Interview: Lyn Bowtell of BBU

7E2D6F5D-372D-497D-B058-324CB1F98A41.jpegElsewhere on this site I have written about the extraordinary Lyn Bowtell, who is one of our finest solo artists and one of my favourite country music artists. When, in 2015, I read that she would be playing at the Tamworth Country Music Festival with another of my favourite artists, Felicity Urquhart, and with Kevin Bennett from renowned band The Flood, I thought it might have been a dream: how, in reality, could these three wonderful singers have decided to join together? That show, ‘Country Heart and Soul’, was the beginning of the group that became Bennett Bowtell & Urquhart, or BBU. In 2016 BBU released their debut eponymous album and in 2017 won two Golden Guitars for it. This September they  released their second album, Weeds. The band doesn’t play many shows, given the schedules of its members individual careers (Urquhart also hosts ABC Radio’s ‘Saturday Night Country‘), so if you have the chance to see them, you must. It is, without fail, an evening of world-class music from three of our best singers and performers.

Recently I had the privilege of speaking to Lyn Bowtell about the formation of BBU and their latest album.

Congratulations on the new album because it’s just wonderful, as I knew it would be, and as the last album was too. And, so when did you individually or the three of you start writing for it?

Well, I was trying to work this out before, and I think I told a furphy, and I said it was March but that’s not true. We actually started writing end of last year. We really wanted to have a go at writing it all ourselves this time. The first album, we were incredibly proud of that, but it was kind of one of those things, we said we’re going to do this now and we made the decision and it happened incredibly fast, and there were some great tracks on there but they weren’t our own that we just adore singing and love doing, and exactly the same thing happened this time. We looked for other material outside of our own writing pool, because I think sometimes artists miss the point, and they’re always trying to record their own songs, but they’re not always the right choice. So we were looking outside of that, outside of ourselves, but we did start writing early on together.

The way that works is, one of us will bring an idea to the table. So when we get together, we plan to write three songs within the space of a day. We bring an idea each. And it doesn’t always end up that way. Sometimes we’ll have two and a half songs or one song, you just don’t know. Songs don’t always stick to a schedule, but the idea is we bring a song each, an idea each that we could, as KB [Kevin Bennett] puts it, we could have easily finished at home but when we write it together, it definitely ends up having its own life. Because of iPhones being so incredible these days, with your voice memos on them, I was going through voice memos the other day and listening to the way I had originally written these songs, some of the tunes that I’d brought the ideas for, and some of it is exactly as I first wrote it – like, one verse is exactly the same – and then the chorus just goes completely opposite direction and has an amazing life to it now that it would never have had I been writing that by myself.

And I think our harmonies actually lead us in a direction too sometimes. We’ll start singing something and then you get really fizzed on how that sounds – you say, ‘Wow, that sounds really good; we should do that again’. So that’s sort of how this album came about. It was one of those things that, as far as BBU go, we try and make it as organic – even although that word gets overused a little bit – but we try and make it as real as possible, so that what we record, what we put on a CD, what we release out to the world is something we could perform in someone’s lounge room. The three of us could stand up and play it. And we’ve always had that ethos.

Felicity [Urquhart] plays her guitar like a drum. It gets me every time, it still blows me away how good it sounds, and we did a gig just recently in the Gulf Country, right up north. It was amazing, the most incredible place, Gregory Downs, and one of the guys from KB’s band was saying, ‘Who’s playing drums?’ and came around the corner and flipped. And I think that there’s just something really special about that sound that we have that is really stripped back, but it still has a really powerful back beat, powerful groove, and that’s just kind of supporting the songs and the vocals and I think, in that way, we already had planned that approach.

We had no idea what we would write about, but as it turned out, the first track on the record, ‘Mountain of Pain’, that’s pretty much us looking at the world and Donald Trump, and being quite frightened by it, and how alarming it is to see power struggling against the little guy. And it’s one of those things, it’s forever been there but just the small mindedness and the large amounts of money and the power that is ruling the world at the moment is quite frightening, and I think that it’s the small people, it’s the people that are being affected, the real people. For me, I brought that song to the table and it was seeing a grandmother being ripped from her home and she’d lived in the [United] States since she was about 16, and had worked there her entire life. There were three generations under her roof and her husband had died, and they were sending her back to Mexico, on her own, and her entire life was there. Every other person in that home she had raised, she had paid her way, she’d never lived off the government, and then of course, the children. [What] I saw just tore me apart, and I took that to everyone. And then from, I think, from that song on, we kind of had a vibe that it was definitely going to be about that two-sided coin, love or money, and the new single that we’ve got out from the record, ‘Love or Money’, we’re having a bit of fun and a bit of a laugh about it, but it’s, ‘If I could have love or money, I’d take you any day. I would not change a thing’. And I think, ultimately, that has more power. What we do in our own homes and what we do for one another, has more power than all the pollies.

