Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Interview: Robert Cray

Sometimes an opportunity presents itself that is very hard to refuse - so when I was asked if I'd like to interview blues and soul legend Robert Cray, despite the fact there is no tangible link between him and country music (apart from the entwined histories of the blues and country), I said 'yes'. And once I'd heard his new album, In My Soul (which I'll cover separately), there were even more reasons to say yes. So here are my 15 minutes with Mr Robert Cray ...

I've been swooning listening to your album – has anyone swooned in real life at one of your shows?
I can't recall, really. Thank you, though.

Do you consider singing to be your vocation or is guitar just as important to you?
I enjoy doing both. Both of them are equally as fun. And then it will all depend on the song, too. If it's a nice ballad then the singing takes precedence. If it's something [else] then it's the guitar.

And when you're songwriting do you tend to pick it out on a guitar first or do you have a melody in mind and then you work from that?
It goes both ways. Sometimes there's a story that comes to mind – you know, I could be in the kitchen or anywhere and just some story comes to mind so I'll try to put that together, then grab the guitar and finish it up. And then sometimes it's a nice riff or a nice melody and then I'll start that way.

Do you have much time for songwriting? Obviously you tour quite a bit. And one of the challenges of being a successful artist seems to be that you can run out of time to create the very music that won you an audience in the first place.
Well, I've been known to be the last-minute person when it comes to songwriting. And actually a lot of the stories get finished up in the studio. Because it's that time when you're under pressure that makes you hear what you need to hear and get it done. So it works that way for me. But I normally do my writing when I'm off the road and at home.

The instances when you turn up to the studio without songs – does that make your other musicians a little bit nervous?
[laughs] Well, you know, I put the pressure on them because I like them to come up with some material equally. And then also we try to keep things backed up by having a cover or two.

And you have some covers on this album.
We do.

And I have to ask: what are 'Hip Tight Onions'?
The 'Hip Tight Onions' is taken from three songs by Booker T and the MGs. And the original title of the song was 'Hip Tight Onions for Booker' but we shortened it. So the first part, 'Hip', is from a song they called 'Hip Hugger', and then 'Time is Tight', which is another song they did. And 'Green Onions'.

Well, it sounded like it might have been a new type of restaurant dish, and in Australia we love our restaurants … I thought maybe there was something I didn't know about.
[laughs] Now you know.

Going back to something you said a little earlier about stories – you talked about songwriting in terms of writing stories – as a songwriter, as a singer and a guitarist, do you think of yourself primarily as a storyteller?
No, I don't consider myself a storyteller. There are some really prominent singer-songwriters who will get on stage and take you through their life or trials and tribulations and things like that. My songs are all over the place. There might be some stories and there might be some tales but I'm not like that kind of person, I think.

There's a lot of different 'feels' to your songs, even on this album, which is primarily a soul record. You're very good at expressing emotions and that comes back to your voice. When you're selecting songs for an album, is it the feeling of the song that you're connecting to?
First of all what happens with us is that we decide if we like the tune or not, and then you go into the process – because you have so many songs – to really spend time with each and every song and make that song its own in the studio. And that's why, I think, a lot of credit goes to our producer, Steve Jordan, who really set the tone and set the mood for each and every attempt that we did for each song. To the point that one of the songs that is a bonus track on one of the releases, called 'Pillow' – so what we did is we worked up the tune and then Steve asked us into the control room and he put on Curtis Mayfield's Superfly album. And we played a couple of tracks from that and we had it cranked up really loud and we were all getting all giddy and everything about the '70s, and laughing and all. And then he said, 'Okay, good – let's take a little break, go have some lunch, then come back and we'll cut it.' And then we came back into the room and Steve got out the conga drum and the vibraflap and we were in the mood. I took out the guitar that sounds like an electric sitar and we were right in the mood that we needed for that particular song. Steve was really good at trying to put everyone in the frame of mind for each song. So that's what sets the tone for the record.

In that song I heard something in your voice not unlike sadness or yearning, despite the Superfly influence.
The sad songs are the ones that you really have to take your time with, you know. And there's a lot of space. Those are the hardest ones for me to get to. And being a big fan of singers who can do that, I'm trying my best [laughs]. And I give credit where credit is due. I'm a big fan, just like everybody is, of all kinds of music but I'm really particular to gospel singers and soul singers that sing ballads, because I know it's really hard.

Is it hard for you to connect to those emotions because you're not feeling that in your own life, or is it just not your inclination to sing those sorts of songs?
It's not that so much. First of all, I enjoy it and then if there is something to grab hold to, I will. But first of all it's the enjoyment of the songs.

The voice is such a fascinating instrument – and you have your voice and also your guitar, but the voice always seems less tangible because it's not something you can hold in your hands and it is so affected by things in your life, what you eat, how you slept ... Your voice is such an extraordinary instrument – at which stage of your life did you discover it?
We always sang to music at home as kids, when my mom and my dad were doing the Twist back in the '60s [laughs]. And so everybody sang around the house. We'd make up songs too and sing them. But it wasn't until basically we'd started the Robert Cray Band in 1974 that I took on the role of being the singer, because in earlier bands that I was in, we always had a lead singer.

I find that quite extraordinary, that you started singing out of necessity, but maybe that was how you found the voice you have, because it's such an outstanding voice on the album – but I have to say the instruments match it, and that doesn't always happen in production. Sometimes there can be a great singer but you can just tell that the other musicians weren't up to it. On this album, though, everything seems balanced, and I guess that's down to your producer.
Yes, you have to give a lot of credit to the producer and the way that they did it and the mood they set up. The sound of the record is really good – it doesn't sound digital.

Is it difficult to hand over the reins to someone else to produce the album?
No, not when it's Steve Jordan [laughs]. We've had the opportunity to work with Steve in the past – he's done a couple of records for us. This time it was a lot different because we had made a couple of personnel changes. We have our drummer, Les Falkiner, who's only been in the band for maybe sixteen months, and then our keyboard player, Dover, joined the band in November and we recorded back in December. Dover used to be in the band in the late '70s for a while. And then Richard Cousins, who I've known forever, had taken a hiatus and wasn't in the band when we'd worked with Steve in the past. So those three guys had never worked with Steve before. So I thought it would be great to have Steve, because he's such a great organiser, to put the band through its paces in the studio. And once again Steve puts emphasis on the mood to create each and every song and makes everyone feel a part of everything. So it was great just to hand over the reins to Steve and watch him work his magic, and he did.

When you're on the road do you essentially have to act like the producer and keep everyone going and be the organiser?
Oh yeah. I have to do that [laughs]. And it's great. But everybody also has that lasting impression of how it worked in the studio. So it's great because now that we're doing songs from the new album we just revert back to that kind of … It's training, the way he taught us in the studio.

I'm thinking that for you making an album must be kind of like a holiday – you can show up and perform and get someone else to do the organising.
Yeah, it is – it's that. It's great that I don't have to organise that stuff – it's wonderful.

I have one question left … This is a soul record so I was wondering what soul means to you or how do you define soul?
Soul is when somebody really puts their emotion into the music but that's not unlike blues music as well. But the soul music musically has a different feel than the blues and I think that it's more accessible than blues music is in the fact that the music might have a sweeter melody than the blues music will. Even though the stories may be the same you'll gravitate towards the one with the more beautiful book cover [laughs].

 In My Soul is out now.

Friday, June 13, 2014

EP review: Some Greener Yard by Leslie diNicola

American singer-songwriter Leslie diNicola has been described as 'combining the grittiness of Janis Joplin with the vulnerability of Alison Krauss'. The only thing I'd take issue with there is that Joplin had plenty of vulnerability - it's what made her so compelling and so unforgettable. If all she had been was a big voice, she would not have resonated with so many people.

DiNicola has that same quality - of the strong, sometimes strident voice that has vulnerability in the curves between notes, suggesting that the singer has something to hide and more to tell us, but she's not going to just yet. Intrigue is hard to come by in a lot of recorded music - the studio environment, with a producer on hand and all the best technology, can eliminate spontaneity and happy accidents. Yet the songs on diNicola's EP Some Greener Yard give us the sense of a girl standing alone at a microphone, singing hopefully, from her heart, and it's both the voice and her lyrics that suggest that. It doesn't sound like she's about to slip up by way of singing a bum note - more that she might confess something that she didn't mean to tell us but which we really want to know. 

