Sunday, July 31, 2016

Interview: Amanda Rosser

Nineteen-year-old Amanda Rosser hail from the outskirts of Houston, Texas. Her first performance came at the age of five, in a talent show at her elementary school; she was given her first guitar at the age of twelve. I was impressed by her sound on her new single, 'Looking for a Man', and had the opportunity to ask her some questions by email.

You started singing and playing guitar at a really young age - can you remember a time when you weren't singing?
I cannot remember a single time when I wasn't singing. There is video of me on my second or third birthday singing, and my mom tells me all the time about how I used to sing in my car seat to Faith Hill’s ‘This Kiss’. I didn't start playing guitar or songwriting until I was twelve, though. That is when I really started to take my music more seriously. 

You recorded a demo at fourteen years of age and funded it yourself – you obviously had a big drive to get your music out into the world. Is music in your family – did you see someone else doing that sort of thing? Or was it a conviction that came from within?
I am actually the ONLY musician in my family. My mom can’t carry a tune in a bucket and she knows it, so that is okay for me to say. My brothers can kind of sing but I’ve never heard them really try. Music was a conviction that came from within myself. I know that this is a God-given talent that I am going to use in my life one way or another. 

When you continued that path, performing at open mic nights even while you were still in high school, was there ever a point at which you thought it might all be too hard and you were tempted to give up?
I think I almost gave up when I graduated high school and went to college. I felt like that was what I was ‘supposed to do’ and I had to ‘be realistic’ about my future. None of those things came from anyone in my own family, but from myself and what I thought was right for me at the time and what was the cultural ‘norm’. But even in college I always knew that I was meant to be doing something more with my music. 

What’s your songwriting process like – do you wait for inspiration to strike or do you sit down each day, or each week, and see what comes up?
I try to sit down each day or every other day and write something no matter how bad it may be. But the best songs I have written really came from a random inspiration that struck me at a moment where I would be running around looking for paper and a pen to write the idea or line down on so I wouldn’t forget it. 

Nineteen-year-old Amanda Rosser hails from the outskirts of Houston, Texas. Her first performance came at the age of five, at a talent show at her elementary school; she was given her first guitar when she was twelve. I was impressed by Amanda's sound when I heard her debut single, 'Looking for a Man', and had the opportunity to interview her by email. 

If you could describe what it's like to perform for an audience in five words (or less), what would they be?
Adrenaline Rush and Fulfilling.

What motivates you to keep playing and singing and writing? (Some people reading this might be in need of motivation!)
I honestly pull my motivation out of a conviction that I have felt since I was young that this is the path I am supposed to be on and I need to stay steady on. God has given me a gift and I am meant to use that gift to reach others and connect with people. If I ever feel like giving up, I just remember that I have been given a voice and I am supposed to use it!

This single is out - what's next?
I am pretty much just promoting this single, learning a ton about the industry, and taking it all one day at a time. It is a lot to take in at once! Of course I have my goals of eventually recording a full album, touring, opening for Miranda Lambert or Thomas Rhett, and things of that nature, but right now I am just going to enjoy the moment and take in all the knowledge that the people I am working with have to offer me.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Album review: Love & Lovely Lies by Imogen Clark

Imogen Clark has been a recipient of a nomination as CMC's New Oz Artist of the Year and her debut album, Love & Lovely Lies, is released by Lost Highway Australia and was co-produced by Harry Hookey (and his brother Jack - at least, I think it's his brother). These are country music credentials. However, I'm not convinced this is country music ... but if this sounds like a criticism, that's the only one I have, because this is an album of really great, catchy songs of the type I love.

The biggest surprise is actually Clark's voice, which is deep and earthy, and gives these songs a gravitas that someone her age (twenty-one) doesn't necessarily have. This is a quality singer-songwriter Hookey shares - he has always sounded more mature than his age suggests - so he was a fitting choice.

As the title of the album suggests, these songs are about love and lies, but they're not complaints, or plaintive, as some love songs can be. These are songs of strength and defiance, and there is softness there too. And they're catchy - did I mention they're catchy? There's an art to writing a catchy song that is both uncommon and underappreciated. Clearly, Clark has it and I hope she continues to deploy it for the enjoyment of a growing audience. I'll be in their number.

Love & Lovely Lies is out now through Lost Highway Australia/Universal.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Damien Leith continues the Winner's Journey

Damien Leith was already an accomplished musician by the time he won Australian Idol in 2006. Now, ten years into his Winner's Journey, Leith is returning to same favourite places and going to some venues for the first time on an extensive Australian tour. I had the chance to speak to him about the tour, choosing his set list ... and jogging.


You’re about to embark on a long tour and I once read that Mick Jagger used to take up jogging before a long tour, so I was wondering: have you been in training for your long tour?
I actually jog as well. I’ve done a half-marathon this year. I don’t know if it’s the same as Mick Jagger – I’m sure he does a lot more than me – but I do try to jog at least once a day.

