Kasey Chambers: Down Undercover Angel?
One of Australia’s most popular and celebrated singer-songwriters enjoys touring America. Even if she isn’t known on a first-name basis in this country like fellow Aussies who simply can go by Olivia, Kylie, Keith and Nicole.
Maybe Kasey Chambers, who wraps up a short tour in the States with an appearance at the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival on August 18, needs a nickname to get noticed here. Since she recently released an album of songs written by some of her favorite roots artists like Gram Parsons, Gillian Welch and Paul Kelly, what about Down Under-Cover Angel? OK, to most of us in the U.S., that’s about as tasteful as a Vegemite sandwich.
With all her credentials, from multi-platinum-selling records to a mantel-full of awards from the Australian Recording Industry Association and Australasian Performing Right Association, just let the sweet-bird-of-youth voice that belongs to Chambers speak for itself.
If some Americans don’t have a clue about her musical stylings, which remain under the strong influences of authentic country artists from Hank Williams to the Carter Family, Chambers said she still feels “an instant connection” to those audiences that do, “even though we have probably lived lives that are worlds apart.”
“I grew up on mostly American country music,” explained Chambers over the phone, the day before she was embarking on a 14-hour plane ride to the U.S. with her third child (and first girl), 9-month-old Poet Poppin, who will turn 1 in October.
This essentially is Chambers’ own family tour. Her brother Nash is her manager and sound technician on the road. Her mom Diane handles Kasey’s merchandise sales as she always does, and her dad Bill, who was raised by religious parents drawn to gospel-style music, sings while playing dobro, lap steel and mandolin in her band.
“So it’s good,” Chambers said. “I have two babysitters on the road.”
Her husband, Shane Nicholson, didn’t make this trip, staying home with their boys in the little beach town about two hours north of Sydney called Copacabana. “It’s not quite as exotic as it sounds,” Chambers said. “It’s a really nice, kind of lazy town.”
She’ll probably return to the States at some point with Nicholson to promote their next album, Wreck & Ruin, which will be released here in October (Sugar Hill), a month after coming out in Australia.
This time around, she could focus on numbers from last year’s Little Bird and a wide range of songs from Storybook, the album of covers that became available in the U.S. and the rest of the world through Amazon on July 30.
With the grueling task of narrowing down the field to 15 selections (“I think one day I might have to make a Storybook II,” she said), Chambers picked personal favorites, some of which she had previously recorded, along with “songs by artists that have had a huge influence on me.”
Among the best are Lucinda Williams’ “Happy Woman Blues,” Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” John Prine’s spunky “Leave the Lights On” and a live version of Patty Griffin’s “Top of the World.”
“I really could have picked any of 20 Lucinda songs and they all would have been fine in my head,” Chambers said. “It was really more about representing Lucinda as an artist. … So I just ended up picking the first Lucinda song that I ever sang.”
Chambers said she was in “the right place at the right time” when her career in Australia “snowballed” with her second solo album, 2001’s Barricades & Brickwalls, particularly after the single “Not Pretty Enough” went to No. 1 on the pop charts.
“Look, I’d like to think it’s because I was so talented, but I know how the industry works,” she joked, with a hearty cackle that sounds like a mash-up of Keith Richards and Sharon Osbourne rather than her own youthful singing voice. “So I’m not gonna kid myself about that.
“All the stuff that was on the charts at the time in Australia was Britney Spears and Shakira. … All this kind of very shallow-type music. Then I brought out this song called ‘Not Pretty Enough.’ And I just think all these young girls kind of related to this song automatically and it was just lucky enough to get picked up on the radio. All these girls wanted to be Britney Spears but they actually felt more like Kasey Chambers. (laughs) They actually felt real and not quite as pretty as all these people they were seeing on television. And it really struck a chord here in Australia.”
Yet, she said achieving worldwide popularity never was on her agenda. “You know, the thought of that sort of success in America freaks me out. It seems like a whole other pressure.”
Enduring that sort of stress led to discussing Missy Higgins, an Australian pop star who joined Chambers on “Beautiful Mess” from Little Bird.
At last year’s Folks Festival, Higgins mentioned going through an “existential crisis” three years earlier, and contemplated never making music again.
“She’s certainly someone I admire and it’s great that she’s doing so well,” Chambers said. “It’s great that she’s back in music. But I totally get where she’s coming from, you know.”
The introspective nature of the craft, Chambers added, can eventually take you into this gray area about why you’re writing songs and “it’s easy to sort of end up in a place where you kind of question all of that. But it’s good that you do as well. … (Higgins) was really successful here at the time and could have easily just rode that wave. It takes a lot of courage to step away from that and find yourself again, I guess.”
Chambers went through a rough patch a few years ago, too, but her eating disorder involved more than soul-searching. She provided details of that ordeal in her recently released autobiography, A Little Bird Told Me.
The revelation surprised a lot of people in her homeland, Chambers said, adding, “It was very much a private thing that went on that nobody apart from my immediate family really knew about.”
The physical anguish was rough enough, but it also affected one of her most enduring relationships.
“I ended up just really hating music,” Chambers said. “I just went through this time where I didn’t want anything to do with music. I just hated music around me and hated the thought of doing gigs and hated the idea of writing songs. It was really awful.
“The thing that sort of drew me back to the love of music and I guess pulled me out of this dark time was I started this little band, which is weird when you’re going through this time of hating music. I started this little band with my husband and my dad, just little local gigs under a different name (called the Lost Dogs after the John Prine album Lost Dogs & Mixed Blessings) where we just played all of our favorite cover songs (many of which landed on Storybook). … Playing music and getting back to loving music again.”
Chambers said, “I came back with a new appreciation for music as well as rediscovering the old love for music, too, which was really great. Since then, I feel like I’ve gotten back on track.”
The birth of her youngest son (named after Arlo Guthrie) and Poet followed. And while Chambers might be able to hide her age with her appearance and her voice, that laugh gives it away when asked if she feels as young as she sounds.
“Depends on what day you ask me. Depends on what sort of day I’ve had with my kids,” she said, followed by an infectious blast reverberating all the way from Copacabana. “Some days I feel 30 years older than I am.”
Hopefully, the rest of America will discover the Down Under Wonder Woman before three more decades pass. Even then, expect her to keep humming like a little bird.
Onstage With Kasey Chambers
During our interview, Chambers answered a few random questions related to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival and performing live.
What do you remember most about your last visit to the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival in 2005? “Seeing Arlo Guthrie play. The atmosphere of a festival where you can watch a songwriter tell so many stories and feel like you are the only person listening to him in the place is quite amazing when you’re playing at a massive festival.”
Biggest reason for returning? “Uh, because they asked us. (laughs) I would play every year if they asked me.”
In one sentence, how has life/career changed since then? “Hopefully, I’m better … (laughs) but I can’t guarantee it.”
Performing solo or with a band? Along with her father Bill Chambers, the band includes 19-year-old Ashleigh Dallas (fiddle, guitar, vocals) and Michael Muchow (guitar, banjo and “a little bit of everything,” Chambers said).
Go-to instrument in concert? A small-body DeGruchy acoustic guitar, handmade by a friend in Adelaide in South Australia. “I play guitar — very badly. But it is like my security blanket playing the guitar. … I often look at Emmylou Harris and her jumbo guitar and I think, ‘How come she looks so cool with this jumbo guitar?’ Because then I stand behind one of them and you can hardly see me.”
Go-to cover song? “Still Feeling Blue” by Gram Parsons. “But the reason it’s not on (Storybook) is that I already had it on my album Barricades & Brickwalls. I sing it with my dad. … I think it’s sort of comforting, too. I remember my dad sitting around the campfire when I was a kid growing up in the outback. And every single time he would play that song.”
If you had to choose: Plugged, unplugged or a cappella? “Unplugged. I think that suits me best. Sitting around a kitchen table just playing music.”
What was your worst festival experience, either as a performer or spectator? The Homebake Festival in Sydney in 2008 with the Tim Rogers-fronted Australian band You Am I. “They asked me to come sing with them. And I was super-excited because this was really a cool band, not just popular. So I learned this song (“Heavy Heart”) and then I got there and they changed it just slightly, which they had told me they were going to do. And I totally convinced them I was prepared for this. And they brought me out to sing this song with them as a duet, and I just like totally lost it and did the worst performance ever. I was so bad. And I came home to my husband (Shane Nicholson). And he said, ‘How did it go?’ And I’m like, ‘It was terrible. I was so bad. I was just awful.’ And he’s saying, ‘No, no, no. I’m sure it’s not half as bad as you think.’ And then he watched it on YouTube and he said, ‘Oh no, you’re right. It was terrible.’ ”
Dream collaborator in concert? “Certainly not You Am I. (laughs) Actually, I think I would probably go with John Prine. He’s one of my most favorite, favorite singer-songwriters. He’s the person that I would want to see in concert. I’ve seen most of my idols play.”
Who are you looking forward to seeing perform at the Folks Festival? Informed that she’ll just miss Kathleen Edwards, who plays the previous night, Chambers sounds disappointed. “You know, it’s funny. I’ve never even met her in person. And we have been meaning to do some shows together and they just didn’t sort of work out. And now we talk to each other on Twitter. … I hope we get to cross paths one day. … Am I right, is Gretchen Peters playing (the same day as Chambers)? Well, I’d love to see her play as well. And you know what’s really lame is that’s how I know that as well, through Twitter.”
Best late-night TV atmosphere: Leno, Letterman, Conan O’Brien or someone else? “It’s a hard one because I played Letterman back in like 2002 (and thinks it was “Cry Like a Baby,” her first solo single). Maybe 2003 or ’04. I was so nervous. … And I was freaking out so much that I did not get a chance to enjoy it at all. … I honestly found the whole experience just really intimidating. And they were lovely people, don’t get me wrong. It really was just me. … And by the time I got to play Conan O’Brien (“Rattlin’ Bones” with her husband), I had actually played more shows on TV and was a lot more comfortable. I really got to enjoy that experience.”
Publicity photos courtesy of Sugar Hill Records.
See the video of Adam & Eve from the upcoming album Wreck & Ruin by Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson: