Country music is a broad church, as anyone who has been to Tamworth knows. And thus the artists who get a guernsey on this website aren’t always strictly ‘country’ – sometimes they have just a smattering of country, but if I like their music then I’ll take that as enough of a qualification for inclusion! And so it is with women in docs, who are best known by the label ‘indie’ but who incorporate influences from country and folk in their beautifully harmonised songs. As women in docs are embarking on their first tour in a long time – in support of their new album, Carousel – it was a good opportunity to talk to Chanel Lucas, one half of the band (the other half is Roz Pappalardo).
As I wasn’t aware of how women in docs first formed, that seemed a good place to kick off. And it also led to Chanel telling me some fascinating stories.
‘We started off in Townsville in North Queensland,’ said Chanel. ‘We were both at university. And we met through mutual friends. We were kind of hanging out with the same people and we both realised that the other person played guitar and sang. [So] we started a rock band with another two friends of ours. And we used to play covers in the rock circuit around North Queensland, so Townsville, Cairns, out to the islands like Dunk Island and Hamilton Island, and we’d also go up to the mines to play.
‘We did gigs out at Cannington mine and Osborne and all those kind of places. And it was good money, really good fun, playing in a rock band around North Queensland. Then we both kind of went off travelling with different groups of friends and went around Europe and did all that backpacking stuff that you do when you first finish uni. And I came back to Townsville for a job. Then a year or so later Roz appeared back in town and we started to put women in docs together. We decided to focus on the acoustic guitar and try and let our voices show through a bit more. And we also decided that we should write our own songs.’
Even though Chanel sounded matter of fact about playing on those islands and at mining sites, it did sound like an extraordinary experience – even more so because they’d made a real go of it as a covers band. And quite apart from that, I wondered about the logistics of getting around to all of those places.
‘Well, we had some pretty curly moments,’ she said, ‘but I think the times we used to go to Dunk Island, they had a little ferry, like a little wooden ferry … And so if the weather was rough, you’d have to take all your gear on a trolley out onto the end of the jetty, and then the boat would be kind of swaying up and down at the end of the jetty, if it was really rough, and you’d kind of have to time your loading onto the boat so that it lined up with the jetty, so that the boat was lined up with the jetty. So you have to wait for the wave and then kind of launch your gear onto the boat while it was lined up, otherwise you could miss and it would fall in the water [laughs]. To get out to mines, usually we flew with all the miners.’
The band would arrive the night before, often too late to play a gig, so they would arise in the mornings and play a gig for the miners coming off the night shift.
‘We’d be playing in the canteen at 10 a.m., playing full-on rock covers,’ explained Chanel, ‘and everyone would be drinking beer and eating bacon and eggs, ’cause it was the end of their shift. And then we’d go for the day and have a tour of the mine and go for a swim in the pool and all that sort of stuff. And then we come back that night and play to the day shifts, when the day shift was finishing. Then you jump on your plane and head back home again.’
Playing so early in the morning sounded like a challenge for any singer, given that voices warm up over the course of a day.
‘Yeah, you had to get up early,’ said Chanel. ‘I always need a good couple of hours before I have to sing, to warm up. I actually do warm-ups and make sure I talk and drink like a nice hot cup of tea or something like that or some warm water with lemon or something. It takes a lot of warming up. You know, it’s pretty hard to kind of really rock at 10 a.m.’
While the band may have focused more on rock music when they were doing covers, once they started writing their own material the music became focused on their voices – specifically, on their harmonies.
‘When we kind of came back [after taking a break from performing], we’d given up playing in rock bands for a bit, we decided to really try and create music based around our harmonies because that was the one thing that people really enjoyed about our performances in the band … So we thought, you know, maybe this is something from a business point of view that we can exploit. It was actually a conscious decision to kind of go, hey, we must be okay at this because people like it, people comment on it, so maybe we can take this further. So we purposely started writing songs with lots of harmony.
‘Our voices are very different, so whether [the harmonies] came naturally or not, I mean, we have been singing together for a very long time so we do fall into harmony singing quite easily now, and I think we were just lucky that we had two very different voices which seem to work together. Sometimes when voices are too much the same, it doesn’t sound like anything. But Roz has a much stronger voice and a much louder voice than me. Mine is more mid-range, it’s a bit softer in tone, and they just seem to blend for some reason. You wouldn’t think they would, but they just do.’
It is clear from the band’s songs, and they way they sing them, that there is a musical pedigree there. Chanel said she started learning acoustic guitar when she was five, ‘and then I kind of just lost it for a few years. I picked it up again when I was in high school, and I was hanging out with my friends and people just pick up the guitar and play and have sing-alongs and all that sort of stuff.’
She also used to perform in choirs and says she did a lot of musical theatre when she was a teenager and at university – shows like Fiddler on the Roofand Les Miserables – so her experience growing up was more about singing, and it wasn’t until she was in her late teens and early 20s that she picked up the guitar again. Now, she says, wielding an instrument is an integral part of her on-stage persona and she can’t imagine not having it with her when she sings.
