Tori Darke may be young but her country music career is already well established. Still, the 2013 Tamworth Country Music Festival marks her this singer-songwriter’s first ever ticketed show, at Wests Leagues. I spoke to Tori ahead of what is surely a landmark in any Australian country music artist’s life.
I saw you play upstairs at the Tudor Hotel in Tamworth earlier this year  at a songwriters showcase. So I thought I’d start by asking you: is that kind of a weird or unusual or even scary thing to do, where it’s just the audience sitting right there and it’s you and your guitar and you’ve got to talk about the songs?
No, not at all. I actually love that kind of stuff because it really kind of gives people an insight into what you do and how you do it as well, so it’s a really wonderful thing, I think, going into a songwriting session and being able to share with people why you wrote that song and what it meant to you or what it means to you.
As a performer it’s quite a vulnerable position to be in when it’s just you and a guitar, but you certainly seemed quite relaxed and your voice ‑ you’ve got this really strong, pure voice, so it’s suited to that. Would you ever consider doing just acoustic tours or just acoustic gigs?
I do acoustic shows on my own as it is now, so I mean it’s nothing that’s really new to me, but doing a songwriter’s night, you have a lot more, I guess, communication with the audience because you’re telling them about the songs that you’ve written and why they came about.
For your headline show in Tamworth, you’re going to put together a band?
Yes, so it will be with myself and my band, which I’m really looking forward to.
How do you go about choosing a band for that, especially if you’re used to working on your own? I imagine it would be a little bit strange to have other people coming in?
Not really, because I do a lot of stuff with my band as well, so I kind of have it, I guess, broken up a little bit in some cases of sometimes it’s with just my band or sometimes it’s just myself. So I love the band situation as well, because it gives people another totally different aspect of what you’re doing and how you do it.
And for you as a songwriter it must be really interesting to see how your songs change between being performed with you and then when you have these other layers added to them live. Does it make you see them in different ways or make you perform them different ways?
Oh, I think when you write songs like acoustically, letting them come to life when you put a band to them I think is one of the most fulfilling things of what I do with music, it’s so great to write a song and to kind of imagine how it’s going to turn out and where it’s going to go, but then when you actually get to where you hear it and you go, oh my gosh, this is my song and it’s got a full band behind and a full production, it’s just one of the really cool feelings.
I guess a lot of people who aren’t performers would wonder how you can play the same songs over and over again, sometimes for years, but I suppose when you’re really interested in the creative process, and it sounds like you are, you find it interesting that the songs taking on these different shapes.
Yeah, that’s exactly right. There are songs – I guess cover songs mainly – that you will get sick of singing and that will slowly dwindle out of your set, but when it comes to original music, I think, because it’s a story that’s meant something to you, it never really gets too old, kind of thing.
What was your very first Tamworth performance?
My very first Tamworth was – oh, gosh, when I was 15 years old, and I can’t tell you exactly what my first Tamworth performance was but I was doing the talent quest up in Tamworth back in – it would have been 2006, I think.
Was that the StarMaker or the Road to Tamworth?
Well, they’re the two big ones, but the ones that I was doing was like the CMAA and the Coca‑Cola and the Jazzer Smith Talent Quest. A few years ago I did StarMaker and Road to Tamworth but what got me started was the Junior Talent Quest.
And you went to Camerata and CMAA, is that right?
Yes, I went to the Camerata College and that was in the July and in the January I went to the CMAA College of Country Music.
Other artists have said they learnt a lot about the business of country music there as well, but pretty much everyone I’ve spoken to who went to CMAA in particular said it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to them as an artist. Did you feel that?
Yeah, definitely. I learnt so much and I got so much out of it with working with some of the industry’s finest in country music and also working with some of our other artists as well in this industry. It was such a wonderful thing and a great experience to be a part of.
You went to the Solomon Islands and played on a forces tour and I was wondering – because we occasionally see news items about people doing forces tours but no‑one really knows what goes on. So do you play like a full set there? Is there a house band you have to use? What goes on?
Well, what happened was I took my own band with me, so we actually played two shows, one on the Friday night, one on the Saturday night and both nights were 45 minute shows. There were a lot of different artists that night too, so I wasn’t the only artist singing.
Country music gives people a lot of different opportunities, ones like this, but also the opportunity to travel around parts of the country, parts of Australia that a lot of other artists wouldn’t get to. So, not that you’re very old, but you’ve been performing for a while, so have you been to lots of interesting different places?
Yeah, I’ve been to lots of different places. This year already  I’ve been to LA, Nashville and the Solomon Islands, so it’s kept me nice and busy, which has been wonderful.
And what was Nashville like for you?
It’s a really, really great town, I’ve been there three times now and I just always get so much done and meet so many people there I can work with, which is wonderful, so I love going back to Nashville.
I suppose you’re at a point in your career because you’ve had a lot of attention and you’re still quite young, so Nashville is a good opportunity to meet people as you’re building for a long-term career – because I would imagine that you want this to go for however many decades?
Yeah, definitely. With the music industry it’s not just an overnight thing, you really have to stick with it and you have to stay in it. You know, like they say, you have to be in it to win it, so it’s not something that happens overnight and it’s not something that comes easily either, it’s a really hard slog sometimes. But it’s so rewarding in the end when you get the results that you do.
I know that you’ve been on tour with the McClymonts in the past and one thing I notice about them – and I think it’s probably true of you as well – is that they always look like they’re having a good time, and so you would never know if they’re having a bad night, but it means that everyone in their audience also has a good time because they’re always smiling and happy. In country music there are a lot of people who really understand that aspect of performance – that you’re there to put on a show. But there must be some days when you’re just really not feeling like it. So I was wondering if you have some kind of process basically to get out and perform when you’re not feeling like it?
I think with being an artist it’s a really big thing to just go,you know what, I’m out here to do a job and the people that have come to watch me. You really have to set aside if you’ve had a bad day, if you’ve got a broken heart, if you’re miserable, if anything, you really have to take that aside and just worry about it once you get off stage once you know your fans have gone and once you’re in a car and you then if you want to have a cry or something you can, and sometimes things do get the better of us, especially when we’ve written songs about people that may have hurt us or things like that, we do get emotional because of course we are human. But it’s really a case of just going – I guess Lady Gaga or someone would be like a perfect example because she’s got that persona of being Lady Gaga but I’m sure when she’s at home she’s just a normal person and she doesn’t have all the big make‑up on and she’s still got like green or yellow hair or something but she’s just a normal person. So I think it’s really like a good thing when you get out there performing, you show everybody what … I say to myself ‘what Tori Darke’s about’ and when I’m at home I’m Victoria Darke, but when I’m on stage I’m Tori. So it’s kind of separating the two and making sure that everybody that is there to see you.
You’ve been involved in music as a musician and as a performer since you were a child, so that’s an unusual childhood, most people don’t have that – a lot of people don’t really get into big creative work or creative flow until they’re adults. So did you have a sense as you were growing up that you were quite different, that you were in this world and in this work that your friends perhaps weren’t sharing?
Well, I did give up a lot of things during my childhood years, but at the same time, if I hadn’t given up those things, I also wouldn’t be where I am today with it, and like you said, a lot of kids, when they are young, they get into sports or they get into recreational things rather than creative arts things and a lot of people do get into it later on in life, in their twenties or even as a late teen, but for me I started dancing at the age of three and I grew up with two rock ’n’roll dancer parents so I was always surrounded by that creative aspect.
Do you have siblings?
Yes, I’m actually the youngest of five.
And so are you all musical or dancers or anything like that?
No, I’m the only one. Two of my brothers are builders and one of my brothers lives in France and owns a ski lodge and my sister works for the police, so I’m the musician in the family.
I’m just thinking it would be so cool to have parents who did rock ’n’ roll dancing because that would have been unusual, but I’m thinking of your poor parents possibly looking at five kids wondering why only one of them turned out to be musical!
