Traditional But Not Conventional: An Exclusive Interview with Kasey Chambers
Australian country singer Kasey Chambers is, to put it lightly, a little busy these days. She and husband Shane Nicholson have just completed their second album together, Wreck and Ruin, her covers record, Storybook, comes out in the States this week, and in between the gigs, the studio time, and the interviews, she’s got three kids under the age of 11 to wrangle. It’s all, as she sang on her last album, Little Bird, a “beautiful mess.” We caught up with Chambers shortly before she was scheduled to pack up her infant daughter, Poet, and fly halfway across the world for a U.S. tour.
Juli Thanki: You’ve got a wide variety of songwriters on Storybook, from Hank Williams to Cyndi Lauper. How did you choose the material?
Kasey Chambers: Half of the songs on there were ones I had recorded before as B-sides to singles or other things I’ve done and the other half were new ones that I wanted to record. It sounds clichéd, but the main thing for me was to pick songs that really inspired me over the years. I had about twenty songs I wanted to put on there, but I had to stop somewhere.
JT: Which ones didn’t make the cut?
A lot of the extra ones were different songs by the same artists that were already represented on the album. I had two or three Lucinda Williams songs that I would have happily done. Same with Patty Griffin and John Prine – I just had to pick one and stick with it. I had some Louvin Brothers I wanted to put on there, but maybe for Storybook II one day.
JT: You’ve got some great guests on here, like Paul Kelly, who, interestingly enough, doesn’t sing on the song he wrote, “Everything’s Turning to White,” but on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” instead. How did that happen?
KC: That was an old recording I had done, and we weren’t going to re-record it for the record. Paul Kelly is one of my most favorite artists ever. One of the first conversations I had with Paul was about Hank Williams. I grew up listening to a lot of Paul Kelly, but in a very different way than I do now. Now, it’s very much with admiration of this songwriter who is inspiring and amazing and all of those things, but when I was growing up, Paul Kelly was really big on the charts. He was a household name in Australia, but wasn’t really known for country music, even though he’s gone down that path. He had rock bands and was on the pop charts and was famous for that sort of thing. When I got to work with him, I asked him who his favorite songwriters are, and he said “Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, and Willie Nelson.” He was so into country music, and I hadn’t known that before, because of his history here in the pub rock scene. That was around fifteen years ago, when people didn’t really talk too much about Hank Williams in Australia then. He’s become a little bit cooler over the years – Hank and Johnny Cash.
JT: This version of “I Wish It Would Rain” with Ashleigh Dallas is fantastic. How did you two work up that song?
KC: I love that song! I’ve been a fan of Nanci Griffith since my teens. One of my most fond memories is going to the Royal Albert Hall in London and seeing her play with the London Symphony Orchestra. It was one of my favorite concerts, so I wanted to put a Nanci Griffith song on there. Ashleigh plays the fiddle in my band, so we sing it live. We grew up listening to the same kind of music even though we’re, like, nearly a whole generation apart. She just turned 19, and sometime I forget that I’m a whole lot older than her (laughs). Sometimes when we’re hanging out I still think I might be 19, and then one of my children starts screaming “Mum!” and I’m reminded that I’m 36.
JT: You work with your whole family: your dad, brother, and husband are musicians, and your mother runs the merch on your website. What’s it like to work and tour with with them?
KC: It’s cheaper! The thing is, I don’t really know any different. Shane and I just finished an album together, and someone asked us the other day, “What’s it like to tour around with your family?” And I said, “You’re going to have to ask us separately, because I’m sure my answer will be really different from Shane’s.” My whole life, I’ve only ever toured with my family, so I don’t really know what it’s like to not tour with them. I’m painfully close to my family, and Shane and I met through my brother, who’s his best friend. The other day, Shane said, “I used to look at touring as taking a break from my family and home life.” But now, it’s different, because we bring our kids on the road as well. I absolutely love it and can’t imagine not doing it. Every now and then I’ll do a little gig where I fly in and fly out and don’t have them with me, and I feel lost. I’m constantly checking on things that are not there. On this U.S. tour, I’m only taking my ten-month old because Shane has to work here in Australia.
JT: There are a lot of pictures on your Facebook page of you performing with the baby strapped to you. Does she like your music?
KC: Music is around all the time, and we have instruments laying all over at home. She’s not really showing any signs of being gifted (laughs). I’m hoping it still might come, though. When she hears me and my husband sing onstage, she cries a lot. I’m hoping it’s because she hears our voices and wants to be with us, and not that she doesn’t like country music!
JT: Rattlin’ Bones was such a good record, and lots of people are looking forward to the release of your next collaboration with Shane, Wreck and Ruin this fall. What can you tell us about it?
KC: It’s got a similar feeling as Rattlin’ Bones, but different in the sound. I think of it as traditional, but not conventional. I’m just excited about it. It’s hard for me to explain without sounding cheesy how it feels to make a record with your husband. It’s a really cool thing to get to do. I think we respect each other as musicians in a different way because we’re married. I couldn’t write this record with anyone else.
JT: What was the songwriting process like? Did you two write together, or work separately?
KC: It’s different all the time. Sometimes we sit down and write from start to finish together. Sometimes one of us has a lyric we might bring to the other one. I think we have a clear goal in writing together – not specific as much as a clear goal of getting the feeling of a type of song, and getting the song to work for two singers. Each song on Wreck and Ruin is a song that one of us couldn’t sing without the other. Getting ready for the tour next week, I thought, “Oh, I’d like to do one of the songs from the new record, even though Shane won’t be there.” But they really don’t work with one singer, but that’s the point of the record, and why those songs wouldn’t end up on one of my records or his.
JT: In Australia, you’re a multiplatinum artist, but you’re more underground here in the States. When you’re touring here, is it a nice break to get away from the fame of being a charting artist and play smaller club shows?
KC: I don’t really live a very famous life here. When I think about it, it’s a lot different in perception. I guess I’m a household name here, and I’ve had albums that have gone seven times platinum, but I’m a really normal mum and live in a normal house and do normal things on a day to day basis.
[As if on cue, the baby starts screaming in the background.]
KC: Sorry about that; my daughter just fell! She’s at that age where she’s starting to climb on everything, so she falls down twenty times a day. She’s happy now, but she’s discovering “Ooh, I can climb up here,” or “How do I go down these stairs?” so she’s constantly got a bump on the head or a bruise on the leg, the poor little thing. But she’s getting there. And she’s the third child in this house, so we don’t follow her around and protect her too much. She’ll figure it out.
The music I play doesn’t lead us toward celebrity status. I realize that I’m known and get stopped for autographs and things like that, but I’m not what you’d call a celebrity here in Australia, so it’s not like I go to America and have a completely different life. At the end of the day, I’m so stoked that I’ve gotten any sort of success playing the music that I do. It’s not the type of music that would usually get played on mainstream radio to get out to that wider audience. I’m just stoked anyone wants to listen to it.
JT: What’s next for you?
KC: I’m not really a planner. I think about it sometimes, but I don’t really know what’s going to be the next project. If you’d asked me a year ago, I’d have said, “I’d love to make an album with my husband again,” and that dream came true. Actually, I think my dream was to make another record with my husband and not get divorced (laughs). So I’m glad we’ve been able to make that happen.
Later on in the year, I’m going to help produce a record for Ashleigh Dallas. That’s a little bit different for me; I’ll be working with a producer friend of ours. I think if I can still be making albums and doing some gigs and still have balance in my life, then I’ll be happy. I already feel like I’ve done more than I thought I would, so I’m stoked.
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