Interview: Catherine Britt

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I’ve raved elsewhere about Catherine Britt’s brilliant new album, Always Never Enough. I’m still listening to it, over and over, and finding so much to love about it each time. It is a collection of great stories and an important contribution to the tapestry of Australian storytelling in song.

Recently I spoke to Catherine, before she headed out on tour with Tim Rogers. She was vibrant, interesting and engaged, and had lots of interesting things to say about music, family and life. 


Well, I’ve been listening to your album a lot because I have to say, it is fantastic.
 Oh, my god, thank you so much.
It’s really, really, really good. As soon as I’d heard it I emailed your publicist at Universal and said, ‘This is the best thing Catherine has ever done.’
Oh, my goodness.  Thank you so much.  I’m so nervous and so excited and I’m like just mixed, ‘What are people going to think?’ and I guess that’s natural. You do that before every album, but I’m so proud of this record and I do think it’s the best thing I’ve ever done and I’m so glad you say that. People are hopefully going to react to it the way that I want them to which is great.  Thank you.
My first question was actually going to be to say that it’s a collective album that sounds cohesive and I was wondering if there was an overarching intention because there are so many different song styles and stories on it, but there’s really this sense of it pulling together as a whole. 
Well, absolutely, and I think that’s the key to a good album is trying to make it all make sense and all flow together, but also show all the different sides of yourself and be dynamic and be non-limiting, I guess, musically. And I’ve always tried to achieve that and try to be the best artist I can be and open myself up to all sorts of genres.  And because I listen to all sorts of genres, good music’s good music, so I think that it’s important to just write what comes straight out from your heart and your soul and not sit there and try to write a country song, just try and write a song.  And I think that’s what this album is a result of and the fact that I’ve been so many different things on this album that I haven’t been before, there are a few political things on there that I never would have really spoken about before.  And, I guess, it’s because I’m getting older.
[Laughs].
 And starting to realise that the world around me a little more and be more aware and some other peoples stories that have affected me and of course that have my own things I’ve been reminiscing or if they’re enough … Just another good old heartbreak. Probably the most powerful heartbreaks I’ve ever written, because it was the most powerful heartbreak, I’ve ever been through so it’s very dynamic and I love that.
I think with ‘Always Never Enough’, I actually didn’t see it as a heartbreak song, although I did read your notes about it. I actually saw it more as a statement of what it’s like to be an intelligent, strong-minded young woman in a society that perhaps doesn’t endorse that as much as it could.
Yeah.  And look that’s – I’m so glad you caught that cause that’s exactly what it is.  It’s a double entendre – it’s supposed to be both and, look, that is exactly why I released it as the first single, because it really sums up this album and me as a person. It’s like I’m always that overachiever who tries way too hard every day to be better than she was yesterday and I’m very competitive and very much trying to push myself and try and be better. And I think that it is never enough for me and it is ‑ it’s always pushing to the next level and pushing for the next step and what’s next in my career and what am I going to do now, okay. And I think that’s that definitely the title itself sums up the album, sums up me, sums up everything. So, yes, it is a heartbreak song that is very honest and very real and I’m sure my ex-boyfriend hates my guts because of it.
[Laughs].  Too bad!
[Laughs] But, no, it also definitely sums up me as a person and as an artist.
You’ve spent quite a bit of time in the US and it’s always struck me that the United States, it is more supported or people are more supported if they are ambitious, if they want to strive to, as you said, do better today than you did yesterday. So I was wondering if you found that you actually you were more comfortable or have been more comfortable in American society in that respect.
