Month: October 2016

Interview: Tobias

Queensland singer-songwriter Tobias released the poignant single ‘Just a Boy’ recently, ahead of the release of his album Alive on 4 November. Tobias has played in other people’s bands as well as creating his own songs; now he’s focusing on a very productive solo career of writing, playing and performing. It was my pleasure to talk to him recently.

You’ve returned to the Sunshine Coast to live – how long were you away?
I moved to Melbourne nine years ago. Before that I did a lot of travelling around the world. I lived in Brisbane. I tried to settle in Noosa but the city lights beckoned. And I’ve just decided to come back now, just to be with family and stuff. It’s been really, really wonderful.
Once you’ve got an attachment to that place, it’s hard to leave it behind.
Absolutely. It was just time, you know – I was ready to come back. And it’s been great for music as well. For songwriting.
On Hastings Street [Noosa Heads] there’s the odd venue that has music, and I know there’s the surf club at Sunshine Beach. Are you finding that there’s a good number of places for you to play there?
Yes. The Sunshine Coast has really changed in the last ten years, and especially lately. There’s a lot of places that still appreciate original music. A lot of venues, and a lot of things just popping up through Yandina and Caloundra and Nambour, Eumundi. All over the coast there’s a real support for local music, and it’s great [laughs]. It’s amazing. People love it up here. They love music. Coming from Melbourne, where there’s a lot of original music and it’s really hard to get people along to shows, up here is very different. It’s very alive.
I’ll backtrack now and ask you a bit about your musical lineage – what lessons you used to listen to when you were young, where you think your musical style has come from.
I grew up in country Victoria up I was about eight. My mum and dad were real folkies. We moved out to the country and always had Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash and John Denver. A lot of folk music from the ’60s and ’70s like John Renbourn and Stefan Grossman. So I grew up with that music and around that sort of art. Dad taught me how to play guitar and I just fell into the style of folk, blues, finger-pickig guitar. That’s where it all started for me – and it hasn’t ended, either [laughs]. I have new love affairs with country artists. I’m just so into Willie Nelson right now, it’s so funny. But also my music’s influence a lot by bands I grew up with in the ’80s and ’90s, like The Cure and The Smiths. Bands like The Shins. I love to think that my music’s influenced by a lot of country, folk and pop – not pop but indie music.
John Denver gives me a bit of a clue about your melodic sensibilities – I can hear pop in your music, in a good way because I love pop music. And I think it’s hard to write melody really well and in a way that suits your voice. John Denver and Johnny Cash is an interesting combination of influences. They’re definitely both in your sound. And country music is storytelling in song, that’s a big part of its appeal
Absolutely – and it’s beautiful, isn’t it, when music does tell a story, and it’s meaningful and you can connect with the music. It takes you out of your life and your body, I reckon.
Which leads me to ask you about your songwriting process – do you start with a story idea or with a melody, or both? Neither?
It starts with a melody or a chord progression but it comes hand in hand with an emotion. If I’m playing something, mucking around, or I hear a melody I’ll play it, but it normally ties in with an emotion I’m feeling, or something I’m remembering, then it snowballs from there. But I find if I just play chords and melodies there’s not much meaning in it and I shelve them. I write a lot of songs every week. I never switch it off [laughs]. But it always starts in the morning – my best times are sunrise and with my morning cuppa [laughs], when my head’s clean and fresh, and when the ideas come freely. I muck around with melodies and chords, and then if it takes me away somewhere the song will get momentum and it structures itself, I think.
With the writing every day, was that something you decided a while ago? Was it a discipline you needed to have? Or do you feel every day that you want to write?
It wasn’t something that I sat down to do – it’s something I’ve always done because I love it so much. And I just need to, it’s one of those things – like eat [laughs]. I’ve got to do it. Sometimes the songs are terrible but sometimes they can be really nice and they might take me away. It’s funny sometimes to have to talk about this stuff. But I’ve always done it.
I always find it interesting to find out about the process. Some songwriters write every day to write things out, essentially, and some like to obey the muse. There is something, I think, to be said for writing out the stuff that isn’t working to get to the stuff that is.
Absolutely. I find that one song might come out of mucking around. I might have to write three or four songs that sound the same, and then one of them comes out of it, and it won’t be until I look back at the demos that I think, Whoa, that’s all the same song. That progression, that melody. That’s a test of a good song, I think, if you always come back to that progression and think, What’s that? [laughs] ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I’m hooked on.’
You talked about expressing emotion in song – did you ever consider taking another path to do that, like painting or writing prose, or was it always music?
It’s always been music. I’ve done a lot of visual art stuff but it doesn’t come naturally to me. Music and songwriting seem to be the best way for me to express creativity and to be whole as an artist, I think. It’s just the way that’s been natural for me, and it always has since I can remember. It’s really nice to be able to still do it and hone that craft. I’ve done a lot of things in my life that haven’t come naturally and have felt very awkward, but it’s beautiful to do something that comes easily.
Do you ever write with other people?
Yes, I’ve collaborated quite a bit. But it’s something I need to work on a bit more. I get a lot out of writing songs with other people and playing with other people. I learn from ear so I grew up jamming – that’s how I learnt to play, and learnt how to play with people on stage.
In terms of how your voice developed – it has such an incredible tone to it. Is that something that came from the ether, for lack of a better term? Or have you consciously modelled it on someone?
No, I just opened my mouth [laughs].
Well, that was a happy surprise!
Yeah, sure [laughs]. It was lucky. I think it’s gotten stronger over the years – but I think it’s gotten stronger with confidence, that’s really what it’s been about. But I haven’t done much vocal training. I said to my producer recently, ‘I’m thinking of getting some vocal training’, and he said, ‘No, don’t! Don’t do it! They’ll turn you into one of those singer-singers.’
I suppose one reason to go might be to avoid damaging your vocal cords.
Yes. I definitely warm up before I perform or record – I’ve got exercises.
In one video on your website, of a live performance, you were playing a very distinctive-looking guitar – it was green. Are you loyal to one instrument or do you have a few guitars?
I have a lot of guitars. I just can’t thrown them out or sell them, so I’m carrying around a lot. That one came to me about two years ago and I haven’t played anything else but that guitar. I just have a love affair with it [laughs]. It just seems to work for me if I look after it. It’s great for finger picking and it’s quite sensitive. I can also bash it out. So I use that guitar a lot. That and a banjo I’ve got.
Was banjo hard to learn?
I think I was lucky that I’ve played a lot of finger-picking guitars and in open-chord tunings, and when I moved to the five-string banjo it was already on open G tuning, so it was just a matter of learning a few fingerings. Within six months I was playing banjo for people like Missy Higgins, Jen Cloher and those sorts of acts through Melbourne and around Australia … It’s been a great instrument, just to play with people. It’s a really fun thing. [American actor and writer] Steve Martin says, ‘You can never play a sad song on a banjo’ [laughs].
Now, on to your album title, which is Alive – why did you choose it?
I think it just sums up the experience of the way the album came about and the songwriting. Each song is really a personal experience that I’ve written about. And the only reason I can experience those is that I feel quite awake in my life right now, and I feel alive for those experiences. And the music itself is quite uplifting. So it was one word that sums up the album. Someone – a producer – said that an album’s just a snapshot of your creative career at that time, and I think that word sums up that time, this time, and the moment, and the album and the way things are.
Which is a pretty wonderful thing – some people might go their whole lives without ever feeling that.
I know. And I forget too that I do a lot of work around being awake and alive [laughs]. I do a lot of meditation and I look after myself. It all really helps.
In choose the songs for this album, did you have quite a few to choose from or were you carefully curating throughout your songwriting process to arrive at this particular collection?
Not particularly. I had about 40 songs to choose from. Some of them I want to use on the next album – that’s another story. It just sort of happened organically. A few of the songs are upbeat poppy, some of them are country, which I really love, and some of them are folk-rocky songs, and I guess I chose them to narrate a story on the album. I didn’t just throw any song that I thought would go in there — I did carefully consider which would be nice.
I get the impression that you would be careful [laughs].
Sure [laughs]. It’s really exciting to think that in my next album recording – which I’ve already teed up in a few weeks – it will keep the process going and keep the songs alive. Another producer who I really admire said, ‘If you’ve got a bunch of songs, you don’t sit on them – you either record them and move on or just put them aside and revisit them. And I think that’s what I want to do – really have relationships with these songs. Put them onto an album and then I can move on to the next one.
On the single, ‘Just a Boy’, which the notes say is about your mother, it might have been easy or tempting to become maudlin about the subject matter but you really avoided that – so it seems like you approached the subject matter from a position of not necessarily joy – or maybe it is joy looking back at your childhood and knowing your mother.
I’m glad you said that. Even though it is a really sad memory … On my last album I wrote a tribute to my mother’s passing and it was more about the grief. This song is more looking back as a memory of joy. It was growing up and going to Noosa River and fishing – everything just being a really fun, wonderful time. All this warm weather and eating barbies all the time [laughs]. Just a happy time and it reminds me of Australia as well – we love that, being outside and being together and having a barbie and shooting the breeze. It was just a memory and I wrote it when I was feeling a little bit lonely down in Melbourne and it was cold, and the sun had just come out for the spring and I thought, Wow, that was such a beautiful time. I was so blessed to grow up in Eumundi and Noosa and ride motorbikes and make bows and arrows. [Laughs] When you lose a parent at that age a lot of that lifestyle goes, so it’s easy to look back on it nostalgically. But I’m glad you said that because it is a really joyful memory – a really beautiful memory.
And it’s a lovely song. Now, my last question: you’re about to go on tour – are you looking forward to it?
You bet [laughs]. I can’t wait. I’ve got a new tour caravan. I’m going to be on the road for about six weeks I think, doing quite a few shows from Brisbane down to Melbourne then back up to Brisbane and all the way up past Rockhampton, and a few house concerts on the way. I’m really, really looking forward to it. I love being on the road, playing for people, meeting new people.
 Alive is released on 4 November 2016.

