Australian country music fan favourite Paul Costa is back with a new album, Whisper in the Crowd, backed by his ever-present enthusiasm for his work and his audience. I recently had a chat to Paul about making the album with producer Matt Fell, how he looks after his voice, and whether big or small crowds are his favourite.
Congratulations on your album, because it’s now out in the world and it’s terrific, as all your music is. I was listening to it thinking that even when the songs are serious, you always sound like you’re having the time of your life – what do you love about your job?
That’s a great question. I think it’s because it’s my passion, singing. I cannot recall a time in my life when I didn’t enjoy singing, right from a little kid. Singing, performing, creating music and just getting that feedback – there’s no better feeling, so I’d have to put it down to those things.
There would be a few singer-songwriters who like the studio more than they like performing, but I’ve always seen you as a real entertainer. You obviously love that connection with the audience.
Definitely. I recently did a show outback in Pooncarie [NSW]. I was singing my stuff and a lot of people knew the songs, which is always a fantastic thing. But not only that, we started going into party mode towards the end of the night. And when the young ones – the guys in their twenties – know Slim Dusty songs better than I do, you know you’re in the right place [laughs]. It’s a fantastic thing. You throwing ideas out and getting that feedback is just fantastic. That live connection.
Has there ever been a show when you’ve thought, I’m too tired to do this, or do you enjoy every gig you do.
I have to say I enjoy every gig. Some gigs you are tired because of the travelling and that type of thing, but it just all goes away. It’s like this newfound energy comes back into your body and once again, if it’s what you love doing, you don’t work a day in your life [laughs].
For your new album, when did you start assembling the songs? Most of them you’ve had a hand in. I know the lead track came from Nashville but most of the songs you’ve done yourself, so when did it all start coming together?
I look back and it’s been almost five years since my last album. It’s been three and a half or four years from the first song that I wrote [for the new album]. I’m pretty sure that ’The Best Version of Me’ was the first one I wrote that made this project. I can’t put my finger on exactly why it took so long but I’m glad, in a way, that it did because every song on it is there for a reason. It’s there because I love it. When you’ve got a bunch of songs that you really love it comes through in the recording process and it comes through when you’re singing it live. It also tends to make a lot more contact with the audience you sing it to.
I’d imagine it took that long because you’re busy playing your previous songs! When you have a back catalogue like yours, your set lists must get harder to decide on because you have so many songs to choose from. So maybe that means you don’t rush into a new album because you have all those other songs.
Maybe that’s a consideration – Wheels of Steel had some great songs that I still enjoy playing live. So I guess the more music you’re putting out, yes, it gets a bit of a competition. With a 75-minute set list, which one do you drop? [Laughs] It only happened to me not that long ago.
And with new material, you’d want to give it a run – but your fans, of course, are hoping to hear your old songs. It’s a good problem to have.
Exactly right. There is a balance. You do hear this over the years – fans come to see the show and they’re expecting the songs that they love. When the show’s too heavy with brand-new stuff they say, ‘Oh yeah, but I’ve come to hear that song and that song …’ It’s a fine line you’ve got to tread.
It’s almost like you should do two sets: the first set is new material so they can hang around for their favourites in the second set.
It’s just like you’re a mind reader, because I’ve got a hometown album launch coming on July the 8th and that’s exactly what I was planning to do. I’m going to do the first set as all-new songs and let everybody know that’s what’s happening and we’re going to do all the other stuff that you like and know and we’ll party a little bit harder for the second set.
Speaking of those new songs, I noticed a few co-writes with both Matt Scullion and Drew McAlister. How long have you been writing with them?
I think this is the third album I’ve worked with Matt Scullion and he had a hand with a couple of songs on In This Life, I think he had three songs on Wheels of Steel, and then we had five songs on this one. He’s contributed a lot to my music. He’s a fantastic writer and we just seem to get along so well. He’s one of those go-to guys for me now, which is great. He’s done so well for myself and of course Lee Kernaghan. He even got a track on the latest Cold Chisel album, which is a pretty good feather in your cap. Drew McAlister, he’s another incredible talent – such a prolific songwriter. So the two songs we wrote: ‘Whisper in the Crowd’, the title track, and ‘Road Train’. I think on the previous album he and Allan Caswell wrote a song that they pitched to me, called ‘Buying Back the Farm’, and it’s funny because I’d only listened to it once and I thought, That’s me! And that made the album. It’s always a pleasure working with such a high calibre of talent.
