Interview: Paul Costa

Paul Costa has been a fixture on the country music scene for quite a while, as any visitor to Tamworth knows, and his brand of robustly entertaining, toe-tapping songs about life on the land (and other things besides) has found audiences all over Australia. Paul’s fourth album, Wheels & Steel, has just been released and I talked to him recently while he was driving his car one day – my main concern was that he was on a hands-free phone! (He was.)


So you did a gig in Kincumber last night?

I did, yeah, and we had a great time; it was a fun show. We had Adam Harvey and the Toombs Brothers and Luke Russell, so fun show, great crowd, yeah.

Was it like a mixed line-up, not just a show with you headlining?
Mixed line-up, yeah. It was a fundraiser for Variety Bash and so it was just a lot of fun and something that the 94.1 radio station organised. So some of the presenters from there sort of help them.

Do you live in Victoria or in New South Wales?
Well it’s about 50/50 at the moment.  We’ve still got a house in Victoria, but we spend a lot of time in a rental place up on the Central Coast, because that’s where it’s all happening for the music and the record label’s there, the recording studio’s there, a lot of the musos and songwriters are there, so we’re actually looking at making it more in New South Wales from now on; just looking at a bigger place to rent and we’ll be right.

The Central Coast certainly does seem to have developed into this incredible hub and I think it’s probably just sort of happened, not deliberately, but the studios do all seem to be there and it must feel like quite a good supportive community to be in when you’re there?
Definitely, everything you need as far as the music is there, hence they call it Hillbilly Heaven, you know. You’ve got great artists like Adam Harvey and Beccy Cole and Kasey Chambers and a whole swag of other people on the Central Coast, so as soon as I come here I feel like I’m part of the whole scene which is a good feeling.

You’ve got your fourth album coming up and I haven’t heard it yet; I’ve only heard the single.  So I can’t ask you questions about the album, but I do know it’s your first one on Core Music with is Rod McCormack’s label.  So it must really feel a bit like the industry’s kind of graduating in a way?  There’s now a label that’s dedicated to country music and it’s got distribution through Sony, you’ve got that whole set-up with Rod, in particular, producing a lot of established songwriters.  Do you feel like, as an artist, you’re in a really good place and good time?
Definitely; it feels so natural to me. My association with Rod, goes back eight years from when I recorded my first album, and he’d produced all four of my albums.  So it feels, you know, going to a studio and now the office is set up at the studio, so it feels like home. I’m just rapt with the relationship now that  has put me on the label, thought enough of me to do so, and even the recording process now, I’ve had a lot more creative freedom in this last project, which has meant that something a little bit different and also it’s more Paul Costa. So I’m very happy with the way my career is going right now, yeah.

I notice you’ve got some pretty well-established and hardworking songwriters working with you on this album – has being on this label given you access to them or to different songwriters than you’d worked with before?
Oh well, when it comes to songwriting, I think it’s mainly relationships you build up as you go. Obviously with Rod, we’ve collaborated on a number of occasions; I have him right there, not only as a great producer, a musician, record boss, but he’s also a good songwriter – a great songwriter [laughs].  So it’s good to have him on board. Writing with Tamara Stewart for this record will be … actually, we’ve had three songs with Tamara, so we seem to really click, and the work just came out great.  I’m collaborating for the first time with Drew McAlister on this project, with two songs, and then in the end he wrote one with Allan Caswell that they offered to me and I loved it, so we’re recording that one as well. And, of course, back with Matt Scullion, who is doing really well in Nashville at the moment, songwriting. I think he’s got three tracks on the new one as well, so it’s great to have that type of talent that is willing to, you know, put their time in and help with the whole process.

And is there an aspect of all of this that you prefer, between songwriting and recording and performing?  Is there one part of it that’s your favourite?
I think the performance side is definitely my favourite, although I do enjoy the whole process right through. You probably wouldn’t want to be doing it continuously, every day, but when you’re on a mission to put an album together, you just seem to go, go, go, until you know or ’til you’re satisfied that the job’s done. But the most rewarding part after you’ve written a song, recorded it, is the feedback from the audience; that’s the ultimate reward, I guess.

How did you start out performing? Was it you and a guitar and the local pub, or did you enter – I didn’t find anything in your bio about StarMaker, or anything like that, so I don’t know if you went that route?
Basically, performing with my brother and brothers over the years. We sang at weddings, parties and anything there earlier on. Did the club circuit along the Murray [River] and built up a following – a local following – but then we started going to Tamworth. And obviously people from all over Australia come to Tamworth and so we started building a national following from there, and then spinning off that, being invited to festivals all around the country and that type of thing.  So I guess it just evolved, yeah, there wasn’t any one particular thing, like I was never really into talent festivals and that type of thing, because I was already performing. When I went to Tamworth I was 19, so I was already performing and getting paid for it, so it was like we sort of skipped that first step, I guess [laughts].

When you were doing the weddings, parties and anything, were there any songs that you absolutely just got completely sick of playing?
Well I guess, anything you do for a long time is you tend to look for new challenges as an artist, and I have always been like that. Once I’ve done something for a little while, you’re looking for what’s kind of next, you know.  You constantly look for new bounds to break.

Speaking of developing as an artist, I was listening to a track off your very first album, and you had quite an Elvis sound to your voice. Are you a fan of Elvis, or was it that you just happened to sound like that?
Yeah, definitely an Elvis fan. I love Elvis’s music and used to listen to a lot of his songs from when I was growing up, but not only Elvis, a lot of even the classic country as well.  I mean, Elvis did cross over to country; of course, he started out as the Hillbilly Cat, that was his first tag. So we were always enjoying Johnny Cash and Marty Robbins, and a lot of those guys as well, so there was a fairly big range. I remember going up and back to the market, had it in the truck, there always used to be music all the way up and all the way back and all those great names that I just said, including Slim Dusty and even a little bit of Chad Morgan rolled in there sometimes. It was a fun time and a great environment to grow up with country music and a bit of rock ‘n’ roll, ’50s and ’60s rock ‘n’ roll, which you can hear a little bit of that, especially in the earlier albums.

So when you got to being a teenager and wanting to play music, you didn’t ever have a moment of thinking, ‘Country music’s too daggy, I can’t play this?’
Never. Looking back at the whole thing, the very, very first song that I learnt to play on guitar and sing the whole thing right through was ‘Country Roads’. And it felt so natural; it didn’t feel like, ‘Oh, this is daggy or corny in any way,’ so that’s just the way it went [laughs].

Well, you know, sometimes kids reject their parents’ taste in everything.
Oh yeah, I guess that does happen occasionally, but no, I thought it was pretty cool, and there’s so much great, great music out there at the moment. There’s obviously some great Australian artists. I’m really big in a lot of the American stuff, like Brad Paisley and those guys, so I just think that if people listened to country music more, the broad range, I think country will be considered cool, you know, and there’s a big market for country if people don’t try and pin it down to, you know, ‘That’s country music; I don’t like that.’ I like it when people say, ‘I don’t usually like Country, but I like what you do’, so all right, let’s try and go that way a bit more.

Except I always think that part of the charm of Tamworth is that everyone’s kind of accepted that country is a bit daggy and therefore, no one’s trying to be cool and no one’s being pretentious. There’s just that understanding that we all kind of know about country and we’re all quite happy that it’s like that, so I’m not sure that I want country to become cool.
All right. Yep. Well, the thing is – there was only a comment just recently that there was a group that went over to Nashville and to the US, and they just couldn’t get over how mainstream country was, like country is as big as pop music over there, which our market here is a lot smaller, but I think there’s possibly a stigma that we need to break through, to open up the market here, and I think it could be just as big as mainstream, because there is just some great music and some great artists, that probably don’t get a chance because of that bit of stigma that’s going on, so hopefully, that doesn’t last too much longer.

Well from my perspective, as someone who loves country, listening to country and seeing it played live, it’s actually the genre that tells Australian stories and you know, I’m listening to your single and that’s a story of life on the land, and a working life on the land.  You don’t actually get a lot of songs in other genres that describe life and tell Australian stories. So do you feel that that’s part of the genre for you?
Oh definitely. It’s all about the stories, you know, and it’s a great way to express the story. So if you can put the melody and the story together in a way that they gel and work and ring home, then you know, you’ve almost got guaranteed hit song, which is not that easy to do, but when it does happen, it works and people really keep asking for that song, like last night – ‘Survivor 1932’, is one of those songs that I recorded on my last album and I just keep getting requests for that song and people are still talking about it, so it’s just hit a nerve and it’s great when that does fall into place.

Do you often play with a full band?
Yes, a lot. Sometimes it might be stripped back to an acoustic show where you’ve got a couple of players or another player, but mostly with a full band these days, yeah, which is always a lot of fun.

And when you have those full-band gigs, do you find your audience has more guys than girls, or is it fairly evenly weighted?
I think it’s 50/50, I’d say, yeah; maybe slightly more females, slightly more, yeah [laughter], but fairly even.  

Listening to your music, it sounds to me like it’s really masculine music. I think there’s such a need for really good masculine music, particularly in country, so I was just curious as to know whether it was mainly guys or girls, but maybe women are more open-minded about country music?
I don’t know. With this last album, we’ve intentionally gone a little bit tougher with the sound overall, and that’s something that I’ve wanted to do for a couple of albums [laughter], it just hasn’t seemed to have gone that way, but this time it’s kind of fallen into place and I kind of think that with that little bit of tougher sound, that it’s going to open it up to mainly, possibly a few more of the male side liking it, as well as the female, but and probably broadening the range of the age group. I’ve had 18 year olds love it and I’ve had 80 year olds love it, so it’s good if you can kind of please the ear to that broader range of age.

