When Harmony James first appeared with her debut album, Tailwind, it was immediately obvious that Australian country music had a new star. Tailwind was an accomplished album full of wonderful songs, all except one of which were written by James. Tailwind was a completely independent release, which was one of the other remarkable things about it, as you’ll see in the interview.
Since Tailwind‘s release, James has signed with a major label (Warner), signed a publishing deal, released a second album and joined Troy Cassar-Daley on the road for his current tour.
I spoke to Harmony James not long after this year’s Tamworth Country Music Festival, which saw the release of that second album, Handfuls of Sky. I’ve been looking forward to this album for a long time, and wasn’t disappointed, so it was a great thrill to be able to interview Harmony (warning, I probably come across sounding like a fangirl – because I am).
This is the first part of a two-part interview.
I saw you play in Tamworth, I think it would have been two weeks ago, almost exactly two weeks ago, you were probably walking off stage.
It feels like a year.
It was quite a different performance to what I’d seen a couple of years before that at the Southgate Inn. You seemed quite a lot more comfortable in your skin as a performer and as a band leader.
Somebody in the band said to me I seemed very relaxed on the day, so that was nice. And, I guess, the best part about work with them is they know that I like to try and have everything just so, and they agreed to do a rehearsal a couple of weeks prior, I flew down and we went through everything so I felt very confident – they’re great anyway but I felt confident that we were all over it, apart from me and my guitar.
Well, you seemed relaxed, it kind of seemed like it was a natural place for you to be now and I was actually wondering whether – I know you spent a bit of time on the road with the McClymonts, so I was wondering if a lot of that, just that ongoing touring where you’re out night after night, different audiences made you feel more relaxed?
I think it would have to, because I guess from McClymonts tour, playing to a different room every night and in a different space and types of people and everything, you really did get a range of experience. I mean, I’ve been doing gigs before but that was a really sort of intense version of it and a lot of fun and different challenges and things, so I guess it probably did make me a bit more confident eventually.
And I actually saw you on that tour with them – because I like to see the McClymonts whenever I can – and I thought it was pretty brave, actually, because it was you and your guitar, and they had their full band, so I thought it’s quite a big thing to get up just you and a guitar when you know there’s a full band coming after you.
And the funny thing is that people who are there to see them are there to see three absolutely stunning girls who harmonise together and so you’re kind of like, ‘Wow, this is nothing to do with me, I’m just lucky to be here.’ But for the most part, I was fortunate enough to win people over.
And look, your album – I’ll mention Tailwind in this instance, because I just absolutely loved it from when I heard it and a friend of mine bought it and it’s not the sort of country music she normally loves, and she just said to me, ‘I can’t take it off, I just keep playing it.’ And it’s still the only album that sits in my car permanently, that I will reach for at least once a week. And so, I guess, those songs were so strong that taking them on the road would have won fans for you.
Yeah, yeah – it was a massive year because, I guess, the way I look at it is I did have this strong album, I sort of lucked into having what is considered quite a good album. and I just needed an audience for it, so for someone to hand that to me on a silver platter was such a gift and a great opportunity.
Well, they obviously wanted to as well. But I remember either reading or hearing you talk or something about with Tailwind, I think you financed that yourself and put it all together, and that’s such a huge undertaking, because it really did seem like a big production. It was 16 songs, you had a really slick CD insert – so is that the case. that you did it all yourself?
Absolutely, yes, and, I guess, that’s why I’m not 21 and doing it because I always intended to, if I ever did record, to try and do a good job. I didn’t want to just hand it out to [my] mates at a barbecue. I either wanted to do it properly or not at all, and I had to change a lot of things about my life and get some earning power and saving and borrowing power and really do a good job of it.
So how long was that plan for you, because I’m sure there are a lot of musicians who are thinking, ‘I can put a couple of songs on iTunes’, and that sort of thing, but you came out with a fully realised album that had been really well produced, you’d obviously researched your producer, you made it a great package and that’s a long time in the planning.
Absolutely, and I was 12 years old when I first realised that I would love to be a country singer. I heard for the first time something that was actually called country music and it had an identity and I loved it and I went, I would love to do that. But at that time I never really believed I could do it because even then I think I knew that that was a big deal and then I loved music and saturated myself in music and kept playing and singing and writing and everything but it took a long time to get to the point where I believed I could or should gamble on myself in that way.
So that was when you were in the Barkly Downs area working, saving money, not doing much else apart from writing music?
Yes, that’s when I finally was in a position to actually go the whole hog and borrow a big wad of money, and initially it was just the four-track EP as a bit of a test fodder, and I put that out and had a really good response, so we turned that into a full album and that’s why the album got so big.
So now that you’ve moved to Warner as a label, I imagine that takes – some people would possibly think, why would you go from having all that control over your own music, to giving some of it to a major? But I would also think they take some of the grunt work away from you.
It’s an interesting process too, I guess, what I’m hoping to do with the label is utilise them to increase my career. So, yeah, they do have a big machine and a whole bunch of stuff to do what I was scraping around doing on my own. But, I guess, it’s just profile-wise I want this to be what I do for a living long term, and I see them as having better power to be able to get me in that position than on my own. Like, I obviously can do it on my own but it’s very hard work and it will take a lot longer, and I’m hoping that their weaponry might give me a year or two shaved off.
And I would think now there’s a process of acceleration, whereby you start to play more gigs, you’re getting more profile, you’re doing more interviews possibly, and does that affect your songwriting? Does it affect the amount of time and space that you have to write new songs?
Yes and no. Being busy means that it’s harder to get the really introspective headspace that I typically use to write, but at the same time I’ve got contacts through all these people now who can put me with other writers, which is something I’m just starting to explore, and I was quite lucky the other day, somebody teed up a co-write session with Tim Ritchie for me, so on one side of the coin I’m busier and it’s harder to find time or headspace to write, but on the other side I’m getting opportunities I wouldn’t have had before.
As a fan of your songwriting, I’m actually quite surprised that you would write with other people because I think your songs are so great, but I guess it’s a different perspective.
Yes, and I’ll be honest with you, the jury’s out as to whether that is something I will do a lot of, but there’s no rule to say that I can’t try it and see how I go, and so far it’s a mixed bag. I’ve had co-write sessions that have kind of been, ‘Oh they’re a lovely person, but we didn’t gel’. And there are other ones where I felt like we worked together in a way that it was still my truth and I could feel like I owned and believed the song without compromising too much, which is important to me and the way I write. So I think it’s going to be hit and miss, but at the moment I’m just willing to explore and see if it adds value or if I’m better off on my own.
Do you discard a lot of songs in the process? Because there were a lot on Tailwind and Handfuls of Sky is a good, solid 12 or 13 tracks, from memory. Are there many that don’t make it?
Yeah, yeah. And there’s a couple of songs still bouncing around that missed the cut on Tailwind and they missed the cut on Handfuls of Sky, but I still feel like we’ll probably end up finding a spot for them somewhere. We all like them and then there’s one reason why we decided it doesn’t make the cut this time around – not because it’s not good enough but because there’s another song that’s close enough in subject matter or tempo or whatever it is. Yeah, yeah, there’s quite a lot of songs, and the scary bit as a writer is that every time you write a new song you forget the oldies and then sometimes you go back and you go, ‘Oh my God that’s pretty good, isn’t it?’ You play it to someone else and hope that they agree with you, but yeah, there’s heaps there.
I’ve noticed on the new songs that there’s at least a couple – with ‘Hauling Cane’ and ‘Great Grey Cloud’, there’s a sense of the road less travelled or the road more travelled in the sense of having made choices and how that’s played into current life. Are they reflective of your experiences or are you writing characters in those songs?
The headspace I was in when I was writing parts of Handfuls of Sky, I was kind of reeling to be honest. Since I’ve launched into this whole exercise so much has happened and so much has changed. My entire life has changed and I’ve experienced things that I’d never had to do before, and I’ve learned and I’ve been exposed to embarrassment and fantastic opportunities and everything, and I feel like I’ve probably aged 10 years in 3 or something. So yeah, definitely, the headspace I was in when I was writing a lot of those songs was, I guess, analysing the changes in my life and where I’m at and dealing with it.
In the song ‘Home’ on Tailwind – that sense of belonging that you managed to get across to the Barkly region, you can almost hear the sense of belonging in the song and the way you sing it – do you still feel like part of you is there in the bush under the stars or is that just not a part of your life any more?
It’s a really bizarre place, because I miss it but I don’t allow myself to miss it too much, because I don’t want to be miserable about a choice I made, because the choice I made was the right choice. I did need to move to the city to be in music and I made that move and it’s paying off and things are great, and I do have to sacrifice that part of my life at the moment for it, so it’s a bizarre thing, because that’s who I was for such a long time. But I’ve adapted pretty well and I don’t get a whole lot of my fix of the bush, so I do feel a bit detached from it as well. Like, the jillaroo who was on Tailwind, I don’t feel like the jillaroo any more. So it’s an odd place. People are like, ‘You’ve changed’. And I’m like, ‘Well, yes, I probably have.’
And as a functioning human being that’s completely normal.
Exactly. You do what you do.
So you moved to Brisbane, and obviously the next logical step would be to move to Sydney and then to Nashville.
Yeah, yeah, although I was talking to someone the other day about how Brisbane was my little baby steps because I’m too scared for a real big city. I think I can do Sydney now and they said, ‘No, honey, don’t do it. Don’t do it.’
Because they don’t think it would be right for you?
I think they were just like, ‘Who would want to do that?’ So maybe I’ll just skip that and go straight to Nashville.
Well, talking of Nashville, for Australian country performers, I guess, there is a time where a lot of you have a choice, which is, do you keep trying to build your profile in Australia and a lot of performers make a career – Beccy Cole for example, has a career travelling around the country, performing and releasing songs here, but if you’re at all interested in exploring further – maybe exploring co-writing or different audiences – at some point it must become an almost difficult choice, do I stay or do I go?
Yeah. And I feel like I’m not really at the point where I’m pushed to make that choice yet. I feel like I’m in a bit of a situation right now where I’m just emerging and I’m getting opportunities right here, right now, and I feel like I should just sort of give them my best crack and as things build and I start to believe that hey, this really is working, then it’s probably in the next 5- and 10 year-plans we’ll have to include all that sort of thing.
Part II of this interview will be published soon.
Handfuls of Sky is available now through Warner and also on iTunes.