COUNTRY'S WINNING BRAND OF SONGWRITING
Two relatively new songwriters and three old hands were in line for this years APRA Song of the Year at the Toyota CMAA Country Music Awards. The winning song, Good Things in Life, came from a magical combination of the new and the old.
Adam Brands collaboration with Graeme Connors a plaintive yet heartening song about the breakdown of Brands first marriage was in competition for country musics primary songwriting award alongside compositions from veterans John Williamson and Don Walker, newcomer Sara Storer, and Nashville-based Keith Urban.
Brand breezed into Tamworth two years ago, a winning new talent who quickly garnered several Golden Guitars and an image as Australian country musics new golden boy. Although he had been singing for most of his life, influenced by the 1950s and 60s rockabilly style of Elvis, the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison, he only started writing songs in 1996. His first composition was created ad hoc while driving; he was not proficient enough on guitar to play what he had written. I had to get a mate who was a guitarist and sing the tune to him, and get him to show me what chords they were, and he taught me, Brand recalls.
His writing skills developed quickly. A collaboration with Clive Young on his first album, the song Last Man Standing, won him the APRA Song of the Year in 1999.
While admitting he is still on a huge learning curve, Brand, with the encouragement and guidance of his manager/producer Graham Thompson, is on a winning streak. His second album, Good Friends, which picked up the Golden Guitars for Album of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year, displays a growing confidence in his own writing and an astuteness for picking the right material from others such as Don Walker, who contributed three songs including the title track.
Brands collaboration with Connors stood out. The message is fairly special, one that I would like people to hear, knowing what it did for me. Ive seen so many people brought to tears, or come up to me and say, that song really hits home. Its what a song can do when it talks about something that is real."
He had first teamed with Connors in 1997. Explains Connors, Graham Thompson asked me if I would consider doing some co-writing with Adam on a sort of development basis, a mentor basis. We met first in Sydney and we wrote a song called Here and There which appeared on his first album. We were both very satisfied with the outcome but felt we could have probably gone better. So Graham arranged to have him come up to Mackay and join me there, which puts me on home turf and more relaxed. We wrote Good Things in Life in about three days.
Neither artist knew at the onset that the song would be so profoundly personal. We got in the room and we just played away, says Connors, and for some reason, I wish you every happiness and may you always have the best of the good things in life is the line that I sang, I dont know why. He had been digging deep into Brands past during conversations by the pool. We were talking about my life and his life, just what wed done, recalls Brand, and basically my story about being married young, it not working out, and then trying to move on with life, it fitted in with that line.
It was a cathartic experience for Brand. I didnt know it was happening while we were writing. But I knew something was happening because we were really drained by it. It was only when he took the demo back to Sydney to play for Thompson that the full effect of what he had written became evident. Brand heard it again and wept. You know, Im fairly level-headed and I can deal with things quite adequately. So I thought I had that under control, I thought Id dealt with it and Id put it to rest. I thought Id moved on with my life. But really it was under there and it took this song to unlock that.
Connors rarely collaborates. Of my catalogue of works I would say as little as 1-2% would be co-writing. But the multi award-winning singer/songwriter, whose many Golden Guitars had already included four for APRA Song of the Year, felt this was a worthwhile endeavour.
I have a wealth of personal experience that may not be the exact experience of another person, but one uses it to vicariously step into their life. And I think thats what the trade of writing is about, its the ability to take your personal experience and turn it into someone elses, someone who says, yes, I identify, I feel that way.
A seasoned writer and producer, Connors was also able to guide Brand through the structural process of putting the song together. I write not so much from a technical point of view but always from the heart, says Brand. Graeme is a real craftsman. Obviously he puts a huge amount of heart in what he does, but hes also very much a perfectionist. And Im not that much of a perfectionist. Im not a studio junkie and Im not an incredible musician, I just hear the heart of the songs and the heart of the music. So thats what I bring to the table, and then he comes and rounds it out nicely and crafts it.
Don Walker was a finalist for Looking Forward Looking Back, the title track of Slim Dustys 100th album. And for Walker, no emotional connection was necessary. It was written totally for Slim and its not personal for me at all, he says. I knew it was his hundredth album so I wanted to come up with something that pointed to his long history but at the same time also pointed to a long future."
Unlike Connors, who delved into Brands heart and mind to write their winning song, Walker took a more detached approach. I dont know that it would be possible to get inside Slims head, he says wryly. And I dont think the song is that profound at all. I was trying to come up with something that in my imagination Slim would feel comfortable with and get a kick out of singing.
Walker has written for several country artists over the last decade, challenged by the requirement to craft a simple song, after more complex writing in the past. Writing a simple song is also the most difficult to do, he remarks. Put to him that an early Cold Chisel song such as Breakfast at Sweethearts was also relatively simple in its structure, and asked to compare it to Looking Forward Looking Back, Walker quips, Well, Slim doesnt take speed as far as I know. And I dont these days, either.
For John Williamson, whose Corroboree 2000 anthem, This Ancient Land, was a finalist, all his writing comes from the heart, and his affinity with the land and the history of Australia is palpable. Recorded as a duet with Jimmy Little, This Ancient Land was a song Williamson had written some time earlier.
I was up at Springbook where Ive got a cabin in South East Queensland on the edge of a rainforest. I actually was proving to a journalist whod come to stay with me for the weekend that I could write a song on the spot. So I had this idea about ancient land and how I feel Aboriginal about it. Ive often said, and Ive said it to Aboriginal people, that I feel like a white Aborigine sometimes because I really relate to the land. Without the nature of this country, if it was taken away, it would take me away, too. I couldnt live here any more, it means so much to me. So I try to express that in my songs.
The song interested the Corroboree organisers. The elders listened to it and they said, well it would be nice if we could include an aboriginal presence as well. So that really made the song for me because then I was able to write I am Aborigine for the first verse. Ive respected Jimmy for a long time, like everybody, and I thought it would be just beautiful that he would agree to do it. I was able then to write it as an Aborigine for the first verse and then come in the second verse and say I feel that way, too, as a white person. And that to me has been my message all the way. The whole ancient spirit of this land is really behind 90% of my songs.
New Talent of the Year winner Storer cites Williamson as one of her greatest influences. Until less than a year ago she was teaching in the remote Northern Territory town of Kalkaringi, singing songs around the campfire. She first picked up a guitar when she was 17, playing John Williamson and Paul Kelly tunes, and wrote her first song, Buffalo Bill, in 1995, never dreaming it would take her to Tamworth with five nominations in 2001. Inspired by ex-buffalo catcher friend Harry in the nearby town of Camooweal, she awoke one night and it all flooded out.
It was about 1.30 in the morning and I got up, and I dont know why, I might have been down at the pub and had come back, with my brain still sort of ticking over. And I thought, Ill write a few things down about Harry. So I just started writing this song and mucking around on the guitar, and within that night I had the tune and most of the song written.
After surprising herself with her first composition, Storer wrote a swag of songs. It took a while, because I had to have a sudden hit of inspiration. Sometimes it took weeks or months. A prize in a talent quest gave her a scholarship to the CMAA College of Country Music last year. The College has produced such award-winning talent as Brendon Walmsley, who took out the Heritage Song of the Year award this year, and it was life-changing for Storer. The Bushwackers took her under their wing, urged her to play her songs for producer/writer Garth Porter, and within months she was recording an album.
Storer found the College both inspiring and intimidating. They were going through all the rules of songwriting, because theres a certain format to follow. And I just went uh oh, I dont do that, and Ive done that wrong, and Ive done that wrong. Choruses shouldnt add new information, you know, if you think of something write it down because youll forget. I still dont write it down, I kick myself the next day. Id broken all the rules. But Roger Corbett had heard a few of my songs, and said, dont worry about it, were going to let you get away with it, Sara.