And I would imagine that’s also good for your voice, as it helps your lung capacity.
It is. It’s fantastic. It also clears your mind a bit and I find whenever I’m in a town that I’ve never played in, it’s a good way of getting to see the town: you go out, you don’t know what direction you’re going and you just jog. I’ve seen some great places just by jogging.

You’ve written a couple of novels, you write songs – I would imagine occasionally the odd lyric or idea pops into your mind while you’re running?
Honestly, it’s the best thing for thinking and for coming up with ideas. I totally believe in that. Whenever I’m not jogging everything feels a bit stagnant. If I go out jogging all the ideas start flowing and it’s great.

Now, you have a very extensive list of places to go to on your tour – how did you choose the destinations?
We’re definitely going back to some places that we’ve been before, places where there’s a good following. But also there’s a lot of new places, a lot of new towns, where we’ve never been and that’s been the ongoing thing that I’ve wanted to do, which is really get to as many different places as possible over the years. You really want to play as much and as far wide as you possibly can. So there’s a lot of new places on this list and it’s going to be great. With a ten-year anniversary tour it’s ideal for those towns as well, because they’re going to get to hear all their favourites – I’m spanning right back to the start. So it’s great for those towns because sometimes you arrive in a new town just promoting the album that you’re promoting.

And I think it’s really important for a lot of those towns that aren’t major cities or even major regional centres, when someone like you turns up it’s great for the community because they feel acknowledged, like they haven’t been missed out. Everyone needs stories and this is a form of storytelling in their community.
A lot of the regional towns and towns that don’t get visited that often, they’re some of the best audiences, I have to say. Some of the best shows I’ve played have been in some of the more remote towns. The audiences are great and everybody’s out for a good night, going out to have fun, and I think once you get on stage with that in mind, you’re on there to entertain – that’s the idea.

You have eight albums’ worth of material to choose from for this tour. How do you choose the songs and do you plan to change the set list depending upon who’s there and what the venue is?
I’ll definitely be changing the set list. I put it out online that if anyone wants to make a request prior to the show they should jump on Facebook and let me know what it is. And I’m also going to be shouting out to the audience on the night. I’m encouraging people to shout out if there’s a song in the last ten years that they know I’ve done, I’m willing to give it a go – I know that’s a pretty risky thing to do [laughs] but I’m willing to try it anyway. They’re reliable songs, as well – they’re songs that you know people do want to hear, so I reckon half the show will be songs that people really want to hear and the other half will vary every night. It could be anything. But like I said, bottom line is that if people come out they will get to hear all their favourites.

If you’re prepared to put it out to the audience then it sounds like you’re rehearsing eight albums’ worth of material.
I am – that’s exactly what I’m doing. I’ve uploaded everything into Dropbox for the band, and even when we do an acoustic show – some of them are acoustic, some of them are full band, but even the acoustic show is still a three-piece on stage so everybody still has to know what they’re doing and have a good handle on all the songs. So it’s a lot of work but it’ll be great.

So the split of acoustic versus band shows, is that determined by the size of the venue?
It is, and it’s also determined by how many shows in a row in a certain area. To bring the whole band, it all gets very, very expensive flight wise, so normally if you’re going to fly somewhere you want a few shows in a row to justify bringing the whole band.

Apart from which you have to deal with all those personalities, which no doubt gets interesting.
I’m still with the same band I was with even before I went on Australian Idol ten years ago. We used to be a band in Sydney before I went on Idol. So we all know each other very well.

I think that says a lot about you, that you still have those same band members. But also clearly that’s a great band dynamic and you work very well as a team.
The guy are fantastic. Like I said, we all know each other very well. We all know when we’re having a good day and a bad day and all the rest, and everybody kind of works off each other. It’s like a little family.

You mentioned being there to entertain the audience – you obviously love connecting with an audience and you’re motivated by a love of story. Is that something that’s always been in you since you were young, that sense of wanting to connect stories with audience and wanting to entertain?
Yes, absolutely. Years ago when I was with my family band back in Ireland, I have always been really chatty on stage – a lot more than just saying, ‘All together now!’ If there’s a story, especially if there’s a funny story surrounding a story, something that’s light – you don’t always want to be too serious – I love to share it, get everybody else involved. It’s good from an audience point of view. I love it when I go to a show and you feel like you come out of it knowing a bit more about the person onstage rather than getting up there and just playing their album from start to end. I like to feel a bit more engaged and more connected.

It seems to me – just from casual observation – that that’s something that’s very strong in Irish culture: music, connecting with music, connecting with story. In Australia we have little pockets of it but it seems like nationally in Ireland that’s much more important.
It is, it’s a real cultural thing. Even if you think of a lot of the folk songs that have been written in Ireland, they’re all stories themselves. A lot of the really famous Irish songs stems from some story – unfortunately a lot of them from heartaches, things that have happened. But they’re normally very true stories. I think it carries on right through into the performing of it, and talking. So many Irish acts that I’ve seen over the years, I find they do the same – they get up there and  there could be a five-minute story before the song, you know [laughs]. But I’ve got to say, a lot of them are funny.

Because this tour is about the first ten years since Idol, if I were to ask you to describe your journey in one word, what would it be?
Well … ‘amazing’. It has, it’s been amazing. I’ve got to say I’ve been really lucky; for the most part it’s been really, really positive.

And what’s been the biggest joy of these first ten years?
I think the biggest joy is right now, ten years later, to still be doing it. I can think of so many great occasions, great things that have happened along the way, but the fact it’s been ten years in a pretty crazy business – and this business is crazy, and it’s totally and utterly unreliable in so many ways. You just don’t know what’s around the corner. To be doing it ten years later and to be out there playing shows, that’s a real joy.

Have there been any difficulties?
Not difficulties really. I think one of the hardest things is if you’ve worked very hard at an album and maybe the album hasn’t done as well as you want it to do – they’re tough moments. You have to wear them on the chin a little bit. So there’s been times like that when a labour of love just didn’t pay off the way you thought it would. But, again, that’s the nature of the business. You really just don’t know what’s going to connect and what won’t connect, and sometimes you’ve just got to go with it.

What are you most looking forward to about the tour?
The biggest part for me will be visiting those towns that I’ve never been to before. I love travelling. Anyone who knows me knows I travel a lot – I’m in Canberra at the moment. So to go to a new town, I love that. And I think the other joy will be playing songs that I haven’t played for a while. The Winner’s Journey album, the one straight after Idol – there were some great songs on that album and I very rarely play those songs. So to go back and revisit all of those, that’s going to be great.

A lot of people who go to see music performed might wonder how the artist plays the same song they played ten years ago or a song they’ve played over and over again – how do you find that your interpretation of songs changes? Is it an organic thing? Or do they not change?
I think it is an organic thing. Things happen along the way – let’s say a song like ‘Hallelujah’. I’ve been playing ‘Hallelujah’ now for about sixteen years, very much at every show, so even prior to Idol it was a regular song for me anyway. And that song has evolved as the years have gone on. There have been nights when I’ve changed the ending or I’ve done something a little bit different in the middle section, and then you walk away and think, I like that –I’m going to do that from now on. Then gradually that becomes the new version of that song. But when you’re playing a song you have played a lot, it comes down to the song itself. A song like ‘Hallelujah’ that I’ve played so many times, I’ve never got tired of that song, ever. There’s just something about it – the way that it’s written. It’s a magical sort of song that just has all the right lifts and dips to carry it through every single time.

And with that one song in particular, because Leonard Cohen has a very singular singing style – or non-singing style – and that song’s been interpreted by Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright, amongst others. So in finding your own interpretation of it, do you listen to other people’s versions of it and, if you do, how do you come to the core of what you want to do?
Years ago I used to listen to a lot of other songs and a lot of other people’s takes on songs, but I actually don’t at all and I haven’t done for a long time. I try to just get a song, if it’s something new I listen to the original, and I put it away pretty fast. Once I have the chords and I have a rough idea of it I normally sit down and then I’ll try to just work it to whatever sounds best with my voice. If a singer has a massive high voice I won’t screech and push to try to hit those notes or anything like that. I always try to find where it sits best with my voice and then work from there. And even my version of ‘Hallelujah’, it’s different again – it’s got a completely different ending to all the other versions – so it’s got its own place as well.

No doubt for your fans it’s their favourite version, so they’ll be looking forward to hearing it. My last question is: what are you looking forward to about the next ten years?
Things have changed for me over the last while. I’m still actively touring, obviously, and I’m still recording all my own music, which is great and I’m excited about. But I built a studio a while ago and I’ve found recently I’m mentoring a lot, I’m working with newer acts, and I’m kind of developing their songs and helping them in the industry. And I think in the next ten years all of that is going to become a much bigger part for me, which I’m pretty excited by, because I get a lot of satisfaction out of helping other people in the industry. There’s a lot to learn, and the more you can share definitely the better. If I knew some of the things that I know now when I first started, I would have avoided some of the pitfalls.

So this suggests that you might also move into producing some of those people you’re mentoring.
And I have actually, already. I’ve got quite a few different songs that are in the works, and some that have been released and have done very well. I did a song with Bella Ferrara – she was on X Factor a couple of years ago. Her single is released and it’s had millions of hits on Youtube, which is great.            What’s really, really cool with all that sort of stuff is you’re kind of away from it as well – you’re behind the scenes, which is a nice way to be. Sometimes when you release your own songs you’re so embedded in it and everything surrounded it, and it becomes really personal and you become really attached to it. When you’re working with somebody else’s songs you do your best and then you can let it go and move on to the next project, and you just hope for the best, and there’s a nice feeling about that.

For the complete tour schedule, visit

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Emily Joy's success with 'Barricade'

Western Australian singer-songwriter Emily Joy has leapt into the iTunes singles chart with her new single, 'Barricade' - in fact, only Keith Urban is keeping her from the top spot. The single is taken from her upcoming EP.

