Kristy Cox’s country music path started off in country pop but she is now firmly a bluegrass artist, as the following interview shows. Kristy’s switch to bluegrass has taken her to Nashville, where she is now based – but she’s coming home for one show at the 2014 Tamworth Country Music Festival on Wednesday 22 January at 8 p.m., at The Pub. Kristy was a real pleasure to interview – as you shall see.
I’ve been watching the TV series, Nashville, so now I keep thinking of it as this very racy town – I don’t know if you’ve seen that show, but it’s certainly gives a different perspective on the town.
It’s actually not that far from reality, like, once you move here and live here [laughter]. It’s not that far from reality and that’s scary [laughter]. They’ve done a really good job of it.
It seems like it’s a real industry town.
Definitely, definitely. Everybody here is a singer, a writer, publicist, a journalist, yeah, everybody here is a somebody [laughter]. It’s the town of runaways, they call it, because there’s not many locals. Not many people that are born in Nashville live in Nashville.
When you arrived there, how do you start to find your way in, considering it is a town where people come in not knowing other people?
I’m still trying to work that out myself [laughter]. It’s kind of scary, because you come from being in Australia – you know I spent 17 years performing in Australia since I was 11 years old, and meet people as a kid and people that you knew through the people, and by the time you’ve got to doing what I was doing with my career in Australia, you kind of have a really good base of people around you and it’s a really good community in the bountry scene back home. But then I get here and it’s like I’m 11 years old again, I’m starting all over again, so it’s really interesting, I’m just really lucky that I’ve got a great producer, Jerry Sally – you just meet a lot of people, and I’ve got the record deal and the publishing deal, which are really kind of helping me set things up. I’ve got a bit more support around me than what a lot of people have when they move here, so I guess I’m lucky in that way.
And people make their own luck, because you don’t get those sorts of deals unless you’ve got the talent for them, and not just talent, I think, but professionalism. A lot of people on the outside wouldn’t realise that talent only takes you so far. If you’re going to another country and you’re getting a record deal, and you’re getting publishing deals because other people want to work with you.
Yeah. I come from a strong business background in Australia, I have a business degree, Bachelor of Business, and in my last job I ran 47 coffee houses … so I guess, from a business point of view, I know that it is just a business; it’s a business that works in the music industry. A lot of artists, they think that if you’ve got the talent, then that’s all that matters. But I’m working full time on music here and I’m singing an hour a day, I’m not singing all day every day, I’m emailing and making phone calls, and doing all that fun, exciting stuff [laughter]. I wish I was just singing. One day, I might be able to just do that; that would be great.
Well except then your voice might wear out.
[Laughter] This is true. See, there’s a hidden benefit to everything.
So when you’ve got a publishing deal like this, some people might think that just means that they’re taking care of the rights to your songs, but from my understanding, particularly in Nashville, a publishing deal means you’re writing a lot for other people?
Definitely. I wrote 46 songs over the summer, so 12 weeks that I was here for the summer, before I went home to Gympie, I wrote 46 songs. Bluegrass, basically, is what I do, but most of the time that I’m writing, I’m writing country pop songs that are definitely not for me. Obviously some writing sessions that I lock in, especially coming up to recording a new album, I made sure that I had writing sessions in there with people that I wanted to write with for my albums. But publishing deals here, you are required to write a certain number of full songs a year – so, say, if your total is 14, that means you need to write 14 full songs; so if you co-write with two people, that’s only counted as half a song, so that means you have to write 28 songs if they’re all co-writes, so if there’s three ways, obviously that’s only a third of a song. So Nashville is a definite song factory, and if there was no such thing as a guitar, and no such thing as songwriting, there’d be still enough songs in this town to last 100 years, I reckon [laughter].
This is at odds, of course, with the idea of songwriters sitting around waiting for the muse to strike. It sounds a bit like you get up in the morning and you go to work as a songwriter.
Yeah, pretty much. And the great thing is, is the more you do it, the more – like, I never consider myself as a writer and when the publishing company came to me and said they wanted to sign me as a writer because they heard my song ‘Miles and Timezones’, I was, like, ‘Are you sure? Because I don’t really consider myself a songwriter.’ Then the more you get into it, just the smallest thing can trigger you, and you write it down, and it really is [that] you sit down and you say, ‘Hey, I’ve got this idea, I’ve got this concept, if you’re keen on writing that’, and some days you’re writing songs that you would have absolutely nothing to do with, and they’re the fun ones, they’re the most challenging ones. It’s an interesting – that’s something different from making coffee for me [laughter].
Or running coffee shops, as you did, but it’s still an enterprise, I guess, and I suppose, just to go back to what we were talking about with business. It is about relationships between people in a business context. In order for you to make your songs work for other artists, you have to understand the whole chain of relationships through to that artist. If you’re writing songs with someone else, you’ve got to understand how that relationship works with them.
