Audrey Auld is a native Tasmanian now resident in Nashville, a country/folk/Americana artist who writes and performs songs that tear apart the fabric of daily life to reveal what’s beautiful, mysterious, profound and sometimes just plain funny. Audrey’s career has spanned several albums and many cities on tour. She’s currently touring Australia and I spoke to her last week while she was taking a short break in Tasmania. If you aren’t already a fan, I’m sure you will be after you find out what a fascinating, creative woman she is.
Audrey Auld is a native Tasmanian now resident in Nashville, a country/folk/Americana artist who writes and performs songs that tear apart the fabric of daily life to reveal what’s beautiful, mysterious, profound and sometimes just plain funny. She’s currently touring Australia and I spoke to her last week while she was taking a short break in Tasmania. You can catch her atMoonah Arts Centre in Hobart on Saturday 31 March and the Clarendon in Katoomba (NSW) on Sunday 1 April. For details go to audreyauld.com
Part I of this interview is available here and part II here. In this part Audrey talks about living in the US and moving to Nashville, about Americana music and songwriting.
In front of me I have a quote by Fred Eaglesmith about you, where it’s saying you ‘hold a unique place in contemporary Americana/Roots music. I believe that this uniqueness is largely due to the fact that she is Australian. This affords her a totally different attitude as an artist than traditional American contributors to this genre.’ Given that Fred Eaglesmith is Canadian, I think that’s an interesting quote from him, but also I was wondering, you arrived in the US as an Australian, you are living in Nashville now – what do you feel your ‘different perspective’ is to that particular genre of music?
Yeah, I always think Australians and Europeans and non-American people see the American music more clearly and honestly because we don’t grow up with it. So, you come to it because you are truly attracted to it, not because you’ve been brought up with it and it’s just very familiar. So, I think we bring a freshness to the music, because a lot of Americans kind of get my songwriting, but they get it because they can see that I have a great respect for the tradition of American music and they understand the references that I think sometimes Australians don’t. I think it can tend towards the cabaret a little bit here and I tend towards the more hardcore.
[Laughs] I always think it must be so daunting, in a way, to arrive somewhere like Nashville and not really know anyone and have your guitar and have your songs behind you, and have your voice and try to make relationships and try to even get a gig. So, how do you go about that?
Well, I actually first landed in California and I went there in 2003 when I was married and I lived there for about three years in Northern California and discovered a community of people, radio promoters and fans who really dug acoustic music. There they sort of call it folk music, which means something very different in America to Australia. I’ve always perceived it as being big hairy men of Anglo origin, doing gigs – do you know what I mean?
[Laughs] I think that’s right.
Yeah. Well, you go to America and it’s contemporary and it’s diverse and it’s about acoustic music, it’s about telling stories, creating a connection with people through acoustic music. That’s more what folk music is – it’s less a genre. I mean, there’s obviously the people who love traditional folk, the Pete Seeger kind of thing. So when I got to California I was very welcomed and embraced into this community, musical community, like I had never experienced in Australia. I always felt on the fringes here and when I went there, they totally got what I was doing because they loved what I did. And they were saying, ‘You’ve got to work with Nina Gerber’, who’s this great guitar player who worked with Kate Wolf for many years. And they really helped me a lot and embraced me into that community, so it made me feel wonderful. I also realised that there are a lot of very talented people in America who were out there touring and they’re not going to become famous, but they’re making a good living out of touring and playing music, and I realised that I had to really pull my socks up and be the best that I could be. So, it was a good kind of kick up the bum to kind of be as good as I could be.
And so, when I got to Nashville three years later, I did actually know quite a few people there prior to going to Nashville, and I’d played there even before I moved to America – I’d played in Nashville a few times. And so I’m very comfortable with what I do and I’ve had songs recorded and sung on the Opry, so I didn’t go there as a complete novice, and I saw, too, that I was just going to take it slowly. We’d bought a house and I could see there were a lot of people who kind of rush in and they want it all to happen immediately, and then they get dejected and disappointed and they slag off Nashville and they move out. And I could see that there’s no rush here: we’ve bought a house, we’re going to stay here, I’m going to take this slowly, I’m going to be open and learn about the commercial country music scene. I went and met with publishers and I did some courses where you learn about what they’re looking for in country songs.
I know my songs are good because people come and hear my shows and they tell me – they respond and they want to buy them. So, I’m not a commercial country songwriter in the Nashville vein. I really want to have those moments like when you get to write ‘Last Seen in Gainesville’, but I’m not going to mess with that. When I say that to a publisher, he’s like, ‘Oh, it’s a bit long’. So that’s fair enough. I mean, they’re very clear about what they want and what they don’t want, and recently I’ve been playing in Nashville because it’s a great place for touring – it’s very central, geographically – instead of doing my five-week tours from California to the rest of America, which is kind of a lot like living in Western Australia and touring Sydney, Melbourne, Queensland. I guess it’s like living in Sydney now, when you can do shorter runs to a lot more places in America, and it’s just filled with musicians. So it’s fantastic, we have the best jam sessions and I’ve met a lot of female musicians – Anne McCue [who sings on the new song ‘Resurrection Moon’] – and it’s been great creatively, very inspiring, even though it’s known for that commercial country stuff, but there’s a whole lot of other stuff going on that’s just fabulous, that’s not country.
When I talk to people about Tamworth I say, ‘Look, it’s not just country music, there’s a whole lot of incredible music going on, it’s just that country music seems to attract really great musicians and, of course, because they’re great musicians, they’re interested in music full stop. It doesn’t matter what the genre is.
So I imagine Nashville is the same.
Oh, yes. I mean, it’s incredible. One of my favourites is Kenny Vaughan, who plays with Marty Stuart’s band and is a wonderful country guitar player, but he could just as easily play jazz, pop, rockabilly. And you go down Broadway and you’ll see him just sitting in with a band on Broadway because he just wants to keep his [skills] up while he’s not on the road and [it’s] just very, very inspiring. People around you, working in the same industry as you and with all their different stories of success and helping each other out, and it’s really cool.
For you as a songwriter, does it feel strange when other people record your songs?
It feels wonderful [laughs]. It’s a great compliment.
So it doesn’t feel like you’ve sent your child off to stay at someone else’s house for a year?
[Laughs] it’s always wonderful to hear how they do it and how they make it their own. One of the greatest achievements or compliments of my life is that a man called Dale Jett, who is the grandson of Sarah and A P Carter, he played one of my songs – it’s called ‘Down in a Hole – he played that in his live show. I’ve heard him do it at a festival with his trio. One time in a show he heard me sing ‘Orphan Song’, which is a Mark Attalla song and right away he was like, ‘I’ve got to have the lyrics’, and he and his band have become friends and they’re very supportive. And that he’s a descendant of the Carter Family, who I completely [laughing] just kneel down to, it’s just wonderful. That means so much more to me than some big Nashville country star doing my song [laughs].
Just to go back to something you said a few minutes ago – you talked about learning how to sing. Your voice sounds very relaxed, as if it’s something quite instinctual for you to sing.
Oh, thank you.
But did you learn, like did you go to lessons to learn how to sing?
Oh, a long time ago. Yeah, I did. Because we all grew up singing, doing the dishes and in the car, travelling as a family. I’ve got three siblings and we just didn’t think about it, we just sang. But when I came to actually getting up on stage and singing, I realised that it’s an instrument and there are things to learn – just technical things. It’s about teeth, tongue and lips. And I had a wonderful teacher called Bob Tasman-Smith, who actually taught Deborah Conway, and he was incredible, just a very practical teacher, and it changed me because I learnt well from him, and it takes you a long time to find your voice. I had in my mind that I could get there, but it takes you time to just get there actually. You hear in your mind how you want to be, but there’s also a lot to undo. I mean, I love Patsy Cline, but I’m not Patsy Cline and I’m not going to sound like her. So you’ve got to let go of all of those influences of people that you’ve copied. You’ve got to undo all of that to kind of find your own voice and I really love singing now, and all that judgment that I used to have about myself is gone, because I’m enjoying what I do and I like what I sound like. And if I’ve got a cold or a rough throat from tiredness, I don’t worry about it, I just kind of go with it and I think well, if Bob Dylan can do it, I can [laughs].
I guess it’s also part of the story on the night. If you’ve got a cold, then that’s part of the story of whatever songs you’re singing.
Yes. Absolutely. I mean, you’ve just got to be who you are, yeah.
And you’re in a genre where you could have this career for another 50 years if you want to, because it’s not a career that – particularly, I think, for women – turns around and says, ‘You’re too old and you’re gone.’ So I think it’s very supportive that way. So, you can have a cold for the next 50 years and still sing.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s cool though. I look at that in people like Emmylou and Buddy Miller and Lucinda [Williams] and, you know, they’re just more revered as they age, and I like that about the country and the Americana and the folk scene – I mean, I love getting older and I think your writing matures, your voice matures and you just become more comfortable with who you are.
And you wrote a song about it, called ‘Forty’.
Yeah. That’ll keep me young forever. [laughs]
The delightful and wonderfully talented Audrey Auld can be found online at audreyauld.com. At her Katoomba show she’ll be playing with recent Jolene interviewee Glen Hannah.
Audrey Auld is a native Tasmanian now resident in Nashville, a country/folk/Americana artist who writes and performs songs that tear apart the fabric of daily life to reveal what’s beautiful, mysterious, profound and sometimes just plain funny. She’s currently touring Australia and I spoke to her last week while she was taking a short break in Tasmania. You can catch her at Moonah Arts Centre in Hobart on Saturday 31 March and the Clarendon in Katoomba (NSW) on Sunday 1 April. For details go to audreyauld.com
Part I of this interview is available here. In this second part Audrey talks about running her own record company, her love of performing, and being brought up with music, amongst other things.
It seems when you were growing up, you obviously grew up in a household full of music but then you were involved in art and acting and you found your way back to music. Does it feel a little bit like that’s destiny? Like that was your predestined path because your parents raised you that way, or is it just that music’s what makes the most sense for you?
We were taught to really appreciate it and my dad and my stepdad both were weekend professional musicians, and in jazz bands, but it was never presented to me as an option as a profession. It was always for the enjoyment of it and it was only later in my life, I think, I started putting bands together, but I still had a day job and I guess so, because we were brought up to really appreciate music and listen to it and not just have it on in the background. It wasn’t until I kind of got with Bill Chambers that I made that step from doing it and having a job to just playing music full time, because that can be a difficult transition, I think, to go from giving up the security of a regular paycheque to living the wonderful life of a freelance person, whatever the job is.
It’s a huge step. You set up Reckless Records in the late ’90s and I’m wondering what it’s like to set up your own record company?
Well, I come from working in the film industry and from live action to animation, which is very organised. I mean, animation, basically, you’ve got a film broken down into frames, and you’ve got to organise millions of frames and scenes, and I used to run Animation Studio, so I learnt – I’m a very organised, efficient kind of a person and so it was – I thought, I’m going to apply that kind of professionalism to my music. And Bill had a great deal of experience with touring and dealing with fans and dealing with the media and he just had been doing that his whole life. So, it was easy – I learnt a lot from him and then I brought what I knew, as far as using the computer and communicating with people and doing publicity, and I really enjoyed all of that and we made the record, the Looking Back to See record. I learn with every release, there’s always new ways to do things and I still enjoy that whole process. So, here I am, like, ten albums later and change as the internet evolves, you know, we kind of learn different ways to do things and it’s a never-ending lesson.
So you’ve put out all those records as an independent artist?
I have, yeah. I’ve got distribution, I’ve usually had distribution in Australia and America and it’s great. I’ve got a couple of ARIA nominations, some Golden Guitar nominations, and it’s very satisfying to me to be self-funded, self-produced, self-released and to get that kind of acknowledgement from the industry.
It’s also fantastic from the point of view of just controlling your own destiny – I’ll use that word destiny again – but in that you own your own recordings and you own your own songs and I think a lot of musicians find that they have to hand over ownership of the recordings and the music publishing to other people, whereas it’s all yours.
I’ve had a publisher and I just – I guess, I know I’m ambitious, but I don’t have stars in my eyes, I don’t want to just hand over everything in the name of becoming famous, because it’s just a little simplistic and I think there’s a trade when you give your music to somebody else and hope that they throw a whole lot of money behind it. But that doesn’t always happen. It’s a beautiful dream [laughing] if it happens, but so many people I know sign with labels and just get really dissatisfied and end up grossly in debt. So, I guess I’m a little bit independent [laughing]. I think I kind of like to control what I’m doing but, with that being said, I do have good long-term relationships with various distributors because we work well together.
