Month: September 2017

Interview: Sarah Leete

Singer-songwriter recently released her debut single, ‘Safe’, with her EP to follow in early November. I recently had a chat to her and found out about her interesting working life and why she chose Catherine Britt to produce her EP.

Who did you grow up listening to?
Cat Stevens, pretty much on repeat. And a bit of Neil Young. Mum and Dad were a bit older than a lot of my friends’ parents were at the time. Mum used to listen to a bit of Barbra Streisand. But unfortunately none of that came through, I don’t know, in my music. Then Mum started listening to country stuff – we used to listen to John Williamson a lot for entertainment value. I remember a couple of trips in the car, back when cassettes were around, and Mum started getting into Patty Griffin and stuff like that.
So, now, who do you consider your biggest influences to be?
Right now I listen to a lot of Maren Morris, and I still listen to Patty Griffin, and Lori McKenna. I was pretty heavily influenced by Michelle Branch. She was emerging at an influential age, when I started high school. I was pretty into her and I still follow her stuff. She has a new record out but it’s not like her older stuff. A lot of new artists who are coming out – Caitlin Smith. A lot of American stuff. A bit of whatever’s going.
It’s always interesting to hear what people are listening to, and also about their musical lineage. Patty Griffin has come through pretty strongly for you – and it’s hard to go wrong with her.
I know, she’s amazing.
When did you start singing?
I could do the cliché … I used to sing a lot when I was a kid. By the end of primary school everyone was sick of hearing me sing, so I stopped for a bit. A lot of my friends were over it. Then when I got into high school I got into a couple of choirs. Started learning guitar when I was thirteen – taught myself. I started writing songs about then too.
Was theresomething that pushed you into songwriting – you felt like you needed to get stuff down – or were you just curious about how it might all work?
We used to drive a fair bit in the car and we’d always listen to Cat Stevens tapes tapes. It was pretty much only a couple of cassettes. And we used to have this little competition to guess what was coming up next – just because we’d heard it that often, we knew. I think just from listening a lot, I got a bit of a grasp for how the musical composition part went – how songs are structured – and then I think I had a natural creativity. I’m pretty creative – I used to make stories up when I was a kid. Then I think just from listening to a lot of music I thought, Oh well, I can make up a song or make up different words to the songs that I knew. Then a boy that I liked at school played guitar and I thought, I can do that. I absolutely hated it at the start because it was so hard. Then because I wasn’t getting lessons I started making up my own stuff, because it was hard to learn the songs that I liked. Then once I got a bit more confident with the chords and stuff like that I could start playing other people’s songs.
You’re the first country music artist I’ve come across who’s from Narrabri. Did you have many peers while you were learning to play and sing? Could you form a band or feel like there were people you could talk to?
I’m actually from the Central Coast originally – I moved up here to work on a farm. I grew up in Wyong. All of my friends were into grunge and pop – Blink 182 and things like that, and I grew up listening to that too. I was in a little band. We did a couple of things at school, nothing too major. But I didn’t realise that the country music scene was all on the coast. I just moved out to work on agriculture – I went to agriculture college and did two years there, got my Certificate III and IV in Agriculture and moved out here. I was always songwriting and stuff through that. Then I got into the performing side of things and realised that all the country music people live on the Central Coast. I could never move back to town. Where we live now is a town that has forty-nine people and it’s half an hour from Narrabri. It’s awesome to live rurally and perform rurally. I do a lot of rural shows. Just to be able to bring live music to smaller towns, because we don’t really have many people out this way. You get the occasional bigger act in Narrabri. But I like to play smaller venues and bring some good-quality covers. My full-time job is music. I’m pretty much a cover musician and that goes towards supporting my originals career. I’ve been doing this now for eighteen months.
That’s fantastic. Part of the reason, I’m sure, why the Central Coast is popular is because it’s fairly easy to run a career from there. Narrabri, obviously, there’s a lot of travel involved. The pure logistics of trying to run a music career from the country – that’s difficult. How far afield are you going for those shows?
I will drive up to six hours either way. I play out towards Tenterfied, Inverell, Glen Innes, then I’ll do other shows in Dubbo, Mudgee. I try to get to the coast when I can because I have a pretty good fan base there – I just don’t get many shows there. It’s all gatekeepered by booking agents. I’ll probably do an [upper] east coast tour. I’m going to be touring my EP – I’ve just bought a van. So I’m going to be living in my van and doing a fair bit of touring just to get my name out and establish a bit of a fan base for when I release an album. I did a tour last year – my husband and I went on what was meant to be a holiday but it was really a tour. I did fifteen shows in four weeks in four states. So it was pretty full-on. We went up through the Territory and Queensland, and that was really, really good, to see that and meet different people from smaller towns. I played in Clermont and Emerald and Cloncurry.
Did you play in Katherine?
