Monday, October 30, 2017

Drew McAlister is going his way

Drew McAlister is one of the busiest songwriters in Australian country music - when he's not writing and releasing his own music. His latest album is Coming Your Way, which is distinctively McAlister's sound yet also takes him in a new direction - and perhaps even towards One Direction ...

Congratulations on the album, I hope you are feeling justifiably proud.
Yes, absolutely – I’m stoked. I put everything into it. It feels really good.

The first single is ‘Coming Your Way’ and I detect a bit of a Highlands rock vibe in there. I know your family is Scottish in origin, so I thought I’d ask you if there is any Scottish music you love?
No, there’s not. But I love the pipes. I was trying to find a way to get pipes onto this album but it didn’t eventuate. I had a guy lined up and everything but it didn’t quite come to fruition. That song has definitely got [that vibe] and I don’t even know where it came from. I don’t really listen to Celtic stuff. But that song I wrote on my own over a couple of months and it just kind of came out. It’s not like I was listening to anything in particular at the time. I don’t know – maybe over the years it’s something that filtered in.

As you mentioned, you wrote that song on your own – and that isn’t something you do very often because you’re a very frequent collaborator with other Australian country music artists in particular. What do you love about collaboration?
I guess it’s what I’ve always done. I started out many, many years ago when I was 18, going around Sydney to every studio you could think of, writing with people, and it’s the way I started out. It seems to be the way that I get great songs. But having said that, writing this song on my own has taught me something. I think it’s going to be something that I do more often. Because I kind of surprised myself, to be honest. You can sit in a co-write and sometimes one person can put in more than the other, but generally speaking, across the board, you split it three ways because if those people weren’t in the room you wouldn’t have come up with the idea. But I think about how much I’ve contributed to songs and co-writes in the past, and in some cases it’s been a significant amount. So writing that song [‘Coming Your Way’] taught me that I might just sit down and write a few more on my own, see what I can come up with.

Given that collaboration is how you started, it’s almost as if you’ve never had a chance to explore this on your own before.
No, I’ve never really just sat and written on my own … It’s made me realise that maybe I have a bit more to say on my own than I thought.

Your name comes up so often when other artists talk about co-writes – I sometimes wonder if there’s any artist you haven’t collaborated with!
[Laughs] I’ve been signed as a writer with different publishing companies for years, so I’ve always gone out of my way to try to justify the fact that I was even signed as a writer. Getting a publishing deal back in the day was not so hard to do – a lot harder to do now because print and copyright and all that stuff, the market’s pretty much died because there’s no way to make any money out of it any more, really. It’s something I’ve always tried to justify so I’ve always worked hard writing for people. I’ve slowed down a little bit now, especially on this last album I just wrote with the people I wanted to write with and had a good track record with – guys I felt comfortable with – so I slowed down collaborating with a lot of people. But we’ll see what the future holds. The album is out now. I’ve got some more tunes in my brain and I’m sure they’ll come out at some point.

Over the years you’ve done a lot of your own stuff, whether it was with McAlister Kemp or solo. Writing songs with other people – is that almost like the day job? And then your own stuff feels different? Or is it all part of a continuum?
It’s interesting you ask that question – a day job is the way that I’ve tried to treat it. I’ve made sure in the past that I’ve locked away co-writes during the week – that way you’ve got to show up, you’ve got to write a song. Much how they do it in Nashville: guys there write five days a week, that’s their job. I’ve become good at showing up with not one idea and coming out with something [laughs] just because I had to. Just showing up and doing it, trying to treat it like a job. You’re a writer, you know that you can sit for hours and write stuff and it doesn’t mean you’re going to get paid for it but at the end of the day you do it because you love it and you hope that it transcribes into financial stuff down the track. So I have tried to treat it like a job but it does go up and down. I’ve tried to maintain that regularity – it doesn’t mean you come up with stuff all the time ... But getting that album out, coming to that point, is a massive brain thing for me. So we’ve got to that point and now that’s out, there’s other stuff that goes with that that I’ve now got to work on – gigs and all that stuff. But I’ll start to get an itch back and I’ll start to write again definitely.

Someone who’s on the outside of the writing process – who perhaps wants to be a songwriter – that idea of showing up five days a week and being able to summon that creativity might seem odd. Some people might say you should wait for the muse to turn up. But are you a believer in that idea that it’s showing up that can trigger the creativity?
That’s everything. That’s everything. Showing up is everything. You just have to be in the room. You don’t know what will come. I write with Allan Caswell a lot, over the years we’ve had days where we’ll sit there for three hours and nothing comes out but at least we were there trying [laughs]. And then other days we’ve written some beautiful songs and neither of us came with an idea but on that particular day something aligned and brains were functioning a certain way and you come up with something awesome. I’m just a big believer in the idea that you can create something that didn’t exist four hours ago which could potentially move people – that is just the coolest thing ever. That never gets old to me. These little acoustic demos you do and then seeing them become full-blown songs that you then get to play in front of thousands of people – that whole little trip, it never gets old. It’s pretty cool [laughs].

And I’m guessing that the fact you think it never gets old is the reason it continues to happen for you. I can hear it in your voice- that positive energy you associate with your work keeps it flowing.
Absolutely. Even when you’re writing depressing songs where you’re laying your heart out in a room of people you don’t know that well, it’s still souls getting together creating something. That’s the most organically real part of this industry, the creation of the music. Then the performing of it, for that hour and a half on stage. They’re the two things that should never be tarnished, I don’t reckon. Those two bits are, I guess, why we keep coming back, really.

I suppose it is mysterious that you need to go through all that bit in the middle to get there, because what you’ve just described, the song creation, is you beginning to create something that will ultimately connect with an audience live or recorded, but there is that machinery in the middle that you have to go through to connect, and it does seem a little bit unwieldy.
Well, yes, it is, but this has been going on for many, many years. The music industry, that ever-changing monster. But I guess the cool thing is that whether you get paid or not, people will still create music because that is the most awesome thing ever, to be able to write songs – and write books, write, create. That’s just the most cool thing ever and there’s a whole bunch of other people out there who know that we’ll always create so they’ll money off us in some way. But if you get savvy and you work it out – and I’m starting to, in my forties – you can make money out of it and be a bit smarter about how you then deliver your creation to the world.

And it must be good, particularly for a country music artist, to have a great audience on the other side. That audience stays with artists and also stays with the genre.
Oh man, ain’t that the truth. We’re one of the only genres I know of where you still go out after a gig and meet the audience and sign stuff and talk to them. I love doing that. And country music fans, they don’t like bullshit. They are just straight to the point. If you’re going to try to piss in their pocket they know straightaway. Because they’re blue collar – they are down-to-earth humans doing their best. And I’m one of them. They are a unique genre and I love that about them. I’ve been on both sides – I was signed as a pop solo artist, years ago now, with EMI and all the crap that that entailed, there was nothing real about it. So I do love the fact that this genre gives that back to you and we try to give them that as well.

It is a relationship. And, as a I like to say, country music is our national storytelling in song, and I think the artists and the audience really know their roles in that.
Absolutely. If I look at the songs I’ve written over the years touching on certain subjects, there is the blue-collar thing in its many facets. Down-to-earth Australians who are struggling. You look at the facets that could entail, what you could write about, and there are many, many things. I try to touch on it in this new album. The more you can look into it, hardship and hope, those two words, there’s so many things that you could write about because everyone’s story is different. So I’ve got plenty more albums in me – whether I get to record them or not, we’ll see.

You mentioned that you were signed as a pop artist, and your musical abilities have tended towards the rock and pop end of country. I’m interested in which artists have been influential on you as a country music artist.
There’s a lot. Tim McGraw and Zac Brown – they’re very different. Tim McGraw doesn’t write but he picks songs for his audience that are contemporary and still saying something. You’ll always find one or two songs on a Tim McGraw album that are so beautifully crafted because he’s got the handpick o the best songwriters in Nashville. I always listen to his albums because you’ll always find a gem there. He may never play it live but you’ll be able to sit in the car and go, ‘My god – listen to this song’, and tear up or whatever. Zac Brown, for different reasons. He’s organic – he writes songs that move me. But also the way he carries himself, the way he conducts himself in this industry, he’s not doing what everybody else is doing. He’s always trying to push the boundaries. And from a Tim McGraw point of view, the production on all his albums is awesome. It’s new. It’s always fresh. There’s always something that he’s doing that’s completely fresh, because the guys who are producing his album are cutting edge. Whereas Zac Brown can have a really dry production, and a lot of money spent on it, but the lyric and the song do the job.

To come back to songwriting: it’s really hard to write a catchy song and you’re really, really good at it. I often think pop music can be underrated because the presumption is that it’s easy to write a catchy song but I reckon it’s super hard.
I’m a huge One Direction fan. I wasn’t until my girls were born but now they’re both right into One Direction. My eldest has a locket with Harry [Styles] in it – she’s eight years old. I started listening to their stuff. That pop sensibility I’ve always been big on because I’ve listened to a lot of that stuff over the years, but you listen to a One Direction song, it’s awesome. Listen to the hooks – you can’t help but sing along to that stuff. I’m not just talking vocal hooks. It’s guitar hooks, it’s the structure of the song, it’s coming back to things. I’ve tried to implement that in what I write – I’ve always tried to do that – even if it’s a lyric that’s a very moving lyric, that’s very real and honest and someone’s probably going to cry listening to it, you can still implement that stuff into a song so there are hooks in it. You’ve got to have hooks. It’s like ABC for kids – that’s why they’re written that way, so that when someone listens to it, you’ve got to be able to hum it before you can sing it, because not everyone’s going to know the lyric, so you’ve got to have that hook, and I’m always conscious of that when I’m trying to write a song.

But I do think it’s hard – it’s that musical sweet spot, and to not do it the same way over and over again is probably the hardest bit.
Well, for example, in a bunch of my songs I’ve got the ‘whoa whoa whoas’, right? Caswell hates it – he says, ‘Are we going to put another whoa-whoa in?’ But listen to a lot of country, there’s whoas in every frickin’ song – it’s just how you implement them and how you say them. When you’re singing in front of thousands of people, that’s the one thing they can always sing back. But you’ve got to make sure there’s some meat and potatoes in the rest of the song because you can’t just do a whoa-whoa-whoa song all the way through – there has to be something else under the hood.

Speaking of songs – on this album, do you have any favourites or are they all your favourites?
Oh, they all are. And if you listen to the album there’s not one that’s remotely the same as the next. I’ve definitely tried to make it an interesting album for anyone to listen to. I love them all. ‘Coming Your Way’ inspires me. ‘Kissing a Girl Goodnight’ – I didn’t write that song but I picked it because it’s beautiful and it’s also about me and about a lot of people. ‘Better Buzz’ – just for the pure fact it’s got a Stones feel to it. It’s cheeky and quite silly. ‘Time’, because I’m living that with my wife – there’s just no time left any more. You’re raising these babies. They’ve all got reasons that I love them. They’ve got their own postcode and they’re all on there for a reason.

And as you said, they are all different. While it’s definitely your sound, it’s a diverse album.
And I’ve definitely tried to do that. One song, ‘Foolin’ Around in the Summertime’, we wrote that three years ago and it just sat there. I loved it but I couldn’t figure how it was going to end up on an album, so I went back and rewrote it and tried to make it the feel that it is now, which is almost like a 60s feel in places. But I don’t know … it’s a bloody science, all this [laughs].

Of course, a crucial part of the process is your producer, and you chose Andy Mac. How did you come to select him?
I heard the McClymonts album [Endless] and he produced that. So I was listening to the production, and I knew it had to be a step up from [my] last album. I produced the last album with a friend of mind, Ben Robinson, and I knew that this had to be a step up, otherwise pack up and go home. And I needed a pop approach to my songs. So I found Andy and I called him and we chatted, and I said, ‘Here’s the budget, here’s the songs. This is all we’ve got. I’d love you to do this.’ And he definitely does more pop stuff. He said yes to it, and I was stoked. From then on we traded demos, all the demos I was doing at the time, and trying to relay the way I thought they might sound, all the structures and stops and starts, and I sent that to him and he just improved on it – he really did. Some of the songs, if you heard the original demos to what they became, they got exponentially better, so I’m so glad that he could do it.

Given that you’ve achieved a lot in your career so far – very successful years in McAlister Kemp and now solo, and you’ve won Golden Guitars and other words – is there anything you still have your sights set on?

I just want to keep improving, for a start. It’d be nice to win a Golden Guitar on my own [laughs] – I’ve won it with collaboration a lot. Having said that, I’m not going to write songs to win awards. The whole ARIA thing is something I’d like to achieve on my own too. You know what I want to achieve? I want to make a living. I want to make a living where I can support my family. Back in the day I wanted to be rich and famous, but that’s not something I think about any more. I just want to have a career. As humble as that may or may not be, that’s what I’m trying to do now. 

Coming Your Way is out now through ABC Music/Universal.

  and Google Play.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

EP review: Calling You by Lyn Bowtell

There is absolutely no way that Lyn Bowtell could produce something that is not worthy of an effusive review. Even if you never paid attention to any of her lyrics, her voice alone makes her extraordinary. Those who have seen her play live know that her clean, sweet, warm, perfectly pitched sound is as pristine live as it is recorded. And they also know that she is adept at conjuring powerful emotions - it is hard to get through one of Bowtell's gigs without shedding a tear. So her voice is a powerful instrument, which means something - and means more because although she has a huge range and it has such an incredible sound, she never uses it for display. There are no superfluous notes because Bowtell also respects the song and will do whatever is necessary to serve it.

Calling You is Bowtell's first release since her exquisite 2014 album, Heart of Sorrow, although it is not entirely her work.

Three of the songs are covers: the first track, 'He Burns', was written by Foy Vance; there's also a version of her live favourite 'Hearts of Gold' by Sting, and of 'Let it Be' by that somewhat popular songwriting duo Lennon McCartney. Bowtell, of course, makes these songs sound like she wrote them - when a performer is so accomplished and also understands music so well, it can't be a surprise that she is able to find a new and personal way to interpret an old song.

Bowtell is also part of the country music troika Bennett Bowtell Urquhart and there is original music by her on their album. So I won't grumble that there's not a complete album from her now - instead, it is a treat to have any new songs. The three original songs on the EP - 'All My Life', 'Calling You' and 'Far Away' - sit beautifully beside the three covers. As with all of Bowtell's originals, they are stirring and thought provoking. If the EP were just those three songs, it would a lovely piece of work. It is an absolute treat to have more. Let's hope there is even more soon.

Calling You is out now.

Google Play

Album review: Real Class Act by Fanny Lumsden

Since Fanny Lumsden released her debut album, Small Town Big Shot, she has established herself as a pillar of the Australian country music community. She was already seasoned at touring parts of Australia that rarely see a musical act, and she continued to do that - it was a fitting activity for someone whose music appeared almost to spring from the land and its people. Lumsden seems to intrinsically understand that one of the functions of country music is to tell the story of the country. It can be quite a responsibility, and it's one she is absolutely capable of undertaking, as she showed on Small Town Big Shot and now on her second album, Real Class Act.

On this new album Lumsden may return to the themes of her first - the land and its people - but she has moved on to new stories, and where there was a touch of (healthy) cynicism on the first album, the second is mostly a more jaunty affair. There is a notable exception: 'Real Men Don't Cry (War on Pride)' is Lumsden's serious - and needfully so - plea for Australians to relinquish the stoicism which can cause so much damage. It is the sort of directness that country music facilitates and allows to be sincerely received, because of the artist's relationship with the audience and theirs with the artist. In someone else's hands this song might sound hokey; in Lumsden's - so assured, experienced and empathetic - it is moving. And it has a companion in the beautiful final song on the album, 'Here to Hear'. 

The other songs on Real Class Act are the sort that evoke scratchy summer grass, dusty roads and old friendships, with all the mixed emotions they bring. Lumsden understands that the best way to communicate a story is not by trying to sweep up as many experiences and emotions as you can into the one song. Specificity is what offers the listener the opportunity to think, Me too. Or, if there's no commonality, there is a richly detailed story to listen to instead.

As with the title of her first album, Lumsden's use of 'Real Class Act' could be taken as ironic - except it's not. At every stage of her career she has proved herself to be the real deal, and a real class act. She's also a one-off. Lumsden honours the traditions of Australian country music and takes them further along the red dirt road with her, remaking them as she goes and creating a unique sound and style that can only continue to win more fans. 

Real Class Act is out now.

Google Play

Single release: 'Here's to Me & You' by Tom Dockray

Originally from Tasmania, now resident in Denmark (via Melbourne), Tom Dockray has released a new single, 'Here's to Me & You', in advance of his return to Australia to play a few dates. On this sound Dockray has a deceptively laidback country/folk sound - deceptive because his lyricism is far from being lazy. The song is the first single from his forthcoming second album.

Watch the video for 'Here's to Me & You' below. The dates for Dockray's tour appear below the video.

All dates are in November 2017

1          The Paragon Theatre Queenstown TAS
2 House Concert Hobart TAS
3 Red Velvet Lounge Cygnet TAS
8 The Spotted Mallard       Melbourne VIC
10/11/12 Bendigo Blues Festival   Bendigo VIC
14 The Newsagency Sydney NSW
16 The Fox Den          Gloucester NSW
17 Flow Bar Old Bar NSW
18 Two Goats Cafe & Baa  Armidale NSW
19 The Bearded Lady Brisbane QLD

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Interview: Missy Lancaster

Missy Lancaster recently released the single 'Forget', which in some ways marks the end of an intense period of introduction to the music industry and also marks the start of her next phase, with her new album to be released early in 2018. The single might be said to also mark another change for Missy: her emergence from several years of living with anorexia nervosa and her determination to embrace the life she has created. Missy kindly agreed to speak about her experiences over the past few years, and it was easy for me to be impressed by this remarkable young woman.

When did your relationship with music start?
I was introduced to music when I was about three [years old], and I can remember being four and five and singing all the Shania Twain songs. It probably wasn’t until I was about thirteen – I can remember seeing The McClymonts and watching them and thinking, That’s so cool, I really want to do that. I begged my mum for a guitar and I remember her saying to me, ‘You’re never going to play it. I know if I get one you’re never going to use it.’ And I think it was just, No, Mum, I’m going to prove a point to you – I’m going to do this. Every day after school I played and played my guitar, and my fingers used to bleed daily because I’d be playing it so much. That was when I started, and started writing songs, and I just kind of fell in love with music. And I suppose it was my escape during my high school years.

What are some of the best things that music has done for you?
That’s a hard question … I think now when I’m going through something – if I’m having a tough time, or if I’m having a good time, I have a different outlook now. I think, Cool, I can write a song about that. I write songs about my life and things that are happening to me because I think people are going to connect with it on a deeper level. Music has so much power – you listen to a song and it can make you feel any kind of emotion. So I think that’s the greatest thing about it.

It sounds like you started writing songs in your early teens -  did you find at that age that you censored yourself? Did you think, This doesn’t sound cool, or This isn’t how songs are meant to sound? Or did you always feel a connection with being able to write songs?
I always felt a connection with it, but I suppose when you’re young and na├»ve you don’t know. I would be trying to write songs like Taylor Swift. And I suppose now as I’m getting a bit older I think, Okay, somebody’s already written that [laughs]. So you to try to write something original, and if you write things about your life and tell your story, people are going to connect with it much more rather than just trying to copy someone else.

But it’s hard, isn’t it, to weed out those influences and find that authentic voice? I think sometimes it’s hard to find an authentic singing voice as much as it’s hard finding an authentic writing voice.
Yes – and I think for me, I’ve grown up with country music being my main influence, but in saying that I’ve listened to so much pop music. All my friends were listening to Black Eyed Peas and Fergie, and Britney Spears and the Pussycat Dolls, and there I was listening to Kasey Chambers and The McClymonts. But I think if you can take an element from each genre and put it into what you do, I think it kind of shines through. And I think great artists are able to tap into lots of different genres.

And also that idea of finding your authentic voice – reading about your illness [Missy had anorexia nervosa for five years], that’s a chronic illness and a debilitating illness. I think it must be hard to retain a sense of self through that, let alone try to create art out of that.
Yes. Yes. I’ve only started writing about it recently and I’ve only come out about it recently because I didn’t want to write about it from a ‘poor me, I’m so sad’ kind of perspective. I wanted to write about it in an empowering way. When I was fifteen, sixteen, there was no one that I could look up to and say, ‘They kind of get me’ because no one was talking about mental illness when I was that age. So I think I’m in a headspace where I’m able to sing about it, talk about it in an empowering way and if I can help someone else who might be going through that, that’s the greatest gift of all. But, yes, it was hard and I wasn’t sure how I would go about it. I just wanted to wait until the inspiration came and I thought, Yep, I’m going to do this. `

Was there a sense of that work pulling you through? Not necessarily pulling you through into the future, because that sounds a bit cheesy, but more the idea that you had work to do. Clearly you had output in your early teens – how did that work of being a songwriter and being a musician give you some respite from what was going on but also a direction to head in?
The funny thing is, for me, that when I was really sick I actually stopped music altogether. I stopped singing, I stopped my gigs, I stopped singing lessons. I was just in and out of hospital all the time. I missed two terms of school. So I wasn’t in any state to be writing songs, because I was so sick and the treatment I was doing was so heavy. But I got to a stage where I was going in and out of the hospital and I was noticing … I kind of had a spiritual awakening in the midst of it and I was noticing that when I was going back to the hospital and spending periods of time there, it was making me worse. Then when I was away from that environment I was feeling better about myself. I think it was just going into the hospital I knew that I would have to find out my weight so a week before I would be making sure that I weighed less than I did the previous time. I think it’s when you get to age twenty that you don’t have to be admitted into a hospital because it’s considered self-harm – under the age of twenty they have to admit you – but then I got a choice. So when I was about twenty I thought, I’m going to take another approach to this. I started meditating and doing things like that, and really living every day like it was my last day. And that changed everything for me. Then once I changed my mindset, that was when my songwriting and everything started happening properly for me. I went to Nashvillle and then I ended up coming back and signing a record deal, and all of these crazy things started happening. So it was a huge turnaround from what I was having the year before.

That idea of living every day as if it’s your last: it’s quite a big, deep, almost heavy realisation to have at such a young age. It’s amazing that you had it but did you feel the weight of that?
It really did turn my life around and I’m a big believer in ‘everything happens for a reason’. I just believe that if I can turn all that experience into my songs and my stories, and help someone that is going through that, that’s the greatest thing and that’s what I want to achieve.

At the time you were meditating and doing those other practices – when you realised that hospital wasn’t quite the place for you – I’m guessing there was a point at which you started to trust yourself, trust your own instinct about what was good for you, and that’s something that can stand you in very good stead as an artist. Is that what happened – that you started to believe that you knew what was good for you?
Exactly. And I’m a big believer in energy attracts energy, and I think I was just getting good at knowing how to cope with it – having coping methods. Just because they have a treatment that they give to every single patient, it might work with some but it might not work for other people. So I was able to get to a place where I thought, I am able to see clearly what is happening now. If I go back down that path, I know I’m just going to end up in hospital. And the thing is with eating disorders, they have a higher death rate than suicide. But for some reason society chooses to ignore that – I don’t know why. But I think I just decided, you know what, I’ve only got one shot at life and I’m a survivor and I’m proud of that. So if I can give everything I’ve got and try to inspire someone else to sing and do that, that would be awesome.

