Debbie Kruger
Kasey Chambers photo and heading
December 2000

by Debbie Kruger

It's a line so stark in its humility that it has some American reviewers looking for irony and missing the point altogether.

“You’re the Captain and I am no-one,” sings Kasey Chambers, in a straight-down-the-line Australian way that begs no interpretation. Pressed for an explanation, the 24-year old singer-songwriter describes how, when her career started taking off, a supportive but shy boyfriend who wanted to stay in the background got her thinking about the pleasures of anonymity. “Sometimes you just want to hang back and not have any attention and not have your heart out on your sleeve all the time, which, being a songwriter, is really what it’s all about.”

Anonymity is a far-fetched dream for Chambers in Australia, where her growing collection of trophies was topped off in October by the Best Female Artist award at the ARIAs (Australia’s Grammys). Leaving mainstream pop princesses in her wake, Chambers’ win was as popular as it was controversial. The “cross-over” from country to pop was as unplanned and unselfconscious as everything else about her.

Her piercings — both nose and lip — have received much media attention, but it's this waif-like artist with the voice that reportedly had Lucinda Williams in tears at first hearing. A family girl through and through, her formative years were spent in the harsh Australian Nullarbor desert, hunting for food and sleeping under the stars. Her less-than-conventional parents, Diane and Bill Chambers, brought Kasey and her brother Nash up listening to American country artists like Johnny Cash and Hank Williams while they wandered the land like gypsies.

The media love telling that story, too, but Kasey's unconcerned. “I think my family story has a lot to do with why my music is like it is. I get the feeling that people are interested in the background because they’re interested in the music in the first place. And it does have a lot to do with how the songs come out today, how they’re produced and how we play them.” Even today, writing for her second solo album as she lives in Sydney and travels regularly to Los Angeles and Nashville, her past is inspirational. “The Nullarbor Song,” for instance, is a new composition. “My lifestyle now, being so busy and travelling so much, is making me really hone in on my other lifestyle and think about it a lot, and miss it.”

While pop fans in Australia have embraced Chambers, her US debut has been targeted directly at the alternative country market inhabited by her contemporary heroes, including Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle. Her acceptance by artists of that ilk is already evident; not only is Williams one of her greatest allies, Buddy and Julie Miller are also long-time allies.

For Chambers, songwriting is something she feels compelled to do. Her voice is so highly praised that she might well be a star if she only interpreted the work of other writers. But that would be unthinkable.

“I think it’s got a lot to do with everybody having their different way to express themselves, and you need something to express yourself or eventually it’s just going to blow up inside you. And my thing is songwriting. Even if I weren’t singing my own songs, if they were absolutely crap and I never made an album, I’d still sit at home and write songs. It’s therapy for me."

Chambers often finds herself transported when she writes. “I don’t even remember writing a song most of the time, it’s just kind of written. Then I think, 'Wow, I must have been in such a little trance, because I can’t even remember writing that line.' I think the songs are just out there and they’re just using me to surface. Sometimes I really feel like writing a song, that’s all I want to do, I’ve taken a day off and I just want to write a song. And I sit down and not a thing comes out. And it’s just got to be because there are just no songs in that room at that time.”

THE CAPTAIN (Warner Bros.)
Kasey Chambers’ first solo album builds on a decade of performing and recording with Australia’s leading alternative country group, The Dead Ringer Band. Unafraid to expose her vulnerable side, she uses her uninflected voice to unveil a persona both direct and disarming. The songs on The Captain were written between the ages of 15 and 22, and depict the transformation, emotional and spiritual, of an artist whose self-awareness belies her age. From bluegrass to country-rock, balladry to hillbilly, Chambers covers a lot of ground in a sweetly satisfying debut.

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