SQUEEZING THIS IN BETWEEN more important appointments, holding her phone before her, Fanny Lumsden in the foyer of the ABC as we speak, so “I’m going to try not to get too loud” she says.
Um, not wanting to cast nasturtiums here but, is that a little optimistic?
“Yes,” she laughs. “For me, yes.”
This shy, retiring type, of the long hair and overalls, firecracker gigs and boisterous band, must have had a real struggle in the UK when needing to shine at Glastonbury in June. Yes, that would be the Glastonbury Festival, the most famous, nearly the oldest – and in more than enough years, the muddiest – contemporary music festival, spread across the fields of Worthy Farm in Somerset. Yes, the one Elton John played. You may have heard of it.
“I managed. I busted through some new ceilings,” she grins. “Oh, it was amazing. It was crazy, I had a bloody good time. Just to have people open and generous. I think I had absorbed that I was too Australian, my stories are too Australian to be translated overseas, and it wasn’t the case.”
Dear god, who told her that?
“I don’t know, but I feel it's something I have absorbed.”
To be fair, it is not unreasonable for an Australian act of any genre to think that in the UK, where patronising the colonials is still the default setting and Australia is mostly seen as a flea on the broad backside of contemporary music. But there’s nothing about Lumsden’s stories – about feeling hope and optimism one morning as your son is being cute in the morning light, feeling fear as nature threatens to overwhelm your home, or wanting your ashes shot up into the sky instead of a burial (of which more later) – that aren’t translatable, that aren’t understandable anywhere.
“I think that’s what we found really. I think what maybe think that is people asking did you change what you talk about. I was like, ‘no. Why would I do that?’ Look, they are human stories, everybody loves music, and if you are entertaining enough and self-deprecating enough they think it’s funny.”
True, they love a self-deprecating Australian, it saves them some work.
It was one thing to get invited to play at the festival: not that many Australian bands play Glastonbury after all, and certainly very few to none of them being independent country/Americana bands from rural Australia. But the tougher question in advance was how she was going to do it?
Go on her own and work three times as hard to attract attention in the tent mid-afternoon, the cheapest option given this was all out of her pocket? Take a couple of musicians and ramp up the show side of things to compensate? Take the whole band (called the Prawnstars, NOT the Pornstars, Lumsden is at pains to point out)? Or take the whole band and the kids – of which she has two, under the age of “you can be roadies” – which was the most ridiculous and expensive option, especially as on her return she would be launching and touring a new album, Hey Dawn.
Obviously, Lumsden chose the last option.
“I say yes and figure it out after,” she grins again. “I was always going to take the band. I knew it was going to cost money. We talked about how many band members do we take, Dan [Freeman, bandmate, husband, visuals supremo] and I, and it just felt like this once-in-a-lifetime – hopefully not, hopefully we get to play again, but I don’t know – opportunity.
“Our band has been with us, slept on the floors of halls and travelled and done so much, and it felt like this amazing thank you I could offer them for their dedication and work, and for being so kind constantly leaving their families, sacrificing things. It was kind of a no-brainer, but an expensive one.”
The decision makes more sense when you look at some much of what happens around Fanny Lumsden, from the friends/family/fans-focused approach to shows up to and including what they are calling a cinematic trailer for the new album: a series of filmed material shot like some high-quality neo-Western and bearing the hallmarks of a budget 10 times or more what they could possibly have had.
“Basically we just worked out how to do things in a certain way. I’ve been thinking about how we do this without the big budgets and why we’ve done it, and I look at the big artists with million-dollar budgets and think, we can do that, we just have to do it ourselves,” Lumsden says. “We pay with sleep. And I have talented husband who is very good at editing, and some great friends, creative people who have been working with me since the very beginning.”
It comes down to what is real she reckons. “You don’t have to have big budgets to make stuff that is real; you just have to know what shit to cut out.”
More than real – which like “authentic” is too easily abused, mimicked and marketed – what Lumsden feels is true. True to herself principally. And you realise that taking the band, and this can’t be stressed enough, her children, for a short run of shows in the UK and Glastonbury in particular, is, like not being quiet and not being afraid, true to exactly who and what she is in the music.
