If there’s an Australian country music song you love, the chances are good that Tamara Stewart has had something to do with it, either as a performer or a songwriter or both. She has written songs for and with Beccy Cole, Adam Brand, Melinda Schneider and others, and has independently produced and released her own albums. Recently I spoke to Tamara about her new single, ‘Women in Song’, her new album Appleseed and her rich, varied country music life.
The reason for this interview is your song ‘Women in Song’. So I thought I’d start off by asking you what made you want to be a woman in song?
Well, I just love the industry that we’re in, I love Australian country music, I love the whole scene, so I just get such a buzz out of writing songs. And it seems like such a simple little statement but it really is my oxygen. I just love writing songs and it’s a way to really connect with people. And I think it’s that connection, especially with the new album, Appleseed, that I’ve really thrived on even more. I mean, the songs, I feel like we’re really connecting with the audience a lot more with these new songs and I just get such a buzz out of people coming up after the gig and saying, you know, “Wow, I can really relate to that song,” or it reminds them of something important for them. As I said, it’s my oxygen. It’s my lifeline, writing songs, I think.
I’ve seen you perform and it seems like performance is also something you really – well, you looked comfortable with it, let’s put it that way, and not everyone does. But they’re quite different jobs, songwriting and performing, and I’m always really curious as to how really prolific songwriters in particular, like you – because you have written a lot of songs – how you kind of marry those two parts of your career. Is there some kind of gear change you need to go through?
Yeah. That’s a really interesting question, because I think my perception of it is changing and more albums and the more that I – I guess the more that I do. I’ve always loved writing and you might know I write a lot for other artists as well. There’s been quite a few songs that have been on the charts this year that I’ve been a part of writing. So it’s sort of always been a bit of a grey area, I think, for me, how I sit as a songwriter and how I sit as an artist. And it’s not until recently that I’ve just opened the floodgates and gone, you know what, I can just be happy doing both and work with other artists and it doesn’t conflict. But I just love writing and there’s a real safety net in writing that I sit quite comfortably behind. You know, I don’t really have to put myself out there when I’m writing the songs as much as when I’m performing them. And I really noticed that with the Appleseedsongs. Performing those songs, they’re the most honest songs that I’ve ever written and I really see the potency of performing them, I think, more than ever before. I think that I really need to stand behind what I’m saying because the songs are so true and so raw. But, look, I love performing. Different things affect me in different ways. Doing festivals and live shows and stuff like that, I just love feeding off the audience. Doing things like TV and award shows has a different sort of feeling. But, you know, I do get a little bit … not so much nervous but I get that real bubbly energy that can take over me a little bit and I get a bit excited. But I’m just going to do it as long as I can until they – until they carry me off [laughs].
I know you’ve written songs with Beccy Cole, amongst other people, and it must be an interesting process to go through, knowing you’re writing a song for someone else to sing that’s not going to be something for you to perform. And I’m just wondering if that’s – if it ever strikes you as sometimes being a bit weird almost, that it’s like, oh, well, this is my baby and I’m handing it over to someone else.
No, I’m pretty cool with that. I know some writers can be a bit protective of their songs but especially when we sit down and – you know, there’s been times when we’ve pitched songs to people and they go and record them and they haven’t been part of writing it, that’s a different sort of kettle of fish, it’s easier to let those go. But whenever I sit down to write with, for example, McAlister Kemp and Amber Lawrence and Paul Costa – [they] are my most recent kind of singles and cuts that have been out there – you write with the intention of just becoming them for the day and I kind of take on their lives and their priorities when I write. It sounds a little bit – maybe a little bit creepy, I don’t know. But I kind of have to write through them and get what they want to say and help them say it, I guess, the best that they can say it. So I don’t feel attached. I’m happy to let those songs go. And I’m always pleased with the result as long as the songs get cut and they’re proud to sing them. It sounds a little strange but if I’m cruising along in my car and I hear ‘Tractors and Bikes’ come on – Paul Costa’s latest single – I enjoy it as if it’s my own, you know? I certainly get the same buzz out of hearing those songs on the radio as I do of hearing ‘Women in Song’ or ‘Sisterhood’or anything from Appleseed, you know?
It sounds like you’re a true storyteller in that you realise that you’re channelling stories, in a way. So whether you’re channelling someone else’s stories or channelling your own, you really seem to understand that idea of serving the story and putting those stories out to an audience.
Yeah, definitely. And I certainly don’t get too proud in writing sessions by the sense of, you know, they’ve got to say it and sing it how they feel comfortable doing it. So I think what makes a great co-writer is someone that can go in and write with an artist and people don’t even know that anyone else is in there, you know what I mean? If you can really help the artist write themselves the best, to me, that’s the value of a co-writer. And I know with songs like ‘Women in Song’, I had Colin Buchanan come in and write with me, and that was just such a pleasure to have him on board because he helped me say everything that I wanted to say and he’s such an incredible writer that he brought so much to that song and that’s what makes him so great. He wrote with me, alongside me in that song – exactly the way that I wanted it to sound.