Emily is well pedigreed, having studied at the Berklee College of Music, Academy of Country Music and West Australian Academy of Performing Arts. She's also performed at the renowned Bluebird CafĂ© in Tennessee (made famous to the rest of the world in the TV series Nashville).

Here's the video for 'Barricade', shot in the beautiful Southern Highlands of New South Wales, not far from Sydney.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Interview: Kanishk

Far North Queensland isn't just one of the most beautiful places on earth - it's proving to be the cradle of a great musical outpouring, with several diverse artists emerging over the last few years. Kanish is a Cairns-based indie-folk artist who has just released a terrific EP, In the Water. Recently I asked him some questions over email.

1. What's in the water in FNQ? There's such a vibrant musical community there now. What made you move there from Melbourne?
I actually moved to FNQ to study, but it’s led to so much more. I only started writing music after I had made the move, so having a supportive local music community has helped me immensely in becoming familiar with performing live. The network of musicians here is great in that everyone supports each other.

2. You started by posting videos on Youtube - was that easier than playing a gig, or did you feel more exposed because the audience is potentially so much larger?

Posting on YouTube is definitely easier because if you stuff up you’re able to delete the recording and do another take. Unfortunately playing live doesn’t come with that luxury. I started playing gigs last year and while I’ve learned how to control my nerves, I’m still learning new things with every performance. I’ve enjoyed posting on YouTube because there are no limitations with the audience, but there’s also a different enjoyment you get out of playing in front of a crowd. I like the fact that it’s more intimate and personal.

3. Your style has been described as 'indie-folk' - what's your musical lineage? What did you grow up listening to?
Like any teenager, I went through obsessive phases of different genres of music, from classic rock to punk to alternative. Once I started getting into guitar though, I began listening to a lot of acoustic and folk music, primarily because I wanted to learn to play the songs myself. I was influenced heavily by Matt Corby, John Butler and Ben Howard. That said, the majority of music I listen to these days is electronic – artists like Flume, Rufus, Alison Wonderland and Hayden James. So while I’ve had folk influences, my taste in music is always changing.

4. You've released an EP - were there songs that didn't make the cut that you're keeping for an LP?
Before going into the studio I had to choose 5 songs out of around 15 that I’ve written. I pondered over the decision for quite a while and ended up choosing a range of tracks that would encompass different moods, tempos and ultimately evoke different emotions. I’d love to record the rest of the tracks on another record in the future.

5. You're an accomplished guitarist as well as a singer - do you have a 'first love' out of those
I started out playing guitar and initially had no intentions of singing. Then I started getting sick of learning instrumental pieces so tried to sing along with a song and post it on YouTube. I got a pretty positive response from people despite the fact that I thought my voice was nothing out of the ordinary. Since then, after getting that push of encouragement, I’ve learned to develop my voice into something stronger. Now I love singing and playing guitar equally, but I guess you could say guitar was my “first love”.

6. What are your touring, writing and recording plans in the next little while?
I’ve been writing some new tracks recently and I’m looking forward to playing them at a few upcoming gigs in Cairns. After that, I’ll be touring the east coast of Australia in December!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Interview: Tracy McNeil

Melbourne-based singer-songwriter Tracy McNeil recently released the outstanding album Thieves with her band, The GoodLife. Recently I spoke to her about recording with producer Shane O'Mara and about her musical life in her home country, Canada.

Your style has been described as country/roots/folk but I thought I’d ask: ‘Why country music?’ – if you classify yourself that way.
I guess I fell into it. My dad was heavily into country music when I was a kid, growing up, and Mum listened to country music but she was more Fleetwood Mac and he was more Conway Twitty. She’s city, he’s country. But they met in the middle. We didn’t grow up together – they separated when I was a kid but we were all still close and I saw Dad a lot. So the musical influence starts there. Lots of records – Neil Young, you know, the classics that you’d have around the house. Growing up listening to that. Then I think it was in my late twenties I was going to a lot of bluegrass nights and I got sucked into the country community in Montreal, of all places, in  Quebec, a French-speaking province. Sunday nights, go to bluegrass nights. I wasn’t even playing, I was just fiddling on guitar. I wasn’t even really writing. And I sat down after going to a bunch of those, and I’d written a few songs, but not taking it seriously, and I think that sparked it. I just wanted to try writing a few songs, and let’s try writing some country songs. And that was quite a while ago now. Room Where She Lives was my first solo album and it was very country. I was hanging around in Toronto and enlisted a bunch of incredible musicians – including my brother, who played all the mandolin. And then I moved to Australia three days after launching that record, and really to got to learn the craft of performing and writing here, I feel. I was really new at it when I was in Canada. I only did it for just under a year for real, playing gigs and making a record. So it still feels quite new to me. But the albums got rockier over time. Each record kind of expanded and I guess just writing from wherever I was coming from emotionally and not worrying about genre so much, and it tended to take me further out of classic country and more into Americana, I guess you could call it, quote-unquote.

