Country singer Kasey Chambers has done a lot of living in her 25 years. Her life has been an open book, first through the personal songs she has written and recorded, and now, quite literally, through a biography written by her former manager about Chambers and her family.
Already a star in her native Australia — and approaching that status in America — Chambers still seems surprised that people are so interested in her life.
“I’m really flattered that people want to know my story,” she says during a recent phone interview from her home in Avoca Beach, New South Wales, outside Sydney. “It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve realized how different my life has been and how lucky I am to have had that life.”
Chambers spent the first 10 years of her life as a vagabond, traveling the Australian Outback’s Nullarbor Plain, a vast, barren region where her parents trapped foxes for the fur trade and taught their two children to live off the land. While the family went without modern conveniences like flush toilets and television, they did have cassette tapes by American country artists such as Hank Williams , Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris . Around the campfire, they played and sang along with the music.
“When I first went to the Nullarbor, I was three weeks old, so I really didn’t know any other life,” Chamber says. “I thought everyone grew up like that. I thought I was really normal.” She laughs, “Now people are telling me that I’m not normal at all.”
Chambers sings about childhood days spent in the desert with her family in “Nullarbor Song,” a track from her second solo album, Barricades & Brickwalls, released Tuesday (Feb. 12) by Warner Bros.
By age 9, Chambers had begun singing in her family’s traveling country group, the Dead Ringer Band. The group released four studio albums, winning accolades from the Australian music industry before Chambers stepped out on her own with 1999’s The Captain, which earned top awards from the Australian Recording Industry Association (the Australian equivalent of the Grammys) and the Country Music Association of Australia.
The family’s bush life and musical activities are newly chronicled in Red Desert Sky: The Amazing Adventures of the Chambers Family, written by John Lomax III and recently published in Australia and New Zealand by Allen & Unwin. A nephew and grandson of legendary folklorists Alan Lomax and John Lomax, respectively, the Nashville-based author managed the Dead Ringer Band and Chambers’ solo career from 1996 to 2001.
In support of the release of Barricades & Brickwalls, Chambers is spending mid-February in the U.S., meeting with reporters and playing concerts in New York, Washington, Chicago, Austin, Texas, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle.
Chambers and her partner, Cori Hopper, are expecting a child in late May. The singer has curbed her tour plans to accommodate her first baby, and she’s not worrying much about the effect the hiatus will have on her career momentum.
“When I first found out I was having a baby, I went through a stage where I was wondering how [my career] was going to work,” she admits. “I spent a lot of time talking to my mom asking her, ‘Is it going to be OK for me to [travel] and do different things?’ I think a lot of it is just going to have to come naturally. My mom just kept telling me that I’ll know what I can and can’t do, and my baby will let me know, too.
“Obviously, it’s going to slow things down a little bit for this year,” Chambers reasons. “When I have the baby, I’m going to spend some time at home just being a mom, which I’m really looking forward to. For the last five years, I’ve been flat out on the road all the time and hardly have seen one town for longer than a few days. But I know myself well enough to know that I’m going to get itchy feet and will want to get out there again on the road. … I’m just playing it by ear a bit.”
Chambers would like to repeat her Australian success in the U.S., but she is proud of what she has accomplished in the States already. Even without support from country radio, her American audience has continued to grow, helped some by appearances on Late Night With David Letterman, Austin City Limits and the Grand Ole Opry.
The Captain’s title track was played last year during the closing credits of an episode of the popular TV show The Sopranos and is featured on a companion CD, The Sopranos: Music From the HBO Original Series: Peppers & Eggs. Chambers has been featured in major publications such as Rolling Stone, and she graces the cover of the Jan.-Feb. 2002 issue of bimonthly alternative country magazine No Depression, which predicts that Chambers is “on the brink of becoming alt-country’s brightest star.”
“America is kind of a bonus for me,” Chambers maintains. “I never went through my life dreaming that I was going to make it big in America. The thought of actually getting a record deal in America was so far out of my grasp that I didn’t even bother thinking about it.
“I’ve gotten to visit so many amazing American cities and towns in the last few years,” she continues. “I’m having fun going over there and touring and meeting some of my idols and working with them. … I’ve met some extraordinary people, so if it all goes away tomorrow, I can be really happy with what I’ve done over there.”
Some of those “idols” make guest appearances on Barricades & Brickwalls, including Nashville-based artists Lucinda Williams (“On a Bad Day”), Matthew Ryan (“A Million Tears”) and Buddy Miller (“Runaway Train” and a cover of Parsons’ “Still Feeling Blue”). The album also features noted Australian roots-rock acts Paul Kelly (“I Still Pray”) and The Living End (“Crossfire”).
Chambers still has strong musical ties to her family. Her brother, Nash Chambers, produced the project. Her father, Bill Chambers, supplied lead guitar, lap steel and Dobro on several tracks.
Like “Nullarbor Song,” Chambers draws on personal experiences throughout Barricades & Brickwalls, featuring 13 originals (including a hidden track, “Ignorance”) and the Parsons cover.
“The Mountain,” with lyrics describing “the weight up on my shoulders crushing me,” deals with her struggle to keep a grip on reality in the midst of fame.
“Writing that song was a bit of therapy for me,” Chambers relates. “Everything was going well at that point, especially here in Australia, but I was going through a funny time where I was asking myself a lot of questions. I was feeling lost and lonely at times. I had a battle with myself trying to figure out why that was.
“I think writing that song helped me to realize I was clutching at the wrong things. I was trying to have my career take away that lost feeling, and that’s not the way to do it. I had to remember that my personal life is still my priority, and my career is important but it’s not my whole life.”
“Not Pretty Enough” works on a couple of levels. There is the obvious level — in which the song addresses a would-be lover. However, Chambers also says she had non-adventurous radio programmers in mind when she wrote the song. The song poses a series of questions: Am I not pretty enough? Is my heart too broken? Do I cry too much? Am I too outspoken? Don’t I make you laugh? Should I try it harder? The singer then passionately asks repeatedly: Why do you see right through me?
“I had all these questions about why radio wouldn’t play my music,” Chambers says. “I keep saying ‘my music,’ but I mean this sort of music in general – real and deep songs -– that doesn’t fit into a format. In saying that, I know the answer to everyone of those questions is a definite ‘yes’ -– those are some the reasons commercial radio doesn’t go out on a limb and play different sorts of music. The song was just realizing it a bit. The end of the song is saying, ‘Well, if these are the reasons you see right through me, then that’s bad luck. This is who I am, and I’m happy being this person.’
“The funny thing is, that song just got added to a whole lot of commercial stations in Australia who have never played any of my songs before. There is a nice bit of irony in that.”