Oh, yeah.  I guess. I mean, not really. I never felt quite like I fitted in American. Living there for six years was one of the best experiences and the worst experiences of my life. But it’s like I worked so much on it, it was like going off and getting my music degree or something, my college, my version of college but it – I fitted in in a lot of ways but I didn’t in a lot of ways. Their culture is so different from us and it’s such a different world over there that I never quite felt comfortable, I never quite felt at home quite like I do having a conversation with my parents in Newcastle, hanging out in my own town.  So I don’t think you ever really capture that anywhere else, your family, and the people that you surround yourself with that you love and adore you no matter what, and I think that’s what I wanted to come home to at the end of the day.  I still go to America all the time, I’ve been there four times in the last seven months touring, but I didn’t want to live there. At the end of the day when I come off the road, I want to come home to my best friends who adore me and who I adore, and my family who love me no matter what, and my hometown that I’m just so proud to be from. And I think that that’s what I realised as I got older, is what’s important here that I’m off taking this dream, that does it really matter, is it making any difference that I am here full time or do I balance my life out and try and find happiness in my personal life as well as my career? And that’s the decision I made.
Well, I think it’s a good one and it’s good for Australians that you’re here.
[Laughs].
But having said that about the US, I was in Tamworth earlier this year – as one should be every year – and looking at Harmony James at a gig and looking at the make-up of her band and just reflecting.  I’d seen Felicity Urguhart the night before and I thought, ‘Australian country music is really supportive of woman out the front of bands.’
Yeah.
And intelligent singer-songwriter women. In the US, the Dixie Chicks are really good singer-songwriters in that vein.  But a lot of what you see of women in country music in the US is perhaps a bit more of the showmanship type than, say, you or Felicity or Harmony or Beccy or Kasey, people who write really great songs and still get to perform them. 
Yeah. I think there is a really great support system here for the singer-songwriter and I think that’s very much a part of our music industry in a lot of ways.  I mean, look at our mainstream radio in Australia – the music that sells the most is indie pop rock singer-songwriters. You’ve got people like Nick Cave and Tim Rogers and things like that are our legends in Australia.  Jimmy Barnes. And in America they probably wouldn’t even be like as appreciated, I guess, as they are here. I think that it’s great that we appreciate a real singer-songwriter and real music in Australia.  And we’re just so taken with that and I think that that’s a lot of the reason why I wanted to come back here and make music here. Because I feel like Australians do get what I’m trying to do and I have a big audience here of intelligent music fans who completely support me as an artist and I love that.
And you mentioned Tim Rogers, who you’re obviously going to be touring with soon. In terms of his song writing – I was a You Am I fan pretty much from the start and I remember reading an article about him years ago where someone was asking him about his songwriting and he said something like, ‘Well, I don’t like those songs that are just like, “oh, that girl left me, I’m so miserable”.’ Those songs aren’t interesting when you do them over and over again. He liked to tell stories and he is one of our great storytelling songwriters. 
Oh, god.  Absolutely. 
So you’re a good match.
I’m the biggest Tim Rogers fan in the world. I think he’s just awesome and brilliant and I’m so freaking excited to go out on tour with him. And also very scared, knowing Tim personally, and I have no idea what the next three months have in store for me.
[Laughs].
But I’m very excited to be out on the road with such a brilliant musician and a brilliant man and a pure gentlemen and one of the best singers that we have here in Australia.  I mean, he really is just when it comes to songwriting and artistry, you don’t really get much better than Tim Rogers.  So I’m very, very proud and excited to be working with him.
And do those sort of tours  and I don’t know how many you’ve done where it’s kind of you and  just another artist as opposed to another band – but do these sorts of tours give you the opportunity for further collaboration?
Absolutely and I’ve done many tours like this, I mean pretty much in this day and age, it’s what you do.  You go out with another artist, it’s the only way to sort of make money and get people out to shows these days.  So I think that it’s definitely the majority of what I do when I go out on the road and it’s great because you create this friendship with other artists that last forever. And that never goes away because you create this bond on the road and this musical bond that you never would have seen before and it’s really cool.  Tim and I have been working together for, gosh, three or four years now creating this band with Bill Chambers and we call ourselves the Hillbilly Killers, and we’re actually working on an album and things like that that will come out hopefully down the track.
Oh!