I was looking at your touring page, which is how I realised you were playing last night, it didn’t seem like you had a lot of gigs booked around the launch of the album; are you planning to add some later in this year?
Yeah definitely; we’re working on shows at the moment. I’m an Ambassador for Mission Australia and we’ve got about four or five shows; the dates are just booked in for those shows. We’ve got other touring lined up, I think we’re starting off in Queensland and it’s going to be updated fairly soon. I’m going back to the Birdsville Races, which is always great; this’ll be my third time performing at the Birdsville Races. And I’ve also got a trip to Europe; a Country Music Riverboat Cruise, starting in Amsterdam and going through Budapest, two weeks, five star, all inclusive. It’s going to be really hard to take and even harder to come back to reality, I think. But I’m looking forward to keeping fairly busy and there’s going to be a lot of in-store promotions as well lined up to promote the album, so looking fairly full, at this stage, yeah.

How did you become an Ambassador for Mission Australia?
Well, I just happened to run into Sheryl O’Donnell from Goulburn. I was on tour with Amber Lawrence and helping her out. She’s sponsored by SsangYong, so we were at the SsangYong dealer and I was helping out with my little PA system and Mission Australia were there doing a sausage sizzle and we got to meet Sheryl and they booked us for a show, and I was just talking to Sheryl, she said, ‘Would you like to become an Ambassador?’ And to be truthful I didn’t know a lot about Mission Australia at that stage, but since finding out a lot more, and being involved in a lot of projects now, I was very, very proud to be asked and she inspired me to write a song called ‘Shine’, and it’s on the album [Wheels & Steel], and they’re going to use that on presentations and radio ads and also some TV, so I’m very happy with the way that’s turning out; it’s a real win/win.

So does part of being an Ambassador mean that you talk about them at your gigs, or you have their logo up, or anything like that?
I think it’s just supporting each other.  So I just do that without even thinking about it now, you know.  I talk about it a lot, when there’s something advertised, you know, I’m up or down, ‘Paul is a proud Ambassador for Mission Australia’. I’ll do a few things, just help Mission in a different ways; I’ll be an MC or I’ll make an appearance at different times and then they might get me to do other stuff.  I just flew to Darwin recently with Mark Holden and Deni Hines as part of the their urban quest, for people all around the Northern Territory, young kids from 10 to 19, picking out the best vocalists, and we ran a big competition there, so that was great, I was really happy to be a part of that. So it’s just working together and the music seems to work really well with what they do as well, so once again it’s just a win/win.

It sound like you’re working full time as a musician and you’ve got all these other aspects to it, like Mission Australia.  Have you always been working full time as a muso, since you were a teenager, or is it fairly recent that you’ve been able to do that?
Full time.  I’ve been full time for the last 12 years.  I had a job – my last job was with Elders Merchandise; I was a farm sales rep. So it was very rural, of course, and I was very comfortable and I was working in an area that I was well known, because of the music, so that kind of helped with sales as well [laughter], but I did that for six years. But the music was always pulling me, so it was something that I just had to do and it was a hard decision to make, and then when I finally had to hand the phone and the keys back to my car and walk home [laughter], and thinking, well, I’m on my own now [laughter], with no regular wage coming in, but because I’ve been doing it for a while and we already had a reasonably good plan with what we could do, it worked out – so far, so good, anyway.

I think that’s quite amazing, 12 years as a working muso.  There’s aren’t many people who would be able to do that, so good on you.
Oh thank you. No, it’s been the best 12 years of my life, and I hope it never ends [laughter].

Have you already lined up your Tamworth gigs for next year?
Just thinking about it; we haven’t locked them in 100 per cent yet, but I played last year at the Capitol Theatre and so we might be back there again, we just haven’t locked it in yet, but that was a great show there, always a good venue.

Great. Well, I’m about to wrap it up, but I just wanted to ask you, ’cause I saw in your bio that you grew up in the Mallee, so I was wondering if you will always consider yourself to be a country boy?
Oh definitely, yeah, yeah.  I mean growing up on a farm, definitely a country boy; there’s no doubt at all [laughs].

Do you miss the Mallee?
I’ve still actually got a house in Robinvale, the town I was born.  We do spend a bit of time there; we’ve got a lot of family and friends there, so I’m there quite a bit. I don’t really get time to miss it, but it’s a beautiful area, they’re right on the Mary River, and there’s very distinct bushland and even the red dirt – it’s not like anywhere else in Australia. That’s one of the reasons why when we did the film-clip for ‘Tractors & Bikes’, we took it back to one of the farms on the Mallee – you couldn’t talk about the Mallee and film it somewhere else, ’cause it just wouldn’t work [laughs].

It seems like your country credentials are extremely intact.
Oh well, I mean, I think you just be yourself and you let people decide what you’re doing or not; that’s the best way to go.


Paul Costa’s new album is Wheels & Steel, and it’s out now.
www.paulcosta.com.au

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