Touring The USA From Abroad – A First-Hand Account
I met with Laura Coates and Andy Wrigglesworth from the Melbourne, Australia-based duo The Weeping Willows.
The year 2018 has been action-packed for them with three international trips under their belts to promote their music and establish a stronger footing and support base overseas. They have recently returned from their most serious reach effort into the USA South, being over there at much the same time and in many similar locations as I. Somewhat surprisingly, we caught up only once, and very briefly. That was in Nashville, at Sound Stage Studio on Music Row during AmericanaFest.
I was keen to gain an understanding of the couple’s perspective of their experiences and what they had been able to achieve. For an Australian artist(s), touring the United States is a dream, but getting there provides for a number of challenges – Visa requirements, costs, booking shows and logistics, to name just some. Fresh from a successful Visa application and a full stint of shows, it was the perfect time to sit down with the duo and reflect on what they achieved and learned.
It’s wide-ranging, our discussion (= long!), but hopefully worth the time for you, the reader.
Rob: How long was your most recent USA sojourn?
Laura: It was three weeks and probably our most condensed trip. We only had one day off.
Andy: Well, we didn’t really have a day off because we were looking at guitar shops, there’s a left-handed guitar shop in Houston…
R: Is the shop’s front door designed for left-handers as well?
A: Ha ha. There’s actually pretty tight security there. You have to knock, a guy opens the curtains and inspects you (I waved at him with my left hand to prove my worth!). It’s called Southpaw guitars and I have wanted to go there for years and Laura liaised with a guy there. It’s a whole shop of left-handed guitar, maybe there was one right-handed guitar – usually it’s the other way around with a shop carrying one left-handed guitar tucked away in the corner. There were Beatles’ basses like Paul McCartney’s Hofner model, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, banjos everything…that was our day off.
R: You toured there the rest of the time. What sort of work visa did you need to be able to do that?
L: We decided we wanted to do this properly and for the last couple of years we have been collating the information that you need. Getting this visa meant that we had more freedom as to where we could play, we were able to play more theatres and collaborate with other people, earn money, publicise what we were doing, choose shows more carefully and perform beyond Sounds Australia’s AmericanaFest showcases in Nashville. As much as we love doing those, this type of visa gave us more freedom beyond that.
A: And we get to sell merchandise
R: How long did it take to get the Visa approved?
L: Collating everything it probably took a couple of years in all. The process involves proving that you are worthy…one of the questions, amazingly, was ‘Do you have a Grammy?’
A: Maybe we have checked our mantelpiece ha ha
L: Obviously we don’t, but there are of course other ways to prove your case. There are so many questions to do with ‘Where have you played in Australia?’, ‘Who have you played with, supported here?’ ‘Have you supported international acts?’ Of course it’s bit of a Catch 22 as you apply for the visa to boost your profile but you have to establish that your profile already is significant. I would advise anyone who is going through the same application process to allow at least six months to complete it, but I would actually plan for twelve months because the USA authorities can take as long as they like to approve it. We were very lucky that ours was approved within two weeks but it can take six months in some cases.
R: Did you have to establish that you were able to provide for yourselves while over there?
L: Yes. An O-1 Visa allows for three years’ worth of touring and earning to sustain yourselves.
A: You have to map out your plans for the three years, what you are going to do, for us plan started in January 2018.
L: That can be recording as well, showcasing at festivals (Folk Alliance and AmericanaFest) the authorities want to see that you are taking this seriously.
A: In a perfect world, we could go and live there. But we started to build something in Melbourne musically, we have a house and family. And we really love being part of the scene here. It’s a great music scene which is really vibrant and it would be sad to move away from that and then come back and have to start again. In a way we are happy to fly back and forth – it’s harder to do it that way and more expensive, but at least you get the best of both worlds. With this Visa we have, you could live in the USA, come back after the period and apply to renew the Visa to go back.
L: I believe the renewal process is a bit easier that the initial application…and cheaper.
A: It was stressful, but it was a real insight to how it works. Every case would obviously be different.
