Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Interview: Nick O'Mara from Amarillo

One of the greatest Australian country albums this year has come from Melbourne duo Amarillo. Eyes Still Fixed is a gorgeous, studied piece of work, and a valuable addition to the national canon. So it was with great pleasure that I spoke to Nick O'Mara, one half of Amarillo, about the band's work and the album.

How did you name the band?
Amarillo is a city in Texas and it’s just a word that I really liked. I used to write it in notebooks and stuff, and I’d mentioned to Jac [Tonks, bandmate] that I might have a band called Amarillo one day. I was playing in Mick Thomas’s band and he knew that [Jac and I] were doing some music together and he asked us to play a show. So Jac was just on the spot and didn’t want to say we didn’t have a name so she just said, ‘Amarillo’, so we kind of got stuck with it – which is good because I liked it.

So she kind of stole your thunder, because if you were planning to use it, she made the executive decision …
No, it was there for the taking.

What are your personal musical influences?
They’re pretty broad. My other band, Raised by Eagles, is more kind of Americana, alt-country. I think Jac is influenced by … look, I don’t know. Who knows if you’re the best judge of what influences you? I’m not even sure. My main influence, really, is my parents’ record collection. They had a great record collection when I was growing up. They had the Stones, heaps of Dylan and Neil Young. A lot of guitar music, a lot of acoustic music. For Amarillo, me and Jac really love English guitar pop, like The Sundays, XTC, The Smiths and Nick Drake – that kind of ’60s English folk stuff too. Jac and I really love the same music, things that hit us both. When we get struck by something new it really kind of hits us both. When we were making the album we were listening to a lot of Australian stuff – contemporary Australian music. We were listening to a lot of Laura Jean and Ben Salter and The Drones, that kind of gear. But who knows? It just kind of seeps in – you don’t even know. Well, I don’t. You don’t seem to get to choose what kind of songs you write.

And I suppose you have to be mindful to not be too influenced by someone. I can hear a little bit of the Sundays in Jac’s vocal style but not so much that I would have immediately caught the reference.
It’s not for me, or for Jac, a very self-conscious activity, writing songs. You don’t really know what a song’s going to be until after it, anyway.

Do you pluck the ideas from the either and try to find a way to bottle them, almost?
Yeah, I think so. Some songs just come out fully formed, but definitely they just kind of pop up. That’s one of the good things about having a writing partner. I play guitar a lot and something will catch Jac’s ear in whatever I’m playing. I kind of improvise all day and they usually just drift off into the universe but if Jac likes something she’ll say, ‘What was that?’ and we’ll keep it. Also when you’re writing music you’re navigating your own self-doubt, so it’s good to have someone there who can confirm your enthusiasm for something or your doubt, if you think it’s shitful, so occasionally I’ll go, ‘Yep, yep, that is shit.’ [laughs]

It’s a bit like having an in-house editor, but the editor is also qualified to do what you’re doing.

So when did you start writing songs?
I started writing music as soon as I picked up a guitar, really. I started playing guitar when I was a kid and I’ve always written music. Writing songs – probably in my twenties. I came to songs a little bit late. Jac’s always written songs. When we met she had a whole bunch of demos, a whole bunch of stuff to go, and I did as well. Songs for Raised by Eagles as well. But definitely the moment I picked up an instrument I was writing straightaway.

Were either of your parents musical?
Jac’s whole family, her mum comes from this huge Irish family and they were in this travelling Irish folk band that people still remember to this day, called The O’Down Family Show Band or something like that. So Jac’s family is super musical. But my family – my mum played a bit of guitar and some piano. Dad was just a big music fan. And my cousin’s Shane O’Mara, so there’s a few musical heads in the family.

With your parents having that extensive record collection, they obviously had a passionate interest in music and it’s always interesting to me to hear how these things are sparked in musicians and at what age, and there’s invariably a passionate parent or two in the background with a great record collection, and by osmosis you pick up the guitar young and that turns into something else down the line.
For sure. And they were both really encouraging of it and encouraging of me discovering new music. I got an acoustic guitar when I was a kid and I was that real obsessive little-boy thing with it, but it wasn’t until a few years later that the music I was listening to was this magical thing that you couldn’t actually do. I was listening to guitar music hearing this separate, magical thing as I was teaching myself, and it kind of came together – ‘Oh, I can actually do this as well.’

