-Daley and Adam Harvey

This album had its genesis in a tour undertaken by Troy Cassar-Daley and Adam Harvey about two or three years ago. I saw one of the shows on that tour and it was one of the best gigs I'd ever seen. Troy and Adam were having so much fun - it seemed as though, in covering other people's songs instead of playing their own, the pressure was off and they could be two musicians - and friends - together.

The idea for the tour was genius: two of Australian country music's biggest names playing the mainly American country music songs they loved. Some of the songs were obscure - in fact, many of them would only have been known to people who had the same extensive knowledge of the genre as Troy and Adam. But that didn't matter, because the two men revealed themselves to be great performers no matter whose songs they were singing and the music flowed easily all night.

That same spirit of collaboration and pure joy in music is evident on The Great Country Song Book, which now stands as a record of that genius tour idea. There is a great range of songs to satisfy anyone who loves any kind of country music - there is Slim Dusty's 'Lights on the Hill', Johnny Cash's 'I Walk the Line' and Glen Campbell's 'Rhinestone Cowboy' mixed in with some Lefty Frizell, Merle Haggard and Hank Williams songs, amongst others.

This is undoubtedly an album that many Australian country music fans will buy simply because of the two names attached to it, but it's also worth buying for what's on the album itself: the sound of two of our greatest singer-songwriters relishing the chance to sing classic songs written by others and the opportunity to let themselves just be singers and fans. There is a lot of joy on this album just as there was in the show that night - and, no doubt, it won't the last such collaboration from Troy Cassar-Daley and Adam Harvey. After all, when you're onto a good thing ...

The Great Country Song Book is out now through Liberation/Sony Music.

Troy and Adam are touring together - for dates visit: