Interview: Steve Eales

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Steve Eales will be familiar to many country music fans as the lead singer and main songwriter of Sovereign. Flying solo since then, Steve’s latest album is The Open Road. Steve took some time recently to talk about songwriting, mysterious guitars and road testing songs. 

Congratulations on the release of your album. An album takes such a long time and effort and thought and energy, I was wondering if it now feels like a relief that it’s out or do you now move into planning a tour and thinking about the next album?
It’s actually the latter. I’m in a constant state of writing and recording, because you constantly get inspired. As a songwriter there’s something or a predicament or an environment or some personality that’s influencing you and inspiring you, so I’m constantly writing and being inspired that way and in order to keep it fresh I record in some kind of fashion. So I’ve got this huge catalogue of songs that are ready to go for the next album and even the one after that.
When you get ideas – some people might sing a line into their iPhone, but do you go in and properly bed down a track with a guitar or something else?
It’s a different way every time. I’ve got ideas that I’ve sung into my phone. I’ve got riffs that are just a guitar riff that I’ll play over and over. If I go back through songs that I listen to on the album I can remember how every song was seeded – I can remember how I came up with that riff and it reminded me of that thing I was thinking that day. So it’s different every time. If a song wants to come out, if it wants to be a thing somewhere in the world, then it’s going to come out. It’s a weird thing. It’s not like you intellectually sit down and think, I’m writing a song now, and then you come up with something. I think if you did that you’d end up with a really poor-quality product. For want of a better word it’s more spiritual – or emotional, I guess, that’s the best way to describe it.
It sounds very much as if you exist in a state of constant creative flow. A lot of people struggle to get to that state and often it’s because they’re trying to make that intellectual decision that they want to write something or they need to write something, but that’s the wrong way to go about it. Whereas it sounds like you’re open to the stories and the songs that come to you and that’s why they can continually come, because you’re not trying to force them.
You’ve nailed it there. It gets to the stage with me where I’ll say [to a song], ‘I’m not ready for you to come out yet – you can just stay in there a bit longer’, rather than sit down and wrack my brain and try to come up with a word that rhymes with ‘hay’, you know. I don’t do that. I used to stress about it – I used to think, How am I going to construct this song? And I would listen to other people’s music and wonder, How did they write? What did they do? And I guess it’s probably a good way of getting your grounding as a songwriter, but I’m at the stage now where there’s so much going on inside of me and anything could come out at any time that I’ve got to control what comes out, to the point where I will half-write some songs and think, That’s going nowhere, and I won’t let the rest of it out.
At what point in your life did this start? Because for some people this point will never arrive. Is it something you’ve had since childhood?
Yes, it is – it’s something I’ve had since childhood. When I grew up – my dad is heavily into the church, he’s actually now an ordained minister. But I remember way back in the day a friend of mine – who was much older than I was – was getting piano lessons and he was sitting around this organ playing some tunes, and I would make him go over the same thing over and over again because I was getting lyrics and melodies forming in my mind and I was humming and singing them along. I probably would have been seven or eight years old.
Has it always felt like a gift, to be able to do that, or has it sometimes felt like a burden?
Interesting question. I used to be a carpenter back in the day and I can remember hanging upside down from the rafters on one particular job – I was three stories up – and I was trying to handle a power saw and I’ve got lyrics going through my head and I cannot focus on what I’m supposed to be doing. My mind just would not stay on the job. And I’ve had similar experiences when I’ve – I love playing sport, and I’ve got some ability, but I have never been any good because I don’t have the focus that you need to be a great athlete, simply because I’ve got music inside of me all the time. It just pours out, basically.
Did you grow up around music?
Not really. We had a piano in the house that we weren’t allowed to touch. We’d wait until Mum left the room to see if the lid was locked. But no one ever played it. And there was a guitar that was kept in a canvas bag behind the couch. No one was allowed to touch that either. So there were instruments there but nobody played.
So where did they come from, these mystery instruments?
I had this guitar – I’ve recently just given it away. It was literally a priceless guitar. It was a handmade Spanish guitar that’s over a hundred years old, that ended up in our family probably before I was even born, from a friend of my dad’s who used to do a few burglaries. He ended up getting locked up and he stashed a whole heap of stuff around different people’s places and my dad ended up with this guitar. Now Dad has never known if this guitar belonged to the guy or the guy ripped it off from someone else, but when this friend of his got out of jail Dad said, ‘I’m sorry, mate, I can’t have you round my family’, but he didn’t want the [guitar] back either. So it stayed in the family for years. I think that’s the reason we were never allowed to get it out and play it. But I remember being about two or three years old and sticking my hand up inside the broken zip and pulling on the strings to make a noise.
That guitar sounds like it deserves a song of its own.
Yeah, well, I named it Matilda and I’ve written heaps of songs on it, but I recently passed it on to another family member.
Back to the album – the first single, ‘Cos I’m Country’, was about living in the country, but I’m wondering if it also applied to your musical tastes. Having said that, the song ‘Love it When it Rocks’ suggests that you’ve never been just strictly country.
