Interview: Felicity Urquhart

FlissThere are several artists in Australian country music who have a range of skills and roles. Felicity Urquhart has more than most: she is an extraordinary singer and songwriter as a solo artist and also as a member of Bennett Bowtell & Urquhart, and she’s the host of Saturday Night Country on ABC Radio – and there’s more besides, as you will find out. Felicity is also an artist who can conjure and convey joy every time you see her play – she is electric and inspiring, no matter which song she’s singing. It’s appropriate, therefore, that the first single from her new album was ‘Chain of Joy’ – and with the album, Frozen Rabbit, about to be released, it’s an honour to have had the chance to talk to her and to learn more about this singular artist and her incredible career.

Congratulations on your new single, ‘Chain of Joy’, which I saw you perform at your Tamworth show. At that show you mentioned that the writing of it was inspired in part by your daughters. What do they think of the song?

It’s just Mum and Dad playing another song and it’s just another one they love to sing and they don’t look at it like we look at things at this point in their little young lives. I suppose it’s just another fun song that they like to sing around the house and they do request their favourites, but at the moment it’s all part of the Mum and Dad pot mix of music.

I hope to one day they realise how lucky they are to have their lullaby singers actually be professionals.

[Laughs] Harmony James was working on her new album with Glen [Hannah], my husband, and she had the sweetest comment to say one night after she heard us singing the kids to sleep. We often play a little ukulele and sing a song to them. And she said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s the sweetest thing’, and she got all caught up in the moment. She said, ‘That’s the loveliest thing you guys do.’ We said, ‘Well, that’s what we do. We just grab an instrument, sing to them and read a book, and it’s our little ritual.’ But it is whatever is the norm, I suppose. And for the kids, Mum and Dad’s friends play instruments and write songs and they get involved with it too. They’ve written songs already and they get out busking and they’ve done four Tamworth festivals now and there only six and eight. So they don’t know anything different. When other kids don’t play they probably think, Oh, you don’t play?

You could have your own version of the Dead Ringer Band coming up.

Oh look out! That’s right. Tia is playing fiddle and we actually got both our girls, Tia and Ellie, involved in the clip for ‘Chain of Joy’ because I thought it’s a cameo, you don’t really see too much of their faces. Because they’re entitled to their privacy too … We said, ‘Just dance around in the backyard.’ Glen set up the lights and shot the film clip as well. So it’s lovely that we can all be involved in this together. Very much the cottage industry family.

Speaking of the cottage industry, it continues with the release of the new album in April. And I mentioned ‘cottage industry’ because Glen worked on it. This is your first album in a few years, and that’s not because you’ve been slack, obviously, but because you have a lot of other commitments. How long it took you to write the songs for it?

I’ve been song-collecting for some time, really. Before we recorded the first Bennett Bowtell & Urquhart album, I had thought we’ll get to another album at some point. I think when my mate Kim Richey had come [to Australia] to write, we had not long had Tia as our first child. We had collaborated many, many times. All of these mates: Mark Seymour is a collaborator; Mick Thomas, another collaborator who I’ve known for a number of years and released tracks that we’ve written before on the last album. And I’ve got a little EP that came out in the interim before BBU projects. It was so nice to go back to these guys and say, ‘More songs – album coming out finally’, and they didn’t hesitate. We got really serious in the last four years starting to collect songs and in the last two years or even the last 12 months I had the writers retreats at [the Dag Sheep Station in] Nundle. There’s a really beautiful song we wrote there with Rachel, who was a partner of Karl Broadie. We co-wrote ‘Cartwheel and Climb’ together. It was actually inspired by words that Karl used to say that we all have to find our own happy. You’ve got your own happy and I’ve got my own happy and we’ve all got to find it. So that’s where I started with this. And as soon as I saw Rachel – we pull names out of a hat for our co-writes – I thought, I know the song for this! I know what we’re going to write. Because I had it written down in my hook book – Karl would always say, ‘You’ve got to have your hook book.’

