Month: July 2014

Album review: Whole Lot to Say by Jess Holland

Given the high standard of country music in Australia, it’s not often that an artist can exceed my expectations for their new album. I expected that Jess Holland’s album would be strong and bold and entertaining – she has a mighty voice and she knows how to use it. I also expected that the album might veer more towards blues – which her voice certainly suits – than country.

From the first track, ‘Ain’t Quittin’ This Run’, Holland declares that this album can take my expectations and toss them gleefully aside. Musically the album is a very well-rounded piece of work, and that’s because Holland doesn’t just deliver the ‘big’ songs but she gives us a lot of subtlety too. The first song has both, so it grabbed me and held on, and she kept me on the ride the whole way through.
Holland crowd-sourced the funding for this album and, as with all the other artists who have done this, she therefore had control over how this album was put together: who produced it, where it was recorded, who played on it. That the result is such a great album reveals not just that she is a fantastic singer and musician but also that she has a very clear vision for her music – and that this album is a true representation of what she wants to say as an artist. Given that that’s the case, what Australian country music now has is a truly diverse artist who can take a rollicking road song and make it soar, give us a torch song that makes our knees weak and then deliver a straight-shooting narrative that has us sitting up and paying attention. This is an album that should make any country music fan excited about where the ‘younger generation’ are taking the genre: while remaining eminently respectful of tradition, they are finding ways to drive country music forwards, taking the existing audience with them and finding new listeners along the way.

In the song ‘Fine Lines’, Holland sings, ”It’s a fine line between dreams and madness/Be careful how you play your hand’. Jess Holland was playing small pub stages at this year’s Tamworth Country Music Festival. This album surely has to be her ticket to bigger venues and bigger audiences – she deserves them for this album that is very clearly the result of her playing her hand just right.

Whole Lot to Say is out now.

Jess Holland is heading for the Top End:

Humpty Doo Hotel – 22 August
Darwin Rodeo – 23 August
Darwin Railway Club – 24 August

Album review: Dead Man’s Garden by Tim Hulsman

As Tim Hulsman’s third album, Dead Man’s Garden, opens it sounds like wide open skies and sunburnt paddocks – sounds, admittedly, that don’t exist in nature, but you imagined them, didn’t you? And you’ll imagine them when Hulsman’s guitar begins and his voice follows. While the pace of the tunes picks up, we still have the sense of being ensconced somewhere warm and comfortable, if not always comforting. 

Hulsman has a background in rock ‘n’ roll, folk and blues, but on this album he also brings his talents to country music. The songs respect the traditions of all those genres – this album is old style rather than old timey. These are songs for a pub on a lazy afternoon, for an evening at home in front of a fire.

Hulsman’s voice isn’t polished – but this isn’t a ‘singer’s album’, it’s a storyteller’s album. And in saying it isn’t polished, that doesn’t mean it’s not the right voice for these songs – it’s just a way of describing his singing style. Hulsman’s wife, Nina Grant, provides more-than-backing vocals that beautifully compliment him and round out these songs that so often seem to be written for or about her. There are also songs of salvation, and of recovery from despair; they are songs that are about any human’s life, with Hulsman’s distinctive stamp on them.

Dead Man’s Garden is out now through Only Blues Music.

Tim Hulsman is touring:

Wednesday 30th July                             
Frankie’s Pizza By The Slice, SYDNEY NSW
Friday 1st August
The Commons Café, HAMILTON NSW
Saturday 2nd August                                         
Wednesday 6th August                          
New Globe Theatre – The Campfire Test, FORTITUDE VALLEY QLD
Friday 8th August                                             
Royal Mail Hotel, GOODNA QLD
Saturday 9th August                                         
Saturday 9th August                                         
– supporting Charting Stars
Sunday 10th August                                          
The Bearded Lady, WEST END QLD
Sunday 17th August                                          
The Wesley Anne, NORTHCOTE VIC
Sunday 24th August                                          
Thursday 28th August                           
The Retreat Hotel, BRUNSWICK VIC

