Interview: The Torchsong Country Soul Band

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The Torchsong Country Soul Band first made an appearance on this blog in 2008. Since then they’ve been playing gigs and working away on a new album, Smalltown Love, which will be released in November. The band has been playing for seven years and has members from Sydney bands Roaring Jack’s, Stolen Holdens and Perry Keyes’s band.

Ahead of their album launch at the Gaelic Hotel in Sydney on 13 November, Joe Fenech (songwriter, guitarist) and Marie Byrne (singer) answered some questions for the blog.


1. I’ll start with a fairly obvious question: how did you come up with the name of the band?
Joe: I grew up listening to great singers such as Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Dean Martin, Patsy Cline, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin performing killer torch songs and they have always held a special place in my heart. When I started writing my own songs I came up with one called ‘Torchsong ballad country singer’. When it came time to forming and eventually naming a band I borrowed the ‘Torchsong’ bit and added ‘country soul’ because I was listening to lots of Ray Charles and The Band. who classified themselves as country soul.

2. Joe: You’ve written all of the songs on the album, yet you’re not singing them. So do you write the songs for you/as you or do you write them with Marie in mind as the narrator?
I always wanted a great female singer for this band and when Marie found us I definitely adjusted the focus of my writing to complement her beautiful voice.

3. Joe: Contemporary country music is not usually as melancholy as the older-style tunes that arose out of the blues, yet some of your songs could be described as wistful, at the least. As a songwriter, do you find it easier to be wistful or melancholic with certain styles of music – specifically, is country music easier for that?

I’m half Greek , so maybe my wistfulness comes from the Greek Tragedy! I try to reflect all aspects of life: great joy, love, sadness, humour. The new album reflects all of these emotions.

4. Given that the members of the band all seem, first, very experienced and, second, to come from a variety of musical backgrounds, how did you all arrive at playing country music?

Joe: I wouldn’t call ourselves a pure country band. We are more a hybrid of folk, alt country, blues, soul, rock and pop. We all love music and happy to do our version of those styles.

5. Marie: Country music is a bit easier on lead singers, in that they don’t usually have to strain their voices to be heard over loud guitars and strenuous drums. So from a technical point of view, how singing in this band compares to any other singing you’ve done in the past?

You would think so. When I started out with Torchsong it was just myself, Joe and Ed, so it was pretty easy on the vocal cords. No strain needed. Over the years expanding to an eight-piece has been a bit challenging. Everything got louder and louder. There’s definitely competition to be heard but on a positive side it’s made my voice more powerful and I feel more confident as a performer.

6. Marie: You seem to be very much in the storytelling vein of singer – you can convey the meaning of the song through tone and nuance just as much as, if not more than, lyrics. Is this something that comes instinctually to you, or has it developed over time?
It’s funny because if you asked me to introduce and explain every song before I sang one I’d be useless! I’m all about the melody and to me the melody tells the story (sorry Joe x). Joe’s songwriting is beautiful. He makes it very easy as a singer. There’s the rock ‘n’ roll challenge thrown in there, which isn’t my strongest ability, but then he’ll hand me an amazing new ballad or folk song and I’m butter again. My voice has developed over the years, for sure, and I now have a better understanding of what I can do justice to and also what I can’t or just doesn’t suit my voice. In saying that, I’m usually game for any style.

7. If you were to put together an ‘ideal touring bill’, which Australian country music acts would you want to have touring with you, and why?
Joe: I am a great fan of Don Walker and his solo releases are a lot more country than his work with Cold Chisel, so definitely him. I like what Dan Sultan is doing, especially live, and I have a few lovely albums by Cyndi Boste.

8. Which venues have you found to be most receptive to your music?
Joe: The Mandarin Club was great, The Lansdowne, The Cook’s River Motorboat Club, The Gaelic Hotel. I find if we get a bit of publicity mostly in underground press, radio or even songwriters across Australia on TVs then we get a great crowd and the shows go off. Unfortunately the mainstream media doesn’t really support independent artists.

9. Which artists (not necessarily country music) are you listening to at the moment? And which artists influence your songwriting and performing in the band?
Joe: I’m listening to the new Gillian Welch album, Raul Malo, Patty Griffin, Bruce Springsteen, Brian Wilson. My influences are Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Steve Earle, Joe Henry, Hank Williams, Springsteen, John Lee Hooker, Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Cowboy Junkies, Sam Cooke, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Buddy Miller, Ryan Adams and many many more.

10. Balancing a creative life with a ‘day-to-day life’ can be challenging, let alone trying to book gigs and travel. Have you found it harder to make this work being a country band, as your audience is necessarily not mainly in Sydney or other large cities? How much touring have you done in rural and regional Australia?

Joe: It is very difficult with an eight-piece band when every one has a full-time job. We mostly stick to places we can get to easily, such as Katoomba, Kangaroo Valley folk fest, St Albans folk fest. We did play Tamworth but not in festival season. I know Sydney isn’t know as a country-music loving crowd, but when someone puts on a few similar bands the shows are great.

11. Will you be playing at Tamworth 2012? Also, do you have any good Tamworth stories to tell (e.g. favourite gigs or audiences)?

We haven’t looked into Tamworth for 2012 because all of efforts have gone into the new album. It’s difficult to get up there when you are not known, because people offer you gigs where there may or may not be a PA system, offer you a sleeping bag in their backyard and can’t even cover costs etc etc, The only time we did play, poor Marie woke up with no voice and we had a 30-song set list. The brave girl did her absolute best regardless of her Marge Simpson voice. What a trooper !!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Torchsong Country Soul Band will launch their new album on Sunday 13 November from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. at The Gaelic Hotel in Surry Hills. More information at

www.torchsong.moonfruit.com

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