And I’m sure they’re happy to work with you too or they wouldn’t keep coming back.
[Laughs] I guess so.
Another of the songs is ‘Drive to Heaven’ and it’s obviously a very personal song. There’s that
element when you’re an entertainer of wanting to take something personal to your audience, but I’m also wondering how you take something so personal and take it to people. It’s almost a mystical process, I guess, so it would be hard to describe.
The whole story is that we were at the dinner table and my young son, Dylan, was only four at the time and he was trying to connect the dots of how everyone was related in the family. He was saying, ‘Grandma is your mum, Mummy, and Grandpa is your dad. Daddy, your mum’s Nonna’ – then he turns around with a puzzled look on his face and says, ‘But where’s your daddy, Daddy?’ Because my dad had passed away and he’d never met him. And I was kind of lost for words – it caught me off guard. We sort of changed the subject and went on to happier things. But about five weeks later we were going for a walk and he asked the question again: ‘Where’s your daddy, Daddy?’ And I was more ready for him this time. I said, ‘My daddy’s in Heaven.’ And said, ‘Let’s go there, I want to see him.’ And I said, ‘Heaven’s too far, we can’t walk to Heaven.’ He turned around and said, ‘Let’s drive to Heaven.’ And as soon as he said it – it’s one of those things, little moments in life, where the little lightbulb goes off and you think, There’s a song in that. Hence the way the song came out is the way the story came out. The song had really been written for about two and half years when I went to record it in the studio, and I actually became emotional in the studio singing it. Had to pause a few times. But it’s interesting that a lot of people have come back to me and said, ‘It brings a tear to my eye’ … If you can touch people with a song, it’s pretty special.
It’s also that you didn’t try to change it. That idea of taking the personal to the universal – you took the story for what it was and told it, and that authenticity of course is so important to country music, and that’s what audiences are responding to.
I think so. It’s so often that something that means a lot to the artist translates. For instance, ‘Tractors and Bikes’, my first number-one hit on my previous album, meant so much to me because that was me growing up in my teenage years, growing up on the farm, and so many people after hearing that song have said, ‘That brings me back to my years on the farm’ or ‘to my younger days’. So, like you said, it’s authenticity that people can really grab hold of.
You mentioned the song ‘Road Train’ – I really liked the detail in the press release about how a man came up to you at a gig and said, ‘People call me Road Train.’ Obviously you can get ideas from other people, but do you have many people coming up to you saying, ‘Can you tell my story in a song?’
Every now and again you get that, but once again it’s got to come from the heart, you know. With the ‘Road Train’ song, I’d just come off stage and had a great set at the Lights on the Hill Memorial Truck Show, and I was on the way to the merch tent and he stuck out his hand and said, ‘People call me Road Train’, and straight back at him I said, ‘That’s a great idea for a song.’ He sort of looked at me a bit funny [laughs]. And the next year I went back, and I’d written the song. I sang the song and he was in the audience and said, ‘I love it.’ I’m really happy it came together so well and made the album.
And it’s good that he loved it, because someone who has the nickname Road Train sounds like someone you wouldn’t want to upset.
[Laughs] He’s actually a really, really nice fella and we’d communicated since. I’ve sent him the album and he said he’s wearing it out and playing it for his friends. Writing songs about real people out there, you can’t go wrong, really.
Matt Fell was your producer for this album – how did you come to choose him? Obviously he’s a popular fellow, so you’d have to book him up ahead.
You do. And it was interesting because he almost made the previous album – I’d had him on the radar for quite a while. But I’m glad that this one came off with Matt. We had a bunch of songs – I’d sent him the songs, and we were talking about how I wanted a more-energy, contemporary sound. And one of the things that Matt came back with, which really brought enthusiasm to me, was, ‘Let’s be bold.’ And I said, ‘I like that.’ So we went along with that philosophy right throughout the project, and it was so much fun. I just can’t get over how happy I am with the end result.