No, I didn’t go up that far – I turned off at Tennant Creek. But I’d love to do a Katherine, Darwin thing. I’ll be doing that next year. This year was the first year I’ve been full time, and I stuck to down here during winter and it was horrible – I had gigs cancelled left, right and centre. They just couldn’t get the crowds … I saw a good musician in Darwin and talked to him after a show, and he reckons there’s live music there seven days a week. It would be really good to hang out there for a couple of months and just tour around that area, and even into north-west Queensland. Do a Gulf tour. We did a Gulf trip two years ago, maybe, on a holiday. I sussed out a few towns there – a route where I would tour. It’s on the cards – it’s just a matter of finding enough time.
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It’s a big decision to do this full time. It’s obviously not a safe choice, especially when you’re starting out. Did you have a sense of giving it a go or did you really feel driven to do it?
I think when I left school I had to choose – or I thought I did – between agriculture and music, and agriculture was because I was passionate about rural life, and I can sit on a tractor and enjoy working with cattle and stuff like that. But I thought there were better prospects – I thought it would be easier to make it in the agriculture industry than in the music industry. I held that belief for a while. Then I put on a lot of weight from working and eating and drinking, as the rural lifestyle kind of goes. And then I lost a lot of weight through exercise and proper eating, and I started a business on the side. I’d quit my agriculture stuff and I was helping my husband – we were renovating our house, and I started a personal training business, which boomed. Again, trying to help the rural area, because I was losing weight by myself, and I was motivated and I was driven, but there’s not really a very good network here for that kind of thing. So that grew out of necessity but got way too big way too quickly. Then while I was doing that I lost weight and I was more confident to perform, and I was gigging on the weekends and also running my business seven days a week. I ended up burning myself out. That was eighteen months ago, so I finished that up and started the music after that. But I’m still recovering. I got to that point where I thought, I’m not getting any younger. I’m 26 but I feel about 40 [laughs]. And I had to choose then because I couldn’t maintain a balance between work and life. I didn’t have hobbies – it was just work, work, work all the time. It still is now but it’s something that’s more manageable, and there’s so many different aspects of music. I really enjoy the music business. I book all my own stuff. I really enjoy all of that. And, obviously, music creation. There’s a lot of different aspects I can do. But I’m still trying to find my mojo to get back into my exercise. Personal training is pretty much 80 per cent counselling [laughs]. So I’m trying to get that jive back, and once I’ve got that organised [and doing it with the music] I’ve just got to look after myself a bit more.
Burning out can have a huge impact on a voice, so that would be a concern when your voice is your main instrument.
For sure, and mental health too. I looked really good because I’d lost all the weight and I was really confident with that, but I just didn’t take enough time for self-care and it just got to the point where I was not in a good space, and it took a while to get over that. I don’t drink any more now because I used to drink like a sailor – I went to ag college, where they pretty much teach you how to drink. I quit drinking for a year after a really bad hangover, then I’d lost weight and there’s not as much buffer there – I was 30, 40 kilos lighter. With music, I think my voice is better now than it’s ever been. Performance, because I’m doing it all the time, it’s really, really good. I think it’s just what you focus on. I’m reasonably good with how I look after [my voice]. I am using it all the time, every weekend, during the week, I’m on the phone a lot organising things – it’s something I’ve just got to keep in check.
You chose Catherine Britt to produce your EP – and I’m delighted that she’s producing things. She’s also someone who, like you, commits to things in a wholehearted way and also has a few things on the go. How did you two come together for this project?
I met her at the Academy of Country Music – I did that in 2016. And I was really, really excited to even just meet her, but she ended up mentoring me through the academy, which is the best thing I’ve ever done – I should have done it five years ago. It was really good to form a relationship with her and all the other people. I was applying for a grant through Arts NSW and I was consulting her about getting a recommendation – a back-up letter of support – and she suggested that she was going to produce some stuff. I really just wanted to be different. I have a lot of friends from the academy and they all use Matt Fell or someone like that. And while he is an amazing producer, I just wanted to have a different sound and a different direction with my stuff. Catherine was the perfect fit for that. It was really good to work with her. She’s another female in the industry, too. I really dig strong women, whether it’s in the Australian country music industry or the American country music industry. It’s great to be able to work with her and make something that I’m proud of. I still talk to her regularly about what’s going on and she’s there for any questions I have about the music business, or life. I’m hoping to have her produce my album if she doesn’t get too focused on the children side of things [laughs].
Are you looking to go to Tamworth? How are you seeing the next twelve months play out?
There will be an EP tour – I’m in the midst of booking that and finalising that now. The Tamworth situation – I’ve got a few gigs booked there and I’m pretty excited about that because it will be my first big Tamworth. Last year I did a couple of appearances but nothing as full on as [what’s coming] … It’s booked very, very early and then it’s booked very, very late so it’s hard to know when to approach people. But it’s all a learning experience.

Listen to ‘Safe’ on Soundcloud.

or Google Play.

www.sarahleetemusic.com

Single release: ‘I’m Yours’ by Faith Evans Ruch

There’s just no way around it: the new song from Faith Evans Ruch will make you smile almost straightaway, and you’ll keep smiling the whole way through. I’ve noted before that Tennessean Ruch has a wonderful voice, and while that would be enough to pay attention to this song, she also has a great combination of playfulness and seriousness which makes this song a toe-tapper that also satisfies musical sensibilities. On this song those sensibilities include blues, pop and soul, combined with her country music lineage.

Ruch has a new album, Lessons in Falling, out on 13 October. Until then you can listen to ‘I’m Yours’ on Soundcloud or Bandcamp:

https://bandcamp.com/EmbeddedPlayer/track=2954700490/size=large/bgcol=ffffff/linkcol=0687f5/tracklist=false/transparent=true/
faithevansruch.com

EP review: Carousel

British four-piece band Carousel draw influences from Americana, folk, rock, blues and roots – which is not so unusual, you might think, because those influences work well together. What is unusual about this band from Southend-on-Sea, near Essex, are that all four members are accomplished vocalists. And from the evidence of the five tracks on this debut EP, they all have their preferred musical strand to marry to their voices, to great effect. They also deploy harmonies judiciously and beautifully.

The immediate standout track is the third, ‘Porcelain’, because of the lovely combination of male and female voices, and the sweetly lilting melody. However, closer listening to the other four tracks reveals the skill and experience behind each of them. ‘Throw Me to the Wolves’ has more of a driving rock style, ‘Show’ modern folk, ‘Dead Horse’ shows its country roots, and ‘Comfortable Skin’ is a wistful ballad.

Those influences mentioned above are evident but not overworked. Indeed, the songs seem to take inspiration from those musical styles rather than trying to consciously display them. If I were to guess, I’d say they each know what works for their voices and they draw on that in the songwriting process. The result is not a hodge-podge of styles; instead, it’s an eclectic and also cohesive mixture of songs that are unified by a high standard of songwriting and performance.

The band’s bio states that they were founded in 2015, four friends and solo musicians who decided to come together ‘with the ideology that they are better together than they are apart’. I haven’t heard their solo music but it is clear on this EP that they are very strong together, and no doubt stronger still as time goes on.

Carousel is out now.


www.carouseluk.com

Single release: ‘The Next Time’ by Liv Austen

British country music artists may be developing a good line in country pop, but this development can also, it seems, be found in Scandinavians: Norwegian-born singer-songwriter Liv Austen has released a new single, ‘The Next Time’. Austen has previously released two EPs as an independent artist; ‘The Next Time’ is out through NUA Entertainment.

Austen has a great pop voice (that actually gets more and more appealing on further listening) and as the song was co-written with Jessica Sharman (Ward Thomas) and mixed by Ash Howes (Ellie Goulding, The Corrs), it has solid country-pop credentials.

Listen to ‘The Next Time’ at soundcloud.com/liv-austen

or Google Play.

www.livausten.com

Christie Lamb has her Judgement Day

Australian singer-songwriter Christie Lamb released her second album, Loaded, earlier this year, and it seems as though she has packed every day since with achievements. I had a chat to her recently about the song and its video, as well as her recent trip to Nashville and a lovely highlight for her year.