Interview: The Yearlings

South Australian duo The Yearlings have garnered quite a following over the course of their previous four albums. Now, with the release of their fifth album, All the Wandering, that following is sure to increase. I recently spoke to the delightful Laura Chalklen, who took some time away from the studio where she and fellow Yearling Chris Parkinson record other artists’ work, and found out just why the Yearlings’ sound is so special. 
You’re in your studio – your own album is out, so presumably you’re working on someone else’s album.
That’s right – we’ve started work with a guy called Ian Matthews – so we’re straight back in the studio.
Is a lot of your time spent on producing, then, rather than writing or performing?
No, that’s just become a thing that we really like to do. We did it with Sara Tindley – she came over and recorded in our studio – and Chris is really quite gifted in that way, in hearing things and what should be there and what would sound great for that tune. So it’s something that’s become more of what we do but it’s not a large part, even though I’d like it to be.
On Sara’s album, didn’t you two play on that as well?
Yes, with BJ, who’s our drummer. He’s on that album and he’s on this one that we’re doing with Ian, as well.
So you’re like a complete package for artists then – you’re providing a band and a studio.
[laughs] Yeah, that’s right – we’ve got it all! It’s a good marketing ploy. We’ve recorded of ours up at Mixmasters with Nick Wordley, who we’ve done all of our records with. But the one before we did down in our little home studio. But this time it’s a really beautiful, big, lush studio up here, with lots of room.
Your album was recorded on some fairly old tech originally – you recorded it to tape, is that right?
Yes – we’ve actually done all our records, except for the live one, on smelly old tape. And even the one we did in New York we carted this really heavy two-inch tape over to Brooklyn on the plane just so we could record it the old-fashioned way.
And is that because it gives it a warmer sound, do you think?
Definitely. I think there’s so much on mp3 and everything’s so compressed, and people get used to that sound – I know they do. But it’s like listening to vinyl, it’s got something surrounding the sound, it’s not all squashed and clean – it’s beautiful [and] warm and it’s got a really hard-to-describe feeling about it.
Does it make you, during the recording process, concentrate on getting things right – because with digital recording you can make arguably an infinite number of takes, but with tape you really have to hit your mark.
That is so true. And I think there’s something about the live performance and if you manage to get that down on tape, it’s fantastic. But also if you’re really limited with your choices, you don’t want to play it twenty million times because you start getting tired and losing the magic. So you’re kind of thinking, Oh, we could add a little bit of this here and drop him in here and mix that around and take that out – and you just can’t do it [with tape].

