Even in Australia the idea of an Australian country singer sounds far-fetched, but 23-year-old Kasey Chambers has all the makings of the real thing. She has already sold 70,000 copies of her debut album, The Captain, to fellow Antipodeans, enough to earn a platinum disc down under.
She can stick that on the sideboard alongside her batch of best album and best female artist awards from the Australian music industry. Bizarrely, she still can’t get on the country radio stations in her homeland though, she argues, ‘it’s kind of a compliment when you listen to the crap they play’. Now, armed with a Virgin Records deal, she’s wondering if she can repeat her success in the rest of the world.
With her Goth-like eye make-up, studs in her nose and lower lip and a ring through her right ear, Chambers isn’t much like anyone you’d associate with country music of any era. Then again, her life bears little resemblance to anything you’ve ever heard before either. While other Australian kids were raised on teen soaps and the Minogue sisters, Chambers was leading a nomadic lifestyle trapping foxes on the Nullarbor Plain. “The Nullarbor is a big desert that runs across the middle of the country,” she explains. “Foxes had become a big problem in Australia, so farmers would hire us to hunt them. It was back when there was a big fur trade, and we’d sell the skins. I think it’s a bit strange actually, but at the time it was normal for us. We’d hunt kangaroo’s, too, but only for food.”
The Chambers family travelled around the Nullarbor by day, then by night they’d make camp and sing around the fire. It was there that Chambers’s father Bill passed on his enthusiasm for country music, from Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Since the family were Seventh Day Adventists, Bible songs and gospel music also figured prominently, and Bill taught his family so well they were able to form their own self-contained group, the Dead Ringer Band, comprising Chambers, her parents, and her brother Nash. They spent 10 years touring Australia, playing anywhere from the big cities to the outback of Queensland and the Northern Territory.
“I’ve travelled all my life and we enjoyed touring so much. You didn’t have to have a nine-to-five job, so it was worth it for that. You couldn’t make a whole lot of money out of it, but who does in the music industry unless you’re a superstar?”
While Chambers now steps out under her own name, it’s still a family affair. Her father plays guitar throughout the album, while her brother Nash produced it. Since the Dead Ringer Band had made four albums of their own, Chambers and her folks already knew their way around the studio. Consequently, while it’s still a debut solo album by a young artist, The Captain exudes a maturity and self-awareness you’d expect from somebody 10 years older, comfortably spanning bluegrass, hillbilly music and crunchy guitar rock. “Some of the songs are seven years old, and one of them was written during the recording of the album, so they’re coming from everywhere,” she says. “I kind of like the fact that it’s the last 23 years of my life rolled into 42 minutes.”
The Chambers family saga offers plenty of scope for a tunesmith with an eye for detail. In her song Southern Kind Of Life, Chambers could be describing Texas or Tennessee, but the song is about south Australia: “My town wasn’t even on the map, you could pass right through it in 20 seconds flat. Old friends and Bibles filled the house, no room for money and no money anyway.”
These Pines strike a distant echo of the Louvin Brothers’ In The Pines, but Chambers is singing about Norfolk Island in the Pacific, not the backwoods of Alabama. “The Captain was this guy I had a relationship with – his nickname was Captain Eddie,” Chambers reveals, “He’s from Norfolk Island, where we recorded the album and where the Norfolk Pine comes from. I was touring in western Australia and I was homesick for Norfolk, so I wrote about those pines.”
It looks like there may be a lot more touring in store, and a lot more homesickness. And, perhaps, a lot more songs.