Friday, June 19, 2015

Chris Cavill and The Prospectors on tour

Melburnians Chris Cavill and The Prospectors are taking their sound north to Sydney, Newcastle and Brisbane before returning to their hometown. Their album, Know Your Destiny, suggests that the shows will be a real treat, and I spoke to Chris about the formation of the band and his musical background, plus their new single, 'Midnight Train'.

I thought I’d ask you about the formation of the Prospectors because I know you had The Long Weekend before that.
The drummer’s an old friend of mine and the bass player’s a guy that I work with, so we’re essentially mates before band mates, so it’s worked out really well.

Does that mean that your rehearsal space is always a harmonious one?
Absolutely [laughs]. Do you play in a band yourself?

I used to [laughs].
You can relate. It’s very comfortable. We can enjoy a beer or two during practices and no one’s worried about time or anything like that.

I sometimes think when you’re the band leader it can be hard to navigate laying down the law as opposed to it being a democracy.
Exactly. I think like anything, though – if you want to compare it to a relationship or whatever – you just generally know when you work well with people and you become comfortable around each other. You really just go with the flow.

I read in the press release that you and the Prospectors are ‘not your granddaddy’s rock band but they would probably like a lot of his records’. So which records in particular?
My songwriting is heavily influenced by Neil Young, so two of his major albums in After the Gold Rush and Harvest. And also there are elements of Led Zeppelin and Tom Petty, even like a little bit of The Eagles – stuff like that.

I can hear a bit of that influence in your music, and it can be really difficult to avoid mimicking some of those bands but you haven’t – you have a distinct sound of your own. But I guess that’s part of the mystical creative process, of how you synthesise all those influences and create your own sound.
Absolutely. I don’t intentionally try to sound like anyone, so maybe that’s working for me but, then again, when I hear their songs I think, Wow, I wish I could write a song like that. So maybe during the process something of my own overtakes it.

When you come to create songs are you thinking of stories you want to tell or is it more emotions that you want to convey?
IT definitely used to be more emotion based. With Know Your Destiny I attempted to write more from a story perspective – ‘Across the Board’ is an example of that and same with ‘Midnight Train’. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to move away from the emotion side of things. I’m a pretty emotional, passionate man, so I just do what comes naturally.

In performance – if that’s the base you’re coming from – it can be quite demanding anyway, so are there certain things you have to do to take care of yourself so that when you’re performing those emotions they don’t completely deplete you?
Yes and no. I like to put emotion into the performance. I think the more I can give the better I can relate to the audience. Sometimes I think it’s more of a push – if I have to play a song like ‘San Diego’, which is the last track on the album, that song’s portraying a low point in my life and if I’m just rocking out with the guys and everything’s going well and I have to bring myself down to that moment, I can find that tricky. But I guess you just try to take yourself back to that time and think about it whilst you’re playing the song, and hopefully that comes across.

Your voice has a lot of shade and nuance in it, and it’s always fascinating where
voices come from, of course, because it’s not like you can say, ‘Well, I woke up and ticked a few boxes and there it was’. How has your voice evolved over the past few years? At what age did you realise that you can sing?
That’s a really good question. I was always singing as a kid. I don’t think I was ever really good because my parents were supportive but they were always telling me that I talk too much. So I was singing around the house. And then when I started playing guitar I was faced with the challenge of trying to learn and sing at the same time. I remember playing in front of relatives and they’re, like, ‘Yeah … you’re sort of getting it’ kind of thing. It was never bringing my confidence down, I just kept on trying. And then I formed a band with some high school mates and it was a punk-rock band – we were really influenced by Pennywise and Blink 182, as you did in the late ’90s. Then that’s when it started really happening for me, when I was about 16, 17, and we would play in front of the school and people would come up and say, ‘Hey, you’ve got a really great voice’, and that was the first time I’d ever heard people say that. And then when my influences started to change as I matured and got more into acoustic folk-roots music, I then started listening to great singers like Ben Harper and Ryan Adams and Eddie Vedder, and I guess it went from there. I never got lessons or anything like that – it was just experience, and the more I gigged, the more I recorded, it seemed to get better.