It’s interesting, in the evolution of recording artists until quite recently you had to be an accomplished performer because you had limited takes, but these days people can go into a studio without even having performed and have a finished product. But then, of course, they have to learn how to perform to go out and connect with audiences.
That’s true. I think it’s also that’s what we mainly do – we mainly perform live – and it’s not very often that you get to practise being in the studio with the red light on. So if you’re thinking, We’re just going to play a tune and here we go, we’re much more used to that instead of, ‘You play guitar and then I sing over the top of it’. I’m really not used to it, and you can hear it when I try to put a guitar track down and sing over the top of it I’m so disconnected. I’m not very good at that. Some artists are fantastic at layering and doing guide vocals and singing over the top of what they’ve already done, but for me I can really hear it – I sound too deliberate and it just doesn’t sound connected.
For the songs that you two are writing and recording, they’re a collection of stories rather than just delivering emotions, and I guess if all you were doing was just delivering emotions, you could drop in and drop out of those with the recording but when you’re telling a story you really need that integrated experience.
I’m with you on that and it’s a really fun experience to be in the room with everybody seeing where it will go and what will happen – that’s where the magic is, I think, in recording.
How did the Yearlings come to be originally?
I was in Adelaide in a really dodgy but fun girl band called Problem Pony and we want to Tamworth Country Music Festival and there playing with Mr Little was this lovely, smiley guitar player from Sydney, and that was Chris Parkinson … he ended up moving to Adelaide to come and live with me. So we started singing a lot together and playing guitar just because that’s what we love doing, and it ended up being The Yearlings. That was in 2000. So we’re getting on – we’re not the yearlings any more!
Tamworth has been the site of so many great creative – and, obviously – personal collaborations. There’s obviously something about it that just enables people to come together. It’s a wonderful aspect of that festival.
It is, isn’t it? I think going there from Adelaide with Problem Pony and our eyes were so opened when we got there – there’s music everywhere, of all different types. It’s a fabulous time. So we’ve been back a few times. It’s quite a little cocktail of different music, isn’t it?
Yes – I recommend it to everyone. But I’m just thinking: you were in a band called Problem Pony and this band is The Yearlings – so horses obviously feature prominently!
[laughs] It’s so hard coming up with a band name! [laughs] We were The Bloody Lovelies for, I think, about two albums. We just kept saying, ‘You say a word, I’ll say a word’ – so that’s what we’ve come up with, and it’s stuck. And our studio’s called My Sweet Mule, so … there’s definitely some kind of equine thing going on, isn’t there?
Do you actually have horses?
I don’t any more – we live across the road from a horse stud and my dad’s got a horse, so I still ride occasionally but I don’t have my own pony any more.
A lot of band names don’t fit the music, but ‘yearlings’ is a very elegant word and it fits your style of music, which is elegant and not overdone. It’s an onomatopoeic band name, if that make sense.
I love that! I love that you said that, because I think that sometimes – that it’s got a bit of country in it, and it’s got a bit of youth in there, and ‘yearlings’ rhymes with ‘dearlings’- as in, ‘dears’ and ‘darlings’ [laughs]. So I like it because of that.
Also in terms of your style of music and how you record: it’s too easy to hide behind a lot of instruments, a lot of engineering and mixing, but really the two of you are quite exposed in terms of where your voices are placed in the mix. And you’re respectful of the songs by not overburdening them with a lot of instruments. But does that mean you feel exposed and raw sometimes as performers?
Oh yeah. To go from being in a band and then it’s just two of you. A lot of the time it’s just me and Chris – we don’t always have BJ playing with us – so it can be really intense and really exposing. But there’s so much space and I love that, that it’s not all spelt out for people and there’s a lot of room to move and breathe, I guess.
Is the creative process between the two of you a very collaborative one, or do you tend to write a song and then he writes a song, and then you talk about it?
[Laughs] I don’t think we’ve ever written an entire song together. I will go away into my little corner and write something and sometimes it will take quite a while, and then I will sit down and play it to Chris and he might add a little chord or something to change it up a bit. And with him, he’s more of a blurter – he can write a song on the way home from work or something, and I might just add another verse or line or help him out with the more editing type of [thing]. So we help each other in that way. Or sometimes I’ll just have a line or a chord and be mucking around with that, and he’ll just start playing guitar and it will lead into a good feel, and then I’ll take that away and work on that. So that’s how we collaborate – we come together at the salty end of things.  
So in creative terms you’re a settler and he’s a pioneer – pioneers tend to blurt things out and settlers sit there and polish, polish, polish. It’s an inherent thing.
[laughs] I’ll tell him that.
But it’s not the answer I was expecting from you – on the recordings you sound so integrated that I just presumed you wrote together.
Maybe sometimes he’ll say, ‘Got any lyrics lying around?’ and he might have a verse and I’ll actually write the chorus, or he’ll need another verse and I’ll write the verse, so in that way we have kind of written stuff together. But usually it’s just right at the end that we’ll come together.
You’re going on the road soon together – given that you’ve been together for a while, you perform together, you record together and you have lives together, is there ever a point at which you turn to him and think, That’s it – I’m over it! Don’t want to play with you tonight!
[laughs] You know, sometimes I think when I’m really tired and we’ve been driving and then there’s no food – you’ve got to wait around for food – and it’s just starting to get a little bit hard, and I’ve just been thinking, What are we doing? We’ve got no money and we’re cold and no one’s going to turn up … But then we’ll get up on stage and that’s what makes it worth it and that’s what keeps you going, and that’s what changes everything. There’s so many different threads besides money and food – it just keeps you going, having a fantastic gig or playing even to two or three people but just having this connection with Chris onstage is what makes it worthwhile.
Have you always had this drive to perform and to connect with people?
Not for me. I remember with Problem Pony – I’ve played in orchestras and things like that, but that was my first band. I got so nervous – it was all fine and great fun in the lounge room with my friends but onstage my bum started wobbling, I couldn’t sing – it was just horrendous. And it was even more scary when I got up with Chris – it was just, like, I don’t think I’m cut out to be a performer – I don’t think I’m a natural at wanting to get up onstage and tell lots of stories or lots of jokes– that sort of person. But actually when I am up there and making music, I don’t really think about the audience – I think this is something that’s really magical. That’s the part I love. And I don’t get the bum wobbles any more.
There are various theories about creative work and creative flow, and a lot of them come down on the side of the actual doing being the important thing – you can’t sit around waiting for the muse to strike, you need to just start working. And it sounds very much like your experience has been that you basically just kept doing things despite being nervous, despite thinking that performing perhaps wasn’t right for you – and now you’re at a point where you’re in this flow of performance and really just being present in it that makes it all worthwhile.
For sure. When we come offstage – and the other thing is that Chris is very much an improvise player, he’ll never do the same solo twice, and a lot of times we’re just jamming out, really, where he’s just going on some crazy solo and I’m just following, but then afterwards I think, That was just a magical thing that only the people who were here watching will ever witness – and I think that’s quite an addictive feeling.
Speaking of playing gigs, I saw a photo of you playing at The Bluebird Café in Nashville, which is a legendary place – how did that gig come about and what was it like for you?
We went over to Memphis with Sara Tindley and we did the Folk Alliance – it was this crazy thing where they get lots of musicians and industry people and festival directors, and you’re all in this hotel and you do showcases. So you’re playing in your bedroom to a little audience until about two or three in the morning. So there’s lots of music and there’s craziness, and we thought after that that we’d go to Nashville. And Audrey Auld, she was living there – I think she still is living there – and we’d kind of organised with her to do a show and she said, ‘Let’s do one at the Bluebird’. So we did one with her and Sara in the round. And it was crazy – you think it’s like this mythical place and then it’s way out in this suburb like near a supermarket, and it’s a very un-groovy-looking place, and then you walk in and think, This person’s been here and that person’s played here. Then you sit in the middle of the room, facing each other, and you have the audience all the way around you, behind you – so you have your backs to the audience – and then you take it in turns to sing songs. It was strange but it was … you could hear a pin drop. People are so respectful and [really] listening.
Your music demands that people listen anyway, but it is always nice to go to a gig and have people listen. Country music and its related genres do encourage listening audiences, so you can find that audiences are respectful here [in Australia] as well.
I’ve found that they’re really vocal. Like if somebody does an incredible solo – and it doesn’t always have to be the bass solo, it can be anything – they’re just whooping and hollering, so encouraging in that way. Really warm.
All the Wandering is out now and The Yearlings are on tour. Visit for information. 

Redlands Bluegrass Festival: 8 to 10 August

Not too far from Brisbane there’s a place called Redland Bay, and it will soon be the site of the twentieth Redlands Bluegrass Festival with its impressive line-up of Australian artists, some of whom will be familiar to country music aficionados and Tamworth Country Music Festival goers.

This year’s festival will be held on 8 to 10 August and will feature The Pigs, Golden Guitar winners the Davidson Brothers, the Round Mountain Girls and Bluegrass Parkway, who have the distinction of being Australia’s longest-running bluegrass band.

The festival is family friendly and it caters for musicians as well as fans – there are instrument and vocal workshops on the mornings of the 9th and 10th.

Tickets start from $40 to $125 for an all-weekend festival pass, and there are a range of accommodation  options available at the festival site, which is Kindilan Convention Centre, corner Days and German Church Road, Redland Bay.

For more information, go to:

Album review: Heart of Sorrow by Lyn Bowtell

Lyn Bowtell has been a valued member of the Australian country music industry for quite a while – her two Golden Guitars attest to that. As she hasn’t reached the same level of fame as some of her contemporaries, however, Heart of Sorrow may mark the first time that many people have heard of her. And it’s quite an introduction.

This is an album that defies categorisation because the category is ‘the artist is wonderful’, but if it recalls the work of anyone, it’s that of Canadian singer-songwriter Jann Arden. Bowtell’s voice recalls Arden’s but it’s actually Arden’s versatility across genres that is the reason for the comparison. Heart of Sorrow ranges across genres, too – it is not a country music album but it’s an album that country music fans can love; it is, to generalise, an album that clutches at the listener’s heart and haunts their brain. It’s an album that, when I first heard it, I felt like I’d been missing for years and I was overjoyed to discover again. 
The title song and first single should, really, be a number one, and possibly would have been in not-so-long-ago days when artists like Bowtell received the sort of promotional support that could make them known to the broad range of listeners they’d appeal to. However, the whole album is made up of songs like that. All of the songs are powerful and heartfelt and gripping. In a way, Heart of Sorrow seems like Bowtell’s way of saying, ‘I’m really here’. And she really is. This is an album that reveals a life lived, and still to be lived. There are no empty sentiments and no wasted words. There is no hiding, either – Bowtell’s voice is a very accomplished instrument but she is not using it to obfuscate meaning in her lyrics. 
The album was produced by Shane Nicholson, who has already shown that he can take on music of many types and produce greatness. The production on this album is clean and delicate while allowing for complexity, as if Nicholson can hear the song within the song and make sure that all levels of meaning are recorded. Bowtell’s remarkable voice shines, but it does not overpower the instruments that support it.

By all standards – quality of the songs, song selection, talent of the singer, production of the album – this is a remarkable album. It’s also an album that should stand as a classic – but that doesn’t mean anyone should take their time discovering it. It’s an album that we all need, even if we don’t know it yet.

Heart of Sorrow is out now through Sony Music.

Album review: Cautionary Tales by Harmony James

In all the realms of Australian country music, there is really no one like Harmony James. When her self-funded, independently released debut album Tailwind arrived in 2009, it announced a singer-songwriter whose heart was bleedingly open yet who remained shy – rather than coy – of all those who could see the wound. Here was someone who declared her insecurities along with her dreams and still found whimsy in the world. Her voice contained echoes of a yodel and country music traditions. She was an old-fashioned girl – musically and otherwise.