Tobias tour dates:


Interview: Jason Walker

New South Welshman Jason Walker recently released All-Night Ghost Town, his first album on Lost Highway Australia. I spoke to Jason about the ghosts in his all-night ghost town, Ringo Starr, and about his new label and the album’s producer, Shane Nicholson.

What is your musical lineage?
I played country music from a pretty young age with my dad, we just sat around the house and he would play the guitar and I would play the steel guitar and we’d harmonise on songs. Then I started doing the same with my brother when he was old enough to pick up a guitar and start singing and writing songs. So we started pretty young and I guess we’ve kept it up, in a way. My brother Sean and I still sit down and play together every so often. We still have the same songs and still have the same brotherly harmonies. It’s a bit like the Everlys or the Jayhawks – brothers in spirit or actual brothers sing pretty well together.
You can see that in the McClymonts – three sisters and they sound so natural together, so complementary. There is definitely something in those sibling harmonies that is difficult to replicate. Even the Beatles don’t quite get there.
That’s right. They still sound like three madly different voices, and that’s what I really like about them [laughs]. Or four voices – you can’t overlook Ringo, can you? He’s also the only member of the Beatles to release a country music album. In fact, his solo album, Beaucoups of Blues, was the first Beatles solo album in 1970. He recorded in Nashville with all those great names in country music on it. I think it’s a fantastic record. And for the record I also love the McClymonts,  think they’re great. They’ve got everything that’s great about that old-school country music style of entertainment even though their sound is more modern.
You played steel guitar with your dad – that’s not usually a first instrument for someone, so how did that end up being your first instrument?
It was kind of an accident, really. I bought this guitar off this guy – it was an electric guitar and it was really terrible. Unplayable. None of the edges were dressed. So I took it back to the music shop and the guy said, ‘I don’t have a guitar here that’s only worth $100’ – like this one was – ‘why don’t you have this lap steel guitar?’ It was a Teisco and they were a very cool, Japanese-looking thing that had these futuristic buttons on it that I quite liked fooling with. So the appeal of it for me at that point was the buttons so I could press them and try to pull all of these different sounds out of it. And then one day I actually started playing it, just tuned it to open E and played the scales on the steel guitar, with my steel, and I thought, That’s not too bad, but maybe if I tune the G down half a step to F sharp … It was pretty cool, some of the sounds that I started to get out of it. So I kept it for quite a few years and I still play steel guitar, although I now play pedal steel – I own a couple of pedal steels and I like nothing more than sitting down at night when the kids have gone to bed and just sit in the lounge room and play my steel guitar until all hours.
It’s an incredible sound and it immediately denotes not just the genre of music but it seems to conjure up play and time and all sorts of things, that instrument.
Absolutely. Last night I was given it a bit of a spanking and I was playing these licks and they were straight out of 1968, Bakersfield. That’s about my proficiency level, as far as that goes. Then I discovered some other licks that went on top of it and I was having such a great time that I forgot what time it was and next thing it was 2 a.m. and I had to go to bed – I had to take the kids to school in the morning!
So who are the ghosts in the All-Night Ghost Town?
I think the ghosts are all those great bands from the ’80s, ’90s, 2000s and 2010 onwards who are locked out of all these venues in Sydney which are no longer open because of the lock-out laws because it’s cutting into everybody’s business. The night economy in Sydney has been really vibrant for a long time and now it’s just dead – there’s no other word for it. Out in the suburbs and just out of Sydney itself in the Blue Mountains, where I live, it’s still happening a little bit but in Sydney itself it’s dead. There’s no great gigs to go and play during the week any more. There’s no Hopetoun, no Sando. And that’s the all-night ghost town that I was referring to: the town of Sydney, now completely denuded of great live rock ’n’ roll and country venues. But I guess in some ways some of my favourite bands that I grew up listening to are still punching on, still playing around Sydney. Mike Baird and his cronies have let the nightlife die but [the bands] are still getting out there well into the suburbs and still playing. So that’s kind of cool that they manage to do that in spite of the government taking away our right to play, basically.
And a lot of them are getting out to Marrickville, it seems.
Marrickville is the happening suburb in Sydney – I don’t think there’s any musician who’d tell you otherwise. I think it’s amazing that the inner west sound is still happening in Marrickville. Newtown’s closed down, Stanmore’s dead and Marrickville is where it’s at now.
How long has this album been brewing?

It’s been a long time. I was talking to Michael Taylor about it in Tamworth 2014 and that was when he offered me the deal with Lost Highway. I feel good about it now but there were a few times in the last few years when I thought, Is this ever going to see the light of day? Not because I doubted Michael’s word or the record company but I thought maybe something was going to happen and they’d say, ‘We’re not going to really concentrate on doing alt-country any more. It’s not a big money spinner.’ But the fact that they’re still doing it, still sticking with it, is fantastic. They still see the potential for people like me. So Ruby Boots and Mustered Courage and Catherine Britt and Shane Nicholson and all these other amazing artists.
Lost Highway obviously has an incredibly good pedigree in the United States and here already has established such a great line-up. It must have been exciting to be on it and did it feel like a natural fit the first time you were talking to Michael?
Absolutely, and it was very exciting to be asked. I wasn’t expecting it at all. He said, ‘I want to get you to write a bit of a blurb for this introductory video for the label – it’s going to play at the launch of the label’, which they had in Tamworth in 2014. And he waited until literally the night before to spring on me that he wanted me on the label and would I be interested. My gast was completely flabbered. I had to step back for a second and go, ‘Wow, that’s amazing!’ Not least because I’m not exactly a spring chicken compared with a lot of the other artists on the label, some of whom are in their thirties and I’m in my late forties. It’s been an interesting ride throughout my career and now that I’ve reached this point it doesn’t feel like the end any more, it feels like the start of something.
One of the great things I’ve observed about Australian country music is that age really is so insignificant. You can start a career at sixty, or six, or sixteen. The audience is so committed to the genre. You can have people in their sixties and seventies who are really open minded about new music. I actually don’t see it in any other genre.
That’s right. A lot of the people that I know, particularly from doing gigs around Sydney is that there’s a lot of people from that baby boomer generation, if you will, who are incredibly open minded about new music and they love finding out about new stuff. They like country music but they particularly like the country rock that evolved in the late ’60s out of The Byrds and Bob Dylan and things like that, and they’ve kind of stuck with that music forever. They’re looking for new developments on that sound and they don’t mind that there are artists who mix up country with electronica, country music singers who make solo albums, like Chris Stapleton, who made an amazing record last year. A lot of my older friends really dig Sturgill Simpson, who I think is amazing, and he’s doing more, in a way, to uphold the legacy of country music in that outlaw spirit than a lot of other country artists.
Shane Nicholson was your producer and he does a lot of producing for Lost Highway. One of the things I think is great about Shane as a producer is that he seems to be able to identify what’s unique about a performer and keep it there. He doesn’t have a sound of his own that he layers over. What was your experience of working with him like?
That’s totally true – he finds the sweet spot for your voice and the way that it resonates with other instruments and he tries really hard to get that sound in the studio, whether he’s doing stuff in his own studio or in another studio like Jeff McCormack’s. We did a lot of the live tracks for the record there and he just really like the sound of my voice in the studio with the guitar playing, so I said, ‘I can play the rhythm guitar and sing, that’s no problem’, and so we cut all the vocals live in the studio, apart from ‘Tears’. I’d sung it in the studio but then I realised we were going to use a female vocalist, Jules Crighton, on the record, so we ended up overdubbing the vocals again. He knew how to get that sound just right. He got us to do it live in the studio, so we sang that duet vocal together in the studio. We did about four takes and just chose a take and that was it. So it’s all live.
That accounts for the unified feeling to the songs, and there’s often more of a warmth to live tracks.
Exactly. Some producers will insist on fixing notes and things like that – they’ll go through an entire song and take three or four hours to fix the song note by note. I’d rather not do that – it doesn’t sit well with me. I was making records when we were still recording to tape. It’s cool to be able to do it in the studio now and still hang on to something of that live feeling.
There’s a line in your bio where you say, ‘My crime is that I wear all these hats as writer, steel guitarist, lead player, songwriter’ – do you have a preferred hat?
No, I don’t any more. I used to prefer the writer hat, which could take in some of the songwriter as well because it was at a time when I was writing a lot of songs. I’d usually write my songs at work, which is a little bit rough on my employers, but one of them was cool about it. I’d just take a little bit of time out of work to sit down and write a song and not worry too much about it. But I do all of those things now together anyway. I like to write a song and sometimes I get an idea for a story or something like that. So I do wear all those hats still. Most of the time I’m not concentrating on writing so much because there’s not much money init any more unless you do copywriting or something like that. It’s mostly down to playing a bit of rock ’n’ roll, playing a bit of country and I’ll let the rest take care of the rest.
All-Night Ghost Town is out now through Lost Highway Australia/Universal.