And I guess if the intention is there to get better, that’s the important thing. Some people might think, Oh well, that’s doing the job, but if you’re constantly striving to improve for yourself and also serve the songs better, that tends to have an effect.
Absolutely. With this record in particular and the gigs recently I did a little bit of training on my vocals, and I’ve put a lot of emphasis on warming up before gigs, taking care of my voice and drinking whiskey [laughs].

Now, the single ‘Midnight Train’ – watching that clip I recognised Jed Rowe straightaway and there were several other people in it. It’s one thing to write the song and quite another to conceptualise it visually that way – and bring in your friends – so why did you choose to do that?
I’ll be honest: it wasn’t my idea. It was the director, Ben McNamara, who’s a friend of mine and he’s done a lot of work in film and he came to me with the idea and said, ‘Hey, you know a lot of musicians. You’ve got a really strong network and group of mates that are doing similar stuff – why don’t we get them on board?’ And I said, ‘You’re a genius’. But I said, ‘It’ll never work. You can’t get fifteen musicians in the same place on the one day’.

And it did work.
And it did work, yeah.

That’s probably a testament to how they feel about you.
I hope so.

So you’re touring again – you toured the album earlier in the year and now you’re touring in support of the single. Are you revisiting any venues or is it all new?
No, we’re going back to the two venues we did on the last tour, which is Lazy Bones Lounge in Marrickville and we’re also heading back to the Stag and Hunter in Newcastle, and this time we’re also going north to Brisbane for the first time, with two shows there at Lefty’s and the Royal Mail. And then we’re heading back for a final show in Melbourne, our hometown, and it’s the first time we’ve played at the Toff in Town so we’re really excited about that.

Lefty’s is a good venue for alt-country acts like Brad Butcher. There’s a great alt-country community in Melbourne and also one in Brisbane/northern New South Wales, so I hope those rivers flow into each other at your gig. The Melbourne alt country scene seems to be this great creative, collaborative hub now, as demonstrated by your video, so have you felt the support of that community as you’ve shifted into The Prospectors?
Yes, of course. I think that it extends further than alternative country – it’s a whole sort of blues, roots, folk, soul a little bit as well. It’s the singer-songwriter kind of network, and they’re all great guys and girls. We support one another, and they’ve just met The Prospectors and taken them in as their own. The musical family’s really important to me. It’s something that I’m really privileged to be part of.

Know Your Destiny is out now.
Chris Cavill and The Prospectors tour dates:

Friday 19th June
Lazybones Lounge
294 Marrickville Rd, Marrickville NSW
Ph: 0450 008 563
Tickets $15, from 9pm

Saturday 20th June
Stag + Hunter
187 Maitland Rd, Mayfield NSW
Ph: 02 4968 1205
Free entry, from 8.30pm

Thursday 2nd July
Lefty’s Old Time Music Hall
15 Caxton St, Brisbane QLD
Free Entry, from 7pm

Friday 3rd July
Royal Mail Hotel
92 Brisbane Tce, Goodna QLD
Ph: 07 3288 2213
Free entry, from 7pm

Saturday 18th July
The Toff in Town
With guests Rob Sawyer + Mousecapades
2/252 Swanston St, Melbourne VIC
Tickets $10 +bf / $15 @ door, 8pm
Ph: 03 9639 8770

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Jack White and Loretta Lynn - Walk of Fame induction

Regular readers of this blog know that it features mainly Australian country music. However, it's very hard - too hard - to ignore the combination of Jack White and Loretta Lynn. When they first recorded together, several moons ago, I thought it was an inspired pairing. Now they've been inducted, as a pair, into the Music City Walk of Fame in Nashville. And they're just too cool to not post:

Monday, June 8, 2015

Album review: The Last Day of Winter by Jed Rowe

Jed Rowe's 2012 album The Ember and the Afterglow was an outstanding, musically diverse piece of work that functioned much like a collection of short stories, offering many narrative voices and quite different experiences.

