Over the past few years there has emerged a singular artist in Australian country music, and her name is Fanny Lumsden. Fanny is a singer-songwriter from New South Wales but she’s also a connector of communities across our wide brown land, a conjurer of audiences in small outback towns and a multi-armed goddess holding her guitar in one hand, a record label in another, a microphone, a baby, award nominations, a production company and a multitude of other things. That is not to say that other artists aren’t doing this – Catherine Britt springs immediately to mind – but there’s only one Fanny Lumsden. As an observer and a fan, it is always fascinating to watch her work. And, as Fanny makes it clear in this interview, it’s not just her behind it all – but that doesn’t make her any less inspiring or interesting. That’s quite apart from the fact that she writes some of the best songs you’ll ever hear, available on her two albums Small Town Big Shot and Real Class Act. We spoke on the occasion of the release of her latest single, ‘Real Men Don’t Cry (War on Pride)’, and the extraordinary video that accompanies it, which you can watch below.
You are such an intrepid artist, you seemed to be on a plane to the US within a fortnight of having a baby – so how was your first tour with a plus one?
Well, it was way more complicated than I’d originally anticipated. I was a bit naïve, I think, and I’d booked all this stuff in before I had him, and then I thought, This is so hard![laughs]
I remember seeing you getting on a plane to Adelaide to play a show when he was very, very little.
He was three weeks at that point. It’s all been quite a steep learning curve – I take my hat off to all the parents out there because it’s way harder than I thought. But when you don’t have a choice you just do what you have to do.
You are used to travelling, and used to travelling with a band and equipment, but I guess a piece of equipment that moves and cries and needs to be fed is a different thing.
Yes, it’s a different thing when they need you all the time. They’re very needy little things [laughs]. It’s been completely mindblowing – it’s a huge change – but at the same time it’s totally possible. I’ve got great support. Obviously Dan [husband and band member Dan Stanley Freeman] is amazing and always with me. My mum and dad came with us overseas and my brother comes on tour with us. So it’s not just me and that has obviously made it way more possible. But, in saying that, all three of us are on stage on the current tour so we have to give him to people in the audience [laughs].
So your brother is on stage with you now?
Yes, he does backing vocals. He’s part of the Country Halls touring crew and is an all-rounder: he drives the vehicles and sells merch and helps loading in and out and setting up, and he also sings backing vocals. He came on this tour to help in similar ways.
You’re in the middle of a tour now but I would imagine you’re almost always in the middle of a tour somewhere. Will you take a break over Christmas or does the red dirt road go on for a while?
We’ll be doing two Country Hall Christmas shows to wrap up the year’s touring in December. It will a combination of the Country Halls show and a Christmas show. Where the concept came from originally was when you’d do your school concert or Christmastime concert at the local hall. And we are going to take a couple of weeks off over Christmas – it’s my favourite time of year to have at home. Then we have a kind of slow start to the year touring because I’m writing for the next record because I can’t quite fit the touring and running the businesses and the baby and writing into all of the same time any more, so I need to create space somewhere.
I have to say it shocks me that you can’t do that, because you seem to do about twenty things at once as it is.
[Laughs] I have been writing but I really want to dig in a bit more on this next record. I want to create some space for that. But we’ll still be touring. There will still be more.
I would imagine now there are quite a few people around Australia who expect to see you in their neighbourhood every year.
It has become a bit like that – ‘Sorry, we can’t quite get there this year …’ ‘Why not?!’
You’re also doing some house concerts in this Under the Hills Hoist tour – I know you like small halls, but do you like being in people’s homes too.
We really like this style of touring. It’s very intimate, obviously, but it just feels like you’re going into your friend’s house and having a barbecue. They’re still concerts in [the audience] all listen and sit down. They’re outside, mostly, or if it’s raining they’re in a shed, because they’re usually up to about a hundred people, sometimes more. So they’re bigger than lounge-room concerts. We just make so many great friends through it, because you’re sitting around – after it you’re having a barbecue and a beer and whatever else. We get to go to these great places, and I’m handing my baby around. And the stories go two ways: we’re on stage but they also share stories and bad jokes with us. It feels like more of an exchange and a little bit less of a concert, and I really like that.
I can’t think of another artist like you at the moment, and when I’ve interviewed other artists, your name is the one that comes up the most talking about people they admire. Younger artists are looking to you to see how their career could work. I don’t know if you’re aware that other people are looking to you for guidance and inspiration, but it’s there.
That’s nice! Not really, but it all feels like we support each other, though. I really like where everything’s at with music at the moment. Community wise it feels like it’s pretty supportive and people are trying new things, not locked into that one-track way. They’re exploring and looking at options – and also asking each other for help, like I do. We’re all asking each other and all working together and I think that’s such a great thing. It’s such a great place to be, where there’s space enough for everyone to work together.
It’s interesting from an industry point of view, from a practicality point of view with touring, and creatively in terms of the relationships you make and the stories that come out of it. For me, the way you run your career, the places you go to and the tours you do, I can see the trajectory from the way you write your songs. Your ability to connect so directly with your audience is so clear in the songs across both albums. You’re a natural storyteller and it always feels like you’re singing straight to your listener. Do you have that sense when you’re writing and recording?
