Diamonds in the Bloodstream by Melbourne band Raised by Eagles has been one of the outstanding country music releases of recent years, and it was my great pleasure to talk to singer and songwriter Luke Sinclair about the band’s origins, finding the balance in a creative life, and about Tamworth.
It some ways it made me feel nostalgic but I wasn’t sure what for. It’s evocative of music I wished I’d heard in the past, if that makes sense.
[Laughs] It does. I like that – I like that a lot. I’ve always been accused of being overly nostalgic, in my closer family and friendship group, and I certainly write from that place as well. I’ve always loved that music. Probably my heaviest influences have been from the ’70s in a musical sense, so I’m glad that it maybe harks back to the past.
What sort of ’70s influences? I’m curious about your lineage as a musician.
It’s that classic story of Mum and Dad’s record collection, which I have a much better appreciation for now than I did back then. When you’re a kid you don’t really realise that these things are particularly affecting you the way that they might be. They had records that were probably the more conservative side of country music – there was the standard reference points like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan and Neil Young, but they also had John Denver and Anne Murray and John Williamson and stuff like that that I don’t listen to today, but I still have a very nostalgic connection to those artists. It wasn’t until high school that I got hold of a good friend’s older brother’s tape collection that had all this John Prine and Steve Earle and Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, like the outlaw, grittier side of country music and I just really fell for it immediately and I’ve just loved it ever since, and always played that kind of music on guitar. I went through every music phase there was, growing up – glam rock, dance music even – but I was always a closet country music-playin’ dude on the guitar. And when I moved to Melbourne it just became fully realised when I found other people who loved it as well and started playing in bands. And here I am.
The Melbourne country music scene is very vibrant. Melbourne city seems to have a cohesive country music scene in a way that Sydney city doesn’t, and I don’t know if it’s because of the venues being the way they are and perhaps it’s easier to form a community, whereas in Sydney the country music venues tend to not be anywhere near the centre of the city. But in terms of that Melbourne scene, I can’t think of another act like Raised by Eagles so I wonder who you consider your contemporaries to be?
I feel like we have many. I agree with everything you said and often scratch my head about the difference between why Sydney doesn’t seem to have a strong Americana or alt-country scene and in Melbourne it seems to be a close-knit community and all the bands that are on that circuit are people I know – well, most of them anyway. We all sort of know each other. Half of us hang out together in the same social circles and party together and play together and all that kind of stuff. The country music community, especially in Melbourne, is really special and really close, as far as I’m concerned, and I suppose our contemporaries would be those people who have become great friends of ours, who are all on this circuit. Van Walker was one of the first musical connections I made in this town and certainly someone who has been very inspirational and very supportive to me as a songwriter and has always pushed me to write and to play, and it always helps when you have someone like that who you think is a great artist and a great songwriter telling you that you are as well. And that has happened in my musical life quite a bit and it’s really driven me to believe in the songs I’ve written and what I’m doing. And Liz Stringer and Sean McMahon – Down Hills Home, they were a huge influence on me, I always wanted to be in a band like that, and now we’re really good friends with those guys, but I was a fan first. My friends now are really my contemporaries and my inspiration as well; they’re all in bands, most of them. And I think it’s a really special thing to be part of – in Melbourne, anyway. I’m not sure why it’s a little different in Sydney – it’s certainly a lot harder to get people to come to the shows in Sydney. But I feel like it’s sort of getting better, but I’m not from there so I can’t really say.
The country music communities in New South Wales are really on the Central Coast and an alt-country community northern NSW.
Is that Maitland and areas like that, or do you mean further up – Mullumbimby?
Yes – Mullum and Bangalow. I’m thinking of Matt Henry, who puts together Late Night Alt at Tamworth, and Lou Bradley and others. And that community seems to take in Brisbane as well, so those guys all know each other, and that’s not unlike what’s happening in Melbourne in terms of collaboration and cooperation and support. But let’s move on and talk about your band and how your band started.
My wife is a musician as well – her name’s Tracy McNeil. She was on the same circuit and I was in a band called The Idle Hoes a few years ago and we used to play a lot in Melbourne. And then my writing partner in that band decided he didn’t want to push and take it any further, and his partner had a baby, and I could see that it was dissipating, but I still had all these songs that I really wanted to get out there to play with a band. And I was miserable and Tracy said, ‘You’ve got to put a band together and play these songs, so you can get them out and get them down’. She had a gig coming up, and she said, ‘Why don’t you put a band together and do the support?’ So I frantically put together a band of guys I knew through music who are the guys who are still in the band now, and we sort of really didn’t even have a name – we might have just settled on it just before we played. But it was Raised by Eagles – a friend of mine gave me that name. We were signing CDs for The Idle Hoes and he was giving us all nicknames and he looked at me and just wrote on the CD, Raised by Eagles, and I loved that name, even though I got it from my furrowed, brooding brow, I think. And so it stuck, and I thought, I’ll call the band Raised by Eagles for now and, as usually happens, those things tend to stick, and it did, and that’s kind of how we got started. Then we recorded that first album really slowly, no pressure, we were just going into the studio and plugging away at it for a few months, and that turned into the debut record. We released it and it ended up doing really well. So it’s just led to all of this, really.
