Everything’s changed. Nothing has changed. That’s Kasey Chambers.
Twenty years ago, when Chambers launched her first solo album, The Captain, it was at the small, underground Sydney venue then known as the Basement, a deeply flawed but storied room that had hosted jazz and R&B, folk and rock performers, but rarely country ones.
The then-22-year-old’s excitement was palpable, beaming out “I can’t believe I’m playing here”.
The excitement was the same a year later when she played the city’s premier rock room, the Metro and declared again, “I can’t believe I’m playing here”. And exactly how it was two years after that, when she played the bigger, restored old theatre, the Enmore, and then when she played as a support at the biggest yetl, Entertainment Centre. “I can’t believe I’m playing here”.
While I stir her about this repetition today, the truth is no one was in any doubt each time that she meant it.
If anyone had foreseen the escalating success of her career, the number one albums and awards, the creation of an audience for country music in the cities that had never existed before, it certainly wasn’t her. And if anyone was blasé about it as it happened, it certainly wasn’t her.
“That’s the thing,” Chambers laughs throatily. “It wasn’t just a line: I actually was really stoked.”
A check of my notes confirms something else: the first time I interviewed her, 20 years ago the musical reference points that she happily identified for her songs were Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle. When she released her ninth album, Campfire, last year, the musical reference points she identified then were … yep, Townes Van Zandt, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris (who actually sang on Campfire) and Steve Earle.
“Gee, you think she’d get some new material,” Chambers says with mock-disgust, before breaking into laughter again. But it’s kinda nice though, isn’t it, to know that at the core of it there is still a lot of those same influences.
“I didn’t plan it this way, but now I realise why it went this way that the Campfire album was the last I did before this 20-year thing … it felt like I needed to go full circle: back to sitting around the campfire, Emmylou Harris, those first sort of sounds.”
What’s important about this circular reference is not that Chambers has never changed musically – her albums, including two with then-husband Shane Nicholson, have spanned country, rock, bluegrass and folk without repeating herself - but that her core values are the same as they were when she was 22.
As they were when she was 15 (after getting through her obligatory early teen rebel metal phase). And very likely as they were when she was six or seven and singing along with her mum and dad and brother Nash under a Nullabor sky.
Meanwhile, the industry has changed around her: we’re sitting in the offices of her third record company, though in the way of these things she is back at her first label, EMI, which once was a giant but now is just a small part of the massive Universal Music.
The charts have changed around her: the biggest stars in music are women (former country act turned pop behemoth, Taylor Swift; former singles star turned concept album queen Beyonce) or mild-mannered sad boys, and while rock is no longer king, country has returned to a backwater in Australia.
And society has changed around her: #metoo may have left her unmarked – Chambers preferring not to go there on the basis she’s never experienced any of the bad behaviour and doesn’t want to diminish the experiences of the many who have – but it’s just a small part of a culture of accountability no one saw coming in 1999.
“To be honest, I don’t feel I’ve changed that much. You’d like to think you’ve gotten a bit wiser, but not that much really, but certainly my approach to music hasn’t changed that much,” she says. “I do think it’s really nice to be able to go, you know what maybe I had it figured out more than I thought I did back then. Maybe all you really needed to do was do what felt right and I’m proud of my younger self are having enough trust to myself to just do that. Because I certainly didn’t ‘know’ that.”
As she points out, having things figured out early wasn’t necessarily some great insight or planning; it was instead a reflection of the fact that she always did what felt right for her rather than what the supposedly smarter people in the room might suggest.
And this is important because remember, while now you could cast a TV show called Everybody Loves Kasey almost as quickly as Everybody Loves Magda (“talk to a couple of my ex-husbands,” she protests semi-seriously. “I’m sure they’ve got some bad things to say.”), and is fêted by the country music establishment, she was an outsider at the start.
Not just an outsider in Australian music industry, where country was the source of an occasional quirky crossover hit but mostly a running joke of utes, boots & B&S roots, either.
Chambers, and her family, were outsiders for mainstream country music who didn’t like someone singing with a hillbilly whine and bluegrass touches, didn’t think those “alternative country types” like Steve Earle, Lucinda Williams were what Australians wanted to hear, and didn’t like the idea of these people wanting to write and have their brother produce their work and not go to Garth Porter like everyone else did.
“I think that’s what I’m probably most proud of. Even though I’ve tried out a few different things and that, I still always went with what I wanted to do at the time. I’m proud of myself for owning that. Even the mistakes.
“I’ve even had people say to me in the industry, you’re so lucky everything falls into your lap. I don’t take offence to it but at the start it wasn’t like that, at all. You didn’t have all these rootsy singer/songwriters on the radio that we do now; back then it was fucking weird to hear [her first #1 hit, in 2002] Not Pretty Enough on the radio. I remember even hearing it sometimes where they would play Britney Spears and then play Not Pretty Enough, and I would go, fuck, this is weird.”
(Yes, Kasey Chambers swears. I don’t think I have ever heard her swear on stage, and almost never in an interview, but today, it’s a free for all! “Must be the angry parent,” she laughs. “I actually swear a lot, more than I think I do, in person. When I actually tune into it I’m like, fuck, I swear a lot.”)
Chambers support oddly enough didn’t come from country radio and magazines but from mainstream media such as the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian, places seen as often hostile to local country music as it was defined by the Country Music Awards and the labels distributing it. The result was she was being brought before city readers and listeners who didn’t think they liked country music. Until they did.
“It was a different world back then,” she says. “Not that it bothered me; I didn’t really care. Which I think is part of what made it work: that I didn’t care. I don’t mean I don’t care what people think my music, I just don’t care enough for it to make a difference to how I write my next song, how I record my next album, all of that. But I absolutely do hope that people like my music. It’s just not why I do it.”
