I’ve been listening to Rose Carleo’s music for a while but only recently had the chance to interview her for the first time – and was so pleased to have done so. She’s a talented, passionate performer and songwriter and she was a delight to interview. Her new single ‘Time is Now’ is out now, with an album to follow in March.
Your mother was a country music promoter, and so I was wondering if you had any option not to go into country music when you were younger?
[Laughter] Well, look, she was such a big fan of all music, but especially country music. So she loved her favourite bands, and loved country music especially, so when she had the opportunity, she started a country music club and we’d also started a kids’ country music club to help promote and to nurture young talent, and we’d enlist the help of experienced musos and things to come down and mentor them and things. So, yeah, I probably didn’t really have a choice as such, but I just loved the stories and the lyrical content, and it was, like, wow. And I’d find myself at 12, 13, 14, listening intently on what was going to happen next; was he going to end up with her [laughter] – probably one of my favourite country songs in the world is George Jones’s ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’, and I remember crying when I heard the end of it. I was bawling [laughter].
It’s a very sad song, that one.
Yeah, and it is such a great song. So I probably didn’t have a lot of choice, but that’s all good [laughter].
As you were young and getting exposed to these sorts of influences, had you already started singing by then? Did you know you had a voice, or did that spur you on to start?
Oh, look, it spurred me on. I played the lead in a school production when I was in Grade – I think I would have been Grade 4 maybe, around that time, and I went for the lead and I didn’t get it, ’cause I was always probably the loudest singer, and so I just loved it. No one told me I was good or bad or anything, I just loved it, so I didn’t care, I sang at the top of my lungs. But they gave the lead to another girl. She was probably a bit quieter, and I think, in hindsight, they probably gave it to her so she would come out of her shell a bit more, but what happened was she fell sick – and I didn’t do anything to make her sick [laughter], she had the flu, I think – and I was devastated I didn’t get the lead, and then they said, “Well, you know, she’s sick” … So I got to do the lead. But other than that, it was probably when Mum had started the first sort of country music club, she approached the pub and said, “Well, can we have this resident band?” And basically, the pub paid the band, we got the people in, and one of the regular walk-up artists we had a barbecue with the night before, friends of ours, and we were having a good old sing-a-long, and of course, me, I was thinking I know the words to that, I’ll sing that. And he called me up the next night to sing, and I just looked at Mum – I was allowed to go ’cause I’d done my homework, see. It was a Thursday night [laughter]. I was 13, and back in the day you were allowed to do that, and he called me up to sing a duet, and I looked at Mum across the table and shook my head. I said, “No, you’re not getting me up there.” And she just turned around to me and she said, “I dare you” [laughter].
Well, they’re fighting words.
Yeah, I reckon. Then I terrorised all the bands in Perth after that [laughter].
So do you mean you just performed consistently from that age on?
I just realised I really loved to sing, and I really wanted to pursue it, and I practised – I’d come home from school every day, grab a drink, go in my room and practise until dinner. And then if we’d go to see bands, they’d get you up to have a little sing, and it was years ago now, so it’s when kids were allowed in a pub with an adult, and things like that. And then, I guess, another reason Mum started the kids’ club too was [that] I was the MC – I was 15 or 16 and compering a little kids’ Country Music club, and trying to help kids, and I’ve actually just finished judging for the Western Australian Country Music Awards. And because when I was 15 or 16 – I’m trying to remember what year it was – I won the Encouragement Award; it was one of the first years, mid‑’80s, and I always wanted to help young talent, anything I could do, because I obviously had help from older people mentoring me. So I’ve judged the last couple of years. And I tell you what, some of the talent – or all of the talent, but some of the young ones, my goodness, and it sounds silly, I almost get teary, but knowing that there’s so much young talent out there, and being from WA too, it just really makes me feel good that it’s alive and well.
It probably doesn’t look like there was a direct relationship between your mum’s kids’ country club and this sort of thing, but I often think that those things boil away in a culture until change happens, and what I see across country music in Australia is that the standard is so high that everyone wanting to come into it has to be very professional from a very early stage, and so I think all those little things that happen, like your mum’s club and other things – and even having awards that children and young people can enter – they have to be professional, and that means it’s great for the audience because they get this whole raft of fantastic artists, but the standard is so high.
