Debbie Kruger
March 2003


The Country Music Festival in Tamworth is becoming more and more an Australian songwriting festival, according to Debbie Kruger, who spoke to three of Australian country music’s most recent songwriting stars about how they started writing, their inspirations, co-writing, the lure of Nashville, and their most successful songs to date.

People often tell Catherine Britt that she has an old soul. The 18-year old takes that as a great compliment, showing off the tattoo on her right hip which bears one word: Hank. “I’m a huge fan of Hank Williams – he’s my all time favourite singer-songwriter.

She grew up in Newcastle with an obsession for traditional American country music. “I was a huge fan of Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn,” says Britt. Her parents’ love of music brought classical, rock and blues influences into the home, but country was the family passion, from Hank Williams and Merle Haggard to the Louvin Brothers. She was singing from an early age and at 12 she met Bill Chambers, who took her under his wing.

“When I first met Bill I hadn’t really written too much; I was really just doing all his songs and Kasey’s songs, and Dolly and Loretta, that sort of stuff. I didn’t really have too much of a drive to write. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to write songs or I’m not going to make it!’ But I just remember writing songs. I just did it. I started writing, I guess, because everyone else did, the people I looked up to.”

As artless as her songwriting vocation was, so too is the process of crafting her songs of heartbreak and despair. “The way I write songs is a bit strange,” she says. “I just sit down and it’ll be five minutes, and the song will just come out on paper, and then I’ll have to look back on it and go, ‘Right, does this make sense?’” I hardly ever change my words, ever, I always just write them down and that’s it. That real five minute rush, I guess.”

The title track from her album Dusty Smiles and Heartbreak Cures was when she was only 15, a tender age to be writing a line like “Dusty smiles and heartbreak cures / cannot fix what you endure.”. “I actually thought of the title the day before and once again it just came to me, and I really didn’t even know what it meant. And that happens a lot of the time for me, I have to go to Mum and Dad and say, ‘Does this make sense?’ And every time it does. But I mean – ‘endure’ – I didn’t even know what that meant, to be honest, I had no idea.”

“46 Miles From Alice,” the first single from the album, was written on a road trip to the Katherine Country Music Muster, again when Britt was 15. She was camping in the Northern Territory with her parents and her boyfriend Ben. They were fighting, and Britt was homesick for her friends in Newcastle.

“We were actually at a place called Mataranka, approximately 200 miles from Alice. We were sitting around the campfire and I was talking to Ben about this film about the [Granville] train crash, The Day of the Roses, and he hadn’t seen it or heard of it. So I explained what it was about. And he said, ‘The Day of the Roses – that doesn’t sound like a train wreck. It should be called 46 Miles from Texas.’ And I thought, hang on a minute, ‘46 Miles from Texas.’ And I went to the car and wrote this song, and of course we’d been fighting, so I guess just using that title – and I changed it to Alice of course – and the story about that song is basically what happened out there.”

Britt’s songs have attracted a fan base that famously includes Elton John, who will record a duet with her on her next album. “I’ve never really had my heart broken, where somebody’s really cheated on me or done anything really horrible like that,” Britt admits. “I can feel heartbroken when I’m writing a song and I can cry and do anything, without it actually happening to me. Some of the best songwriters in the world have written songs from a different perspective.”

Last year Britt went to Nashville on the obligatory co-writing trip and was the youngest ever Australian to perform on stage at the Grand Ole Oprey. Co-writing was initially an alien concept to the teenage songwriter who prefers to write in isolation.

“I hated co-writing at first, I really did not like it. I tried to avoid it, even called in sick a few times. Ever since I was 12 all I’d done was on my own. And if I was to co-write with someone, the only person was Kasey because we were such great friends, and we knew each other and we knew we both were coming from the same place when it came to music. But there were a few songs I got out of Nashville that I’m really happy with. It was a good experience; you’ve got to do that stuff. I learned so much from it, too. I now concentrate a little bit more on my words and they’re a lot more grown-up. But I probably wouldn’t want to do it all the time.”

Because Britt lives and breathes the traditional country music she writes and plays, there is an authenticity to her work that is compelling. She is aware, however, of a resistance to what she does in Australia. “A lot of people here are really against it,” she says. “They’re really into their bush ballads and traditional Australian country. But I’m going at it from a different approach. I’m where my roots are.”

