Tania Kernaghan probably needs no introduction – she’s released six studio albums and won quite a few Golden Guitars, and her career in country music has been going enough to prompt the release of a Greatest Hits CD and DVD. It was a real pleasure to talk to Tania on the occasion of the CD/DVD release and to find out a bit about her life, her creative process and the causes that are close to her heart.
What was the first song you wrote?
‘I’ll Be Gone’. Keith Urban played guitar and backing vocals on that particular track, and that was back in 1993, I think, when I wrote the song. That was a pretty ground-breaking career move, I guess, for me. I never realised at the time that the song would go on to be such a great success.
So did you and Fiona [Kernaghan, Tania’s sister and songwriting partner] think you’d ever like to do something together, or it just kind of happened?
Yeah, it just kind of happened. We pretty much realised that we had to start writing our own songs if we wanted to make our own mark in the music industry, and move away from singing cover songs. So we just started putting pen to paper and writing together, and that’s three decades ago now [laughs] that we started writing together and Fiona has been very instrumental in a lot of the songs that I’ve recorded and released over the years.
So, when you said you were doing cover songs, were you mainly doing country covers, or were you doing a whole lot of things?
No, definitely country covers. It’s pretty much all I’ve ever done, in fact. I can’t really sing any other styles very much. I think I’m just so country through and through [laughs].
That’s probably a good opportunity then to ask you about your influences. Have they been the same the whole way through, because you sing – or you write –what I would call a traditional country style?
Very much so and I grew up with people with Patsy Cline, and Patty Loveless, Randy Travis, a lot of those early ’80s, early ’90s kind of artists … When I was a kid I listened to ABBA and stuff like that. I guess those songs were always pretty much at the forefront of when I was about a seven or eight year old singing. But, definitely, the more traditional style of country music, and then I guess these days with the different instrumentation that you use and your backing tracks you can give it more of a 2012 sound, as opposed to stripping it right back. It all comes back to, really, the lyrics of the song. You can dress it up with different instruments and all the rest but the lyrics are the most important thing.
You are a storytelling songwriter and country music is a really great storytelling genre – in fact, probably the great storytelling genre. Are you conscious of telling stories when you write songs?
I just write from real life experiences, mostly, and I find that if I go out there and live it and see it and experience it, that it always makes for a better song. Or if I meet somebody and they’ve got a particular story to tell me, something that happened in their life that I find very touching or moving, then usually I’ll put pen to paper. So, I guess, that’s probably why the songs that turn out to be more like a story. But the thing with country music is it’s music that people can relate to, everyday kind of working man music, and I think that’s why it’s so popular.
So when you’re talking to people and you might get story ideas, are you in the habit of keeping a notebook, or do you tend to store it in your head and then sit down later on and write?
No, no you should see my iPhone – it’s just got pages and pages of song ideas [laughs].
What did you before an iPhone?
It used to be a notebook that I used to carry around with me, but now it’s instant on the phone. And then when I go to write an album’s worth of material I find that I pretty much have to submerge myself in it. So I can’t really be doing other things and then also writing the song. I find that I need to pretty much go away for a couple of weeks and just think song, think lyrics, think ideas and think music, and that’s the best way for me to really finish off those songs. But, yeah, a lot the ideas just come from people that I meet in everyday life.
It sounds like when you’re writing, it’s almost like there’s a really intense creative period where you get a lot done. And, I suppose, given the life you have, where you’re touring a lot and you’re doing a lot of other things, you need to section off that time really?
Absolutely, and that’s what you really need to do. You might put a bit of ideas down to songs, but when it really comes to the crunch you’ve got to just totally forget about office work, paying bills, grocery shopping, all of those mundane kind of things that everybody has to do, and you just have to section yourself off and just go away for a while. And I find if I head out west or head up into the high country and just set myself up there for a few weeks, that’s the best place for me to go to start writing, get serious about writing songs.
I read in your bio that you like to get in the car and go out into the countryside, and you’ve just said that you like to write in the high country, so it sounds like for you the land is a really powerful force or a powerful motivator for what you’re doing?
Definitely. I find that I have to get right out of the city and just really get into that landscape of – I think it helps you keep in touch with the songs that you’re writing, the people that you’re writing for. And just to be surrounded by the wide open spaces, or perhaps it’s up in the hills, definitely helps you – it nourishes your soul when you’re putting songs down on paper.
And do you find when you go to country towns that you’re recognised quite a bit?
Yeah, country towns, particularly, people will take a double look, but I’m very happy to talk to people and I think that I’m probably very approachable and just in my personality its normally who I am. So, yeah, I’m happy to have a chat with the people. In fact, I was down in Hughenden in out western Queensland way a few weeks ago, and just in a little coffee shop out there, and had quite a few people come up to me and want to have a chat. So I was more than happy to do that.
It sounds like you’re really aware of how you’re singing to an audience and that the audience feeds back to you in a way that you’re telling their stories and they’re also reflecting back to you whether that works or not. And that seems like it’s a really fulfilling way for you to work.
It definitely is. It’s a great gauge to know how your songs are being translated out there and getting back to just that the lyrics being so important. I think that some of the best ways to roadtest songs is to be amongst some friends around the campfire and roadtest songs just with a guitar and you can soon see if it’s connecting with people and on that right level. Yes, it’s pretty important that I get the audience feedback because you put so much into these songs and your albums that you want to make sure they have some longevity.
I don’t think we can dispute that you have longevity given that this is a three-decade-spanning album or thereabouts!
Pretty much so, and I’m very happy due to the fact that not only is it to our twenty years of recording songs – the greatest hits also embraces a two-hour DVD and that tells the story of my life, and my touring and lots of music video clips and how I got into the music business and a whole swag of things. So it’s really something that I’m very proud of, this particular package.