Single release: ‘Angels in this Town’ by Eric Paslay

There’s any number of things that can hook me on a song, and a great chorus is high on the list. So Texas native Eric Paslay’s single ‘Angels in this Town’, from his self-titled debut album, did the job from first listening. A brief glance at Paslay’s CV explains why: he’s written hit songs for a number of prominent US acts, including Rascal Flatts.

Paslay recently performed ‘Angels in this Town’ on NBC’s Today show – you can watch the video here or below.

Album review: Behind This Guitar by Mo Pitney

There are stacks of country music albums released in the USA each year, and I don’t even attempt to cover them, mainly because this blog is focused on Australian country music. However, something prompted me to listen to the debut album from young artist Mo Pitney, who was born in Illinois and now lives, naturally enough, in Nashville.
As soon as the first song, ‘Country’, started, I had absolutely no wish to stop listening. Pitney’s voice is, simply, irresistible: deep, warm, emotional. The clue to his vocal inspiration is in track 7, ‘I Met Merle Haggard Today’ – and Australian country music fans will hear in Pitney echoes of Troy Cassar-Daley, an avowed Haggard fan, and Adam Harvey – but what is remarkable is that Pitney has such maturity to a voice that has not been singing for that many years.
Lyrically, the songs on this album describe life, love and faith in the country. They are sincere without being twee. The production is relatively light on instrumentation, meaning this doesn’t sound like a heavily produced vehicle for radio-friendly songs but more a carefully thought-out collection of numbers that accurately depict Pitney, who co-wrote ten of the album’s twelve tracks.
The toe-tapping, catchy hallmarks of modern American country music are certainly there on Behind This Guitar. What’s missing is the sense of manipulation that can come from certain bells-and-whistles numbers. There may be very few original ways to sing about life and love but Pitney’s sincerity – his ability to connect with the listener – means that this album is a genuinely entertaining and genuinely moving experience. It is a beautiful piece of work.
Behind This Guitar is out now through Sony Music Australia.

Interview: The Wayward Henrys

The Central Coast of New South Wales has a vibrant country music community, and it includes duo The Wayward Henrys, who are married couple Brock and Natalie Henry. They released their debut album Cold Love in September, and it’s a beautiful dance between the pair, who share singing and songwriting duties. Recently I spoke to Brock Henry about this ‘break-up album without the break-up’, amongst other things.

