Southern (Hemisphere) Kind of Girl
Kasey Chambers has a song on her debut solo album, The Captain, called “Southern Kind of Life.” With its easy twang, the catch in her voice, and lyrics about trying to bring a small town lifestyle to the big city, it could easily be about the southern United States. But it’s about southern Australia, because that’s where Chambers hails from.
“I realized when we came over here that that song is much more related to here than it is Australia,” she told me in a March telephone interview during a tour stop in Atlanta. “I’d never been to America when I wrote that song. It wasn’t necessarily about the South and North. It wasn’t like a geographical song in that sense. I come over here and the South and the North is such a big thing over here, and it’s not really in Australia — I mean, one’s cold and the other one’s hot. That’s about it. It’s a lot more relate-able over here, which is really cool.”
Chambers spent a great deal of her childhood leading a nomadic life on Australia’s Nullarbor Plain, where her father was a fox-trapper during the day. She describes it as a remote and isolated place, but as a young child, it was all she knew. Today, she is thankful to have had the experience, but… “I could never go back there and live like that now,” she says. “I like having a shower and bedroom.”
And she’s discovered culinary delights beyond the kangaroo that occasionally provided a family meal. “I don’t know, doesn’t everything taste like chicken? I thought everybody ate kangaroo. That was really normal for us. We couldn’t take anything out there or anything like that. If we wanted to eat, we had to go and hunt it. I realized later that that was just weird. It’s even weird in Australia.”
But that time spent in the outback was also the genesis for Chambers’ musical career, as it turned out. Her father, Bill Chambers, was a fan of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Gram Parsons, and often led the family in campfire sing-a-longs that provided Kasey her early musical education.
In 1986, Kasey and family returned to civilization and eventually formed a family band called The Dead Ringer Band. During the ’90s, the band recorded seven country music CDs and earned two ARIA awards (Australia’s equivalent of the Grammys).
Then, in 1997, the band called it quits when Kasey’s parents separated and she went to live in Africa with her mother, Dianne. She says much of her album The Captain was inspired by her experiences during this period.
“Africa is a very inspirational kind of place. But I think a lot of it was what I was going through emotionally at the time, with my parents breaking up. That was the first time that I’d ever been apart from my family. I’d never been apart from my Dad for that long.”
These days, Kasey’s solo career is still very much a family affair. Her brother, Nash, produced and played on The Captain, Dad plays guitar on the record and in Kasey’s touring band, and Mom goes along on the road to sell merchandise.
“They had a lot to do with my career, and they’re just great people to have around to keep me down to earth and keep me happy. Because going on the road, I don’t really have a chance to meet anybody. But all my closest friends and my family are all there with me. I’d be really lost without them. They do a lot more hard work for my career than I do. I just get to do all the good stuff.”
The Captain went platinum in her native Australia when it was released in 1999, and Kasey garnered another ARIA award for the record. Upon its release in the States last year, the record drew additional praise from music critics, and wound up on many top ten lists alongside perennial Americana favorites like Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris. She also has heard nice things over the past couple of years from fellow artists she idolizes, such as Lucinda Williams. And Earle has said he wants to record with Kasey.
“It’s really kind of overwhelming, to be honest. It feels like it’s a little hard to live up to sometimes. But it’s really flattering. I’ve looked up to these people for so long, and they’ve been my role models.”
One of the songs on The Captain that has garnered much attention for Chambers is “Cry Like a Baby.” “I’m not much like my generation,” Kasey sings. “Their music only hurts my ears.”
“That’s kind of about the fact that music these days, music made by my generation, is a lot different than it was a long time ago,” she says. “It’s kind of the business side of music overrides the art side, which is really disappointing to me. I mean, I know it’s got to be both, but I’ve always been brought up to believe that art is first. Y’know, a lot of people just want to play music to become a big star or make some money or whatever.”
Despite the shallow and formulaic music out there these days, Kasey isn’t entirely disheartened by what she hears. “A lot of my favorite albums have been made in the last few years. It’s just unfortunate that that’s not the sort of stuff that is getting most of the recognition. But I’m just a big believer in music should really be, anything creative that you do should be the most honest that you ever get with yourself. It should be as real as you are as a person.”
Kasey’s affection for the music of other artists extends to her live show, a large portion of which is taken up with covers of songs by the likes of Neil Finn, Matthew Ryan, Lucinda Williams, and Fred Eaglesmith.
“I love singing covers. And I don’t really have any way of choosing the songs I do. I guess they probably choose me a little bit more. It’s just the ones that I’m drawn to and that I love singing. And I love trying out different things as well with different artists. Covering a Ben Harper song probably isn’t the easiest thing for a country singer to do. But, y’know, I’m a big fan, so I thought, ‘why not?’.”
As for writing her own songs, Chambers says it is still a very personal experience. “I’d be really embarrassed if people knew what my songs were really about sometimes. There are some things I want to keep to myself. When I sit down and write a song, it’s kind of the last thing on my mind that I have to play it to 200 strangers every night or anything. It just comes out the way it’s supposed to. I like being that honest with myself.”
Fans of Chambers will be able to hear more of that honesty when she releases her follow-up to The Captain later this year. Much of the record is already recorded, and will include musical cameos from the aforementioned Matthew Ryan and Lucinda Williams, as well as ace guitarist Buddy Miller, who along with wife Julie, added texture to The Captain.
“It’s a little different from The Captain. I’m kind of in a different state than I was three years ago when I made The Captain. I’m pretty sure it’s in the same vein enough that the people that liked it will probably like [the new one], as well. But I’m obviously writing about a lot of different things, because I’m doing a lot of different things and seeing a lot of new places and meeting a lot of different people.”
Before the new album, though, Kasey will tour her native Australia with one of her idols, Emmylou Harris. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet. Once I get over to tour, I’ll start getting really excited. I mean, it’s like a dream come true. I never thought I’d be on tour with someone like that. It’s just amazing. I was excited just to get to go to her show last time, but I get to watch her every night for two weeks!”
And although she enjoys coming to America to tour and share the camaraderie of like-minded country artists in places like Nashville and Austin, Chambers says Australia will always be her home. Besides, there is one American phenomenon she has experienced and come away unimpressed — the TV show Survivor.
“I’ve only seen one episode, and to be honest with you, it just makes me laugh. I can see why people like it, I guess, but I’d rather watch Seinfeld.”
For Kasey, it’s pretty much “been there, done that” anyway.