I wonder if that statistic isn’t as well known because it happens mostly to young women, or women in general. Sometimes the reporting around it has been, ‘It’s just this whim, they’ve just decided to not eat’ and it’s not taken seriously for that reason – but, of course, it’s extremely serious.
Yes. People still don’t understand the illness and you can’t expect people to understand it, but it is a mental illness and it’s not as simple as saying, ‘I’m going to eat now.’ What actually happens is that your organs start to shut down, everything that your body doesn’t need any more starts to shut down. So it’ll go, ‘Start shutting down parts of your brain that we no longer need, the most important thing is to keep the heart pumping’. So it actually stops sending messages from your brain to your stomach to remind you to eat, so you stop feeling that hunger because that part of your body has been switched off. So it is really interesting.

And interesting also that you can look at it almost as an outsider now and talk about it in those terms. Five years may sound like a long time but that illness can last for decades.
Yes. And that’s the thing: it is very, very easy to slip back into it, and especially being in the music industry and being in the spotlight, you have to be very careful that you don’t slip back into old habits. But I think that I am in a good enough headspace where I’m able to shut it out.

Are you still meditating?
All the time. Every day. It’s my thing.

How long do you meditate for?
I like to meditate before I go to bed, so probably about half an hour. But in saying that, sometimes I’ll just go down to the beach and I’ll just sit there and listen. It’s not always fully going into a meditative state, but just doing things that you enjoy and that help you relax.

It’s great that you say that because it shows that meditation can take many forms. It’s what works for you, not necessarily sitting in a room with your legs crossed.
And so many people say, ‘I can’t meditate, I can’t meditate’, but I reckon it’s a personal thing.

I think music is one of the best forms of meditation. Practising – because you have to be so involved with that instrument, and if you’re singing you’ve got to practise your singing. Quite often you’re so present in that moment that it’s a form of meditation.
Yes, and I think music is such a great way to express yourself and get things off your chest … There was one night when I was playing at a rodeo in outback Queensland and I was feeling really not good, and I thought, If I can just use all the energy I have and go out on stage and have fun, hopefully that will help. And I can remember going out and there were about 4000 people there and they lifted me up on such a high level. And it just shows how people can connect through music.

Also if you’re taking that attitude – that you have to bring that energy to it – the audience can sense that. If you’re flat, they sense that and then you don’t get anything back, but if you can find some way to summon that energy, that sends a signal.
I try to think when I go out there, This isn’t about me. This is about connecting with other people. Because you don’t know what other people are going through. And I find after my gigs that people will come up to me and say, ‘My parents have just died’ or ‘This has just happened to me and your music has really helped me through that and brought me so much happiness tonight’. And that’s just the coolest thing. So you really just have to give it everything you’ve got.

The country music audience loves to connect with its artists and will remain connected via whatever means: music, social media. It is a genre of music in which you have a great chance of being that role model you mentioned earlier, because there will be people who are willing to talk to you. By you starting that conversation with people, which is what you’re doing. That’s really good work for you to do – and I don’t mean that to sound patronising, I really think it’s an extraordinary thing to do.
And I really feel such a deep connection to country music. These people get me. And I’ve always felt that ever since I was young. It’s really cool to be a part of the country music community... The people are so loyal. It’s really awesome.

You’ve achieved a lot in the past couple of years, apart from becoming well. You’ve had an EP out, you’ve signed with Sony, you were a runner-up in Star Maker. Have you surprised yourself with all of that?
One hundred per cent. I honestly had no idea. And that’s the thing: I’m lucky to be alive. It’s such an awesome achievement and I actually look at it and think, Wow, this is really cool. So I think if I can keep kicking goals and doing things like that … It’s really awesome but I was actually reading an old newspaper article today and it was from five years ago – it was a Facebook memory that came up – and I had written, ‘One day I hope to travel to Nashville and one day I hope to do this and that’, and everything that I had listed I have ticked off. That was a nice little reminder to go, ‘Cool – I’m doing pretty well.’

You are doing very well, and the song’s great too. So I will now ask about the song, ‘Forget’ – that was done with Josh Kerr, a producer in Nashville. How did that connection come about?
I didn’t know Josh and we followed each other on Instagram, and we ended up hooking up a writing session together. I’m such a fan of what he does and I was really nervous going into the session. I knew that I had to go in with a good idea, and I had this melody and these words floating around in my head for a while and I wasn’t sure what it was. I wasn’t sure what I was going to write and who I was going to write it with. So I thought`, I’m going to take that idea to Josh. And we wrote the song in about half an hour, and he did up the demo of it that day, and the demo was really good. I remember saying to my manager, ‘Do you reckon we could get him to produce this track, because that would be really awesome?’ So I ended up asking him and he ended up agreeing to produce it, and he’s producing some more tracks on my album, which is super cool. He’s just such a talented songwriter, producer, and just a really cool guy, so it’s awesome to have him on board.

So is the album done?
Yes! It’s finished. I’m just waiting now. [Laughs] It sucks! But it is really exciting because it represents a chunk of my life – growing up and overcoming things that are really hard. Being thrown into the music industry as well – I wasn’t intending on getting a record deal, it just kind of happened really organically. I’m just excited about writing an album that I really feel is 100 per cent me and reflects my story.             

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

On missing Sam Hunt

Given the amount of country music being produced around the world, it's impossible to keep up with it all, especially when you're not working on it full time. I'm reliant on press releases and other industry information to let me know what's being released, and the information skews Australian. Lately, I've been receiving more emails and PR from the northern hemisphere. In 2014, however, I wasn't getting that much. So that's the reason, I think, that the release of American artist Sam Hunt's Montevallo passed me by. I've searched my email history and I can't find anything about it (and I tend to keep all the press releases). So it was a surprise to come across an article on Vulture recently that said, in short, that Sam Hunt is 'the biggest star you're not listening to'. I couldn't believe I'd missed him - although the article essentially says that he hasn't been given the amount of attention he should, especially as his latest (non-album) single, 'Body Like a Back Road' is, as the article says, one of the most successful country crossover songs of the past few years.

Hunt's sound is far from traditional country. But it's not even country rock or country pop. It draws on country traditions and sounds, certainly, but Hunt weaves in whatever suits the song. Parts of songs are spoken word, some of the sound is R&B, some of it is gloriously constructed pop. Hunt has written songs for other artists - like Keith Urban, and Montevallo's 'Cop Car' appears on Urban's Ripcord - and also writes for himself. He's not a novice. Nor is he playing with genres for the fun of it. The inescapable conclusion when listening to Montevallo is that the songs evolve as they need to, and as he needs them to, and they have arrived sounding perfectly right. That's the work of someone who is confident in what he's doing and also curious about he'll discover along the way.

What's surprised me the most about this album, especially since it's taken me three years to find it, is that it's pretty much perfect. It is not for the Americana or traditional country purist, but nor does it necessarily exclude those listeners. It's not bro country, but it wouldn't exclude that audience either. Where it differs from bro country is that when Hunt sings about having a good time, as on 'Leave the Night On' and 'Raised On It', he doesn't sound like he's trying to wring every ounce of fun out of the song in his drive to prove that he is really, sincerely having fun. These are not get-drunk-and-party songs - these are songs that evoke common experiences. Every word sounds true, not because he's overworking the sentiment but because every note sounds effortless. That's the most country thing about the album: the authenticity that is quite clearly behind the writing and the singing of these songs.

There's another quality that distinguishes Hunt's work from some other (American) country rock: the other people who are mentioned in his songs, whether they are romantic interests or police officers or friends, aren't targets. There's no sense of Hunt - or his narrator, if it's not him - trying to get anything or game anyone. The closest he comes is on the opening track, 'Take Your Time', and even that is stretching it. These are the songs of someone who seems to be genuinely interested in people and how they live, and not overly interested in how he lives relative to them. That suggests that he's a natural storyteller who doesn't have an agenda when it comes to his subjects.