Which is a pretty cool realisation at any age.
It was.

You mentioned that you were writing music but not songs – what do you think changed at the point where you started to add words to things?
I played slide guitar and mandolin for someone who I think is one of Australia’s best songwriters – Yanto Shortis, who doesn’t really play any more. I think being around him – I was his sidekick for a while, just watching him write songs. This was years and years and years ago. There’s such a neat thing to just the process of writing music is kind of this magical fun thing to do, and then after that songs are the same thing. I really love the process of doing it. It’s really cool to have a collection of songs, too. Once you’ve finished them and they’re done, they become this other thing – you kind of own them, they’re like these little objects that you can pull out and show people, like little statues or something. The process can be kind of fraught but once you’ve done them I really like collecting them – ‘There’s another one on the pile’.

I guess it helps when it comes to constructing an album – it’s not a desperate scramble for material, it’s more like editing the collection you have.
Yes, that’s it.

Do you ever find that other people tend to say, well, how hard can it be to write a song?
That’s so true. Writing music – writing a simple, neat little song – is heaps more difficult than writing a big instrumental piece, which I used to do a lot of as well. Writing a really concise little song that has some beauty and honesty in it, and is within those boundaries, is hard. It’s really hard. Or it can be. Sometimes it’s really easy. I often say that if people are really critical of someone’s song – ‘sit down and write ten classic songs, see how long it takes you’ [laughs].

There’s also that process whereby you have the song, you go into the studio, you record a version of the song, and if you’re taking it on the road there’s probably a point in time where you’re thinking, Hang on a second – that recorded version is not the one I like any more.
Definitely – they become something else. They grow legs and they can morph. Sometimes you can get so far way from them. I’ve had that experience where your recording of something comes on and you think, God, this doesn’t resemble what we do now. But Amarillo’s pretty close – the arrangements are pretty sparse, so it’s kept pretty close to the recording.

I noted on the songwriting credits that there was one shared credit with you and Jac but the other songs are split between you. But I found on each song, there’s a real interplay between her voice and your guitars, and I’m presuming you are behind most of the guitars on these tracks. So even though you write separately, do you have that feeling as you’re each writing that you’re dancing around each other, not jarring at any stage, but there’s a real sense of symbiosis. Do you feel that before you start to record?
Definitely. That’s really cool that you notice that. So the songs that are Jac’s and the songs that are mine they’re still really informed by what the other person is doing with them. With my songs that Jac sings, they become something else because she sings them – even in the arrangement of them and construction of them, we do that stuff together. And I love writing guitar parts for Jac’s work as well. She’s a really lovely acoustic guitar player, really simple but it’s a lot of fun to ornament her songs. She has some really super-personal songs - her lyrics on the album are really beautiful, so it’s really nice to get invited into other people’s songs and help them out.

And it’s a great way to put, to ornament the songs, because whenever you add lap steel to a song it does have that sense of an embellishment but a necessary one.
Hopefully, yes, just keeping it within the boundaries of whatever idea she had of the sound world of whatever the song is – you don’t want to break it. But Jac definitely knows what she wants musically so we just help each other.

A lot of this album was written on the road, and quite a bit in the Top End, in the Northern Territory and Western Australia. Were you there playing at the time or did you go on a songwriting trip?
We did a couple of gigs in Darwin and the Kimberley but we spent a little bit more time up there too, just trucking around and staying in hotels and motels and stuff. We’d never been up there before, either of us. It just blew us away. You feel like it’s foreign – it’s so Australian but you feel like you’re in another country. It smells like Asia or something, it’s just incredible. We went to Arnhem Land. The landscape looks prehistoric. We did write a bunch of songs up there that are on the album and we both had notebooks, we filled them up. It felt like that crept in a little bit. Then there was one track and we really thought about it when we recorded it – ‘All I Can See’ – when we were in the studio we wanted it to sound like how we felt about the landscape up there. I think we got it. I think Shane got it for us.