Alt-country, as I like to call it in Australia.
I hear you. Alt-country, that’s what it is. I think Nobody Ever Leaves, my last record, ventured into the more kind of rock territory, a bit poppier as well in terms of hooks and melodies. And this album just carries on with that, I reckon.

I spent a year living in Vancouver and I did volunteer work at CiTR, the University of British Columbia’s radio station, so I was exposed to a lot of Canadian music and came to really respect not only the culture around Canadian creators but also there was very identifiably that East Coast, Maritime Provinces traditional music culture which meant that you could be a fiddler and be popular in the charts. So it’s always interested me – Canadian artists, I think there’s a really layered history and respect for artistry amongst musicians and songwriters that means that a lot of Canadian artists tend to emerge almost fully formed, if that makes sense. And just thinking of you launching into Toronto, the biggest city in Canada – which is a big deal, it’s like trying to launch something in Sydney or Melbourne here – but that sense of coming from that really solid Canadian background is what I hear in your music.
There is a Canadian-specific kind of sound and it’s really hard for me – I’m not articulate enough – to pinpoint it but I know it when I hear it, and I know that there’s some of that going on in me because it’s where I was born and it’s what I’ve listened to. I’m never going to sound like an Australian artist making Australian music. There might be flashes of it because I’ve lived here for nine years now, and I’m so influenced by the Suze Espies, the Mia Dysons, the women that are creating here – they are uniquely Australian, they’re not going to sound like … No one in Canada’s going to sound like they’re Australian. So you get a mix of both of those worlds, I think, with my particular songs, and then the band, of course, brings it to that next level because they’re all Australian. But there is something interesting going on. It doesn’t sound like an Australian artist but it doesn’t sound necessarily like a Canadian artist [laughs]. A lot of people have been asking me, ‘What’s music like in Canada? What’s the scene like, what’s the sound like?’ In one sense I’m a bit out of touch because I haven’t lived there, but from what I remember and what I have heard of recent stuff, it’s a little more polished, perhaps. There’s less jangle, there’s less grit. It’s a lot more produced. It doesn’t mean it’s not good – it’s just a different flavour.

There are communities, I guess. When I was there, there was the Halifax community that Sloan had almost single-handedly founded. There was music in Montreal, there was prairies and Vancouver stuff going on, and perhaps in Australia what we’ve lacked thus far is those communities. The Melbourne alt-country scene at the moment – of which you’re obviously a part – I can see the members of it collaborating, competing in a good way and using each other as reference, and the only other way that’s really happened here is Tamworth, but that happens once a year, and even on the Central Coast of New South Wales, where a lot of country artists live, they’re not necessarily performing in that space. So really Melbourne, from my perspective, is it.
Yes, absolutely. I guess, is it the age of the country? Canada’s just as spread out and it’s a huge country. But you do have a small music scene in Queensland – Dan Parsons is from Brisbane, Steve Grady. They’re all migrating down to Melbourne, of course. But there’s a little pocket there of people making great music. And you’ve got Ruby Boots from Western Australia. But it all does seem to centre around Melbourne.

Canadian culture has been more mature in several areas in a way that we haven’t been – until
now. I think we’re starting to grow up.
I don’t know the answers to it but it could be partly that. You talked about Halifax and east coast Canada – that’s all Celtic influence, as there is in Australia, in folk song and tradition and fiddle music, and that is so prevalent there. But then you’ve got a Cajun influence and Francophone, French, Parisian [feel] in Quebec. I lived for five years in Montreal and the musicians you would hear would have a huge – they’re singing French, almost Celtic-slash-country music. It’s got this weird fusion. And then west coast – I lived there for another five years. I kind of lived across the country [laughs]. Musically there I guess I would equate it more to the John Butler, that north end of Australia, that hippy – forgive me for saying that – vibe. The country scene [there] is probably five people. There’s no real alt-country scene so much. At least there wasn’t when I was there and I don’t know that it’s really built itself that much. You drink a lot of smoothies, you want to rollerblade around, you want to be healthy, you want to go up in the mountains and down a logging road and have the most pristine camping conditions, put your beer in a cold river with some rocks – that’s what you go to Vancouver for, not really for the music scene. But it exists. There are pockets all across the country.