Rowe's new album, The Last Day of Winter, is a completely different affair. Still diverse, nevertheless it does not have the same elements of darkness that could be found on Ember. Instead, it's a mostly upbeat affair that showcases something that didn't exactly disappear on Ember but which didn't stand out as much: Rowe's voice. On Ember Rowe was the storyteller and his voice was used in service to the stories. On The Last Day of Winter Rowe's voice is a real feature, and it deserves to be. He has a beautiful tone and it wouldn't really matter what he was singing, it's all worth listening to.

For this album Rowe has worked with The Stillsons as his band, and the differences in style are obvious: previously Rowe's sound was lean (double bass, drums and guitar) yet muscular, and it suited the songs he was crafting, just as the different instruments and backing vocals brought by The Stillsons suit these new songs. There are some traditional country sounds here - as well as the odd '70s rock note - that are brought to life by piano and fiddle. One sound is constant, though: anyone who has seen Rowe plays live would know that he's one of the best slide guitarists to be found.

I don't tend to write about individual songs in album reviews, as the name of a song means nothing to someone who hasn't heard an album yet. And if you have heard the album I may love a song that you may not, which means we're already fighting. I prefer to write about the feeling of an album because what most people take away from music is an experience that is emotional and visceral before it's intellectual. If an album makes me feel something positive - if I'm intrigued, if I'm moved, if I've been entertained - then that's worth telling people about. So it's worth telling people about Jed Rowe's The Last Day of Winter. It's also worth seeing him live, just in case he appears in a town near you.

The Last Day of Winter is out now through Mountain King Music/WJO.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Album review: Cold Moon by James Thomson

One of the endlessly fascinating things about music is how several artists may have the same influences - sometimes even identical influences - yet when they produce their own music it not only doesn't resemble their contemporaries' but is distinctively their own.

Newcastle singer-songwriter James Thomson has Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie and Townes van Zandt amongst his influences, as do many other artists, even Australian artists. Yet what Thomson mainly seems to have taken from these three is the fact that they were individuals: they had their own voices, they had stories they wanted to tell, and they did it regardless of whatever the fashion might have been at the time. Such is the case with Thomson, too.

Thomson's style tends towards the blues end of country, but by 'blues' I mean that the ghost of Robert Johnson is loitering on Thomson's verandah, waiting for a singalong. There is a crack and ache in Thomson's voice that belies his years, yet there's also the odd note that recalls Jackson Browne. And if all this sounds like it's adding to up a whole lot of derivative, that is not the case any more than it is for any musical artist - by which I mean all of them - as every artist is a product of their influences. At any rate, I prefer to think of such things as a lineage rather than an influence. Thomson's lineage is clear, and he's also an individual: the way he works with that lineage is his alone, especially if it's considered within the context of Australian country music.

The songs on Cold Moon are mostly laidback numbers which nevertheless were obviously not put together in a laidback way. There's smart songwriting and performance here. There's also a voice worth paying attention to, intimate enough to call you close but just guarded enough to not reveal all its secrets. Such voices always leave you wanting more, as is the case with this album. Thomson is a sophisticated singer and songwriter who not only respects his lineage but respects his songs. He lets them do what they need to do and he doesn't get in their way. Again, the mark of a true artist. Cold Moon is a piece of art.

Cold Moon is out now through Laughing Outlaw Records.

Album review: Boneshaker by Catherine Britt

Catherine Britt is one of the most compelling, and interesting, artists at work in Australian music, let alone within country music. Her 2012 album Always Never Enough was an extraordinary collection of songs that were both musically and lyrically satisfying as well as being memorable enough to still demand listening three years on (and when you listen to as many albums as I do, that's a big recommendation). Britt then released a 'best of' collection - The Hillbilly Pickin' Ramblin' Girl So Far - which could have seemed premature, given her youth, but she's released enough albums for it to make sense. It also seems now to have been a way of demonstrating her progress as preparation for the release of Boneshaker.