You have a day job, as a lot of musicians do, and then there’s not just the recording of
the music but the business of music too. And you’re the main songwriter. I presume that’s out of desire and not necessity that you write the songs?
Definitely. That comes first, really, before everything else. It’s all really driven by desire and what’s necessary to have money so you can eat and pay the rent, so the day job is the necessity part, and the music and the writing is the desire to be an artist and to play music, really. I have friends who don’t have day jobs and they’re doing it really hard, and it’s really hard to be a musician and not have some other kind of income that isn’t just from music, just so you can pay the rent and have a heater and have hot water and all that kind of stuff. It’s hard, because I feel like I’m just waiting around – and have been for years – for one to consume the other and hoping that’ it’s going to be music and it’s starting to happen that way, but at the same time that’s a bit scary. You’ve got to start taking some risks and letting go of some financial comforts so that you can really the time to do what you’ve always dreamed of doing. It gets to this point where it can be a bit scary, I guess, because you get used to making some money.
The time that work takes up obviously detracts from time spent on creative work but sometimes there’s an argument for the structure of a paid job even if it’s a part-time paid job, and about the structure and security of an income facilitating that creative work, because sometimes when everything’s loaded onto the creative work – when that’s responsible for bringing in income as well as fulfilling dreams and other things – that can be too much pressure on that work. Everyone’s different, though – all creators are different. Some people like that structure of the day job and using a different part of the brain.
I agree. It’s all about finding that balance, which I haven’t actually found yet. I’m trying to do everything at the moment and it’s really quite all consuming, but as you said I know friends who just do music and they don’t have a day job or anything else, and they’ve told me that the time that I spend at work is time that mostly they just spend sitting around wondering what to do with themselves anyway. A lot of artists can be quite self-destructive and if you’re not given routine you can fall to self-destructive behaviours. I know that I’m pulled in that direction when I’m given too much time on my hands. It’s all about how you balance, but you need to have enough time to write and record and tour and all that kind of stuff. Those jobs that allow you to do all of that are few and far between and you’re really lucky if you’ve struck that balance, but I’m still working towards it, that’s for sure.
One of the reasons why Australian country music is so special and vibrant is that it springs from storytelling, whereas a lot of the American country music we hear most of seems to be less about that now. Australian country music, even if it’s quite commercial, still springs from this desire by the artist to communicate a story or information, or connect with their audience. I wonder if you’re a singer-songwriter and you’re in the bubble of not being out in the world every day – if you’re not working or doing other things that connect you to people – if that has an impact on the sorts of stories that you tell and your ability to tell them.
Definitely. You need to be experiencing so that you can have things to write about. It’s funny that you said that our album makes you feel nostalgic because I feel like I write from the past, basically, not really now or the future or anything like that. It’s a bit scary because if you’re busy all the time with the one thing or a day job or a routine that isn’t particularly varied you feel like you might be running out of material. I get scared of that sometimes, that I’m just going to end up making songs up out of necessity. I feel like the music in America, though – commercially, I know what you’re saying, but there’s still a lot of great country music or Americana coming out of that place that still holds the storytelling very dear. All my favourite bands, and where we try to write from, is all about stories and poetry and turning those into songs. That’s what all great country music was. It’s a real shame to think that’s disappearing out of the genre; I would hate to see that happen. I guess that’s why the coined the term ‘alt country’ because I feel like that part of the music is where the good stories are, so maybe that’s why it’s called ‘alternative country’ because commercial country aren’t telling the real stories. What’s commercial country music about? Driving down the road, going to make your girlfriend …
[Laughs] What’s interesting to me is that Americana is a specific sub-genre of country music in the US but in Australia I still see a lot of the really big acts still engaging in proper storytelling, whereas in the US those big stars are, yes, driving down the road and so on. Troy Cassar-Daley is still telling stories. For me it’s always really stark at Tamworth, to see who gets the crowds. It’s such a diversity of stories and songs and it is that which unites the audience – they want the stories.
That’s good to hear. We haven’t played Tamworth – I haven’t even been to the festival – and everyone’s telling us now that that’s crazy and that we need to get up there. It’s nice to hear that it has that vibe still. Down here, to tell you the truth, I’ve always felt like Tamworth was the mecca of commercial country in Australia, so it’s nice to hear that it’s not.
I feel now that it’s a very powerful creative hub that lasts the rest of the year, to the extent that I reckon someone should do a PhD on the influence of Tamworth on creative relationships in Australia. So many people I’ve talked to either meet a producer there or a band member there or a songwriter they work with, and those relationships spin out through the rest of the year. Then they come back together again in January and those relationships become other relationships. There’s a lot of excitement in Tamworth now and it’s people your age and his age, slightly older and slightly younger, who have respect for the traditions of country music, who love it, who love telling stories and just want to get up there and play. And that’s a new wave of country reaching its crest now. So even if you were to go to Tamworth as a punter, or to play, it would be an amazing experience.
Sophie, I’m sold! I’d love to do it with the band. I’d love people to hear the band if I could get that happening. I love playing solo – there’s quite a sense of freedom to that – but I’d love to get up there with the band.
Diamonds in the Bloodstream is out now.