‘For me it’s also about putting on the frock and putting on the lipstick,’ she said of performing. ‘It’s all part of who you are and part of your persona. No matter what you do or say on stage, I think if you are a performer, you do have a different persona you take out with you, depending on which act you’re in or what band you’re playing with. It’s not really you up there. It sounds weird, it is you, but there is also, if you are a good performer, there’s also a persona that’s part of that performance.
‘There’s a fine line with song writing too about being able to tell a really honest and true story, but without kind of baring your soul … One of the things that makes a really good song is it needs to have universal appeal. So if you can tap into, you know, yes, we all write from our own experience, like we write from our break-ups and our accidents and the funny things that happen to us, but a good song then translates that experience. It’s something that’s universal and something that will appeal to a wide range of people. And if you can do that, I think you’re a very successful songwriter.’
The upcoming tour will be the first time in four years that women in docs have taken their songs on the road as a band – they have continued to play solo – and Chanel said that, rather than feeling trepidation, she is pretty excited about it, actually.
‘I think we all really love travelling and we’ve always travelled a lot with women in docs. So it’s really fun and it’s really part of the whole experience. Although, we did have a little practice trip and we went up to Mackay to a festival. And that was our first kind of big trip together before this tour … and it was a bit of a shambles. I’m not sure if we’re as ready as we think we are. We forgot to book our extra baggage on our flights. So we got to the airport and had to pay a big bill because we hadn’t booked our extra baggage. And then I didn’t pack any jumpers or jeans or anything because I was going to North Queensland, so I thought, well, I’ll just take shorts and T-shirts. But it was actually really cold, so I had to go and send one of the other bands out to buy me a jumper from the local op shop while they were in town. And then on the way home, Roz left her bag at the festival.
‘So, you know, we just kind of got in the car on the way home and went, “Well that went well, didn’t it?”’ she said, laughing.
Given that Roz lives in Cairns and Chanel lives in Brisbane – and the other band members are also scattered around the country – rehearsing for the tour is also something they need to plan.
‘One of us will always arrive a bit earlier,’ said Chanel, ‘and we’ll have a day or two to rehearse beforehand. And that’s how we’ve written the album as well – we just get together backstage. Even though we haven’t been touring for the past four years, for the last two years we have been getting together for kind of one-off gigs or just small shows, like local shows. And so we have actually seen each other and, kind of, been getting together fairly regularly. Also we were getting together to record the album.’
Something that is different for women in docs this time around is that the new album was created with the assistance of decidedly non-musical technology: Skype and Dropbox. This technology helped them bridge the physical distance between them and, said Chanel, rather than hindering the process, ‘I think it’s really helped us produce quite a high-quality album with very well-written songs.
‘When we used to tour nine months of the year, and we were just go-go-go, and we self-managed that, so we were doing all the gig booking, all the driving and tour management, all that kind of stuff, we just never had brain space, really [to write],’ Chanel explained. ‘Towards the end we were so full of administration and working and gigging that there wasn’t that time to write. So what’s happened is we’ve had a little bit of time off, we’ve gone ahead with the project and it’s really brought us back with a new energy, and a new kind of respect for each other’s skills. And it just means we don’t muck around. There’s no time for kind of umm-ing and aah-ing over stuff, so it’s like, “Yeah, that’s good, no, that’s no good”. And we’re pretty kind to each other. It’s not harsh, but it means the creative process is quicker and much more efficient.’
As Carousel is the eighth album for women in docs, and they have toured extensively in the past, I asked Chanel how she and Roz find their inspiration to keep songwriting and performing.
‘I don’t know,’ said Chanel, laughing. ‘If there was some sort of magical answer, I would share it with you. I don’t know, I just love it. It’s what I’ve always done. I’ve always been a performer since I was a little girl, and I was on stage doing theatre shows, performed in choirs and if I don’t perform, I get sad and I get depressed. So I need to perform to keep myself going.’
Chanel will have plenty of opportunity to do just that as women in docs hit the road in November. The tour dates are below. Carousel is available now. For more information on the band, the tour and the album, visit www.womenindocs.com.
Friday 1st November 2013
Joe’s Waterhole, EUMUNDI QLD
Saturday 2nd November 2013
Grottofest, MARBURG QLD
Thursday 7th November 2013
Thornbury Theatre, MELBOURNE VIC
Saturday 9th November 2013
Trinity Sessions, Church of Trinity, ADELAIDE SA
Sunday 10th November 2013
Brookfield Margate Winery, MARGATE TAS
Saturday 16th November 2013
Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre, BRISBANE QLD
Thursday 21st November 2013
The Newsagency, MARRICKVILLE NSW
Friday 22nd November 2013
Clarendon Guesthouse, KATOOMBA NSW
Saturday 23rd November 2013
The Street Theatre, CITY WEST ACT