And there's another quality still to this music - something that is not ordinarily associated with country music: Hunt's sound is seductive. There is proof laced throughout the album but the core of it is in the bridge of  'Ex to See' when the narrator decides to turn the narrative around. In those few bars there's understanding and self-awareness, power and generosity, and the polite way of summing that up is to say that it's seductive. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I've listened to that song a lot and I hear it every time. It pops up elsewhere too, and in large part it's to do with how assured the sound is.

Musically, the album is incredibly entertaining, especially if you love pop music - that is, the catchy, sing-along, toe-tapping part of pop that makes the great songs memorable. Hunt has excellent pop sensibilities to go along with his country background, and he also has a neat way of tying up a lyric so that it's clever without being condescending. I was prepared to think of these songs as lightweight confections but I can't get them out of my head.

In short: it's a brilliant album. But I don't regret missing it three years ago because I'm not sure I would have appreciated it three years ago. I hadn't heard as much country rock then and I couldn't have put it in its context, and also realised that it has its own context. Hunt is not so much pushing boundaries and overstepping bounds as creating music that feels true to him and finding the connection with audiences accordingly. He's also decided not to rush out a new album, instead releasing singles as they're ready. That will help satisfy the younger fans who, apparently, are turning out in droves to his shows. He may be the future of country, or of pop, or of something entirely in its own category. If you're at all curious about new music the way I am, this album is worth listening to - and if you simply love to get hold of a great collection of catchy songs that dig in deeper each time you hear them, the album is a pleasure. Not a guilty one or a shallow one or a passing one: just pure pleasure.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Album review: Queen of Boomtown by Gretta Ziller

Victorian singer-songwriter Gretta Ziller released her first EP, Hell's Half Acre, in late 2014. There was great talent, and great promise, in it - and, consequently, her fans (including me) have had an impatient wait for her first album, Queen of Boomtown. The wait has been worth it, not that there was much doubt: the talent and promise of Hell's Half Acre were not of the fleeting kind.

On Queen of Boomtown Ziller has resisted making another version of Hell's Half Acre. The songs on both are distinctively hers, but the album is a progression. These songs are the work of someone with more life behind her - more wistfulness, by the sound of it, and perhaps some cynicism that gives her voice even more of a knowing tone than it had before. And what a voice it is: Ziller has long sounded like she could emit the battle cry of an outlaw queen and follow it with a torch song, and that mix of mellow tone and strident edge is even better balanced on this album.

There is some melancholy on this album, most notably in 'This is Gonna Hurt' and 'Alright with Me', but that is not the predominant tone, for even 'Go On', which could be a song about a broken heart, is more about independence and self-determination. The lyrics of the title track could suggest hard times but no one could really call herself a queen if she wasn't feeling something close to assured about what she's doing. And Ziller does sound assured throughout this album - as well she should. These songs are great stories and musically wonderful, and at the centre of it all is Ziller's majestic voice and her commanding presence, which is clear in each note. This may be a debut album but Ziller doesn't sound like a beginner. If this were a third or sixth album she could be proud of it - for a debut, well, let's just say it sounds a lot like a queen claiming her throne.

Queen of Boomtown is out now from Social Family Records.
or Google Play.

Interview: Paddy McHugh

Singer-songwriter Paddy McHugh couldn't have avoided having country music roots if he'd tried: he grew up in Tamworth and the country music festival was a fact of life. Yet it's taken him a while to circle back to the music of his first home, and that circle has taken him via Sydney and now to Brisbane, and also through punk music. McHugh is a passionate and pedigreed songwriter and performer, as I found out when I talked to him recently. His latest album is City Bound Trains, and we talked about that as well several other things.

I note in your bio that you grew up in Tamworth but I don’t want to make any presumptions about your musical background: what did you listen to when you were younger?
I listened to a lot of classic rock – my dad was into that sort of stuff. But growing up in Tamworth it’s pretty standard fare that you get all the country stuff. I grew up with John Williamson and Slim Dusty and Stan Costa – all your classics. But I rebelled against it. Growing up there, it was pretty stifling, to be honest. When I turned seventeen I said, ‘Nup, I’m out – I’m going to Sydney’, and I went down there pretty quick. I started playing punk rock and thrash. But as a got older and a bit softer around the edges I thought, That stuff was pretty good, and I sort of drifted back to country and that’s where I find myself today.

In some ways the directness that goes with country music – the authenticity that the audience expects and requires – is not a softer edge. It requires quite a lot of courage on the part of artists sometimes.
I think that’s why going into punk was a pretty easy transition, because essentially country music and punk rock are the same ideals. It’s about keeping it simple, keeping it honest, and telling the truth and telling your story. One might be from a less urban environment and one’s from an urban environment, but essentially it’s the same thing.

I spoke to an emerging country artist called Josh Setterfield who has come from punk but has also loved country. We talked about how the discipline required in writing punk songs probably serves you very well in writing country songs.
There are definitely similarities. In fact, with this new record I’m toying with the idea of recording all my new songs as a punk-rock record just because I know it would probably work well. And, in fact, all the guys who play on this record, they’re not country guys – these are the guys I used to play in punk bands with, back in the day, and we’re all just faking it. My drummer and my guitarist, they cut their teeth in death metal bands and punk-rock bands, and we’re just having a go at the country. So we’re just impostors, really [laughs].

So how did that conversation go?
They’ve always understood that there’s that authentic, great side to country that’s always been accessible to everyone, and I think they were just sympathetic to it. When I brought the songs to them I think they could see some merit in it. Couple that with an offer of a few free beers and I had a band [laughs].

I like the idea of you doing two different versions of the same songs.
I think it can work. As a musician it’s good to have a challenge and the opportunity to try something new. It keeps it fresh and exciting.

In terms of your background: when did you start singing, playing guitar and writing songs?
I played in cover bands when I was a kid and you used to catch me busking on the streets of Tamworth when I was ten, playing Slim Dusty songs. Then when I left Tamworth I went to Sydney and jumped into the punk scene, started a thrash band called Povvo. We’d play songs that would go for about twenty seconds and got them out as loud as you could. I always kept at it. But I was probably not writing songs until about ten years ago. I had a next-door neighbour who had an incredible life story, and it was just so good, and I thought, If I can put that into a song it might work. So I wrote essentially his life story and made it rhyme and put guitar to it. The song went quite well – everyone who heard it liked it. I suppose it gave me the confidence and wherewithal to say, ‘Maybe I can write a few songs’, and ten years later I haven’t looked back. I’m still at it and still enjoying it.

Are there particular songwriters that at that time you were looking to as inspirations, or was it more just trying to document what you were hearing in your own head?
There’s a couple of artists who are big influences on me. One of them would be Billy Bragg – I like his authenticity, his honesty. I like his irreverence. It’s kind of nice to hear about an artist’s thoughts unfiltered, and you really can connect with them in that sense. I definitely have that bit of an inspiration when writing. I try to be honest and not tone it down and hide behind hyperbole or phrase, and just try to be me. One of the big things I’ve always stuck to is singing with an Australian accent, because that’s all I know. Others do it well, and I’m not looking down my nose at anybody else, but I’ve always thought that if I tried to sing in anything but my own natural accent I would lose a sense of authenticity and lose a lot of people along the way.

Kasey Chambers sings with a very distinctive accent and it is such a part of her style. If you can do it, and it comes from an authentic place, then no doubt more people relate to it than not.
And I understand the reasons why sometimes sing with accents. I don’t sing with an American accent but I play with an American guitar style and I borrow elements from everywhere else, all my other musicality. Some of my favourite artists are people who sing with an accent that might not necessarily be their own. I’m a big fan of Kasey Chambers and her work. When it came to me it was a thing that just happened naturally and I decided to stick to my guns with it and always sing with my accent in the most natural way possible. And often people tell me that that’s one of the elements they like about my songs.

You talked about honesty in your songwriting and I also note in the press release it says, ‘For the style of music I wanted to make, honesty was paramount. It had to be about something I knew about or cared about.’ I’m interested in your songwriting process – does what you care about start with an emotion or a thought, or does it actually start with a story idea?
It can be both, but generally it’s an emotion. If I hear or see something that evokes an emotional response in me and gets my attention, generally it’s something that I think will translate well and would [generate] a similar reaction in others. So often when something comes to me and grabs me and doesn’t go away, I usually think, well, there’s a kernel for a song there and if I just stick at it and it doesn’t seem to fade, usually it will end up in a song when I get around to writing it.

And n order to access that kernel, or that emotion, you not only have to access that in the recording process but you have to do it over and over again on stage. Does your well ever feel like it’s running dry when it comes to drawing on that when performing?
It’s a good question. Yeah, it does, but that’s what the audience is there to do: they top up the well. And sometimes when I sing about a topic – for example, I have a song about mesothelioma and about James Hardie – sometimes that does drain the well, getting up there and singing it three, four nights in a row. But occasionally someone will come to me after a show and say, ‘My sister passed away from mesothelioma’, and they’ll thank me for singing about that because it’s important to them. As a songwriter, when you get those little bits of feedback from the audience and you realise that you’re having an impact, it tops you all the way back up and you’re ready to go again.

And that kind of response loops into the role of being a storyteller. It’s an ancient role – it’s a primal role, it’s common to all culture – and that exchange that happens when someone can come to you and say, ‘That story has meant something to me’ – do you ever have a sense of being part of that bigger purpose of storytelling?
I suppose so. I don’t have a false image of what I’m doing – I know I’m just a dude that strums guitars in bars on a Saturday night and gets paid for it. But I come from an Irish heritage, and the tradition of the bard or the troubadour is a very strong one. And in all cultures the storytellers have been revered and a crucial part of the harmony of society. Without trying to put myself on some kind of pedestal, I do see the value and importance of what we do as songwriters. And, to be perfectly honest, I’m just very blessed that I get the opportunity. We live in a country where we’re wealthy enough and I’m healthy enough to go out and indulge in this passion of telling stories. I definitely think it’s a very important thing, and if it wasn’t then people wouldn’t still be engaging with music as they’ve done for thousands of years.

Given this drive to honesty in your songwriting, have you ever run into trouble with people in your life who feel you’ve been too honest?
[Laughs] A few times. I was actually worried I was going to get sued once. But I stuck to my guns and thought, If they ever take me to the courts, god help ’em, because I could get bankrupted pretty quick and it wouldn’t change my lifestyle very much. And I just thought about the headlines: ‘Large multinational takes stinky punk rocker to court’. I thought I had nothing to lose and it’s more important to stick to your guns than be afraid of any consequences.

This new album was produced by Brendan Gallagher – how did that relationship come about?
I am a big fan of Karma County, which is Brendan’s band, and he’s also made a couple of cracker records – he made Messenger with Jimmy Little and he did a good record called Namoi Mud by LJ Hill, who’s a Koori singer-songwriter from round where I grew up. I really, really liked this album and I noticed it had been produced by Brendan, and I remember saying to my guitarist, ‘I wonder if Brendan’s still making records or how I can even get in contact with him.’ And then about a week after I had the conversation, I was in Tamworth at a pub and I got chatting to this guy called Brendo at the bar and we hit it off really well, and then after about twenty minutes the penny dropped that I was actually talking to Brendan Gallagher – ‘You’re the guy I’ve been wanting to talk to!’ Because we’d already hit it off I said, ‘I’m making a record – do you want to help out?’ and on the spot he said ‘Yes’, I’d love to.’ And for the next couple of months we started contacting each other and sharing ideas. He very kindly agreed to step in and help, and did an amazing job.

It’s still an act of faith on your part, because the producer can be an important collaborator, but also you’re entrusting your babies to someone. I guess by then you’d already decided he was the one – you weren’t auditioning anyone else.
No. The thing is, my skill set’s very limited – I know how to get up and strum a guitar, and I like to think I can write a song. But I’m not deluded enough to think that I know how to make a record. All the recordings I’ve done in the past have been DIY home jobs on cheap mics, and I knew that this record, I wanted to make it well and I wanted to make it so that it could be accessible to people and that I could be happy with it moving forward. I’ve got kids – I can’t afford to muck around and blow money on a record that I’m not happy with. And I just knew that I had to outsource it to somebody who knew what they were doing. Brendan had a great track record, and after meeting him and chatting with him, we got on very well, and anybody who can work with Jimmy Little and produce an album like Messenger is good enough for me. He proved his worth very quickly, and once we started getting together with the band his ideas were gold. He delivered all his ideas very gently and supportively, and it just worked really, really well.

Did you come in with a brace of songs, some of which you had to discard as the process went on? Or is the set of songs that’s on there now what you’d always intended?
I hear about these people who say, ‘I’ve written twenty songs and I picked the best ten.’ When I hear that I think, Oh my god – how do people do this? I’ve got two kids and a job and a dog, and all these other things, and unfortunately I don’t have the time to scrap songs. So I think I came to him with eleven and in the end ten made it on. The eleventh one, I haven’t thrown it away – it’s just already sitting in the bank for the next record. I pretty much came in with the finished product – he just helped us polish the turd and get it over the line.

That whole notion of having the time to write extra songs – when you are telling stories, it’s less likely that you have superfluous songs, because it takes a lot of attention and crafting, particularly the way you write your songs. There’s a lot of detail in there that’s not in there, which is what happens when you know how to tell a story: you’ve already learned to edit. So it doesn’t actually surprise me that you didn’t have fifty songs to bring in.
Each of the songs I’ve tried to put as much of myself into it and it’s kind of a big effort to get over the line. I’m not writing for any other reason except things that I actually really, really want to communicate. If I didn’t want to say it I wouldn’t bother writing a song about it or waste my time trying to explore it – I’d just let it go and wait for the right one to come along.

The album has very striking cover artwork and it’s of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The title is City Bound Trains, so it could have been any city that was depicted on the cover – how did you come to use that image?
A lot of the stories on the record are based around experiences I had when I was living in Sydney. I lived in Redfern for ten years. I’m up in Brisbane now but it was a very formative part of my life, playing music down there, share houses and all that. These songs could really be about any city or any urban environment and any urban people, but Sydney’s kind of got a place in my heart. I don’t want to live there – I hate it in some respects, it’s a very harsh and cruel place to live, particularly if you’re poor, which is what City Bound Trains is actually about. But also I do love that place and it’s got a lot of charming qualities. So I thought Sydney was the city that best repress       ented the songs and the stories.

But you have moved to a musically fertile city – Brisbane has a lot of good things going on.
It does. A lot of people rave about Brisbane because they grew up here and they feel they have to, but I’m not from here. When I rave about Brisbane I’ve got to let you know that I’m not from here, so I don’t have to – I’m not on any payroll. But I really do love this city. It’s big enough that you get all the benefits of living in a large, multicultural, modern city, but it’s still small enough that it’s still personable and there’s community, particularly in the music scene. People up here – everyone still knows each other and there’s no factions working against each other. Everyone’s in the same boat, to look out for each other. As you say, it’s a very fertile place and a very joyous place to be in musically. For me it works very well. I think every artist has their insecurities and their challenges, but when you’re in a community and you’re surrounded by other people who are supportive and constructive, it just makes it so much easier to get over the line and do things like make records and release them.

You’re doing a bit of touring and playing at festivals – have you always enjoyed playing live? I’m guessing from what you’ve said that you do, but was there ever a time when you didn’t?
No. Some people ask me why I make music, and sometimes I look at my bank balance and ask myself the same question [laughs]. But the answer that I come back to is that I really like people and I like meeting new people. And a really great environment to meet new people is at a gig, because people who come out to watch live music, generally there’s something special about them. They’re social beings. I suppose in a way I’m addicted to the social side of playing music. I love being out in venues, I love talking to people, I love sharing stories and having connections with people and conversations. So as a result I’ve always loved the live show – in fact, that’s probably the sole reason that I’m doing it. I can’t think of any other reason why anyone would do it, except to connect with people.

