IF SHE HAD SOME MARKETING consultant or Tamworth-savvy image maker in the background today, instead of a family heirloom upright that has accompanied her through every move for 40 years (“With the piano I tend to go to really strange places, writing songs like Tones And I would come out with.”) Jo Caseley would be driving them to drink right now.
Not for her the smooth deflection or the veiled suggestion. Not in songs, not in conversation. Although her music has the charm and smoothness of friendly-to-the-ear modern country, the singer/songwriter from NSW’s southern highlands is frank about herself, her family, her situation.
She’s happy, she’ll tell you: love renewed with her husband of nearly two decades (“he’s a very honest, country, what you see is what you get, absolute no bullshit [type] which is probably what a lot of my music is about.”), kids close (her son is starting out as a rodeo roper and she’s working out how to coordinate her gigs, his gigs and the family’s love of travelling), and her third album, High On Heartstrings, is out and proud. But jeez, at times it was a shitfight getting here, even if now she sounds like someone who is secure, who understands herself and where she fits.
“That is how I wanted the album to be perceived. I want other people to be able to experience what I’ve experienced: don’t give up, don’t lose hope, you will find a way to make things work in your life. But you have to remain true to yourself and true to your heart, and be that complete person you need to be. And that took me so long to learn, even how to be a really authentic and truly myself with my husband,” Caseley says.
“I always felt I had to be this other person he wanted me to be: Jo the bookkeeper, and Jo the employer, and Jo running the business. That’s who he really wanted me to be, and for me to actually say yes I will support you but there is more to me than that, and have to be allowed to be that woman, and if you take that away from me I can’t be all those other things that you want me to be.”
Now she says her art is “delivered from a place of strength”. That strength has allowed her to say things on this record outside the usual safe areas of Australian country songwriting and the safe topics of country conversation. Like Sorry, about the Stolen Generations.
“Why did I write that? Because my father is an old school man of older values who I’ve struggled with all my life. He is very opinionated, he is very close minded in his beliefs and he’s never been able to listen to people. He doesn’t listen to people,” she says, explaining that after seeing Baz Luhrmann’s Australia with him, coming out moved by the story of the indigenous child and his mother’s tragic efforts to stop them being forcibly separated, she was told by him that “that sort of stuff never happened. We gave them a better life” etc etc.
“That opinion, that bigotry and close mindedness, I wrote that song for all those people … for people who would rather turn their back and say it doesn’t matter.”
But in a sense Sorry is but a warm-up for the real emotional storm on the record, Special, a song that speaks of domestic violence in the clearest way with lines such as “You can’t fly so you crawl, you’re worth nothing at all/You’re a psycho, a freak, shut your mouth up, don’t speak”.
“Special isn’t about domestic violence,” Caseley counters. “I know that was your take on it and I was surprised when I read that in your review. It’s not domestic violence, it’s verbal.”
I tell her that for me, having seen it up close, coercive control, emotional and verbal abuse all count as domestic violence. Another line, “You’re just a mother, you don’t earn enough cash/Wait your turn/You must do what you’re told or end up in the cold” isn’t a throwaway. She considers this for a while, before answering.
“Well, in that case, I have been a victim of domestic abuse,” Caseley says almost matter-of-factly. “As a woman, when you are in it for so long you really don’t think of it like that, because you learn that that’s the way you just have to get through it. I did write that song, that is my experience, is it controversial?”
Well, you tell me.
“I did play it to my husband and he said ‘you are not going to fucking record that are you?’ And I said, yes I am. He said ‘you’ve got to be fucking joking’, and I said no, that’s my story. And that song will bring other women strength.
“And I said, I am going to release it and you have to realise that I love you and we are no longer at the point where we were in our relationship, and we have come through to the other side.
Citing the example of one of her heroes, Loretta Lynn – “she wrote the truth” - Caseley argues that “I can’t sugarcoat things and be someone that I’m not.” But at the same time she confesses songs like Special were never intended for public airing.
“It was written as more a diary entry, a very secret diary entry, and written as a cathartic process in order to deal with my emotions,” she says. “I didn’t have a voice. I didn’t have a voice in my marriage, I couldn’t say how I felt, so the only place I was free to speak my mind was in my song. I could sing it privately, in my bedroom, and doing that gave me great peace and comfort because I got it out of my system.”
What changed it from a secret song to a public one was a weekend she spent at a women’s retreat where “they were all there to heal” and tell their stories, with Caseley as the entertainment.
“But a lot of women in their 40s, I found, had the same story: they’d grown up living a life for their parents or for their husband or for their children or for everybody else, and along the way they’d lost themselves,” she says. “They had traumas in their life that they had never dealt with and all of a sudden they had no self-confidence, were scared to do things, full of anxieties and really that feeling of all the labels that you put on yourself: I’m too ugly, I’m too fat, I’m not good enough. Or my songs aren’t good enough, or my voice isn’t good enough, or people aren’t going to like my music.”
This revelation, this understanding, changed everything.
“I thought I was the only one. It wasn’t until I started going to these women’s retreats that I found all women had gone through this. So I started singing them these songs that I had never played [in public] and Special was one of them. When I played that to them they just said, have you recorded that song? I said no, God no, no no. They said you should record that song, you need to record, and I said I could never record it: people would know how I felt, my husband would probably divorce me, it would be terrible.
“But they were the ones who encouraged me and said women need to hear the song, these are the sort of songs that we connect with and that heal.”
Thinking about it now, Caseley describes Special as “a song about climbing back, about finally learning to get a voice and finally learning to say throughout the putdowns and everything, you know what? I am special and I’m going to get back everything you have stole off me”.
But just as she is clear about where she has been and what she has been through, Caseley is equally adamant that this can only be a part of her story and that of her husband in a relationship that is stronger – “I’ve taught him and he’s taught me” – and more filled with love than ever.
“I’m still around men of the nature that a woman should shut up and do as she’s told. That’s the reality of older generations and older-schooled men. If I had stood up and fought it and said you can’t treat me like that then I would have had a separated family and I just couldn’t do that to my children. I don’t know if it was wrong or right but I do know that now my husband has matured and has become an adult and is a lot better – he was like, okay I really have to step up, and he has – and I have got a voice in my marriage,” she says.
“I live in the country and around men who are tradies, men who are farmers, men who are blue-collar workers and it is a very different world for women. [In her circle] all of us wives have all spent the last 16 years raising our children, trying to be as good wives as we can. But we’ve all had the same struggle: all of our husbands are big drinkers; we’ve all had to grow up with husbands that were quite immature and took quite a long time to mature; that weren’t really around when the kids were babies. So I’m trying to say is, it’s not just my husband; it’s very much older country values that the woman should give everything up and support the man and look after the kids.
“That’s pretty much what all of us did. We all started with careers of our own, dropped those careers when the kids came along, stayed at home, did all the book work and everything for our husbands’ businesses and were mothers. None of us really continued our paths until now. Now it's my time.”
READ MORE: Jo Caseley – High On Heartstrings: Review