If you’ve seen Catherine Britt performing recently, you’ll know that she is sounding better than ever – her voice has become an instrument of soaring, controlled power. Usually she applies that power to her own wonderful songs, but for a few days she is going to lend it to the music of June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash, as she joins Adam Harvey in the show The Man in Black. I spoke to Catherine about the show and her long friendship with Adam, plus the changes she’s made in her life since her diagnosis of and treatment for breast cancer. Catch the inspiring, super-talented Catherine Britt with the always-wonderful Adam Harvey Friday 3 June at Frankston Arts Centre in Victoria – (03) 9784 1060: Tickets available online at www.thefac.com.au
Also showing on Tues 31 May – COPACC, Colac, Wed 1 June – Sale, Thurs 2 June – Warragul, Sat 4 June – Ulumbarra Theatre, Bendigo.
I’d like to start by addressing the obvious: you’ve been going through treatment for cancer that has included chemotherapy. A lot of people might want to have a rest after that but you seem to have just kept going. You’ve been in this show, performing. I’m presuming you’re feeing well.
I am. I’m feeling pretty good. I’m just getting my body back into healthy shape – it got battered around pretty good through it all. So I’m just starting to get everything back in order now, I guess, and starting to feel a little bit normal. It takes a good year to feel 100 per cent again, apparently, but I think every day I feel a little bit more like myself and I’m definitely on the right track as far as getting my health back in order. It’s a slow process but I’m feeling better all the time.
I saw you sing recently, and I have to say from my perspective of someone who has seen you perform a number of times, your voice is sounding better than ever and I wonder if you’ve noticed that shift.
I don’t know. I’ve had a few people say to me that I’m singing better now than I ever have and I don’t know what that is, but I’m definitely feeling better in my voice, like I feel I can do things that I couldn’t do before. I don’t know if it’s a mental shift – I’m just more relaxed now because life’s too short – or if something happened in the treatment that made my voice better. But I’m definitely feeling that way – I feel a lot more confident in it. I’m really enjoying singing at the moment. So, thank you.
You do seem very relaxed on stage and that might open up the channels.
I do think being relaxed is a huge thing, and my whole mental state – the way I look at everything – has really changed as well, and I’m sure that makes a difference. I’m sure those things definitely change everything, really.
So we’ll talk about the show – you are inhabiting June Carter Cash. Did you know much about her before taking this on?
Yes, I did. I’ve been a huge fan of the Carter Family and June herself and Johnny for as long as I can remember. Probably one of the first artists I really discovered was the Carter Family. So I love their story – I think everyone loves their story. It’s such a beautiful love story. She was a real saviour for him and those sorts of stories don’t come along very often. When you’re doing a show that has such a profound and amazing story to tell, and the music of Johnny Cash to go along with it, it’s going to be brilliant, right? The both of them are failsafes. I wouldn’t normally do something like this but I think when I was approached and I read the script and saw the song list, I realised how special it really was and it was one of those one-off things that I really wanted to do. And since we’ve been doing the show, it really is a great show. The songs are so well written, they never get old. They’re just so great to sing and so classic and I really love it. It’s not like we’re playing characters or anything – we’re Catherine Britt and Adam Harvey telling the story of Johnny Cash. It’s a little out of my comfort zone having to learn all that script. I basically tell the story as Adam sings, and I sing a lot of the harmonies, so my role’s quite different to what I’m used to, but it’s great. I really, really enjoy it. It’s nice to be in that offsider position on stage, where I’m not the one singing all the songs, I’m telling the story and doing something different – which really hurts my brain, to memorise that script. But it’s been really good for me to have to learn that and learn a new craft, in a way, which is great – I’ve always wanted to get into acting and things like that at some point. So I can see these as little baby steps towards those other, different things in the future. I’m really enjoying it.
Adam also mentioned the script. As he was talking about it, and also listening to you talking about memorising it, I wonder if it’s because when you’re remembering lyrics there’s a rhythm and a set way that those lyrics are constructed that’s just not there when you’re learning straight monologue and dialogue.