Nor did awards, including twice being named best female artist at the ARIAs and her second album, Barricades & Brickwalls – the one with Not Pretty Enough - winning album of the year, change that attitude.
It was an attitude not just defended but encouraged by Tony Harlow, who signed her to EMI and backed her completely. The friendship that emerged from that is such that he cried when he drove to the Central Coast to tell her he was going back to the UK. And when he returned to Australia some years later to take over at Warner Music, Chambers followed him there, in turn leaving them when Harlow moved to New York.
Even now, they speak every week.
“It meant everything [that he signed and supported her]. Honestly if I could put my actual career down to one event, it was when I said to Tony Harlow before we made the record, where do you see this album going? What sort of audience? He said ‘don’t you worry about that, you just go away make the best album you possibly can and I will find you an audience. We will create an audience’,” Chambers says. “And he did. One hundred per cent. He literally put his money where his mouth was.
“To have a person at the top of a record label, say that to a little girl from the Nullarbor who didn’t know what the fuck she was doing, and then to leave us alone to make the record. I mean that is a massive leap of faith. And now, looking back, I can’t believe he had the faith in us.”
Amid the memories from the months before her album was released in 1999 is a meeting with the publicity and marketing staff at EMI where possible album titles were being discussed and when she suggested The Captain, it was thought a reasonable option to put in the mix.
“And I said no, it’s The Captain, it’s always been The Captain. And I think they knew from that point – and I’m a pretty easy person to deal with; I’m not a dickhead about it and when I see their side to something I would go, yeah these guys know what they’re talking about - that that meant something to me.”
She had that title long before most of the songs were even written or an album contemplated. “Once I wrote that song, I knew that that was the centrepiece, the glue, everything. And I wasn’t prepared to bend for that. And as much as those people intimidated me a lot to sit in a room with a new enough in my gut to go with what felt right to me.”
“I was sure of myself without pretending I knew everything. Because I didn’t. But when it come to who I was, and musically who I was, I did know who I was.”
Which is pretty impressive for a 21-22-year-old who, when it came to chart success, sales or even major live shows, had done precisely nothing up until that point. First of all, knowing enough of herself to see this, then to say it in that context.
“You know, in a lot of ways I might have been more ballsy about that than any of the next few. I think I got off track from being ballsy later on. Don’t get me wrong, not because anyone had influence over me or tried to make me do things, but because I got out of balance with who I was and I made one record that I didn’t feel connected to, and I still don’t feel connected to.”
That album is Carnival, still seen by most fans as a misstep, a failure to connect with us because it felt displaced. Or, as it turns out now, disconnected.
“In some ways The Captain I feel a sense of who I was then as I did when I made Campfire. To come all the way back to just going, ‘you know, you know, just trust it’.”
So many things remain the same, but what is different in her or for her in 2019?
“Yeah, wow,” she says in the middle of a long pause. “I think I’ve definitely learnt to say no a lot more.”
(Or given the new potty-mouth Chambers, “‘fuck no!” maybe? “Fuck no, yes,” she laughs. “Actually, no, fuck off is what I say now.”)
“I think I’ve learnt my own boundaries a lot more, and I’ve learnt to kind of own them and think it’s not the worst thing in the world to say no to things. I don’t take myself too serious anymore. I don’t know that I really did heaps before, naturally. I certainly didn’t take myself too serious as far as career goes: it’s never been this kind of driving force. I do worry about things too much. Maybe that comes with age anyway but I don’t think I would be able to cope in this industry if I did take myself too serious.”
Honestly though, how does anyone cope in this industry?
“To be honest, I don’t have people do coke in an industry like this, if you do take yourself too serious. I really don’t, because it will fuck with your head, big-time,” she says. “I know I’ve been really lucky with getting a lot of positive press and stuff over the years, but I don’t read anything and I don’t watch anything back. Even the other night I was on The Project, which I love going on, and I turned the TV on later on in the repeat was on, right at the end of my thing and I heard my voice - you’ve never seen anyone run so fucking much in their life. I ran to turn that off because if I hear myself talk or see anything of anything I’ve done, I will go mental picking it apart.
“I’d just rather go with what is in my world and in my family, what means something to me and my creative head space. And so far that’s working, and I’m not going crazy. Most of the time.”
Kasey Chambers plays:
Friday 13 SEPTEMBER – THE PALMS AT CROWN, MELBOURNE
Saturday 14 SEPTEMBER – COSTA HALL GPAC, GEELONG
Sunday 15 SEPTEMBER – WANGARATTA PERFORMING ARTS CENTRE,
Thursday 19 SEPTEMBER – LISMORE CITY HALL,
Friday 20 SEPTEMBER – THE FORTITUDE MUSIC HALL, BRISBANE
Saturday 21 SEPTEMBER – SOUTHPORT RSL
Friday 4 OCTOBER – THEBARTON THEATRE, ADELAIDE
Saturday 5 OCTOBER – THE ASTOR THEATRE, PERTH
Sunday 6 OCTOBER – BRIDGETOWN HOTEL
Friday 11 OCTOBER – TOWN HALL THEATRE PAC, DEAVONPORT
Saturday 12 OCTOBER – THEATRE NORTH AT THE PRINCESS, LAUNCESTON
Sunday 13 OCTOBER – WREST POINT ENTERTAINMENT CENTRE, HOBART
Thursday 17 OCTOBER – ANITA’S THEATRE, THIRROUL
Friday 18 OCTOBER – EVAN THEATRE PANTHERS, PENRITH
Saturday 19 OCTOBER – THE CUBE, CAMPBELLTOWN
A version of this story originally appeared in The Sun-Herald.