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FAMILY, FISH AND (HALL OF) FAME: WIND BACK WEDNESDAY HOOKS KASEY CHAMBERS


Tonight, at the ARIA Awards, Kasey Chambers will be inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association’s hall of fame. Yeah, that’s pretty big. She’ll be sitting alongside Renee Geyer and Harry Vanda and George Young, Midnight Oil and Dame Joan Sutherland, AC/DC and Tina Arena, INXS and Slim Dusty, Kylie Minogue and Nick Cave. And one she’ll appreciate just that little bit more, The Wiggles.

Chambers, at 42 will be the youngest female inductee, which says something about the importance and on-going relevance of her career as a singer, songwriter, performer and a woman with the ability to break through barriers in the country music establishment, conservative radio, country-resistant city media and a pop music-buying public.

For Wind Back Wednesday, there were dozens of choices as I’ve been writing about her since her first solo shows in Sydney, interviewing her soon after for what has been 20 years of conversation.

This 2002 profile was her second cover story in the Sydney Morning Herald, just as a huge song about not being pretty enough for radio would cement her place at the centre of Australian culture. It explains the family, the rule breaking, emotional upheavals and honesty at the core of the work and soul of an Australian music giant.

Catherine Britt has the kind of long blonde hair and fresh face you might see on a school bus. In fact, she should be at school right now. It's 2pm on a Thursday, after all. Instead, the 16-year-old is sitting outside the Music Cellar studio - in reality a downstairs room in a house on the Central Coast - watching Kasey Chambers record.

Britt isn't intimidated, because it was here - with Kasey's father Bill producing - that she recently recorded an album, Dusty Smiles and Heartbreak Cures, which mixed her own songs with traditional tunes by venerable country figures of the early 20th century such as the Louvin Brothers. Next month, Britt will play her first professional shows as the opening act on Kasey's Australian tour.

For anyone familiar with Kasey's own story, the image of a teenage girl in love with music recorded before her grandfather was born will ring bells of familiarity. Those bells become impossible to ignore as Kasey picks up her small De Gruchy acoustic guitar (autographed by Buddy Miller and Emmylou Harris) and joins Britt for a couple of songs from the album.

Kasey has sold more than 160,000 copies of her debut album, The Captain, in Australia - five times more than other top-selling local country albums. Last year she walked away with the ARIA award for best female artist, striding past Kylie Minogue and Vanessa Amorosi. She has sold more than 100,000 copies of The Captain in less than a year in the USA, a market in which her American heroes and fellow alternative country artists Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle were once happy to sell 50,000.

For all this, the confirmation of 25-year-old Kasey's status is here in Catherine Britt's voice, attitude and aspirations. Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery, it is also the most genuine sign of success. In a world of mini-Britneys, Tinas and Sara-Maries, there really are people out there who want to be Kasey Chambers when they grow up.

Kasey's new album, Barricades And Brickwalls, was completed a week ago, but she's already back in the studio, working through two songs and a packet of Alpine Lights during the afternoon.

One of the tracks is a cover of Paul Kelly's Everything's Turning To White, intended for a Kelly tribute album. The other, Fallen Angel, is a song she wrote for a Melbourne fan. Earlier this year, the young girl, who had cancer, was too ill to attend the Emmylou Harris show at which Chambers was the support act so the performer visited her at home. A week later, the girl died.

"I was upset, but I didn't know her really well, so I didn't know how to react, really," Kasey says softly. "So I sat down and wrote." There are no plans to release the song; it's the artist's gift to the girl's family.

As ever, Kasey's brother Nash is at the console. Her father, who is wolfing down the first of two pies ("One thing I miss in the States is you can't buy a pie anywhere."), will soon add some Dobro guitar to the Kelly track. Kasey's vocals and guitar are recorded in one take.

As we listen to the playback, she turns to her father, who has been part of every gig she has ever played. "Sound all right?" she asks casually.

The conversations between Kasey and Nash are similarly shorthand. They've been playing together professionally since she was 12 and he was 14, when they featured in the family act The Dead Ringer Band (mum Diane played bass). Nash has produced both her solo albums and managed the first two years of her solo career.

A couple of days later, we're sitting by the Avoca Lagoon, a few minutes' walk from Kasey's beach-view unit. Behind us, there's the sound of a vigorous if unsophisticated game of Aussie rules.

I ask Kasey if she would consider working without Nash and Bill. As she talks, she unconsciously tap-tap-taps the large stud under her bottom lip against her teeth.

"I don't want to, not at this stage in my life," she says, in an accent as broadly Australian as her singing voice is deeply American. "I'm really settled, I'm still touring with the same touring party, I'm happy doing it that way, I don't want anything to change.

“While I have the final say on things - and I should have, it's my career - I can't see any problems happening with that. My record companies understand that my touring party is a big part of what I do and they realise that if they want me, they get everyone."

Or as Nash puts it later. "We have a clause with all our [record] deals to fuck off and let us do the record."

That may sound like arrogance, but there is none to be found here. The Chambers family is so polite, accommodating and welcoming that it wears down cynicism.

They have what could be called certainty, though it isn't the certainty of those who believe they have the answers. Bill has been playing music for 30 years and this is the first large-scale success the family has had. It's more the kind of certainty that comes with knowing which questions you want to ask.

It has been widely documented - though never as well as in the soon-to-be-published Red Desert Sky, a fascinating family biography by their American manager John Lomax III - that the Chambers family has always done things differently.

Whether it was living by their wits on the Nullarbor for a decade from the mid '70s -when Bill was a fox and rabbit hunter - or spending as many years schlepping around any town where there was a pub or Country Women's Association hall in which they could play, the family rarely intersected with the road well travelled.