One of my questions was going to be, ‘What’s your musical lineage?’ and I guess this is part of it – this is you being in all these places and seeing what’s going on, and then when it comes to creating your own music you can draw on what you need to make the song work.
On the one hand I’m not trying to write to a genre at the moment, at all. I think on my first album I did: I want to write a country album – let’s see if I can do it. I’d written maybe five songs in my life since I was eighteen – I started making up joke songs about my friends that probably weren’t even that nice. University, I’d go and lock myself in a stairwell because of the acoustics and do some weird open tuning and write stuff. But I never took it seriously and I was far too embarrassed and nervous to do it in front of anyone else. But I think those early days of my songwriting – when I didn’t know what genre it was – when we rented recording gear in my early twenties and thought let’s just record these songs – my brother, myself and a friend of mine – I wasn’t thinking about genre. Was it country? Was it rock? I didn’t know. It’s just what I was writing. And I feel like the older I get, the more I’m drawing from that original place where I was writing. I don’t give a crap if it’s a country song – sometimes they are, and if it suits, and it works, it is. If it’s more of a pop song, you know, that’s what it is. If it’s rock … I didn’t know how this was all going to fit together in the end. I had a song with ‘Ashes’ that was completely country classic with a minor twist. And then something like ‘Paradise’ that has that Fleetwood Mac-y vibe. It’s all over the shop and a lot of it I wrote on the piano, and I can’t even play the piano. I can just play a few chords here or there. And I thought, I’m at school – I have a day job, I’m a high school teacher, and I have access to a piano right beside my classroom, and I’d just go in there and nut out some chords and at my mum’s back in Canada use her piano. So three songs were written on the piano and a couple without even a guitar in my hands. It’s all come from different places – where I am at the time, what’s going on emotionally, personally. It’s all very, very personal – if it’s not happening to me, it’s happening to someone around me [on] this record in particular. So if there’s a basket it fits into, I don’t know [laughs].

Well, except you said it’s all over the place but I’d disagree – what makes it sound very cohesive is that it’s coming from an authentic place in you and it is, as you identified, that you’re writing from that original place you wrote from. I wouldn’t pin a genre on it either, so I guess that’s where it gets hard for people who don’t know your music – but for me it sounds like a body of work that completely belongs together.
Oh, well that’s great. And nothing exists in a vacuum, and I can sit here and say I feel that the older I’m getting, the more I’m writing from that authentic place that I was writing from when I didn’t know what a chord was and I was making sounds and putting lyrics to it in a stairwell – and it got a little bit more developed than that – but when I wasn’t writing to any genre specifically. But at the same time the other side of that coin is that there are five people in that room and we’re all listening to similar music. We’ve all grown up on Fleetwood Mac. We’ve all listened to that West Coast [USA] music – War on Drugs was our influence for the drum sound on ‘Paradise’ and nothing to do with Fleetwood Mac. So the stuff we’re listening to – War on Drugs, Shovels and Rope, all these Americana bands from the US – are old references to seventies bands we all love and contemporary bands that capture that West Coast sound beautifully. So it’s all in there as well – it’s not like I’m sitting in a dark room not thinking about stuff and listening to Jenny Lewis. So we all listen to the same stuff, and at the end of the day when I bring the songs in and we start playing them as a band, we know the sound.

And then, of course, Shane O’Mara comes in to produce it, and it sounds like he was a collaborator as well – there were the five of you in the band deciding what to do but he sound like he had some decisions too.
Yeah, he did. It was a real co-production. The reason we went with Shane, in addition to the fact that he’s the most amazing human being – I just love him and we just laugh our butts off, we had so much fun laughing – he just pulls the most incredible sound and his guitar sounds. Dan and Luke were in paradise because they could just look at the wall and there were, like, 200 pedals to pick, and Shane was instrumental in finding just the right one for that song. You’ve got five people who often really know what they want and what they want it to sound like, and you’ve got Shane, who’s got this wealth of experience as well but coming from a different place in terms of his influences or his sound aesthetic, [which] is a little different to ours. So we had to meet in the middle in some places. But all that beautiful, swirly bridge stuff, when it gets dreamy, that’s Shane [saying], ‘We need a dreamy bridge – let’s make it happen. What are we going to do?’ And he would just have the best ideas, and structurally too. He led us down some paths that we maybe wouldn’t have gone on before. He was awesome, and it was a great collaboration. A perfect fit, I think, to make this record.

But as the creator, does it ever feel confronting that you’ve got this essentially outside person coming to you and saying, ‘This is how I interpret your material?’
Well, that’s why it’s co-production – I’m a control freak. It wasn’t like I said, ‘Here’s some songs – do whatever you want.’ And I think Shane is really used to working that way. He’s used to people going, ‘Here are the songs, I trust you completely, do what you want to do with them.’ And this wasn’t the case with us – we said, ‘Here are the songs, we know what we want to do with them but we’re open to your ideas and we know that you’re going to bring great things to it as well.’ Sometimes we had to fight. The way he works, the way he gets such great sound, is this really cool way – it’s a classic way of working – is building things up one instrument at a time. There was no way we were going to do that, because we really wanted to have this sense of unity and capture a live feel and the band, and we didn’t want to lose that chemistry. It just felt too fragmented and sterile. So we fought, and we won that battle. And he’s limited in space – he’s got this great studio in his house but it’s not heaps and heaps of space. So we met in the middle, beautifully. We did all the band tracks live, so we could play as a band, and then we layered stuff over the top, and some of the tracks are 100 per cent completely live, vocal live, everything. But we really pushed to have that. ‘The Valley’ was one – we did it one particular way and went, ‘That is the deadest song I’ve ever heard – that’s terrible, we’ve got to do it again’, and we did it live and, like magic, it worked. So it was a collaboration but I’m sure if we’d just handed him the project it would sound like a completely different record.

