Kora Naughton is a singer-songwriter new to country music – yet she’s already released her first album, Ride or Die, at the age of 16. She’s a passionate, inspiring young woman and that energy can be heard in each song. I spoke to her recently.
Congratulations on the album, you must be thrilled to have your debut album out.
It’s pretty awesome. Thank you very much. I recorded this album with songs that I’d written having no intention of releasing – I love writing music and they were just songs that came from wherever when I was bored. I picked 10 that I really liked and I made them into an album and due for release on Friday, so I’m really excited.
You said you had no intention of releasing them but it doesn’t sound to me like they were things you were dabbling in, these are really well-constructed songs. So at what point did you start thinking about releasing them?
I released my first single last year in June, and it had nothing to do with this album and it was recorded with an entirely different studio. I recorded it actually as a part of an application process for something and I thought, well, I’ve got it recorded, I may as well release it. It’s called ‘Wrong’. And it ended up winning me the Southern Star Independent Rising Female Star last year. Which was kind of crazy because I never intended to release the song … it just kind of all happened, and that was awesome. So then I wrote another song, ‘I Don’t Want To Grow Up’, with David Carter [of Carter and Carter] at the [CMAA] Junior Academy last year. I released that song through Country Rocks Records, who were doing a spotlight artist thing for me at the time, which was exciting. I didn’t intend to have [the song] on an album but I guess I had these other songs sitting there and we just thought, why not? I put everything into it, I gigged, I worked hard to pay it off and I’m still paying it off, but I gig every weekend and all the money goes back into producing more and selling more albums. But it’s been the best thing I’ve done, I’m thrilled to be where I am, and these 10 songs mean the absolute world to me. So releasing them is scary but it’s also really, really exciting.
And you should be thrilled to be where you are. I think it’s amazing at any stage of life to be able to produce an album, but I also need to point out you are 16 and you’ve already graduated from that CMAA Junior Academy. When did your musical journey start?
I never grew up surrounded by music or anything like that. I did cheerleading for eight years and I decided that when I was probably seven. So it was kind of all that I knew. [Then] I had two spinal surgeries and couldn’t do cheerleading any more, so I had to put my energy into something else, and that was about two years ago. Songwriting came along and music, and I don’t even remember how it happened but I ended up here and I went to some country music festival last year and that got me into country. I guess things just kept rolling on, opportunities kept coming and one thing led to the next and to the next and I ended up releasing this album, right now with Country Rocks, sponsored by Jayco Nowra, and it’s kind of been a crazy ride.
When you couldn’t cheerlead anymore, instead of thinking, Well, I’m just going to sit on the couch, you actually consciously thought, I’m looking for something new to do, so do you think you’ve always had a drive to, first of all, be creative and, second of all, perform?
I think as a kid, I was every other six-year-old dreamed of being a pop star one day, but that dream kind of took a back seat and it was never a thing that I would be a reality and it was never really something I strived to achieve. But when I couldn’t do cheerleading anymore, I wasn’t really sure what to do with myself, and I don’t think I was so much looking for something else to do but it was right there and I needed an outlet, I guess, and it just happened to be that. I didn’t even realise that music was my outlet and my thing to do instead of cheerleading until I was halfway through making an album. And I thought, hang on, this all started because of spinal surgeries and it seemed like the worst thing in the world to happen to me at the time, but it’s this blessing in disguise. And truly I am so glad that I had those spinal surgeries because I’m not sure where I’d be right now without them … It’s funny how one thing that seems so terrible can actually be the best thing that’s ever happened to you. I don’t really understand still how that led me to here but I am forever grateful.
That is an incredible perspective to have. And it’s one thing also to start writing songs at that point but you’re also a singer and you have a great voice, so I’m interested when the singing started, or did you start singing because you were writing songs and you wanted to sing them or have you been singing for a while?
As a kid I always liked singing. I went to my yearly talent quest in primary school. I never won, I never did that great. I always loved it, and then when I started writing songs, I look back now and I wasn’t that great of a singer but I taught myself how to. And my voice evolved and I evolved as a person, and my songwriting evolved. Over time I became this person that we have today. It’s weird because I was just a kid who was okay at singing, I was never anything special but I was okay at it, and now I’m releasing songs, releasing my album, playing to a packed crowd sometimes and it’s crazy.
It might seem crazy, but you’ve created it and, as you said, you’re doing gigs on the weekends, you’re obviously at school, that requires a lot of focus and determination to keep that up at an age when it would be really tempting to think, I’ve been working all week– because school is work – I’m doing nothing on the weekends.
I think there’s almost the temptation the opposite way: I’ve been gigging all weekend, let’s just not worry about school. And my homework and everything else is the stuff that’s going to suffer, but when I love what I do as much as I do, then I make it fit in, I make it all work. It’s stressful sometimes, I’m not going to lie, but I do my best and I’m doing all right at school. I’m going to finish Year 12. So I’m happy with where I am.
Given that you’re technically under age, are there any problems with venues, are there some venues you can’t play in?
There are particular rules in some venues that I think are more not so much a rule but they just don’t like having under 18s playing and things like that. But generally I play at pubs and you’re allowed in there if you’re with a parent. And usually even night-times – they say, ‘You’re working, it’s entirely different to just coming in and sit and having a drink.’ So most places are pretty okay about it.
Also the logistics of you getting around, because you wouldn’t necessarily have a car, for example. So do you tend to stick quite close to home or have you been able to get to some further flung places?
I am very lucky to have two parents who support me like nothing else, so I have been kind of everywhere. So we have a Jayco caravan and I recently got sponsored by Jayco so they support me as well, which is awesome. And I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Dunedoo, out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve been to Cobar, I’m heading up to the Gold Coast really soon. Tamworth just last week, and I do a lot down in Canberra, so I’ve been to a lot of places to perform and I’m really, really lucky that I have so much support behind me because I could not do it by myself.
I’m sure your parents are incredibly impressed by you. Whatever age you’re at, to do this is amazing but also you clearly have a fantastic work ethic, so if I were your parents I’d be really proud of you and want to support you.
I’m really lucky to have them but it’s really been a big team effort, because when I said I wanted to do music, they said, ‘All right, what do we do now?’ Going to the Junior Academy last year, I learnt so much, but they also do a parent course and Dad went and he learnt so much, so now he’s my roadie, he’s my manager, he’s my PR person, he’s everything, and then my mum’s my biggest supporter and she’s my self-proclaimed visual director. We’re all learning as we go, all three of us, and I’ve been really lucky to have them behind me and we’re all a big team doing what we can.
So when you went to the Junior Academy, did you have any expectations as to what it would be or you just thought, Right, I’m here to learn?
I was really, really, really nervous to go to the Junior Academy. Before then I wasn’t super confident in myself and I didn’t really believe I could do it, and I was really shy, so I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I think for the first three days it was literal hell because I didn’t talk to anybody and I was nervous, and I didn’t want to talk. I think by the third or fourth day, I made some of the best friends that I will ever have and I hope they’re around forever, and I also learnt so much about myself and I learnt how to be confident in myself, and it definitely changed my tune on music and on life because I’m not that shy little girl who doesn’t want to talk to people anymore, I have much more confidence.
That’s something that can take years to develop so it’s wonderful that you’ve been able to do that.
I did that in 10 days because I had some seriously amazing people around me and tutors. Ashleigh Dallas was a big one. She was my group leader and I swear she is incredible. She taught me so much and I genuinely would not be here without her because I would probably be crying in my bedroom.
She is terrific. I remember a few years ago when Kasey Chambers started having Ashleigh in her shows. I think in country music there is very much this understanding of generations. The artists who have come through before want to help artists who are coming through after them, even if there’s not a big age gap, as there is not between you and Ashleigh, she’s still young. But I believe they also think,Someone helped me, I’ll help the next generation, and in that way you end up with these great relationships within the industry and also great work. As you said, you did a co-write with David Carter, you would have made other connections at the academy that I’m sure will influence and affect your work for years to come.
Definitely, and I think the connections that you make with people are essentially vital because you can be the best singer in the world but if you don’t have people to guide you, sometimes you’ll end up singing in your bedroom, and I think I would be singing in my bedroom if I didn’t have those people surrounding me and that support network and people teaching and mentoring me on how to be the best person and the best performer that I can be.
I think also as a performer and a writer, you have to be open to that, you have to be curious about the world because all those things that are coming to you, you’ve got to be prepared to accept them instead of thinking you know everything. As a child and leading into your teens, were you a curious person? I know you said in the notes for ‘Ravenswood Lane’ that you wrote lots of stories when you were in primary school, so it sounds like you’ve often been interested in the world around you.
I think so. I’ve always been a very, very curious person. I’ve wanted to know the answer to every question and dug really deep to get answers sometimes. I am a serious nerd. If I want to know the answer to something I’ll do hours of research to find out. I have this natural curiosity and I think when it came to music I had that as well, but I was so much more scared to find out about it because it was more on the line, you know. Finding something out about science is not the same as finding out how the music industry works, because it’s something I seriously care about, and I was really scared be a part of that. But now I just want to know everything and I want to learn from people, because I know that you can never learn enough and I think it’s naïve for me to think that, for anyone to think that they know everything about music because nobody ever does.
I saw in your bio you busked for 10 days in Tamworth last year – which, of course, is the whole festival, because it’s 10 days long. What was that like and were there ever any days when you thought, I don’t want to do this?
What was that like? It was very hot and sweaty and gross. Busking anywhere, honestly, is really hard work and it seems like the easiest thing in the world to do because it’s so relaxed, it’s not a gig, but gigs are 10 times easier than busking, standing out on the street and just hoping people walk past, hoping that they stop for two seconds and drop a coin in there, because you don’t get paid for it or anything. But it’s an incredible opportunity, especially in Tamworth, because you never know who’s walking those streets. It was really awesome for me to busk and to get my name out there a little bit, and I had so many people come up to me and say really nice things and drop a couple of dollars in the guitar case. I think that started it all for me last year when I was busking.
Was that before you went to the academy?
My first time in Tamworth was before the academy, during the Tamworth Country Music Festival in January I did a talent quest, in 2017. It was the very start of my country music journey, I’d never done country music before and I stuffed up the talent quest very badly and I wasn’t happy with myself or my performance. I was really upset and it was Ashleigh Dallas who came up to me and said, ‘Don’t give up just because you had a stumble.’ And she suggested that I go to the junior academy, and I did and I had her as a tutor. It all panned out really, really well. So I’m also very glad that I stuffed up that talent quest. Again, I have no idea where I’d be.
When I interviewed Adam Brand recently I asked if there was anything he’d change about 20 years in music and he said no, because all his mistakes were valuable.
It’s true. Everything that’s gone bad for me has turned out into something good and I’m releasing my debut album, so I wouldn’t change anything for the world.
You say that it turns out into something good, and I’d say back to you that you’ve turned it into something good, because it seems like you take those experiences or those opportunities and make the most of them.
I’ve always tried to focus on the positives in life, there’s a lot of things I could sit here and be sad about and I could let myself drown in the sadness. But I think if you look for it, there’s a little bit of good in everything and I always try and find that, because it’s that little bit of hope you cling on to and sometimes it makes the world of difference and you end up so much better off than you were before.
Ride or Die is out now through Country Rocks Records.