What is wayward about you?
Probably just in the way we’ve lived our lives, I suppose. Me and Natalie, the other songwriter, we’re husband and wife in the band. We’ve known each other since she was sixteen and I was eighteen. We’ve been together and been apart and gone off and done our own things, made some crazy decisions, some good ones, some bad ones, and we’re still together. And nothing’s ever straightforward with us. Gigs normally end up something crazy and something happening. Nothing’s ever smooth sailing but we enjoy it anyway.
You say you make crazy decisions, some good ones, some bad ones – it’s all good songwriting fodder.
That’s right, exactly. We’re never short of material, that’s for sure.
It says in your bio that you grew up immersed in an ‘offbeat country record collection’ – what did that collection contain?
It contained everything from the classics like Waylon and Willie and a lot of early Canned Heat. Stuff like Chad Morgan and Tex Morton. The whole gamut of weird Australian country guys and a lot of the American standards as well.
I was listening to a Chad Morgan song on ABC digital radio the other day and it was really clever and funny, and I thought, This is why he’s lasted as long as he has.
Exactly right. I remember as a kid my dad used to play him and we used to laugh and love it. He’s still going now. He was old then [laughs]. Maybe it makes me feel young, I don’t know.
So you’ve got that in your musical background – I imagine Natalie has her own musical background. How did you arrive at your joint musical style?
She sort of dragged me into it. She grew up in a country music household as well, and of course she hated it until she got a bit older and then she loved it. I played in other bands and listened to a lot of punk and other sorts of music, and she dragged me into playing and listening to and performing more country-orientated stuff. So I blame it all on her. It’s funny – the stuff you grow up listening to and don’t like, eventually you come around. Classic songs and classic songwriters, eventually you appreciate them, especially as a musician.
In punk there’s a certain amount of discipline – you really have to keep those lyrics tight and keep the song structure tight. I can hear in your music the discipline in the lyrics in that you’re not self-indulgent. Is that something you learnt in punk?
For sure. I definitely take that attitude across into songwriting. I was listening to a lot of that music before I really understood what it was all about, because I had older brothers who were into it. I think in the alt-country genre a lot of people take that punk attitude across to it.
It’s a can-do attitude, in a way, isn’t it?
That’s right, and I think it’s the way the music industry is these days – you’ve got to have that can-do attitude whether you realise it’s got its origins in punk or whatever. No one’s going to do anything for you – you’ve got to do it for yourself. You’ve got to get up and play in front of people and you’ve got to push your music, and you’ve to believe in it, because if you don’t nobody else is.
Especially these days when a lot of artists are crowd-funding their albums, which makes a lot of sense in music because you’re essentially pre-selling the albums. The standard of what’s coming out of crowd-funded or independently produced albums is really fantastic. Certainly that part of the punk-rock attitude is working really well in country.
It’s sort of a double-edged sword, that crowd-funded thing. I think it’s great for pre-sales and stuff like that but when you see bands on Gofundme because they want a trip to Nashville to go and make an album, you think, Am I just paying for your holiday?[laughs] There’s plenty of good producers and studios in Australia where you could knock out an album. I suppose it’s each to their own.
Some of the information about your album says, ‘It’s the break-up album minus the break-up’, so how did you and Natalie get to the point of thinking you’d make a break-up album without breaking up?
It just sort of happened, and then when we started to get the songs together for the album we said, ‘This is a break-up album. Are you trying to tell me something?’ We were both thinking the same thing. We’ve got a couple of young kids and in my day job I work a lot – I was away for long periods of time, and she’s stuck at home with kids, and there’s that isolation. You get used to being on your own. And just the normal ying and yang of relationships, [they] aren’t always rosy, especially when you’ve been together for as long as we have. We thought, well, this is one way to get the anger and the frustrations out without actually breaking up because we obviously love each other a lot and we’re never going to break up, hopefully. But you have your moments when you think, It’s probably not that bad an idea. [Laughs]
I suppose the album is therapy, then.
Absolutely. It’s our way of dealing with it. And it’s also that coyness – I’ll write a song and she’ll be thinking, Is this song about me or is this about someone else? We don’t interrogate each other too much with the songs – we just think, Oh yep, this one’s about me – but it might not be.[Laughs]
It’s lovely because it preserves that mystery in your relationship, which could be why you’ve been together for so long.
Yeah, absolutely.
But on the other hand I suppose you’re both desperately wondering who it’s about.
That’s right. If it’s a particularly nasty one I just bury my head in the sand and say, ‘It must be about someone else.’
Well, of course!
So is your songwriting process a bit like Lennon and McCartney where one of you writes the bulk of the song and then hands it over to the other one for a little bit of tinkering, or is it more of a collaboration?
It’s along those lines. Most of the time I’ll write a song and I’ll take it to her and she’ll say, ‘You should do this here and that there’, and she’ll panel beat it around a bit, and I sort of do the same – she’ll have a song written and I’ll say, ‘You probably should say this here or that there. No, try this chord here’, and stuff like that. Lately we don’t tend to start from go to whoa together. Normally we’re finishing off the other one’s ideas.
I think that’s a great process in that it’s always a good idea to have an editor and you both have an idea who lives in the same house.
Which makes it really easy – you’re not sitting around and waiting to organise the time to do a co-write or get someone to try to help you out with stuff. We sort of keep a leash on each other – she stops me from going off into too weird a direction and I stop her from going too traditional country, I suppose.
And you find each other somewhere between those two poles.
Yeah, we find a happy medium – something that we both like and hopefully everyone else does as well.
Well, it’s a great album so you’ve achieved that happy medium. But it’s a big undertaking to put out an album – it’s a lot of songs and a lot of decision making about what goes on it – so at what point did you think, An album is the next step?
Natalie’s the real big driving force in, I would say, 99 per cent of all the things that happen with the band. Writing songs was something we’ve never struggled with – we’ve almost got too many songs. That’s not to say that they’re all classics … But [the album] was just a natural thing. We met Lachlan Bryan, who recorded it, and we knew we had an album in us so we were just really keen to get one down.
Since you mentioned Lachlan – I know he’s been doing a bit of producing. But when you’re meeting another artist like that, it’s not necessarily automatic that you’ll think, You’ll produce us. So how did it evolve that he came to be your producer?
We met him in Nundle, at the Dag Sheep Station. And I’d been listening to his first album, Ballad of a Young Married Man, and I thought it was a really great album. He’d seen us perform; he liked what we were doing and what we were about. He and Natalie wrote a song together, which is, I think, the last track on the album. So from there we built a relationship. We went down to Melbourne and played a few gigs down there. We were talking about making an album and I started asking [if there was] anyone he recommended to make it with, and he said he would love to do it.
He recommended himself.
He did. So we said, ‘Righto, let’s do it.’ So we thought we’d just record some songs and see how they come back. We wanted to put a single out before the album was ready, just to keep something out – because it had been a while since we’d released anything – so we did that, and we loved the results. He was really great to work with, sort of effortless. Cool studios, we loved being in Melbourne, and we decided to keep going with it. It was a pretty long process – over twelve months from the first song till finishing the album.
Give that you have work and family, it’s not surprising.
Absolutely not. The easy part is writing songs and going to record them. That’s all the fun stuff. But after that it’s the editing and getting songs sent back to you – ‘No, we don’t like this, we don’t like that, do this, do that’ – the back and forth and everything else that goes with it.
And then you have a lovely body of work, and one of the great things about an album is that it can stand there forever.
And it’s a real signpost of where you are at that stage of your life and your musical career. It’s something you should be proud of.
I won’t ask you if you want to work with Lachlan again, though, because if the answer’s ‘no’ …
[Laughs] He actually just edited a film clip we just made.
He’s busy!
He’s very busy. There’s plenty of strings to his bow. I’m more than happy to do anything with him because he’s just a good guy to be around creatively, and especially when you can sit and talk music with him. I’m more than happy to have him involved in anything we get up to.
Of course you’ll see him again in Tamworth – I’m presuming you’re going?
Yes. We’re looking forward to Tamworth. I think we’ve got a show at the Frog and Toad with Lou Bradley, so that’s going to be exciting. And we’ve got a couple of other shows – I’m a bit sketchy on the details. Nat organises all of that. We’ll be playing out at the Dag Sheep Station again, for sure. John Casula and his crew out there run some great things over the Tamworth Country Music Festival. It’s a really great place to play and sort of feels like home to us when we’re up there, which is good.
And it’s really developed, that programme, over the past few years.
I’d implore anyone going to the Tamworth Country Music Festival to take some time to head out to the Dag Sheep Station. The shows and the catering and the way they look after you up there, and the quality of the musicians, it’s second to none. It’s a real highlight for me to come to Tamworth and head down to Nundle.
When you have a daytime job and children and travelling to do, what’s your inspiration? You might get up every day and write songs – is there music or books that you regularly find inspire you?
Music, for sure – a lot of the older stuff, for sure. Not a lot of the new stuff inspires me. But in saying that, there’s an artist called William Crighton – it sort of blew my hair back when I heard that album. He’s a real inspiration. A lot of it’s in books – old Kurt Vonnegut books and stuff like that. And the human condition – what you see around you.
 Cold Love is out now.