L: Apparently Canada is easier. The USA authorities really want to check you out. You have to go for an interview as well at the Consulate on St Kilda Road which had by the way some really tight security. So you get your application pre-approved and then you have this additional test, bring information and they ask you a heap of questions.
R: Did you have to play a song as well?
A: Ha ha not that simple. The guitar would not have got through security!
R: With the three week tour, how did you go about arranging your set of shows, the logistics and dates? That must have been quite an exercise.
L: Well we have been going there to scope it out for a few years now and we always start at AmericanaFest. That’s where we want to be because we love doing the Sounds Australia showcases that Dobe Newton and Glenn Dickie organise. They both do a fabulous job and it’s a fascinating opportunity to play in Nashville and at great venues. We have now played at the Bluebird Cafe, The Basement under Grimey’s Record Store and this year we were on at the 5 Spot in East Nashville. Those shows were always going to be the start of this tour and we have learned that the great thing about America is that you can get from place to place easily, the freeways are good.
A: If you are willing to drive, it’s a much better proposition that flying.
R: Flying is pretty slow when you add up the total waiting and connecting time and then there’s airport security!
L: Yes, you can lose half a day in transit easily. So we check out of the hotel and it might be a three to six hour drive. I generally don’t like to make anything over six hours’ car travel. Because we only have three weeks, we stick to that and as we play a Southern Americana gothic sound that determines that we stay in the South at this stage. Generally about six months ahead would start looking at venues, where we might want to go, whether we want to hit the same places as before. We generally meet such beautiful people that we sometimes want to go back to the same places.
A: And it’s about building a crowd as well.
L: Like you do in Australia. If you go back to the same place, two to five people from the last show there come back and, if it happens each time, it’s a beautiful thing.
R: And they bring their friends
L: Exactly. Americans are so open-minded and are likely to go ‘Hey there’s some Australians playing in town, let’s go see them’. Word-of-mouth the Australian novelty factor have worked for us. One thing I do while working through potential venues is looking at where performers we admire have played and see if we can get in there. It doesn’t always work. Some places I’ve been trying to get us into for many years, such as the Red Clay Foundry in Duluth, Georgia. This time they wrote back within twelve hours and said you would be perfect for this proposed Americanoir line-up.
R: Nice term
L: Yes I am stealing that from Ben de la Cour
A: He’s an artist that you should have a listen to, from East Nashville.
L: He’s fantastic. He played at Red Clay. We played in Baton Rouge Louisiana this February and the manager wanted us to come back, even though it had only been six months since our first visit. We found as many of these as could and then filled in the gaps – we went from Nashville, to the middle-of-nowhere Pine Ridge Kentucky, then Morristown Tennessee. We played at WDVX, an Americana community station that we admire and wanted to support. We were there four years ago and kept in touch. Then we had a crazy run back to Nashville because our wonderful friend Kristy Cox asked us to play at the renowned Station Inn which you just can’t say no to. Even though it was not on our tour route, we came back for that.
R: That would have been a career highlight. To step on to the same stage that many icons and ghosts have done over the past forty years…and it looks like it hasn’t changed much over that time
L: The bathrooms haven’t ha ha.
A: Actually that was the second time we played there. The first was at the start of the year, in February, again with Kristy. This time with Catherine Britt and Melody Moko. It’s an amazing, sacred place.
R: The first time I went to the Station Inn was 2008 and the neighbourhood The Gulch was pretty dark and vacant after the show. In fact you did not feel like hanging around there for long late at night. Most of the patrons headed off in their cars pretty quickly and we seemed to be the only ones on foot. Now it’s a completely different scene, packed with high-rise apartments and up-market restaurants. In fact the landscape has changed so much around it that you do get worried about whether it can stave off the developers who would love to build another tower on that site.
L: Yes that’s right. I hope that the Emmylou Harris’s of this world will make sure that it’s not going anywhere.
A: Well, it’s an historic building. The people who have played there provide an amazing list of legends. Of course John Prine plays there. Gillian Welch I think has done secret shows and album launches there.
R: How did you find the acoustics there?
A: Amazing. Yeah, really cool.
L: We did have a more bluegrass style that night which suited the venue.
A: They mic things a lot more. The artists we were playing with were bluegrass acts, with mandolins and banjos. Because we were the support act we just walked up and played with mics around us. It was very intimidating in so many ways. First, it was The Station Inn, then the artists we were playing with were at the top of their game AND Tommy Emmanuel was sitting in the front row.
R: Was he watching your guitar playing intently did you think?
A: He was judging my left-handed ness! So the whole thing was pretty scary. But it was an incredible night. We have been very lucky that we have had a chance to play there twice.
L: Thanks to Kristy Cox. She is really good friends with Jerry Salley – her albums have been produced by Jerry. He is a big name in bluegrass at the moment having won the IBMA Songwriter of the Year Award. He really knows what he’s doing.
A: He’s worked with Chris Stapleton – a great singer and instrumentalist but is more renowned for his song writing. He’s written for everyone.
L: He’s just started his own bluegrass and Americana record label Billy Jam Records where he is A&R/Creative Director.
R: So getting back to your tour schedule
L: After Nashville we missed you by only about a day or so. We were just in opposite towns at opposite times. We did two shows with Kristy and Catherine and Melody then went straight on to the Isis Music Hall which is in Asheville, North Carolina another venue I’ve always wanted to play in. It’s a small intimate theatre in a hipster neighbourhood, Iris Dement plays there. A story that is worth telling. We love Walt Aldridge a great songwriter who writes more for Nashville artists now and we sing this song of his called “Ain’t No Ash Will Burn” which is one of our all-time favourite songs. We were playing in one section of the venue and in the other room Hannah Aldridge, his daughter, was performing. She came down and heard us play that song, recorded it there and then and sent it back to her Dad. Ah, one of those moments.
A: She came up to us and said “you played my Dad’s song”! Only in Asheville North Carolina.
L: Hannah’s actually coming out to Australia in January at the Tamworth Country Music Festival and doing a tour, including Melbourne as well, so keep an ear out for Hannah Aldridge. She’s really good. From there we started on our own path after that, going down to Duluth Georgia, just out of Atlanta, and again we played with Ben who we are hoping to get out to Australia. We did the same dark Americana style as him and it fitted very well. He’s also got a great sense of humour.
A: The guy who runs the Red Clay, Eddie Owen, is the sweetest guy in the world. He invited us afterwards back into his office to watch some baseball (the Atlanta Braves were playing) and drink Scotch. Luckily the home team won! We were lucky they made us feel so welcome, like family. They really listened to our music as well, talking about our songs and made some great observations like ‘When you played “Travelling Man” you did this etc.’ Eddie didn’t have to do all this, he was the promoter – he didn’t have to be there and certainly listen to our set so intently. He welcomed everybody in the audience as they came through the front door as well.
L: That’s the American way.
R: After a few trips to America you do alter your behaviour a little, throw off the Australian reserve and be more extroverted because that’s the style that they expect – speak your mind and don’t be too demur
L: That’s exactly right. You feel they want to know more about you and want you to talk about yourself and your own journey. It’s a lovely thing and they want to help.
R: American fans know their history and traditions – it’s ingrained into their psyches almost
L: That’s right, it is ingrained. What we find there, and why we keep going back, is that the type of music we play and the style of guitar music that Andrew likes and listened to when growing up. Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, Doc Watson, the players with Bill Monroe they are all revered and the fans’ understanding of the techniques and styles are already there. So they will come up and say ‘I love what you did with that song’.
A: They get what The Weeping Willows are about. We are just imitating other styles to the best of our abilities but at this point in time they seem to get what you are trying to do which is really affirming, helps the ego and makes you feel like you are hopefully on the right track
L: Going back to the generous nature of Americans – the number of times while we were touring, people we had just met on the day ‘Next time you come here come stay with me I’ll be offended if you don’t’.
A: This guy from Atlanta, when we played at Red Clay, came up for a chat after the show, bought both our records and offered up his cabin in the woods next time – in fact anytime we want – we can just have it for as long as we like – he’ll move out and stay with his friends while we’re there!
L: The same happened at Baton Rouge and their cabin in the bayou was offered to us.
A: In Muscle Shoals as well. Maybe we just looked like we needed a lot of help. Starving, unwashed!
L: They’re very gregarious and generous
A: Maybe Australians worry more – we are bit more reserved and unsure about people. Over there, if you’re on public transport some stranger is likely to say ‘I really like your shoes’ or ‘Where did you get that dress?’
L: Our experiences are largely in the South so maybe it’s not like that all over, but it has happened regularly to us
R: I agree – my travels are mainly in the Southern States as well and I feel a lot more comfortable in starting a conservation with a stranger over there compared with Australia. But maybe it’s because I’m on a music holiday, perhaps that’s a factor
A: It is a different mentality because of our reserve.
R: To wrap up, your most recent tour must have been an amazing journey for you both. Do you feel like you have been able to set building blocks in place establishing your name which will hold you in great stead for the next Weeping Willows visit?
L: It is slow but we don’t mind that part.
A: For me, the venues we played this time around are a step up. The size of venues, playing more theatres and listening rooms. My dream is to be able to play in small theatres and listening rooms for the rest of my life. I’ve always wanted to do that and it’s been really good that Laura has been able to get these shows and rely on friends from previous excursions. We don’t have a touring company.
R: Or a booking agent or a manager.
A: That’s right. It’s all Laura’s work. Laura books these US tours (and our Australian ones as well). But it does feel like it has been a nice slow burn. People have come back to see us play at towns we’ve hit before.
L: Wherever we can we use social media, local newspapers and in some cases radio to help spread the word wherever we are about to play. People we know help out a lot as well and they bring their own friends.
A: As can happen on any tour, there was one gig that when we rocked up we thought this is going to be a tough night, the PA looked like it was falling to bits, but the people there were incredible even though you wouldn’t have thought they would appreciate our music or any sort of music to be honest. People came up at the end and gave us hugs saying that song really touched them. Never judge a book by its cover! In fact it ended up being one of the best gigs of the tour – people were yelling and screaming support.
L: That’s why we do want to go back. As we said, it is expensive to do it that way, but that’s why we have our day jobs so we can try to go back a couple of times a year. But we also are very much due for a new album. Next year might have to be more about writing and recording.
R: Did you manage to write a bit while you were on the road?
A: We have a couple of new pieces that we road tested. I wish we could write quicker.
L: It’s really hard to write on the road. I’m sure most artists would say that. Because it is exhausting. You get up, drive for five/six hours, time for sound check, you might get dinner maybe, then you perform and meet and greet after, then often a late dinner.
A: For us touring there, while tiring, it’s a lot easier than in Australia, shorter distances and mostly you can drive and there are always places open late to get a bite. For us in particular we only carry one acoustic guitar, no amp even. The sound check is done in five minutes – that’s it we’re done. Also flying with guitars, US airlines are pretty supportive, they allow you to take your guitar on board they seem to be attuned to doing that there are tall cupboards up the front which have been designed for jackets. They hand it back as you get off.
R: Sound technicians over there really know their stuff. In Nashville for example you don’t even notice them and they seem to know what the artist wants with little or no dialogue.
A: That’s right. It’s interesting. They have a look at your guitar and they find the setting to make that guitar sound its best. ‘You’re playing a Gibson, OK’ then they get it right away. All the places we played at were right on top of things sound wise.
R: What are your next plans?
L: We have a few gigs but not a lot. We want to have a bit of down time, having travelled overseas three times this year, twice to America and with Lachlan Bryan to the UK and Europe. So we are little weary. Again, not being able to write while touring, we need that quieter time to get some songs together for the next album.
R: It’s been great talking. Thanks for your insights
A and L: Thank you!