But that’s how we kind of became friends and then of course he asked me to come out on this tour with him, this Rogers does Rogerstein tour. So it’s just all a part of the music industry, I guess, you meet people and it takes you to different places and that’s what I love about it.
You mentioning the Hillbilly Killers is the first I’ve heard of it so now I’m very excited [laughs] to hear that.
[Laughs] Yeah, it’s very much underground and in development at the moment, but we’ve been hanging out for a few years now and writing and developing this band. We’ve all got ridiculous schedules so it’s like trying to actually all get the studio and try and get together and actually make it work is another thing.  But we’ve got plans to go out and record this year, so hopefully they don’t fall through and we do end up releasing something pretty soon. It’s great to work with Tim and, of course, I’ve worked with Bill since I was a little girl so it totally makes sense to have us all in, I guess, in a band together.  And we’re all from the same music, we all love the same stuff so it’s very exciting.
That is exciting, but I’ll go back to your album and what I really picked up on this is more so than on the previous albums was a feeling of confidence from you, that you were confident in yourself as a songwriter and as a singer.  So I was wondering if that was true or maybe I’m reading something into it [laughs].
Yeah.  Well, I’m like any artist, one minute I’m confident, the next minute I’m the most insecure person in the world [laughs]. That’s just what we do  we’re all the same really, I guess, at the end of the day.  But, look, I am very confident in myself musically and I always have been.  I’ve always believed in myself and, I guess, if you don’t believe in yourself, you wouldn’t do it.  You got to have confidence to go get out in front of a crowd and sing your song, but that’s what it’s all about.  We’re all show-offs at the end of the day, I’m the youngest of four and I used to get up in front of my whole family and ‘Look at me, look at me’.
[Laughs].
That’s the kid I was.  That’s what all artists are at the end of the day, we want people to pay attention to us and love us and appreciate us and give us attention. And I think that when it comes to this album, I’m more confident than I ever have been with any other album, that is absolutely true and I’m glad that it shows in the music.  That’s really cool that it comes through.
I think it’s the case that – and you would probably find this as well as a listener  that you can put on some records and you feel as a listener you relax.  Because you think okay, well, the artist was clearly quite happy about what was going on here and I can just relax and let go into this.  And sometimes  it’s the same with live music  and sometimes you put on an album, you just think, ‘Oh, I’m on edge, something’s not working’.  But with this one I just put it on and immediately thought, ‘Okay, I can just sit back here, I’m in Catherine’s capable hands’.
Oh, cool.  That’s such a cool way of putting it. I think that music has to have confidence behind it, you’re so right. That’s what sells the Bruce Springsteens and the Elton Johns and the Bob Dylans; people who have been around forever. That’s what sells about them is that they are 100 per cent confident in what they do with themselves as an artist. And you do, you listen to their albums and are like, ‘Oh, okay, this is somebody who really knows what they’re talking about here’, and you pay attention.  Like you would in a conversation, if somebody starts speaking intelligently or whatever and they’re really passionate, they know what they’re talking about, you pay attention.  You don’t brush it off as that guy doesn’t know what they’re talking about and, I guess, it’s the same with everything, music included.
Yeah.  Yeah.  Often with albums there’s the odd song you want to brush over, or maybe two or three songs for some people. I think each of these songs is really, really great which is an unusual thing for any album.  
[Laughs] Thank you.
Well, thank you for making them.  But they all sound loved, if that makes sense and they also they sound like they’ve had the sort of attention that they would get because they’re loved.  But I was wondering if you actually have any favourites out of them?
