Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Album review: Against the Grain by Troy Kemp

Troy Kemp will be familiar to many Australian country music fans. He was one half of McAlister Kemp, who re-created country rock in their own image (and arguably made it easier for The Wolfe Brothers to follow). Before that he had a solo career, and now he has returned to that path. He's still country rock, but his new album, Against the Grain, is toned down a little from McAlister Kemp's party-hearty vibe (although there's a bit of that in songs such as 'Whiskey Woman', 'How We Roll Around Here' and 'Crazy As You Want to Get').

Many of the songs on Against the Grain lyrically fit the country canon, like the title track and '100 Years of Pride'. Kemp also does a lovely ballad, as in 'The Ones I Love', and the rock ballad 'If I Had My Time Over'. In sum, this album offers familiarity to McAlister Kemp fans and also gives Kemp the opportunity to explore some stories and themes his way. Kemp always sounds like he's in control of his songs - this is, literally, the voice of experience, and he knows how to make a song listenable over and over again. 

There was also a bit of a revelation for me on this album. On first listening it seemed that Kemp's voice fits the country-rock genre: he can belt out a tune, for sure, and he sounds like he's enjoying himself doing it. But it's on 'A Little More Country' that his voice sounds truly right: smooth, easy, direct, with an edge in the right places. So maybe Troy Kemp is more country than rock 'n' roll, and if anything I wish the songs on this album were more of the former than the latter. Maybe next time.  

Against the Grain is out now through Social Family Records.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

EP review: My Country by Ben Bostick

There may be no new stories in the world and only eight notes in an octave, but where music is endlessly fascinating is in the places artists find within the nooks and crannies of those stories and notes. Sometimes an artist comes up with work that recalls history and also casts a fresh light on it; that sounds comfortingly familiar yet different enough to be fascinating. There’s no formula for that – it’s a product of the skill and talent of the individual concerned.

American Ben Bostick’s five-song EP, My Country, is pure contemporary-nostalgic joy. Bostick knows his musical history – and clearly has a pedigree – and he delivers it in a delightful way. He has a rare voice – deep, commanding yet playful, seductive. He can sound like he’s laughing with the listener – sometimes at the listener, but not maliciously – and also deliver a song seriously when required.

The title track, ‘My Country’, is a hootenanny of a song – everything that is upbeat and uplifting, and raucous and funny, about country music. In defending ‘my country’ – his country music – Bostick makes the case for why country, at its contemporary best (as opposed to its dark past), is a music of good times and escape from the humdrum of everyday life. Bostick has a rollicking way of phrasing something so that it’s both an invitation and a challenge: ‘If you ain’t never done something that you regret/Then I’m proud of ya – now get’.

The other four songs are honky-tonk gems of self-awareness and occasional sadness, but there’s never a hint that Bostick will find himself in the mire. There’s too much strength in his voice for that – and too much assurance in the way these songs are written and played. He’s the closest thing to a sure bet that I’ve seen in a new artist in recent times – by which I mean I’d go to a show and buy an album without knowing anything more about him. The future of country music in the United States is safe if it’s in hands like his.

You can buy My Country on Bandcamp.
Find Ben online at

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Tori Darke finds her silver lining

As she heads into the 2016 Tamworth Country Music Festival, Tori Darke takes a new single, 'Silver Lining', with her, as well as a nomination for the 2016 Female Artist of the Year. Recently I spoke to Tori about the single, her album of the same name, being an independent artist and, of course, Tamworth. Tori will appear during the festival on Tuesday 19 January at Wests Diggers, 3 p.m. 

We’re here to talk about ‘Silver Lining’, which is your third single from the album of the same name. How have your fans responded to the album?
The response I’ve received for the album has been more than I could have ever asked for. I have had nothing but praise and good reviews from fans, and from industry. As an artist that’s all you ever really want. It’s always very daunting releasing a new album, wondering if people are going to like it or hate it, what are they going to say about it. To have such a good response on a second album that I’ve put literally everything I have and everything I own, all my time and effort and money into, means the world to me.

I know you play quite a bit and do your regular shows in Tamworth – is it always a bit nerve-wracking to play new songs for your established audience?
Yes, it is. [I’m] always saying, ‘If you guys like a song, let me know’, and if they don’t say anything you think, I guess they hated that one. It can be really scary playing new songs – just not knowing they’re going to react. How anyone is going to react, really. And then you think, Maybe that one’s not going to work – maybe it’s not a good track for an album. But sometimes it can just be one person’s opinion, so you can’t necessarily take their judgement, or not saying anything, as the final say.

Going to the name of this track, and the idea of a silver lining, what’s had a silver lining for you in the past?
My life in general. I’ve gone through a few rough patches over the last few years and that’s why I thought this title and this song were so fitting for my album, because sometimes you just have that really down moment and you think, Nothing is ever going to get better than this. Or you break up with your boyfriend or your partner and you think, I’m never going to find anyone. Then you release there’s a silver lining – I’ve met someone or I’m happy, or something’s progressed in your life that’s made you take notice that life isn’t so bad and you can’t take everything for gospel because it’s happened to you. You just have to move on, pick yourself back up and get going again. And I guess that’s what I feel like I’ve done with my life, with several different things that I’ve gone through, and that’s made me a better person too.

A lot of people listen to music to help them through things, and no doubt some of your fans are listening to your music to help them through things. What’s the music you have turned to in the past, to help you through challenging times?
I guess there’s not one particular song or artist. If I’m feeling a bit down I try to listen to something a bit happier. If I’m miserable because of a boy I’d probably listen to something sad and probably just drown in my own tears – which a lot of us females probably do [laughs]. But I guess I just try to relate to something that’s fitting and I’ll then probably listen to it over and over and over again, because that’s just what I’m like. There’s so many different, great artists not just in country music but in all different styles of music that I try to listen to a bunch of different things and stay really broad, I guess.

I think that’s a good policy.
Yeah, you have to listen to a bunch of different things in order to be able to be not so one-sided when it comes to songwriting, because if you are then you immediately dismiss something that could have been a great idea – ‘Oh no, that’s too pop’ – and then you miss this really great opportunity.

You’re working in a field you obviously love – then if you’re a musician and a performer you need to love it. But sometimes if you work in a field you love you can stop being a fan like you used to be. You have to listen to music in a different way and look at performances a different way. Do you find yourself doing that, or are you still able to listen to music for pleasure?
I definitely listen to music for pleasure … but you listen to some things and you might not have been so critical before, whereas now you listen to a song and you might think, I don’t know what they did there. I wouldn’t have done that. It does take the fun out of it a little bit because you become so critical and so judgemental.

You put a lot of emotions into your songs. When you’re recording a song and you have to do a few takes – as happens – what’s it like trying to get into the emotion of a song each time?
It can be really difficult. You might just get it straightaway and other times you can be having a really bad day vocally or mentally or just anything and it doesn’t happen, and you have to just sit down and reevaluate everything and think, What am I trying to get out of this song? What kind of message am I portraying? How do I want it to sound? Rather than just going bull at a gate and thinking, I’m just going to sing sing sing sing sing, and then realising that it didn’t work.

So it sounds like in those moments when you are feeling that challenge, you think about your audience – you think about how to connect to your audience.
Yes, a hundred per cent. You have to think about how this song would connect with some of fifty [years of age] and someone of twenty-five. Can this song be versatile? Can this be a song that’s relatable to lots of different people? And a lot of the time it can. You just have to put a lot of thought and a lot of patience and a lot of effort into something. It doesn’t just come naturally sometimes.

And I guess it’s harder when you’re in a recording studio. When you’re onstage and you can see your audience in front of you, you know who you’re singing to, but in a recording studio that connection can feel a bit … disconnected.
Yes. In a recording studio you are in there all on your own. It gives you a great opportunity for you to connect as an artist with yourself and your voice, and really finding what fits best, but then there are times when it can be really disjointed and you think, I’m just not connecting with it today. And sometimes all you need is a break from it and you come back to it and just nail it, and the producer says, ‘I don’t know what you did, but keep doing that.’