So I thought I had this thing started and I knew it was just meant to be, waiting for her. So that’s a particularly special track on the album and one of the newer ones. And then there’s another one from a collaborator from the Dag, Jeremy Edwards, and we wrote ‘Speck of Dust’. We never wrote together at the retreat, but afterwards I said, ‘Jeremy, I want to write.’ So we started email writing together. I’d never really written that way, but because we knew each other, I’d put something down on the phone and record it and then email it to him and write some lyrics, and vice versa. So it’s been really interesting how all the different collaborations have happened for this album. Some face to face, some phone, and some on the other side of the world, like Kim Richey back in Nashville, but that’s because we’ve known each other for a number of years.

I actually have that EP released for years ago. I remember being at the Capitol Theatre show and you said you’d told Glen, ‘I’ve got to get something out for Tamworth!’ So I have the hard copy and I have to confess, I am a fan. I have all of your albums.

‘Slow it Down’ [from the new album] is on that EP. I co-wrote that with Karl – and when we recorded that he was [overseas], he wasn’t here, and we said, ‘We’ve got to get this EP out for Tamworth’, and it’s always a mad rush, so Glen said, ‘I’ll just sing it and we’ll get Karl to sing on it when you finally do it for an album.’ So that’s what we did. We actually have Karl singing on it because before he found out he was sick he came up and we were prepping to get this album done. So this is three years ago. It was the year we found out he was sick, but it was not long before he got the diagnosis and he came here and recorded at our home studio and we’re saying, ‘When you’re back, just come and put a vocal down on that.’ And he said, ‘I’d love to’, because we always felt bad that he didn’t do the EP. Anyway, we got this beautiful vocal and it is on the album. So I’m thrilled. It’s an odd thing. It’s always a beautiful to celebrate Karl’s work in any way, shape or form and the fact that we also celebrated Karl on our BBU album and got the Golden Guitar. I’m sure people will see how it all happened quite naturally and it’s not about trying to cash in on any situation. We’re not those sort of people anyway.

You have a lot of roles: you’re running a household, you’re a mother, you host Saturday Night Country, you have BBU. So you collected the songs for a while, but how on earth did you find time to record them?

Actually, I have ABC Music to thank for getting it finished, because there was the paperwork on the table to say, Okay, well, this is the plan now, instead of Glen and I just saying, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll get that done’, and, ‘Why don’t we get time to do that?’ … Because that’s how it would have happened. But when you work with somebody else, it’s a different scenario. They have deadlines, but husband and wife can be a bit lacksadaisy. And it gave us a deadline. We thought, Wow, we’ve got to deliver this. ABC have dates and we have an album to deliver, we have artwork – we’ve got to finish this! So our pre-Christmas was hectic. It was about getting everything across the line and that meant completing the full album and we did, and hallelujah to my my parents, who had to look after the kids.

And then my sister, we were all crashing at her place down at Wollongong near the beach. They enjoyed beach time while Mummy and Daddy were in the studio finishing everything and doing photo shoots. It all had to be done in a matter of a couple of weeks once we got to that point. And prior to that Glen was working as well, finishing albums for other people, producing, doing sessions and I’m doing the radio show. I also work with the Talent Development Project, which is out of New South Wales public schools. So I help kids who are talented when I can. So there’s the lots of juggling and the odd TV gig that I do as well. Karl was always the one to say, ‘You say yes to everything. You’ve got to know when to say no.’ I think I need Karl in my ear a bit more. I think he’d better send me a few more black crows, because I think I’m back in old habits of just saying yes to everything,

I was thinking of you during the [Tamworth] festival because I saw you with your own show. Then I saw you with BBU. I knew you were playing in the Spin Drifters as well and I saw you at an ABC Radio OB. I thought, How does she do this? How do you manage your voice through a process like that?

My voice has always been pretty reliable. It’s been a good friend to me. I do treat it with respect. I know during that time it’s not the old days and being young and out partying and going to everyone else’s gigs. I can’t do that because of commitments now, so I know that every day there’s something on now and it’s usually go-to-whoa. It’s not like there’s one thing on, there’s usually a plethora of things, as you’ve just pointed out! [laughs] Whether it be one or two songs here then getting in a car then it’s driving and finding a park and doing all that, you’re constantly on the go. I look at it that it’s ten days and that it is a time to make the most of. There’s the media side of things as well as wanting to sing at these things, wanting to collaborate, do our BBU show and do the solo show. I hadn’t had the solo show element for a couple of years, so it was nice to get back and do that and have it special with Brad Butcher. And I put Brad on the spot and said, ‘Let’s take this on the road’. I figured if I ganged up on him with and audience he’d say yes.

When I saw that gig advertised I thought, That’s a really great match-up. And it sounds like it was your idea?

I think it might have been Brad’s. I had thought of it, and then I knew he’d been doing shows with other lads and lasses, and I thought, When I have my album out I’d love to do some gigs with Brad. Then he calls up and says, ‘Mate, I’m going to do a show at Tamworth. And I was wondering …’ And I said, ‘Yep.’, I don’t even know if he’d finished asking me properly! … And then we were talking about venues and this and that, and I just said, ‘Well, it’d be great to do it at Blazes. I know it’s a big room to try and get numbers in, but I really think the show is worth that sort of environment.’ I feel that it was the right place for us to play together. It was a festival highlight for me. We had other people say that it was really nice show . So I’m tickled pink with the reaction.

In thinking about your Saturday Night Country role, does that give you a different relationship with fans. Do they feel like they know you better now? Do you find that people approach you more?

I am absolutely, constantly touched in a heart way of feeling joy by people saying, ‘I’m from Western Australia, I listen to you every week’, and they’ve come to the festival and they made a point of coming to a show to meet me. They feel that connection and they really go that extra mile to want to come and meet you, to just put a face to the voice, which is just a different spin than rather being an artist and selling your wares that way – I’m selling everybody else’s wares on the radio, and happily doing that, promoting amazing, particularly local artists. I just believe in our industry so much.

So first and foremost, it’s great when they want to come up and say g’day and have nice things to say. I don’t suppose people want to come up and meet you if they’ve got something bad to say [laughs] … It’s just really, really lovely. Anywhere we go, like South Australia at the Fringe Festival the other night, people say, ‘We used to listen to you when you were national.’ [Saturday Night Country] used to be on in all the capital cities and when that changed, some of our older generation have worked out how to follow it on digital on their iPads or phones. So they’ve bothered to still find out how to listen. We’re still on regional stations right across the country, but those capital cities were a big blow to us. And I thought, Well, hold our breath, let’s hope we still exist. And we do still exist, so I’m very grateful that the ABC still has Saturday Night Country running after all these years.

It is an incredible showcase. The format makes it so, but also, obviously, you have these great connections throughout the industry, which brings this warm-heartedness to it. And on the subject of open-heartedness or open-mindedness, my impression of you as an artist is that you’re very open to new creative opportunities and that your openness means that you flow from one to the other. I know there’s a lot of organisation and work involved, but every time I see you perform or talking, I just think you really seem to live this very open, lovely creative flow. Is that true?

I just try to be real. Whatever it is that is exciting you or makes you feel something, go with that and experience it and run with that thing. And I do you find that young people – I’ve been at the [CMAA] Academy tutoring or these kids I work with at the TDP – absolutely keep the fire burning. You get inspired by seeing others that are young and remind you of what you were like when you started busking or started working guitar chords out or finding your voice and being brave to sing about something or talk about it. So I am just constantly inspired by others, whether that be someone who’s running a small business at a market who is making things by hand. I love that because I think, Oh, that’s another part of my life. If everything fell over tomorrow you’ll find me at a local market selling something that I’ve made at home. And that’s because of my parents being crafty people. My dad was an upholsterer. It was fabrics, furniture, pretty patterns and colours during my childhood and today it could be pretty colours and patterns of music. Or the kids making artwork here. Or getting out and having fun with our friends musically. Going on a little memory-making moment, as my husband calls it [laughs]. While you’re upright, you might as well get out and have a go and try and be positive about stuff rather than negative. Because there’s a lot of Negative Nancys out there, which is sad. I always think they must feel pretty sad inside. So let’s try and keep the sunshine.

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www.felicityurquhart.com