Which is a wonderful thing to put into stories, because that’s what your songs are and the songs of the band are, and stories are the best way to communicate that kind of information to people.

I think so. ‘Softer Eyes’ is definitely about that. That was an idea Felic brought to the table about how we need, well, something KB said in passing, ‘We need to look at each other with softer eyes, we need to be nicer to one another. Look upon each other with more love’. She took that and ran with it and brought that idea to the table and that’s kind of what that’s about, it’s about talking about love and kindness, and I guess in a way we’re a bit hippy like that. And come to think of it, some people thought the title [of the album, Weeds] was something else, because one follower on Instagram is into another kind of weed and I don’t think he understood. But that’s okay, we got a new follower when the album came out. It was hilarious.

But the title track is very much about making choices, making the right choices, and how sometimes the seeds you sow will come back to haunt you. I think we called the album that because, I don’t know, there’s something really interesting about that title, and it says a lot because there’s two sides to weeds: there’s the ones that take over and kill everything and then there’s the weeds that are beautiful.

Like Paterson’s Curse for example.

Exactly, exactly like Paterson’s Curse, it’s absolutely gorgeous. And, that beautiful purple, those rolling hills that Beccy Cole sang about.

That’s what I was thinking of.

I think that also through adversity, you understand so much more about yourself in the bigger struggles that you have, and that’s what we’re getting at with that title. I just loved making this record, and I think my favourite – I don’t know, they change from day-to-day, but the most special [song], I guess, is track 11, the last on the record. It’s with [the late singer-songwriter] Karl Broadie and it was pretty phenomenal to be able to do that. We were vanning it around, we were in the tour van going around Melbourne, at the end of last year, and KB said, ;Girls, girls, I found this, it’s something I was working on with Karl, and I thought that might work for the band, nice ballad, and then I found him singing it and it’s an amazing recording.’ And, of course, there were tears. It sounds like he’s right there.

I got a shock when I heard his voice. I had read that you’d done a song with him and I didn’t realise he would be on the recording. So as soon as his voice started, I just thought, where is that, why is he here?

And seriously, how immediate does his voice sound? It’s incredible? That came about because KB has no idea how to use technology. And he and Karl wrote this beautiful tune and Karl said, ‘We should demo it, and KB says on the phone and Karl’s saying, ‘No, mate, no, I’ll show you how to use GarageBand.’ So they recorded that at KB’s house, with a beautiful mic and that’s Karl playing guitar and singing in the purest way, and he always joked about being a fourth member of the band, and calling it BUBB. It was just such a treasure to find that. KB was astonished. I still have [Karl’s] text messages, but I won’t look it them, and [KB] had done the same thing. He had all these things that he hadn’t listened to. I’ve got all these albums that I couldn’t stand to listen to for a long time, and some days I put them on, but most of the time you stay away from it. And KB didn’t even know he had this gem just sitting there. So [producer] Glen Hannah and his magic in the studio has worked it around. We’ve got Karl’s track there, and he pops in and out with us, it’s as if he’s singing it with us, and I mean, man, the song itself, ‘Every hello eventually leads to goodbye’, is pretty poignant. And there’s that one part where he says, ‘It’s all right,’ in answer to KB, and it just breaks my heart every time. But it’s really beautiful, it’s really cathartic and special.

I absolutely agree, but I think the whole project and notion of BBU is special. I remember, I was at your very first Tamworth show several years ago.

Was it ‘Country Heart and Soul’?

Yes, I was at that one, at Blazes.

Truly a BBU fan.

Because I remember seeing it advertised thinking, well, that is a genius idea – and I think it was your idea, wasn’t it?

It was. I am a bloody genius, aren’t I? [Laughs]

Yes, because listening to you speak about the band, you are three incredibly accomplished individual artists, and obviously KB has been in the flood, but the idea of the three of you coming together with all of your talents and your skills and creating – and it can go wrong, because you are so established as solo artists, you could have come together and not been able to collaborate, but obviously you knew something about how you were going to work together to suggest it.