I suppose a weird thing about making an album when you also love playing live is that the album is a static version of songs that are probably changing shape each time you play them live.
Absolutely. I’m trying to make them as true to the album as I can just so people aren’t confused as to what I’m doing. But I’ve already let my game slip a little bit because I’ve already let one of my songs turn into a seven-minute reggae dub epic just because it sounded really fun and I’m having fun playing it. By the time the tour starts we might be a dub band but I don’t know.

It may seem obvious and logical that you’ll play the Tamworth Country Music Festival because you’re from Tamworth, but I’ll ask about your Tamworth plans anyway.
I’ll give you the long answer to this. Because I grew up in Tamworth I’ve done twenty-four country music festivals – admittedly most of them as a kid. But I’ve busked for half of them, I’ve played them as a musician for four, five, six years as an adult and in bands. I must admit, Tamworth is a tough thing because it is a bit archaic and conservative in many ways, but that being said, the last few years that I’ve gone up, I’ve seen a really awesome wellspring of new music and youth and enthusiasm that’s come into Tamworth, and the amount of artists from different types of gigs that are coming there is exploding. I feel like the old guard of Tamworth – which I grew up in and rebelled against when I left town – is starting to slip, and there’s a whole new generation of artists coming through and it’s incredibly exciting. So, that being said, I cannot wait for Tamworth. I look forward to getting back up there and I look forward to getting in that melee. Because the times are changing, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, and it’s a really exciting time to be in Tamworth. And I encourage any artist who’s out there and sitting on the fence, or who went ten years ago and got a bad taste in the mouth, come up and join in the revolution.

An artist called Matt Henry has had a hand in that revolution, I think, because he started Late Night Alt at the Tudor Hotel about three, four years ago. Part of what has interested me about who plays at that is that, yes, it’s a new guard, but that new guard is usually really respectful of what’s come before and see their music as an evolution.
That Late Night Alt is a great example of the kind of thing we’re seeing change in Tamworth. And you’re right, it’s not about disrespecting what’s been there, because Tamworth wouldn’t exist without the history of it. I definitely don’t want to give anyone the impression that I don’t like Tamworth at all. In fact, I love it – I love it very much because it’s a huge part of my identity growing up. But I tell you what, I love it more now because I’m seeing the changes that as a young man - I got frustrated with Tamworth, and I’m seeing those changes starting to happen, and it’s exciting. Guys like Andy Golledge – I grew up in Tamworth with Andy skateboarding and he’s just played in Nashville and I used to play gigs with him. Watching my old skating buddy who used to cruise around on a Peralta deck at St Nick’s Primary School at three o’clock in the afternoon rip it up in Nashvile … this is the Tamworth that we dreamed of when we were cutting our teeth in places like Sydney and trying to create a scene. And it’s great that it’s come back. I get to go down and visit Dad and hang out for a week and have a really good time every year, it’s great.

 City Bound Trains is out now through ABC Music/Universal.
or Google Play.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Single release: 'Better on You' by American Young

American Young are the American duo of Jon Stone and Kristy Osmunson. Stone has been a solo act, then a successful producer and songwriter, while Osmunson was a founding member and the fiddle player of the duo Bomshel. As a duo, Stone and Osmunson have written songs for Kenny Chesney, Lee Brice, Rascal Flatts, Blake Shelton and others. So they bring incredibly good country-pop credentials to their new song, 'Better on You', and they bring something else too: fantastic harmonies. It turns out each encouraged the other to become a singer - and the result is a pair of voices that sound made for each other.

American Young's tightly crafted sound has won them fans not just at home but in Europe and the UK, where they are nominated for a British Country Music Award. Their debut album, AY, was released late last year in the US and is being released in the UK by Curb Records through Proper.

Watch the video for 'Better on You' below.

Single release: 'The Basics of Love' by Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes with Shanley Del

I've been waiting a long time for Lachlan Bryan to release a bad song - and I'm still waiting. Because, yet again, he seems incapable of turning out an unsatisfactory tune, and this time he has roped not only his band, the Wildes, into the failure but ARIA award winner Shanley Del as well.

Bryan and bandmate Damian Cafarella wrote 'The Basics of Love' with Melbourne songwriter Nia Robertson, and the track is from the forthcoming Lachlan Bryan and the Wildes album, due for release in 2018. I'm not holding my breath in anticipation of that being a dud, either. In fact, I expect it to be another extraordinary collection of great songs, just like the last few albums.

Watch 'The Basics of Love' below.

Single release: 'The One' by Suz Dorahy

Another from the better-late-than-never files is the single 'The One' from the EP Stolen by Newcastle (NSW) singer-songwriter Suz Dorahy. 'The One' is the story of a childhood best friend and the friendship that is now lost. The song, and the video, are poignant and heartfelt. Dorahy is relatively new to recording music although she has been writing songs for a while.

Nine years ago Dorahy was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and then depression and chronic fatigue. She says that she spent seven years being a recluse and music became a form of escape. The result is Stolen, which was produced by Trent Crawford and recorded and mixed by Shane Nicholson.

 You can watch the video for 'The One' below.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Single release: 'Painted Lady' by The Mezcaltones

This is not so much a single release as a video release from Sydney band The Mezcaltones - and, frankly, this video is highly entertaining, which is in keeping with the band's live vibe. They have gathered quite a following in their home town as well as at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, where they will be appearing again next year.

In the meantime, enjoy 'Painted Lady' below and their debut EP is available now.

Interview: Casey Barnes

Queenslander Casey Barnes is having a very good, and very busy, year - and, as is usually the case, it's the culmination of years of working consistently and always seeking to learn more. It was a pleasure to talk to Casey recently about how his music is made and what's ahead for him.

What is the best part of your job?
That is a really good question … it’s probably the moment you get to bring a song to life from conception, and that can be the very first time you hear the final mix of a song – there’s nothing that beats that, when you write a song, you record it and you get the mix back, and you listen to it for the very first time. There’s only been a very few times when I’ve heard a mix and said, ‘That’s perfect, I wouldn’t change a thing.’ And I think that’s one of my ultimate things, when you take it from start to finish and it turns out exactly the way you envisaged it. Probably equally [great] is the first time you get to perform it live – that’s pretty awesome as well.

For both of those things it’s so hard to control the conditions – the idea of a song that you have in your head, it’s impossible to describe that any other way than by playing it or hearing it mixed, and the same with playing it live: the conception of what that song is in your head requires lots of elements to come together to make it manifest. So in some ways being a musician, being a songwriter, must be a frustrating job in that there is only that one language you can use to express what’s in your mind.
That’s exactly right. And it’s also up to how the listener interprets it. Part of the fun is that you become so close to your songs when you write them and then when you release them it’s a really exciting experience to get the feedback from punters, your fan base and your family, people who are hearing it for the first time. I always use my two little girls as really interesting barometer with my songs because they’re just super honest – there’s no filter, they’ll say exactly what they think. And if they’re bopping around or they ask me to play certain songs in the car when I’m taking them to school, I find that’s a good sign.

Little kids won’t just listen to any music – they can be tough customers.
They are, and they’re brutal. My nine-year-old, there have been a couple of songs I’ve released in the past where she’s said, ‘Dad, I’m not real sure about that bit – I don’t know if I like it.’ She’s pretty brutal. But thankfully all of these new ones I’ve been recording lately, and especially the ones I’ve released this year, they’ve been by far the most popular with the girls, so I’m happy with that.

You’ve had a lot going on in your career, particularly in the last few months – what has been the most unexpected thing to happen to you this year?
I’ve always, for some reason, built up in my head that you really need a record label and a high-profile manager to get you to where you want to be with your career, and that’s always been a perception that I’ve had. The biggest thing I’ve realised this year is that you can actually achieve a heck of a lot on your own. That’s probably been one of the things I’m most proud of – things have been ticking on well this year and we’ve been able to do some amazing gigs, and this week we’ve got our third number one with the single on the country charts. We’re getting lots of support on radio, we’re getting some great festivals, and there’s a bit of stuff opening up in America at the moment which is looking good for next year, and it’s all been done without any label, no manager, just hard work and persistence and probably a good ten years of building relationships with a lot of people, and it’s starting to pay off this year.