James’s second album, Handfuls of Sky, still had that open heart but it was a more obviously commercial effort, and in places it seemed that James was trying to be ‘modern’ – whatever that means. The album sounded more like a collection of songs than a body of work – by any measure it was a very good album, but it wasn’t Tailwind.
Cautionary Tales is James’s newly released third album, and it ventures closer to her first than her second. Where Tailwind immediately captivated a listener, though, Cautionary Tales is, well … cautious. That heart is there, for sure – and some of the stories in these songs contain all sorts of heartbreak: a dead child, lost love, dreams turned to dust. But it sounds as though James is more wary of letting us see that heart than she was on Tailwind. Perhaps now she knows the consequences of being so exposed. Or perhaps she just wants us to prove that we really want to know what she has to tell us – because repeated listening of this album really pays off. It’s only once we’re familiar with these songs that we can hear the nuances of what she’s done: the light and shade in the lyrics; the slight tremolo in her voice that tells us more about what she’s singing than the lyrics ever could; the power in her voice right when she needs it. 
So when I say that there’s no one like Harmony James, it’s because of these layers of meaning and emotion. The closest comparison – not in musical style but in terms of what they bring to the world – is Kasey Chambers. Chambers is an emotional singer and an emotional songwriter, and both women have the sound of someone who is playing for all the marbles – and not at all sure that she’ll win them, but willing to do it anyway and let the consequences be what they are. That is courage in an artist. Harmony James showed this courage when she first released Tailwind and she’s showing it again now. And quite apart from that, she’s a wonderful songwriter. 
Cautionary Tales by Harmony James is out now through Warner Music Australia,

Harmony James is touring to support the album release:
8 August 2014
Rooty Hill RSL, NSW
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest Pete Denahy
9 August 2014
Mittagong RSL
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest Pete Denahy
10 August 2014
Mudgee Brewing Company
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest Pete Denahy
14 August 2014
Camelot Lounge, Marrickville
Harmony James with special guest Peter Denahy
15 August 2014
Lizotte’s Dee Why
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest  Pete Denahy
16 August 2014
Lizottes Central Coast
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest  Pete Denahy
17 August 2014
Lizotte’s Newcastle
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest Pete Denahy
29 August 2014
Gympie Music Muster
4 September 2014
Hallam Hotel, Victoria
Harmony James & Luke O’Shea with special guest Pete Denahy
5 September 2014
Bairnsdale RSL
Harmony James with Luke O’Shea and special guest Peter Denahy

Album review: Here’s To You & I by The McClymonts

The McClymonts are an act who embody the phrase ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ – they have won many fans and made a career out of their immediately identifiable sound. For this new release they could easily have produced an album like the last one, Two Worlds Collide, and fans like me would have been very content.

Instead, they have demonstrated that they are not only a great act with a great sound – they are musicians and songwriters who are learning and growing. Here’s To You & I accordingly shows a lyrical and musical maturity that befits a band who are now one EP and four albums into their career. 

Previous albums have relied on a mix of sweet ballads – usually sung by Samantha McClymont – and more uptempo, often ‘rockier’ songs. Here’s To You & I integrates those two strands of the McClymonts sound and delivers strongly constructed songs which almost all contain light and dark, soft and loud, whether musically or emotionally.

The lyrics of most of the songs are personal – one song was written for Samantha’s upcoming wedding. another (the first with lead vocals by youngest sister Mollie) about a break-up. As in the past, Brooke McClymont sings most of the lead vocals, but the McClymonts wouldn’t be who they are without those incredible harmonies, and each song delivers on that front.

This review could be spent going through each song – I’ll happily devote as many words as possible to this group – but it is perhaps more meaningful to describe what it’s like to listen to the McClymonts overall. Music is about emotions – for the performers, for the listeners. Most of us respond to music because of how it makes us feel, not because of whether we admire the chord progressions – the chord progressions, of course, deliver the feeling but that technical side of music is invisible to most listeners. And the feeling the McClymonts consistently deliver is joy. Even their sad songs are joyful to listen to, because one can hear the joy the sisters take in what they do. Joy is an emotion that is not often discussed – ‘happiness’ usually gets more attention – but it is a pure, physically felt emotion that is so important to the human experience. I will always love the McClymonts because they make me feel joyful, whether I’m listening to their albums or seeing them perform live. For that reason alone they are treasures. The fact that they’ve released yet another great album is a bonus.

Here’s To You & I is out now.