While diNicola's style is predominantly rock/blues with the odd country strain - and it suits her (although she could also venture easily into anthemic country rock/pop and not skip a beat) - it's in the more restrained track 'It's Alright' that her skill as a singer is consolidated. Here she is delicate and assured, which is an interesting balance.

Releasing a handful of songs in EP format is a great way to discover new talent. DiNicola is not completely new - she's released an EP before - but she's still 'emerging'. It can't be long, surely, before she has completely emerged. 

Some Greener Yard by Leslie diNicola is out now.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Album review: Nashville, Season 1 Original Soundtrack, Volumes 1 and 2

Most movie and TV series soundtracks featured established and sometimes emerging artists whose songs have been picked either because they enhance some development in the storyline, because the director or producer liked them or because they’re the product of a record company that is owned by same parent company as the movie studio. It is usually only musicals – including animated musicals – that have songs created especially for the storyline.
            The soundtrack for Nashville, the TV series screening on Foxtel (Soho) in Australia and ABC in the USA, is none of these things. Created by Callie Khouri (best known as the writer of Thelma and Louise), the series centres on two female country music stars: Rayna Jaymes, played by Connie Britton, and Juliette Barnes, played by Hayden Panettiere. It has a ‘second tier’ (although not inferior tier) of cast members including Whose Line is It Anyway? stalwart Charles Esten, and newcomers Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio; Jonathan Jackson, Chris Carmack and the Stella sisters, Lennon and Maisy.
All of these actors sing the songs their characters perform on the show, and the show’s music director is T Bone Burnett, who happens to be Khouri’s husband. One can theorise as to whether or not Burnett’s closeness to the development of the show – via Khouri – was likely to benefit the creation of the soundtrack; the reality is that the soundtrack – not just both released volumes but the songs seen on the show and left off the albums – is a success. 
The show’s producers, and Burnett, had to compete for the good songs coming out of ‘Music
City’ just like any record producer, with the advantage that they already knew quite a bit about whose songs they wanted. They have assembled a collection of songs that not only suit the characters and the story, but which also prove to make two great albums of ‘singles’ – for this is not a cohesive album such as one might expect from a sole artist.
Volume I features the songs that have a more prominent part in the season 1 storyline, such as Britton’s ‘Buried Under’ and Panettiere’s ‘Telescope’; Volume II, however, is arguably the better album, given that it is able to feature the songs that were used to build scenes and characters rather than announce plot developments.
The musical revelations on the album are those second-tier cast members mentioned above. Bowen and Palladio sing together on several tracks and their voices are not only lovely but beautifully matched. The Stella sisters are children but musically very mature. Jackson has an established musical career already and his experience shows. And Carmack should be given his own solo recording contract immediately, if not sooner, because it is he – out of everyone who sings on this soundtrack – who really gets inside the genre and seems to not only love it but know how to work it. Collectively, the talent alone on these albums would make them worth your time. But then there are the songs, too.
Many of the songs tend to be on the rock and pop end of country – and the songs for Panettiere’s character are meant to be country pop - but they are still identifiably country. And with tracks by Kacey Musgraves (‘Undermine’), Ashley Monroe (‘Consider Me’, ‘You Ain’t Dolly) and Patty Griffin (‘We Are Water’) appearing, these are albums that showcase a variety of country music songs to audiences old and new. The result is two albums of songs full of potential favourites, and intriguing new voices to discover.
The soundtrack won’t please anyone who is looking for a singular musical vision – but that could never have worked for this show anyway. There are strong characters on Nashville and they have strong opinions about music. The wonder of this soundtrack is that those opinions – the characters’ preferences and abilities – are reflected in the recordings.
And the season 2 soundtrack is just as good …

Nashville, Original Soundtrack Season 1, Volumes 1 and 2 are out now through Universal in Australia and, of course, on iTunes.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Album review: Ghosts, Choirs & Kings by Megan Cooper

One of the best things about being a follower of Australian country music is the consistently very high standard of releases. One of the truly amazing things is that so many of these are independent releases, often made possible by crowd funding. Brisbane singer-songwriter Megan Cooper's Ghosts, Choirs & Kings is one such crowd-funded album of a very high standard.