Because I have three older brothers – two older brothers and an older sister – who were from my mum’s first marriage. So my brother who’s 23, we did rock ’n’ roll when we were younger as well. But I think once I got to that age of where boys and girls thought that we all had cooties, we stopped dancing.
[Laughter] And you continued, which is great for you – not that I know if you dance a lot, but I think it’s all part of living with music, whether it’s dancing or singing or playing an instrument or doing all three, it’s all part of being musical.
Yeah, it really is, and when you look at so many different artists, they play instruments, they sing and dance or they know how to act as well, there’s just so many different aspects to the creative side of things that you can really take a lot out of it. And I’ve done all of these things throughout the years – I’ve danced, acted, singing for years and I played the piano, I played the flute, and now I play the guitar and the mandolin.
When I was reading about you I thought that you have a really busy life –even compared to a lot of other musicians, there’s a lot going on for you, and I was wondering how you organise your time, in terms of songwriting and rehearsing and performing, and also just having time not doing any of those things?
Well, really, for me it’s a matter of just separating my time and making sure that I’ve got enough time to do everything. I teach, I work, I sing, I’ve got so many different things going on that I just have to plan my week as it comes and go okay, well I know I’ve got a gig here and then I’m going to teach Tuesday and Wednesday, and then my work know when I can and can’t work. So it’s a lot of juggling sometimes but it all works out pretty well.
I wouldn’t have thought you had any time in that schedule to be doing work on top of it, and I know that that’s the nature of being an artist, especially when your career’s starting you have to, but that’s a really full life.
Yeah, it’s pretty full on but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love what I do and it’s really wonderful.
So in preparation for Tamworth, as any performer knows there’s a bit of ramp-up time required before you hit the stage – it’s not like you just turn around and get on stage and sing, even if you make it look like that – so do you get into Tamworth, give yourself a bit of time, hang out, watch the other bands before your show?
I’m probably going to get in on the Monday and my show is on the Tuesday. [Then I’ll] possibly hang around for a few days after Tamworth as well, so I’ll have the Monday to prepare myself and to hang out a little bit, catch up with a few friends in town and yeah.
So you’re just doing the one show – if people want to see you, they have to go to The Outback Bar, they can’t see you anywhere else?
No, that’s exactly right – just the one show this year in Tamworth at The Outback Bar and it’s only $10 for adults and $5 for kids and it is an 8 o’clock show and it’s my first ticketed event in Tamworth, so I’m really looking forward to it.
West Leagues is definitely the place to play, anyone who’s anyone has played at Wests. Is there anything you’re looking forward to at Tamworth apart from playing your show?
I love the festival every year, it’s really great to go and see other artists play and just see what’s going on with everybody else, so it’s a wonderful place to catch up with good friends and catch up with your fans and also do your own show too.
Country music fans are really, I think, the best of any genre, they’re very committed but there’s also a lot of work, I think, particularly for younger artists these days keeping up with fans through social media, and it’s probably a lot more work than would have happened even five years ago. Do you enjoy that aspect of the job or does it sometimes take up a lot of time?
No, not at all. I mean, there were people that helped me when I was young, so, I suppose, for me, if I can give back to everybody else, then that’s exactly what I want to do too.
And you’re working on a new record?
At the moment just working on new songs, so just writing lots of new songs at the moment and getting them together too, so hopefully record something next year.
When you come to that recording process, do you kind of go to the producer with a whole lot of songs and say you pick or do you like to choose which ones go on the record?
It’s a very long and gruelling process of going through songs and going through songs you’ve written or ones that people sent you, and experiencing all of those different aspects of going, yeah, no, this song, and then you might find a better song and then that song gets kicked out. So it does take a little while, but yeah, that’s pretty much how it works for me.
When it comes to your set list, though, I imagine you get to be the boss of your set list?
Yes, definitely. I do always plan my shows and plan what I’m going to play and, of course, just send that off to the boys and then we put on the show.
Tori Darke plays The Outback Bar at Wests Leagues Club, Tamworth on Tuesday 22nd January 2013 at 8 p.m.