I’m curious about that process, because obviously translating a feeling and an impression into a song is tricky. As you’re talking to him, are you trying to describe it or are you experimenting musically until you get it?
Mostly you don’t but you’re right – there’s not really the language to do that. Talking about music is really quite difficult because you can only talk about it in really broad strokes. So if you say, ‘I want it to sound like the desert’ [laughs] that can be meaningless to someone who has no idea what you’re talking about. Or someone could kind of know what you mean. I suppose that’s the beautiful thing about music – you can’t really pin it down with language. But I guess it does make the process harder.

It no doubt helps that you know Shane well, so I’ll move on to asking about him. Were there any family squabbles in the studio?
No, no, none at all. We got on really well – it was really fun. He’s really good in the studio, in every way. He’s a world-class engineer and as a producer he’s really good at knowing when things are getting stuck. He’ll move things quickly. All the performances were pretty much one, two or three takes, mostly live. It was done quick and I think his experience is really so broad and he knows when something’s happening and something isn’t happening. So he’s really good like that. He really guided what was going on. And we were on the same page. We were driving there and I said to Jac, ‘I want my guitar to sound like Ry Cooder’s guitar on Sister Morphine.’ And I was setting up and Shane said, ‘You should go for that Ry Cooder sound on Sister Morphine.’ So there were a lot of simpatico moments for what we were after.

Shane is obviously quite busy and producing a lot of Melbourne artists. I recently interviewed Shane Nicholson and made the point to him that when you start to produce a lot of different artists, there’s a level of influence there culturally speaking – not that any of Shane’s productions sound the same – but there’s this sense that these people who are producing a lot of artists can really have a big influence on culture, because they have a lot of knowledge. I always pay attention to producer credits because I think it’s so interesting to see those webs of connection and Shane [O’Mara] certainly has one in Melbourne.
Absolutely. That’s really interesting. He’s like our sonic overlord [laughs].

There’s a few of you in the Melbourne alt-country scene doing great work – it’s obviously a mutually supportive scene and creatively rich. I don’t know if you feel that, being there?
Definitely. I feel so fortunate that there’s this thing going on – we just make really good friendships, really good collaborations. In every city in the world there’s thousands of musicians with nowhere to play, and we feel so lucky that there’s this thing going on that seems really rich and people are excited about. It’s a really good thing to be part of.

Eyes Still Fixed is out now.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Album review: Drawing Circles by Nigel Wearne

With repeated listening, an album that has a stunning impact on first play may lose the ability to create surprise, but it’s rarely the case that it doesn’t continue to impress and, if it’s been created by someone with talent, skill and experience, it grows better with time and further listening. This is the case with the double album Drawing Circles by Nigel Wearne.

Wearne has created an almost baroque yet at times piercingly simple – but not na├»ve – set of songs, chronicling seasons and moods, people and lives. ‘Simple’ because his intention is clearly to convey his songs, his stories, to listeners and he is determined to not get in their way, because he doesn’t need to; that means no elaborate production, and very little instrumental accompaniment. And there are elements of the baroque thanks to his instruments, guitar and clawhammer banjo, which are the perfect complement to his songs – as they should be, because he made them.

It’s rare to encounter an artist who writes, sings and makes the instruments too, and that is no doubt why this album is so unusual: it sounds so rich and extraordinary that it can actually take a while to realise that it’s an acoustic production. Wearne is one man with an instrument yet he sounds almost like an entire travelling show. He’s a troubadour who would sound at home on an Elizabethan stage even as his storytelling is crisp and appropriate for the modern age.

This is an album beyond categorisation although followers of folk and country music will find much to love about it. The fact that it can’t be easily labelled is a strength, and will hopefully help Wearne find fans in all sorts of places and pockets

Drawing Circles is out now.

Monday, November 7, 2016

EP review: Mae Valley

The New Zealand country music scene is growing, and artists like Kaylee Bell and Jody Direen are finding audiences beyond their home shores, in Australia. It can’t be long before duo Mae Valley also find fans outside New Zealand, if they haven’t already. The release of their debut EP announces them as major country-pop talents, with tight song construction and compelling harmonies.