Just to link all this back to the song – this is your third single and I’m always curious as to how singles get chosen. As it’s the title track some people might think it should have gone first. So how do you approach choosing singles to go to radio?
I’d love to say that it’s the easiest thing you’ll ever do, but it really isn’t. Some of the time you can wrack your brains for month on end trying to decide what to release and what not to release. I originally had a different song picked for my third single but then I thought, No, that doesn’t fit. This one fits better. I think it’s just putting a lot of thought and effort into the decisions you make because once that decision’s made, it’s made.

Am I right in thinking you’ve put out this album as an independent artist, and therefore you do get to make your own decisions? You don’t have someone else coming in and overriding you?
Yes, that’s exactly right. I am an independent artist, so I do have a lot to say when it comes to the creative side of things as well. When it comes to the recording process and deciding which songs and everything in between, it’s my opinion, really, and I can take other people’s opinions on board but whether or not I choose to listen to them [laughs] … You’ve got to follow your heart, in a sense, because the song that you don’t record because someone tells you that shouldn’t but it’s a song you feel like you should, you’ll always regret it. I feel like I’ve been really lucky because I’ve worked with a really good team to record this album and I don’t feel like I’ve made any wrong decisions at all.

I’ve talked to quite a few country artists now who are independent. For some artists in a different genre it wouldn’t be as viable, but I think when there’s such a strong audience relationship with the artists, as there is in country music, it’s really interesting to me to see how many artists are making a go of it as independents – and of course it means you do get to choose your producer and your songs, and the albums coming out of this process have all been terrific, including yours. It must have been a bit scary, though, I would think – at least initially, to think, Oh no, I have all this responsibility.
It’s the scariest thing you could ever imagine. Going onstage before my album launch [in 2015] it was one of those moments – my band were saying, ‘You’ll be fine’, and I was saying, ‘Oh my god – what if they hate it? What if this whole thing’s a flop?’ Because you spend so much money on it and you put your heart and soul – and, like I said, everything you own – into that. So all you want to achieve is a good response where someone goes, ‘That was awesome! We love it and everyone else will as well.’ That’s all you want to hear, really. But if you don’t get that response it would be absolutely heartbreaking – not that I ever have, thank god. But if I did, I don’t know how I would respond to it. Maybe I’d think, Music isn’t for me. It’s a massive risk that you’re taking as an independent artist, putting yourself out there, putting your music out there, and you’re really just lying your whole heart and your life on the line because a lot of those songs that you’ve written are so personal.

But it does come back to that relationship with the audience and the performer’s
willingness to have it. I think if you and other artists who have done this weren’t interested in pleasing your audience or even having much to do with them, yes, there’s a risk that you put out an album that they don’t like. But when you’re responsive to your audience, when you’re in Tamworth playing shows – I think you did three shows in 2015 – that means you’re making that connection and you’re really respectful of what they want, and it would therefore be hard to put out something that they don’t want, because you know what they want. Does that make sense?
Yes, it totally does. You know what your fans expect from you, to a certain degree that it’s okay to change it a little bit, but not to the point where they’re saying, ‘We don’t recognise you – what are you doing?’ You always want it to be to the point that your fans hear your voice and say, ‘That’s Tori Darke – that’s a new song’. But at the same time there are good moments when you can change yourself a little bit, change your style a little bit, and they will go with you.            

So what’s next? Are you planning a new album? You’re planning some tour dates in 2016 but I would imagine you also have some writing and recording in mind.
Definitely. I want to be writing and recording. I’d love to go back to Nashville to plan for a new album. It’s really just one of those things where you have to take each day as it comes, and for me 2016 really holds a lot of touring and I want to get back into the studio and I want to start writing again and just being really, really active with my career.

But there’s a lot to do, isn’t there – social media, for example. When you’re an independent artist you’re also your own manager as well as your own record label manager. So do you have a very organised diary?
I do have a very organised diary but sometimes it can go all over the shop. When you’re an independent artist you are your own boss, your own manager – you’re everything. So you have to have your head screwed on pretty tightly. I work a full-time job as well as being a full-time musician so a day off for me is very, very rare, unfortunately. You have to have all you ducks in a row so that when the time comes that you need to do something or you need to be somewhere, you’re there without any hesitation.

If you’re working a full-time job as well then maybe you can’t get a lot of time off for Tamworth. Can you tell us about your own show and whether or not you’ll get any time off to see any other shows?
I have one ticketed show in Tamworth which I’m absolutely thrilled to be doing again. The show is me and Mick Lindsay, co-headlining. We’ll do a two-hour show where Mick will be opening and I’ll be closing. We’ve also got the beautiful Rachel Farhim – she’s doing the support. Then I’ve got a few different things here and there. Little guest spots for friends and things like that, helping out a little bit. But other than that I plan on relaxing and enjoying myself, because I never do and you always usually end up run off your feet, and of course I’ll be doing radio interviews and things like that as well, but I do plan to take a bit of time just to listen to some music because that’s what we all want to do as well..

Monday, January 4, 2016

James Blundell's star still shines in Tamworth

It may have been a few years since James Blundell was crowned the Star Maker winner during the Tamworth Country Music Festival but that doesn't mean his star his dimmed. A perennial festival favourite, he's back in 2016 to play at Wests on 20 January (full details below). Just before the end of last year I talked to him about what's in store for the show and 2016, and about his Star Maker past. 

What is your first Tamworth memory?
Great question. It wasn’t winning the Star Maker award, although that was obviously there. It was going the next morning to host the Bush Poets session at Kentucky Fried Chicken, thinking, This is a weird industry. It was in the car park. KFC was where it’s always been and it was full. I thought, There’s going to be no one here – no one eats Kentucky Fried Chicken at nine o’clock in the morning, but yes, they do.

Did you go to do that because you’d won Star Maker?
Yes, that was my first media appointment. Although the other similar memory was sitting in the pool at the no-longer-existent Thunderbird Motel on the north side of town, and it was between the start [of Star Maker] and the heats, and I thought, I’ve only got these two country songs – I’ve got to come up with something else. So that’s going to be complicated.

I’m not even going to ask you when that was but obviously Star Maker set you on a path that proves that Star Maker is a valuable thing to win.
Yes, and I flippantly say it was late last century but it wasn’t even that late, it was closer towards the middle: 1987. And the event itself [was great] but it was the associated media attention, it was the point of interest for most of the mainstream media in Sydney and Melbourne. They wanted to see who the bright young thing was that year and, consequently, every other year since. Two things I wouldn’t be able to do [without it]: I wouldn’t be able to do the first fifteen years of my career again, I simply wouldn’t have the energy, and I wouldn’t have had the courage to do it on my own. It wasn’t a gentle progression – it was ‘go’.

I also venture to say that you look more like your Star Maker winning photo that Keith Urban looks like his.
[laughs] At least I had a hat on and I’m bald now, so you’re probably right.

Well, his teeth are different, for one thing, and that was quite a mullet he was sporting in his photo.
The clothes and the haircut are something I’ll never forget about Keith. He’s always been a man apart.

I was going to say that Tamworth has probably changed for you over the years, except, as you said, from that Star Maker point it was full tilt and I would imagine your Tamworths are always full tilt.
Yes. I’m determined to go as a patron one year. I’ve never done that. The time I fell back in love with the festival – I went through a period of time of just being away from it – I took my oldest boys, who are now mid-to-late teenagers, when they were twelve and nine, and they just adored it. I saw it through their eyes and I thought, This is a good festival. And the other thing I remember when it was going off flat out is that there was that there was a very good Caltex roadhouse on the north side of town that was the only place you could get a decent meal at two o’clock in the morning. I remember sitting there having a trucker’s dinner, thinking, I thought I was supposed to be eating in really nice restaurants and being driven around be a chauffeur and stuff here. But, oh no, this is the real music industry … [laughs]

As you were saying you wanted to go as a punter one year I was thinking perhaps it would be when you retire – except country music people don’t really retire because it’s acceptable to be eighty and still playing.
How true that is. I’ve actually thought about that. I remember when I started I had this plan that I didn’t still want to be doing it at fifty years of age, and I turned fifty last year and I’m still hard at it [laughs].

Yep – country music doesn’t let you go.
That’s right. I think you’ve just given me another song title.