Cooper is clearly knowledgeable about, and mindful of, the traditions and heritage of American and Australian country music. While her lyrics seem personal - and contemporary - Cooper wouldn't sound out of place sharing a stage with Patsy Cline or, indeed, fronting a big band. Her precise soprano voice suggests professional training, and it is sweet at the same time. She is also a very handy whistler ...

Cooper's voice perfectly suits her songs, which often draw on old-time country music but could not be classified as 'old-timey'. 'Texas' is a modern torch song; 'Loser's Game' is a lover's lament on the lonesome trail; 'Jailsong' and 'Floodsong' have simple titles but rich stories to tell.

Ghosts, Choirs & Kings is an eclectic collecton of twelve original songs and one cover ('All Through the Night') which reminds me not only why Australian country music has such strength as a genre and a collective of artists, but also why I became a fan of it in the first place: because it makes me happy, just as this album does. 

Ghosts, Choirs & Kings is out now.

You can find Megan on Facebook at /megancoopermusic and on Twitter @twanglassy.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Jenny Talia brings some F.O.C.U.S. to Australia

Some of you may remember an Australian country music artist who went by the name TJ Dennis. She released three albums, she played a great live show and appeared at festivals around the land. Well, TJ Dennis gave away the country music and became comedian Jenny Talia - and she's bringing her tour F.O.C.U.S. back to Australia from her current home, Chicago. Jenny is the daughter of Kevin Bloody Wilson, so her comedic credentials are well in place. She's also fresh off a tour of the United Kingdom, so her new line of work keeps her busy indeed. Not so busy, though, that she didn't have time to answer some questions before she arrives ...

Your TJ Dennis voice was very different to your Jenny Talia voice - is it hard not to slip into 'TJ singing mode' when you're performing your new material?
The comedy stuff is not so much sung, as it is ‘spoken in tune’. I’m sure every now and thing my real singing voice comes through. Just enough to keep my Nanna and Mum happy.

Of course, the question any country music fan would ask is: how on earth could you abandon country music???
Oh no, I definitely didn’t abandon it. I still listen to it, write it, go see it live. I just don’t perform it myself. The comedy stuff has me crazy busy and completely satisfied
Your comedy material seems to have a distinctly Australian bent - how do audiences in the northern hemisphere respond to that? 

They’ve been exposed to a lot of Australian culture over the years. I really don’t change my show at all, I maybe just try to slow down a bit. Us country sheilas can talk pretty fast when we get revved up.

How much of your year is devoted to performing and how much to writing material, and is it hard to achieve a balance between the two?
To actually sit down and write a new album, it would probably be a month of seven days a week writing. But the ideas are always swimming around inside my head. I have a successful blog on my website and I write a column for my local paper in Chicago, so in one form or another, I’m always writing. Performing, I’d average about 120 show per year. Then I like to put up songs on my YouTube channel when I’m not touring (and when YouTube isn’t kicking me off for being too rude).

You grew up in an 'entertainment family' - did you ever consider doing anything else for work?
Not really, I formed a duo with my brother when I was just out of high school and have pretty much made my living from music since then. I always said I’d get a ‘real’ job when I grew up. So far, so good!

The tagline of your show talks about you giving your 'girl's point of view' to an audience - what's your point of view on comedy and female performers? There's the odd person who says that 'women aren't as funny as men' ...
I’m sure that’s probably said by a really un-funny man that hasn’t been laid in a while. My audiences are usually at least 50% men. If you like your humour Aussie, funny and politically incorrect, then you’ll like my show. Whether you have a penis or not.

Just so your Australian audience members can recognise themselves: who do you want to see at your shows? 
As long as you’re over 18, you’re fine by me. I get doctors, teachers, truck drivers, stay-home mums … a bit of everything.  For the most part, I’m just up there saying what a lot of Australians are thinking. And in a world where political correctness can be suffocating, you’re welcome to breathe easy at one of my shows.