I talk to a few independent artists in Australia, and it’s really interesting how successful you all are and also the quality of the product. These albums that are coming out are really high quality. There are great producers around and great musicians who can play on them. But also marketing, promotion, distribution is all something you can handle yourselves – to the point where I’m wondering if the major labels are going to find themselves out of a job when it comes to country music. You and other independent artist are showing that you can reach your audience, you can get your music out there, even beyond Australia if you want to.
I think the other fantastic example of someone doing it exceptionally well is Fanny Lumsden. Fanny and I were both signed to the same label and we have both moved on from that label and not looked back in any way, shape or form. So I’m probably doing better on my own, to be honest, and Fanny’s kicking massive goals. She’s about to release another album. She and her partner work together exceptionally well – they put in the hard yards. It’s a heck of a lot of work but if you can do it yourself I think the rewards are far greater as well.

The perception might be that if you don’t have a label, how can you guarantee the quality – except I think with country music, where it functions so well is that you have that audience that’s huge and knowledgeable and passionate, and you guys all seem to really understand your audience and you’re creating music for them. So that is the quality check, in a way.
I think so. The landscape overall is changing massively and really, really quickly, and there’s a lot of radio stations out there that are willing to take a risk now on artists that aren’t necessarily signed to the big labels. There’s definitely still pretty big hurdles that you have to try to get over with some opportunities that are made a little bit more difficult if you aren’t signed to a major. But I guess this new single that I’ve just released, ‘Keep Me Coming Back’, I’ve been lucky to get some great support at country radio and community radio, but we’re crossing over into commercial radio – stations like KISS FM in Sydney. They don’t play country music [but] they’ve given the new one a spin. They’re playing guys like Morgan Evans and Sam Hunt from America. So there’s a bit of a transition now where that modern country sound, especially, is getting a bit more support across  few different platforms, which is great.

You’re all producing great sounds so you’re giving radio that to work with. It seems self-evident but I know there’s a lot of hard work and networking goes into it. But I’ll move on to your music. ‘Keep Me Coming Back’ is not on your latest album – will it be on the next one or are you looking at creating singles or EPs in between album releases?
There’s a bit of a plan in place. One of the hurdles when you’re not signed to a major label … I guess the public’s attention span now is becoming less and less and less with things like Spotify and music getting turned over so quickly now that when you’re an independent artist and you spend anywhere from thirty to fifty grand on an album, it’s sometimes tough when you only get two or three singles off that album that might see the light of day or go onto radio. So I’m planning a staggered release this time. I’ve already had two singles out this year and I’m looking at an EP, at least, coming out in the new year. There’s a few things that are up in the air at the moment that I’m waiting on some answers, but there’s at least going to be an EP and, if not, I’ll look at a full album.

In terms of your songwriting - and song creation, if you’re working with other writers – that turns it into an interesting process. Ordinarily you might want to get a brace of songs ready for an album but if you’re really looking to do singles or even EPs, I would imagine it’s a really focused process, as opposed to thinking, I can come up with twelve songs and maybe five of them will be great.
The guys that I’ve been working with since late last year are two incredible songwriters down in Melbourne – a guy called Michael Paynter who I think is one of the most gifted musicians, singers and songwriters in the country at the moment. His partner is Michael Delorenzis, and they run a production company called M Squared. We’ve been working on tracks ever since late last year. It’s like the perfect formula with the three of us, because they’re coming from a real fresh, modern country sort of sound, but they do a lot of pop stuff as well. Every time we sit down and write, we write with the intent of releasing it as a single – a single that’s going to do well, not just an album track. We have a plan: what do we want to do with this song, what’s the vibe. A lot of the stuff I’ve been writing this year, we’ve wanted it to be tracks that we can put in the live set where it’s really engaging and up-tempo. We want people to walk away from a show and be entertained. There’s been a lot of thought put into the stuff that I’ve been doing lately, anyway.

And it shows – and I don’t mean that to sound like it’s really obvious or that I can hear the wheels turning. Your songs are really tight, and I always mean that as a compliment, because when you’ve got something that is well produced, well written and the vocals are great, to me it indicates that the artist has been thinking of the audience – as you said, ‘How can I entertain people?’ The country music audience in Australia is really sophisticated. Even if they don’t listen to country all the time, the quality of the music here is so high that they know when they’re listening to something that is not good and they know when they’re listening to something that’s really good. When you’re putting out that high-quality music, it is a compliment to your audience.
Thank you. And it’s also been a deliberate move. I’m not trying in any way to sound like anyone else in Australia either, especially in the country genre. I’m trying to forge my own path and my own sound. It still definitely falls under that modern country umbrella and that’s exactly what we want to know, but I’m not necessarily trying to sound like Travis Collins or Adam Brand or Troy Cassar-Daley, because they’ve got their own sound and they’re doing really well. I’ve got a lot of respect and admiration for those guys but I’m trying to do my own thing as well. So far, so good.

The sort of music you play requires quite a lot of touring – you’re not sitting in the corner of a bar with your guitar, you’re putting on shows. Your recorded music is high-energy and so are the shows – how do you sustain that kind of energy and enthusiasm for your performance and for your work?
I think one of the reasons I’ve moved in this direction – not even consciously but maybe subconsciously – is that I’ve done my apprenticeship of being the guy with the guitar in the corner at bars for fifteen years and I tell you what, I’m done. I’ve had enough of that. I think especially working with Michael Paynter and the boys, he’s brought me out of my comfort zone and discovered a different range in my voice, and a whole different energy. And you’re right – this is the sort of thing that we want to make into a really big show where we’re playing hopefully main stage at festivals. We’ve been lucky enough to team up with the PBR [Professional Bull Riders] here in Australia. It’s like the Nitro Circus of bull riding here in Australia. I was able to sing my last single, ‘The Way We Ride’, up at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre. It was a packed house and being able to sing in front of that many people was pretty awesome. It looks as though I’m going to be doing all the major PBR events around Australia for the rest of this year and some into next year. I’m doing Townsville on the 18th of November and then Melbourne and Adelaide, which is going to be great fun.

Talking about going out of your comfort zone – it’s not easy to do that. You’ve been doing what you’ve been doing and that probably feels safe. So did it make you feel uncomfortable to go beyond that or did you think, This is what I want to be doing?
‘The Way We Ride’ was the track in particular – I had just dropped my daughter off at day care and I was about to leave when I got an email on my phone, and it was the mix of that track. I remember sitting in the car on my own and listening to that for the first time and thinking, This is awesome. Usually when I hear songs back I’ll go, ‘We need to tweak this or we need to change that’, or there’s a few bits and pieces that I’m not happy with. But they just nailed it. I remember recording the vocals for that song and Michael Paynter just has this ridiculous voice – I always say it’s like Rick Price and John Farnham had a baby. That’s how much I rate him. He’s so talented. I remember when we started recording the vocals for that track, and I said to Michael, ‘We’re going to have to change the key of this because it’s way too high for me in the chorus’, and he said, ‘Casey, you’ll hit those notes, trust me. You’ll hit them and you’ll be fine. I’m going to show you how to do it.’ And I did. He’s totally got me to believe in my own ability a bit more. He’s been fantastic and he’s an amazing guy too. I have a lot to thank him for.

Looking ahead to Tamworth, have you made your plans?
I have, and I’ll be announcing those dates very soon. I’m locked in definitely for one feature show and possibly a couple more.

You’ve joined the line-up of Crossroads in the Vines, which is a massive event. Does playing there mean you get to drink wine in between gigs?
[Laughs] I hope so. I’ve been lucky enough to do some Days on the Green and they’re always at wineries. I’ve done two with Bryan Adams and one with Mariah Carey. It’s just the best day out. I couldn’t think of anything better, if I was going to a concert – you can bring the picnic rug and the cheese and biscuits, and open a bottle of wine, and sit back and listen to your favourite music. It’s pretty awesome.