"I wasn’t interested in not sounding like me anymore” Kasey Chambers shrugs, wrapping her hands around her coffee cup—the same hands that have received 29 music awards and raised three children. The same hands that pulled crayfish spines from their knuckles on Australia’s southern coast and hunted foxes under the Nullarbor’s endless blue sky.
It’s 1999 and Kasey Chambers is 23 years old. She’s spent the last five years traversing the arteries of Australia, singing in a family band. They’ve performed to empty stools in deserted pubs and to dust-cloaked festival masses. They’ve slept in motels, in vans and on the road in the rain and snow. It’s been a long road and she’s been living and breathing music for the length of it. But as she’s stepping into the studio to record her first solo album, ‘The Captain’, she still can’t help feeling "naïve, a little bit scared and a little bit excited.”
Fifteen years later, these feelings still linger.
"The new album was very much the same for me, because I didn’t quite know where it was going to go” she admits. "I had to let go a bit. I’m not good at that.” Now, in 2014, Kasey Chambers is preparing to release her 7th solo album, and enlisted the help of some local luminaries to pull the whole thing off.
Dan Kelly throws guitar in sparkling sheets and howling clouds over the entire record. Gentleman rock and roller Bernard Fanning—originally hired as a rhythm guitarist—reshapes his role to suit his explosive enthusiasm for the project. He transforms at will into guest vocalist and pianist. Matthew Englebrecht spreads his talents between bass and flugal horn, further enriching the album’s breadth and contrast. On drums, Declan Kelly adopts a diffuse array of styles, from rolling Americana to sharp sprays of rock and roll. Along with brand new producer Nick DiDia (whose credits include Pearl Jam, The Wallflowers and Bruce Springsteen to name just a few) Kasey has made what she calls "a massive leap of faith.”
But like all good country records, not everything’s new. The low, haunted voice of Bill Chambers, Kasey’s father and musical mentor, is wrapped lovingly over country gem ‘House on a Hill’, like a talisman from where it all began: their first family band, The Dead Ringer Band. Kasey and Bill’s first collaboration.
It’s 1992, and the phone’s ringing. It’s Slim Dusty. Bill Chambers doesn’t believe him, or at least not right away. The song Bill wrote for Slim Dusty — ‘Things Are Not The Same On The Land’ — has been accepted by the man himself, a commendation that sends the Dead Ringer Band to Tamworth. But not content to just play and be awarded, they busk. The wandering public love it, and the Dead Ringer Band are subsequently booked to play to their biggest show yet— the Gympie Muster. Soon the swirling, fablesque mist surrounding this nomadic family band reaches the music industry. Months later the phone rings again. This time nobody answers, but a message is left on the answering machine. It’s Tony Harlow, managing director of EMI.
Today, after years in the industry, Kasey is naïve no more. She’s felt music as both aggressor and healer— grinding and cleansing like some pure, vicious coast. It demands a lot from its maker. But whenever she feels lost, Kasey takes it back to basics. This raw approach helped knit together the loose threads that became the Lost Dogs, a band that healed Kasey, and allowed her to rediscover her love of song.
"I’m doing the exact same thing right now with this album” she admits. "The same thing that Lost Dogs did for me…I think it’s an ongoing thing…”
Now the music of Kasey Chambers seems buried in Australia’s bones. Beyond accolades and album sales, there’s something immutable about Kasey Chambers, something that makes her as vital to this land as the red rock where her music was born.
It’s 1982, and Kasey and her brother Nash open the door to the family truck. A vehicle their Dad navigates through the Nullarbor by "compass and the stars.” They turn on the tape deck. The crackled, mythic voices shimmering out of the speakers mesmerize them with their stories. Hank Williams, Gram Parsons, the Carter Family, Johnny Cash. All spinning stories of love and loss; of cowboys, harrowing escapes and rambling troubadours. Stories of life and death. They learn every word.
More so than ever before, Kasey Chambers is writing like a true storyteller. The unrequited, antiquated refrains of ‘Oh Grace’ are sung as a man yearning his one true love. Likewise the broken-hearted nostalgia of ‘Bittersweet’ captures the story of two old lovers from both sides. Even ‘Stalker’ sees Kasey shedding her skin and imagining prowling after the fictional Spencer Reid, the socially-awkward genius from Criminal Minds. "In the show, the characters really have no personal life…so I kept thinking ‘how would I get the character Spencer Reid to notice me?...What crime am I willing to commit?’…”
But despite finding new ways to craft her stories, Kasey Chambers is still inimitably her. From the red dust of her nomadic childhood to the surf coast where she’s raised her family, Kasey’s always maintained that her records have been a testament to "who [she] was at the time”. And her newest album is proof that she’s unwilling to settle for anything less.
"I don’t want to write songs based on what I think people want to hear from me. I hope that in the end, this is what they warm to.”