Well, that’s right – absolutely. With songs, melodies, they often tell you to make up a song if you want to remember something, right? A melody helps you remember. Some of it’s definitely easier. Learning a script was challenging for both me and Adam – we both really struggled with it. We’ve got it down now, but you’re always on edge, and that’s what makes the show kind of exciting. You’re thinking, Oh my god, I’m going to remember everything, right? You’re always re-reading, pushing yourself to be the best each night, and I think that makes it a little bit different. Because you get on stage and you are so comfortable, you tend to start getting into those same rhythms and telling the same jokes, and I try not to do that, but you do that naturally. Especially if you feel like the crowd isn’t connecting, you pull your tricks out. Whereas with this, there are no tricks, there are no jokes, it’s straight dialogue and the songs and it’s serious. So it’s really different but we’ve both really enjoyed it. And Adam does such a great job as Johnny Cash. He just sings those songs so well. It’s really great to get to sing with him in that capacity.
I think what would be satisfying for the audience as well is not only knowing you two are established in your careers – so it’s not as if you’re outsiders coming into these roles – but both of you are very steeped in country music history and of course you on Saturday Night Country would bring your father in to talk about the history of country music, and Adam mentioned his childhood and teenage years singing along to Johnny Cash. The level of understanding that the two of you bring to this music must be infused in how you interpret the material.
Definitely. We’re both huge fans of this music. I think it really is just ingrained in us now, this history of country music. Especially in me. I grew up with a dad just educating all the town, and every week I got to do that with him on SNC, and now we’re about to relaunch it as a podcast. We’re putting our first one out on the 1st of June. Which goes alongside – I’ve just bought Rhythmsmagazine so it’s Rhythms Radio podcast but it’s the same thing: the Kitchen Sessions with Dad, that’s what we’ve chosen to do. I’m excited to be doing that again and learning all over again from Dad. I always learn something new when I hear all that stuff and I’m fascinated by it. History in itself is fascinating but certainly if you’re interested in an area of it and music is everything to me, so learning more and more about it just makes me happy.
You just casually said, ‘I just bought Rhythmsmagazine’ and then kept going – I’d like to go back to that for a second. I love magazines and think they’ll stick around, but a lot of people might think, Why buy a magazine?
My husband and I were looking for something to start a little family business, and especially after I got sick it made even more sense to just do our own thing, and then we could live the lifestyle we really wanted. He was working a normal job and wasn’t really enjoying it or getting inspiration from it like I do my job, and he really wanted that in his life. I guess it was the right timing and I was writing for Rhythms. I had a column in Rhythms for a little while and my dad was writing for it as well. And then Marty, who I was writing for, who owned it for the last ten years or so – he’s the second owner – he just said, as I joke I think, ‘You wouldn’t want to buy it, would you? Because we’re going to sell. We’ve been offered something else and we want to move on from it. We’ve been doing it for ten years and it’s time to do something new and give it to fresh hands.’ And you just don’t really say something like that to me because I do it. [laughs] So we figured out a way and we bought the business, and we’ve just released our second issue. So we’re four months into it and loving it. It’s insane and we’re busy as hell but we love it. It’s really great. My husband’s actually quit his real job and we’re going for it, we’re doing it full time. It’s really, really fun. [laughs]
That’s amazing – congratulations. That’s a wonderful thing to do both for the idea of dreaming big, or working big, but also because you’ve made that shift for your lifestyle.
It is really a lifestyle shift. We’ve bought a van and we travel around and go to festivals. It works like the ABC [Saturday Night Country] did. I was talking to my mates on the show and that’s why, to me, it felt like such a relaxed show and people really enjoyed it, because it’s a musician talking to a musician from a musician’s point of view. The magazine’s the same because a musician owns the magazine now. It really is a very different point of view and I have so much heart and soul in it, and I really want it to be about the artists and supporting the music scene in Australia and that’s what we’re doing. We’ve got rusted-on subscribers who just adore the magazine and writers – we’ve got the best writers in the country, I reckon, as far as music goes. They are just so passionate. They just work so hard and they’re just really all so invested in it. So we’re really lucky. It came with an amazing team of people. And the guy who started it, Brian Wise, still writes for us. And Marty, the guy I bought it off, still writes for us. It’s a real family. It’s a pretty special little business.
Now back to Johnny and June: is it less pressure to do a show when you’re entirely someone
Well, no. Because your songs are really ingrained in you, especially if you’ve written them – you know exactly where they’ve come from – whereas interpreting somebody else’s feelings, basically you’re singing their diary for them. It’s tough, you know. You’ve really got to get your head around that and get into that character and feel the emotions they were feeling when they wrote those songs. And telling the story – like I said, that in itself is a struggle. So it really is challenging for us. Which I love. I love a challenge. I love making myself feel uncomfortable, putting myself outside of the box. So all of that is really exciting for me but it is challenging, for sure. A lot more than doing a gig.