I was reading that it seems like your Facebook fans have a bit of influence in the song choice. Did it feel like of a strange way to choose the list?
It’s incredible the way social media works these days, but I had my favourite songs that I wanted to include on the greatest hits, and I put a call out there to everybody on Facebook and said, ‘This is what I’m doing. What are some of your favourite songs that you’d like see included on the track listing?’ It just came in thick and fast. ‘Boys in Boots’, ‘Nine Mile Run’, ‘Cowboy Up’ – you name it. So it was the ones that really proved the most popular that got the final say on the album.
Was your own list quite different then to what ended up being on the album?
No, there was a couple of songs that I wouldn’t have thought would have made it there, that had been so popular, but it was a pretty much I reckon 75 to 80 per cent there, it was pretty much what I felt in my heart that were the right songs.
When you’re out on the road performing – even though you look like you must have started singing at the age of two to cover three decades’ worth of performing – does it feel like performing is almost a different job to songwriting, so it’s like different version of Tania that has to go on the road to the one who is sitting there writing songs?
I think what you see is what you get with me, I’m pretty much the same as I am at home as I am on stage. But I love singing on stage, I feel like … You’ve heard people talk about being in dharma? Well, when I’m on stage I feel like I’m in dharma. I just really love that connection with people and the audience, I love singing, I love entertaining. I love making people happy, and I just really find that’s so much easier to do when you’re on stage. And I was four years old when I first got up on stage and sang, and I got a few claps and loved it, so I thought I better learn some new songs. I never, ever doubted in my mind that I wouldn’t be an entertainer or a singer. I never had another choice – you know, like a lot of kids would say, well yeah, if that doesn’t work out I’ll go and do this. But I never had that. I just always wanted to sing.
You mentioned dharma, which raises the idea of music as a spiritual practice and creative work as a spiritual practice – it seems like from a really young age you did know yourself and your own mind well enough, almost identifying that it was a spiritual practice even then.
Yeah, maybe so, because it is an incredible feeling when you’re singing, and I’ve never really thought of it but I like that. But I guess that singing and music can be so very much a healing thing as well, and I feel the same when I’m on a horse – when I go riding it’s just such a great feeling and it’s so hard to explain to people that don’t know what it’s like, or have never ridden a horse before. The same kind feeling, it’s just like you know you’re supposed to be there, and with the music that’s exactly how I feel. I know that I’m doing the right thing. And when I’m a bit removed from it, and I haven’t had the opportunity to go out on the road and tour or sing for some reason or other, it’s truly like you’re being stifled.
So what you’re talking about is the practice of being present, which is something that most people strive to achieve but don’t actually achieve. And I think some musicians get it – not all of them, because I think a lot people when they’re performing are worrying about various things – but it sounds like you’ve really cracked that ability to be present in those two things, horseriding and performing?
I think so, and, yeah, you’re very much on the money with being present. And I do feel sorry for people who are working at a job that they aren’t getting any sort of gratification from, and they just feel like it’s a struggle. I just think we’re not put on this earth to do that; we’re supposed to be doing stuff that we love, and life shouldn’t be a struggle – it should be a pleasure and an enjoyment. Sometimes you’ve got to make some dramatic changes to really get yourself in the right zone, but I think don’t waste a minute with what you’re doing. If you’re not happy doing what you’re doing, change and do something else because just because our parents taught us to do a particular job or expect something of us, it doesn’t mean that’s what we’ve been put on this earth for.
I think you’ve identified that to do with work but also your service is obviously a part of your life, because you are a patron of two different charities, so I was just wondering if you could say a bit about Angel Flight and also about Riding for the Disabled, and how you became involved and what they mean to you?
Riding for Disabled, I got involved with them in about 2000 when I’d released a song called ‘When I Ride’, and there was a young girl who was a rider at the Riding for Disabled Centre in Raymond Terrace (NSW). She contacted me and she said to me, ‘The lyrics in your song are’ – and she quoted a few of them, and she said, ‘I close my eyes and I’m on the wind. I can fly when I ride.’ She said, ‘That’s exactly how I feel when I’m riding my horse at the RDA centre.’ And it was through her and then a phone call from the head office of RDA asking me to be their patron, which I was just absolutely stoked about because I’m passionate about horses and I think that what Riding for Disabled provide that terrific service to so many people, it’s just fabulous. That’s kind of how I got involved with RDA. And then similarly to Angel Flights, I think I got involved with an outback fundraising event through western Queensland about four years ago, raising money for Angel Flights. Angel Flights look after non-medical emergency cases for people who are in remote and rural regions who need to be taken to medical centres for treatment. And there’s a whole swag of pilots and earth angels, as we call them, people on the ground that look after these patients and it’s all a free voluntary organisation. So it’s so important to people in remote areas of Australia which I’m very passionate about as well.
It sounds like you have a really rich and varied and very satisfying life, which is amazing. I think that’s what most people aspire to have and perhaps don’t ever get to, but it just seems like you’ve got all these things sorted out, and it’s really lovely to hear.
Well, I’ve got a lot of fingers in a lot of pies, it seems, but there’s never any time just to sit on my heels and say, ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do, I’m bored’. There’s so many things to experience, and I always say life’s like a big smorgasbord, there’s just so many things to try and experience and to taste – and start with Australia, because I believe we’ve got one of the best countries in the world here. We should always make sure that we look after it and look after its people.
Just before I wrap up – you’re going to head out on the road obviously for this?
Yeah, we’ll be on tour with the greatest hits, and so this year and then also into next year as well, so there’s plenty of gigs and shows and things to be done in the next twelve months or so.
Tania Kernaghan’s Greatest Hits is out now.