How long were you in Nashville?
Five weeks, it ended up being. It was a pretty lengthy trip, doing lots of songwriting. I think I came back with about thirty-five songs, so it was pretty busy.
Do you arrive and go straight to work? Is it set up as appointments with co-writers every day? How does it work?
I went from the 17th of July to the 20thof August but I started booking in the songwriting sessions probably from end of March, start of April. Sending out emails – These are the dates that I’m here, I’d love to write – can we get a couple of sessions in? Or if it was a new writer, just trying to get the one session with them, see how we worked together. So it was pretty crazy and some people booked that far in advance and some didn’t, so there was less to choose from and it was hard trying to fit those in at the end. But it worked out quite well. There was a couple of days when we were doing double-writes a day, particularly towards the end of the trip when we were just trying to make extra sessions fit in. But it was great. Èvery writer over there was great to work with – we didn’t have anyone we couldn’t get a song out of [laughs]. It was very productive. But then on the weekends we had some time off.
What happens if you get to the end of a session, and it’s your last session with that person, and the song’s kind of hanging? Do you go away and finish it?
I think I’ve got one song like that, that I have to just tidy up a little bit. We’ve got the first verse and the chorus – it’s the second-verse curse, we call it. You get to the second verse and go, ‘Now, what have I got left?’ So there’s only one song that I’ve got to finish up and agree to what the exact lines are for the second verse, but we’ve got the bridge and the chorus and the first verse, and we’ve got the melody for all of it, it’s just lyrics. So the fact that we all know how that melody goes, and how it’s going to be phrased and how many words have to fit, it just means we can send each other an email back and forth to finish off those lyrics. But it’s not very likely that that does happen. Some of the songwriting sessions it depends how busy the writers are. Generally you get three hours to write a song. Sometimes, particularly if it’s an afternoon, we’ve gone four hours and we make sure we get it done. Sometimes that extra hour can help with those little tweaks and getting the song together structurally.
When you go into that structured songwriting do you find it easy to switch on to that mindset of now you’re writing a song, or does it take a little bit of preparation?
There’s a bit of everything. Basically from when I start sending out those emails and trying to book in appointments, I’m trying to jog my brain into just writing down, whether it’s a title or just a few random lines for a song. I go there with what I call the red folder – it’s a basic plastic red folder. But everyone says, ‘What’s in your red folder today?’ because they all know about those folder of random scribbles and titles. I flip through the pages and shout out a few titles or some lyric lines and see what jumps at them. Because sometimes you might be feeling like writing a particular song but your co-writers don’t click with that idea, so you have to have multiple ideas when you go in there. So it did take that preparation to get that red folder ready. And then as you’re there – particularly as I was there for so long – I had to try to block out what I’d just written, go into another session fresh, and just keep blocking them out so I didn’t keep writing the same song. But then at night I’d think, Okay, what have I already written? How many up-tempos do I have? Do I have too many ballads? Do I have too many up-tempos? What’s missing?And then I have to go into the session the next day and say, ‘Can we kind of write a song like this? I’m missing that kind of a song.’ So it is a lot of constant work. You have to do the prep with the ideas beforehand. You have to go in there open-minded with a whole bunch of ideas and be able to jump onto the idea that your co-writer wants to write and liked of ours. And then you’ve got to be able to block them out as well so you can keep writing fresh things and you don’t keep writing the same song.
It’s almost like you need a brain holiday at the end of that five weeks.
Pretty much. And I think that’s why most songwriters over there will not write with you on a weekend. So if I landed on a Tuesday I wrote a song Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and then two days off so that your brain can have a little break and be fresh, ready for another week, because if you don’t stop it does get a bit overwhelming. `
You have an education in music – you have a Bachelor of Music and you’ve been to the CMAA College and done some other things. Was there anything in your education that prepared you for this exact way of working?
With a Bachelor of Music it’s more theory based and sound production and performance, whereas the college course was more tailored to my specific genre of country music, and collaborating, and that’s where I got that introduction to co-writing, which I hadn’t done much of before. So that was a good preparation for me in being able to chart the songs that I’ve written and things like that. But it’s very different over in Nashville – you don’t know how intense it’s going to be until you’ve got that schedule in front of you with double writes. Sometimes you’ve got ten songs to write in a week – and we you don’t really do that when we’re at home because it’s so easy to get distracted with other things you’ve got to do being an artist back home. That’s why I like going to Nashville so much – there’s amazing writers there but it’s also that clean break from being at home.
You mentioned that in your red folder you have ideas. The current single, ‘Judgement Day’, did that start out as an idea in the red folder?
Most of the time writers expect you to come in with the idea yourself because they want to help you write something that you’re going to relate to, but ‘Judgement Day’ was actually a song that I didn’t write – I would love to have written that one. It was from a lady over in Nashville. I ended up doing a co-write with a guy called John De Algostino and a couple of ladies, and one of the ladies had just gone through a break-up and came out with the first lines of ‘It only hurts when I breathe, I only cry when I’m awake’, and everyone in the room said, ‘Okay, we’ve got to write this song.’ So that was a personal experience from her but it was just one of those songs that when I heard it, it touched me because I think a lot of people – unless you’re very lucky – go through a break-up or two in their lives. It was just one of those real emotional big things, which is what I love about country music, the big power ballads. They’re what got me into country music, your Martina McBrides and Carrie Underwoods, people like that. So as soon as I heard that song it really resonated with me and I wanted to record it, and I got their approval to record that song.
The reason why I would have thought you wrote that song is because of the way you sing it – it does sound so personal, and I guess that goes to your long experience as a singer and a performer, taking on someone else’s story. Obviously you have to connect with the song, but is it a process of also feeling that song when you’re recording it?