“There was this amazing moment when we [including co-producer Matt Fell] were making this album: a song I had written we couldn’t find its home, sonically, and we tried all sorts of things, and eventually [Fell] turned to me and goes ‘I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you.’ And I was like, I don’t believe me either, let’s scrap that one,” says Lumsden. “I was trying something on that didn’t really fit. I don’t think that means you can’t explore and push boundaries and stuff, because you can, it needs to come from the right place and that one wasn’t. So it got turfed.”
Hey Dawn, an impressive, song-driven album, is proof that she does push out, continuing her explorations into rock and pop and territory that doesn’t really fit into what the more conservative pacemakers think of as country. Four albums in, life would be so much easier for her if she stayed in her box, stayed in her CMT/Golden Guitars lane, but Hey Dawn feels like a whole lot of risks being taken.
Or maybe, inspiration coming from unexpected sources. Like when, in the days after a major storm had damaged the studio they were recording in in Tasmania, forcing everyone to move (leaving everything in flux, with “the only sonic sound that I’d had in my head, or vision, was a solo piano in a hall. I could just hear it [in my head]”) , Lumsden and husband were out on a drive to clear her head, and pulled into a small town.
“We stopped off, there was a markets happening, and where this market was, there was a little hall in the middle of it, and I went in and there was a man playing piano. He wasn’t really playing it for anyone else: you could tell he was playing it for himself, and he didn’t even look up from this little book which had all the songs, just kept playing and playing.
“I watched him, thinking he’s not doing that for anyone else but it’s benefiting everyone else, and I went back that night and I wrote [the song] Hey Dawn. From that moment on I was like, okay, right, we are good: let’s make this record for us, who cares?”
It feels like all that story needs is a postscript where she goes back to the hall and convinces that lone pianist to come back and play on the record, or maybe she brings the band back to record of the rest of the album in the hall. You can hear the Netflix documentary being pitched already.
That didn’t happen but it wasn’t the only weird-but-true interaction with some regular Joe behind the new record. A neighbour of hers, Brett, told her of his plans for his last farewell: having Lumsden and band play for friends and family a few Monty Python songs, a few John Prine favourites, the ceremony climaxing with his ashes being fired in shells from shotguns at the top of the hill, while an old truck body was burned as a bonfire.
“He asked me how much it would cost and I told him $50,000, a downpayment of a cow and two loads of wood. Then six months later he rocked up to the house with a load of wood – no cow, I’m still waiting on it – and said would you do it?,” she remembers. “And one more detail: he ran into me at the Christmas party and it was like, I think we should add glitter [to the ashes in the shotgun shells].”
Not much came of it at first, but months later, after a trip up north featuring some disasters, including a lost caravan door, Covid-inspired lockdowns, stray adventures, and a diversion to WA, Lumsden wrote this story into a song as they crossed the Nullarbor, When I Die.
“The world is better off with people like Brett,” she declares. And yes, that’s him in the filmclip.
Sure, but does he have a schedule for these plans? Is it imminent?
“No, he’s fine, he just knows what he wants in life and he knows what he wants in death. And he’s got a lot of joy out of making this plan.”
A lot of joy, and it’s spreading to anyone who hears the story. But still, I have a question about that cow. Or the absence of said cow.
“It’s a little ambiguous because he is a neighbour of my parents and my parents did use his bulls recently, and then there was like this payment rotation when my dad owed him money for the use of the bulls but then I owed my dad money [for use of a truck] and Brett owed me money, so it kind of cancelled itself out.”
So in this bush yarn there’s a song about death, a load of bull semen, borrowed trucks and promised cows – that’s a lot, even for a country song.
“I talk too much,” Lumsden says breaking into giggles.
Not at all. Song, semen, trucks and cows is what we might yet come to call the Fanny Lumsden circle of life.
Bet they didn’t get that on the ABC.
Fanny Lumsden and the Prawnstars play.
Brunswick Picture House, Brunswick Heads, August 9
Majestic Theatre, Pomona, August 10
Maryborough Sports Club, August 11
The Power House, Toowoomba, August 12
The Triffid, Brisbane, August 13
Memo Music Hall, Melbourne, August 25
Meeniyan Town Hall, August 26
Live at the Bundy, Bundalaguah, August 27
Milton Theatre, September 1
Factory Theatre, Marrickville, September 2
Lizottes, Newcastle, September 3