Jenny's tour dates:

Friday 13th June 2014 | 8pm
St Mary’s Band Club, OXLEY PARK NSW
411 Great Western Highway, Oxley Park
(02) 9623 1211 | www.stmarysbandclub.com.au

Saturday 14th June 2014 | 8pm
19 Murna Road, Davistown
(02) 4363 0199 | www.davistownrsl.com.au

Friday 20th June 2014 | 7pm
Fly By Night Musicians Club, FREMANTLE WA
1 Holdsworth Street, Fremantle WA
(08) 9430 5976 | www.flybynight.org

More tour dates to be announced in the coming weeks
For more information, please visit www.jennytalia.com

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Album review: Small Town Misfits by Jenny Queen

The canon of Australian country and country-esque music is already rich and varied. There is such a variety of songs and song styles in our country music that sometimes I wonder how anyone will come up with something new. Well, Jenny Queen has - and, perhaps not surprisingly, what is different about her music is her. (And while she may be American, she lives in Australia and has created the album here.)

Queen's distinctive singing voice curls around songs and tucks the listener into them at the same time - she can sound sweet, almost breathy at times, but there is something that sounds like menace there in its sharp edges. There is also vulnerability, loneliness and lament (and occasionally an echo of Kate Bush). 

Queen's voice sits atop thirteen songs that bristle, swirl and seduce as they tell the story of a small town. The songs are not traditionally country - they draw on whichever tradition suits them best, whether that is rock, blues or country. That probably makes them more accessible to non-country audiences but Queen honours the conventions of the genre enough to please fans too. And the album makes for a very interesting ride as the songs - and Queen's voice - go to unexpected places sometimes. 

The songs on Small Town Misfits are layered and dense - but not crowded - with whichever instruments best serve the story that's being told; these were musical decisions perhaps made by Queen's producer, Shane Nicholson, who has for years demonstrated that he understands very well how to create music that fits sung stories. Nicholson appears on the third track, 'Let Her Go', and Brooke McClymont lends her voice to 'Austin'. American singer-songwriter Matthew Ryan - who sings alongside Kasey Chambers on 'A Million Tears' - sings on 'Killing Cut'.

However, Queen hardly needs help from others (although the value of a great producer like Nicholson shouldn't be underestimated). She is clearly in command of this album. The only frustrating thing about it is that I'm left wanting more from her. Thirteen songs don't seem enough - but would fifteen? Twenty? Hopefully we won't have to wait long to hear whatever she works on next. 

Small Town Misfits is out now through ABC Music/Universal.

Troubadour, TX

While I love, love, love the US drama series Nashville, the range of stories about how country music songs, albums, careers and tours come to be are, by necessity, not fully explored within the context of that show. Troubadour, TX could, therefore, be seen as the complement to Nashville - it's an Emmy-nominated docu-reality series that follows a handful of artists as they make their way through the country music industry.

As with Nashville, a powerful reason to watch Troubadour, TX is the music - in this case, music as it happens rather than music as it's being produced for a soundtrack. The stories behind songs - and the stories behind the artists who bring us those songs - have always been an integral part of country music and one of the things that sets it apart from other genres. Troubadour, TX has lots of those stories.

Sadly, as it's only available to US viewers on The CW, everyone else will have to watch snippets available online - but if you're in the broadcast area ... what are you waiting for?


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Brad Butcher's next album ...

... Will happen, but he needs a bit of support of the crowd-funding kind.

Crowd-funding is increasingly popular amongst Australian country music artists (and artists from other genres - Brad's not strictly country). The albums that have resulted thus far have been of the highest quality - in the last year or so they've included outstanding releases from Melody Pool, The McMenamins and Jess Holland. The crowd-funding model works well for the recording of albums because, essentially, you're just ordering a copy of the album in advance.

Brad's debut, eponymous album is still on high rotation for me after many months of listening - if you'd like to read some more constructed thoughts about it, my review is here. And if you've read that review, you'll know why I'm keenly suggesting you support Brad in this new venture. If anyone is worth pre-ordering, it's this bloke. And you can do so here: http://www.pozible.com/project/180402.

To find out more about Brad and his music, visit www.bradbutcher.com.