For sure. Absolutely. And I’m teaching a few kids singing at the moment, and we’ve spoken about going down the track of talent quests and all that kind of stuff, and I’ve said to them, “If you want to, that’s okay, but it’s not the be-all and end-all, and at the end of the day, it’s just opinions of the judges, it doesn’t mean you’re X, Y or Z.” And one thing that someone told me at a very early age was there’s going to be lots of people giving you advice, and you take it in and you just sift out what you need and what you don’t need, you just let it go, because there’s going to be so much you’re told. But I just sort of really reiterate to the kids that as long as you’re having a good time and having fun, that’s all I care about at this stage. And if they don’t win or whatever, it’s all about going in and learning and experiencing life, I suppose.
Now after you’d been playing in Perth for a while, you left Perth and moved to the east coast. Considering that musical community you’d grown up in, was that a hard decision?
Yes and no. It was because I was sort of writing original stuff on and off, but I was doing a lot of cover scene stuff, as many of us still do now to help pay the bills and whatever. But I needed a change, it was time for a change, and we moved to Brisbane, and then not long after that I’d sort of made contact with a few people and I think we moved there in August ’05 – ’06 – ’07 – I think it was ’05, yeah, August ’05, and then by December or something, I found I was in the studio recording my first EP with Brendan Radford, and he was, like, “You’re like a bull at a gate.” I said, “Yep, that’s what they say [laughter].” But I just thought I’m just going to explore, and I’ll just peruse every country music website, I emailed and called anyone I could talk to to find out stuff, and I just did it. January ’06 was my first Tamworth – January ’07 I was in Star Maker, January ’08 I was a Golden Guitar finalist. So I just thought, I’m going to fast-track it and just do whatever I can to learn what I need to do and contact who I need to contact, and just learn from other people.
And that trajectory sounds quick when you say it like that, but you had years of development behind you.
It sounds like you were born ready, in a sense, in that when you arrived in Brisbane, you were ready to go.
Oh, absolutely. And I think Bonnie Raitt and a few others, they were ‘discovered’ – and I’ll put that in commas – later in life, but they’d been playing and being musicians for 20 or 30 years … and that’s what the people don’t always see. ‘Well, where did you come from?’ ‘I’ve been signing since I was 13, you know, so …’
And you sang backup for quite a few people as well, didn’t you, on tours?
I got to do a couple of shows with Barnesy, and then we did a support for Vanessa Amorosi, and I did a Beccy Cole support, and Adam Brand. Yeah, I love Beccy, she’s awesome.
She is, it’s very true. Now I’ll turn our conversation to your new single. You’ve had an identifiably country sound on the first couple of albums, and ‘Time is Now’ is co-written with Drew McAlister who, of course, is a country music artist, but there’s definitely a more rock feel to the song. I read that you demoed the song on acoustic guitars, so I’m really interested in the trajectory of getting from that through your country sound to where it ended up.
I guess when we write, we write on acoustics. Drew and I actually live in the same suburb. I live in the Blue Mountains because of him and his wife. They were, like, “You’ve got to move up here [laughter].” They’re two of my closest friends. So I guess, whenever we write, if I write with Drew, or whoever I write with, it’s always at least one acoustic and voice, or two acoustics. That’s how I’ve always written all my songs, on acoustic guitar. So we’d finished it and I said to him when I was writing for this album, I said I want to write some four-on-the-floor kind of stuff – because I am a bit of a rock chick, I sort of always have been, and because I have such eclectic taste in music, I don’t know what’s my favourite style is [laughter]. I’m partial to some, but I just really love a lot of different styles because there’s something in each of those styles that I go, yeah, that’s really cool or grabs me. So I said to Drew, “I want to write some four-on-the-floor. It doesn’t have to be too heavy, but I just want good old rock ‘n’ roll,” and I said, “but what I want to do, the whole formula I want” – I shouldn’t really call it a formula, but it was – I wanted to have rockier stuff, but I still wanted the country element of the great lyric and the great story, and the great message in the song. So I just didn’t want the whole of the song saying, “ooh ah baby”, or “shoo-wop”, you know what I mean? [Laughter] I still wanted that element of the story, or the message that’s really important. So he said, “Okay. Cool.” And I said, “I reckon we can meld them both. I’m sure we can do it.” So we wrote ‘Time is Now’, and I literally had sat down to him saying, “You know, I don’t want to die with too many regrets. Obviously people have them, but I just really want to” – ’cause Mum passed away at 50. You wouldn’t know she was sick to look at her or talk to her. She wasn’t a victim; she was just so inspirational and she lasted about 13 years. They said 18 months. So I was lucky to have her for that time.
