There are lifelong dreams and lifelong heroes – some of them real and some existing only your TV screen – and in a life dotted with plenty of dreams coming true, Kasey Chambers, who turned 42 last week, felt pretty blessed already. But then something magical happened.
In the midst of a huge national tour, she explains why she was in tears listening to a song from her new album, Campfire, what being on the road brings to her life, and why the TV show Seinfeld has had such a huge role in that life.
(A shorter version of this story originally appeared in The Big Issue.)
KEEPING THE (CAMP)FIRE BURNING
Mention the name Emmylou Harris and Kasey Chambers can still flutter and gush like music fan she was. The music fan she is. Ask her what it was like to hear Harris’ voice on one of the songs from her new album, Campfire, and Chambers all but swoons.
“I don’t know if I can put that into words, I really don’t. It was emotional: I cried,” Chambers says. “I listened to it on my own a billion times, just sitting there. And there was that pinch me moment of ‘is this real? Is that really Emmylou Harris?’.”
Harris, whose sublime voice is a wonder and has bridged country, rock and folk for five decades, also has a reputation as someone whose involvement as a duet or backing vocalist is a sure-fire sign of quality - from country rock pioneer Gram Parsons in the early ‘70s to Ryan Adams in the noughties.
But that’s not why it matters so much to have her on Campfire, a stripped back album which digs into the roots of Chambers’ music and life, recreating the feeling of voices gathered around the fire and singing for the pleasure of it.
“I literally think of sitting around the campfire as a kid, having dinner or something like that that my mum had cooked on the campfire, and the car door is open and my dad is playing cassettes of Emmylou Harris and Don Williams singing If I Needed You,” says Chambers, who famously spent a good part of her childhood living off the land on the Nullabor Plain. “That is the earliest sound to me, the most comforting female voice that I’ve ever heard in my life. And even though in my teen years I was more influenced by Lucinda [Williams] on a songwriting level, the actual sound for me is Emmylou.”
If you get the sense this is a record that matters more than most for the first and so far only country artist to win the ARIA for best female artist, you’d be right. This is something that’s been waiting to happen in a solo career that’s 20 years and 12 albums in.
“More so than any record I’ve made for a very long time. Not that I ever feel forced to make anything – it’s whatever I feel at the time – but this album has always been there, wanting to be made,” she says. “I was just talking to someone about the Campfire [title] song and I feel a little bit like even though we only wrote it for this record – all of the songs were written for this record - that song in particular feels like it’s been sitting there for years.”
The song was written last year and came quickly, and when Chambers played it to her family they reacted immediately.
“My Poppa, my dad’s dad, will wander around the house singing that song like it’s one of the old songs from the Carter Family that he has always sung. I just feel like that song is that for me: like it’s been around forever.”
That’s the thing with this album: there’s hardly anything that might suggest these songs were written this century or even in the lifetime of her father or her Poppa.
Some of the timelessness may have come from her time spent with the musical Pigram family in distant corners of Australia, what Chambers calls “a very earthy experience”. Alan Pigram co-wrote a couple of songs on the album, as did her guitarist Brandon Dodd, and her father, Bill, who make up her Fireside Disciples backing band.
Some of it emerged from her time travelling in Africa and the time she lived on Norfolk Island. But there’s something about the record that goes right back to a young life spent on the road, whether following her father desert hunting or playing gigs wherever the family car would stop.
“Last year I think I spent more time on the road and working that I have done, probably my whole life. It was this crazy year, especially at my age, and one of the best years of my entire life: dragging kids around, leaving kids home, a bit of everything,” says Chambers of the year promoting her album, Dragonfly, which won the ARIA for best country album.
“I did this trip later in the year to Doomadgee [in the Gulf of Carpentaria] and I just felt so earthed there, away from everything and connected to where I was standing. I think it kind of reminded me a little bit that I was getting a little bit caught up in this crazy lifestyle. Not in a bad way but I think I was missing out on a bit and needed to centre myself.”
But it’s more than that, connecting to that “Emmylou” moment.
“It’s about these songs reflecting this feeling that I have from a child, a feeling I still have now, and they’re not all good feelings, but the sound of her voice is that comforting feeling,” says Chambers. “And I get to live that feeling all over again as a woman over 40.”
Whether over 40 or the pre-teen hanging out the back of the van, there’s another aspect of Campfire worth noting, the way that Chambers has always built a life around her of family and friends who almost become family when it comes to music.
It’s not just her father who has played with her her whole life, her brother who produced most of her albums and her mother who is the confidant (and the merch seller for years), but her close friend/lighting engineer/occasional songwriting partner Worm, husbands/boyfriends, band members, buddies.
It is no coincidence surely that Chambers’ favourite show of all time is Seinfeld, a show about a “family” built out of odds and ends, which she would watch incessantly on the road or at home. Campfire is a reflection of how she has lived: bringing everyone in to share.
“I love that theory,” she laughs. “It’s funny you mention Seinfeld because, and this is so stupid, an interview I did the other day asked me to pick three of the most influential women in my life. Obviously, I picked my mum; I picked Emmylou Harris; and I picked [Seinfeld character] Elaine Benes. I was trying to explain this, saying I know she’s not a real person and I didn’t pick Julia Louis Dreyfus, and I really wanted someone more profound but she has been one of the biggest influences in my life as a woman and what she stands for and how crazy and neurotic she can be but how lovable she is and how she uses humour in her life to get through things.”
Chambers is not joking either, happily confessing that “I have actually drawn from that more than I care to admit”, though anyone who has been near her would have no problem believing it.
“She created this group of mates around her that are like her family, and I really have done that, and I love that about my life. I don’t have to make a definitive line between my job and my home life: I actually get to blend all those things together. We’ve sat around campfires together, fished together,” Chambers says.
“The only time I didn’t do that was on the Carnival record and I have a real disconnect with that record. I always have. Not that I don’t like it, not that I’m not proud of it or anything, but I don’t have that personal connection because I went out of my way to go ‘I don’t want to write a record that’s about my life, I’m sick of doing that’ and I separated myself from it.”
The “disconnect” has been a long lasting one with Chambers revealing that she never plays songs from that record in her live shows and can’t recall anyone asking to play a track from it. Of Carnival now she says “I feel like it was part of my journey but I will never approach a record like that again”.
“How would I expect fans, or friends or family, to connect with it if I don’t? You can’t sell things to people if you’re not buying it yourself. It’s not what people buy into from me and it took me a little while to recognise that,” she says. “I did [the personal approach] accidentally to start with, because I didn’t know any other way, but now I realise, having sometimes not been in touch with who I am and then not connecting with it on a creative level, why would I waste my time doing that ever again?”
In case you’re wondering, Chambers hasn’t changed many of her habits.
“Sometimes, I’m not even kidding you, me and Worm sit in the truck and watch Seinfeld. Now we watch it on an iPad instead of the VHS video player that we used to take on the road with us and plug into the motel TV. That’s the only difference.”
Kasey Chambers & The Fireside Disciples play:
Friday 15 JUNE - THE CUBE, CAMPBELLTOWN NSW
Saturday 16 JUNE – ROOTY HILL RSL, ROOTY HILL NSW
Sunday 17 JUNE - ULLADULLA SERVICES CLUB NSW
Thursday 21 JUNE – SEYMOUR CENTRE, SYDNEY NSW
Friday 22 JUNE – ANITA’S THEATRE, THIRROUL NSW
Saturday 23 JUNE – PANTHERS, BATHURST NSW
Sunday 24 JUNE – CANBERRA PLAYHOUSE THEATRE, CANBERRA ACT
Thursday 28 JUNE – THE EVENT CENTRE, CALOUNDRA QLD
Friday 29 JUNE – TWIN TOWNS, TWEED HEADS NSW
Sunday 1 JULY – BRISBANE POWERHOUSE, BRISBANE QLD
Thursday 5 JULY – THE DESERT CAVE, COOBER PEDY SA
Saturday 7 JULY – ARALUEN ARTS CENTRE, ALICE SPRINGS NT
Wednesday 11 JULY – FRANKSTON ARTS CENTRE, FRANKSTON VIC
Thursday 12 JULY – BURRINJA THEATRE, UPWEY VIC
Friday 13 JULY – THE PALMS AT CROWN, MELBOURNE VIC
Saturday 14 JULY – THE PLAYHOUSE GPAC, GEELONG VIC
Thursday 19 JULY – ALBURY THEATRE, ALBURY VIC
Saturday 21 JULY – DUBBO RSL NSW
Thursday 2 AUGUST – NORTHERN FESTIVAL THEATRE, PORT PIRIE SA
Friday 3 AUGUST – THEBARTON THEATRE, ADELAIDE SA
Saturday 4 AUGUST – SIR ROBERT HELPMANN THEATRE, MT GAMBIER SA
Sunday 5 AUGUST – LIGHTHOUSE THEATRE, WARRNAMBOOL VIC
Thursday 9 AUGUST – TANKS, CAIRNS QLD
Wednesday 15 AUGUST – WEST GIPPSLAND ARTS CENTRE, WARRIGAL VIC
Friday 17 AUGUST – REGENT THEATRE, YEARRAM VIC
Saturday 18 AUGUST – WONTHAGGI ARTS CENTRE, WONTHAGGI VIC