You know, I had no idea. I just had a bucket list and I thought, That is something I want to do. I’ve always wanted to sing with those two people together in a show. And it was just an idea because Tamworth can be tricky. Everyone is trying to get everyone’s attention. And it’s great, you have all the fans in one place, but there’s only so many of them and you’ve got to try and get some kind of percentage of those people coming to your gig. And I was thinking that would be really cool, if me, Felic and KB did a gig together. We might be able to get into Wests and do it at Blazes, and a big stage, that would be pretty fun. So I just rang them on a whim and they both were in, and we had no idea what it was going to look like. We thought we’d sing a set each and then something at the end together, and when we got together for our first rehearsal after we booked the gig in, it could have been a disaster, but it wasn’t, thank goodness.

So we got together for our first rehearsal and we started singing. We thought about doing ‘Chain’ and a few other songs, and Crosby Stills and Nash, stuff like that, obvious choices, and once we started singing, it was evident that we had a pretty incredible blend, and we took the idea of singing separately and grabbed that and we said, ‘We’ll just stay on stage together the whole time and help each other out and harmonise with each other’, and that’s just how it grew. We loved it. I remember the feeling of elation and joy.

I’ve worked in groups a lot in my time as a muso and I’ve loved every moment of it, but there’s always been a catch: someone isn’t shining or someone has to rule. It’s the way it works sometimes. Someone has to stand back and let someone else take the lead, and someone who is taking the lead has to do that and make the decisions. Whereas in BBU, it’s not like that. All three of us shine and all three of us have absolute equal say in everything we do, from the artwork to the title track to the name of whatever song we’re writing, to the poster design, everything. We decide it together and it works because we’ve always had this, we haven’t had the luxury of time – we’re all really busy. So when we schedule something, it has to get done, and so faffing around and saying ‘I’m not really sure’, when you know deep down, it doesn’t work with us. You have to say, ‘Look, to be honest, it’s just not working for me,’ or ‘I love it, we’ve got to go with it, I really believe in it.’ So it works because I guess we’re old enough to appreciate being honest, brutally honest sometimes, and we’re still young enough to be excited by everything we’re doing. KB, I think, is 66 now.

He’s a young 66.

He sings better than any bloke in his 30s I know. He’s just incredible. Every year he gets better. I want that, singing like that when I’m his age … He has so much energy and love and passion for what we’re doing and I think we all share that, and I think it is a love project, number one. So, if no one else liked this record, I’d be okay. I wouldn’t be okay, I’d be thoroughly disappointed, but I’d be okay knowing that I loved every choice right down to the flowers on the front, the order of the songs. Whereas in the past, when I’ve worked in groups, sometimes it’s dictated by record labels, a lot of the time you just feel a little railroaded and I think some of that is just being young. And some of that is the fact that you’re working with a label and the way the group works. So, I just feel seriously blessed and very grateful to be in this position, to work with such amazing people. Glen Hannah, who produced it, Felicity’s husband, the man is just brilliant. He did all the artwork. He recorded all the colour parts on guitar and banjo and uke and stuff, as well as us playing. So, often we’ll have an idea and we can’t play the bloody thing, and then Glen will say, ’Do you mean this?’ ‘Yes, I do, could you do that?’ So, he’s really great, he takes the unity and I guess the essence of who we are and he adds the icing on top. And he never gets in the way. Some musicians don’t get that but he does. He truly understands about the song first and the vocals first with us, and it’s a joy. It’s not always easy. There’s a lot of juggling. Everyone is really busy and we all have three or four different versions of ourselves in our own careers, you know how it is, everyone has that in life, and then we have BBU. But we make it work, because we love it.

Listening to the music and having seen you perform, part of what I find so extraordinary about it, is that you are three emotional songwriters, and by that I mean you are unafraid to bring emotion into your songwriting and into your performance. So you are individually people who connect very strongly with your audience and you’re willing to do that over and over again. It’s not like you pull out every now and again. The fact that the three of you can actually bring all of that together and work harmoniously, I think that’s why it’s a magic combination, because you’re willing to come as individuals, but acknowledge that the whole is greater than some of its parts almost.