Well, that’s true. When I wrote ‘Cos I’m Country’, that’s more about the actual life of living on the farm rather than being country music. Country music has such a broad brush these days, when you swipe something with the country music sound it could be anything from Slim to Big & Rich, for instance, that have a rock and rap in their songs. So that song’s not really about the country style, that’s more about growing up on the farm and having the ethics of a farmer passed down from son to son, not just the skills of farming the land but actually ‘this is why we live in the country, this is why we do what we do’. Whereas ‘Love it When it Rocks’ is, when I’m playing live and I’ve got a couple of hundred or a thousand people in front of me who just want to move their feet, there are some types of songs that I can’t play because they’re, like, ‘Will you hurry up? We want to dance’. So there are some songs that I’ve got to bring out for that kind of environment, and that’s what ‘Love it When it Rocks’ is all about – not everything is going to be a country ballad.
On your album the ballads are really lovely. When I heard them I thought we don’t get a lot of ballads. A lot of alt country albums, the songs are a slower tempo and you can’t really classify a lot of them as ballads. On a lot of country rock or country pop the pace stays really upbeat or the slower songs are really melancholy so they don’t have that ballad feel – they can feel like a dirge sometimes. So you obviously like that balance of ballad and up-tempo yourself.
You do. There used to be a time when you’d buy an album and you’d like two or three songs, and then you’d put up with the rest or they’d grow on you. I don’t think that belongs in today’s era. Most people will say, ‘I like that song so I’m just going to download it and the rest of it I don’t like’. So now the challenge is there for artists – if you’re going to put out an album with twelve songs on it, all twelve of them have to be a song that people want. You can’t think you’ll pad out this album with some stuff that doesn’t really matter. You can’t do that any more.
It’s a lot of pressure, though, isn’t it? Part of the beauty of an album is to have that ability to have it telling a story across the whole work, but when you’re thinking that people are perhaps accessing just one song at a time, the entire story needs to be in that one song and whatever you’re trying to convey to a listener has to come across in that one song.
You’re right – every song has to encapsulate the thought that inspired you to write the song and if you are smart enough or it just happens to work that way, all the songs on the album will sort of tie in to a similar theme. And that happened when I brought the Battler album out: every song was a handshake to the next song or somewhere on the album it sort of belonged. And the next album I brought out – This is the Life – was more about, ‘I don’t want to be boxed in to only sound like this sound’ or ‘Don’t think that I’m just that kind of muso’. So the album was eclectic as far as styles go. I had 1920s, 1930s style swing songs on there as well as the country ballad and country pop sound. This album is a little more mature – I’m not trying to prove anything like I did on the previous album. Now I’m putting the songs on that I’ve road tested and I know people want to hear.
Although I would think it’s a bit of a comfort to know that you have a vault of songs – as you said, you’ve been banking them up. So you can go to the vault if you need a song.
That’s true, too – I’ve got so many that I can just say, ‘Hang on, this song doesn’t exactly fit on this album – let’s try that one over there’, knowing that that song works in front of a crowd as well, because one of the most important things is to write a song, get familiar with it so you’re comfortable playing it, and then slip it into a live show and see what people’s reactions are. You can’t do that on the bigger shows but every now and again I do some more intimate pub-type gigs where it’s laidback or sitting on a stool and I’ve got good crowd reaction going on, so I explain that this is a new song I’ve just written. If people are tuning out and just talking amongst themselves, I know it’s not going to be any good on an album either. I haven’t got a good enough hook.
Has there ever been a song you’ve really loved and you’ve road tested it like that and it’s gone down like a lead balloon?
Yes, it’s happened a lot [laughs].
I suppose if you write a lot of songs then you’re less attached to each song than if you didn’t write many at all, but does it still hurt?
I don’t really feel hurt. The best way of describing it is that if I was to assume that the gift of music was a gift for me I would probably have that approach – ‘well, you people just don’t know what you’re listening to, it’s a great song’. Once you get through your skull that the gift of music is for everybody else and you’re the conduit for it, then it kind of brings things back into perspective where it’s, like, ‘okay, this song may be for another era or it may never come out’. But the reality is that you’re playing for people’s pleasure. You bring it back to the basics – what is a song? If somebody buys a song from you, what are they buying? It’s not like they can take it home in their hand. Or if they come to a show they can’t stick it in their pocket and take it home. They’re not taking anything. It’s an emotion, it’s a feeling, it’s an idea. And if people can’t connect with that on a level that affects them, then either you haven’t done your job properly or it’s not a good enough concept or melodically it’s not sound. You haven’t allowed the gift to develop properly.
That’s a great way to put it. I also love the idea of the song not being in the right time or of the right time. That’s a very philosophical way to see creative work. But I think we’ve already established that that’s how you approach it anyway.
That was a trial-and-error thing. I’ve got songs on the first album that I brought out with Sovereign, back in 2000, that would be better now. They’re good songs – they’re great songs – but they didn’t make it as a single, they were like a B side, whereas the music now has caught up.
I’m going to ask one last question: the album is called The Open Road – what are your plans for taking it on the open road?
That’s a good question [laughs]. I’m always on the road. Pretty much every weekend I’m out gigging somewhere. And the plan is for the second half of the year to take the Open Road band and album up the eastern coast and then down through the centre.
Given that Tamworth gigs get booked quite far ahead, are you thinking of Tamworth already?
Definitely. I haven’t been to Tamworth since 2008. I’ve been in the [United] States pretty much every year or on tour somewhere else in the country, so yes, definitely. 


The Open Road is out now.

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