Despite having written songs for more than half of her 40 years, country music star Kasey Chambers says she is only now accepting that she may be able to do it well.
The difference between now and any other point in her incredibly successful career is where once writing was useful and frequently necessary a form of self described “therapy”, now she sees it as a craft. A craft that can sometimes still be therapy, obviously.
Her new album, Dragonfly, is a 20-song strong collection, that shows just the results of this fertile period of writing. It was released last month as a double album with one disc (The Sing Sing Sessions) being produced by her friend and mentor Paul Kelly while the other (The Foggy Mountain Sessions) was overseen by her regular producer, brother Nash Chambers.
Dragonfly hit number one on the ARIA charts. It is the fifth time she has achieved this feat. Three more of her albums have made top 10. Not even Kylie Minogue can match that. Far from going soft and preparing for middle age, this album contains some of the most raw and untamed singing ever to top the charts.
In typically modest fashion Chambers says that as she has never held down a regular job, and that writing and performing is all she knows how to do, she just keeps at it. What she has done for much of the past decade-and-a-half since her debut solo album, The Captain, was released and achieved double platinum sales is write and sing of her life. This includes the ups and downs of the mother-of-three’s relationships. One of her ex-partners, Harry Hookey, was very involved with the making of this album, both as a co-songwriter and as guitarist and vocalist.
Chambers takes a fair swipe at an unnamed lover in both the lead single Ain’t No Little Girl and the brilliantly titled You Ain’t Worth Suffering For. When asked if any or all ex-lovers may have been hoping the songs weren’t about them, Chambers lets out a big laugh and says, “Harry played all over the record so I think he already knows which songs are about him.”
Such honesty in her songwriting is apparent because, Chambers says, “I can’t help myself.” She then explains something of her process by using the example of Talking Baby Blues, an early-Dylan-styled song which tells the story of her life in four-and-a-half, eye opening and side-splitting minutes.
“It doesn’t get much more in your face and honest,” she laughs. “When I first wrote it, it wasn’t like I didn’t like it, in fact I loved it, but it was one I didn’t think I would ever feel comfortable playing (in public). It was one I thought I would play around home. But then I played it live a couple of times and then I got comfortable with it. And then it turned into the fact that I actually like that it is very revealing.”
She credits Paul Kelly for the inclusion of the song on her album. With all but one of her albums being produced by Nash – including two albums with ex-husband Shane Nicholson – she was looking for a change. Initially the plan was that Paul and Nash would each produce half the album. She had it clear in her mind which songs she would record with each.
“Me and Paul had gone into the studio to record five songs or something, and then do the next session, the same with Nash and put them together as one record.
“It went so quickly and everything fell into place so well that I ended up getting some old songs out. Not super old and I had written them since the last record (2014’s Bittersweet) but they were some other songs I hadn’t even thought of recording. Paul said, ‘let’s try some out because we have time and they don’t have to make the record.’”
But make the record they did. A number of the songs were co-writes with Hookey, who she says she simply enjoys working with.
“I really love writing with Harry, we just clicked on this record. Even though he’s my ex and we have been through some shit together and all that sort of thing, on a writing level we just connect. Luckily we stayed friends and have a great relationship where we are able to keep that writing going.
“I think it is that I am actually enjoying songwriting more than ever. I think it is because I have more of a handle on how to…” Chambers pauses to emphasise the next word, “craft songs. Sometimes it is like Ain’t No Little Girl where I am pouring my heart out and being really honest and all of that but then sometimes like with Behind The Eyes Of Henri Young it is that I have it in my sights of what kind of song I want to write. And, it’s about a character and not about me. I find a great challenge in that.”
Young is a real person whose life was the subject of the 1995 Hollywood movie, Murder In The First. Chambers recalls seeing it at the time of release and the story struck a chord. It was only now, 20 years later, that she felt she could tell the tale of this murderer in a fashion that did it justice. She is quick to point out that the movie deviates from Young’s real life in its journey to the screen and that she follows the plot of the movie. “As per usual, they Hollywood-ed it up a bit. I based my song on the story from the movie so I’ve Hollywood-ed it up a bit too then,” she says. “It’s all for the sake of the song for me.”
Even better are the dramatic bones Chambers and Hookey add to the infamous 1978 Guyana mass suicide, chronicled in Jonestown. It is simply one of her most impressive songs, period.
“I’m not a political songwriter where I am trying to get a message across and make big statements,” she explains. “Really it is about being caught up in the moment. And when it comes down to it I’m just sitting down and writing a song.
“I love it, I really do. I’m only realising it as I am saying it to you right now. I’ve had a lot of people ask where did all these songs come from and I haven’t really had an answer for that. I said I wasn’t sure but as I am saying this out loud I think it is that I enjoy songwriting more than I ever have. I feel really on top of it right now. I know what sort of song I want to write at the time and I feel I can get there quicker. Look, you would hope you would get better at this stuff the more you do it. And if not it might be time to change jobs, but I really am enjoying it.”
Kasey Chambers and band plays the following dates in WA: April 28, Queens Park Theatre, Geraldton; April 29, Astor Theatre, Mount Lawley; April 30, Ravenswood Theatre, Ravenswood; May 2, Bunbury Entertainment Centre; May 4, Albany Entertainment Centre; May 5, Esperance Civic Centre; May 6, Goldfields Arts Centre.