I think it’s been such a learning curve as well as just a massive positive for us. It took me a little while to understand it, to trust in it. I guess what I’m saying is, the end result being greater than my tiny issue with this. If two out of three of us want to do this, well, that must be the right way to go. Even this time around, with the album title, we were looking at another title, and me and Felic were going with one title and KB was going with another. KB was going with Weeds. Felic and I were convinced on another, and then KB just put his hand up again and he said, ‘Look, girls, I know you guys are going that way, but I really think you’re wrong. Can you think about it?’ And then Felic came over to his side and I went, ‘Well, I must be wrong, so that’s cool.’ And I don’t care what we call it. We could call it Vegemite on Toast, it’s still going to be a great record. I thought, I’m just going to relax and let it be, because it’s worked in the past, and I think it only took about 24 hours before I said, gosh, that was absolutely the right choice. So, for me, it is an amazing thing to be in a group where you can be that honest, where two of you are going one way, and you can, at the eleventh hour, say, ‘I actually think you guys are wrong, I’m really strongly thinking this,’ and you’re not going to get shot down. You’re not going to get kicked out of the group. You’re not going to have someone not talking to you for a month. It isn’t like that, we just don’t have time for that schoolyard antic rubbish. That happened in previous bands with us. And we respect each other too much. I think there’s so much love and respect there that you realise there’s no way you’d come forward with that issue unless you really meant it, and you should just sit back and listen to what they’re saying, and I just think we’re greater for that.

I think you give a real gift to your audience, to anyone hearing the music, actually, because to have the amount, it does still blow my mind that the three of you perform together and write together.

It blows mymind.

I think there must be Australian country music fans all over for whom it’s an absolute delight. That’s more a comment than a question, but just to acknowledge that I think that three of you being at certain points in your career has meant you can create this incredible thing, and I hope you feel the sense of what it means to the audience that you’re doing it.

Well, I guess you don’t. I’m not often aware of that stuff. I’m aware that people like it or loathe it. You’re obviously aware if you hear crickets at the end of a song, and not because they’re blown away but because they weren’t moved. I guess I’m becoming more aware of that because people are telling me that now, and I understand that better. But I’ve got to be honest, I did it all for selfish reasons; I did it for me. I wanted to sing with these guys, I wanted to write with these guys, I wanted to learn from them. I seriously have learnt so much working alongside them. I read a comment the other day that makes total sense. I can’t remember where I read it. I was probably National Geographic, but the definition of life is growth and the definition of death is no growth. And, for me, that is exactly what Bennett Bowtell & Urquhart is: it’s life, we’re continually growing as people together.

It’s hilarious because Felic and I could talk under wet cement, the pair of us, and we’re always nattering on and we’re very similar in that way and we’re always laughing, and having a great time together. And KB can be quite one or the other, he can be quite extroverted and then incredibly introverted. Overall, I think he’s quite a shy person. So when it comes to the media and PR, that was not his thing. I remember the first record, he said, ‘You want me to put what now, on the Insta what? What’s an Insta story?’ and ‘Why would I want to be on Facebook?’ and all this sort of jazz. The two of us have helped him grow in that capacity, to the point his other band members in [Bennett’s other band] The Flood sort of jeer him about it. ‘You’re on Instagram, mate.’ And it’s really beautiful to see that he’s willing to come out of his shell, and it is a stretch for him to do that stuff, but he’s proud, like us, he’s proud of this project as we are, and so once you get him talking, he’s fine. And he’s a real character. The last film clip we did, for ‘Love or Money’, I was blown away by how much fun we had and how much fun he is having when you watch it back. It’s really cool. And it’s good to see.

So Felic and me, I think we grow obviously, learning from someone like KB. Some of the choices he makes when we’re co-writing, I don’t even get them straightaway. I just think he must be right, whatever, and then that whole thing about trust. Then it will be later on I look at it from another perspective and I think, Oh my god, that’s amazing, what he just did. There’s so much to be enjoyed there, and I think that it would be interesting to see what he would say. It’s such a bonus that they do enjoy it and it really fizzes me to think that more and more people are getting on board and that show we did, in Blazes, the first time, we had, I don’t know, 150 people or something and it’s been a third time, third incarnation, I think, with this January and we had 500. And so next year, my ever-optimistic brain is thinking, well, we should get 800, it’s a piece of cake, really. But, that really gives me such joy to see people, it’s growing and people get us and, yes, I’ll pay more attention to the good stuff that’s coming back.

 

Weeds is out now. Order a signed CD from the artists here.

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