Debbie Kruger
Writer FREELANCE GARTH PORTER Colleagues interview transcripts
Lee Kernaghan

Gina Jeffreys

Rod McCormack

© Debbie Kruger

Lee Kernaghan interview
28 March 1996

What are the qualities or methods in Garth's approach that make him so valuable to you and your work?

I think his vision, his qualities of perception, I'd say his expertise as a producer and his ability to surround himself with extremely talented people.

What do you think his vision is? Because he is very reticent to define it.

I think that he's always had a vision for Australian country music; he's said that in order to create a real movement and a real change it's going to take more than one artist to do it, it's going to take more than one artist to create that big wave, and when he works with each artist he looks at where they come from, what makes them tick, and throughout the songwriting process he helps put along with that artist as much of their character onto the record, so we just didn't record a song because we think it's a great song, it really has got to be what I'm all about.

What was the difference between “Boys From the Bush” and the songs that you 'd been doing before, because I think that was the turning point for you, wasn't it?

It sure was. Well, I'd written a lot of songs, and Garth had heard me sing way back in 1986. He said, I really like the way you sing and maybe one day we can make a record together... I was 22 years old and I was just fresh back from Nashville where I'd been doing songwriting, but I didn't really, you know, Garth and I spoke now and then, but I didn't actually get that phone call, the all-important phone call until 1991 and midway through the year quite out of the blue Garth called me up and said okay I think it's time for you to come to Sydney and start writing and recording. So I took a bunch of songs up with Garth, and he said Lee, I really think you need to get in touch with your heritage, as an Australian, I would suggest you delve back into the works of Henry Lawson and Banjo Patterson, and have a look at yourself and where you come from, how you grew up, and the idea for "Boys From The Bush" sort of come from that, and it was a real turning point for me in my, with my songwriting and in my thinking.

What other kind of guidance did he give you in the early ‘90s when you got together? You'd been around working for a long time, but you've said that his discovery of you was the big thing in your career.

There's a lot of things he taught me. I felt as a young man writing with one of the great songwriters in Australia, I was able to learn so much from him, not only lyrically but musically. And you know he's helped me with my shows over the years, the band and I think we've done a good show and he'd come backstage and tell us that it wasn't any good, and he’ll give me ten reasons why. But one thing that I've really learned over the years working with Garth is to listen to what he says because he's usually right.

Do you think he has an artistic style that can be heard or recognised across the records that he produces?

Yes I think that there probably is something about the way Garth produces records, I mean even when you listen to Craig McLachlan's "Mona" you know, which was a number one hit for Craig McLachlan, even though it wasn't a country record, it's still got some sort of a "Garth factor" attached to it. ...He's got gold records and awards, but he rarely hangs them up at home, they usually just lie around.

He's very reticent to admit that there's a Garth Porter sound, he's very into promoting each individual artist, and taking as little kudos as possible.

Every artist has their own sound for sure, they have certain musicians that they like to have play on their records which creates their own sound, and there's a stylistic thing there as well, but I think that there is a bit of a Garth Porter approach, it's hard to put my finger on exactly what it is, but I know that, I truly believe that Garth has changed the face of Australian country music. He has brought Australian country music to the mainstream. I know a lot of, the average country record was selling between 5 and 10,000 records before Garth Porter came along, and just with Garth and myself our records have sold in excess of a quarter of a million copies now. It's just that there's people way beyond country music that never ever thought they'd like country music that like the sound of these records that Garth's making.

At the awards you were all on stage at the end, and basically everyone who had won a major award had worked with Garth. Does it ever concern you that he works with several top country artists in terms of maintaining your own individual style and sound?

Not really because I think that there's so much you can do, I mean you can have a stylistic approach but you can still have a different sound to the other artists. You know we all have our own styles and it doesn't particularly concern me, although Garth and I are particularly aware of it, we’re really aware of it now, more so than when we made the first few albums because we were just out there doing it and not really even thinking about it. But on future projects probably what you'll see is Garth will be bringing in different musicians for different artists, so the artist does sound quite different. I know he's done it on Gina's project, and her new project is a whole bunch of new people, and I think that if he does that it will continue to breath new life into these new projects.

Can you talk about the philosophy of 1959?