Pretty much. So sometimes you’ll sit down and you’ll have an artist in mind who you want to write for, other times you sit down and you write a song and you go, that would be really good for this artist – and then you pitch, or you demo it and it gets pitched out with the 15,000 other songs the artist is listening to and maybe, in 15 years’ time, I might get a cut, that will be great [laughter].
Well, since you’ve mentioned you write for yourself, you write bluegrass-tinged-Country. Is bluegrass your first love?
Old-time country was my first love. I grew up listening to the likes of Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty, Emmylou Harris, Loretta Lynn – pretty much anything before 1980 was the kind of country that I grew up listening to, and that’s still the kind of music that I really love, and bluegrass is, these days, really heavily influenced from the skills and the melodies of that kind of country, so bluegrass has really progressed into what I do. Contemporary bluegrass has progressed from traditional bluegrass, where it’s just great tunes and really simple melodies and great harmonies; it’s kind of progressed into almost acoustic country. The more contemporary stuff is really country influenced. I tried the country pop scene, and as much as I love to listen to it, it just really didn’t sit at home with me; I just was never truly happy performing country pop. And I got to know the Davidson Brothers quite well, and they introduced me to this thing called bluegrass. I’d heard a few bluegrass acts – Alison Krauss and that – but I’d never really sat and listened to it, and it’s definitely 90 per cent of the time the music playing in my car is bluegrass; I’m pretty heavily into it these days, I’m completely obsessed with it, it’s good [laughter].
[Laughter] It sounds like that’s almost an emotional response to bluegrass, as opposed to you as a musician picking it apart and thinking, I can see how this works for me.
Yeah, bluegrass musicians, I would say, would have to be some of the most talented musicians on the planet. I just don’t understand how they play that fast and the songs are just really well structured musically, and it’s a little bit above my head; I was never good at the serious side of music, but the lyrics and the harmonies and the vocal lines really drew me in, and I guess, coming from a traditional country background, I was like, this is the kind of music that I need to be doing now; I don’t want to be doing country pop where the melodies are quite catchy but don’t challenge me as a singer. So I moved away from what the grind is, I suppose, what everybody else is doing; I kind of just naturally moved away from it because of where I come from and what I grew up listening to, basically.
I think though from a career point of view, it could have been a difficult decision, because bluegrass isn’t the most well-known sub-genre of country, and certainly, both here and in the United States, country pop or country rock predominate. So you could have been putting yourself into a strand that wasn’t going to get as much airplay or get as much fan attention – but that doesn’t seem to have been the case, so it was obviously the right decision?
Yeah. I was really nervous. My first bluegrass album, Breaking New Ground, it was … my title to my albums are always kind of summing up where I’m at in life, and Breaking New Ground, the first single from that, ‘That’s Where the Faith Comes In’, that song, the whole reason I believed in that first was because I was really scared, I was [thinking], Is this going to work? Is the industry going to go, ‘What is she doing? What is she doing?’[laughter] And not play me. Because this could go one of two ways: either I’ve completely destroyed my career, or I’m carving out a niche that nobody else is hitting in Australia, and I guess I’ve just been lucky. When you’re true to yourself and you’re 100 per cent happy with doing something yourself, and you’re positive about it, then I guess the power of positive energy, I guess, the other people kind of jump on board, and I think it was the best decision I’ve ever made; I’m making music that I want to make and that I love doing. With this album, I’m a little bit nervous, it’s happening all over again. This album is a lot more bluegrass than the last two, so it will be interesting to see how the Australian market takes it, but it should be good [laughter].
There are a couple of ways I could go from that, but since you mentioned that your songs reflect where you are in life, that’s a nice lead-in for me to ask you about your new single, ‘One Heartbreak Away’. So I was wondering if you could just talk a bit about the inspiration behind that song, or not inspiration, if that’s what it is, and also a bit about recording the album?
I guess it’s a song about love that could go wrong, or it could go right, and it just really depends on whether the guy wants to get his stuff together, basically [laughter]. It seems to be a common theme with my girlfriends these days, that they’re in relationships and they’re always ready to take that extra step a lot sooner than the other half, and sometimes it happens the other way around – the guys are the ones that want to take the step sooner. And I guess it’s just that time where I’m ready for you to put me first and if you’re not going to put me first, then I’m sorry, but I’m only one heartbreak away from leaving if it doesn’t go right. It’s a catchy, up-tempo bluegrass song that sums up, pretty much musically, where the album is going, and it’s definitely the first ever song that I’ve released that is as bluegrass as this one, so I’m nervous to see how it goes, but I’m excited because I think it’s a strong song; I really enjoyed recording this one, so yeah, we’ll see how it goes.
And so the album is in the can, so to speak – it’s been recorded, it’s been mixed, it’s ready to go. Because you’re going to release the first copies of it in Tamworth?
The official album launch date is the 18th of February, but I’ve got exclusive copies that are going to be available for Tamworth, so the label over here is letting me bring the physical – they’ve pushed printing so that I have it for Tamworth, and so that I have it for my fans, and the industry back in Australia, because Australia is always going to be home for me, and the market back home is always going to be a priority in my mind. I haven’t moved to Nashville and recorded and found a deal over here to forget where I’ve come from; I’ve done it to widen my market and broaden my market, because bluegrass is so small in Australia … I was pretty pushy with [the label], I’m like, ‘We have to have this thing ready for Tamworth’, so it’s not going to be ready for worldwide release, so it won’t be on iTunes or anything until February, but I will have physical copies with me at my launch party in Tamworth.
And just in regards to that launch party, I’m curious about the logistics of putting that together, so how much time you allow to come back and rehearse with the band you’re going to play with, and how much time you give yourself in Tamworth when you’re there?
I fly home just before New Year’s, so I’m going straight to Adelaide to visit my family, because I won’t be home again to tour in Australia until August/September, so I’m going to go straight home and see my family for a few days, and then we’ll be up in Tamworth on the 13th of January. So I’ve got nine days of running through songs and doing all of that with the band before the launch. But the launch night is going to be a great time; we’re going to have an opening act, which I’m still narrowing down; I’ve got a few small bluegrass bands that are just starting out that are full of really great young singers, but I’m just trying to pick which one I want to put in there, and they’re going to open the night, and then I’ll do two full sets of mixing them up with songs from the new album and going through the last couple, so it will be good. It will be just a lot of fun; I just want to have a good fun night.
I’m sure you will with that much preparation, that’s quite a few days’ rehearsal. I would imagine that you’re making sure that you’re rehearsing enough so that you can go to that night and relax?
Yes. It’s kind of nerve wracking, because my guitarist that I’ve always used in my band is going to be there, but my mandolin player isn’t coming to Tamworth this year, and my bass player is going to a holiday in Thailand, so I’ve had to put together a band of people that I’ve played with in the past and that I love working with, but I haven’t been on stage with as much. So it’s going to be a lot of fun, I’m really looking forward to it, but it’s also going to be a lot of work for these poor guys that have to learn 25 new songs before Tamworth, so I feel sorry for them [laughter].
Oh, that’s nothing – I find with Tamworth, one of the interesting things is the amount of professional musicians, not necessarily even working as musicians, but certainly during Tamworth they do a huge number of gigs and the standard of playing is always so high that I think you can probably be confident that whoever you’ve got will know what they’re doing.
Yeah, yeah. There’s just so many good musos, I wasn’t even concerned when half my band couldn’t do the gig, because I was like, ‘Oh, no, there’s, like, a hundred other people that can play, they’re all so good [laughter].’
Given that you’ll be rehearsing for a lot of the time before your Tamworth gig, do you have time afterwards to run around and see other acts and see who’s new, see who’s changed?
Yes. We’ll probably only have maybe three or four rehearsals before the album launch, I mean, they’ve already got the material, so it’s just a matter of tying it together, the guys will learn the stuff before we get there. So I’m going to be out and about. I’m doing the Country Music Cocktail event on the Sunday. I’ve got a bunch of PR stuff that I’m doing just before the launch, and I’m always out watching other music. I’m a big believer that you need to support the industry that you’re in, so I’m one of the first people to download most of the new albums on iTunes. I’ve got most of the albums that came out in the last 12 months, [they’re] on my phone. So I try to get to as many shows and gigs as I can, support other artists with what they’re doing, and it feels good when it’s turned back around, like my last album launch, Kasey Chambers rocked up, and Aleyce Simmonds, and all of these artists were sitting there watching me, and it does feel good to know that you’ve got peers that support you and what you’re doing, and I really like to make sure that I get out and do the same. So my diary will be full; I’ll be up from 8 o’clock every morning. I’ll make sure I catch at least one of the Bluegrass Breakfasts, and probably won’t get to bed ‘til 3.00 am, that’s the normal Tamworth drill.
It’s an extraordinary festival, but I guess, to an extent, maybe living in Nashville is like permanent Tamworth, because there’s so much music around all the time?
Yes, it’s still – you know, it’s funny, I always thought – I came to CMA Fest this year for the first time, which is obviously the big festival here in Nashville, and I thought, This is going to be huge. Compared to Tamworth, it’s not a whole lot different, like at Tamworth, we really hold our own over there, and the amount of people we’ve got is fantastic.
Kristy’s new single, ‘One Heartbreak Away’, is available now. See her at The Pub in Tamworth on 22 January at 8 p.m.