Amber Lawrence is well known to Australian country music audiences, having released three albums and played regularly around the country, including at the Tamworth Country Music Festival, all while she’s still in her twenties. Jason Owen is a newcomer, the 19-year-old runner-up of The X-Factor 2012 who hails from the country but doesn’t stick strictly to country music. Now these two have come together to record and release their version of ‘Islands in the Stream’, the song made famous by Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, and to embark on a five-month tour of the same name.
        As it turns out, this tour was to be Amber’s alone. But while Jason was recording his new album, Life is a Highway, ‘I said to the producer it would be really nice to do a duet,’ he told me recently, ‘and we needed to find a hit duet that had been out in the ’70s/’80s/’90s.
‘I sat down with my managers and they mentioned Amber Lawrence and that she was talking about doing a tour, and I said, “Well, what would be wrong with sending me on the road with her with my album and touring with her and maybe we could get together and do a duet, and maybe perform it?” and one thing led to another and I said, “What about ‘Islands in the Stream’?” and they said, “That’s a risky song to take on” … But we jumped in the studio and recorded it and the way it came up – it just has that country unique style about it and it has our own feel about it. And the tour is called the Islands in the Stream tour and we’re pumped to get out on the road and perform it for everybody.’
As Amber tells it, ‘I was looking for someone to tour with, and, you know, I’ve done so many different tours over the years and so many different combinations, and it’s kind of almost like all the people in this industry that are established I’ve already toured with them … Jason came along just at the right time. So it was great, and it was something my manager was thinking of as well, and I’ve watched a bit of X-Factor and I’d actually voted once, only once, and it was for Jason.’
Amber believes that audiences are excited by the combination because ‘they want to know what [Jason’s] really like, and I’ve been around, so people kind of – you know, they know me, and I guess they want to see a new exciting show which this will be, so I’m excited.’ And she is full of admiration for her touring buddy: ‘He really hadn’t done much before the TV show, and what an amazing achievement to have had virtually no experience, go on and sing like that, and come second in a competition.’
Before they headed out on tour, though, they recorded the single. I asked Jason about what that was like, given that he and Amber had not met before they decided to record a song together.
‘We had an absolute ball,’ he said. ‘We’ve done a bit of a film clip for it too. We just had so much fun. Amber’s a great girl … we just have so much fun together, it’s great.’
        Amber says that she felt ‘nervous’ about recording the iconic song, ‘but the more I get along in this career, I think, “Just go for it rather than say no to things because, oh, it could end up being bad”.  I just think “Go for it, just give it your best”, and I’m sure there are people who think, “Oh, [the song’s] got nothing on the original”, and, of course, the original is always the original, I don’t think you can outdo any original song ever. You can do your version of it, and we kept it true to us as well, and it’s just really fun to sing. Obviously the lyrics are a bit awkward, you know?’ she says, laughing. ‘But Jason’s cool with singing them to me, so,’ she says, still laughing, ‘we’re okay, we’ll cope with the lyrics.’
        Before embarking on the longer tour, Jason and Amber played one date at Rooty Hill RSL in Sydney. They are sharing a band – Amber’s – and, says Amber, ‘there was a vocal rehearsal, but basically we stepped on the stage and both just had fun, and had a really good time – we’ve got the same performance vibe. The same wanting to have fun with the audience, wanting them to join us rather than be sung at. So there’s a warmth to the show.’
        Jason agrees, saying that the Rooty Hill show was ‘great, we had an absolute ball’ and he sounds happy to be working with Amber’s band, saying that they are ‘great guys – really, really good musicians’. Amber says of Jason’s interaction with the band, ‘he didn’t really have his own band, and he loves it. I think the first thing he said to the guys when he met them was, “So are you guys, like, fully be able to have a beer on tour”.
Those musicians are flexible, too, when it comes to the set list – they have to be, by the sound of it, because Amber says, with a laugh, that she’s ‘already had two handwritten letters telling me the songs I need to play.’ The letters came in the post, and ‘that’s a good thing,’ she says, ‘because lots of times via email I’m actually likely to forget … but the ones that are handwritten, I’ve got the old-fashioned diary, I pin them to that page of where the show is.’
So Amber and the band will change the set list as the requests come in and, she says, ‘I’ll do a bit some acoustic songs as well, just to give the band a bit of a break’, given that they’ll be playing almost a full set for her and a full set for Jason as well.
        Given  that Amber has toured before, there are certain expectations from her audience – namely, that she’ll play particular songs, like ‘The Man Across the Street’.
        ‘We haven’t had any requests for that, but that’s more the one that if I don’t sing it, it’d be after the show people will be like, I can’t believe you didn’t sing “The Man Across the Street”. So I will always sing that. It’s good when you get to this point, you’ve got three albums to choose from, and it can make it hard, but I guess it gives a bit of variety, too.’
        Choosing songs can be a process of trial and error. Amber says that during a big tour with Adam Harvey, ‘every few weeks we tried sets of new songs that we thought were our new favourites, but generally you go back to the ones that work, even if they’re your favourites.  If they don’t help you win the audience over, you’ve got to get back to the ones that weren’t.  But so often your favourites are the audiences’ favourites.’
        Amber is also at the point in her career when she has to strike the delicate, and sometimes difficult, balance between playing old material and new.
        ‘You do want to play new songs because that’s fun for you, but again, even if [the audience] like it, then they can’t take it home with them anyway, so they come up and say, “Oh, I really loved that song”, and [I say], “Oh, no, we haven’t recorded it yet”. So it’s kind of useless to play it.  I’ll only really play new songs at venues where I’ve played a lot.  So where people might say, “Come on, play something new, we just saw you.”  But pretty much this tour it’s going to be all the stuff from the albums.
        The other aspect of touring is the other activities that take place around it. As Jason says, ‘It definitely takes a lot of time. We have radio interviews, newspaper interviews, photo shoots, video clips, we’re writing songs, we’re on the road, we’re touring – everything just happens at once. It’s a very, very busy lifestyle. But in saying that, your music and your fans are absolutely everything to your career. If you don’t have your music and your fans, and perform your music for your fans, your career will go down the drain. The main thing for us to do is tour our music, sing our music for our fans, and to make your fans happy, to perform and do what you love to do is the goal – the rest of it just comes with the career and you find other time for that. The tour is a very important thing to do – you get out and meet your fans, it makes them happy, it makes us happy.’
        And that sounds like the best possible reason of all to go on tour! When I ask Jason if there’s one place he’s especially looking forward to playing, he says, ‘Dubbo will be a big one –  being my area. Coming back here on the show [X-Factor] with Mel B was amazing. So I really think that could be a big one. I reckon Bathurst could be big. So I’m really looking forward to coming back this way, especially for my supporters on X-Factor. I had a hell of a lot of support from around here. So I can’t wait to perform for these guys – that’s the place I’m most looking forward to, being back out in my home area and thanking everyone.’
To see Amber Lawrence and Jason Owen on tour, scroll down for dates and booking details. And in the coming days I’ll post more from each of these artists separately.
Thursday 1st August 2013
Bathurst Panthers, BATHURST NSW
Friday 2nd August 2013
Orange Ex-Services Club, ORANGE NSW | (02) 6362 2666
Saturday 3rd August 2013
Dubbo RSL Club, DUBBO NSW | (02) 6882 4411
Friday 9th August 2013
Hallam Hotel, HALLAM VIC
Saturday 10th August 2013
Commercial Hotel, SOUTH MORANG VIC
Friday 16th August 2013
Gateway Hotel, CORIO VIC
Saturday 18th August 2013
Lighthouse Theatre, WARRNAMBOOL VIC
Saturday 31st August 2013
Caloundra RSL, CALOUNDRA QLD | (07) 5438 5800
Sunday 1st September 2013
Toowoomba City Golf Club, TOOWOOMBA QLD | (07) 4636 9000
Saturday 7th September 2013
Canberra Southern Cross Club, WODEN ACT | (02) 6283 7288
Friday 22nd November 2013
Kedron-Wavell Services Club, BRISBANE QLD | (07) 3359 9829
Saturday 23rd November 2013
Twin Towns Ex-Services Club, TWEED HEADS NSW | 1800 014 014
More dates to be announced in coming weeks