Interview: Aleyce Simmonds (part I)

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Aleyce Simmonds is relatively new to Australian country music, in that she’s young – although she’s been performing for quite a while. Her first album, Pieces of Me, was produced by Rod McCormack, who is one of the busiest country music producers in the land, along with Nash Chambers and, increasingly, Shane Nicholson. Pieces of Me was released in January 2011 and introduced a singer-songwriter who is more accomplished and mature than ‘first album’ would suggest.

I spoke to Aleyce soon after she’d returned from performing at the 2011 Mildura Country Music Festival in late September. (For reasons of length, this interview will be split into two parts.)

Have you always loved country music?

Yes, I have. I grew up listening to it – in the family we always listened to American country music mainly and I guess I just fell in love with it from a really early age.

Were there any artists in particular at that young age who you really loved?

I’ve always loved Martina McBride and Faith Hill, and they were just emerging at the time that we really started getting into country music, so they influenced me, I guess, a lot as a singer and as a songwriter.

You spent some of your younger years in Tamworth .

I was born in Port Macquarie and moved over to Tamworth when I was about eleven.

I was wondering what the festival would have been like for you as a young resident.

It was awesome – it was just the most exciting time of the year. I would go in the one talent quest in Tamworth – the biggest talent quest, which was called the CCMA – and it was definitely my favourite time of year. It was great having all these people just inject into Tamworth.

I’ve heard a lot of families in Tamworth get out of town at festival time, but clearly yours stayed around.

Yes, definitely. I can’t believe so many do get out.

Are your folks still in Tamworth?

Yes, they are.

So you can stay there when you go back for the festival?

Yes, free accom – it’s the best!

It seems that there are a few talent quests around the festival – you were in the CCMA but you were also in the Telstra Road to Tamworth. Do they overlap? What’s the process?

The Telstra Road to Tamworth’s only been around for six or so years, so it wasn’t around when I was younger. I guess there are a bunch of talent quests that have been there for years but the Toyota Star Maker and the Telstra Road to Tamworth are the two big ones and they’re more for … once you’ve finished those young sort of talent quests then you move on to the more serious career-opening ones.

Where did you do your first heat for the Road to Tamworth?

It was in Armidale, so we drove an hour and a half to Armidale just to get a thousand dollars just to go back to Tamworth!

That wouldn’t have been that early in your performing career, then, if you’d already done CCMA?

Well, I’d done those but I was eighteen when I won the Telstra Road to Tamworth. It was the first big award that I’d won and I was still very green.

Do you enjoy live performance?

I do – I love it. It didn’t come as easy for me as I think it does for other people. I prefer to – or I always have preferred to – sing in a studio and all that sort of stuff. I really struggled with my nerves with my live performance, for a really long time, and it’s really just now that I feel I’m more confident and comfortable on stage, and I guess I’ve had to find what it is about me that works live. It’s not being that live, vibrant entertainer – it’s more singing my songs and telling the crowd about why I wrote the songs and the stories behind the songs, and creating more of an intimate vibe.

In country music it seems like the performers really feel that there’s a relationship with the audience, more than you’d get in a rock gig, for example, so there is a lot of talking that goes on – in a good way. There is that telling the background of the story that’s in the song and that’s really important to the audience.

Definitely.

And that’s how you’ve found your niche – to be that storyteller.

Yes, definitely. That’s what I love about country music, that it evokes so much emotion in the listener – it’s not just a song about a random thing, it’s a song about emotion and real-life things that people can relate to and I guess that that’s what I like to convey to the audience.

I can understand why you might have been nervous when you started performing – you have a really ‘big’ voice, and your voice is clearly a very important part of who you are, and I think it would be difficult to go out every time wondering, ‘Am I going to damage it? Am I in a club where it’s smoky? Am I going to have to strain to be heard over a band?’

That is a factor. It was great when clubs took the smoking areas outside because it is so damaging on your vocal cords and it is a worry, especially doing back to back performances. I also try to keep in with my training and make sure that I sing correctly. A lot of people look down upon classically trained singers, but in my opinion classical training is a perfect foundation – it’s just like learning how to drive a car before you can go out and drive along the freeway or whatever. It’s just a foundation, and it’s so important in any trade or anything to have the training behind it.

You have a big, almost a gutsy voice – it’s not something you often hear in people when they’re younger, as singers tend to grow into their voices a bit. Did you find your voice through your training, or have you always had that sound?

I think I’ve always had a fairly big voice – I just usually call myself a boofhead and say I have a boofhead voice. It’s funny, because when I was growing up, in school and performing in choirs and things, I would always audition for the choirs and they would say that my voice was too different, it would stick out too much. I sang a lot in choirs, but I guess because I’ve got sort of a loud voice it’s … I don’t know why I have it, or how.

It’s not so much that it’s loud but it’s a mature voice. You sound like you’re singing about things as if you’re really feeling them, and one tends to think that it’s only as you get older that you feel things and they can come into your voice.

I think with age it definitely does get easier to convey your messages and things, it’s just even unbelievable how I wrote all the songs for my album a couple of years ago and I did vocals on them back then on the demos, and listening to them now and then listening to my album vocals, there’s just so much more emotion in my album vocal, because even though it’s the same song and I wrote it back then, because I’ve felt different things since then – I’ve had my heart ripped apart and all that sort of stuff, stuff that comes with age, definitely.

And you play guitar as well – a Fender guitar, I saw in your liner notes.

I do, I play a Guild guitar. I’m endorsed by Fender but I play a Guild guitar – they own Guild as well.

You obviously appreciate instruments, and I noticed in your liner notes something about you telling [producer] Rod McCormack that you wanted more banjo and more mandolin, so I was wondering if you’re particularly fond of those instruments or if you just like that ‘country sound’.

I love those instruments. Something I love in music in general is contemporary-sounding songs but with traditional instruments, so a more contemporary country song but with mandolin and banjo all over it – that, to me, is just perfect.

Do you play the banjo or the mandolin?

I’d love to be able to play the banjo. I can play the mandolin, but very badly.

From what I hear, the banjo’s quite hard.

I think so. I haven’t even attempted it, but from what I hear it is quite hard, yes.

www.aleycesimmonds.com

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