Kasey Chambers Keeps It Personal
Many Americans have the mistaken idea that country music is the sole property of artists from the United States. Certainly that’s not the case: often thought of as forefathers of the Americana movement, four of the five founding members of The Band were from Canada. And in the same way that rock ‘n’ roll was exported to England and served back to us by the Beatles, other musical forms birthed in the U.S. have spread their influence across the globe.
Born and raised in South Australia, Kasey Chambers comes from a musical family steeped in American roots music. After years touring with a band led by her parents, she ventured out on a solo career, debuting in 1999 with The Captain. That first record hit #11 on the Australian charts; the four that followed all reached the top spot. And every single one of Chambers’ solo albums (up to 2015’s Bittersweet) has made it onto at least one U.S. Album chart.
Chambers’ latest album – the ambitious double disc Dragonfly – was released in her home country in January, and sailed to the number one spot; Stateside release was early June. Her 26-date North American tour began in June, and concludes with a July 22 show at City Winery.
Dragonfly covers a really wide expanse of styles. In making the album, was there a conscious effort to move beyond the country idiom, or was it a natural progression?
“I don’t think I ever really have a conscious thought of genres on a record. I have a conscious effort of approach, like sometimes I want a song to fall into place, so we just jam it and use that take. But sometimes I want to sit down and really work out parts to a song.
“I think about the recording process and the dynamics of the song rather than genre. I’m lucky and spoiled in my career that I haven’t had to worry about genre too much. In Australia I’m known as a country artist, but I don’t think anyone is ever surprised if something sounds heavy or sparky, or it’s got a loop on it or something like that. My audience doesn’t really seem to care too much about genre from me, which is really nice.
“I guess I’ve kind of made that clear very early on as well; if they were going to be hung up on that, then they’re probably going to be disappointed.”
Another artist whose work really transcends genre is Paul Kelly; I understand you’re a big fan of his work.
“He’s my biggest influence in Australian music, without a doubt. Not just as a songwriter and musically, but also just how he handles his career. Not only his success, but the way he has hung on to so much integrity in what he does. Paul has never followed trends. I’m so inspired by him on so many levels, and having him produce a record for me was a dream come true, a real bucket list thing to tick off.”
How did you come to work with Paul on Dragonfly?
“I just pretty much annoyed him until he said yes! [Laughter] It’s quite the truth, because I’ve actually asked him on a couple of the previous records. He didn’t flat out say no, but the timing just wasn’t been right; he was off touring overseas or making his own record or whatever.
“So I just kept asking him, and then this one fell into place. We actually didn’t mean to make a record. We were just going to go in and have a session of maybe four or five songs, and see how that went. And then if it worked, then maybe we would do another session down the track and maybe mix it with some other songs and make a record. But we ended up with 11 finished tracks and so that’s kind of why it turned into a double album.
“I loved working with him very much. And yeah, I’m sure that has a lot to do with that he’s such a big influence on me.”
How has your approach to making albums changed in the nearly two decades since The Captain?
“My approach has really not changed that much, now that I think about it. When I went in to make The Captain, I didn’t know anything about recording at all, really. I’d done a little bit of recording with The Dead Ringer Band but we didn’t really know what we were doing.
“And even now that I know a lot more about recording, I still kind of approach it in the same way. I like going in and doing everything live, treating it a bit like a live gig. Every now and then you come up to a song that needs a bit more work, thought and planning, but for the most part I always put my vocals down with the band tracks. I don’t come in and do vocals later; that never really worked for me. I just want it to feel real and like who I am. Vibe always wins over technicality for me.
“And now I know a little bit more, I’d like to think, on the production side of things. I get a lot more involved in that than I did back then, which is … I don’t know, sometimes a good thing. Probably not always!”
As a member of the Dead Ringer Band with your parents and brother, you enjoyed success long before you began your solo career. What lessons did you learn about music working with your family band?
“I reckon the biggest thing that I learned from those early years of playing was how important a connection with an audience is. We only really played live then; we had albums out, but those were really just something for us to sell at gigs. So my career wasn’t at all based around promotion or record labels or radio or selling records or anything like that. It was really only based around playing live: actually physically being there in the room with people.
“And I learned that nothing compares to connecting on a one-on-one level with another person. And not only just in music: that became a really important thing to me in general. I think I have the perfect job for my personality. I love being out on stage and talking to an audience; I like telling stories as much as I like playing songs.
“Music is a way for me to connect with people. And I learned really early on that you can’t fake that; you can put all the bells and whistles in a song, you can get the best musicians and have all the greatest sounds. But you can’t make people connect to it.
“You can tick all the boxes of what makes a hit song, but at the end of the day you still need to connect with people on some level. I do it in a way that’s not very different than what pop stars do through [releasing] singles. I do it more through a journey through my life when I’m on stage for two hours.
“There are different ways of connecting, and I try not to judge other people’s ways of doing it. Some people and different audiences make the connection in different ways; some audiences connect through sounds rather than lyrics, some audiences only connect with lyrics and not sounds. So it’s about figuring out what works best for you. I think I connect through giving a whole lot of my personal life in songs and stories on stage.”
Does your family music history go back farther than your parents?
“Not on a professional level. My dad and his parents used to sing as a family around the kitchen table. They would sing a lot of old gospel and Carter Family songs when my dad was growing up, so music was a big part of their life. But they didn’t play instruments, and they didn’t perform in front of audiences; it was more a family thing, something that was probably done a lot more back in those days than it is now. Musical families play music, but I don’t know how many people sit around and sing at the kitchen table these days!”
Looking at the whole timeline of your career, you’ve been consistent in terms of winning awards and getting critical success. You haven’t had any real missteps; in your body of work there’s not that one album that got one star …
“It’s still coming! That’s why.”
Is there anything that you wish you hadn’t done, or wish you had done differently?
“Oh, my God … so many things. There were definitely songs I would leave off records now if I was making them now. Because there are some songs that make me cringe when I go back and listen to them. But then when I really think about it, I realize, ‘I felt strongly about that song enough to put it on the record at the time. It felt like a big part of me.’
“And every now and then someone will say, ‘That’s my favorite song you’ve ever written,’ and I will die a little bit inside! But I still get that the song was something that felt real and important to me at the time – important enough to put on a record – so I guess technically I wouldn’t go back and change it. But I just don’t ever want to hear that song again!”
You had vocal surgery in 2015 to remove nodules. Was there a time when you thought you might not sing again?
“I guess technically that was probably in the back of my mind, but I really didn’t allow myself to go to that place of really thinking, ‘What if I come out of this and I cannot sing?’ The thing is, I’d gotten to a point where I couldn’t sing, so I was going to be no worse off; this was only a good way out.
“I had to cancel a whole tour – a whole three-month tour – and we lost a whole lot of money, because it was already advertised and we were about to start the tour. Honestly, I couldn’t even get through one whole week with singing my songs, so there really was no other option for me.
“So for me to sit down and go, ‘Oh, what if I can’t sing again?’ I couldn’t really sing the way I was anyway. It was only going to look up for me to go through the surgery. I had a really great surgeon who filled me with a lot of confidence that that was the right path. Even if he was just bullshitting me every word, I was more than confident. And he was right.”
When you’ve spoken about the Dragonfly track “Talking Baby Blues,” you mentioned that there was an eight-week period after the surgery during which you weren’t allowed to sing. Did the experience of not singing for those eight weeks result in a flood of new material afterward, or is that just too much of a perfect fairy tale scenario?
“No, no, no … it absolutely did. It inspired a lot of new songs. And on a lot of different levels, too. Because I had this new voice that made me want to sing and want to try out different ways of writing as well. I’d never really had this range; I felt it was always in there, but it never actually came out when I sang.
“Singing in this new way was really inspiring to me, but also it lifted a lot of stress that I had from having not done it for such a long time. I had been stressing about my voice even more so than I actually thought that I was doing, so I just felt like a big weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
“And I was also going through a lot of personal stuff, finding a new strength within myself. Even just after a divorce and now being a single parent, I found this new side of myself that I did not know I had. All of that coupled together was great inspiration for writing songs, and is probably why I ended up with a double record.”
Photo by Penny Lane.