Kasey Chambers – Don’t take it personal
“This record isn’t like three years of therapy for me. I look back on Barricades and I can hear every moment in there of those three years prior to bringing that record out — that struggle of getting through that time, and that happiness of having that baby and all of those sorts of things.”
Here’s her dirty little secret: Kasey Chambers hardly even plays that acoustic guitar. “Onstage I can’t really live without one because I feel a bit naked,” she says, calling from tomorrow in Australia. “Even when I’m not playing I have one strapped to my back.” And, although she says an acoustic is always the center of her songwriting, she never plays it in recording sessions.
So perhaps it shouldn’t be especially surprising that there’s no acoustic guitar on Carnival, her new album on Warner Bros. The introduction of keyboards may be a better metaphor for the new approach she explores. Australian rockers from Midnight Oil, Powderfinger and You Am I fill in spots that might’ve featured Lucinda Williams or Buddy Miller on previous releases, and while Chambers’ vocals retain their indelible country tinge, there’s nary a twang in the whole Carnival collection.
Carnival discards the template of Chambers’ four previous releases, which established her as Australia’s premier country artist while simultaneously propelling her to the top of that continent’s pop charts, and establishing a promising foothold in the United States. But her new sound is not about subtraction so much as addition, or substitution.
Instead of a radical departure, Carnival is more like a visit to an opposite shore of Chambers’ proven ground: vivid, catchy songwriting delivered with a unique and compelling voice. “I had a little inkling in the back of my mind that maybe this was the record that I might want to slip out of my comfort zone,” Chambers says.
She credits her brother and producer, Nash, with dragging her out when the slip didn’t come easily. “He said, ‘Maybe we should try some different things; maybe that means a new producer or something like that.’ I said, ‘Well, maybe we could both do it'” — an indication that changing producers was a little further than she cared to stray.
“The thing is, my brother gets to produce a lot of different locals as well, so he does get to step out of his comfort zone, so it’s a little easier for him to do that,” she says. “I really didn’t even know what sort of record I wanted to make; I just wanted to try a different approach. I’ve always had a rock song on the record and some blues songs and things like that, but I think that this one has less of the country stuff. It wasn’t a conscious decision; we just decided to try a different approach and that’s sort of how it turned out.”
Chambers’ duet with You Am I frontman Tim Rogers is a telling, if perhaps extreme, example of how it turned out. The attitude of “I Got You Now” is a growling, fiercely dominant contrast to the veiled irony of “Am I Pretty Enough” (the Australian radio hit from Chambers’ 2001 Barricades And Brickwalls): “I got your mind/I got your soul/I got you held up like a prisoner cryin’ blind/But I got you in control/Baby let’s rock and roll.” Chambers and Rogers deliver the song as a call-and-response over a driving rock beat worthy of the Cramps; the outro is a feedback meltdown.
“I wrote that song with that kind of sounding vocal in mind,” Chambers says, “but I didn’t really know who owned that voice. I wanted it to be kind of dirty and gritty and technically not perfect and kind of sounding like you’ve smoked too many cigarettes or something. It was actually my husband [singer-songwriter Shane Nicholson] that said, ‘You know, it’s Tim Rogers from You Am I. You keep describing this person and that’s the person that comes to mind, so you should get him.’ [It] just makes more sense having Tim on it because it’s quite a heavy song for me to play.”
“It’s A Hard Road”, Chambers’ duet with Bernard Fanning of Brisbane’s arena-rock expansive Powderfinger, is more in the nature of a rock ballad, but its imagery is despairing, almost gothic: “There’s blood in the kitchen/In the shape of a sin/There’s a ship in the water/But it ain’t comin’ in.” Fanning’s soulful vocals match Chambers’ emotional delivery, weaving and cracking in the harmonies with the Gram Parsons sensibility he revealed in his recent solo release Tea & Sympathy. The song opens with a simple keyboard part leading into a downbeat arrangement, anchored by Jeff McCormack’s imaginative bass part and highlighted with a short harmonica break by Fanning.
Chambers had worked with Fanning before and had discussed with Rogers the possibility of working together at some point, so those two were at least within reach of her comfort zone. Not so with Midnight Oil’s Jim Moginie.
“I’d never met Jim before,” she says. “Working with him in the studio that first day was really weird for me because I usually have to know someone really well or be blood relations to them to feel comfortable working with them.” (Chambers’ father Bill is her regular guitar player, but he sat this project out.)
“I’m not even really a Midnight Oil fan so I hadn’t grown up listening to Jim, [but] he met my brother Nash, and my husband knew a lot about how he played, and he suggested, ‘You know, he would be great on this record, just take my word for it.’ That’s part of this record — let’s take some chances and do some different things — and he was amazing.
“He just thinks in such a different way than I do and yet he understands the sort of music that I was trying to make. And playing with a keyboard player! I’ve had a piano on one track on one of my records, but to actually be playing in a band with a keyboard player, I’ve never done it. He played…all these different sounds that I hadn’t really heard along with my voice before. I didn’t even realize that it would be that different, but it was, and it was really exciting!”
Moginie contributed piano, electric guitar and mandola parts, all surprisingly subtle and integrated. Other surprises lurk in the reggae lurch of the title track; the sultry, jazzy, blues drumming on “Light Up A Candle”; and the dance beats in “Surrender”. But even though the character of the album’s instrumentation runs more to rock ‘n’ roll, brother Nash stayed in the zone with his production. Arrangements remain well in the background to Chambers’ guileless, child-woman voice, the raw emotion of her delivery, and the captivating imagery of her lyrics.