Yes, it’s a very different experience. There’s certain artists who prefer recording to performing live, and others who prefer performing, because it’s completely different. Recording is really intimate – that mic can pick up every little detail of your voice. Whereas performing live you’ve got the natural energy of a crowd, particularly for those up-tempo tracks, they really help you punch those out on stage. I remember recording ‘Judgement Day’, in particular, and just trying to interpret it myself and thinking, This song’s got so much range to it, I need to bring all that to it. I need to have the light, tender moments, those big moments of pain. So there were times when my lips were literally touching the microphone and basically just whispering those words of pain, and then there’s times when I had to let rip and back off the microphone. You have to get a really intimate relationship with that microphone.
That’s technique and also knowing your voice, and voices are so susceptible to a whole lot of things, like the weather and what you’ve been eating. Do you do particular things to take care of your voice when you’re going into recording and gearing up for a performance?
I used to be very particular about it. I guess the older I get and the longer I’ve been singing, I feel more comfortable with my own voice and know it a lot better than I used to. I used to be really strict and not have anything dairy for a week so I didn’t get blocked up. But now I’m not as strict. As everyone does with diets, you have your little cheat moments, and I’ve done those over the years and then gone, Oh, I can actually still sing through that if I have a milkshake or something.And if you’re singing correctly you should be able to sing through anything. Of course, I don’t try to abuse my voice too much, going out screaming and partying. I try to look after it in that way. But food wise I just like to enjoy what I’m eating [laughs] and as long as I sing correctly I’ll be able to get through it.
I suppose there’s also that difficulty when you’re a working performer that occasionally you’ll have a cold or something like that, and you have to sing through it. Has there ever been a performance where you’ve thought, I simply cannot sing today?
There’s been a couple of times when I have been very sick. I’ve never – touch wood – completely lost my voice. So it’s just a matter of really warming it up and singing forward and not on my throat. There was one instance in particular that was probably the worst, which was actually recording my debut album. I went up to record in Brisbane, landed off the plane and spoke to my producer: ‘Hi’ [whispery voice]. It was just there. I think I’d done six gigs that week, plus it was winter and I’d got a cold. It was just feeling a bit tired. So I landed at night and had my medication from my producer at his house – he gave me a glass of port and said, ‘Take it to bed’, and I woke up the next morning and he said, ‘How’re you going?’ and I said, ‘It’s a bit better.’ I had another bit of port that morning and kind of cleared the cobwebs away. So we had to work around that and warm my voice up into certain songs. I started out with the ballads, where I needed to be more emotional and have more colours in my voice, and more of those croaks and emotion. And by the time I’d recorded that my voice was more warmed up and more forward and had more projection in it, so I could do more up-tempo tracks. It’s just finding your own way around it and taking a proper warm-up into songs.
I’ve digressed from the subject of ‘Judgement Day’ but I will bring us back to it and ask about the video – you did it with The Filmery, a very experienced music video house. As a performer, is it a bit weird to do a music video? I would imagine the song gets chopped up and you have to go over and over those fragments. By the end of the day do you think that it was an extremely strange thing to do?
Yes, it is, and I guess particularly at the start of my career and my first couple of videos, that was a very weird thing, to basically have my eyes drilling into the camera and not getting any reaction from the camera, whereas when you’re looking into someone else’s face you get reactions. You feel like everyone else is watching you and you’re thinking, How is this coming across on camera? And you have all these doubts: Am I looking all right on camera? Is it enough? Is it too much? What am I doing? But The Filmery did my very first clip when I was going through that stage and Duncan [Toombs] in particular was great with all that, really encouraging, and I keep going back to them because of that reason. We’ve just got this really comfortable relationship because I know, after doing so many videos with them, that they’re going to tell me the honest truth, and whatever they’re saying, just run with that. And we’ve done so many videos together now it’s pretty comfortable and you get used to the idea that the camera is meant to be your friend, so just treat it as your friend and don’t be scared of it. ‘Judgement Day’ in particular, Josh, who was directing it on his own – I’ve worked with Josh with Duncan before, but never just Josh without Duncan. Josh knew that that was a pretty big thing for me, not having Duncan there, because Duncan was always my comfort blanket            [laughs]. But he knew I wanted to do something really special with ‘Judgement Day’ because it is such a big, powerful song, such an emotional song, and I really wanted the story to come across with that. And, of course, I wanted to play the piano, because I’ve never done that in a video clip before, and it’s the instrument I’ve been playing the longest. Before I even sang I was playing piano, but I don’t get to show that side very often because pianos are pretty hard to take around to gigs. I really wanted to put that across, and locations and everything, it all ended up working out beautifully, and I was so proud of what Josh did. He was very easy to work with. Takes any of my input on board. Sat through the edit and there weren’t many changes I wanted but he was so quick doing those little edits. It was beautiful, I was really happy with it.
You’ve had a lot happen this year: the album’s come out, you’ve done some tours, you’ve just been in Nashville. Has there been one highlight?
That’s a tough question [laughs]. Of course, the hype of the album and the album launch night in particular is a really special one. I had a six-piece band for the launch, which is pretty extravagant, but it was great, because I really wanted to put the album across in the best way. We had a sellout show and special guests come along: Jasmine Rae, Amber Lawrence, Aleyce Simmonds, Melanie Dyer – there was just a whole bunch of artists that were there and supportive, so it was a really great night, seeing all that support from artists as well as the fans who showed up. Of course, touring with Lee [Kernaghan] is always a pleasure and that’s been a lot of fun. But I’d say one of them would be playing at the Bluebird Café when I was over in Nashville, because that wasn’t a planned thing, it just ended up happening. And being a country music fan, we all know about the Bluebird Café and it is so popular now because of the TV show Nashville – it’s so hard to even get into the room. So I’d never actually been inside it and I got asked to be a special guest on one of the shows on a Sunday night while I was over there. Generally I don’t get too nervous but that was pretty nerve wracking. I was enjoying listening to everybody and then I thought, Okay, I’ll just go over my song in my head, go over the lyrics, and I totally blanked out and got struck by panic. I had to reach into my bag to find my album and look through the lyric sheet to remind me what it was. As soon as I got up on stage it was fine, but it was just that moment of, I’m about to perform at the Bluebird – do I know what I’m doing? Should I be here? Okay, yep, cool. It’s such a prestigious place to sing and so hard to get into, I just slightly panicked but it was all fine when I got up there.
Loaded is out through ABC Music/Universal.

or Google Play.
www.christielamb.com


Interview: Stu Larsen

Recently Australian singer/songwriter Stu Larsen released Resolute, the follow-up album to his debut release, Vagabond. Resolute was released through Nettwerk Records, and recently I was lucky to speak to this inspirational artist by phone while he was far, far away in the northern hemisphere – in a very small hotel room in New York City with no view, he told me.

When I do interviews I try to do research if I can, but I could not find out much about you.
Really? So mysterious [laughs]. 
That could be on purpose … but if you’re prepared to tell me your story, perhaps you could tell it as a musical lineage story.
I grew up in a very small country town in Queensland called Bowenville, which is near Dalby, and my parents did not listen to very cool music at all. I didn’t know anything different at the time so I thought, This is music … all right. It didn’t really do much for me. My father’s favourite artist was a guy called Johnny Horton, who’s probably kind of cool in that world, but I didn’t really enjoy listening to him [laughs] and I don’t really remember what else my parents had on. It just didn’t interest me at all. But eventually I started picking up the $2 CDs at the little music store – they’d just sell these old blues CDs out the front. So I started listening to Muddy Waters and BB King and John Lee Hooker, and all these iconic blues artists. And I guess that was the first time I started to really think about music and really listen to it properly, and I would just sit in my room and loop these albums over and over. Then eventually I moved from blues to Elvis – I don’t know how that happened but I was obsessed with Elvis Presley for a good few years. I just fell in love with his personality, I guess, and the way he lived his life. His big life.
He was a mesmerising performer, so I think getting obsessed with Elvis is completely understandable.
It wasn’t cool at my school [laughs] but I was, like, ‘Nup, I love Elvis. He’s my favourite.’ I started learning guitar around that time and writing a few little strange songs, silly little songs. And then I started to listening to some more folky kind of artists, which is what I still love today. Guys like Damien Rice and Ray LaMontagne, Neil Young, Bob Dylan – all that crew.
For up-and-coming artists where there are no CD stores any more, really – particularly in country towns – I wonder if that same kind of education is possible. Is the way to discover older music – to create a lineage – can anyone have that any more the way you had it.
That’s a really good point. With Spotify and Apple Music and things, you’re not really going to stumble across the older things. You have to go looking for it. And all the Top 50 playlists or Spotify Weekly is all going to be tailored to the current sound or whatever you’re listening to. I think you’re right – I think it is harder to discover by chance those older artists. I feel quite lucky to have literally stumbled across it – that was all I could afford, those $2 CDs out the front, not the $30 ones from inside the store.
But they did the trick. And it’s also that idea of having that education behind you, which explains how your songwriting and your singing get to the point they are – it wasn’t just you trying to pluck something out of the ether, you gave yourself an education.
True. I never really thought about it like that, but you’re right.
Your album, Resolute, started as voice memos – were these fragments of tunes or were they more developed, like verses and choruses?
Literally just a little idea, a little chorus or a little melody. And it’s because I’m lazy and when I have an idea I think I should sit down for two hours and try to write a song, but I want to go for a walk and take photos. I want to something else. So I quickly record that little idea and think, I’ll come back to that really soon, and then it takes sometimes years to come back to the idea [laughs]. And sometimes when I go through my phone and listen to voice memos there are some that I honestly do not have any recollection of. It doesn’t ring any bells. This can’t be me. It is me, because it sounds like me but I have no memory of that melody or that chord progression or anything. So I guess that’s why I record it, so I can have it again and not simply forget it.
And it’s arguable that going for a walk and taking photographs is part of your songwriting. You need your brain to work on it in the meantime so you do something else.
Definitely, yeah.
It sounds like there were hundreds of those voice memos – how long did it take to whittle them down to make a selection for the album?
It took a while. I listened to all of them and put them into two categories, of maybes and definitely nots. Then I again went through the maybe section and I picked out my top ten or twelve. I tried to make them into actual songs. But there’s so many in there, which is good because I’ve probably got enough for another album or two when I make the time to go through them again. I think it was pretty obvious, the ones that felt like a collection that would work together. So I had a fun time trying to finish them and make them into complete songs.
So you had Luke Thompson as your producer and it says here that he’s a long-term friend – and I think he would have had to be because the progress of this album was that you burst your appendix, Luke started working on it, and then you came into the album after he’d done a bit of work. I’m guessing you chose him as your producer because you trusted him, but was it still quite strange to come into        that process after it had started.