Halfway’s special show at the Triffid, Brisbane, on 29 October

Brisbane band Halfway has eight members, and all of them are showing up this Saturday night, 29 October, to perform at hometown venue The Triffid to celebrate the success of their critically acclaimed fifth studio album, The Golden Halfway Record, and the release of their new single ‘Three In and Nothing But The Stars’. Ahead of the show, John Busby answered my questions via email./

There’s eight of you in this band – who’s really the boss, who’s the troublesome middle child, and are there any arguments?
The songs are the boss. We disagree occasionally. Being in a band this long you have to from time to time … But we are very good friends and we have been through a lot together. Not just music. Life stuff. The band is bigger than just music.

What’s great about the Brisbane music scene and what do you wish you could change?
I have no idea really. There have been some great bands from Brisbane so that sets a precedent … So the bar is set high with Screamfeeder, The Go-Betweens etc … going all the way back to the Saints & the Bee Gees. What would we change? Nothing. It’s not perfect. But nothing is.

What’s so special about the Triffid?
It’s a great place to see a show & to play one. It is made by people who love music. Good people, great stage & PA. It all sounds obvious but these things are surprisingly rare in live music venues.

What are you most looking forward to about this show?
Revisiting our first album, Farewell to the Fainthearted, has been fun. I am looking forward to playing it for us and our friends here in Brisbane.

Who gets to write the set list?
Ben Johnson usually writes our set list. And then Chris Dale changes a couple of songs. That happens at most shows. No set list at this one though … two albums in order/start to finish

This album has been your ‘golden’ record – what comes next?
Good question. We have a few new songs but no titles as yet. The songs will dictate the direction we head in. Not sure really. We have been buying a lot of guitar pedals so that would suggest maybe a more psych guitar-based record. But maybe we will do another narrative-based album. Have to wait for the songs to tell us.

The Golden Halfway Record is out now.

Single release: ‘Howl’ by Emilee South

Melburnian Emilee South has released ‘Howl’, a single from her forthcoming EP. ‘Howl’ is earthy Southern-gothic bluesy rock, a sultry song that South commands without hesitation, her vocals coiling and curving, ably backed by a thrumming rhythm section and, it has to be said, howling guitar.