 I don’t know, being such a new album I’m so in love with all of it. [Laughs] I haven’t really kind of gone down that road yet, but I’ve been playing the new single ‘Always Never Enough’ and I love that, I love the song and it’s so great to play live.  But ‘Sally Bones’ is another song that goes over so well live, people come up to me and go, ‘Play that crazy song’ [laughs]. So people really love it, but I think that it affects people and same with ‘Our Town’, that always goes over really well live. But  they all do, I don’t know. The song about my brother, ‘I’m Your Biggest Fan’, is always really great at festivals and people seem to really love it even though it’s the first time they’ve heard it. It’s always really fascinating to see what happens when you sing these songs live, it’s a totally different thing. But I don’t really have a favourite as yet. We’re about to release ‘Charlestown Road’ as the second single and I love that song too, it’s about my childhood and where I grew up and I guess it’s essentially every Australian’s childhood, really.  But it’s cool that I was able to write that song, I haven’t been able to write that song prior to now, so I’m glad I did get the chance for that come to out.
I guess it is every Australian’s childhood but that’s part of the role of being a storyteller, to reflect that back to people so that they can find something in themselves that connects to it. 
Exactly.  Exactly.  And that’s the beauty of songwriting, songwriting is all about is writing songs that obviously come from a place that has affected you but also people can relate to it and put it in their own life and make it their own story.
And on ‘Sally Bones’, I didn’t find it a creepy song so much as it’s a really powerful song, but I noticed that it’s the only point on the album – and probably in any of your songs – where you actually go out of a singing voice and into a speaking tone when you say her second name.  You kind of flatten it and it’s just a little detail but I thought that’s really interesting, it’s almost like a character coming through you, like you just flatten your voice for that second.
Yeah.  Yeah.  I’ve never really sung like that before on any album and I think that it’s cool to, kind of, to try these things and that’s how I wrote it.  I didn’t intentionally think of that or anything, but that’s sort of how it came out but I love that, it is telling Sally Bones’s story and that shit happens all the time.  And it’s, like, even though it’s not a great thing to happen in this world, it’s something that I like to, I guess, make people pay attention to again. And focus on even if it’s for three minutes and maybe it’ll make a difference and it’ll change some things, maybe it won’t. But at the end of the day, it’s her story and it’s a great song to sing and a great story to tell.
You mentioned you’re from Newcastle, which is fairly close to the country music community on the Central Coast [laughs].  So I was wondering if you have any plans to move to Copacabana.
Oh, yeah.  Yeah.  Just like everyone else.
[Laughs].
No, I am so close and that’s the thing, I still hang out with all those folks but I’m also sort of outside of the industry enough to not be a part of it all as well. But I’ve always kind of been a bit of an outsider – spending a lot of my time overseas and whatever, but all those folks are very much very good friends of mine. I’ve just been on tour with Bec actually, Beccy Cole, for the last, I don’t know, I think we were out for about five months actually. In the [United] States and it was brilliant. Australian Storycame out with us on the road and did a lot of recording while we were out on the road.  And it was great to watch her journey and come out as a woman and a very proud gay person, I love all of that. She’s already brilliant as an artist and I love her as a personm and it was just great to see her come into her own and be the person that she absolutely should be a hundred per cent, I love that. But, yeah, I spend a lot of time down there [on the coast] but definitely no.
[Laughs].
I love Newcastle, I’ve got all my family and my friends here, I’m definitely going to be here for as long as I can.
For springing off on tour, Newcastle is quite pretty much as good as Sydney, you have access to main roads and an airport and all those things.
[Laughs]. Exactly. It’s like a little mini city. But it’s not too much of a city that it’s  I can’t be in Sydney for more than a day without going insane so it’s like it’s still got a sanity about it, which is good.
You are heading out on the road again, so you’ve been out with Beccy for a few months and you’ll be out for a while with Tim  do you enjoy that rhythm of being on the road?  Or is there a rhythm to it?
I love it, I’d much prefer to be on the road than anything else.  I’ve really, really enjoyed touring and I’ve enjoyed playing gigs live and yeah, that’s a big, huge part of what I do that I love. So I’m looking forward to going out with Tim and seeing what that’s going to be like and then we’ve got lots of plans for the rest of the year, which obviously we’ll bring out at an appropriate time as well.  So yes, I’m very excited about getting out on the road again.

Catherine Britt’s new album is out now through ABC/Universal. Check Catherine’s website for tour dates:

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