Boneshaker does not at all resemble Always Never Enough in terms of the subject matter of the songs or, really, the composition of the songs, although it's unmistakably a country music album: the bedrock of country music tradition is there, and Britt's storytelling nature also marks it as country. But the fact that it's such a different album, and also that it is, actually, a progression is exciting. Always Never Enough contained stories about others yet it also felt quite personal; Boneshaker tells stories but seems to explore themes more than focus on individual stories. It is a contemplative album that also has its upbeat moments in a major key. The dichotomies of the album appear within the first two songs: the rollicking title track and then the solemn tale 'Good to Bad'. 

Mostly - for me, at least - Boneshaker demonstrates that Britt is prepared to take risks with her music, and that means she's reached a level of confidence in her musical, singing and songwriting abilities that enables her to explore. When an artist finds herself at a point where talent and courage match, anything may happen - and it's usually great when it does. If she can hold her nerve - and regardless of the level of confidence, nerve-holding can be required - then the future looks amazing. In the meantime, this album full of individually great and collectively wonderful songs is the evidence we have that she's an artist who deserves a very prominent position on the national stage. 

Boneshaker is out now through Lost Highway Australia/Universal.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Album review: Solitude by Ruby Boots

After hearing 'Middle of Nowhere', the first single from Ruby Boots's new album, Solitude, I was very much looking forward to hearing the other songs - Boots's voice has a siren's-call thing going on and I was in hook, line and sinker from the first notes. 

So expectations were high and it's always lovely when they aren't disappointed, as has been the case here. Boots – a.k.a. Bex Chilcott – sings with passion and aplomb, and these ten tracks make up a body of work which suggests that Chilcott takes her songwriting seriously.

There is emotion in these songs but it's not raw so much as naked. In this respect Chilcott is reminiscent of Janis Joplin - not in her singing style, which isn't as polarising, shall we say, as Joplin's. What's reminiscent of Joplin is Chilcott's heart and her lack of self-consciousness in singing about loneliness, when the loneliness isn't in the lyrics so much as they way they're sung. Which isn't to say that there isn't fun on this album - 'Baby Pull Over' is one instance of it. And it's also not to say that Chilcott is singing about her own loneliness. She's just willing to stand before the listener and express it, and that takes courage. 

These songs cry out for a cold afternoon by a fire and nowhere else to be, so you can play the album in full over and over (as I've done). Yet they're also songs which sound as if they're being sung from a fencepost across a vast expanse of land and sky. In other words: they're urban and rural all at the same time, and that's probably been achieved because Chilcott has respected the roots of the genre she's in while finding a way to translate that genre to a contemporary audience. It's one of the challenges – and gifts – of contemporary Australian country artists who fit the 'alt country' tag: their respect for country music is deep yet they seem to realise that it does need some adapting to audiences who would say they don't care about country music if asked a direct question. Chilcott cares about country music and she cares about her audience. It's a great combination.

Solitude (Lost Highway Australia) is out now.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Rick Price in The John Denver Story - 9 to 13 June

Rick Price is well known to Australian audiences for his beautifully crafted pop songs. A few years ago he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where he has written and recorded music in a range of genres, and where he composes with other songwriters. Now he's back in Australia as the star of the stage show The John Denver Story. I spoke to him recently and discovered that he's an incredibly interesting, evolved artist who always works to bring the best to his artists. 

The John Denver Story starring Rick Price plays at the Athenaeum Theatre in Melbourne from 9 to 13 June.

What's the history of your involvement with The John Denver Story?
It started back in 2011, when I did the first version of the show. The company, Room Eight, contacted me in Nashville, Tennessee, and asked me if I would come back to Australia to present the show. And I just think it’s a story worth telling and everyone has a John Denver song in their bones somewhere – I certainly did from when I was a kid – and I thought it was a really interesting challenge for me to do something that I hadn’t done before, which is present somebody else’s music and tell their life story, and that’s what sort of intrigued me in.

So what’s the John Denver song that was in your bones?
Oh, let’s see … there were many. But I would say, probably, ‘Hey, it’s Good to Be Back Home Again’.

Have you always loved his music?
I liked it when I was a kid, growing up. I think ‘Sunshine’ was one of the songs that really grabbed me first. But my uncles and my aunties – I come from a musical family – they all sang John Denver songs, so John Denver music was just like part of the furniture where I grew up [laughs]. And of course by the time I hit my teens I discovered a lot of other things: rhythm and blues music, I discovered Stevie Wonder and then the list went on from there – James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Crosby Stills & Nash, The Eagles. But I guess I’ve always been into that singer-songwriter thing. That’s who I am in my bones. I kind of do my own thing – I’m not one way or the other about other artists. Like, ‘Hey, great, make records, do your thing’. That’s what I’m doing myself. But I thought this was just an interesting story to tell.

I imagine that in doing this show you’re not attempting impersonation of John Denver but, rather, performing these songs as yourself.
Yes, absolutely – it’s not a tribute show in that I’m impersonating John or trying to sound like John. That would be foolish. There’s already one John Denver and we don’t need another one. So I just present his life story and sing twenty of his songs in my own way, but I stick very strongly to the arrangements and the melodies – I don’t move away from that and try to reinvent the wheel. It is what it is – I’m there singing John Denver songs and just trying to do a good job of it.

I’m curious about the rehearsal process for this, given that your own musical life is very full – were you able just to rehearse at home in Nashville and then bring the show here, or did you have to go through a formal rehearsal process?
There’s a full band – it’s not a solo acoustic show. We have pedal steel, drums, bass, fiddle and mandolin, and I play guitar and piano in the show. So there was a rehearsal process, but they’re a really skilled, fantastic band out of Melbourne and a fellow called Ed Bates, who’s a pedal steel player from Melbourne, he’s the musical director, so he put all the music together and I basically had to do my practice at home to make sure I could show up knowing what I was doing [laughs]. And it all went very smoothly – it was probably the easiest rehearsal thing I’ve been through, because everyone plays so well and they’d all done their homework, and Ed’s a great musical director. So it was really easy – I just slotted in with them pretty easily.

A lot of people might think that singing the same songs night after night, you’d get
sick of them – but are there nuances you find in performing those songs every night that makes them different every time?
I think the key is to be present in your life. In my life, if I’m present with whatever I’m doing then it’s the first time I’m doing it. It’s fresh if I decide it’s fresh. But if I’m telling the story in my mind as I’m singing, Oh, here’s ‘Heaven Knows’ again, or Here’s ‘Sunshine’ again, or whatever – I’ve done this a million times and I’m a robot going over and over it – then that’s what your performance will come across as. And we’ve all seen plenty of that. So that’s to be avoided. And the way I avoid it is I think, This is a new moment, this is a new opportunity to perform this song the best that I can, because that’s always my focus: I’m right here, I’m standing on the stage, my job is to sing this song and present it the best way that I can. I put my focus to that as much as I can. Sure, the negative thoughts come across the screen but I try to let them go. And it’s a fresh audience too, you see – if you were playing to the same audience every night, the same song in the same venue, yeah, you’d probably have to get pretty creative. But I think, as artists, that is our job, to be spontaneous and to be present. It’s the same with any performer. If you’re an actor – I’m not an actor – but they say that being present is the key, that’s what makes a great actor. So if you were doing a play every night and you’re Laurence Olivier – or you’re whoever you are – you’ve got to be in the moment, and that’s what makes a good performer.

Presence is also a practice.
Indeed it is, yes.

