Kasey Chambers, the bubbly Australian singer-songwriter, always loves coming to Nashville, and her enthusiasm is quite contagious. On the morning of her crowded concert at the Station Inn, she settles into a wide, comfortable chair backstage — she is six months pregnant, after all — and chats about Little Bird, her latest project to be released in the U.S.
Although the album is not all acoustic, Chambers wisely allows the instruments to shine on the album, her first as a sole producer.
“I try to make every album sound as live as we possibly can. I’m not one of these great session singers, you know?” she admits with a bright laugh. “I just want it to sound like it would sound if you came to see me live. This is where we’re at, at the moment.”
After performing in her family’s band as a young woman, Chambers launched her solo career with the autobiographical and poignant The Captain in 1999. Two years later, she released her breakthrough album, Barricades & Brickwalls. On the strength of the hit single, “Not Pretty Enough,” the collection was certified seven-times platinum in Australia.
Since then, she’s made a few records that lean more toward pop and rock, including a duets project with her husband, Shane Nicholson. But with Little Bird, she’s getting back to her roots. During this chat, she discusses her scaled-back approach, her unexpected upbringing and her mixed emotions about classic country music.
CMT: What is it about acoustic music that you really love?
Chambers: Part of it is that my dad brought me up listening to a lot of acoustic music. Within our family, my husband plays a lot of instruments and my dad plays a lot of instruments, so we jam a lot at home. And when you jam at home, for the most part, you don’t set up a drum kit or bass guitars. (laughs) I can relate to that. I feel like when we play live … by the end of the gig, I feel like I know everyone in the room. I feel like everybody’s come to hang out for a few hours.
What were you hoping to capture when you wrote “Little Bird” ?
When I sat down and wrote that song, it felt a little bit like “Not Pretty Enough No. 2.” I wrote “Not Pretty Enough” over 10 years ago now, around the time I was really getting to know the music industry. … I didn’t know much about it at all. I didn’t know there was a whole business side. I just thought you played music, and that was it. You didn’t have to over-think things very much.
I was starting to realize that your image is such an important part of it. And sometimes it can be very detrimental to the music. You still see it now — worse than ever, in some ways. It made me feel really uncomfortable, and I sat down and wrote “Not Pretty Enough” about how I just didn’t feel like it was something I wanted to be a part of. I didn’t feel comfortable with that.
Ten years later, writing “Little Bird,” I was thinking back on how I felt then but realizing that you don’t have to do that. And I’m glad that I didn’t listen to those people who were saying, “Well, you have to look like Britney Spears if you want to get on mainstream radio.” I didn’t go against that because I wanted to prove anything, or I thought I knew better. It’s just that success wasn’t something I wanted bad enough to compromise who I was. That’s what “Little Bird” is about: Don’t compromise who you are just to get success.
So much has changed for you since “Not Pretty Enough,” but what remains the same?
I think my general approach to music hasn’t changed much. I still only write songs when songs fall out. … But that means sometimes I go three years without writing a song. I don’t know how the record labels feel about this! (laughs) But it suits me just fine. Music’s not my whole life, either. I have two kids and another one on the way. I have a lot of stuff going on in my life outside of music. I just let the creative side of music just go wherever it wants.
Your song “Nullarbor” is so rich in details. What was a typical day for you as a kid?
The Nullarbor Plain is generally a desert that runs across the middle of Australia. There’s really nothing there — red dirt, salt bush and wild animals. That’s really it! It’s crazy. There’s a train line that runs across the middle of it, and that’s it. There’s no civilization out there. We lived out there for the first 10 years of my life.
My dad was a professional fox hunter, which is crazy. When I say this in Australia, people think I’m weird there, too. (laughs) … I didn’t know any different because I was born into it. I thought that was normal. We had no TV and no radio. We weren’t really influenced by the outside world. I think that’s one of the amazing things about it. My dad brought me up listening to Hank Williams, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, and I thought that was the only style of music that existed! We didn’t hear any other style. That was it.
“Nullarbor (The Biggest Backyard)” — that song is about a lot of those memories and the way I see it now. I’ve written a few songs about the Nullarbor, but this is the first song I’ve written about the Nullarbor since I’ve had kids. It’s a really different way of looking at it now. I think more about my parents and going out there and what they had given up to live that sort of life. It was incredible. I love sharing that story through song. And my kids are fascinated by it, too. They ask me all the time, “When are you going to take us to the Nullarbor Plain?” It’s wild.
What is it about country music that really speaks to you?
I’ve tried to work this out over the years because I find it really confusing, to be honest. I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the fact that whatever you’re brought up on has an influence on who you are and what you become. And what resonates with you throughout your later years. That definitely was a lot of Nashville music.
With country music, in general, I often say it’s got this knack of making me feel happy and sad at the same time. And I don’t even know why that is. I listen to people like Hank Williams and Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons. They sing these beautifully sad songs that make me want to cry — but they make me feel good at the same time! (laughs) I’ve got this little battle going on in my heart every time I listen to a great country song, but for some reason, I love that.
I think there’s probably something good about not knowing exactly what it is, too. You don’t know if you’re going to feel it until you get into a song. I love that nice surprise when you get a few lines into a song and you think, “Oh, yes! This is one of those songs!”