You’ve had a collaboration with Rick Price as well and I’m wondering if a collaboration like that is different for you than co-writing songs.
Rick’s a bit of a unique example for me – Rick and I have worked together on all four records in some capacity and Rick’s doing BVs [backing vocals] on the new album as well. He came in and did some gorgeous guest vocals in there and we co-wrote a song together online. But because Rick and I have worked together so much and toured together, we’re a bit – you know, I don’t know if it’s a brother and sister-y sort of thing but there’s the level of comfortability there that is definitely unique. I don’t co-write a lot of songs on Appleseed but the ones that I do are with people that I feel that real connection with.
I’ll now go to the subject matter of ‘Women in Song’, and I’ve noted in the past just for myself and talking to the odd person, that Australian country music, in particular, seems to have pretty much equal representation of prominent women and prominent men. So it’s really not unusual to see a woman at the front of a band or at the front of an all-male band at Tamworth. And I was wondering if you have any theories as to why that might be?
I think both sides are really strong … A song like ‘Women in Song’ to me was so important to write because – especially the woman at the forefront of that song is who inspired that for me: Joy McKean. Joy has blazed a trail that is just so remarkable. And I know people have paid tribute in the past but there’s also two other women, Thel Carey and Shirley Thoms, that we talk about in the song. And what they’ve achieved behind the scenes and standing beside their men as well is really amazing. A lot of people know, of course, that Joy is Slim Dusty’s wife and Joy wrote a lot of Slim’s biggest hits. Forty years ago she won Song of the Year, the very first Golden Guitar even given out, for writing ‘Lights on the Hill’. And here we are 40 years later, to the year, writing a song about Joy and highlighting what she’s done. I think if we keep remembering the equality, I guess, too, from that perspective, as you said in your question. The men of country music and the women of country music are both doing incredible things and it’s just really nice to be able to highlight that.
I think also what it does is give all of the artists equal access to talent, if that makes sense, in that because there’s no distinction between who’s fronting the band. I saw Harmony James play last year at Tamworth and her band had four men in it, I think, ranging from 22 to 55 or something like that. And I thought, it’s really just that idea of putting together the best possible outfit. And when there is no cultural issue about what men get and what women get, it just means you get the best, I think.
Yeah, totally. If you look through the musicians and the bands that are playing around, there’s males and females. So I don’t think the male/female thing is as prominent in the performing side of things. I guess in the business side of country music, as in any corporate situation, it leans a little bit more to more men.
And when it comes to the women who are singing with you on this song, I was wondering how you chose Felicity Urquhart and Sara Storer, given that you’ve been associated with a lot of great female singer-songwriters of Australian country. It must have been hard [laughs].
Well, look, it was hard – it was a really hard to decision to make but for some reason, in the same regard, it was really easy. The ladies that I wanted to come on board with this – firstly, I wanted them to be good mates and Fliss and Sara and I have known each other for – well, I’m giving away ages, but well over 15 years I’ve been in and around the same circles. And when you find people in life, in general, that you really respect and that are also incredibly talented, you do what you can to keep those people close. And Felicity and Sara have both affected me over the years with their incredible songwriting. So a song about female songwriters, I really wanted to sing it with some incredible, modern talent. In a way it was a no-brainer but co-writing with Colin Buchanan, there was no question that he was the man for the job. He’s just got that way of writing Australia so well. And that is a gift that not everybody has. So I’m really proud the collaborations, on many levels, happened with ‘Women in Song’.
The three of you have some beautiful harmonies on the track and harmonising isn’t always easy because some people take to it more naturally than others. Did the three of you fall into line easily or did you need a bit of direction?
We were very time limited with recording the song, putting the vocals down, because Sara lives in Darwin and Fliss, you know, she’s up there in the [NSW] Central Coast. It was just one of those things where everything just fell into place and maybe that’s when things are meant to be, I’m not sure. But, it coincided so beautifully and that’s how it was in the studio as well. I mean, Fliss and Sara are both incredibly talented and professional and are beautiful-natured girls, you know? It makes things like that so easy. So we had a few laughs and we had a great night putting the track down, like the vocals down. And then, of course, we came back together – the stars aligned again, miraculously – and we got to do a video clip and it’s just been nothing short of an absolute pleasure. In fact, everything around Appleseed – touch wood, I should say – has gone just like clockwork. And there’s so many things that can make it difficult but it’s just been a beautiful journey.
(Part II of this interview will be published soon)
Tamara Stewart is playing several shows during the 2013 Tamworth Country Music Festival – for a full list, visit her website. The gig that is especially close to her heart is the BUSK FOR BREAST CANCER on 25 January at 5 p.m. outside the Council Chambers on Peel Street, where she will be joined by a host of Australian country music favourites.