I'm not a very philosophical person, but I still do love that period of the late ‘50s, and Garth and I spoke about the way which families, the family unit was so much stronger back then, the way of life was simpler, less complicated. Musically the rock and roll revolution had begun and people like Col Joye and JOK and Elvis on the scene and on the radio, it was an extremely exciting time, and the cars were unbelievable, and this is in my Dad's teenage years and it's an era that's really intrigued me. And Garth and I spoke for many many weeks and probably months about the concept of 1959 before the song was written.

So it wasn't just a matter of him using annlogue equipment and going back to basics ? It was more the thematic concept.

Yeah, we try to have each album to have some kind of a theme running through the album, it's not just a hotch potch bunch of songs.

So The Outback Club was very much for you looking at your roots and really celebrating the Australian spirit, the Australian rural spirit.

Oh, beautifully said. Sure.

Garth talks about the uniquely Australian character, yet he's based in the city, you're now
based in the city, Gina 's always been in the city. How do you think that works for you, and mnybe the whole industry, that Tamworth is not Nashville, so it's all still got to happen in Sydney, and yet you can come out with this essentially country spirit in your work?

I know we all live in Sydney, including John Williamson and Slim Dusty, but I think that most of my time is spent out on the road touring, in the country, in the outback, meeting people and other songwriters, and you learn so much when you're out there. I think if you just stayed here in Sydney, it'd be a pretty hollow kind of an album, you wouldn't have a lot to say.

But Garth's acutely aware of this as well, and that's why when we write songs we like to go bush to do our songwriting, and when we wrote 1959 we went to the Northern Territory... the real reason to just get out there and sit around a campfire with the ringers and the stockmen and get on the back of a horse and a motorbike and try and see life through their eyes, you know. And we got so many song ideas out there in the territory and they really did form the basis of the new album.

Although that was pretty much your upbringing anyway, wasn't it?

Well I always can draw on my upbringing, growing up in the country, but you’re always looking for new ideas.

Can you single out one greatest influence that Garth has had on you in these past five years?

I would say probably his greatest influence is really he's been my confident, my teacher and a great friend and just to sum it all up, there would be no Outback Club, there would be no Three Chain Road, there would be no 1959, there would be no "Boys From the Bush" without Garth Porter. This is a story that really needs to be written.

... You should try and grab a hold of that shot of Garth with Sherbet where they've all got their clothes off... don't mention that I said it.

Do you like any of the old Sherbet stuff?

I do, I reckon there's some great songs. "Howzat" was an absolute killer.

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Gina Jeffreys interview
27 March 1996

How did you come to work with Garth initially?

Well when I was first choosing a producer for my first album I was looking around, and I heard what I liked, and I really liked how he produced Lee Kernaghan's albums, and he was my first choice, and I was talking to Meryl Gross, the big boss from my record company and I said look I'd really like Garth Porter to be my producer, could you ring him and see if he's interested, thinking he might have gone oh, no, I don't think so, but he did, he was really interested. And we then got together and he decided to do it after a lot of thought and a lot of talking and he's just... I could rave on about Garth all day he's a great guy.

What are the qualities or methods in his approach that make him so valuable to you and your work?

The first thing that attracted me to him was that I'd heard how he'd produced Lee Kernaghan's albums at that stage, and I really like that and that was my choice totally, to try Garth and see if he was interested. Then when I actually got to meet him we had meetings, one after the other before we did the album, and what he wanted before we even started any pre-production for my album, was to get to know me as a person. I feel a lot of producers could just sort of grab the money and do whatever it takes as quickly as possible, and do whatever songs, and not really care, whereas Garth's theory at that stage was well, he really had to get to know me first as a person so that every song was really going to reflect me, and the music was going to reflect my taste, and it was really something from me, not just a bunch of songs that sounded like they'd be a hit, he's not the kind of producer that looks for songs that just look like they're going to be hit songs; he really wants the album — I don't know how he deals with anyone else — but personally he really wants my album to reflect me as a person, most importantly before anything. So I really admired that.

So we spent months and months, he would come over and we would just have cups of coffee and talk, not even necessarily about music, just about anything, and then we got to the stage where we would listen to the music that I really liked, so could get an impression of what it was I liked, what I listened to and what I wanted my album to sound like.... Linda Ronstadt, Trisha Yearwood... We listened to that kind of stuff and just decided, and every song, and we also co-wrote, and I think that the biggest thing about Garth' s production and the biggest asset as far as I can see, I mean of all his assets, is his pre-production and his choice of songs, and he really has a vision of where he sees, with me he has a vision of what the album is going to be and where he sees me going, and that stems right back to the pre-production where you're choosing songs and writing songs and I think that's really his forte. He can get a song and sort of mould it into something that's going to reflect me and push me in a direction that I wasn't even thinking about this stuff in my first album.

He also has the ability to, he's an incredible producer, but also an incredible songwriter, and I think it all stems from his scngwriting ability, and with Garth coming into the country music industry I think he brought that pop thing which is, cause he comes from a pop background obviously, that's what he brought with him is how to make the song hooky and how to make it popular, how to make a song broadly appealing like a pop song would. Not that I'm saying that country music sounds poppy, what I mean is he knows how to make a song really hooky, get it stuck in your mind, and something that has such a commercial appeal, and I think that's from his pop background, that's why everything he touches in the country music industry becomes successful, because he has the ability to make it very commercial and very hooky.

He shies away from owning a vision or from accepting kudos from his days in the pop world.

He's incredibly modest, he doesn't talk about that very often, but as you can see he's just a very talented man, and I think he does have a vision, I know he does very much do what you want to do, I guess particularly with my first album, because I had no idea what I was doing, and my first album I was led along a little because I'd never done it before and I didn't know what the process was, it's quite a huge thing to go in... the album that we did, The Flame, it was very successful and sold a lot, and that just kind of happened. I didn't mean that to happen. I think I always give Garth a lot of the credit for making it so popular, and making those songs so hooky and having a vision, which he says he doesn't have. Sometimes he says that it's just because we made the music that we loved and were true to me, that's gonna make it popular and that's gonna make people like it, cause it's an honest album, we're not marketing it at any particular market or we're not trying to make money, we're just trying to make music that we like.

What was it you heard in Lee's album, because then we 're talking about production, values, about the technical side. What did you hear there that got you?

At that stage it was a technical production thing, it was just the way the record sounded to me, and I didn't know very much about production back then, but obviously you know what you like and you listen and you know you like it and you're not sure why. But nowadays I know why, and I'm so much more involved in production and I know what's going on a lot more down the track. But back then, just something appealed to me about it, how it sounded and how it was technically produced.

So this new album you've obviously had a lot more creative input in terms of knowing how you wanted it to sound.

Definitely. Yeah, I think because I'm two years older, which is a lot musically, I know it doesn't seem that much in a person's life, but I've evolved a lot musically and as a songwriter and I've got a much finer taste in music now where my taste was a lot broader back then, it's still very broad, but I know more specifically what I like now. So I've been much more hands on with this album with Garth, we're making more decisions together. My first album I just trusted Garth totally and I didn't take every decision basically, ‘cause I didn't really know, but now these days we share decisions and it's a real group effort between Ted Howard, who's a wonderful engineer that works with Garth, and Ted's a fabulous guy and also on my album Rod McCormack has had a lot of input with songwriting and he's hands on as well so it's kind of like a group thing where we throw ideas around and it's a group of people that we trust, and Garth... really knows what he's talking about and we really trust him ultimately with major decisions, and... he's just very good.

Does it ever concern you that he works with so many of the top country artists in terms of reintaining your own individual style when you 're working with him?

Well it has a little sometimes, but the thing is, country music is such a broad term so it's not very likely that someone else's album is going to turn out sounding like mine because my voice is so different to any other artist, like say Tania Kernaghan, who he recently produced, we have such totally different tastes in music, even though we're both country, we're very different and Lee too is very different, so it's, it would be very doubtful that my album would turn out anything like Tania's because we're so different as people and Garth produces us as people, not thinking well, Gina was a great, that obviously worked, let's do that again, he's not gone for that, he's gone for let's be true to Tania's heart and the music Tania likes. So I don't think that could happen, but yeah, it's crossed my mind thinking well, it's a small industry and there's not a lot of producers and musicians to go around in the country music industry and I'm looking forward to the day when there are more producers at Garth's level, I think there's no one else at the moment at Garth's level, and the day when there are four or five Garth Porters will be a good day, and the day there are also four or five Rod McCormacks, he's a wonderful musician.

Well it seems there are very few producers at Garth 's level in Australia full stop, so it's very interesting that he's ended up in country.

I'm interested in the notion of country music coming from a city base because so many of you live and work from the city, and Garth pointed out that in your case you don 't even necessarily focus on rural themes. Can you say what the essence of country music is?

Well that is a hard one, it's different for everybody, but I guess the one thing that links us all together as different as we are is it's real music for real people and quite often a song you hear you can really relate to, the lyrics are something that you can relate to; they're all true stories, the songs I'm singing are actually things that happened to me, and because I don't come from the land and I'm not going to sing about being in a barn or milking a cow or riding horses, I can't do that cause I don't come from that and that would not be true to myself, I'm just singing about real life things which is I think probably more likely to have happened to a lot more people, you know just love, and losing love and finding love and family and that kind of stuff which people go oh, that's happened to me, or they can interpret a song their own way. But I think country music is just that, people can interpret a song and understand it and I feel like it's real music for real people.

On a musical base it's something that's quite easy to listen to and it's very contemporary, it's evolved into something more recently that is more broadly appealing to a lot of people including city people, which it wasn't in the past, because the music's evolved into this really contemporary easy listening kind of music. I put it in a group where years ago where the Eagles were and where Linda Ronstadt was, not particularly country sounding I guess compared to Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash, which is quite an acquired taste, but it was still classified as country or almost back then like the Eagles and Linda Ronstadt slid over into the pop market as well. And these days there's a whole, there's nothing like it, there's none of this easy listening kind of music that most average people like myself or my mum and dad or my best friend and her husband, they're not going to listen to Deep Purple or Boys II Men or any of that more extreme stuff that the kids like. It's hard to relate to, I mean the kids love it and on the other hand it's a bit of an acquired taste, the head banging stuff or rap or whatever. But people who in the past would have had Eagles records or Linda Ronstadt records, now country music has plugged into that set, there's kind of been a hole there. I guess even Billy Joel or Elton John or, that kind of just easy to listen to, nice lyrics, nice melody. So I think country music's hopped right in there and that's part of its success at the moment. It's really appealing, contemporary easy listening music with great lyrics.

So the new album's called Up Close. When do you think it'll be ready?

The end of May it’s due out.

I didn't mention what a lovely person he is, he' s just one of the loveliest people I've ever met, a real angel to work with and a lovely human being, he really is.

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Rod McCormack interview
4 April 1996

Garth's been particularly notable for taking new or previously underexposed artists and really, giving them a push; with The Wheel, you have such enormous collective experience and confidence, so why did you choose to do your project with Garth, rather than produce it yourselves?

Obviously the self-production was a big option. I've been working on all of Garth's albums now, I've probably played on every record he's produced for the last five years or something, and we've become good mares, and I just thought at least for our first album that it would be really good to have an outside opinion from someone outside of the band who could look at the overall picture and not get caught up in the smaller minor issues that happen during the making of an album. So we all decided that Garth would be the right person for that job and sure enough he was interested. I mean, we go through lots of meetings to sort through material and do all that and obviously we felt really strongly about the material that we had, you know, songs like "Wondering Why" and Kim is our major songwriter. So once we sorted all that out with Garth, then he basically on The Wheel album agreed to take more of a sort of a back seat role than he normally would; he let us go about our business, but when we needed somebody to pitch in, he was there, you know?

Yes, I asked him about that, because the songwriting element is very strong in the other artists he works with, and in this case Kim is such a strong songwriter. Do you think there is a Garth Porter sound or style?

I do, I don't see it so much as a sound, I think the sound that gets attributed to Garth is actually to do with a lot of things, it can also be attributed to the same number of players who usually play on those records, and also Ted Howard the engineer. But I think the main thing about Garth is probably the way he writes songs, and the way he likes to shape or mould songs around a person's character to suit them and their kind of thinking and how he can see them working in a market place and I think that thing about Garth is probably the sound that I hear most of all; now when we go into make a new album and we get together for a couple of months before hand and we go through the material, that's when I really notice, I can hear the classic Garth sound already, and that's just sitting in a lounge room with one guitar, you know.