It depends. Every song is different – there’s no one way to write a song or one way that I ever create something or one way that I’m inspired. It needs to feel like it’s real for me. I don’t want it to be too sensationalist in that it doesn’t seem genuine to me or that I couldn’t connect to it. The story needs to be real and I think that the magic lies in the mundane – where everyone says, ‘Oh – same!’ People are looking for that connection. But in saying that I don’t think it’s a really conscious decision. It’s a little more subconscious and that’s just what I find interesting, so that’s what I write about: that mundane, everyday, common thing that people go through and I naturally gravitate towards that, rather than sweeping generalisations and trying to please everyone. Getting a bit specific about things seems to connect more, I have noticed. But I don’t really have that in mind – I think I just write the song and it comes out of my mouth [laugh]. ‘Oh cool – you too? Awesome!’ But I’m obviously influenced by being out there and going through all of that.
You do embody the principle that the specific can be universal, and I love all those details in your songs because they paint this incredible, rich picture.
I love talking about something more grand with specifics. I think that anchors the songs more. You can feel it a little bit more than more general, wishy-washy language. I find it more interesting to write specifically.
And the feeds nicely into talking about your latest single ‘Real Men Don’t Cry’. It’s not so much a story as it is a vibrant and impassioned examination of a particularly damaging part of Australian culture. Was the writing of this song any different to your other songs? Did it come from a particular idea or thought or experience, or did it feel like something you wanted to write for a while?
It felt like something I wanted to write for a while. I sat with this idea for a while. It was a few years ago – it was when we did our first trip around Australia and I’d been thinking about it the whole trip and I didn’t know how to word it. I knew it had to have the write words. I couldn’t just try to write it, I needed it to come out and I had to wait for that to happen. What kind of moved it along further was that I was listening to a podcast about the 1980s and they were talking about how Bob Hawke cried on television twice, about the Tiananmen Square massacre and also about his daughter, who was a heroin addict. He showed his vulnerability – this male person in power. A boys’ boy, for lack of a better term. So he showed his vulnerability by crying on television, and how that sparked a conversation and that conversation kept going on but it kind of gets lost a little bit and we always fall back on this masculinity thing and how that turns into anger, and we’re losing people and we didn’t even realise they were struggling. It comes from so many different places. I think addressing it and having conversations about it can really help. That lack of ability for men to show how they really feel gets misdirected into anger or into different kinds of stereotyping – and I could get deeper into it, but it crosses so many different parts of our society and it kind of comes down to this fact that we teach our boys that they have to be tough or that you can’t show emotion or vulnerability. Weakness. So it’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about and talking about. Dan and I talked about it a lot. One night I was writing in the van – we’d been in the caravan for a few days and it had been pouring rain. We were in South Australia. Dan was working in the van, and it’s a very small van, so I was cabin fever-y. That chorus came out. It went from there.
I remember when Bob Hawke cried on television and I remember a lot of people saying he was weak, and women saying he was weak. There’s part of your song where you take it out from ‘real men don’t cry’ and talk about women and children. There are these ideas of what’s correct and they’re not useful – beyond that, they’re damaging.
Absolutely. I wanted people to interpret the song their own way and maybe spark their own conversation. They’d go home and maybe go driving in the ute and share a story, or maybe talk about it over the table and it’s a safe thing to talk about, but it might spark someone to sharing their emotions. I want it to be more of a direct thing, and also a conversation. It seeps into all parts of society and it’s not just about how men don’t cry. But that is the crux of the discussion, really.
To accompany the song you and Dan have made an extraordinary video. It leaves quite an impression – it’s really moving. That’s another skill set for you. How long did it take to make the video?
We started talking about it last year. We start filming the portraits in February. We’ve been collecting them as we went. We knew vaguely what we wanted. The idea hadn’t fully formed, I just knew that I wanted portraits of men from a range of backgrounds and we wanted to interview them at the same time. So we vaguely did that and we have a lot more footage that we’ll release as time goes on. It was all going to come out earlier but the whole baby thing and [going to] the US happened. Because we’re doing it ourselves we just didn’t physically have the time. But it worked out well, really. Dan did an extraordinary job on this. I bossed out what I wanted on this and he took it to this whole new level. I wouldn’t even try to claim any of that – it has to be given to him, that credit. He just taught himself how to do all of that – he’s never studied it or anything. He pretty much just Googled how to do it all. He has a natural eye. We wanted it to be their portraits but also feel like you have a snapshot into their brain without it really feeling like it’s too explicit, it’s not too obvious. But it felt like you’re amongst their emotion but then you had their portrait, which is stable.
You and Dan have this media empire going now – you’re making videos, you have a record company, you’re touring, you’re songwriting.
This week Dan said, ‘Hey – why did you book all these shows?’ [laughs] I said, ‘I don’t know! I’m so tired!’ We’re about to get in the car and head to the next one. If we had more time between us we would create so much more. We have so many millions of ideas every day. I’m so lucky to have him. Fanny Lumsden is not just me – it’s both of us. He’s very talented. And it’s fun to do it together. It’s like I’m the architect and he’s the builder. He just makes everything work while I say, ‘Let’s do this and this and this and this and this.’
One of those things you have together is your record company, Red Dirt Road, and you released Real Class Acton that. Is this the start of a roster – are you looking to add other acts?
When we have time. The Country Halls tour is under Red Dirt Productions, and that’s its own identity as well. We are looking, further down the track, at expanding it into a classical record company but a merger of all of our skills. Production, management, project-based stuff. So it will expand. But for now we’re going to try to get some sleep and push through what we’re doing [laughs].
Find Fanny’s music on:
And CDs/vinyl are available on her website: