Keith Urban and Jamie O’Neal — the first Australians to top the country charts since Olivia Newton-John in the early ’70s — may be among Nashville’s hottest properties at the moment. But another Aussie singer, Kasey Chambers , is turning the heads of music critics and roots music fans with her beautiful, pure country voice.
“I’m not in the same bag as them,” says Chambers, who doesn’t look much like anything coming out of Music Row, with a silver stud below
her lower lip, a navel ring and Goth-like eye makeup. “Most of my audience is not mainstream country music fans.”
Before Warner Bros. released The Captain, her American debut, the company made plans to position Chambers as a country artist on its Nashville-based Asylum imprint. After a closer look, however, the
game plan changed. With Chambers’ approval, the label’s Nashville (country) and Los Angeles (pop) divisions agreed to join forces in marketing the singer-songwriter. They concentrated their efforts on the Americana and Triple – A formats, placing Chambers in territory inhabited by singer-songwriters such as Lucinda Williams rather than in the more highly polished arena of commercial country radio.
Traveling 10,000 miles to Nashville last June, Chambers experienced an epiphany that brought clarity to her self-image. At the same time, Warner Bros. staffers in Nashville and on the coast got their first look at her and better understood where she might fit into the American popular music scene.
Chambers, 24, came to the U.S. to appear at International Country Music Fan Fair in Nashville. On a Monday afternoon, thousands of spectators sweltered at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds as they listened to Chad Brock, Bryan White and other country stars on the bill.
“Playing Fan Fair was a defining moment,” Chambers recalls in a phone interview during a tour stop in Ann Arbor, Mich. “I was flattered that I was asked to be on the show, but I realized it’s not really my gig.”
Three days earlier, Chambers appeared in an extremely different and more intimate setting, swapping songs with Williams, Joy Lynn White and Cindy Bullens at Nashville’s famed songwriting haunt, the Bluebird Café.
“Playing the Bluebird was a hard thing to top,” she observes. “That was the greatest show of my life; I got to sit next to Lucinda and listen to her sing all night. I certainly worked out which audience I liked better. I realized where I’m going musically and what sorts of people are going to want to hear that kind of music. Warner Bros. isn’t trying to get mainstream country radio play because they know my music is not going to fit [the format] and that’s not where I want to be.”
The Captain was released in Australia in 1999. Chambers has earned top awards from the Australian Recording Industry Association (the Australian equivalent of the Grammys) and the Country Music Association of Australia. The album was recorded primarily on Norfolk Island, off the coast of Australia in the South Pacific. Her
brother, Nash Chambers, produced and played bass on the project. Her father, Bill Chambers, supplied lead guitar. Alternative country favorite Buddy Miller added his harmonies on “These Pines” and “The Hard Way.” His wife Julie Miller did the same on the title track.
Before she signed with Asylum/Warner Bros., some Nashville record labels suggested that Chambers needed to polish her sound if she was to have any shot at success in the U.S. Her singing is marked by an emotional resonance. Staffers at the American music companies worried that her melancholy songs and sparse production would not mesh with the refined sound common on country radio playlists.
“I went through stages where I was shopping a deal and a lot of people said, ’Come to Nashville and we’ll re-record your album with the A-Team [of studio professionals] and co-write some of the songs,'” Chambers says. “I was lucky enough to be in a position where I could say no to things like that because I already had a career in Australia. I was able to wait around for a deal where the label wanted to take the album exactly the way it is.”
Even without support from country radio, The Captain has found a growing audience in America. Chambers has appeared on Late Night With David Letterman, Austin City Limits and the Grand Ole Opry. The Captain showed up on year-end best-of lists in The Village Voice, Rolling Stone and a variety of other
publications. The album’s title track will be played (April 15) during the closing credits of the popular HBO show The Sopranos and likely will be featured on the show’s next companion CD.
Chambers is zigzagging across the U.S. in support of The Captain. Sharing a bill with Junior Brown and Buckwheat Zydeco, she appears next Friday (March 16) at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas. She recently wrapped up a string of club dates opening for Texas country singer Robert Earl Keen, a road dog who has a rabid following of rowdy male college students.
“It was scary,” Chambers admits. “We started out in Baton Rouge then went to New Orleans during Mardi Gras week. As we walked out on stage, the crowd there had this big chant going — ’Robert Earl Keen, Robert Earl Keen.’ Everyone was drunk. But it got better as we went on. The further north we went, there were not as may college kids. It was a good challenge to get out there and try and win over a crowd that really doesn’t want to know about you.”
Drunken frat boys are nothing Chambers can’t handle. The singer is a former vagabond who spent the first 10 years of her life traveling the Australian Outback’s Nullarbor Plain, a vast wasteland that is one of the most desolate regions on earth. A month after Chambers was born, her parents sold almost all of their possessions and “went bush.” Bill Chambers specialized in trapping foxes for fur trade, and he taught his daughter to live off the land.
“We lived out of a car, and we were never in the same place for longer than one night,” Chambers recalls. “We were kind of like gypsies.”
While the family lived without modern conveniences like flush toilets and TV, they did have a cassette player and her father’s tapes, by Hank Williams, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. At night, the family would gather around a campfire to listen to and play music.
In “Southern Kind of Life,” The Captain’s autobiographical centerpiece, Chambers sings: “Daddy sang me Rodgers/Just to make everything all right.”
“I make it clear in my shows that it’s Jimmie Rodgers and not Kenny Rogers,” Chambers says with a chuckle.
At age 9, Chambers began singing in her family’s traveling country group, the Dead Ringer Band. The group recorded four albums, winning accolades from the Australian music industry, before Chambers stepped out on her own with The Captain, and her family faded somewhat into the musical background.
“We had been playing as the Dead Ringer Band on the road for about 10 years, and we were pretty sick of it by the end,” Chambers says. “Everyone was ready to do something different. Nash was getting a lot more into producing and engineering. My mom and dad broke up around that time, about four years ago. My mom and I went to Africa for a while, and when we got back, I had to decide what I was going to do next. I had all these songs I wrote just sitting around, so I
made the album just as an outlet for the songs.”
With her solo debut already two years old in Australia, Chambers will release another album there in June. Titled Barricades and Brick Walls, it will likely be available in the U.S. late this year or early next year. The new set of originals also features a cover of Parsons’ “Still Feeling Blue.” With Nash again at the production helm, the project features Nashville-based rock artist Matthew Ryan
on “A Million Tears” and Lucinda Williams on “On a Bad Day.” Williams once sent Chambers a note telling her that “Things Don’t Come Easy” — a song Chambers wrote for the Dead Ringer Band — had brought her to tears.
“Lucinda has been my biggest female role model,” Chambers notes. “I had never heard of Lucinda at all until she came to Australia in the late ’80s, touring with Rosanne Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter. I went to the show to see Rosanne Cash and was blown away by Lucinda. I got a couple of her records and then saw her again a few years later in Australia on her Sweet Old World tour. I listened to a lot of Emmylou Harris in the early days, but I probably listen to Lucinda more than any female singer.”
Chambers currently is performing Williams’ “Changed the Locks” on tour. With the Dead Ringer Band she recorded Williams’ “I Just Wanted to See You So Bad” and “Something About What Happens When We Talk.”
“I’ve done about 10 or 12 Lucinda songs over the years in the Dead Ringer Band and on my own shows,” Chambers says. She pauses and laughs: “I could start a Lucinda Williams cover band.”