So how does that work with The Wheel when you say he took more of a back seat, and yet it’s definitely got that... slick and sophisticated without in any way being over-produced.

Mmmm. For, I actually hear The Wheel album as sounding quite different to Lee's or Gina's, but there are common threads, as I said Ted Howard the engineer is a big part of that, obviously Garth's involvement, but also a lot of the players are common, as well, I mean even though The Wheel is a band, individually we all play on a lot of those records as well. I think all of those factors contribute to it, but I think a producer, he gets to hear it, like a sound a certain way, and then you just shoot for that. I hear The Wheel a little bit different but I know what you mean, there's a good quality about those records that a lot of other Australian country albums don't have.

Is there a risk of the industry becoming too incestuous?

Definitely, I think so. You know we're the ones who are caught up in the middle of it in a way, but we're also probably the keenest supporters of having more producers and more engineers and more musicians play on records, because you can take one of two opinions I guess, you can have the attitude that as long as it's a small scene it's really good for us, we're, all really busy, we work hard and we make good money and all those kind of things, but on the other side of the fence, and I know this is also Garth's view is that the more producers that come, the more people that make better records and the overall quality of Australian country music improves, the better that is for everybody. I mean in the beginning there was like a James Blundell record that got a bit of mainstream coverage that opened a few doors and made it a little easier for Lee who made it a little easier for Gina who makes it a bit easier for The Wheel, and it just turns around and around and around, you know. And the more people there are in that picture, I think the better for all of us.

And yet you say you're working on everyone's album.

Every producer in Australia has his favourite team of people to work with and we're lucky that we've been included in his.

Do you think your album would have sounded different had you produced it yourselves?

Oh look obviously; to say no would be demeaning his input, and you know I think as I said when we needed Garth to be there to make a good crunch decision then he was there to do that stuff, and I think his input would be smaller than on a normal Garth Porter production, but however, invaluable. I think the decisions that were made and the general production of the album were a relly big... obviously there's a huge Garth Porter influence there I reckon.

Is there a "renaissance " or "new wave " in Australian country music, and if so how big a part has Garth played in that?

I don't know about a renaissance, I think it's just still on the up and probably hit heights that it hasn't hit before in a way, and I think Garth's played a really big role. I think just bringing his pop sensibility across to country music has allowed people like Lee Kernaghan, I mean if it wasn't for Garth there would be no "Boys From the Bush" Lee would probably still be singing Hank Williams Jr songs in Australia, trying to make that work, you know. And obviously Lee had his own vision but I think he connects the artist's personality and finds a great way to plonk that at the most accessible point into the marketplace. And I think "Boys From the Bush,” "Girls Night Out" for Gina, all of those things were really the songs that made all the difference.

I spoke to him a lot about country music gaining mainstream coverage and I used the term "cross-over" and it was like the plague for him. He seems more precious about country music than Lee or Gina do, in terms of the market.

I think so, I mean most artists see cross-over as... I mean cross-over's such a grey area, I mean what is that really? If you look at the history of Australian country music, the only Australian country artists that have ever crossed over, the only way the have ever done it has just been by doing what they do but selling more records than normal, I mean "Pub With No Beer" was a cross-over hit, you know, but you couldn't call that pop or anything else.

I think our band has a lot of other influences that, obviously in a band situation you get five inputs of different influences that you can hear really traditional country, obviously bluegrass, you can also hear some R&B and some rock and other things, influences that somehow combine to make the music sound a certain way. And I think the... you mentioned the Eagles and Poco and things like that, for people who enjoyed that music in the 70s or whenever, there is no modern equivalent outside of country music I don't think, and for people who love that music, even what was originally rock and roll, the closest thing to that right now that I can see around is just contemporary country music.

Well that 's what 1959 was all about really wasn't it.

It's really true, and I think that... I read an article on Don Henley recently [regarding Walden Woods] and he was talking about [the Common Thread] album and he was basically making the point that in country music these days it's probably about the only place you can go for songwriters and people generally who love to hear, still love the art of good lyric writing and strong melody, and there's a lot of truth in that, like every idiom of music we've got some crap, you know, but there's also the cream is still really really good.

© Debbie Kruger
No part of these interviews may be reproduced or transmitted in any form
without prior written permission.

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