And so, for you, having these two sides of work, really – the creative side and the business side -and also you said you’re organised initially doing that, do you have an organised structure to your day? Do you get up and think, ‘This half is for business and this part’s for something else?’
No, no, not at all. No, I could never be that person. I totally submit to the muse. When a song is coming through, I just give over to that because that’s why I do everything else, and you can just get really spent by – it feels like a treadmill to me of booking tours, promoting tours, you know, that’s a lot of work, and I’ve learnt to kind of just do it a little less. You could do that until the cows come home and you end up using that part of your brain and not enough just playing music and writing and that creative part, so it kind of goes in cycles. You’ve got to put that time in at the computer so that you can be out there touring and playing shows. Writing and playing is what you do all the other stuff for, but I’m pretty good at it and I get enough offers coming in now where it’s pretty balanced and I feel very successful, I feel very happy with my life and I don’t feel like I’m wanting for a whole lot.
Which is fantastic. A lot of people never reach that point.
Yeah, it’s really good. I’m very lucky.
It sounds like you’ve done a lot of work to make that happen, it’s not by accident. You kind of put things in place and did them consistently so that you ended up there.
Yes. I think, once you’ve done something – what do they say? If you do something for 10 000 hours, you’re an expert, and I think I’ve done that, I think I’ve done more than 10 000 hours.
So do you really love performing?
Oh, absolutely. I mean, it’s why you do all the other stuff. I learnt to sing because I wrote songs, and then I think it’s good for people to feel good. The entertainment that I enjoyed was sort of comedians, and June Carter was a big influence – I watched a lot of the old Grand Ole Opry TV shows in the ’50s and she’s just this beautiful woman but she’s just acting up like a real old ham. And Fred Eaglesmith is another big influence because he just makes people laugh; he said he realised that he was singing all these sad songs and he was kind of surrounded by sad people [laughing]. And I think that’s a valid point.
I think there was some research done – I heard this many years ago – that looked at different genres of music and kind of like the mental state or psychological state of people who listen to them and old-style country music – your Hank Williams-era country music – the people who listened to that were more depressed than people who listened to any other types of music [laughing]. And listening to a lot of it, I think, well, yeah, because a lot of it came out of the blues and it was miserable.
Yeah, yeah [laughing]. Well, I think there was humour then, but ‘Hey Good Lookin’’ and ‘Roley Poley’ and ‘Movin’ On Over’, they’re humorous songs and I love that about country music – there is quite a lot of humour, and some of the contemporary stuff, I feel it’s a bit precious. I don’t know if there is that much humour. There is a bit in the Nashville songs, I guess, but there was something raw in that old stuff that seemed more authentic, hey?
Well, then, speaking of humour, the Americans aren’t renowned for having great senses of humour, especially compared with Australians, so how do you find that your sense of humour translates there?
Actually, very well. It’s a good question – I think it’s funny because I come back here to Australia and I feel sometimes I don’t feel like my humour translates. Things that I can say in a show in America, people laugh and they get it, and here, I can just be met with silence. So, it was really off-putting at first – I thought, ‘Oh, I have to kind of set it up better. I have to set up the joke better here, maybe explain things a little bit more or something.’ There was definitely a difference between the American audiences and Australian audiences, with the humorous aspect.
I actually wonder whether it’s that Australians aren’t that used to interacting with performers and especially, I think, the country music scene here is still quite young and we don’t see a lot of it. So, if you’re a country music fan living in a city, for example, you don’t get to go to a lot of gigs, unless you’re going to Tamworth every year. And part of the country music genre, very much, is that conversational, joke-telling thing. When Dolly Parton when out a few months ago, I read this article in the paper that was complaining that she had talked so much and told so many jokes and I thought, ‘But that’s country music, that’s part of the deal.
Oh my god, who said that?
It was Andrew Hornery in the Sydney Morning Herald, who was saying, ‘Well, you know, she was telling all this down-home stories’, and I thought, ‘She played for three hours, for one thing, so it was great value for money, and also if that’s part of the deal, you’ve got to set up the songs, you tell the stories, you connect with people – that’s what the genre is.
It’s also just mainstream Australian media. They really need to kind of travel. They really need to get out and hear some stuff, because I just find they’re not that broadminded.
It’s true. Apparently the viewing numbers for the Country Music Channel on Foxtel, in cities, are large, so there are a lot of people who love country music and even if it’s that very stylised country rock, they’re still watching CMC, they’re aware of who’s out there, and if you watch CMC for any period of time, you’re going to be exposed to a lot of different music. But it’s kind of like this gap in cultural knowledge in the media, where every year, people go, ;Oh, Tamworth is on, everyone’s pretending that country music is cool’, and I always think, ‘It’s not cool, that’s one of the reasons why we love it.’ But it’s just this kind of, oh well, have a little poke at the country music animal and see if it bears its teeth.
Oh, it’s very strange here in Australia. It’s very off in its own little corner and there’s not a lot of integration with the rest of the music industry. I’ve always felt that and a lot of the people in the country industry, I don’t think want to be integrated, you know? I remember years ago, Meryl Gross wanted to move the CMA to Sydney and they were like, ‘Oh, no, no, no, we’ve got to keep it in Tamworth’, and I just don’t know if that’s the music so well, but in America, people are less concerned about – they’re not so concerned about genre, they kind of get the Americana thing, which is this term that covers a broad range of styles and really allows people to be an individual within. You know, roots music – they don’t really use the term ‘roots music’ in America, they tend to use ‘Americana’, which is kind of what I fit into because it covers country and folk and songwriter. I mean, it’s almost like ‘songwriter’ is a genre, which is kind of weird, but they kind of get that.
Audrey Auld’s latest album is Resurrection Moon. For more information on her music and shows, go to audreyauld.com
It sounds like you’re taking a few days out of touring to have a bit of a rest.
Yeah. I’ve had a busy couple of weeks and just came down to Tassie. I’ve got a week with my mum and then a weekend of gigs in Melbourne and then I go back down to Tassie for a week with my dad and a Hobart show and then wind up in Katoomba and then home.
Since we’re talking about Tasmania, I don’t know much about music venues in Hobart or anything like that, so where does a country music player perform in Hobart?
Well, I play at the Moonah Arts Centre. I played there last year and it’s run by a man that used to be my art teacher in matric and he’s just been a lifelong friend and he runs this arts centre, so it’s great. It’s like a listening concert room which is the kind of shows that I do.
And is this the guy who gave you a mixed tape of country music songs?
Yes, it is, actually – Sean Kelly. It’s Texas songwriters and Dwight, Bob Wills, John Prine, Jimmie Dale Gilmore; it was a really diverse mix of stuff and that was my first sort of introduction to country music in my early twenties.
I was reading in your bio that it was while you were travelling around Australia, I think, that you thought to pull out the mixed tape, but I was just really impressed that you still had the tape.
Yes, I do, I know. That’s why it’s a treasure.
It’s probably a very good collection that someone should put together and publish or something, I don’t know.
Yeah, it’s good idea. He’s just a real music fan and it’s nice that we know each other after all these years and now he gets to host me at his concert, so it’s pretty cool.
John Prine – I know Shane Nicholson and a few other Australian country singer/songwriters really admire him, but he’s not very well known, so it must have seemed like a lot of those songs were just kind of coming out of nowhere, or out of the ether even?
Yeah, for me it totally was, ’cause I just grew up with jazz music and classical music and so to hear stuff that had a real poetic bent and a depth to the lyrics and quite emotional and stories, plus then Patsy Cline and Bob Wills have a definite jazz influence, Dwight Yoakam, so it was kind of quite diverse and it really led me to listen to the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers and Loretta Lynn and I really – it kind of peaked my interest and wanted to delve into the history of the music and where it originated from.
So when you finally delved into Australian country music, who were you listening to?
Well, as I kind of lived in the Outback and a lot of the stations in the Outback had quite extensive Slim Dusty collections, and it wasn’t until I met Bill Chambers that I learnt about Tex Morton and Buddy Williams, Rick and Thel, and I got to meet Rick and we recorded a song together eventually.
It seems to me that you’re very much in that traditional storytelling vein of country music, not that you play like traditional music like Hank Williams or Lefty Frizzell’s kind of music, but just acknowledging, as you’ve mentioned, that the genre is a storytelling genre primarily. So, how do you collect stories for your songs? Because one of my favourite songs of yours is ‘Last Seen in Gainesville’, which kind of makes me want to cry every time I hear it, and it’s clearly someone else’s story, but you sing it like it’s your own.
That song is amazing. I mean, that song came from – I stopped at a roadhouse in Texas to get some gas and I always like to go in and have a look around at all the American cultural stuff that’s in truck stops over there – it’s always fascinating – and as I was leaving I saw a poster on the wall near the entrance that said, Missing Person – last seen in Gainesville, with a couple of photos of a woman. And you always stop and think when you see those missing person posters, you wonder what happened and if they were found, or you never know the outcome of that story. And so I set off up the highway and I had quite a long drive ahead of me, and – as sometimes happens when it’s a good day – a song comes through from somewhere else and you really are just a vessel for it, and it’s not a song that I made up, it’s very much a song that I channelled from somewhere else and it was almost like it was tapping me on the shoulder, just really wanting to be written, and it was very strange and mysterious to me. I didn’t sing it to anyone for a long time, because I just didn’t know whose voice that was or what it was about. It was really a mystery to me and I think it really moves people, I mean, it’s a very touching song and I think it’s about consequences, the consequences of your behaviour, of the person who’s missing – I mean, did she leave or was she abducted? The consequences, the behaviour of the person that’s left behind and he’s looking at what he did and didn’t do and what he might have done differently and yeah, it’s quite a deep song really [laughs].
Even though the narrator of the song is ostensibly the man who’s left behind, to me it kind of sounds like it’s her song that she’s actually singing that through – singing the consequences through. If that makes sense?
Yeah, yeah. I never thought of that.
Well, when you say you don’t know where the song’s come from and I always think that that’s when people are truly plugged into their creativity, they do pluck things from the ether. And it kind of seems a bit like it was her saying ‘Tell my story’.
Right, right, you’re absolutely right. Yes, yes, yes. Mmm hmm.
That’s why I think that’s when those songs give you chills – because that song does give me chills every time I listen to it – and I just think, ‘Ooh, it’s coming from somewhere else’.
Yeah, yeah, you’re right now. You’ve given me something to think about. ’cause it is – you’re absolutely right, it’s her, yeah.
And it’s not just because it’s a woman singing it, it’s not because it’s your voice, obviously. You make a very convincing narrator for other people’s stories, so it’s not just, ‘Oh, it’s a woman’s voice therefore it has to be a woman’s story’. It’s just – that was my impression. But, in writing about – getting inspiration from those sorts of sources – do you think that a lot of your songwriting is about kind of trying to understand what it’s like to be human or how to make your way in the world as a decent human being?
Sure. Yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, that’s very well put. I think, especially since I moved to America, I mean, I kind of fell in love and got married and found just beautiful happiness with this wonderful man and I’ve shifted hemispheres, so my whole life changed and so your perspective as a writer can’t help but change, because where once – my earlier albums – I was writing about matters of my heart and my wretched life, and then as I got happy, I was like, well, I don’t really need to kind of be writing about that all the time, and here I am in America, which is a very kind of political entity in the world and in America you’re much more aware of what’s going on politically, globally, and people talk about it and have opinions and you’re sort of faced with, ‘Well, what do I think about this and how do we all cope with all this stuff that’s going on and try to remain happy and helpful [laughing] to each other in the face of a lot of tragedy and adversity and hardship and all of that stuff that the media shove down your throat’. We’re all trying to cope and deal with it and process it and remain positive.
That’s one of the great roles of art, to help people be human or help people make their way through being a human and understand how to live a good life. And not just be decent, but also have fun. A lot of art, whether it’s music or painting or whatever, unlocks that for people, even if they don’t really understand what’s going on.
Yeah, that’s true, and I think that’s right. I think, as a writer, I do try to find the universal human experience and the expression of that. and I know that I can sing a song or write a song and people come and say, ‘Yep, that’s me’, or ‘Yep, I get that’, or they really respond to certain songs because they don’t particularly have that means of expression. For sure, like you see a painting and it speaks to you, you want to have it in your home. Same thing – it’s helping you make sense of everything.
Part II of this interview will be published tomorrow.
Audrey Auld is playing at Moonah Arts Centre in Hobart on Saturday 31 March and the Clarendon in Katoomba (NSW) on Sunday 1 April. For details go to audreyauld.com
This is the third and final part of my interview with 2012 Telstra Road to Discovery winner Kelly Menhennett, whose beautiful voice stopped me in my tracks on Tamworth’s Peel Street earlier this year. Kelly comes from a musical family and then became a winemaker before giving her own musical dreams a shot – so far it’s paying off!
You can read the previous parts of the interview here.
So for you, this must be an interesting time in your life – I think you’re still living in the country, in South Australia, or rural areas and possibly this year, everything will change to a great extent but are you thinking that you might be having to move to a city, or Melbourne or Sydney or overseas? That must be quite a big change to contemplate.
Yeah, well, actually in the last twelve or so months I’ve been spending more time in Adelaide and that’s been a bit of a transition and I grew up on 50 acres of land and so to come to Adelaide where you’re surrounded by neighbours [laughs] all around has been a bit odd. Yeah, I’ve got to remember that I can’t just walk out to the clothesline in my undies [laughs] and things like that. But it’s been great for the opportunity with my music in the sense that I’ve become a little bit more of a part of a community of musicians here and I have a bit of a support network now, even in Adelaide, but to get things moving even further, there probably is a lot more opportunity in Melbourne or Sydney, I’d imagine. And I’m quite ready to make the move. It’d be a transition but I’d be quite happy to experience it for the sake of making my music go forward, that’s for sure.
And you can always go home when you need to.
Yeah, exactly. It doesn’t take that long to fly from Adelaide to Melbourne, you can be there in a couple of hours – or Sydney – it’s fine.
Well, given that you drove from Tamworth to Adelaide, I would think that any amount of time flying would seem like nothing.
That was ridiculous, that drive! My goodness, that Hay Plain is so boring.
What path did you take? Do you bypass Melbourne?
On the way there I drove from Adelaide through the Mallee – so Lameroo, Pinnaroo, there’s those towns – and then up to Hay and they across the West Wyalong, Parkes, had a gig in Mudgee at a lovely brewery there –
Yeah, it was really nice. And then, Tamworth – that was on the way up, and then on the way home essentially the same but after Hay went to Mildura and then the river land to Barmah, where my family are. Have a few celebratory beverages with my dad and mum.
Speaking of beverages, it would be remiss of me not to ask you about being a winemaker. Do you still do any of that, or that’s gone for the time being?
Well, it’s funny you ask, because on Monday, so the day before the [Telstra RTD] final, my old workplace offered me a job as a winemaker for the harvest. And I was half contemplating it, but I told them, ‘You know, I’d like to see what happens with this competition but there’s a fair chance that I won’t get through, so it might be a possibility to earn a few dollars and try and help support my music’ – becauseit’s been quite a challenge trying to balance it all. But now I’m going to just watch my dollars a bit more, maybe pull a few beers and support myself that way and try and really focus on my writing and make the most of this 12 months. But. Yeah. I do miss that.
If you find yourself in Sydney a lot, there are vineyards in the southern highlands which are quite close to Sydney, they’re an hour on the freeway.
Actually, I drove through them. When I did a little solo New South Wales tour last year and I drove from – where would I have driven from? – I think from Canberra to Wollongong and I think I passed through the southern highlands. There’s some lovely little green places in that area.
There certainly are, and close to Sydney – lots of people commute, that’s all I’m saying. [Laughs]
I could well do that, that would probably be a good – yeah, that’d be great. See, in Adelaide there’s a few wine regions around, which is also possible for me to do both, but yeah, like we were saying, there’s probably a lot more opportunity to be in – to be based in Sydney or Melbourne than, yeah. Seems like the next thing for me to do.
The good thing is, this will be a year of change anyway, so it sounds like you’re prepared to go with the flow.
I am, yeah. [Laughs]. I certainly am. I think too, having developed a bit of an audience here in Adelaide I am ready for that next step, so otherwise I’d just become stale, I think – you become a bit stuck in a bit of a vicious cycle, I think, if you don’t force yourself out of your comfort zone.
Also, I guess Adelaide’s relatively small, there’s only a certain number of venues and it would become increasingly difficult to get gigs there if you’ve played a certain number of times, all that kind of thing.
That’s so true. Yeah, it is, definitely.
Whereas Sydney and Melbourne have multiple venues and Sydney’s now got quite a few jazz-folk venues – as in, venues where the volume is not turned up to 11, so it’s getting quite civilised. But, before I forget to mention it, someone who judged the Road to Discovery was Karl Broadie and I think you should look him up for co-writing. He’s a very good songwriter and – you just never know.
Definitely. I met Karl through it all and it was one thing that people who introduced him always said, how he’s a beautiful writer.
He really is, and he’s done a bit of co-writing, he co-wrote a song with Felicity Urquhart for her last album. So there’s all sorts of interesting people you’re going to meet.
There are, there are. And I think the whole co-writing thing will bring out parts of you that you didn’t know. Like, you’d be probably writing in a different style and all of that experience might bring out different things in your songs. I’m really looking forward to it.
It sounds like it! I’m going to ask you one more question, because I’ve had you talking for a while and there’s a softball match on. Did you ever sing to the grapes?
The grapes? Oh. I probably did, you know. [Laughs]. I used to sit in the – oh, when we were kids and we were – it was all hand picking, and we were supposed to be picking grapes, we used to pick under these hessian bags and once you’d picked the bag, you’d drag it out into the middle of the row and then the tractor would come along with a bin on the front of it and two people would pick up each end of the bag and toss the grapes in. That’s how we’d do it with the hand picking and, well, my whole time pretty much was just spent underneath the row sitting on the hessian mats with our big German Shepherd – Caesar, his name was – and we used to eat grapes and probably I’d talk to him and maybe sing to him and the grapes then, so yeah, it probably did happen.
I just think if you’re making wine and you’re singing to the grapes, they probably like it. It’s like talking to plants.
Well, that’s right. I know when I would be working, I did a couple of vintages in Spain and I did some busking and everything, and while I was over there I worked in a couple of beautiful wineries, and yeah, we would sing in the cellar to pass the time, that would help with the wine. Surely.
If you think about the vibrations of the voice and if singing is so good for humans to do, for human health, it’s got to be good for plants. [Laughs].
I think so too. I reckon it’d create a happy ferment, all the yeast in the wine would be thinking, ‘Oh, that’s lovely’. [Laughs].
Oh, so when you’ve decided that you’ve had enough of life on the road and in a few years time when you’re thinking, ‘What will I do next?’ you could do a PhD on whether singing makes better wine.
I should do that. I could definitely do that one. [Laughs]. That was hilarious. That’s a good idea, actually.
I wouldn’t mind betting that if someone’s paying loving attention to the grapes while they’re fermenting or being picked, it’s going to make a difference.
And then do a blind tasting of it with some good wine tasters and see if they can taste the delicious sung-to wine.
Absolutely. [Laughs]. So, I’m going to leave you with that idea, Kelly, so you can put it in your brain for 20 years’ time.
I’m going to be assessing every bottle now, thinking, ‘I wonder if they sang to these grapes?’ [Laughs].
Well, thank you so much for giving me so much of your time and I hope the softball goes well.
Thanks, Sophie, and thanks for your call too, that’s great. A lovely chat.
To find out what Telstra RTD winners get up to in the weeks after the ceremony, read the second part of Kelly’s interview. Hint: she’s going to Nashville!
Kelly Menhennett won the Songwriter prize at this year’s Telstra Road to Discovery. Hailing from South Australia, where she has been working as a winemaker, Kelly’s beautiful voice and great songs are sure to win her fans.
This is the second part of my interview with her. Part I can be read here.
Is it Nashville you go to as a prize for Telstra RTD?
Yeah, so at the end of, I think it’s in September, mid-September, the Americana Festival is on and as a winner I get to showcase at this festival – I think we have that opportunity and a performance at Sounds Australia, which is like a showcasing type thing of Australian talent as well. So there’sa minimum of two performances over there, but we also have the opportunity to, sort of, create our own performance opportunities as well while we’re over there .
So you’re having some quiet time in South Australia now before all this hits.
Yes. In the next week or two I head to Sydney and we [Kelly and Performance category winner Andrew Redfort] sit down with the team that are helping us and kind of work out a bit of a plan for our year. And for me, I would really love to do some co-writing with other Australian writers. I’ve never done any co-writing before and I don’t know whether I’ll like it or not, becausesome people say it’s not for them, they like to write by themselves. But I’d like to give it a crack, ’cause I’m a really indecisive person and sometimes writing a song can go on for months, if not years for me. So if I’ve got someone who’s with me and can just say, ‘No, that idea that you thought of is actually fine’, that would work really good, otherwise I just stew over ideas.
Well, who is on your top five list of ideal co-writers? If you’ve got one.
Oh, I said to Bill [Page, RTD judge] yesterday in an email, a lot of my influences and people that I look up to are either overseas or they’re deceased. [Laughs]
Oh, well. Can’t do much about the latter.
Yes, I can’t do much about that, but in Australia I love the likes of Paul Kelly and Tim and Neil Finn, but of course they’d be on the top of the wish list but possibly not able to help out. But I’m really open to suggestions, because I really don’t know anyone. there’s so many people in the industry that I’m oblivious to and what they’ve done and how talented they are, so I’d really be quite open to suggestions from people like Bill who have lots of experience and know lots of people in the industry. And, I guess, even if I just do a little bit of – like, I started to do some yesterday, but just to do research on various groups that I love and who have inspired them and perhaps even who they’ve worked with in the past. There was a group called The Audreys from Adelaide that came out a little while ago and The Waifs, I really love their sort of – it’s probably more folk music that they do, but as a youngster, I mean, the music that inspired me is quite diverse but I listen to a lot of soul music, sort of old ’50s, ’60s, soul and country and whatever was popular at that time. To kind of pick someone to co-write with, it’s like comparing oranges and apples ’cause it just depends what sort of song you want to write really, I guess.
I guess also you’ve got to be mindful of your voice and the fact that you wouldn’t want to write a song with someone who’s going to try to make you sing in a way that doesn’t suit you, because I know with singers everyone’s voices have their characteristics. You wouldn’t want to put someone in front of a rock band if they’re actually a really soft, melodic singer, because they’re just not going to cut through. There are different voices for country and there are different voices within country. When you said soul music, I can hear that in your voice, but it’s also a very jazz voice, but I could also hear that if you wanted to turn your hand to country, that’s there too.
Definitely, definitely. I’ve always struggled to classify my music because I kind of move a bit with what the content of the writing is about. My guitar teacher was a jazz guitarist, and so that jazz influence probably came from him and then I think the soul influence is always going to be in my voice, I don’t think I’ll escape that ever, I think it’s always going to pop out. But I like exploring, I like pushing boundaries and experimenting with different styles. Just recently a friend of mine who’s a rock musician wanted some backing vocals and I did push myself and get some grit out of my voice, but it doesn’t feel terribly natural to me, and whilst I try these different things, I think I’ve got a rough understanding of what direction I’ll be moving in the future. But, yeah, it’s still pretty loosely defined.
Which is exciting in a lot of ways, and it’s actually a really good balance for you to have had an album out by the time you actually win a competition like this [Kelly has a CD called World of Mine] because you’re not completely malleable. It’s not like you’re an unformed lump of clay that anyone can take and say, ‘Well, we’re going to make you what we want.’ You already have some ideas and some experience which actually means you’ll probably get more out of all of this.
Definitely. And, I think with what I’ve already done, too, I can sort of critique it and go, ‘Right, this is good, I like this part of it, but I think in the next album I might not have so much of this’, to kind of move forward and evolve. I listen to my album every now and again and think, ‘Oh my goodness, how am I going to -‘ Like, I don’t mean to blow my own trumpet, but how am I going to top this song, or I think, ‘How did I do that?’ I don’t know where some of these things have come from. I think, ‘Wow, I don’t know how I did that. How am I going to do something better?’