The audience is unique, as far as I can tell – at least, in Australian music. The audience doesn't decide that there’s a cut-off point. It doesn’t say that it’s only interested in the eighteen-year-olds now. There’s an appreciation that your stories mature as you do.
You’ve just said all the things I would have said after your initial part. The audience are there for the songs and I think that does set it apart. And I think the older you get the more you’ve got to talk about. So, yes, exactly – I agree with you. I call it the red wine principle.

Getting better with age?
[Laughs] Yes.

And, also, you should have a little bed of red wine every day.

Absolutely. That’s a given. Don’t start if you’re not going to do that.

So given that we’re talking about audiences and songs, you have a show at Wests which is, of course, an iconic venue during the festival. So what can your audience expect from your show.
I’m actually really excited to be back there. I haven’t played Wests for years and years and years. The band is another incarnation – it’s the first permanent band I’ve had for years and we’re all local. We all live around the Stanthorpe region, which means we get a chance to rehearse, which makes us look a bit more dangerous. I’m blessed in as much as they’re all really interested in my back catalogue as well as my new album, so songs from ‘Kimberley Moon’ to ‘Hills of Brisbane’ to ‘When the Lights Go Out’. We’re pretty flexible. I always try to encourage people at the start of the show: ‘Don’t wait until the end to yell songs out, otherwise we’ll just play our set list. If you’ve got songs you want to hear, give us a hoy and we’ll try.’

Has anyone ever yelled out something that you really did not want to play?
Never not that I don’t want to but there’s a song on the first album written by Ana Christensen, called ‘Dancers’ – I’m consistently asked for that and I never learnt to play it and I only ever sang it. So I say, ‘You know what? I can’t play it’, and people say, ‘Yes, you can’, and I have to say, ‘No, I can’t.’ So you’ve just reminded me: I’d better go and learn it because I’m sure someone will ask me for it again.

The nature of Tamworth is that people often drop in to other people’s shows. I suspect there might be a bit of that for you?
It’s always open door, and particularly when I only do one show. I’ve let anything up to a dozen people who I’d love to play know it’s on. Usually we clash – they’re doing their own thing while I’m doing mine – but there is often one who’ll turn up. It’s never rehearsed and it’s always fun.

Will you be dropping in to other people’s shows?
I hope so [laughs].

Just putting it out there to the universe.
That’s right.

Now, I was a bit surprised that you were nominated for the Alternative Country Record of the Year award [at the 2016 Golden Guitars]. Have you ever thought of yourself as alternative?
I’m delighted. Is it an inaugural category?

I don’t think so – I believe Lachlan Bryan won it last year.
Good, then we can get rid of him as a contender. No one wins these things twice in a row, do they? [laughs] Or seventeen times in a row, as the case may be?

And I suppose ‘alt country’ is a loose definition anyway.
That’s exactly right. I’m actually delighted to be in this category. The producer Karen Waters, who owns Red Rebel Records, and I went down to the nomination announcements and we had a ball, because we were up for five categories and saying, ‘Ah, didn’t get that one, didn’t get that one’, and then they read out the nominees for Alternative Album and I thought, I like all the music of those people in this category, and then we got a nomination, so it felt like a really good fit.

Will you perform at the Golden Guitars?
I don’t even know whether we know yet. There’s a chance but I’m not sure. As a nominee there’s a chance – that’s all you can ever say.

Looking ahead: do you have any new songs brewing and what are the plans for 2016?
Ready to go. When I started the process with Karen it was going to be a solo singer-songwriter album – me sitting in front of the mic recording things – and it grew into the album Come On In. And at the same time there were another thirty songs in abeyance. I heard word via an alternate route that we’re looking at an August release for the follow-up album. The songs are there, we just have to figure out when to record them.

Well, yes, because August we’ll come around quickly.
It seems the minute you pass the half-century time seems to contract.

That’s just because you have a greater quantity of interesting things to do.
There you go. Someone said the other day – and I thought, That’s probably scarily right – that [at this age] you’ve lived more of your life than you’ve got left. You start to rush [laughs].

Tamworth show:

Wednesday 20th January 2016 | 1.30pm 
West Tamworth League Club, TAMWORTH NSW 
58 Phillip Street, Tamworth NSW 
(02) 6765 7588 | 

James Blundell's latest album is Come On In (Red Rebel Music).