Listen to ‘Howl’ on Soundcloud.

‘Howl’ Single Launch & Halloween Party
Sunday 30 October 2016
Bella Union, Melbourne
With very special guest support Skyscraper Stan
Doors 8 p.m., tickets available here

Album review: Happy Ever After by Amber Lawrence

Amber Lawrence does many things well, but there’s one thing in particular: on each of her albums she has produced at least one song guaranteed to make me cry every time I hear it, whether recorded or live. On 3 that song was ‘The Man Across the Street’; on Superheroes it was ‘The Lifesaver’, and on her latest album, Happy Ever After, it’s ‘The Lucky One’. There’s a reason Lawrence is able to do this: she writes and sings from an authentic place, and she is unabashed about showing sentiment and emotion. You get the sense that in conversation she wouldn’t be one for small talk – she would want to get right to the heart of a matter.
The songs on Happy Ever After address a range of experiences, not all of them positive. ‘Cheers to the Girls’ is an exhortation for girls (and women) to stand up for themselves in the face of others who try to crush them; on the track Lawrence is joined by Catherine Britt and Fanny Lumsden, with whom she’ll tour next year. ‘Drive By Breakup’ is about the shock ending of a relationship. And the bittersweet ‘The Lucky One’ is Lawrence acknowledging that despite sadness and loss, she has a lot to celebrate.

Happy Ever Afteris full of well-crafted country pop that will delight Lawrence’s fans and, hopefully, introduce her to new fans. One emotion that is common to the songs on this new album is joy – regardless of the subject matter, Lawrence sounds as if she loves what she does, and that makes listening to it a joyful experience. Lawrence deservedly won a Golden Guitar for Female Artist of the Year in 2016. She is a dedicated songwriter, performer and member of the country music community. These attributes don’t just make her worthy – they make her worthy of your time. And so does this lovely album. 
Happy Ever After is out now through Social Family Records.

EP review: Matt J Ward & The Rising Sons

Some albums and EPs take a while to warm up – they can sound uninviting at first but there’s enough there to draw you in, and they grow richer with time. Some are immediately engaging and stay engaging. Matt J Ward’s debut EP is in the latter category. It contains five songs in what has been described as an Americana style – that descriptor is being used a lot lately, probably because the musicians concerned have Americana influences (and I can hear Whiskeytown in this EP), but I hear Australia in these songs too, despite three song names with American references (‘Terlingua’, ‘Neil Young’, ‘America’).
The reason I hear Australia is because this EP, like quite a bit of music I’ve heard lately, has echoes of Australian lyric-led pop/rock of the 1980s and 1990s, and that’s just fine, as this brings some nostalgia into play as well as the joy of discovery.
The tracks are mostly upbeat, troubadour fare; Ward has a briskly warm voice and he sounds like he’s enjoying himself, which is always nice to hear.

If an EP is a test of an artist’s audience – is there enough here to merit an album? – then Ward should find some fans who eagerly await the next instalment.
Matt J Ward & The Rising Sons is out now. 

Album review: Rise Up Like a River by Nick Payne

Sydney singer-songwriter is one half of Dear Orphans, although he’s going it alone on this album, his debut long player. The album is divided into halves: ‘Salvation Jane’ and ‘Paterson’s Curse’ – which are, of course, different names for the same thing: a bush – all right, a weed – that grows wild and produces vibrant purple flowers, seen across the Australian landscape. It’s fitting for this album of road songs which evoke the Australian experience of hours in a car, kilometres of land that can look like dust, skies that promise no rain as they stretch unendingly away. Payne’s songs also evoke the people he has met along the way, whether they are friends or strangers.
Payne’s genre is cited as bluegrass and Americana, but there’s a bit of Slim Dusty here too – it’s impossible to ignore Slim and his wife/chief songwriter Joy McKean’s influence on the Australian road song. In some ways Slim gave Australian songwriters permission to document their experiences of travelling around the land – permission, in other words, to not be American. So while Payne may have stylistic influences from the northern hemisphere, this is firmly a southern hemisphere album.
Payne is ably backed by some great musicians and the songs vary in pace and style as befits the song. Payne has help from Katie Brianna on ‘My Darling Kate’ and Megan Cooper on ‘Peace Tonight’, and both singers complement him nicely. ‘Old Sydney Town’ sounds like it belongs in the early days of the colony. ‘White Line Fever’ moves at the sort of pace you’d want to keep you going on a road trip.

Overall, this is a great piece not of Americana but, dare I say, Australiana. 
Rise Up Like a River is out now.