You can certainly hear that energy of the live performance on it – and just to go back to the point of it being sonically cohesive, I think that’s one of the elements, that energy.                  
Hopefully the energy and then Shane’s mixing, his magic touch – ‘spicy additions’, as he likes to call it. The amount of reverb he’ll put on something, where he sits the drums adjacent to the vocals, how he pans things, flipping things into reverse – all those little tricks also bring a beautiful cohesion to the record. So it’s not like one song sounds like it’s in complete outer space and then we’ve got something really raw and organic right beside it. He helped us marry the songs together.

Sliprail is your label. Are you planning to release other people on that, or will it be for you alone?
Raised by Eagles’ last record was on Sliprail. I guess it’s like how Milk started out: we’re putting out our own records. We’re not on a label – we are our own label, we do everything a label would do. So we thought, well, let’s give it a name and at least it’s not untitled, it’s got something. We’d love to be able to finance other projects – we can barely finance our own. I imagine if Bell Street Delays – Luke and I as a duo – do a record, which is in the pipeline, it’s certainly a plan that that will go out on Sliprail. Unless another offer comes calling [laughs] and we need to fold. But for the time being Raised by Eagles’ Diamonds in the Bloodstream is on it and this [album] has been on it, and Nobody Ever Leaves, my last record, was on it but it never was official. You come up with a good logo, you put a name to it, basically, you do all the work a label would do. Who knows. But we do have ideas for a Sliprail collective, which I find even more intriguing and exciting. It’s more of a pooling of artists together: photographers, videographers. It’s like a one-stop shop. So if you are an artist and you go, ‘Jeez, I need photos done, I need a clip done’, Sliprail Collective is pooling people together and they offer services and kind of help each other network. And that’s something that we’re really interested in even talking about, and it’s just finding the time to put it into place. But I think down the track when we’re not really releasing records, we can facilitate that a little better.

My last question may be related to this, and it is: what, for you, constitutes a good life?
Good friends. Good health. Lots of holidays [laughs]. Minimal work – but a strong work ethic. But just working at the things you love. If you’ve got health and friends – love, I’d throw love in there. Good family, good friends, good love and lots of time off. But not to be lazy, just to reflect. And still you have to keep working to try to create great things that are going to last after you’re gone.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Album review: Hard Light by Travis Collins

I'm just going to say it: I'd rather listen to Travis Collins than Keith Urban, and I have been a massive Keith fan in the past. But when it comes to solid country rock performed with an ability to sing a sweet note and make it sound authentic, I'll take Travis.

Over the course of his last four albums Travis Collins has built his audience and his skills, honing what works for him - and what he's great at  - and leaving the rest behind. So it is that on Hard Light, his fifth album, he's presenting an accomplished piece of work that is personal - Collins wrote twelve of the album's fourteen tracks - and also entertaining. The way he achieves this balance is by being authentic: what he's telling us is true, and it's also true that he loves to entertain. He's found the way to do both so that it rewards the listener with an album that is very satisfying for those of us who love country rock (which is a genre that can get trammelled by those who practise its lesser cousin, 'bro country', and is not to be confused with it).

Collins has such a good voice - deep and masculine - that he could sing a shopping list and get away with it, but the material on this album that brings out the nuances of his voice and also lets him belt it out when he wants to. Collins is an important fixture in Australian country music: he plays and writes from the same place of commitment to country and passion for music that many other artists have, and he's offering something that has enough difference to give him a niche. It's a niche I hope he stays in for a very long time.

Hard Light is out now through ABC Music/Universal.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Album review: William Crighton

My introduction to William Crighton and his music came in a church hall in Sydney’s Paddington a few weeks ago. He was supporting Melody Pool and as he appeared onstage, his tall frame covered by a lumberjack shirt, jeans and boots, he looked like he belonged on Mount Kosciuszko, hewing logs out of massive trees. Then he opened his mouth to sing and everything else went quiet. At first I couldn’t quite get a handle on his voice: his rolling, tumbling way of articulating lyrics took a little bit of getting used to but after one song it seemed logical. There was no other way for him to sing. There was no other way to want him to sing.

The songs on Crighton's debut self-titled album were, as he says in the liner notes, written when he lived near Burrinjuck Dam in south-western New South Wales. The relative solitude of that part of that world can be heard in the space between notes and lyrics that is characteristic of the ten songs (and one extra version of ‘Woman like you’) on this remarkable piece of work.

On ‘2000 clicks’, written with his brother, Crighton references Cold Chisel and offers an alternative anthem for young Australian men, as he does on ‘Riverina kid’. On ‘Woman like you’ he sings ‘I’d never treat a woman like you like that’ which immediately prompts the question, Which woman would you treat like that? And that’s part of the appeal of this album: it’s a challenge, and it makes the listener concentrate and think, for profound rewards. Those rewards include the knowledge that you’re listening to a jewel, something as close to unique as it’s possible to get in a world where everything seems to reference everything else and there’s nothing new under the sun.