So I said, “I don’t want to die wondering, and don’t want to” – and all that, and so almost some of the lyric in the chorus, I actually talked it and said, “I don’t want to die wondering what could have been or should have been.” So we wrote that, [I] was really happy with it, but I said, “It needs to rock a little bit more and we need to write a cool solo” … I said, “Can I take it to Mick [Atkins, Rose’s partner]?” He goes, “Yeah, of course you can.” And Mick’s a rock player and has shared the stage with a couple of mixed members from Angels and AC/DC and Screaming Jets and stuff, so I said, “What do you think of this? I think it needs this and that.” And he goes, “Yep, yep,” and he just made a few changes and tweaked some things and wrote the solo, and I said, “That’s it” [laughter].
It just needed that. I mean, Drew and I were really happy with the song, but I just knew in my gut it needed something just a little bit extra. Mick was based in Tassie at the time; we were doing long-distance relationship for a little while. But he went into his mate’s studio there and said, “Oh, I’ll demo it up from you from what I’m hearing,” and I said, “Yep, no worries,” and he sort of started, demoed it up with drums and bass and guitars and things like that, and then sent it to me, and he said, “What do you think of this?” And it was just awesome. So the electric demo was similar, obviously a similar sort of arrangement and stuff like that to the actual recorded version, and then we just sort of developed it from there. So I suppose with the formula of wanting it to be four-on-the-floor rock, but still the country element of a great story and message, and then I went from the gut feeling of I just want it to – it just needs something else and I think Mick will be able to put that in that form; he’ll know what I’m hearing. And then we went into the studio and the rest is history.
Well, if he’s been in Tasmania, those Wolfe Brothers are from Tasmania – there’s obviously something in the rock ‘n’ roll water down there.
Yeah, yeah. They often say that he knows them. Mick and I, it’s a long, long story, but we were in a band together in Perth about 18 years ago. And we were just mates. Then sort of shoot forward 16 years later, hadn’t really heard from each other, and as fate has it, you sort of meet up again and/or hear from each other again and whatever, and we’ve been together now just over two years.
Oh, that’s a good story, Rose.
Yeah, it’s a cool story.
Is he still in Tasmania?
No, no, no. He moved up to the mountains July – or end of June 2013 it would have been.
So he saw the error of his ways and left that island, basically [laughter]?
[Laughter] Yeah. We were both married and stuff like that, but unfortunately in a way [laughter], our marriages broke up and stuff. But the good side of it is I’ve got three beautiful stepchildren now too, so that’s really, really cool.
Do they live with you?
No, they’re still with their mum in Hobart, but we regularly talk to them and see them and see them, and things like that. And I’m lucky I’m quite close to them all, which is really good.
The reason I was asking if they live with you is I was going to say, for someone involved in creative work, that would be a big change in how your day would run and how you manage your creative flow.
Definitely. But Sam, the eldest one especially, is really, really musically talented, like, incredibly, to the point where it’s, like, are you serious [laughter]? And he’s 17 and just an absolute musical genius, and the part I love is if when he rings, he always rings his dad to talk to him about stuff, but he’ll ring me for singing advice and stuff like that, and it’s been really great, because I’ve been able to pass stuff onto him, and it’s, like, ‘this took me 20 years to hone, so just know that’ [laughter].
So there’s you passing on basically the teaching that you had. He’s the lineage of teaching now continuing.
Yeah, pretty much.
Now, your album’s coming out in March. Have you recorded the whole thing?
Yes, all the tracks have been recorded and I’m just going to add a little bit of percussion to a couple and maybe actually Drew and the Robertson Brothers – who are good mates of ours too – they’re going to do a few backing vocals for me. I did some backing vocals, but I want the boys on there, so we’re just going to do that in the next couple of weeks and then it’s ready to be mixed and mastered.
Well, Drew is such a busy man. I know that McAlister Kemp are either on a permanent or indefinite break, but Drew does a lot of writing and playing with other people, so it’s lucky he could fit you in.
Oh, yeah, he was pretty much offering it up straight up, because we are good mates, but he is so flat out.
So this is the first single. Are you planning to release more singles before March, or just the single then the album?
I might release another one March/April. We’ll see how the timing goes.