I’m getting more of a sense now of why your career has gone on so long and grown bigger and bigger: it’s because you’re not content to say, ‘Well, I’ve done that and I’ll just sit here and count my bon-bons.’
[Laughs.] That’s true. I really do love to challenge myself. And I don’t like to make the same record twice, I really like to experiment and try different things, and I’m always discovering new music and being inspired. I’ve been really lucky to still have a career after all this time.
Adam said something about luck as well. I said, ‘Maybe.’ Country music audiences are loyal but they’re also very discerning. The level of professionalism that both of you have delivering shows and delivering albums means that the audience keeps coming back. And you can have the stroke of luck, but if you don’t know what to do with it, it’s not much use.
That’s true, I guess. You’ve got to be there when the so-called stroke of luck comes along, don’t you. You’ve got to be the one who grabs the opportunity. You’ve got to be a go-getter and somebody who works really, really hard. Both Adam and I do that. We’ve both really earnt our careers, I think, and I know Adam certainly comes from a hard-working place too, and he is very professional about running his business, and he’s got a family to take care of, so he takes it very seriously. I guess they’re the ones who survive, when you really do run it like an actual business. It’s really about running a business and being professional and working your arse off, because no one’s going to believe in you as much as you do. It’s really up to you to have a career. I think we both have an understanding of that, which is why we’re very lucky to still be able to do this, and pay our bills doing it.
I think it’s also having an understanding of audience and paying respect to your audience. Your albums are different each time but what’s recognisable is your strong storytelling ethos and really great structure of the songs. So your audience can go with you on that.
Yes – my voice is the same and it’s still my songs, and the style’s still there, but there’s slight changes: we do a new producer each time or we try something a little different, and that’s what keeps it interesting. All of my favourite artists do that, so I’m really modelling myself after my heroes.
And you’re probably someone else’s hero – you just don’t know it yet.
[Laughs] Yeah, maybe, I don’t know.
You mentioned that Adam takes things seriously but of course he can be quite a joker. He told me that he would probably go easy on you – but has he? Has he played any jokes on you yet?
No, not really. I’ve been on the road with Adam many, many times throughout the years and there’s all sorts of stories throughout our history. Adam’s like a big brother to me – we’re really, really old friends and we’ve just always gotten along really well, and taken care of each other. I think Adam’s really seen me at my worst recently and he was so supportive through all of that. Because Adam really is somebody who’s always making jokes and ready to grab a beer – he’s a real blokey bloke. But to me he’s a real friend and I’m very lucky to have people like that in the industry that I can rely on who aren’t just colleagues or people I see at work. I could call him right now and he’d do something for me if I need it. And that’s when I know that people are really my friends. We’ve all known each other for so many years and we’ve really bonded, so it’s good.
Boneshaker was a terrific album. You’ve got the magazine, you’re doing this show. Adam mentioned that there might be some talk of the show going on. But: what’s next for you as a solo artist?
I’m heading towards the next album now. My husband and I are looking at building a little studio at home, so I’m going to make a record at home next time. I’m actually going to meet with the label next week and start discussing it, so I guess I’ll start getting into songwriting mode and next-album mode. This year is really about getting those songs together then starting to plan the next record. There’ll be something out next year, for sure. And then we’ll go out on tour. I’ve stepped into a little bit of producing other artists, and I’ve just done a girl who I really believe in, a debut artist whose album I hope we’ll be releasing soon. So I’ll take her out on the road. There’s lots of stuff like that going on. I’m always doing a million things.
And it might be wise to start the Rhythms record label …
Yeah. We’ve actually talked about it before, so that would be pretty cool. I don’t know if we want to run a label too, though [laughs].
How did the FU Cancer tour go?
It was amazing. We raised just over $10 000 for the McGrath Foundation just in donations alone. The shows were incredible, the guests were just unreal. We’re going to do it annually, a Newcastle one, and raise money for different things each year – raise a large amount for a local hospital or something like that. It’s pretty cool. It’s been a big part of my life for the last few months and I’m so glad it was so successful. We recorded a single to go along with it that’s coming out really soon through the label, and all those proceeds go to McGrath Foundation, which is pretty awesome as well.