Interview: Sal Kimber

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Alt-country artist Sal Kimber and her band, The Rollin’ Wheel, had a cracker of a debut album, called Sounds like Thunder. Now they’re about to release an eponymous album that ticks a variety of country boxes, all of them good. Ahead of this release, Sal kindly answered some questions by email.

The songs on your first album suggest someone stuck between the past and the present – ‘Drive’ sounds almost like a bushranger song while ‘Met Police’ is firmly rooted in urban life. But that’s a paradox of country music, too: the sound of it is redolent of the past, of a time and way of living gone, but contemporary musicians can only write about what they know. Do you feel that paradox at all?

Most of the songs that I write are stories which I have picked up from talking to people, from reading and from my own life experience, the stories just happen to come from different time periods but there is no conscious definite gap between two different types of time periods, songs or story style. The songs that I paint come from both rural and urban environments, because I find inspiration from both, I think this juxtaposition between city and country will always exist in my songwriting.

There seems to be more ‘old-timey’ country music coming out of rural Victoria [Sal is from Victoria] – is there a community of country musicians that you feel a part of?

There are communities of healthy ‘ole timey’ country music dotted all around rural Vic. Probably the community I feel most connected to is the ‘Alt Country’ music scene in Melbourne Town, there are so many talented young and experienced alt country singer songwriters on the streets of Northcote and Brunswick, supporting and inspiring each other. As illusive as it is I do like to use the term ‘alt country’, we have a banjo and a double bass in our band so most people would instantly categorsze us as country, but many old skool country music fans would say we are folk, and folkies call us Roots. So the term ‘alt country’ allows us to recognise our roots, yet get away with being folk, rootsy, eclectic and edgy.

There appear to be more female singer-songwriters putting out records in Australian country music than in rock or pop – do you think this is because the country music community as a whole is more supportive, so that it’s easier for new artists to be heard and get gigs, or are female songwriters particularly attracted to country, for some reason?

There is definitely a new wave of appreciation and love for country music, especially alt country music at the moment. venues and festivals and audiences are super supportive of female alt country. This wave appears to have brought with it a healthy amount of new artists. It’s an exciting time for alt country.

In Sydney it’s quite hard to find country music gigs of any stripe – what’s happening in Melbourne?

Bluegrass, ole timey and alt country seems to be seeping out of Melbourne streets at the moment, it is truly alive and kicking, feels exciting to be part of it.

Across both albums there’s a range of country styles, including roots, bluegrass and swing – do you have a particular favourite?

Hmmm, depends which day you catch me on. Today it’s swing šŸ™‚
Have you flirted with other musical styles, or has country music always appealed?
I grew up on a staple of blues and folk, I discovered country a little later in my life and it has had my heart ever since.

The new album has, in parts, a muddier, gutsier, one could even say raunchier feel – what was going on when you wrote the songs? Or was this something that came out in the studio?

The new album is definitely a lot more playful than the last one. My band THE ROLLIN’ WHEEL has an unchanged line up for over 3 years, we all love hanging out and have a pretty playful dynamic energy when we come together. Probably that and the fact that I have been listening to a lot of Lucinda Williams.

‘Your Town’, ‘Sweet Love’, ‘Rollin’ Wheel’ are ‘sweet’ songs – not saccharine country-pop but definitely different to the opening tracks. Do you naturally search for a balance in your material – almost a light and dark balance – or is it a conscious decision?

I do tend to write a lot of different shades, mostly because I listen to and am inspired by many different styles of songwriting. We took over 25 songs to Shane O’Mara (who produced the new album), 25 songs of such varying shade- we recorded 18 and ended up with a 13 track album, the final 13 were selected on the strength and merit of the song itself, as opposed to finding 13 songs that balanced well together.

The album press release mentions the ‘raucous bars’ you’ve played in. I’m curious as to whether these sorts of environments have influenced how you sing – do you find your voice altering to rise about the noise? Do you then write songs that may accommodate that voice?

Playing gigs and practising with an energetic five-piece band, one does find oneself having to sing and pick the banjo a lot louder than I ever have before, especially with the added dynamic of a loud raucous bar. It’s not unusual to play a show where I can’t hear my own voice or banjo on stage, so inevitably my voice has altered and my songwriting has altered to accommodate these elements, but I love playing raucous bars and I love my band, so for now I just gotta learn to sing a little louder.

Are you heading to Tamworth for the 2012 festival?

I don’t believe we are this year, you will find us in the Alt Country alley if we do go though šŸ™‚
Sal Kimber and The Rollin’ Wheel are playing shows soon – visit www.salkimber.com for details.
To purchase either – or both – of Sal’s albums, go to www.vitamin.net.au

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