Melinda Schneider pays homage to her roots – the “policeman dad and yodelling mum” in her autobiographical hit song “The Story of My Life”. It’s a song so open and honest that people constantly comment on how brave she is to perform it. For Schneider, it has been a journey of discovery to reach this point of being completely herself in her music.

She was on stage at the age of three with her mother Mary and Aunt Rita – the famous singing and yodelling Schneider Sisters. Singing and looking cute came naturally, but from early on she sought more depth in her artistry.

“I knew that writing my own material was the way I was going to find myself. Because growing up in a showbiz family, I was so into going on stage and performing and the pizzaziness of it all. Even though my mum and my aunty have always been into writing original stuff, too, I used to just sing covers in Mum’s act. And I could sing anything. I could sing a big ballad, a country song, a musical theatre song. I was very versatile. And that actually was going to go against me, because where was I going to go, what was my direction? Who was I? So I knew deep down that I had to work on my writing to find myself, to find who I was, and not just who Mary’s daughter was or Melinda the singer/dancer/club performer or whatever I was then. I knew that that was the secret to finding me.”

Schneider and friend Michael Carr teamed up for a prolific songwriting partnership in the early 1990s. “The first song that we’d written was inspired by my first broken heart, called “Not worth a Tear”, and it was a real a big ballad Celine Dion/country song.”

With a wide range of musical influences – from her mother to Stevie Wonder, from Ricky Scaggs to Whitney Houston and Nancy Wilson – Schneider’s writing developed tentatively. “It was fairly instinctive,” she says. “I used to just go with my gut. I’d come up with things and not quite know how to finish them, or even lyrics that I didn’t know what they meant. It was in a very raw state and it was only going to get better with practice and just keep writing, keep writing, keep writing. And polish it. The more you do it the more polished it gets. But I wasn’t an analytical person in my writing.”

After a foray into the fashion design business – a lonely existence, she says, confessing, “I’d sit there for hours sewing late into the night, listening to Celine Dion and Michael Bolton” – she had her first taste of musical success co-writing and yodelling on the Audio Murphy dance hit “Tighten Up Your Pants.” Then she started making trips to Nashville to write. She recorded her first album there, but admits that while she is proud of those songs, she hadn’t yet reached the level of maturity that her second album, Happy Tears, clearly exudes. “The Story of My Life” was co-written with the successful songwriting team of Paul Begaud and Vanessa Corish in an emotionally draining, creatively inspiring three-hour session. Schneider had the opening lines about her birth in 1971 to the policeman and the yodeller, Begaud and Corish drew out of her the other key events of her life such as her grandmother’s death and her wedding day, and the song took form.

“When I left, I felt like they thought I was an absolute nutcase because I’d been so honest, like visiting my therapist. I thought ‘God, they are going to think I am a freak, I’ve just told them every little piece about my life, and so honestly and didn’t hold anything back.’ But I knew that I had something special.”

From there the album was bound to have a personal thrust throughout. Her collaboration with Billy Thorpe, “When the Last Child Leaves Home” was initiated by Schneider and instantly struck a chord with Thorpe, who told her that he and his wife had felt empty when their daughters grew up and moved out. “We wrote a real traditional country song like a George Jones type thing.”

The most exuberant song on her album, “Can You Hear Me Down the Hillside,” was written with Nashville-based Jim Lauderdale, who came to Tamworth in 2002. The song features some very spirited yodelling. “I love the Dixie Chicks and bluegrass music so it was easy for me to write a song like that. But the decision was do I want to put a yodel in it or not. And I was ready to. All my life I’ve been compared to my mother. It was a very big decision for me to come to, I guess. And I thought, well, why not? I can do it in my own way, I’m not the same as my mother, I’m me.”

Schneider’s confidence is at an all-time high right now. A song she wrote with Bachelor Girl’s James Roche, “Eternally” was recorded by John Farhnam on his The Last Time album and she has just won the Golden Guitar for Female Vocalist of the Year.

She loves to collaborate with writers both in Australia and the US. “Probably the only difference is Nashville songwriters are a lot quicker. They’re quick because they do it full-time, nine to five. And the more you do it, the better you get at doing it. But a songwriter is a songwriter no matter where they are, really, anywhere in the world. And as long as you connect with them you’re going to get a good song.”

Family influence is at the heart of Michael Carr’s songwriting impetus. His father, Warren Carr, was an established figure in country and rock and roll (he played piano on the TV show Six O’Clock Rock) as well as being musical director at Sydney’s St George Leagues Club for 32 years before his death in 1993. His son, Michael, was “thrashing around” on the piano from an early age.

“When I was growing up in the ‘70s country music was pop music so I was singing and playing whatever I liked. I don’t think I was ever particularly into one performer or one songwriter. I just think the biggest influence on my music was my father. He got me interested in all sorts of music and basically taught me everything.”

Carr started putting his own songs together from the age of seven and the notion of a career as a songwriter came quite early. “I saw Simon Gallaher on the Mike Walsh Show. He had a song called ‘Australia Be Proud.’ I really got into songs after I saw that. Because I found out that he was a songwriter and he’d written songs for other people, too. And I was always really into Burt Bacharach songs. I had more respect for the guys writing the songs than those actually performing them.”

Like his early songwriting partner, Melinda Schneider, Carr has a preference for big lush ballads. He also has two strong themes working through his writing, which are not mutually exclusive – Australian national pride and unabashed sentiment, often linked to his family. His self-title debut album is laden with such songs, but his two most successful works so far were in fact recorded by Adam Brand last year. One, “The Anzac,” won Best Heritage Song at the Golden Guitar Awards in January.

“All of my relatives live in Newcastle, the Cessnock area, and I spent a lot of time growing up there and they’re all mad footy supporters, mad pie eaters, mad Australians. And my Dad was a real down to earth Aussie bloke. I’ve spent a lot of time in RSL clubs in my life and I’ve spoken to many diggers. Just being in the entertainment industry you get to meet all these guys. And I’ve played two-up with the best of them on Anzac Day. Dawn service, we used to go into Martin Place as kids. I think it’s important to keep that alive, keep it going through the generations.” Carr laboured over the song for around six months. Brand then augmented it before recording it, as he did with another Carr composition, “New England Highway,” a song about going to Tamworth for the Country Music Festival.

“I had the melody and the song and the song was [originally] about something else,” says Carr. “It was called ‘It Ain’t Over ‘Til We’re Done’ or something. It was really corny.” On the drive up to Tamworth in 2001 the lyrics suddenly came to him and by the time he played his shows up there – an unknown playing to “two men and a dog,” he says – that song and “The Anzac” were good enough to attract the attention of Brand’s manager Graham Thompson.

Carr is more than happy for his two biggest songs so far to have been recorded by an artist of Brand’s prominence. “Most of the time I get more pleasure out of hearing other people singing my songs than me doing them. There are some songs which there’d be no way I’d let anyone else have them because they’re too personal.”

Those that he keeps are often about his family. Usually they are so close to his heart that they write themselves. “When I wrote ‘The Greatest Man’ about my father, that was it. I wrote that very quickly. It’s like ‘Wearing White’ – I wrote that very fast, too. I didn’t even pick up the guitar or sit at the piano to write those.”

Yet sometimes the most personal songs need an outsider’s contribution. Finishing “Up On His Shoulders,” about his grandfather, was proving too difficult, so reliable collaborator Colin Buchanan was called in.

While he partakes in the co-writing experience regularly, here and in Nashville, he finds it an often difficult process. “You can get two really good songwriters together that are really talented in their own right but it doesn’t work together for all different reasons. I’ve written with lots of people over the last 12 months but there are only a handful of those people that we jelled and got something good. I could write every day with Melinda, because she’s a brilliant songwriter, she’s got so much talent.”

He writes so much he can’t even keep track of his work. He certainly doesn’t remember the first song he wrote. “I suppose most people do but I don’t remember some songs I wrote last week.”

In Nashville he has met some of his heroes – Jeffrey Steele, Craig Wiseman, Bill Luther – and hopes to write with them in the future. Carr also hopes for a career that extends to the United States and beyond. He is ambitious and optimistic. But one of his greatest wishes is to be as revered as one of Australia’s greatest country songwriters. Ask him if he’d like to be Australia’s Burt Bacharach and he replies “I’d rather be Australia’s next Graeme Connors.”


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