Somehow The Sunny Cowgirls are up to album number five – I could swear they only released their first a year ago! – and have become fixtures and favourites of Australian country music. Last week I spoke to Celeste Clabburn – one half of the Cowgirls, the other being her sister Sophie – about the album, What We Do; their single ‘Green and Gold’, and hitting the road.
Catch The Sunny Cowgirls on stage in Tamworth this week at Blazes – they play Wednesday 23 January at 5 p.m.
A lot of country music performers are working at it full-time but I know you and Sophie live in different parts of the country now and you each have other things going on. So you work, it seems, a lot of the time on the property with sheep.
Yeah, yeah. I’m down in Hamilton, Victoria so it just sort of worked out, when I’m not on the road I can come back here and if there’s a bit of work on, it’s just worked out perfectly, you know? It’s just a good balance to be out doing music but then to get back to the farm and just do something so real and so hands-on. So, yeah, it’s great. I love it. It’s a very good lifestyle for me.
And it’s work you can obviously pick up when you need to as in, you can walk away from it and come back and that’s okay.
Exactly. It’s not my property … it’s a very good friend of mine’s. So when I can help him out, I can, and when I can’t he totally understands. So it just fits in so well and, yeah, it’s great. I’ve got my dogs here as well and so when I go away, he can look after them. It’s just a perfect set-up, I love it.
When you’re preparing for going on the road, is it a difficult process now that you’re not living near Sophie? And I imagine you tour with a band, so you’d have to put them together as well?
Well, we always use the same band all the time – our drummer lives in Melbourne and are guitarist lives in Sydney. And, you know, I guess we’re on the road so often that it all works out pretty well. If I go home and Sophie goes home, it’s only ever for probably at the most two weeks. So I guess we’re all so used to travelling now and we’ve got it down to a fine art. But it’s important to prepare for tours and stuff and we can do that over the phone. People often ask, “How do you practice?” or whatever but we’re playing pretty much four times a week anyway so it never sort of stops. But it’s great – it seems to work out well.
I’m really interested in your songwriting process – the two of you write really separately and then you come together in the studio, often now knowing what the other person’s songs are. So I was just wondering, what’s it like coming into the studio probably with more songs than you need and how do you decide what goes on the album – and are there any fights?
[Laughs] yeah. It’s always a really tough time, I think. You know, we both write as many songs as we can and obviously you get very passionate and attached to your own songs. And we try and be very smart and diplomatic about the whole thing and, you know, we both want to make the best album possible. You’ve just got to balance it out with up-tempo and ballads and different scenes and stuff. But it’s always really hard. I think going into this album we had 25 songs or something and you’ve got to cull that down to 12 or 14 – 14 in the end – and it’s always really tough. But when Soph first plays me her songs, you know, the majority of the time, I love them. I guess it’s a good problem, to have too many songs. It can get a bit intense and especially being sisters, we can be very honest with each other – I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. But we always seem to get there in the end.
When you’re taking the songs on the road and you know you’re going to be performing songs that you haven’t written, is it hard for you to feel that those songs are really your own or by the time you’ve recorded them do they feel like they’re yours as well?
Yes. I think, because making an album is such a long process, the songs that Soph’s written, I’ve be singing them almost for a year already now. So they do feel like mine, but I think also that is because Soph’s my sister and my best friend, so I understand every single line and where she’s coming from, and so they do definitely feel like mine. And I think the same goes for her when she’s playing my songs because we understand each other so well. But if we were to sing someone else’s songs, like another songwriter, that would feel really weird to me. But singing [her] songs is like singing one of my songs, actually. That’s what it feels like.
Now when you’re doing gigs and you have five albums behind you, it must be hard for you to do a set list – how do you choose?
Yeah, exactly. We’re going through that at the moment actually. You know, you’ve got to throw out a few of the older songs and you don’t know which ones to cull for now and which new ones to put in. So I guess it’s just trial and error. We’ve worked out a show for the first bit of the year, so we’ll see how it goes. We’ve chosen six or seven of the new songs – it’s all about experimenting and which ones go down well live and which ones don’t. We’ll see what happens.
Do you enjoy performance?
I love it and especially when you’ve got new product, new songs to perform, that’s when it gets really exciting. So at the moment I just can’t wait to play. We’re going to Tamworth next week so I’m really looking forward to getting out there and playing some new songs.