It was a bit weird, yeah, but I really trust him and I had no doubt that he would do a good job. I think he was more nervous than I was when I finally got to the studio to listen to what they’d done after two weeks of them working on it. I think he was worried that he may not have got it right or they may have wasted two weeks, but it was simply perfect and I couldn’t have been happier with what Luke had done. I honestly think he knows my songs better than I do. He just has a real musical knowledge and a musical brain, and he’s very sensitive to different genres and artists he works with. He just gets it. He’s one of those amazing guys who can just fit into any situation.
Did that medical experience [Stu had an emergency appendectomy] affect your creative process – a burst appendix is quite dramatic, and your music is not dramatic in that you’re not Queen, for example. Coming out of something so dramatic and coming back into your very sophisticated, measured sound, did it feel kind of weird?
It didn’t feel too weird but it took a while to get into it again, because I couldn’t sing – I couldn’t record the vocals for another two or three months. I had a tube shoved down my nose and throat for a couple of days, which affected things. The operation and everything was far worse than it should have been, partly because of where I was [in Indonesia]. So it took a long time to recover from that. I guess coming back into the album, it wasn’t like going from hospital to studio. It was a long, gradual process of getting back to life again. Honestly, the night before I had the operation I was thinking, Yeah, cool, no worries, gotta have an operation – my appendix will be gone tomorrow, then a couple of days I’ll fly back to Australia. It was the first time I’d had anything like that and I had no idea how it physically affects you and takes you back to square one. I wasn’t eating. I couldn’t eat food for days. I couldn’t walk on my own. It really knocked me about.
I completey empathise, as I had tubes like that and a long recovery from an operation, and I know how draining it can be, and how it can affect your voice – given that your voice is a reflection of your experience, and how you’re feeling at the time, I would think for you, as a musician, that would almost have been concerning as well.
I was very worried. Especially in the hospital, when this tube was down my throat – that was all that was on my mind. I didn’t care about the appendix. I didn’t care about anything else. It was just ‘Is this going to do damage?’ Then slowly, slowly … I went and did some regional New South Wales gigs for a month, just to get my voice back to strength before I recorded the vocals again. After the first few gigs I was still a bit concerned but the strength came back, and it started to feel good again. We had tried to record vocals before those gigs and it was just never going to happen. There was no strength or power to it, and it didn’t sound like my voice. It was very concerning around that time, but eventually we got there. It took a few months, but we got there.
You sure did get there, and well enough for the album to be signed to Nettwerk in Canada. They ar such a well-regarded label. How did that connection come about?
Through my good friend Mike Rosenberg, aka Passenger. I feel very lucky. I travelled around with him for a few years and got to meet all of the people he was working with, from management to record labels and booking agents. Lucky enough for me they all agreed to work with me and help me out as well. It’s a fortunate connection.
You’re certainly part of a pedigreed line-up – so the pressure is now on!
[Laughs] Yeah. I love Nettwerk. They’re big enough that they can get stuff done but they’re not too big so they neglect artists or have too many artists to worry about. I think they’re the perfect-sized label to get the job done.
I read on your Bandcamp profile that you ‘follow the opportunities that lay themselves down in front of you’. Does that feel like a brave thing to do in life, or is that your nature, to follow those opportunities as they come up?
It wasn’t my nature [laughs] but it has become very natural now. I was a super-shy kid and I would turn away from anyone and anything that came near me. I just couldn’t really interact very well with people when I was young, and I guess even into my teenage years and early twenties I was still quite shy. But when I started travelled and started playing music a bit more seriously, I think I started to adopt that as a bit of a mantra – to just take the opportunities as they come and see where they lead, and not really have too solid a plan. I have been quite happy to just see what happens. I think when you commit to something for a period of time, you can potentially miss out on other things. If I’d have locked in something ten years ago I don’t know that I’d be doing what I’m doing. Because I was so free I met Boy & Bear, and those guys helped me out and we tagged along, and then I met Passenger. Because I was not tied to anything else I was able to say ‘yes’ to those opportunities and just take it wherever it went. I hope I can live life like that for many years to come.
It seems like that flows into how you write your songs as well – you’re making these voice memos, you’re not committing to any one thing right in that moment, you’re giving yourself these little musical opportunities. Eventually that solidifies but you do have all these other prospects floating around.      