And when you say ‘bold’, I had noticed that there’s quite a lot of instrumentation and some big backing vocals as well.
All that – for me, it’s overall a slightly more hi-fi sound. There’s a little bit more of the overdriven guitars and that type of thing. Some of the instruments … I’ve been a muso all my life and I couldn’t even tell you what some of these things were that he was pulling out! [Laughs] But they made sense in the track. If you’d have ever asked me, ‘Would you have a bagpipe sound in one of your albums?’ I would have said, ‘You’re crazy’, but ‘Whisper in the Crowd’, it’s there and they work really well, so you’ve got to give it to him for thinking outside the square.
And obviously you trusted him too.
I had a few people help me out with a bit of feedback as we went through the process, and ‘Whisper in the Crowd’ was basically as it is now. Some people said, ‘Should we do this or do that’, and I said, ‘Don’t touch it!’ [Laughs] It was one of those things where it worked for me and the feedback’s been that it’s one of the favourite tracks on the album.
Of course, the thing that stays identifiably you throughout all your albums is your voice, which is a very highly regarded and a wonderful instrument. Are there special things you do to take care of it? Obviously playing a lot of live shows can wear a voice out and when it’s time to record it has to be in its most perfect state.
I just find that staying fit, for me, is the best thing. Some cardio – running. I’ve got a little elliptical trainer here at home, and I find that makes a huge difference. Also sit-ups, believe it or not, help a lot – using the right muscles there just seems to work the voice and make it easier to sing. So before every session I go for a run and do some sit-ups and I find you go into the booth and, hey, it’s flowing … The easier it’s flowing, the better it sounds on tape and the more you can do to control it, put it where you want it, and pull off any tricks. I find that it even helps with vocal range – I can go lower and higher, and everything sounds beefier in the middle.
You’ve been on major labels and you’re now an independent artist – has that given you more flexibility, being independent?
I think so. With the market the way it is now I think it’s good. I’ve got everything I need as far as distribution – I’m up on iTunes, we’ve got distribution through the shops. And because of the competition and the way physical sales are declining – for everybody- labels don’t seem to have as much money to put into promoting as they used to. That’s just a fact. And we can do it – especially with technology these days, you can send your promotion around the world with the click of a button. You can do it so well in house with obviously the help of a publicist and that type of thing, and do a great job, so we’re not really missing anything there as far as getting the information out, and just having more control.
Certainly what I’ve noticed – because so many Australian country music artists are independent – is one key area in which they have control is choosing the producer, and I can see the quality of Australian country music is benefitting accordingly, because you guys all know who’s good and who’s producing who, and the decisions that are being made on that production level alone – putting aside songwriting and other elements – are really having huge benefits to the music that’s coming out.
It’s great. When you’ve done it for a little while you know, This guy’s going to work for me. And it might not work for somebody else. You might want a more traditional sound where you’d go for another producer. It’s good to have people to bounce off, but a good producer will do that for you anyway. If he thinks a song needs a little bit of treatment here or there, a good producer will let you know. So, yes, the right artist with the right producer is obviously going to produce the best result.
You play constantly so I’m not going to ask you about a tour for the album, so instead I’ll ask: because you’ve played so many different types of gigs, do you prefer a large audience or a small audience?
I’d have to say both are very, very enjoyable. It doesn’t have to be a big audience to be energetic. The energetic audience, or the one that will give you a lot of feedback, is always the best, but nothing beats a big audience with a lot of feedback [laughs]. One of the best gigs I’ve had in the last couple of years would be performing at Broadbeach [Country Music Festival] on the main stage. All the stars aligned: I was in a great time slot, there was probably 5 to 7000 people just lining the streets, all country fans. The sound was incredible, the band was cooking. I just felt – talking about the voice, I just felt it was all there. I felt good singing the songs and the feedback was incredible. So, yes, nothing beats a big crowd with big feedback.
Particularly when you know how to harness it – with all your experience I’d imagine you do.
It does become a feeding frenzy. You give that to them and if you get it back – it just keeps multiplying, which is great. If you can get it the stage where you’re not thinking about it too much and everybody’s just having a great time, that’s where you want to be.
Whisper in the Crowd is out now.