Mae Valley’s members are Abby Cristodoulou and Hannah Cosgrove, who were solo musicians before meeting on the second season of The X Factor New Zealand. That meeting led to co-writing, with ‘Home’ the first song (and last track on the EP). Their experience as solo artists shows in each of the EP’s songs: this is an extremely professional effort from two singers who are clearly individual talents finding new strengths as a duo.

The EP was released in New Zealand in the first half of this year and Australia in the middle of the year. It’s taken me a while to review it but the beauty of digital music is that it’s still available for you to discover – and you should.

Mae Valley is out now through Sony Music Australia.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Interview: The Sunny Cowgirls

The Sunny Cowgirls have already passed a decade spent entertaining Australian country music fans. Their latest album, Here We Go, is a great collection of rollicking tales and heartfelt ballads, delivered in inimitable Sunny Cowgirls style. I spoke to Celeste and Sophie Clabburn - who were on opposite sides of the country - about the album and all sorts of other things.

You’ve kept up a good pace with albums, especially considering that you have a lot of other things going on in your lives. So what is the secret of your productivity?
Celeste: I don’t know … We’ve always got our eyes and our ears open. When we go on the road and things like that, we always meet new people and hear new stories, and we always have new experiences. We try to keep all of our ideas fresh and if we get an idea for a song we make sure we write it down so we don’t forget about it. I think that’s just life. Things happen and we just continue to write songs about our lives.

You said you hear new stories while you’re on the road – do people ever approach you and say, ‘I have this great family story – can you put it in a song?’
Sophie: Yes, that’s happened a few times. Which is always hard, because we tend to write about our own experiences and things that have happened to us. But sometimes we will hear a cracking story like that. Our dad’s given us plenty of stories, growing up, about people he’s worked with or people he knows, and they’ve turned into songs. So if anyone has a good story, send it our way and we’ll see what we can do!

Slim Dusty used to put the call out for songs to come to him – and you’re putting out the call for stories.
Sophie: [laughs] We’re not going to knock them back. We don’t need any for this new album but you never know, for the next one maybe

Given that you live separately, how do you collaborate? Do you Skype and send files back and forth, or do you tend to talk on the phone?
Celeste: We don’t really write our songs together. I’ll write my songs, Soph’ll write her songs, and then when we do finally get together we’ll play them and sing harmonies and stuff. We talk a bit on the phone and send emails but we’re not really into the Facetime sort of thing.

Sophie, does that mean when it comes time to choosing songs for the album there’s ever a tussle over getting an even number?
Sophie: [laughs] Well, there’s been a few tears over the years, but it’s been pretty good. We’ve been pretty lucky on this latest album – we had six [songs] each, so it was split right down the middle and we were happy. And at the end of the day we’re pretty mature about it – we try to do what’s best for the album, so if that means losing one of yours we know the other one’s going to be great.

You’ve already mentioned some inspiration that might come from stories you hear on the road, but you’ve written a lot of songs now            - are there ever days when you think, I have absolutely nothing in the tank here?
Celeste: Oh, totally. Every time we bring out a new album, it’s very daunting to think, We’re going to do another one. We’ve sort of scraped the bottom of the barrel – that’s what we feel like now. But somehow when the time comes around there’s always something new and something fresh in your mind.
Sophie: It has been two years.
Celeste: True. But you do feel like you run out of ideas – but you never do somehow [laughs]. It just sort of happens, which is good.

Sophie, you just said it’s been two years – but when you think about everything that goes on with touring an album as well as writing, recording, sorting all of that out, two years would come around quickly.
Sophie: It does. I can’t believe the last eleven years – which is the amount of time we’ve been doing this – have absolutely flown by. We can’t believe that we’ve done eight albums in that time frame. But we make plenty of time for our personal lives as well. There are always new things going on in our personal lives – I think that’s where the songs come from most of the time.

‘Cowboy’ is the latest single from the album – was it inspired by any real-life events?
[both laugh]
Celeste: I guess it’s half true. Soph did recently get married and my brother does work FIFO. It’s not like my all-time is to meet a cowboy – that’s not really the thing – but, hey, if someone who looked like Chris Hemsworth came along I wouldn’t say ‘No’, you know.

I quite liked the array of potentials you had in the video clip – it must have been an interesting casting day.
Celeste: [laughs] It was good fun. They were lovely blokes and good sports. It was all very funny.

Do you have a favourite song on the album?
Sophie: I haven’t been asked that question yet. I guess ‘Cowboy’ is my favourite at the moment. The clip’s on CMC and I still laugh every time I see it – it’s so silly. But I’ve got another song on the album which is about supporting your partner through times of drought, called ‘I’ve Got Your Back’, and that’s one of my favourites, I’d say.
Celeste: I’m with Soph – I still like ‘Cowboy’ and I was going to mention ‘I’ve Got Your Back’ as well. Another one is ‘Took Me Back’, which is about wishing you could back in time a bit when life was a little less complicated and a little bit more simple and you didn’t have to be so politically correct all the time [laughs]. There’s lots of songs on the album and it will be interesting to see what everybody else thinks of it.

You mentioned being politically correct, but country music is probably one genre where you can test the boundaries of that a little bit.
Celeste: True, we are lucky like that. We get away with it a little bit more in country music.

‘I’ve Got Your Back’ is one of two or three ballads on the album – there’s ‘I Need You’ as well. I love them because your voices really come through in that slower style. Do you like singing ballads?
Sophie: Yes. The majority of our songs are upbeat, uptempo sorts of songs, and they’re the ones that we enjoy singing, that get the crowd going, and they’re more ‘us’, I would say. But it’s really nice to throw in a ballad every now and again because it’s not something that we do very often, but when we do it is nice to break it up. Some ballads we sing terribly but if the song is right it can really work, and it’s a great dynamic in the show as well, to bring it all down every now and then.

‘Those Big Hands’ mentions barra catching and bull roping – it sounds like it could be a Northern Territory story.
Celeste: It is about the Northern Territory. I used to work up there – I did a stint up there one season. My boss had these huge hands and             you’d just hear everything about the Territory, so that’s stuck with me for a few years, and when we were writing this album I thought I’d better write a song about my Northern Territory boss.

The last song on the album is ‘Where I Wanna Be’ so I’d like to ask you both: are you where you want to be?
Celeste: Definitely.
Sophie: The only downfall for me – I love living in Gunnedah but all my family is over in Perth and Celeste is there at the moment as well. She sort of floats around a bit but I hate being that far away from everyone. If everyone could move to Gunnedah that’d be great [laughs].
Celeste: [laughs] Good luck with that, though.

The time difference with Perth can make things tricky, especially once daylight saving starts in the east.
It is hard. I’m lucky in that Soph and I are going on tour next week. I get to see her a lot more than my folks do because of the gigs, but it is a shame. It is a long way away. But who’s to say that I won’t move one day – you never know.

I’ll move on to the mechanics of the album – namely, how you came to choose Matt Fell as your producer.
Celeste: Matt is an amazing producer. We’d never worked with him before but obviously had heard a lot about him and his work. He produced Sara Storer’s album and we’re massive fans of her. So when the chats came around about who we were going to get to produce, Matt was top of our list. When he agreed to do it we were thrilled but when we were actually working with him, he exceeded our expectations so much – he’s a lot more talented than we could even imagine.We think he’s done an amazing job as producer and we hope to work with him again, for sure.

And you had quite a superstar band: Glen Hannah, who’s ubiquitous because he’s really good; Shane Nicholson on guitar; Michele Rose, who plays pedal steel for a lot of people. Was it fun working with those chaps?
Sophie: It’s always fun because they’re our friends as well, so it’s lovely to see them outside of work and when we’re working together, and watching them in the studio doing their thing, it’s mind blowing every time. They’re so talented and lovely blokes. We couldn’t have asked for a better team.