I think that’s actually when it’s really working. It’s like you pluck things from the ether and that’s actually when it’s really working ’cause that’s that sense of, I think, whether you’re singing or you’re writing or painting, it’s that sense that it’s bigger than you, you’re actually, you’re offering something to – I mean, I don’t want to say the universe, but you’re offering something to everyone else and it also acknowledges that you don’t own it, so you’ve also got a responsibility to pass it on.
I agree, and some of the songs that I’ve written that I think are my best are quite – like, other people have a really quite profound response to them. Sometimes I’ve known [where it’s come from] – I’ve played the song and it’s brought tears to people’s eyes and it came from emotion that I was experiencing and it’s so amazing when you can have that sort of an effect on someone.
And it’s good that you don’t shy away from it, because I think some people might instinctively think, ‘Well, I don’t want to deal with that’, but it’s reassuring for the person who’s having that experience that you’re willing to take responsibility for it in a way.
Definitely. That’s right.
The third and final part of this interview will be published soon. In the meantime, you can visit Kelly’s website at www.kellymenhennet.com.
During this year’s Tamworth Country Music Festival I was lurking around the 2TM trailer on Peel Street, waiting to meet someone and not really paying attention to who was performing on the stage attached to the trailer. Then I heard a voice – a really beautiful voice that made me stop what I was doing and pay attention. The voice belonged to Kelly Menhennett, who had been one of the winners of the Telstra Road to Discovery just the night before.
After Tamworth was over I found Kelly’s website and sent an email asking to interview her. She said ‘yes’, and I interviewed by phone her one Saturday afternoon while she was watching a softball match. She told me that she takes her guitar along because sometimes she’ll take a break from the match and go off somewhere and play for a while. So that led me to my first question …
What really intrigued me about you and the Telstra Road to Discovery was that you won the Songwriter Award and not the Performance Award, because the way I discovered you on Peel Street was that I was walking off to something else and I heard this voice singing and thought, Whoever that is, I really have to stop and listen to her, because your voice is just amazing and when I listen to your record, it’s like this extraordinary instrument, it’s quite unusual and I can’t think of another Australian singer like it. So I’ve got to start off by asking you about singing. How long you’ve been singing and if your voice has always been like that or if you’ve changed it over time?
My mum used to be a singer. She was a singer in the Sydney cabaret scene, but prior to that she was a resident singer in the country at a hotel. When she was, I think, fifteen she became the resident singer so she’s been a massive inspiration and consequently, as kids, my sister and I and Mum would always be singing around the house. I just loved singing, but I never thought anything of it and it wasn’t until later in life when I was … I’m a winemaker by trade and I was in the countryside working, doing that – I pursued that. Mum and Dad having lived the Sydney cabaret scene in the early ’70s and knowing how tough it was, they discouraged me from a career in music.
[Laughs] Well, fair enough.
And, yeah, they were just being, I guess, trying to look after me and not wanting me to have a tough road, so they discouraged me so I pursued wine, which kind of was quite natural too because I grew up on a vineyard. And then I was back living in the country, making wine and there was just – it was all work, I really had no outlet socially, so I started to perform as a bit of a social outlet, and people started commenting on my vocal ability and performance and things like that, and I really hadn’t thought too much of my talents, but it was just that gratification and people really enjoying what I was doing that kept me driven and, I guess, vocally, I don’t know, I think I’ve always had that vocal ability but never really recognised it until later in life.
Not that you’re that old!
No, no, no. Well, I was probably, I don’t know, maybe in my early twenties when I starting performing again and now I’m thirty.
So you didn’t really do singing at school, or you did but you didn’t realise that it was anything special?
Yeah, yeah, I did, I did. I did music right up until Year Twelve. I did guitar as my instrument, though. I started off with violin as a four year old. But, vocally, in our music classes we would just make up silly songs and you’d sing along to them, but there was never … I guess at that age, everyone’s sort of singing along and, I don’t know, it’s easy to get drowned out amongst the noise of a music class. [laughs] I never recognised any vocal talent then, I just thought that I could hold a tune, but nothing really more than that.
Well, clearly your teachers didn’t say anything. I can’t believe they didn’t. But on the Telstra Road to Discovery- when you’re actually being judged that night, that finalist night, I suppose you just to do what you do and it’s not like you enter into either the songwriter strand or the performance strand, is that right?
Well, I didn’t know what the difference was, to be honest, because I just thought, Well, I’m a performer and I’m a songwriter, and I didn’t know which one to go for, so I put an entry into both, and funnily enough I actually did have an entry in the performer and got through the – went in for the heats, but I never got any further than the Adelaide heat in the performer section, and –
[Laughs] Sorry, I find that so hard to believe.
Well, Bill Page – who’s the head judge, apparently – really wanted me to get through and he copped a lot of flak for not pushing me through in the performer section. And, yeah, if I – I think at that particular heat I did one of my originals and not knowing what I was in for, I did a cover of ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, thinking it’s a … It used to be a country competition traditionally and I thought that might sort of fit the mould of the competition and perhaps sort of appeal to the audience – a lot of it was based on audience response, apparently with the judging. But, according to Bill, he said to me, ‘Kel, I loved your original but’ – this is, this is like only the other day after winning – and he was like, ‘Bloody hell, “Me and Bobby McGee”. I’ve heard it a thousand times.’ So, for me, that particular song was a poor choice, but in hindsight I got through, and I think particularly in the semi-finalists, there is hardly any difference between the performer and songwriter categories. All of the people that were in the songwriter category performed, and performed really strongly, so I guess they put the songwriter category in there if you’re a really snazzy writer but can’t perform.
[Laughs] Or maybe they’re just trying to take two bites of the cherry, they figure, oh well, maybe we’ll get two great performers out of it instead of one.
Yeah, that’s true, that’s true. That’s possibly it as well [laughs].
The Tamworth Country Music Festival has given rise to – well, around the festival there’s these two competitions, there’s Star Maker and Road to Discovery, and I think they seem to more than carry their weight in terms of finding new talent, and before there was Australian Idol or anything like that, these competitions were unearthing people, and there seems to be a very good follow-through in terms of people having careers after they’ve been through these competitions.
Definitely. I agree. If you make the most of this opportunity you can really, kind of, build a foundation so that you’re moving into the future in a really – you’re all sorted essentially, like you can make some amazing contacts through this experience. We’ve all – like even the finalists or semi-finalists, we all have met some amazing people who can help out down the track.
Part II of this interview will be published very soon.
This is the second and final part of my interview with Harmony James, an Australian singer-songwriter who can’t seem to help making new fans every time she plays somewhere or releases a new album. Harmony’s second album, Handfuls of Sky, was released earlier this year and I spoke to her not long after its launch during the Tamworth Country Music Festival.
Part I of this interview can be read here.
Would you consider writing songs for other people?
Absolutely, I’m assigned to a publishing company now and they know that I write a lot of songs and that I don’t necessarily record them all, and we’re certainly going to look at whether someone else lends a voice to them. And I write songs that are fun and then I think, ‘I don’t want to own that, I don’t want to actually stand up and say that out loud as me’, so it might be nice if someone else does.
I was wondering about the publishing company deal and that’s obviously a big benefit, that they can take your songs and put them with other people.
Exactly, and they’ve got contacts all over the world, so I expect them to stand and deliver at some stage!
I noticed on your forward schedule that you’re doing a lot of supports for Troy Cassar-Daley and then you’re headlining your own gigs sometimes at the same venues. Will you be doing those headline gigs as a band or are you on your own?
With a band. People don’t often get to see Harmony James with a band, because when I do the support stuff it’s been [with a] guitar, so it would be nice to be able to just sneak out and do a few ‘pow’ moments.
It worked very well at Tamworth, and watching your band actually made me realise that country music, at least in Australia, is really inclusive of all ages and it was just great seeing Dan Conway playing with Jeff McCormack and there was Glen Hannah and Steve Fearnley, your drummer, in that gig and I just thought it’s really about who wants to play with who, not what age anyone is.
Exactly. It was funny backstage, actually, because Jeff was saying, ‘I remember when I was the young fellow in the room and now I’m the oldest guy here’. And then we had Dan who is, I guess, practically a kid when you look at those musos, but I think it’s really important that the industry also lets some of those new kids come through because at some point we’re going to need them.
I was talking to another performer in her early 20s and she said how she’d been embraced by the audiences and people who didn’t know her, and I think country does allow that to happen. It seems to be a bit easier to get a start with audiences and I don’t know if you found that at Tamworth in particular, in the past?
I think Tamworth is a unique place because when you’re in your establishment phase it would be hard to assemble a whole lot of paying people to come to your gigs, but you’ve got a better chance at Tamworth because at least you’ve already got a town full of people who know they probably like your kind of music, so if you’re going to put on a gig that’s where you go.
Just back to your songwriting. Not everyone’s like that – there are a lot of people who perform other people’s songs – and it’s quite a personal thing to perform your own songs but the motivations are possibly also different. With you in particular, listening to your songs, it feels like you’ve got a real drive to tell the stories that are in the songs, and I was wondering if that’s something that’s been with you for a really long time and if, in fact, you do have that drive?
It’s a funny thing because when I’m writing songs it’s just almost probably my own personal venting. I love music and I’m ruminating on whatever it is that’s going on in my head at the time, and a song happens and I just write. I’m never thinking at the time, ‘Do the fans need this and will they sing it back to me?’ Anything like that, I’m just writing. And then sometimes they just sit with you and you think, ‘I think this is a keeper’. And so you start to have what ends up looking like a batch of songs that might be an album, and all of a sudden you’re on this slippery slope and you’re recording it and it’s all down in hard copy and then you kind of go, ‘Hey, this was written in the privacy of my own room about my thoughts and things, and now I’m just going to broadcast them and I can never take that back.’ It’s really odd, because when I’m writing that’s not the intention but then I just kind of go ahead and do it anyway.
And also you’re in good hands with your producer/manager because that seems to be a really good combination, you and Herm Kovac. How did you find him in the first place – given that you were running that project yourself, you could have picked any producer?
Yeah, that’s right. I didn’t know a whole lot, it was back in 2006 when I was thinking – initially I was literally thinking, ‘I’m just going to record a single’, and I had a couple of people I’d been aware of their work or what they’d been up to over the years and sort of thought maybe I should just get in touch with them and see what they thought, and Herm was one of them. I’m trying to remember how I was aware of him. You know what? I was aware of him because I knew he’d produced – it was all on the strength of one song, it’s a song called ‘Stay’ that Grant Richardson recorded, and I remember when I first heard that song on the radio I just thought, ‘Wow, that sounds world class’. And so it was pretty much that one song that I’d heard that made me put Herm on the shortlist, and he was just one of the more courteous people who actually got back to me in a timely fashion and all those types of things, so I was quite lucky that he just had some good business practice going on and I ended up going ahead with him.
Well, I’m sure the people who didn’t get back to you are probably kicking themselves now. I would be, if I were them! But it has been a good combination, obviously. He really understands where to put your voice in the mix, for example, because you do have a strong voice but you could also be overpowered by the instruments with the wrong mix.
Exactly. He’s been quite a gem, to be honest, to find and work with. He’s very passionate about the music and he’ll crow to anyone who’ll listen about it because he believes in it as well, so I’ve had a few wins there.
So in the way of things in country music, are you now going to take up the banjo?
Personally, I would have to find a whole other lifetime worth of time to fit in any instruments. My big plan, one of these years, is to actually become proficient on the guitar.
I think that’s a bit harsh, you seemed fairly proficient when I saw you play.
You know how they say, in a room full of guitars, I’m a pretty good welder.
Except at that Tamworth gig a couple of weeks ago when I think there was one song you sang that you took your guitar off and you said you felt it wasn’t quite right, so even if you don’t think you’re good on the guitar you’re clearly attached to it.
Yeah, yeah. I think it’s like this little security blanket, isn’t it?
It is. So I think my time is about to be up, but I don’t think I’ve got any more questions left anyway!
There you go, perfect. Look, you couldn’t have planned it better.
That’s right. But congratulations on the album, you’re an amazing country music performer and we’re very lucky to have you in Australia, I think.
Thank you. I appreciate your time, listening to my record.
Harmony James is touring with Troy Cassar-Daley and then on her own. Go to www.harmonyjames.com for details. Handfuls of Sky is out now through Warner.