By Polly Coufos Photo: Lisa Businovki It was a balmy Thursday night between last Christmas and New Year. The bar of the South Fremantle Football Club at Fremantle Oval had been turned over to a mob of middle-aged and older country music fans.
It was like stepping back in time. It was a gig where there was a door prize, raffles, a light supper delivered to each of the trestle tables and even an urn with packets of Arnott's biscuits at the ready. Many of the punters were dressed in their best western outfits. There were rock and roll dancers, line dancers and people just shaking what they had. Despite the age of almost everyone there the air was filled with that positive, life-affirming energy that only comes from live music.
For the rhythm guitarist and harmony singer in the headlining act it was a night like one she has experienced all through her life. Singer/songwriter, Melody Pool, has grown up around music and picking and singing with her father, Alby, is something she has always enjoyed. Alby Pool is something of a legend of the local country music scene. He and his family moved east over 20 years ago and when he returns for a rare show it's a big deal. Melody, who has released two of the best reviewed albums of recent times (2015’s ‘The Hurting Scene’ and last year’s ‘Deep Dark Savage Heart’), looked very relaxed and to be enjoying herself, basking in a little of her father's reflected glory. She was being very careful to not upstage the star but during the night Melody came centre stage at one point and delivered a heart-wrenching reading of Roy Orbison's 'Crying'.
As good as Alby is or was, this one song took the set to a whole other level. At the time, it just seemed like the perfect match of artist and song. On reflection and after viewing Melody on ABC's Australian Story last week, the song sums up much of her life in recent years. She soared through the chorus, wringing each last bit of heartache from Orbison's classic. When it was done she moved back to her spot behind her father's left shoulder and again offered understated yet gorgeous harmonies.
“It's always a relief to be in the backing band because all the pressure's off when you don't have to be the front person,” Melody says with the characteristic laugh. “Also, one of my favourite things about music is harmony and I love the chance to sing harmonies. It's always fun when I get to do that. I find it harder to be in the backing band and having to switch into frontwoman mode to sing lead on a song.” She remains caught between these two positions. One that feeds her desire to make music because that is what she has always done and it's the family business, but the other recognises her singular talents and desire to communicate very directly her most intimate thoughts with her own audience.
Melody has been battling depression for a number of years. ‘Deep Dark Savage Heart’ she even has a song called ‘Black Dog’. This battle had led her to the point where she is on the verge of taking a break from music. In very open fashion Melody spoke on the Australian Story program of a troubled relationship with Australian singer/songwriter, Harry Hookey, and how their breakup affected her so profoundly. “I think most of my close friends know more about me now than they did before Monday.” Indeed, this writer has seen Melody sing her song Henry on several occasions. Often she prefaced it with a disparaging yet humorous comment or two about ‘Henry’ without naming him. Her deeply personal songs come from a pure and often dark place. She makes no apologies for this. She writes songs about her life. Maybe they are her life.
Telling the truth in this fashion may make great art, but she is under no illusion that this art does not come without cost. In the same way that Melody agreed to do Australian Story (“I was a little apprehensive because it is a really scary thing. But, I think the fact that I knew it could help people outweighed that.”) she recognises that she is dealing with issues that many people have to deal with. “So much songwriting has to do with venting just getting things out on a page,” she says. These raw emotions are then crafted into songs, songs that are sweated over and polished until at last she is sure an audience is ready to hear them. “I am really precious about my songwriting. I am really adamant to never have a filler line and that every line must have an impact in some way. I don't know if it is because I am so fussy that makes it so confronting and challenging at times for a listener.”
Melody has written songs that do not exact such an emotional toll on her well-being, but explains that given there is less personal investment in the subject matter, the results rarely please her. “They don't take so much from me emotionally I am less picky with the lyrics and I tend to finish them and think, 'Oh, that's a bit of a nothing song’. It doesn't really mean anything.” The songs drain energy from her as well, each time she performs them. She says she feels the emotions she felt when writing them each time they are sung. “I feel it. I am not one of those musicians who go and have a few drinks after a gig or go out and party. I just have to go home and zone out. Those songs take so much from me emotionally, they are exhausting. I try really hard in performance because I don't think I am naturally a showgirl; I can't just put on a show. When I play live I just try to throw myself totally into it and be in that moment even if it does feel far away.” She then adds, by way of understatement. “It is a bit taxing.”
She is ready for a break. Indeed she blurted out to the producer of Australian Story that she was going to take time off to recharge her batteries and to see just how badly she truly wants this music career. Melody is not sure how long the break will be. So far she knows she wants to study and create some visual art. She acknowledges she has a creative streak that she wishes to embrace (at one stage during her teen years she had also wanted to be an actor) without any expectations from her or her growing audience. “The fact is I lost a bit of passion for music and a creative outlet is so important to my well-being, but, with songwriting it came to be that I had to be good at it and it could not be just a job and my livelihood. When I started doing art it was really liberating because I could be really shit at it and no one would care. It is such a great creative outlet because there is no pressure to be great at it. I could just learn at my own pace.”
For much of her life, Melody has been crippled by doubts over her abilities. She says that for years she felt she was just “winging it” and fluking the positive responses she received from many of the country's most respected music critics. She was very worried that “one day everyone would find out that I was a fraud and really was not very good.” She laughs again. “I am a lot more confident in it now.” When pressed for the moment when she knew she had something of substance to offer the world she says it was when she was added to the bill for shows with The Eagles at Hanging Rock and Hunter Valley in early 2015. “That was huge. The show went well and I thought 'maybe I am good at this'. I felt confident that I could handle a show that big. I've always got a little bit of self-doubt and I like that because it will make me strive to be better. If I didn't have that I might become stagnant.” The Eagles' lead singer, Don Henley, returns to Perth next week. Melody will once again be supporting him, this time with her trio comprising Hayley Jane Ayres on violin and Madeleine Becker on cello. “I knew Don Henley liked my stuff and he got my CDs,” he says. “I don't know what happened from there but I am looking forward to finding out.”
Melody Pool joins Don Henley and Jewel for A Day On The Green at Kings Park and Botanic Gardens on Sunday, March 5. Details and national dates at www.adayonthegreen.com.au. Deep Dark Savage Heart is out now.