The Captain was typically out of step. At a time when Australian country was basically homogenous Australiana mixed with low-rent Garth Brooks knock-offs, the album was starkly authentic. It had skipped a rhinestone and bewigged generation. The lyrics were often intensely personal but the music was always expansive, bringing in bluegrass, gospel, country/rock, folk and roots strains.

Although she was signed to the pop/rock arm of multinational EMI, Kasey was unable to get a run on capital city radio stations. On the back of vociferous support from mainstream newspapers and even rock magazines such as Rolling Stone, she began to chip away at Australia's supposed indifference to country music.

The Captain was launched in early 1999 at the 300-seat Basement in Sydney. By the end of the year she was playing the 600-capacity Newtown RSL, a year later the ARIA award was hers and late last year she filled the city's premier rock venue, the 1,100-capacity Metro.

Along the way the album sold more than half its 160,000 copies in the cities, an unprecedented achievement.

Then the singer found herself on tour and being lavishly praised by idols such as Lucinda Williams (who sings on the new album) and Harris. She appeared on the David Letterman show, an opportunity rarely afforded new acts, let alone country ones from Australia. But at the height of this popularity surge, Kasey Chambers hit the wall emotionally.

"I went through a very weird time after the ARIA," she recalls. "I was thinking all these great things are happening to me, so why aren't I happy? Everyone was saying 'you must be on top of the world' and I wanted to say 'I think I'm as lost as I've ever been in my life'.

"It was like all these people were putting a lot of money and time into me and I had to decide if this was what I really wanted. After getting the ARIA it was an awakening. This is it. You have to take it seriously. Is this how you want your life to go because it's only going to get more hectic, more pressured? And it's only going to get harder.

"When I sat down and wrote This Mountain [from the new album] I thought 'I do want this, I want to get up on stage, I want to do this for the rest of my life'."

Did she ever doubt herself?

"I've never doubted myself musically. I never sat back and thought 'I'm not good enough to deserve this' because I really believe in what I'm doing. I was just not sure whether, as a person, I wanted that sort of attention, I still don't know. I don't have it in me to be a star so people don't see me that way. They see me as a country songwriter who has done quite well for herself."

And surely she will do even better this time around. Barricades And Brickwalls is even more of a snub to conservatives, with its occasional gleeful stabs at Hank Williams swing and its use of Melbourne rockabilly punks The Living End on one song, it isn't going to be marketed any differently from the last album, says Kasey's manager Gary Rabin.

There'll be no glossy TV campaign, no Burke's Backyard or Big Brother tie-ins, just more of the intensive touring that has seen Chambers spend 90 per cent of the past two years on the road.

But Barricades And Brickwalls will start from a higher base of public recognition (and expectation) and this time the media is courting her. American Rolling Stone flew her to New York for a day to photograph her for this month's Hot Issue. Vanity Fair went a step further, dispatching a full crew to Australia this weekend for the kind of spread Hollywood starlets would give their next collagen implant to secure. And maybe, just maybe, she'll get onto radio.

"There's a lot of people in radio who would love to play Kasey if we gave them the right song," Rabin says. And that song could be Not Pretty Enough - ironically, a beautiful mid-tempo ballad about being ignored by radio for the likes of Britney Spears. "Am I not pretty enough?/Is my heart too broken?/Do I cry too much?/Am I too outspoken?"

Mind you, this is one singer who isn't going to lose much sleep over radio choices. Right now, she is madly, gloriously in love, with local actor Cori Hopper.

This could be dangerous artistically, given that country music isn't a genre made for cheerful, upbeat love songs. Hopper actually asked her to write a happy song. In response she penned one of the saddest tracks on the album, Falling Into You. She grins her crooked, slightly wicked grin.

"I said to him 'you know, I think you may have ruined my career. I've never been this happy before in my life and my fans don't want to hear me sing happy songs'," she says with a hearty laugh.

"So my mission that day was to write a sad song about being so happy. It's a positive song, I just have a knack of making everything positive sound so negative. I'm a country songwriter - we're supposed to do that."

It's late afternoon on what has been an unusually warm winter Saturday. The last of the beachcombers on Putty Beach are heading home as we arrive. Bill Chambers is carrying an old petrol cooker that looks as if it could be pre-war. Nash lugs the cans of pre-mixed bourbon and cola while Kasey's oldest friend and current flatmate, Worm - you get the feeling even his mother calls him Worm - will be here soon with the bait.

Kasey is hard to miss, wearing an almost luminescent yellow top over black track pants. And carrying her new toy, a 3.5 metre Silstar Crystal Power Tip fishing rod.

"This is the first time I've seen her with a fishing rod," Bill says with a grin as he watches Kasey bait her line, her face and newly cut hair hidden under a Carlton football cap. Kasey bristles at this insult. "I've had a fishing rod for 10 years," she bites back.

"I mean a serious fishing rod," says Bill, and the slightly built Kasey admits "this is the first beach rod I've ever owned because I couldn't get it over [my shoulders] before."

She casts, then sets the rod into the sand and waits. And waits. As do Nash and her father. Worm, a man who could redefine sanguine, has gone exploring. Though Kasey occasionally looks over at the rod, willing that line to twitch, no-one appears too concerned that the only thing biting is the wind.

Bill starts up the cooker. "We always come prepared," he says, nodding towards a box of meat and fish (brought over from his recent visit to his brothers' fishing boats off the coast of South Australia).

We crack open a bag of fortune cookies picked up on the way to the beach. Kasey's says: "You're in God's hands this evening."

The night is darkening and the tantalising smell of sausages hangs in the air. In a few weeks the new album will be released and the industry machine will take over, with all its touring, talking and travelling. Here though, she could be any young woman hanging out on the sands, hoping.

But this one's not going to need His help tonight. Or any night.

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