And whereabouts are you playing in Tamworth?
We’re back in Blazes on Wednesday, I think it’s the 23rd. Five p.m. at Blazes, West Leagues Club in Tamworth. Morgan Evans is the support and he has a big band and it’s the launch of the album, so it’s exciting.
That’s a signature venue to play at, I’ve got say. Anyone who’s anyone’s played at Blazes.
[Laughs] Well, that’s what I like to think anyway.
Five albums ago, did you and Sophie imagine what your career would be like? Did you think that you would continue to produce albums or was it just ‘we’ll put out this album and just cross our fingers’?
At the start it was, ‘oh my God, this is great, you know, they’re really into our first album’, and, obviously, you want to keep going for as long as you can. But you never know when your luck’s going to run out or you never know what’s going to happen. So it’s kind of bizarre. We’ve been hearing and reading a lot, like this is our fifth album, and we can’t really believe it. Sometimes it feels like we’ve been doing this for a long time but sometimes it feels like it was just yesterday that we began. So it’s a really bizarre thing. But five albums is really cool and it sort of feels like we’re not just the new beginners anymore. Five albums is five albums [laughs]. It’s a nice feeling.
And you chose Sam Hawksley to produce this latest album, which is a good choice because he’s got such a good pedigree, but I was wondering how you came across him. Did you just come across him the way people do in the scene at Tamworth, that sort of thing?
We’ve been friends with him for years and years and have toured a lot around without a band and obviously he would be absent for a while. So we know him really well and [we’re] big fans of his music. He’s a great musician and songwriter. And we’d heard he’d done a little bit of producing and he produced his own albums and everything. But it happened really spontaneously and quickly, and I think he actually mentioned to us one day and we just sort of said, “Oh, that’s so funny. Like, no way, we’re not going to go and do and album in Nashville with you.” We all sort of laughed about it. And then a couple of months later we were sort of thinking, you know, let’s do something different, and we gave Sam a call and he didn’t take it seriously at the start because he thought we were just joking. I think it’s great to get a fresh perspective on our songwriting and the whole vibe of the album, so it was great to have Sam on board – as I said, he’s a great musician and he’s got a great musical ear. It was really fun and different to work with him.
I read somewhere that you and Sophie were a bit reluctant to record in the US because you’d always felt quite strongly about recording in Australia. Is that true?
Yeah, definitely. We never had any intentions or plans to go over there and record because everything’s done so well here in Australia. But at the time we were trying to get everything into place, like a producer and a studio, and nothing was going right, nothing was falling into place. And we just sort of explored all our options and Nashville came on to the table and we just thought, ‘Well, why not?’ Sometimes it’s good to get out of your comfort zone and work with new people and in a new place because that really challenges you. So I think it’s a really healthy thing for an artist … to do something a little bit different. But, yeah, it was a bit of an experiment but it was a good one and we’re really glad we did it.
It sounds like this album was recorded in a slightly unusual way in that the tracks were laid down in Nashville and you did vocals somewhere else – had you worked that way before?
It’s always done a little bit like that but not to that extent –our last few albums were all done in Perth or they were all done in Sydney and maybe the vocals are done in Tamworth or something. But this one we thought we’ll go over and spend a couple of days doing the band tracks in Nashville and then we thought we’d go back to Perth and take our time with the vocals. Obviously vocals are pretty important. So we spent about a month really getting them right and really getting the sound we wanted. And it was a really great way it worked because there was no time pressure, which was really good, and [we could] just be creative and experiment and stuff. So, yeah, it worked out really well. It was a good process. It was a long one but it was good.
It sounds like your voices are really clean in the mix. The instruments are certainly there but your voices have been brought to the forefront and it really emphasises the two of you as storytellers. And so I was wondering whether you, in your songwriting – because you seem to draw a bit on your lives and also other people’s stories – I was wondering if that’s a mix that you like, that mix of the personal and perhaps the strange?
Sure. A lot of our songs are real stories, you know, and so I think the mix is important to, obviously, to hear the vocals and for them to stand out. Paul Lani mixed it and just did an incredible job with the whole thing – every single thing is so clear and big but to get the vocals above all that music the way he did I think is incredible. Obviously he really understood the songs and the lyrics were, I guess, the most important part. All songs are different and sometimes it’s more about the music. But I think in the majority of our songs pretty much the lyric content is what sort of sticks out.
You’re not raw singers – in that raw might mean unaccomplished – because your voices are certainly really distinct and clear, but it’s almost like because the voices are so prominent in the mix, you’re standing out there on stage a little bit on your own. So I was wondering if it sometimes feels almost scary in a way to be the singer-songwriter standing there singing that song.
Do you mean when we’re actually performing or –
Or on record; either/or because I imagine when you’re performing the band is quite loud.
I’m was just thinking, when you hear those recordings for the first time or hear the mix for the first time, do you think, ‘Ooh, that’s really me singing it’?
Yeah, yeah, sure. Some of the songs, like ‘Thank You’ and a few of the more ballady ones, when you first hear them mix through, you’re like, wow – you feel very vulnerable because not are you singing a very personal song but your vocal is so right in everyone’s face. So it is a little confronting but I guess you just get used to it over time.
Was it confronting when you first started performing, to do that?
Definitely. I think, especially with all the new ones, you’re not as familiar as you are with the old ones. So it’s always a little daunting, but it just takes a little bit of time and you sort of get a bit more comfy. That’s the plan anyway.
Now I asked this next question of Samantha McClymont because she’s also in a band with her sisters. The question was, “Are your parents proud of you.” So are your parents proud of you, Celeste?
You know, I’m going to say they are. Our parents are great people and have always been so supportive ever since we were little girls wanting to be country singers. They were never pushy but they always supported us with whatever we wanted to do. They’re always there. They’re coming over to Tamworth next week and they really are terrific, just good people and very lucky to have them. They’ve always been there for us. We’re very lucky girls in that sense.
Were you both quite musical from a young age?
Yes. We just grew up around it and Soph got a few guitar lessons when she was about 10, I think, and then I just sort of started copying her. It all just happened pretty naturally and was always in the household and [we] didn’t really sort of have to think about it or anything, it just sort of happened.
Did you always want to be country music performers or did you like a lot of music and you chose country music?
It was always country but, you know, saying that, we grew up and we were listening to Nirvana and Red Hot Chili Peppers and stuff, but we never wanted to be rock chicks or anything. The dream was always to be country music singers. I don’t know why it happened but it’s always just been drilled into our heads so that’s what we wanted to do.
I love the idea of the two of you listening to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.
[Laughs] I loved them, yeah, yeah.
But you can also learn things from those bands about performance and all that kind of stuff, and clearly you have.
Oh my God, yeah, I reckon. They’re amazing.
Now, on this album are there any songs that you personally have that are your favourites? And you’re allowed to say songs that you wrote.
[Laughs] Okay. Yes, it’s always tough picking them and I think, well, just because the album’s so fresh – I’m still getting used to it – but I think definitely one of my favourites is ‘Green and Gold’. That’s one Soph wrote and that’s the single, that’s always been a huge one. And I think as far as my ones go, I’ve got a bit of a soft spot for ‘Winter Blues’ and probably ‘Thank You’. They’re ones that sort of – I feel this kind of power for writing them, and hopefully people will like them.
Speaking of ‘Green and Gold’, how’s the single been going? Have you had a chance to test it on any audiences yet?
We’ve only just started playing it but a lot of people already seem to know the words. It’s been on CMC and it’s been on radio for a while now. So far the response has been really good and we haven’t had any complaints yet, so that’s all you can hope for! It’s always exciting playing the new ones and it’s going down well at the live gigs.
It must be surreal for songwriters to see people singing their words back to them.
Yeah, it is. It’s really weird and it’s the biggest compliment ever at the same time, especially when an album’s just come out and people are singing along to the choruses and stuff. It’s like, wow, they’ve listened to it that much that they can sing along. That is just the coolest thing, when a crowd can sing your lyrics and the lyric that you wrote, you know? It’s it’s a huge compliment.
I would presume, since this album’s newly out, that you’ll be planning a tour sometime soon?
Definitely. We’re hitting the road in February. We’re doing New South Wales and then down to Victoria and then up to Queensland. So the first half of the year is all go, go, go with touring and touring the new album and the new songs, and it should be good fun.
What We Do is out now. Visit the Sunny Cowgirls’ website at sunnycowgirls.com.