And it’s something I imagine that when you were starting out in your career you might not have done. Or have you always known that? Some people would discover over the course of years that they need to be present. It’s a difficult practice, I think.
It is. It requires a new mind, if you like. It requires a new way of thinking of things. It requires you to be aware. Presence requires you to be present [laughs]. But definitely it is something I have discovered over time, in my own body and experience I’ve come to understand that, but I’ve also heard other people talk about it and that’s intrigued me. Because when you do see a really powerful performer you think, What sets them aside? Why are they so good? When they’re just standing there – they’re not moving around, they’re not doing anything particularly special, but you’re engaged with them. And I think as human beings we connect energetically, in the unseen world, and that’s what makes us feel things and experience things that we can’t really understand. It’s a mystical field.

I think it’s the quantum mechanical field. Performance is quite physically demanding – a lot of people would think you’re only on stage for a couple of hours but that act of being present, being there for your audience, can be very demanding. I would imagine you’ve learnt over the years how to balance the amount of energy that goes out with the amount that comes back in.
You’re absolutely right. I do that in my entire life, really, not just on the stage. But touring – travelling, being on cars and planes, in hotels, having odd, irregular hours – all of those things can drain you. But I read this great quote recently and I’m not sure if I’ll get it exactly right, but it says, ‘If I’m present in every moment and make every moment the best moment, then the rest of my life takes care of itself’. And I think that’s kind of true. Like I’m here talking with you now – wherever you are, wherever I am, we’re connected by technology but we’re right in this moment together right now. There’s the moment and then there’s the story of the moment. So it’s the same on stage: I have to make sure that I’m not just being a little robot, you know, and I can feel it in my body when I’m being a bit of a robot. Sometimes I can’t stop it – I just damn well can’t get present sometimes – but it’s getting better. I find that I’m energised when I’m present, and I’m interested and I’m engaged, and that seems to have an automatic effect on the audience.

Well, it’s a huge compliment to them, I think, when a performer can have that extra dimension on their performance.
Exactly. You’ve put that well. I think it shows respect for your audience, and it’s the same in conversation or whatever – the best gift you can give to anyone is your presence, but we all struggle to do that 24/7. Just because we’re talking about it doesn’t mean that I can perfect it. I drift off the reservation a lot, but it’s nice to come back and realise, Oh yes, that’s right – I’m in my body, I’m here, I’m singing, I’m playing this music, and it means so much to these people - and I’m talking about The John Denver Story, because these songs are sacred to that audience. They’re part of their DNA. They’ve grown up with them and they’ve been part of their lives. Those songs are attached to the stories of their lives and their experiences. So it’s no small thing to just go out and do it. I’ve got to pay respect to that and honour that and do the best I can, which really simplifies my job, because all I have to do is go out and do the best I can – that’s it.

Clearly you feel the responsibility of this work – some people might think, It’s just a covers show, whatever, but you clearly feel that responsibility to the audience.
Absolutely. You know, at first I thought, I don’t want to go out and sing John Denver songs – to sing someone else’s music. I just wanted to be myself and talk about myself and be me and get everyone me-me-me and my songs. But then I thought, Wait a moment – this could be an opportunity for something interesting. And I was right. That voice in my head was telling me something: this can be a valuable experience if you make it valuable. And so I try to do that. I take interest in the job at hand. And then all of a sudden it’s like your black-and-white world turns to technicolour and everything’s alive and the audience is having a great time, and I feel like I’m singing well and I’m engaged with the story. That’s how I come at it – I realise that it’s not what you do, necessarily, but how you do it.

It’s still a mystical process, in some ways, for singers in particular, because I’m sure you’ve had those nights when your voice sounds like everything’s going right and it’s probably something to do with the quantum mechanical field and the audience and what’s coming back to you.
Absolutely bang on the money.

[The second part of this Rick Price interview will be published soon.]

Tickets from $30 - call (03) 9659 1500 or visit