It does beg the question: who is in your touring band?
Celeste: None of those blokes.
Sophie: Unfortunately!
Celeste: They’re all busy.
Sophie: Our guitarist, Rusty Crook, has been with us from pretty much the very beginning – I think he joined our group in 2006, so we like to call him our third Sunny Cowgirl. Every show we’ve ever done, Rusty will be on stage with us. He’s from Goulburn. We have Ben Kant playing drums, from Melbourne, and he’s been with us for a fair few years now as well. So it’s a really good tight little touring band. We’re like a little family, so we get along really well and have lots of fun. We’re also bringing Jemma Beech on the road with us for this tour. She’s an up-and-comer, newbie on the road, so we’re all looking forward to working with her and I reckon the crowds will really go for her.

Because everyone is coming from different places, do you rehearse ahead of a tour or have you been together for so long now that you can go from a standing start?
Sophie: That’s what we should be doing …
Celeste: We’ll have a quick rehearsal, but the boys are so professional and Soph and I have done our homework, so we should be right – fingers crossed.

The tour is really quite extensive and you’re going to a lot of places, so how did you choose your stops?
Sophie: We just wanted to start with the east coast and pick some towns that we haven’t visited for a while, so it’s great to get back to them. We haven’t been up to the top of Queensland for a while so we’re really looking forward to getting up there and seeing all those guys. And then we make our way down to Victoria, which is always a really great spot – really good, loyal fans down there – so it’s always good to get back there. Then hopefully next year we’ll make it across west as well.

And, Sophie, your parents would like it if you could get across west because then you could see them.
Sophie: Yes, I know, I’m surprised we haven’t booked the gigs already.

This current schedule stops in December – but, of course, Tamworth is in January, so do you have Tamworth plans?
Celeste: Yes, we have two shows – at the Longyard Hotel, which will be good fun. We have an up-close-and-personal show and then on Australia Day we have an Australia Day concert, so we thought that would be pretty fitting for us – it’s called the Green and Gold Australia Day Show.

My last question is: eleven years ago, when this adventure started, did you have plans of having a country music career or did you think, Let’s give it a shot and see what happens?
Sophie: Since we were little girls it’s something that we’ve always wanted, and we weren’t sure that it was actually going to happen, but it’s always been our dream to be able to play and record and perform for a living. So when we got that record deal in 2005 we thought, Here’s our chance to make an album and hit the road – we’re living the dream. But I don’t think that either of us really thought that we’d be going for the next eleven years, still going strong and still touring. We’ve been really lucky, and we have been working hard for the last eleven years but we do feel lucky to be able to do this for a living.

And you don’t keep going for that long unless you’re doing something that people love – you’re obviously producing music and putting on shows that your audiences love, and you’ve respected them along the way. Country music audiences can really tell if someone’s heart isn’t in it – or if you’re unprofessional. You’ve done all the right things to make it a career.
Celeste: Thank you – we try. It’s nice to know that people still want to come out to our shows and they still get excited when we bring out an album. We must be doing something right, which is nice.

Here We Go is out now. 
The Sunny Cowgirls are on tour. For dates, go to:

Thursday, November 3, 2016

EP review: Open Hands and Enemies by Dan Owen

Some voices are made for country music – and UK artist Dan Owen’s is one of them. However, he is not writing, singing or recording country music, so consider his inclusion on this blog as a manifestation of a wish-list item.

Owen has a great deep, gutsy voice that, given time, might be applied to some gothic backwoodsy tales but he uses it to very good effect on the four tracks on his debut EP, which are more in the indie pop/rock vein. ‘Made to Love You’ is the single and opening track; it’s a dark rumination about a dark relationship and it sets the tone for the EP, which is of the minor-key persuasion.

The four songs on this EP are well constructed and clearly sung – and if I’m fond of mentioning singers who sing ‘cleanly’ it’s because it’s important. A singer who can enunciate clearly is a communicator who wants to make sure his or her audience understands what’s going on. This is the mark of an artist who is courteous towards their listener, and the fact that Owen achieves this on his very first outing establishes him as a performer who wants to connect, and has the skill to do it. No doubt, this will find him many fans.

Open Hands and Enemies is out now.

Dan Owen appears at The Waiting Room, London on 15 November 2016.