I love that you see it like that. I feel like for me it’s more laziness but I love that you’ve given me a more positive way to see it [laughs].
Resolute is out now through Nettwerk. 

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MountainGrass 2017: 17-19 November

MountainGrass is an annual national bluegrass and old-time music festival held in Harrietville, Victoria from 17 to 19 November 2017. MountainGrass brings American bluegrass and old-time acts to play concerts and run workshops for fans and players of all levels. MountainGrass also showcases a selection of acts from Australia and New Zealand and runs instrument and other workshops for players of all levels. Most of all, MountainGrass offers two and a half days of non-stop picking and jamming and lots of opportunities to improve your chops. So whether you’re a novice or experienced bluegrasser or even just a punter hoping to take in some music, MountainGrass has something for you.

This year’s line-up includes:
Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen (USA)
Wide Island – Australian Pete Denahy and friends from Japan
Mustered Courage (Aust)
Bluestone Junction (Aust)
The Kissin’ Cousins (Aust)

Other Australasian Artists appearing at MountainGrass in 2017 include:
The Beekeepers
Rhodeworks
The 4 Jimmies
The Pipi Pickers
Knott Family Band
The New Macedon Rangers
Nine Mile Creek
Slim Dime
Crooked Road
Kimberley Wheeler
The Stetson Family
The Strzelecki Stringbusters


Tickets and information available mountaingrass.com.au