It’s clear why Pool chose him to accompany her on tour: despite great differences in musical style, they both understand how to write layered lyrics; how to be honest and mysterious at the same time; how to deliver a song so straight that it’s heartbreaking. Neither is interested in fakery, nor in being unsophisticated.

Crighton’s album leaves an indelible impression, as does his live performance. He is, at least to my way of thinking, one of the most important Australian singer-songwriters to emerge in the last few years. His reference to Cold Chisel is not an idiosyncrasy: several of their songs documented Australian life in a way no other act’s did at the time, and Crighton has taken that tree-felling axe and cracked open a similar vein in the earth. The Australian landscape, the distance between us, the way we tell ourselves and each other she’ll be right, mate and mean it even when we don’t, are all in these songs. This is not just an important album, it’s a bloody good one – and that’s the highest compliment any Australian can give. 

William Crighton is out now through ABC Music/Universal.

Album review: Burn Baby Burn by Kirsty Lee Akers

I’ve seen Kirsty Lee Akers perform live a few times, and each time I’ve been impressed: she has a fantastic voice and she engages well with an audience. But in the past I hadn’t found that her recorded work matched her live performance. She’s not the first artist this has happened to, of course. The electricity of a live performance can be hard to capture in a studio environment, perhaps because the audience isn’t there for the artist to work off, especially if they’re an artist who needs that or thrives on it. So that’s why there has been no coverage of Akers on this site, until now.

When I first heard Akers’s new album, Burn Baby Burn, my thought was: Finally. As in, finally there was an album that showcased her properly. Akers’s voice, with the wrong songs, could sound too much like pop when she’s actually got a great country voice. She can slip and slide into and out of notes with the best of them. She has a twang that lends itself far more to country than pop, and she has a knowing quality that is often absent in pop.

On Burn Baby Burn she now has the songs that allow her to show off her abilities while also making capturing some of the catchiness of pop that keeps people coming back for more. If it’s not entirely the album I want from her – I’m convinced she’s got some grit to uncover or explore – it’s still an album I’ve been listening to happily, over and over, because it’s a pleasure.

Burn Baby Burn is out now through Maven Records/Sony.

Album review: Silos by Sara Storer

Over the course of her five solo albums Sara Storer has chronicled stories of the land and the people who live on it. She has sung of heartbreak: the kind caused by droughts and by people. Sometimes she sounds like she’s from another time – sitting around a campfire in the eighteenth century, perhaps, preserving stories by singing them, her voice strong and true.

Storer’s sixth album, Purple Cockies, is faithful to her personal tradition, but it also sounds like an album of love songs. These are not the sorts of love songs that crowd charts with their similar-sounding promises of eternal fidelity: Storer’s songs are of love in all its messy, glorious forms. Love of parents, of children, of partners and place. Love that fulfils and breaks. It is also about love of life, and as Storer’s tone turns almost jaunty on ‘Here I Go Again’, for example, it sounds like she’s having fun even as she acknowledges that life isn’t perfect.

I took a long time to appreciate Sara Storer. I realise now that I used to find her voice too raw – not because she’s an unaccomplished singer but because she’s so willing to lay herself bare. Depending on where a listener is in their own life, that kind of exposure can be hard to hear.

Now it’s clear that Storer’s rawness has always been bravery. She has not been afraid to show us who she is and what’s important to her. She has not been afraid to show us her heart, and it’s never been more beautifully shown than on Silos. From the opening track, ‘My Diamond’, which is about her father and sung with her brother, Greg Storer, Sara Storer captivates. This is an album that holds you in its embrace and makes you want to stay there. 

Silos is out now through ABC Music/Universal.

Friday, July 1, 2016

EP review: The Next Chapter by Cassi Hilbers

If an article is being written about an artist, mention can be made of their age, for example, or other interesting facts that might affect how someone perceives them. When writing a review, however, those things can't be taken into account – neither leeway nor credit can be given. Songs are songs are songs, and an artist has to stand and fall on their songs when compared with any other artist.

So when I mention that Queensland singer-songwriter Cassi Hilbers is fourteen years old, it is as a point of interest and that's all. The six songs on The Next Chapter, which is her third EP, have to be considered in the context of every other release that's out there to hear. And they stack up very well. What Hilbers may lack in lyrical sophistication – a lack that often appears in early-career releases – she makes up for in the depth of feeling, even empathy, in her voice. That empathy is the clue that she understands that she's singing to someone – she's developed an awareness of audience, and that is where she reveals her maturity as a performer.

The six songs are mixture of upbeat and serious, well produced and appealing. It's a very good foundation for a girl whose singing technique and knowledge of her genre and audience will be her best assets as she develops her career. 

The Next Chapter is out now through Maven/Sony.